A Brief History of Ships and Sailing 1/3: The Ancient World

The ship of today is a large, sturdy, self-propelled vessel in which people transport goods across seas, oceans, and lakes. It is the product of countless centuries of development.

To cross small bodies of water, primitive peoples used any available materials that would float. Early forms of the boat included rafts of logs or bamboo, bundles of reeds, air-filled animal skins, and even jars and asphalt-covered baskets.

The First True Boats

Among the first true boats was a fairly simple frame of sticks, lashed together and covered with sewn hides (a joint in a ship’s hull is still called a seam). Such boats could carry substantial loads. Examples include the bullboats of the North American Plains Indians, the kayaks of the Inuits, and the coracles of the British Islanders.

Another early boat was the dugout, a log hollowed out and pointed at the ends. Dugouts ranged up to 60 feet (18 meters) in length.

Paddles, Poles, Oars, and Sails

People propelled the earliest inflated skins by paddling with their hands. Poles, pushed against the bottom, moved rafts in shallow water. Widened and flattened at one end, the pole became a paddle for use in deeper water. Later came the oar–a paddle pivoted on the side of the boat.

The sail was one of the great inventions in history. It let the strength of the wind replace the action of human muscle. While rowboats could carry little more than a few days’ food supply for the oarsmen, sailboats could make long trips with payloads. Early sailing vessels carried square sails, which were best suited for sailing downwind. Fore and aft sails, better suited for tacking to windward, came later.

Dugouts were not wide enough to carry sail without capsizing. Ultimately they were stabilized with outriggers–floats attached by long poles to one side. In such canoes the Polynesians ranged thousands of miles across the island chains of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Ships Assembled from Small Parts

The early Egyptians developed advanced sailing cargo ships. Lacking the great trees needed for large dugouts, they built their ships by lashing and sewing together small pieces of wood. Such ships could transport great columns of stone, weighing up to 350 tons, for use in monuments. Egyptian ships also traded across the Mediterranean and Red seas.

A dugout could be built with stone tools and the aid of a fire to hollow the log. The invention of metal tools provided means of shaping logs into timbers and splitting or sawing timbers into planks. With these, builders enlarged their dugouts. They fastened upright timbers to the inside of the dugout, extending them above its sides. To these they attached lengthwise planks. They caulked, or filled, the seams between the planks with pitch and fiber.

Too little evidence has survived from prehistoric times to determine who developed the planked wooden ship. Among the earliest of such ships, however, were those of the Phoenicians. It is probable that the Phoenician ships of some 2,500 years ago were constructed much as were the wooden sailing vessels of later centuries.

In the hands of the Phoenicians, the log of the dugout became a lengthwise keel of sturdy timbers. Uprights–a stempost at the front and a sternpost at the rear–rose from the ends of the keel; between these, curved frames, or ribs, rose at right angles to the keel. Planks with caulked seams covered this framework. Sails and oars provided power.

With such galleys, built of Lebanon cedar, the Phoenicians dominated Mediterranean commerce for centuries. As galleys grew larger, rowers were arranged on two levels. Such craft were called biremes by the Greeks and Romans, who also built triremes–galleys with three banks of oars.

To Be Continued…

Excerpted from Ships and Shipping In History (Information about Ancient Shipping), courtesy of Rob Ossian’s Pirate Cove.
Image: Athenian pleasure flotilla fresco, courtesy of the National Archeological Museum of Athens.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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1 Comment on A Brief History of Ships and Sailing 1/3: The Ancient World

  1. Subrookie // August 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm //

    You may or may not be discussing this in part 2 of your trilogy, but I did look up some wikipedia text on naval warfare to see when they may have started arming these ships/vessels.

    “The first dateable recorded sea battle occurred about 1210 BC: Suppiluliuma II, king of the Hittites, defeated a fleet from Cyprus, and burned their ships at sea.

    Assyrian relief’s from the 700s BC show Phoenician fighting ships, with two levels of oars, fighting men on a sort of bridge or deck above the oarsmen, and some sort of ram protruding from the bow. No written mention of strategy or tactics seems to have survived.”

    My guess is that as long as there have been weapons and as long as there have been ships, people have been combining the two in one form or another. Arrows, spears, swords, etc have been around as long as ships have. One would have to think that the earliest of naval battles were quite brutal affairs.

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