The Ulu Burun Wreck . In many respects scholars know more about the construction of the ships of the Greeks than they do about their land vehicles. Few carts and wagons were buried intact for later archaeologists to discover. Land vehicles, once they had outlived their usefulness, were abandoned in a field to decay or were broken up for firewood and scrap metal. In contrast, as a result of storms, faulty navigation, and hostile activity many ancient ships met their end by settling, cargo and all, on the protective sand and mud of the Mediterranean sea floor. There they remained for generations, decaying slowly, until in the present century they became accessible to the relatively new science of underwater archaeology. For example, the Ulu Burun ship went down around 1300 b.c.e. off the southern coast of Turkey in 150 feet of water. It was discovered in 1982, and although the superstructure of the ship had disintegrated, the items in the hold, and the planking of the hull underneath them, were remarkably well preserved. Archaeologists retrieved ingots of copper, gold jewelry, amber, glass, ebony, ivory, tin, pottery, drinking vessels, and bronze weapons. Similar wrecks have given scholars valuable insight into seafaring and waterborne commerce in later periods. Other information about Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.) and Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.) sea activity comes from literary descriptions and artistic representations. These sources, however, tend to be problematic: literary descriptions are usually somewhat sketchy and difficult to interpret, since the authors were generally more interested in what the ships were doing than in the ships themselves. Artistic representations tend to be stylized and inexact and fraught with the problems that any two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional objects entails.
Ship Design . From this combination of sources, classicists have determined that Greek ships tended to be rather conservative in design, preserving the same basic layout and construction methods that were used by the Egyptians and other Mediterranean peoples since the early Bronze Age (circa 3000-1100 b.c.e.). All ships appear to have been constructed by the “shell-first” method visible on the Ulu Burun wreck in which the hull is formed with a series of tight-fitting planks before being attached to the ship’s frame. Moreover, the vessels seem to fall into two basic classes: long, narrow galleys powered both by oar and sail power, and shorter, wider merchant ships driven solely by the wind. For both types of ship the sails and rigging were similar: a single large sail, rectangular in shape, was mounted amidships. In the Classical Period it became more common to mount a smaller rectangular sail in front of the mainsail for additional power and directional control.
Specialization . In the Classical Period and later, these two types of ships became specialized for separate uses: the long, oar-driven galleys were used mainly for warfare and the rounder sail-driven ships were used for carrying cargo. Scholars often assume that the same division of labor was present in the Archaic Period and earlier, but there is some reason to doubt that assumption. The simple sails and rigging of ancient Mediterranean ships put them at the mercy of the winds to a considerable extent, while oar-driven ships were relatively independent of wind direction. Proceeding under sail against the wind is a difficult process and one which the early Greek mariners may not have mastered right away, a fact that would have caused trouble for merchants who had to deliver their cargoes to certain ports within a specific amount of time. For this reason, some historians believe that in the early period all seagoing ships were oar-driven, and that it was only after the art of sailing had advanced further that the oar-driven merchant ship was abandoned. This hypothesis has the advantage of explaining why in the midst of dozens of artistic representations of oared galleys from the early Iron Age (circa 1100-700 b.c.e.) and the Archaic Period, sail-only ships do not appear until late in the sixth century. At the same time, however, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Ulu Burun wreck, unquestionably a cargo ship, was driven by oars. This fact indicates that if the early Iron-Age and Archaic Greeks could not manage a sail-driven merchant ship, then this art was temporarily lost with the end of the Bronze Age. Whenever it occurred, the development of sail-driven merchant ships was definitely a boon to commerce. The area taken up by twenty or thirty oarsmen and their gear and provisions was space that could be more profitably filled with cargo. The additional capacity of sail-driven ships more than made up for the loss of speed and directional control.
This account from Homer’s Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.) is one of the best literary descriptions from antiquity of the “shell-first” shipbuilding construction method. In this story the goddess Kalypso, who has been detaining the hero Odysseus on her island for seven years, is ordered by the other gods to let him go and find his way home. She reluctantly complies and furnishes him with the tools and materials he needs to build himself a simple ocean-going vessel. Although Odysseus was a man of many talents, it is unlikely that a nonprofessional could accomplish the boat-building job he does here. Shell-first construction was a job for a master carpenter: the planks of the hull had to be joined so tightly and closely that when they swelled upon contact with the water they formed a watertight seal. The ancients used no caulking or other form of waterproofing on their hulls.
But when she had shown him where the tall trees grew, Kalypso, shining among divinities, went back to her own house while he turned to cutting his timbers and quickly had his work finished.
He threw down twenty in all, and trimmed them well with his bronze ax, and planed them expertly, and trued them straight to a chalkline.
Kalypso, the shining goddess, at that time came back, bringing him an auger, and he bored through them all and pinned them together with dowels, and then with cords he lashed his raft together.
And as great as is the bottom of a broad cargo-carrying ship, when a man well skilled in carpentry fashions it, such was the size of the broad raft made for himself by Odysseus.
Next, setting up the deck boards and fitting them to close uprights he worked them on, and closed in the ends with sweeping gunwales.
Then he fashioned the mast, with an upper deck fitted to it, and made in addition a steering oar by which to direct her, and fenced her in down the whole length with wattles of osier to keep the water out, and expended much timber upon this.
Next Kalypso, the shining goddess, brought out the sail cloth to make the sails with, and he carefully worked these also, and attached the straps and halyards and sheets all in place aboard her. And then with levers worked her down to the bright salt water.
Winds and Rigging . Although sailing the waters of the Mediterranean was never as hazardous as sailing on the Atlantic Ocean, the ships of antiquity were not as large or as sturdily built as the great oceangoing vessels of more modern times, so ancient mariners avoided putting to sea at times when the weather was threatening. Prime sailing season was considered to run from late spring to early fall, when storms and high winds occurred only sporadically, and between the months of November and March practically no sailing occurred at all. During the sailing months the direction of the prevailing winds was relatively constant and predictable. In the Aegean area, winds generally came from the northwest at the beginning of the sailing season and gradually swung around to the north as the summer months progressed. Under such conditions, the ability to sail contrary to the wind was crucial to sail-driven ships, since without that ability all trips would be one-way. The simple rectangular sail on ancient Mediterranean ships was typically hoisted up the mast on a horizontal beam called a yard. The yard was loosely attached to the mast so that it could be pivoted by means of ropes attached to either end. In this way the sail could be made to face almost any direction; it might start out on a journey standing perpendicular to the long axis of the ship and be turned, if conditions warranted it, so that it was almost perpendicular
to the short axis. The bottom of the sail was held in place by ropes at both corners so that it too could be moved as the yard changed position and could also be set in different positions relative to the yard. Along the bottom of the sail another series of ropes called brails was attached. These ropes ran up and over the yard and back down to the deck. Sailors could pull down on any or all of these ropes to draw the sail up, making its open surface smaller or changing its shape. By these means experienced seafarers could optimize the shape and position of their sail in response to the strength of the wind and in accord with the direction in which they wanted to travel. With such capabilities ancient mariners were able to make headway against the wind. No sail-driven ship can sail directly into the wind, but by positioning the sail so that the wind hits it side-on rather than head-on, it is possible to make progress in a direction that is less than ninety degrees off the direction of the wind. For example, if the wind was coming directly from the north, a competent Greek sailor could set his sails so that his ship moved in a direction that was slightly to the north of west or slightly to the north of east. By proceeding to the northeast for a while and then turning to the northwest, the ship could make overall progress in a northerly direction. This laborious zigzagging process is known as tacking, and in this way the ancient Greeks (and other Mediterranean peoples) overcame the tyranny of the winds.
Coasting . Navigation was also more problematic for ancient mariners than it is for modern ones. The only maps that existed in the Archaic and Classical periods were rudimentary and, in all likelihood, highly inaccurate. In addition, even if ancient sailors had accurate maps, there was no good way for them to tell where they were in relation to their destination. Latitude and longitude were concepts unknown to them, and the compass, sextant, and chronometer were centuries away from being invented. In the absence of such aids, the surest way for an ancient sailor to get where he wanted to go was by following visible landmarks. For this reason as well as for the sake of safety, mariners avoided sailing out of sight of land. This method was easy to do in the Aegean, with its profusion of islands. In the open waters of the Mediterranean, however, it led to a practice known as coasting. If a ship headed out from Sicily bound for Corinth, which is roughly on the same latitude, it would not head directly east over the open water. Instead, it would proceed northeast along the southern shore of Italy, cross the narrow strait between the heel of Italy and the Balkan Peninsula, and then proceed south along the western coast of Greece until it
reached the Gulf of Corinth. Such a course took far more time than the direct route, but it allowed the pilot of the ship to navigate by known landmarks. It also kept the ship in easy reach of refuge should inclement weather or some other emergency arise. Mediterranean merchants did make journeys over open water in some instances—for instance, on the route between Crete and Egypt—but they preferred not to and only did so when there were immediate and substantial benefits in taking the more direct route. On the open water the only means a navigator had for determining position and direction were the position of the sun or, at night, the stars. That situation, combined with the instinct for time, distance, and direction that a sailor develops over years of experience, enabled them to cross the seas effectively when they had to, but coasting was always the preferred practice.
Trade Routes . The steadiness of the prevailing winds and the predilection for coasting had definite effects on the interaction of various peoples of the Mediterranean and on the development of trade. Since the winds were usually northerly, sailing from Europe to Africa was relatively easy, but sailing in the opposite direction was not. For this reason, traffic from Libya and Egypt generally took the coastal route around the eastern end of the Mediterranean, passing by Phoenicia and Cyprus before reaching the Aegean and the rest of Europe. The success of the Phoenicians as traders can be explained in part by these circumstances. Not only were they positioned to dominate the passage of goods from the interior of Asia to the Mediterranean, they also were straddled the path by which most seaborne traffic from Africa made its way to Europe. A similar explanation lies behind the success and prosperity of places such as Corcyra, located far away from the centers of civilization but directly on the coasting route for sea traffic between the eastern and western Mediterranean.
Ship Size . Sail-driven merchant craft varied significantly in size, according to whether they were to be used for long or short runs and according to the financial resources of the people having them built. Ancient documents make little reference to ships having a capacity of less than fifty tons of cargo. A more typical size was one hundred to two hundred tons, and there was a tendency toward larger ships, capable of carrying five hundred tons or more, in the Classical Period. These cargoes were small by the standards of later antiquity. Roman grain ships that plied the waters between Italy and northern Africa typically had a capacity in excess of one thousand tons. When merchant ships had room for extra cargo, it would often take it on in the form of paying passengers. In the absence of any services strictly for passenger traffic (with the exception of short-distance ferry runs), the only way for someone not on commercial or state business to sail from one place to another was to go down to the nearest port and find a merchantman going in the right direction. For example, the poet Arion tried to return from Sicily to Corinth aboard a merchant ship. The speed that a merchant ship could attain varied with size and load, and was also significantly affected by wind conditions. Based on ancient accounts, a typical speed for a merchant ship was four to five knots with a following wind and no more than one or two knots in the windward direction because of the zigzagging necessary for tacking. Crossing the Aegean, even under favorable conditions, took a good two or three days for a merchant ship; crossing from Africa to Europe could be a matter of weeks or even months. As may be expected, oared ships did much better.
The Kyrenia Wreck . A good example of what is presumed to be a Greek merchant ship was found off the northern coast of Cyprus (along the same trade route plied by the Ulu Burun vessel) near the site of Kyrenia. This ship went down with its cargo sometime shortly after 300 b.c.e., and it was quite an elderly ship when it succumbed to the sea. Carbon-14 dating showed that the wood from which the ship was made was around eighty years older than the cargo that it was carrying. Whether such longevity was typical for ships of this time is impossible to say, but it still speaks well for the Greek boat-builder’s craftsmanship. The Kyrenia wreck was small as far as merchant ships go, measuring approximately fifty feet from stem to stern and fifteen feet from side to side, and having a capacity of less than one hundred tons. The hull was constructed by the typical shell-first method, but the builders added an innovation of the late Classical Period: a thin sheeting of lead on the lower portion of the hull. Marine archaeologists believe that the purpose of the lead was to prevent infestation of the wood by seaborne parasites that would eventually cause it to rot away. In the hold of the ship divers found a cargo that was not as diverse as that of the Ulu Burun ship, but was still interesting and informative. At the bottom were a set of twenty-nine heavy stone grain mills, which were either part of the merchant’s cargo or were placed there to provide ballast (stabilizing weight). Stored above these millstones were over four hundred amphorae (oval-shaped jars and vases), which originally would have contained commodities such as oil or wine. Also found scattered over the whole cargo area was a large quantity of almonds. These were probably being transported in cloth sacks that did not survive the centuries. Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the Kyrenia ship’s cargo is the provenance of the various goods. The amphorae that it had on board were of various types, some in styles that were common of Rhodes and Samos, two islands known for their wine production. So it seems that like the Ulu Burun ship the Kyrenia vessel called at various ports, adding local wares from each to the collection of diverse commodities stored in its hull.
Oared Ships . Oared galleys appear in Greek art from an early date, and they are also referred to in the earliest Greek literature. Even in the Bronze Age, amongst the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and other Aegean peoples, ships of this type were used for naval warfare, and for the Greeks of the Classical Period that was almost their sole function. As was mentioned above, however, there is some reason for thinking that they were used more generally for all seagoing activity during the early Iron Age.
Design . In the earliest Greek representations of oared ships from the ninth century b.c.e., they exhibit a fairly uniform appearance: long and slender, they have a sleek, graceful hull that curves upward in the stern, often curling back onto itself to form a covered area at the back of the ship. In the front, ahead of an upright stempost that also sometimes curls back over the deck, the hull tapers to a fine point at the waterline. In later manifestations of this type of ship, this projection is armored with bronze and used as a ram. Whether this design feature was also the case in these early ships is difficult to ascertain; no mention of a ram is made in literary descriptions until later in the Archaic Period. In the rear of the ship the helmsman stands, steering the ship’s course by means of one or (more frequently) two rudder blades. If the ship has a sail (which not all do in these early representations), it is of the standard rectangular type. Some of the ships seem to be open in the interior, while others have a decking that is supported on posts above the level of the gunwale (the topmost row of the hull’s planking). The oarsman in the earliest depictions all sit on the same level facing the stern, with their oars projecting over the gunwale. Their numbers vary from five or six to upwards of twenty to a side. In his poems Homer described large vessels mainly used for transporting warriors to the site of the battle. Since Homer’s works are a mythical reflection of a bygone age, scholars do not take his descriptions as completely accurate.
In this passage from Homer’s Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh centuries, b.c.e.) the Phaeacians prepare to convey Odysseus home to Ithaca, along with an enormous pile of gifts they have given him in token of their friendship.
But when they had come down to the sea, and where the ship was, the proud escorts promptly took over the gifts, and stowed them away in the hollow hull, and all the food and the drink, then spread out a coverlet for Odysseus, and linens, out on the deck, at the stern of the ship’s hull, so that he could sleep there undisturbed, and he himself went aboard and lay down silently. They sat down each in his place at the oarlocks in order, and slipped the cable free from its hole in the stone post.
They bent to their rowing, and with their oars tossed up the sea spray, and upon the eyes of Odysseus there fell a sleep, gentle, the sweetest kind of sleep with no awakening, most like death; while the ship, as in a field four stallions drawing a chariot all break together at the stroke of the whiplash, and lifting high their feet lightly beat out their path, so the stern of the ship would lift and the creaming wave behind her boiled amain in the thunderous crash of the sea. She ran on very steady and never wavering; even the falcon, that hawk that flies lightest of winged creatures, could not have paced her, so lightly did she run on her way and cut through the sea’s waves.
Propulsion . The most important innovation in the design of these ships was the number and the placement of the oarsmen. Depictions of ships from the late ninth century show two rows of oarsmen on each side. This arrangement is something seen both in Greek and Near Eastern ships, and where it developed first is uncertain. In some of these double-oared ships the bottom row of oarsmen are shown sitting at gunwale level, while the upper row sits at the level of the raised deck; in others it is the top row that rides at the gunwale, while the lower row’s oars project through oarholes in the hull closer to the water line. The advantage of the two-level arrangement was that more oarsmen could be accommodated
without increasing the length of the hull, a thing which was to be avoided since an overly long hull would tend to be flimsy and unstable. Galleys of this type could fit as many as twenty to twenty-five oarsmen on each side, and it is probably this sort of ship that is referred to when ancient sources describe the pentekontoros (fifty-oar ship), the main type of warship used in the early Archaic Period.
Trireme . The apex of this line of development occurred some time in the latter seventh or early sixth century when a third row of oarsmen was added. Although this innovation occurred simultaneously in both Greece and Phoenicia, many scholars think that it originated with the Greeks. The three-row galley is referred to as a trieres (trireme or triple-oared ship). In the Greek version, the third row was added by building a platform that projected outward above the gunwale. The topmost rank of oarsmen sat at the level of this platform, while the lower two occupied benches at the gunwale and the mid-hull levels. The oarsmen were staggered so that none was seated directly on top of another, allowing the three rows to be accommodated without increasing the hull’s profile to unstable heights. The trireme became the standard ship of war in the entire eastern Mediterranean throughout the late Archaic and Classical periods. The Classical Greek trireme had one hundred and seventy rowers, eighty-five on each side, and was built for speed: at a length-to-width ratio of approximately 8:1 (about 120 feet in length and 15 feet in the beam) they resemble modern racing sculls. The success with which they operated was a remarkable accomplishment of training and coordination. A well-trained and experienced crew of oarsmen could propel their ship at a speed upward of ten knots under favorable conditions, and they also became adept at timing their oarstrokes in ways that allowed the ships to perform complicated battle maneuvers.
Military Use . The use of the trireme and its predecessors in wartime is variously described in ancient sources. In the surviving artistic representations the ships are depicted as clashing with one another with armed warriors on board. The goal in such fighting was either to overtake the enemy ship and board it or to use one’s own ship as a platform from which to hurl spears and other projectiles at the foe. It was not until the late Archaic Period that oared galleys were used in formation with maneuvers and tactics that were analogous to infantry battles on land. In such fighting the main offensive weapon was the ship itself with its five hundred pound ram, and the objective was to come at enemy vessels from the side in order to shatter the planking of their hulls. Even in the Classical Period, however, there were other modes of employing the trireme. They were capable of carrying a complement of armed warriors for making raids on enemy territory and for boarding enemy ships or assailing them with missiles. The number of rowers could also be reduced to turn the ships into troop or cavalry transports. Triremes were also used on occasion to convey important military or governmental messages over long distances.
A Working Model . No trireme wreck has been excavated, or even discovered, in the Mediterranean. Riding high in the water, and with no heavy cargo weighing it down, a trireme would have been next to impossible to sink. When the hull was breached, instead of drifting to the bottom, the trireme would have simply broken up and floated away, its wooden components ending up scattered on beaches wherever the current took them. What scholars know of the trireme comes solely from literary sources and artistic representations. Based on these sources, however, a team of scholars and scientists from Britain, Greece, and other countries succeeded in building a working replica of a Classical Greek trireme. Many of the features of the Olympias are hypothetical, but in a series of trials in the late 1980s and early 1990s, crews of volunteer rowers achieved enough efficiency and coordination to closely approximate the speed and maneuverability of its ancient counterparts.
Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).
John Sinclair Morrison and Roderick Trevor Williams, Greek Oared Ships 900-322 B.C. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968).
H. T. Wallinga, Ships and Sea-power before the Great Persian War: The Ancestry of the Ancient Trireme (Leiden, Netherlands, & New York: E. J. Brill, 1993).