Ships in the Ancient Mediterranean
The earliest evidence of travel on the Mediterranean Sea is from
the Mesolithic period, at least 10,000 years ago, when voyagers left the mainland of Greece in watercraft of some kind, traveled to the island of Melos, and returned with obsidian to make sharp-edged implements. Large fish bones, including deep sea fish like tunny, have also been found at Neolithic sites in Greece, further indicating travel on the sea.
Archaeologists have not, however, found actual examples of or depictions of the crafts used by the earliest sailors. Were they reed boats, dugout canoes, skin boats, or simple rafts? Polynesian islanders knew how to make complex planked boats without the use of metal tools, but it is not yet known if that step was taken during the Stone Age in the Mediterranean or at some other time. It is unlikely that the early Mediterranean boats had sails, and they were almost certainly paddled rather than rowed.
The known history of shipbuilding begins in Egypt around 3500 BCE About that time, in the Predynastic period, Egyptians began painting a peculiar type of boat on finely made pots. These boats, often called sickle-shaped because of their crescent-like form, seem to have been among the earliest wooden boats built with planks. Actual remains of those early boats have not yet been found, but there are a few clues to their construction.*
Planks first appeared in Egypt, usually in graves as parts of primitive coffins or as roofing material, at about the same time the boats were first painted on pottery. The planks were up to 2 inches thick and more than 6 feet long and were usually lashed together with cords of grass or palm fiber. It is likely that the earliest planked boats in Egypt were built in much the same way, with lashings rather than nails.
There is better evidence from a few centuries later. In 1912, several planks that were apparently from boats were discovered in a First Dynasty cemetery in a village near Cairo called Tarkhan. The planks date to around 3000 BCE, only a few years after Egypt was united under the rule of its first pharaoh.
These planks had all the features that were found in intact boats from a few centuries later. The planks were literally sewed to one another by ropes threaded through V-shaped holes cut into the plank faces. In the edges of the planks were mortises, and the boat builder inserted a small, flat piece of wood called a tenon into each of these. A single tenon was inserted into the matching mortises of two adjoining planks, which were set flush against each other to hold them in place while the boat builder sewed them together.
The largest known boats built in this period were about 50 feet long. No boats from this period have been found intact, but several pits that once contained boats have been discovered in royal or noble cemeteries. The best of these was found in the tomb of Den (sometimes called Udimu), the fifth king of the First Egyptian Dynasty.
When it was discovered, Den’s grave contained the remains of a boat, but the remains were in such fragmentary condition that they could not be examined in detail and were eventually lost. The boat seems to have been about 43 feet long, less than 10 feet wide, and no more than 3 feet deep amidships. Walter Emery, the British Egyptologist who discovered the tomb, noted that the boat had a deck and that the wood was covered with white plaster. There was no evidence of a mast or sail, but boat drawings indicate that sails had already been in use for at least a century.
The finest and best preserved ancient boat anywhere belonged to the Egyptian Pharaoh Cheops, for whom the Great Pyramid at Giza was built. It may be seen today in a special museum next to the pyramid of Cheops. (A second boat still lies unexcavated in its pit next to the pyramid.) Like the pyramid, the boat dates to about 2650 BCE, in the period of Egyptian history called the Old Kingdom. It is almost 150 feet long and was built mainly of imported cedar, with its planks held in place by mortise-and-tenon joints and lashing. Its planks are not long strakes running from bow to stem but instead are oddly shaped and fit together almost like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
More than 2,000 years after the Cheops boat was built, the Greek historian Herodotus (see Grene 1987) commented that Egyptian boatbuilders used short lengths of wood to build their boats and that the pattern of the planking was similar to laid bricks. This was necessary because most native Egyptian trees, then as now, do not grow very tall, and long planks could not be made from them. There is a similar pattern in the Cheops boat. It apparently was built by craftsmen who were accustomed to using short pieces of local wood, even though the huge cedars imported from Lebanon or Syria could easily have been cut into long planks.
The Cheops boat has several odd features, however. It was built in the shell-first method, meaning that its planks were lashed together before its ribs, which boatbuilders call frames, were inserted. It had no keel but was built up from a flat bottom of planks. Because it had no keel to stiffen it, two heavy longitudinal beams located at deck level helped prevent the vessel’s bow and stern from drooping. These beams acted much as a bowstring keeps a bow curved. Nevertheless, Egyptian depictions indicate that such heavy beams were often not enough, and a cable that could be continuously tightened ran from bow to stern to keep the ends of a seagoing hull up. The problem of the vessel’s ends drooping is called hogging, and the cable is called a hogging truss.
Advances in Technology
The next major step in Mediterranean shipbuilding was taken no later than the fourteenth century BCE, the middle of the Late Bronze Age. By that time, some shipbuilders ceased using lashings to sew planks to one another and began relying on the mortise-and-tenon joints. It was discovered that simply driving a wooden peg through the tenon on either side of the joint would lock the planks in place, creating an extremely strong joint.
The earliest evidence of such pegged mortise-and-tenon joints was found on a fourteenth-century-BCE shipwreck discovered in 1983 off Ulu Burun on the southwestern coast of Turkey, near the small resort town of Kas. This vessel was built with mortise-and-tenon joints and had a keel. Its construction signaled the arrival of shipbuilding principles that were to prevail in the Eastern Mediterranean until the early Middle Ages.
Interestingly, the earliest examples of this kind of joinery come from Egyptian furniture that was manufactured at about the same time as the Tarkhan boat planks. It is difficult to explain why the early Egyptians didn’t grasp the obvious advantages of using pegged mortise-and-tenon joints in their boats. The lashing method, however, may have made repairs easier or may have enabled the Egyptians to take their boats apart and put them back together with hardly any special tools. Shelley Wachsmann has pointed out that pegged mortise-and-tenon joints were used in furniture at Jericho during the succeeding Middle Bronze Age, suggesting the possibility that similar hull construction began somewhere on the Syro-Canaanite coast.
The Cheops boat had no mast or sail, and no rigging elements of the Kaş shipwreck have yet been found. For now, the only information about rigging during the Bronze Age comes from reliefs, paintings, and boat models. Most of these are Egyptian, although a beautiful Late Bronze Age fresco showing rigging details was found in a house buried beneath volcanic ash at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini (Thera).
These early representations present essentially the same picture of single square sails, although the proportions of the sails vary. Throughout most of the Bronze Age, the bottoms of the sails were spread by both upper and lower yards. In the absence of pulleys, lines used to raise and/or support these yards were simply looped through rings at the top of the mast.
As mentioned above, ancient Mediterranean boats were built from the outside in. The framing was inserted only after the hull—or most of it—was completed. We know this is true because, in some cases, the frames were not physically attached to the keel, and components of the frames were not even attached to each other; thus, the frames could not have been erected first. In other instances, frames were found directly over the pegs that were driven, in to lock the tenons in place. This shows that the pegs must have been in place before the frames were installed.
This type of shipbuilding is often called Greco-Roman shipbuilding because it was the method used by the classical Greeks and Romans. One of the best examples is a ship dating to the fourth century BCE excavated off the northern coast of Cyprus in 1968 and 1969 by Michael and Susan Katzev. The vessel was raised and its fragments reassembled by J. Richard Steffy in a museum in the Cypriot town of Kyrenia.
The Kyrenia ship was a beamy merchant vessel, of the type the Greeks called a holkas, and was made principally of Aleppo pine. Like almost all ships of her time, she carried a single square sail (representations of two-masted vessels before Roman times are very rare). The wreck featured one of the earliest examples of a block for a pulley. Also found on the ship were numerous small brailing rings, or lead rings sewn into the sail. These guided the lines that ran from the bottom to the top of the sail and over the yard aft and were used to raise, lower, or shape the sail.
The Kyrenia ship’s hull was covered with thin lead sheets tacked over a layer of agave leaves in thick resin. Lead sheathing was common throughout classical antiquity, but in this case the sheets were later additions to the hull and were used as waterproofing and to keep marine worms from boring into the wood.
As a joint project, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) and the Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Traditions commissioned Greek shipwrights to build a replica of the Kyrenia ship using ancient methods. Although the techniques of Greco-Roman construction had been lost for more than a millennium, the shipwrights agreed to try to duplicate them. The resulting ship was strong enough to weather the full gale that she was caught in while sailing from Cyprus to Greece after tracing the vessel’s original route in the opposite direction.
Increases in Dimension
The political and military chaos following Alexander the Great’s death in Babylon in 323 BCE, as Alexander’s generals apportioned the empire, caused warships to be constructed on an unprecedented scale. This activity spilled over into merchant ship construction, particularly with the advent of the Roman Imperial period. The Mediterranean Sea had become a Roman lake, and enormous trade opportunities were available.
Roman ships could be quite large and elaborate. The wine carrier that wrecked at La Madrague de Giens near Toulon, France, had two layers of planking, close-set frames, and was more than 130 feet (40 meters) long. Ships of this size are believed to have been relatively common, though most seagoing craft were from 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 meters) long.
As for earlier times, art is the principal source of information about Roman sails and rigging. Reliefs, paintings, mosaics, and graffiti show numerous elements, including small steering sails called artemons slung out over the bow, as well as triangular topsails on mainmasts. Fore-and-aft sails appeared in about the second century C.E.
By the time of Jesus, ship construction that utilized pegged mortise-and-tenon joints had reached its zenith. In the early Byzantine period these joints were no longer used to provide most of the strength of a hull and instead served, as they had in Predynastic Egypt, only to align planks. As late as the seventh century C.E., hulls were still built in the shell-first method, but their joints were no longer pegged together, and their principal structural strength came from their internal framing. By the eleventh century, the shell-first method had died out in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the modern era of shipbuilding had been born, as rudimentary pre-erected frames first made their appearance.
(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.