A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A documentary tracks a 21st-century Thor Heyerdahl's disastrous voyage across the North Atlantic.
When German adventurer Dominque Görlitz set out from New York harbor in July of 2007 to prove that a voyage in a traditional Bolivian reed boat from New Jersey to the Azores is possible, he attracted quite a bit of sceptical, if not downright snarky press. Now a new documentary airing on the National Geographic channel Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 10 pm ET/PT, shows that the Cassandras who warned that the expedition was an awful big risk for negligible scientific returns were, without giving too much away, pretty much on the money.
The show is called Lost in the Atlantic, which might give you some sense of how things turned out for Görlitz and the crew of 40-foot Abora III (Abora is said to have been a powerful deity among Canary Islanders and Görlitz has used the name for two previous iterations of reed boats he piloted across the Mediterranean). But if nothing else, the 45 minute special is a strangely gripping look at how dubious experimental archaeology in the open ocean can make for high drama, as in the life or death variety.
The theories underpinning Görlitz's quest are warmed over notions first brought to public attention by Thor Heyerdahl, the famed Norwegian explorer. Heyerdhal sailed reed boats from South America to Polynesia, and from North Africa to Barbados, all in an effort to show that trans-oceanic voyages were possible in prehistory. Heyerdahl's achievements are legendary, and while mainstream archaeology has rejected his views that, for instance, South Americans settled Polynesia (there is actually good evidence that Polynesians visited South America), his exploits inspired millions of people to take an interest in nautical archaeology. Not a few bona fide archaeologists will say that Heyerdahl was their initial inspiration.
Görlitz means to build on Heyerdahl's successful east-west Atlantic voyages, and show that a return trip to the Old World was possible for... who knows? The documentary does not explore who it was Görlitz thinks was making these trans-Atlantic crossings, other than a generic "ancient peoples," who were possibly linked to the Bronze Age Nebra Disc which was found in Germany and seems to depict stars that the voyagers possibly might have sailed by. This vague, catch-all approach to prehistory is characteristic of the whole project. Rather than use materials local to New Jersey, or even Northern Europe, to fashion his vessel, Görlitz relies on the reed boats built by the Amayra Indians of Bolivia. Abora III was built on the shores of Lake Titicaca three years before the actual voyage, and then transported thousand of miles before ending up on a New Jersey pier, a long lag time that eventually, and literally, sinks the project.
Joining Görlitz is a cheery crew of nine mostly Northern Europeans. According to the voice over, sailing expertise was not a prerequisite for the expedition, only an adventurous spirit. The crew are identified only by first name and occupation, among them are Sabrina, a comely German archaeologist, who is sure the "experience will enrich my life." Also along for the ride are Andrea, a student who confesses to a certain queasiness at the prospect of sailing 3,000 miles on a reed boat, and Thor, an "extreme skier" who isn't bothered by taking big risks, which is good, because it turns out sailing a reed boat across the North Atlantic without a support vessel is near suicide. When viewers learn that the expedition doctor has jumped ship before the Abora III has even set sail, even the most hard hearted viewer will experience a sinking feeling.
Once a Bolivian shaman has blessed the boat and the crew has stowed away boxes of Ramen noodles and other stores, Abora III sets sail from New Jersey with a German flag resplendent on it's prow. What follows is 57 days filled with storms and failing equipment, as well as long stretches of the Abora III sitting in becalmed seas and going in circles. Not to give away the ending, but by day 54 the crew's main task has become "reducing disintegration" of the boat's reed infrastructure, which turns out is rotted.
We don't learn much about ancient seacraft, but we do get an intriguing look at the "strange passion" of Abora III's skipper. During the course of the show we see bizarre shots of Görlitz meditating on the shores of a lake in the former East Germany. He tells viewers that as a boy, he built his own reed boats and successfully mastered the waters of the lake. We get a brief glimpse of a black and white photograph showing this childhood boat, which actually seems like it might have been at least as sea worthy as Abora III. Görlitz is no Thor Heyerdahl, but we probably haven't heard the last of him. Abora IV, the show promises, is already being built.
Eric A. Powell is Deputy Editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.