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Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World

Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World

by Lionel Casson

See All Formats & Editions

Written to replace and extend Torr's Ancient Ships, this generously illustrated underwater Bible" traces the art and technology of Mediterranean ships and seamanship from their first crude stages (about 3000 B.C.) to the heyday of the Byzantine fleets.

Originally published in 1971.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology


Written to replace and extend Torr's Ancient Ships, this generously illustrated underwater Bible" traces the art and technology of Mediterranean ships and seamanship from their first crude stages (about 3000 B.C.) to the heyday of the Byzantine fleets.

Originally published in 1971.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Editorial Reviews

**** Reprint of the classic work originally published by Princeton U. Press in 1971 (and distinguished by inclusion in BCL3). Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Greece and Rome
A wonderful book made even better.

International Journal of Maritime History
A bible for all interested in ancient ships, shipbuilding, and sailing techniques... it is a standard reference for every student of ancient history, not only for those interested in maritime matters.

Lloyd's List
Lionel Casson's scholarship is impeccable and he adds data from underwater archaeological research. In this paperback edition much new material is included..The remarkable performance of the Kyrenia ship replica, for example, will facinate any sailing reader. Clearly they were nautical experts, these Kyrenia seafarers of 300 BC!

American Neptune
Casson is one of those rare individuals able to make a highly technical subject not only understandable to the general reader, but interesting as well... This is unquestionably the finest general reference on the subject of ancient seafaring; copiously illustrated, erudite, and always readable, [it] belongs in the library of anyone with even a passing interest in the roots of maritime enterprise.

Classical Philology
This fine book... should remain the standard authority on ancient ships for many years to come.

Archaeological Journal
A comprehensive and up-to-date work of reference... [Casson's] extremely thorough study of representations of boats and vessels is complemented by his vast knowledge of text references.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series

Read an Excerpt

Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World

By Lionel Casson


Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00215-6


Floats, Rafts, and the Earliest Boats

Men first went down to the sea not in boats but on whatever they could find that would keep them afloat. A New Zealand aborigine today paddles over lakes astride a bundle of reeds, an Iraqi herdsman crosses streams on an inflated goatskin, a Tamil native does his fishing drifting with a log under his arms while a Sindhi does his lying prone over an openmouthed pot. Such devices must reach back in an unbroken line to man's earliest forays on the water. Available, simple, cheap, and convenient, they retained a certain usefulness even after far superior and more sophisticated devices had made their appearance.


One early step must have been from float to raft, from the single log or bundle of reeds that would support one person to a platform that would support several. In wooded areas, it must have been the raft most of us know best, of bound logs. Along the Nile or amid the marshy lower stretches of the Tigris and Euphrates, regions of few trees but thick with reeds, rafts of reed bundles early came into use and, in the course of time, served as stepping stone to an important form of boat, the reed canoe (11 below).

Where particular geographical conditions or special requirements demanded something better, a more sophisticated form of raft came into being, the buoyed raft. In Mesopotamia, for example, the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates with their swift waters and stony rapids would be death on any ordinary type. Here, in remote times, someone with imagination, observing his fellows crossing the river on inflated skins, figured out that, if one float could hold up one rider, a number of floats should be able to hold up a platform carrying several, and thereby invented the kelek, the raft made up of a wooden frame resting on multiple bladders. Rock-strewn rapids which would splinter a log raft to bits, merely give a kelek a few blowouts, which can be repaired in short order. Moreover, when the raftsmen want to get home, instead of fighting their way upstream, they simply sell the wood of the platform, deflate the skins, pile them on some donkeys which they had mindfully loaded aboard at the outset, and leisurely walk back. We see such rafts pictured in Assyrian reliefs of the eighth century B.C. (Fig. 1); until a few years ago they were still in use on the twin rivers, including some that were all of 50 feet square and kept afloat by as many as a thousand skin bladders.

Where there was no danger from rocks, an equally efficient and far cheaper way to buoy a raft was with a line of pots instead of inflated skins. Pot rafts are common in, e.g., modern India, where the natives use them in the mud-bottomed alluvial areas. Their earliest appearance is in connection with a myth of Hercules; a series of Etruscan gems picture him comfortably floating along on such a raft (Fig. 2). From historical times we have reports of versions large enough to ferry substantial numbers of soldiers and even war elephants across considerable distances.


Along with rafts men created true boats, craft that would not only keep a user afloat but enable him to stay dry in the process.

One of the earliest forms must have been the skin boat, made of sewn hides stretched over a light frame of branches and laced together with withes, cords, or thongs. Such craft can be built with the simplest of tools — a flint knife and bone needle — and in a very short time. They can be made light and small enough to be packed on the back for use when needed, or large and commodious enough to carry up to four and five tons of cargo. The ancient version that we know best is the quffa, the round coracle of the lower Euphrates. They are depicted in detail in Assyrian reliefs of the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C. (Fig. 4), they were seen by Herodotus, and the modern versions are still an essential means of river transport. The reliefs show us fairly good-sized coracles, driven by four oarsmen and big enough to carry a chariot or a load of massive stones (modern quffas run 13 feet in diameter and 7½ feet deep).

Another region where coracles and skin boats have flourished is the British Isles; Julius Caesar was the first to report seeing them there, and they are frequently mentioned by later writers. Other areas, too, found them of service, for they have also been reported in the Po Valley, along the north coast of Spain, in the Red Sea, on Lake Maeotis in the Crimea.

In waters free of rocks, a form of boat that serves the same purpose as a small coracle but is far cheaper to make is the clay tub. These are still in use in India, where the natives get about in them during the rainy season when their villages are flooded for long periods. In ancient times they were certainly in use in the Nile Delta, and, to judge from another of the myths of Hercules, one which has him voyaging in a pot, the Greek world probably knew of them as well.

Where wood was available, men inevitably turned to the bark canoe and the dugout. Perhaps the bark canoe came first — indeed, it may even be the earliest form of boat devised, for it can be made without tools: all that is needed is a troughlike strip of bark and two lumps of clay to stop up the ends. The dugout itself requires little more: a stone cutting-tool (or even just a hard shell) or the controlled use of fire, and infinite patience. In the ancient world we can trace the dugout chronologically from the Stone Age to the fifth century A.D., and geographically from Spain to India, wherever there were forests to supply the logs: on the Guadalquiver, Rhone, Elbe, Danube, Nile, Phasis, Euphrates; along the coasts of Spain, Germany, the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, east Africa, India.

In many parts of the world dugout-builders have fitted their craft for open water by raising the sides with planks and inserting frames to strengthen the complex. Here we have in embryo the fundamental elements of the planked boat — keel, ribs, and strakes. There is good reason to think that at least one avenue which led to the wooden boat proper was by way of such dugouts, and that, in the course of time, so many planks had been added to the sides that they came to form what we may properly call a hull, and the original dugout had shrunk in the process to the dimensions of a keel. Just when this took place no one can say. Our earliest evidence of planked boats is from Egypt, but the Egyptian type seems to have come into being via a very different route (13 below).

Sewn Boats

With the planked boat we reach a key question in the history of boatbuilding: how were the planks put together P The sole area for which we have sure information that dates to an early age is Egypt, but the rather special technique devised there had best be delayed for the next chapter. For other places the only evidence available are some straws in the wind to indicate that at least one early way of fastening planks was by sewing them with fibers, cord, or thongs.

The boat of sewn planks is no anomaly but a well-authenticated type. Though rapidly succumbing to twentieth century technology, it is still widely used in East Africa, India, and Ceylon, and even lingered on late in northern Europe. Its particular home has been the Indian Ocean, where it was the boatbuilding technique par excellence right up to the end of the fifteenth century, when the arrival of the Portuguese brought in contemporary European methods. We can trace sewn boats in this region as far back as the first century B.C., and they were unquestionably on the scene much earlier. Moreover, there are strong clues that they were a primitive form of craft throughout the Mediterranean. When Vergil describes Aeneas' descent into the underworld, he has him cross the Styx in a "sewn skiff." The Roman dramatist Pacuvius (second century B.C.) in a play about Odysseus has the hero make a craft of sewn planks to effect his escape from the charms of Calypso. Both authors must have chosen the sewn boat because they knew their audiences would connect it with the days of long ago, that it would conjure up the associations which, say, "galleon" or "ark" does today. Varro (first century B.C.), followed by Pliny the Elder (first century A.D.), both sober encyclopedists and not creative poets, were convinced that the galleys which in remote Homeric times brought the Greek warriors to Troy were of sewn planks, and Aeschylus attributes sewn boats to the heroic age his characters lived in.

All the above gives the impression that, when the dwellers around the Mediterranean turned to making a boat of keel and planks, one of their earliest techniques — if not the earliest — for fastening the members was the quick, cheap, and effective one of binding them with twine.


Egypt and Mesopotamia

The creation of the planked boat from the dugout as suggested in the previous chapter would have taken place by the shores of the Mediterranean or other great bodies of water, where trees were plentiful. Along the three great rivers, the scene of so much of man's pioneering efforts, Egypt's Nile and Mesopotamia's Tigris and Euphrates, special circumstances and needs resulted in a different line of development.


From Aswan at the First Cataract a boatman can ride the Nile's current without obstruction right to the river's mouth, 750 miles away. And, when ready to return, a prevailing wind that blows from the north will waft him back upstream. With so useful a means of communication at their disposal, it was only to be expected that the Egyptians would make swift strides in the development of waterborne transport.

The Valley of the Nile, as it happens, is short of timber. The one tree useful for boatbuilding is the acacia, and its hard brittle wood comes only in short lengths. However, reeds — the famous bulrushes that sheltered the baby Moses — were to be had for the cutting all along the banks, and they were a perfectly adequate material for building craft to ride the river's placid waters. And so, the first vessels the Egyptians created were simple rafts of bundles of reeds lashed together. By the second half of the fourth millennium B.C., they had learned to shape their rafts, making them long and slender and bringing them to a point at each end, had learned to propel them with paddles and to direct them with steering oars slung on the quarters. In a word, the reed raft had been transformed into a reed boat. These earliest Egyptian craft are frequently pictured (Figs. 3, 5) but in so sketchy and stylized a fashion that we cannot be sure of the precise features. They boast cabins and a goodly number of oarsmen. In form some are bowed or sickle-shaped, some squarish with prow or stern or both rising in a high vertical line. Most significant of all, some were powered by a sail, a square sail set well forward of amidships (Fig. 6). To use the wind instead of muscle for driving a boat was an epoch-making idea; the Valley of the Nile, with its so very convenient prevailing wind, would seem the logical birthplace.

A reed boat, despite its name, is actually a kind of raft, a solid platform of bundles so lashed as to take the external form of a boat. As Egypt's boatwrights grew more adept, they advanced from the primitive long slender hull to a graceful spoonlike shape (Figs. 7-9) while the plain vertical extremities often gave way to elegant curved stem-and sternposts ending in an adornment resembling a lotus bud. Light, shallow in draft, easily maneuverable, such craft were particularly useful along Egypt's multitudinous canals and in the reed-choked marshes. With little change in form, they continued to be used throughout the whole of Egyptian history.

Egypt's primitive reed raft had, however, another, far more significant, line of development. By about 2700 B.C., the Egyptians had developed a stone architecture. This meant that some form of cargo vessel was needed to ferry massive blocks of rock from the quarries to the building sites. Egyptian boatwrights had already equipped their fragile floats for harder use by paving them with a layer of planks. They met the new challenge by taking the all-important forward step of building boats entirely of planks.

Three features make it fairly clear that the Nile's first true boats were replicas in wood of her reed craft. First, in shape they often followed the lines of the reed boat, reproducing the latter's distinctive spoonlike design and often its distinctive lotus-bud ends (Fig. 10). Second, they were often rigged with a bipod mast, one leg planted on each gunwale; this was surely a borrowing from reed boats, which, with no point strong enough to socket a pole mast properly, found the two-legged type much more serviceable. Lastly, they paralleled the reed boat in construction: they had no internal frame of keel and ribs; they were a shell of planks edge-joined to each other, even as a reed boat is of bundles lashed to one another.

The earliest planked boats seem to have been square-ended and flat-bottomed (Fig. 12), more barge than boat, a form that might have been chosen because it involved simpler carpentry. But boatwrights learned quickly, and within a few centuries were giving prow and stern the traditional rounded or pointed shape and were rounding the bottom.

For the mode of construction we have the best possible evidence, that of a number of actual hulls. They date from a somewhat later period than the one under discussion — roughly 2000 B.C. — but this means little: the technique they reveal is identical with that Herodotus observed in the fifth century B.C. and that still is in use along the Upper Nile; we can confidently assume it reflects earliest Egyptian practice. Herodotus likened Egyptian boatbuilding, based on the use of short lengths of acacia, to the laying of bricks, and no more apt comparison can be found (Figs, 11, 13). The boatwright began his hull with a sort of keel plank, a plank made of a number of lengths pieced together, which, in keel-like fashion, formed the centerline of the hull. To either side of it he added short planks, all fastened edge to edge by means of dowels or mortises and tenons or wooden clamps or combinations of these. When the shell of planks built up in this fashion had reached the height desired, he finished it off with gunwales and inserted a series of crossbeams at gunwale level; these, besides carrying the deck planking, provided lateral stiffening, keeping the sides from sagging outward. Possibly, for further strength, there was a stringer from stem to stern just under the crossbeams supported by stanchions that stood on the keel plank. Herodotus adds that the seams were caulked with papyrus from the inside; so are they still on some of the craft of the Upper Nile, save that rags take the place of papyrus fibers.

This mode of construction should cause no surprise. We are so used to the modern western style of boatbuilding, which starts with a sturdy skeleton of keel and frames and wraps about this a skin of planks, that we tend to forget the existence in many areas of a method which does things in precisely the reverse order. In Arabia, Persia, India, and other parts of Asia, as well as in certain areas of northern Europe, shipwrights, like the ancient Egyptians, have traditionally begun with the skin of planks. Having no frames to pin these to, they make each fast to its neighbors by means of pegs, joints, staples, nails, or — a technique touched on in the previous chapter — by sewing them together with twine. Only after the shell has been completely built up in this fashion is any internal stiffening provided, generally a certain number of frames inserted as a last step. What the ancient Egyptians used was, in effect, just one variation of the technique that prevailed in the Asian world. It differed from that of Persia and Arabia by using wood joinery instead of sewing — and, as we shall see (202 below), was in this respect more akin to the practice in vogue throughout the Mediterranean. And, as the Mediterranean shipwright was to do during the whole of ancient history, they set the planks "carvel" fashion, i.e., edge to edge, never "lap-strake."


Excerpted from Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson. Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lionel Casson is professor emeritus of classics at New York University. He is the author of Daily Life in Ancient Rome, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, Illustrated History of Ships and Boats, and Travel in the Ancient World, the last available from Johns Hopkins.

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