Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology 3

22 Jun

Anchors of Antiquity

Douglas Haldane

Although anchors are mentioned only twice in the Bible (Acts 27:29–30, 40; Hebrews 6:19), there is no doubt that ships and boats of the Old and New Testament periods carried anchors, sometimes in great numbers. For almost as long as ships have sailed, sailors have relied upon anchors to secure their cargoes, ships, and lives. Integral parts of the shipping industry, anchors reveal more than just how and why they were built; they also reveal general trading environments and technological advances of their time. Seemingly insignificant anchors may reflect the historical developments of empires.

Throughout history there have been only three general types of anchors—stone, wood, and iron. Stone anchors, known to Homeric Greeks as eunai, or “beds,” because of their slab-like shape, are either weight or composite anchors. Weight anchors depended on their mass to hold ships, whereas stakes through the lower holes of composite anchors gripped the seabed. Refinements in stone anchor construction included grooves in anchor tops, to reduce anchor line chafing, and notches in a lower corner for attaching buoyed lines to free anchors wedged between rocks.

Honor Frost (1970) used these notches, inscriptions and other archaeological evidence to identify stone anchors by national type. Egyptian stone anchors have been found all along the Levantine coast from Dor/Tantura (Wachsmann and Raveh 1984: 225) to Ugarit (Frost 1969: 245). Byblian anchors are rarely found outside of Byblos, but two were discovered at Ugarit, and a group of 12 was found recently at Newe-Yam, Israel (Galili 1985). Both weight and composite Ugaritic anchors have been found along the Levantine coast, at Thebes in Upper Egypt (McCaslin 1980), Cyprus (Karageorghis 1976: 878), and most recently on the Late Bronze Age shipwreck at Ulu Burun near Kas, Turkey (Pulak 1988a: 33, 1988b: 15).

The similarity between Ugaritic anchors and those found on Cyprus, on land and underwater, suggests that trade relations between the Syrian mainland and Cyprus were so close that the distinguishing anchor features became blurred. Finds of Ugaritic anchors along the Levantine coast, and a possible fragment at Kommos, Crete (Straw and Blitzer 1983: 99), add to a growing body of evidence for a circular trade route in the eastern Mediterranean (Bass 1986:296).

The distribution of stone anchors yields tangible evidence confirming Egyptian tomb reliefs and literature. The Ugaritic anchor at Thebes acts as a calling card left by Syrian merchants portrayed in the fourteenth-century-BCE tomb of Kenamon (Davies and Faulkner 1947). Egyptian anchors found at Dor, one of the Egyptian emissary Wenamun’s stops around 1100 BCE, confirm that the harbor was used as an Egyptian way station on the route to and from Syria. Anchor finds also yield evidence for anchoring practice.

As with later wooden and iron anchors, sailors probably used several stone anchors simultaneously to moor their ships. Scholars have suggested that a ship’s anchor complement consisted of composite anchors, for sandy sea bottoms, and weight anchors for rocky bottoms (Frost 1969:236–37). However, the only two groups of related stone anchors—the 12 found at Newe-Yam (Galili 1985) and the 23 discovered at Ulu Burun—varied in size, not in type; all are weight anchors. The Newe-Yam anchors range from 60 to 155 kilograms (from around 132 to 342 pounds); the Ulu Burun anchors have yet to be raised and studied.

Dramatic changes in stone anchor shape probably occurred toward the end of the seventh century BCE when the Greek word ankura, “bent,” replaced eunai in textual references (Kapitän 1984: 33–36). Almost as proof of their typological predecessors, early wooden anchors used stone stocks—the heavy crossbars that prevented an anchor from lying flat—to force the ends of its arms to dig into the sea bed. Even after lead stocks replaced those of stone, stocks continued to be known as stones (Durrbach and Roussel 1929: text 443, lines 92, 184).

Before the discovery of a wooden anchor and an iron anchor mooring Caligula’s barges at Lake Nemi in the late 1920s, scholars could only speculate about how wooden anchors were built. Since then, four types of stocks used on wooden anchors have been identified: stone (I); wood with lead cores (II); lead (III) occasionally with wood cores (C); and removable lead stocks (IV). Greco-Roman literature and archaeological remains present a clearer image of wooden and iron anchors than for stone anchors.

Greeks called anchors hanging gear, probably because they hung from bows and sterns (Casson 1971: 265), stays (Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, book 3, chapter 99, paragraph d; see Gulick 1927: 428–29), or even hectors (Lucian, Lexiphanes, paragraph 15; see Harmon 1936: 312–13), perhaps alluding to the staying quality of Hector’s courage. Many authors refer to the largest of a ship’s anchor complement as the “sacred anchor,” thrown with the last prayer to the gods to keep the ship off the rocks (Lucian, Zeus Rants, paragraph 51; see Harmon 1960: 164–65).

Roman authors made more specific references to anchors. Arms or even entire anchors were known as “hooks” (Virgil, Aeneid, book 1, line 169; see Lewis 1953). The conical iron or bronze caps that reinforced arm ends were commonly called “teeth” (Livy, book 37, chapter 30, lines 9–10; see Sage 1935: 378–79) because of their tooth-like shape, but Plutarch called them “claws” (Plutarch, Moralia: Bravery of Women, chapter 247, paragraph e; see Babbitt 1961: 500–01).

Archaeological evidence has substantiated literary references that were once thought apocryphal. Pliny credited the anchor’s invention to Eupalamus and the two-armed anchor to Anacharsis (Natural History, book 7, chapter 56, paragraph 209; see Rackham 1942: 646–47). References like Pliny’s, and Strabo’s specific mention of the two-armed anchor (The Geography, book 7, chapter 3, paragraph 9; see Jones 1924: 206–07), were thought strange until a reinforcement collar made especially for a one-armed anchor was found near Brindisi, Italy (Kapitan 1984). A third-century-C.E. Egyptian loan contract also makes mention of a one-armed iron anchor (see Kenyon and Bell 1907, papyrus 1164 (h), volume 3: 49). Evidently Greco-Roman sailors chose from a variety of anchors.

With the discovery of the first Century-C.E. Nemi anchors and a fragmentary anchor on the second-century-BCE Chrètienne ‘C’ wreck (Joncheray 1975a), scholars reamed more about anchor arm construction than Greco-Roman authors could tell them. Arms were fastened to anchor shanks with z-shaped hook joints that were, in turn, secured by mortise-and-tenon joints. Pegs placed perpendicularly through tenons in the lower parts of anchor arms locked the tenons in position. When arm/shank joints loosened with wear, reinforcement collars poured onto anchors held the anchor arms in position (Haldane 1986).

Greco-Roman sailors did not forget the lesson learned from Egyptian stone anchors. Pliny recorded that cork was used on anchor cables (Natural History, book 16, chapter 13, paragraph 34; see Rackham 1945: 410–11) to mark an anchor’s location. These lines, tied to anchor crowns on wooden anchors or crown rings, freed anchors stuck on the sea bed.

But unlike stone anchors, wooden anchors do not readily fit into distinctive cultural subtypes. In general, Greeks used stone-stocked anchors (Type I), whereas Romans used solid lead (Type III) stocks. Types II and IV were transitional. Type II represents a shift from stone to lead stocks, and Type IV represents a more drastic change from wooden anchors to iron anchors. Both transitions were products of historical and technological developments.

Creation of stone stocks often required both a stonemason’s labor and his expertise, but even the most carefully made stocks broke on rocky sea bottoms. Lead-cored wooden stocks were not as fragile, but their number was directly linked to the supply of lead. Lead, a byproduct of silver mining, was dependent on the relative efficiency of silver production. Early silver extraction techniques were so inefficient that the Romans profited by reworking early Greek slag heaps. By the late third century BCE, the Romans gained control of the rich Spanish silver mines. Silver was produced on a grand scale, which caused the price of lead to fall, and Type III solid lead stocks appeared almost simultaneously.

Most Type III stocks have been found in the western Mediterranean, reflecting a predominantly Roman use of this type and the western Mediterranean’s role as the primary Roman trading center. On the other hand, many Type IV removable stocks have been found in the eastern Mediterranean. These stocks, able to be broken down and stored when not in use, belonged to smaller anchors than Type III stocks and suggest the use of smaller ships. The versatility of removable stocked anchors foreshadows a growing dependence on removable-stocked iron anchors.

Herodotus made the earliest recorded reference to iron anchors in the early fifth century BCE (History, book 9, chapter 74; see Godley 1924: 246–47). Wood and iron anchors were used simultaneously at first. Athenaeus mentioned them together on Hieron of Syracuse’s mammoth third-century-BCE ship, the Siracusia (The Deipnosophists, book 5, paragraph 208; see Gulick 1957: 440–41), and, as discovered on several shipwrecks, wood and iron anchors appeared together as late as the first century C.E. As ironworking technology developed in the Mediterranean, however, wooden anchors were used less often.

The first conclusive evidence of manufacturing anchors to predetermined specifications can be seen in iron anchors. Ironworkers inscribed the Nemi iron anchor’s weight in Roman pounds on its shank (Speziale 1931). Ironworkers continually refined anchor forging processes in the Byzantine period. The anchor complement of the seventh-century Yassi Ada Byzantine ship may have ranged from smallest to largest in increments of 50 Roman pounds (Bass and van Doorninck 1982: 134). Anchor forging as well as iron anchor forms show progressive development. The study of anchors provides evidence not only for the anchors and their use on ships but also for perceptions of economic environments in which they were used. Anchors reflect changes in the economic, technological, and social conditions of Mediterranean seafaring nations.

The arms of early iron anchors imitated the sharp V pattern of wooden anchors, such as the fourth-century-BCE Isola di Monte Cristo anchor, but gradually relaxed to the lunate shape of the Nemi iron anchor. Continued arm relaxation from the first to fourth centuries C.E. can be seen in the Dramont D and F anchors. Christianization of the Roman Empire extended to anchors, as seen in the cruciform shape of the seventh-century Yassi Ada anchors. Anchor arm angles relative to shanks grew past cruciform until they reached the Y shape of the eleventh-century Serçe Limani anchors.

Provenance of cruciform and Y-shaped anchors suggests that the center of trade shifted back to the eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Unstable economic and trading conditions in the Mediterranean following the West’s collapse in the fifth century and the Islamic conquest in the seventh century C.E. dictated the use of smaller, faster ships. Deck space was at a premium, and although the Romans had dealt with the lead shortage, bulky wooden anchors were still subject to rot and shipworm damage. Use of durable, removable-stocked iron anchors aboard ships became the rule.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.


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