Historic Folk Museum of Messi, Corfu

Primitive reed boats in Northwestern Corfu

Papirela (or Papyrella) is a pre historical "ship" made from papyrus. This kind of "ship" was used in Corfu until few years ago (see the photo next to this text, to see an original papirela, used by a Corfian villager).

For more info check the following Occasional Paper by Augustus Sordinas, Ph. D. 1970.


Occasional Papers No. 4

"Stone implements from northwestern Corfu"
Augustus Sordinas, Ph. D. 1970
Memphis University
Anthropological Research center

Primitive reed boats in Northwestern Corfu

I have no wish whatever to associate the stone implements of Corfu with ethnography!
The presence, however, of stone implements on off-shore islets and the many flint and pottery similarities on both sides of the strait of Otranto turned my attention to a tradition of primitive reed boats curiously restricted to the Northwestern tip of the Island of Corfu.

The tradition lingered until about World War II. Presently a few old villagers,I particularly from the village of Liapades still remember how this primitive
craft were made and used.
During my prehistoric survey i saw and photographed (October 1965) one of these reed boats.
At the time the villagers told me that the rapidly disintegrating craft was the last of this kind. During that winter the waves washed ashore and demolished it.

These boats were made from the long stems of the Giant Fennel (Ferula communis L.) which the peasants call Papyri. The reed boats were called papyrella.

According to an old builder of reed boats from the village of Liapades whom I interviewed in 1965 the construction of these boats was a simple matter.
Reeds were obtained from the swamps of Ghialina and Kavourolimni about seven km east
of the village and were allowed to dry for a few days. When they had dried sufficiently they were sorted out and tied tightly with local fibers (bourla) into cylindrical
bundles 8-10 inches thick.

Half a dozen young cypress trees about 10-12 feet tall and about 2-3 inches thick at the bottom were felled just before construction to obtain their straight and
very supple trunks. After being cleared of the branches and bark the samplings were firmly tied together at the very pliable tips.They were the drawn apart at the free
ends to form a /\ shape, and were held in this position by sticks(or boards which seem to be a late adaptation) tied transversely in regular intervals like a ladder.

Subsequently bundles of reeds were stacked together longitudinally on the bottom frame and were firmly lashed against each other and onto the /\ shaped frame-base.
When a sufficient amount of bundles was stacked and secured on the frame-base the remaining samplings were lashed on top of the bundles and against the stern. Thus a triangular box was formed containing the reed bundles.

Subsequently-and while still fresh and supple- the tied tips of cypress samplings were firmly turned inward to form the characteristic tusk-like prow of the little
They were held in that position by cords until the amplings dried and lost their suppleness.

Now additional bundles were lashed on the curved prow, on top of the frame and along the sides for additional protection and buoyancy. Dr. Stephanides informs me that reed boats he had seen functioning in the Liapades-Palaiokastritsa area in 1938 were
protected on the sides by common reeds(Arundo donax L.) and had a rather rounded stern.

This was essentially the method of construction although there were variants.
When i recorded these observations I was unable to further my inquiries and tap all the potential informants.

At any rate the net result was a highly buoyant rianguloid craft about 7-8 feet long and 4-5 feet wide at the stern. According to the available statements, corroborated by Dr. Stephanides, these reed boats were "unsinkable", that is as long as the reed
bundles held together and were used by local fishermen to lay lobster baskets in very deep
water in the open sea usually about 1/2 mile from the dangerous cliffs of the Island.

The fishermen propelled the reed boats with their feet and makeshift paddles.
Two men with their fishing equipment could be ccommodated. Interestingly, an old villager at the nearby village of Lakones which commands a pectacular view of the Adriatic sea told me that on occasion two reed boats were lashed together with
the sterns against each other, secured by long poles thrust through the reed bundles and tied firmly.
The result was a cigar shaped boat twice as large, of course, which according to the old man "could take you anywhere". The navigability of such a contraption seems rather outlandish and I would hate to recommend it to Thor Heyerdahl or Gene Savoy. It
may indicate, however, that in the old days larger reed boats were indeed made.

I find it quite interesting that the tradition of reed boats seems to have lingered strictly in the norhtwestern tip of the Island of Corfu. Nowhere else. Is it because
this part of the island specialises in lobster fishing?

Or is it possible that we are dealing with a tradition of primitive navigation between the northwestern tip of the island and the offshore islets nearby?

At this juncture we may consider the abundance os stone implements on the islet of Diaplo and indeed the extarordinary similarity of the neolithic impressed ware, so characteristic of both sides of the Adriatic and which we encountered in Level C Top of Sidari
as early as the middle of the 6th millennium B.C.-the earliest date fo this kind of pottery in these parts of the Mediterranean.

These reed boats of norhtwestern of Corfu are remarkably like those found on lakes Sana
(Budge 1960) and Zwai(Doresse 1959) of Ethiopia.
And they are similar to others (Digby 1954; Hornelli 1946).
Once more these similarities caution us against comparisons with Egypt, the balsas of Lake Titicaca, or the caballitos of Peru.

But they are eloquent testimony of mans ability to use the flimsiest material to overcome physical barriers -when he wants.