Byzantine shipwrecks reveal advanced shipbuilding techniques

A trove of ancient Byzantine ships found in waters near Istanbul, Turkey, displayed more advanced construction than scholars previously knew for that era. The ships include two unique Byzantine galleys propelled by oars, which are the first of their kind to be salvaged and were previously known only from text and images.

Officials are planning a large museum to show the ships, which date back between 800 and 1,500 years, but it may be several years before their hulls are prepared to the point that they may be exhibited. Ships so far removed from the waters of the Sea of Marmara have had to be continuously sprayed with water to prevent deterioration.

Numerous shipwrecks have been recovered from the Sea of Marmara (pictured). Source: BigStockPhoto

The Byzantine Empire , extant from 330 to 1450 A.D., at one point covered much of southern Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa. Several historians have called it a ‘maritime empire’ as the sea became vital to its very existence.

Excavated along with the galleys, were 35 other Byzantine shipwrecks at the port of Yenikapi in Istanbul, known then as Constantinople.

"Never before has such a large number and types of well-preserved vessels been found at a single location," study author Cemal Pulak of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University told . The ships are in very good condition.

A new report, published in December in the International Journal of Nautical Archeology, highlights eight of the ships. The report says the ships were built incorporating two techniques: building the shell first and then adding the skeleton, and vice versa. This shift in technique from shell first to skeleton first, which is more advanced, was underway by the seventh century. Scholars thought the skeleton-first technique came later in history.

Partial reconstruction of the Yassiada shipwreck from Byzantine times (7th c.), Bodrum, Turkey ( Wikimedia Commons )

Six of the eight ships examined in the new report were round ships 26 to 48 feet (8 to 14.7 meters) long and between 8 and 16 feet (2.5 to 5 meters) wide. Round ships are propelled mostly or fully by sails.

The two others were oar-propelled galleys 100 feet (30 meters) long by 13 feet (4 meters) wide.

“Previously, Byzantine galleys were known only from books and artwork dating to the time period, and such sources tend to be difficult to interpret. Therefore the well-preserved remains of these vessels at Yenikapi play a crucial role in archaeologists' study of Byzantine ships, the researchers said,” LiveScience reports.

A light galley of the late Middle Ages. Byzantine-style fresco. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The archaeological excavations of the Byzantine shipwrecks of Yenikapi began in 2004.

Much information about Byzantine ships prior to the 2004 find had come from several medium-size seagoing ships excavated in the Mediterranean Sea.

"Yenikapi has yielded a wide array of small rowboats, fishing boats, utility vessels and even naval ships, all directly from Constantinople itself, the capital of the Byzantine Empire," Pulak told

Some magnificent discoveries have been made in Turkish waters in the last year, including eight Ottoman era shipwrecks near Antalya , and an ancient ship in the Port of Urla underwater site, a port city located near Izmir, which is believed to date back an incredible 4,000 years, making it the oldest known shipwreck in the world.

Featured image: Shallow shipwreck found in Turkey waters. Source: BigStockPhoto

By Mark Miller

Striking Discovery: 3 Ancient Roman Shipwrecks Found Buried in Serbia

The view of one of the three ancient Roman shipwrecks discovered in Siberia. Image Credit: YouTube /

Researchers have revealed that coal miners in Serbia have recently unearthed an unexpected treasure beneath the surface: three ancient ships that were buried in the mud, the largest of which is a flat-bottomed vessel measuring fifteen meters in length. The best part? All three ships have peculiar characteristics suggesting the ancient ships were in fact Roman vessels. Experts have revealed that the ships may have remained buried beneath the surface for at least 1,300 years.

The ancient Roman vessels were found near the Kostolac surface mine, which is found not far from an ancient Roman city called Viminacium. The ancient city was a provincial metropolis and once served as the base for a squadron of Roman warships that controlled the Danube River.

In the distant past, at the time when the Roman Empire ruled over most of Southern Europe, the Danube flowers across the land that is not, more than 1,300 years later, occupied by a modern mine.

The three ancient vessels were found above a 15-meter- (49-foot-) deep layer of gravel, buried beneath seven meters (23 feet) of silt and clay. This is one of the key factors thanks to which the ships were preserved in excellent condition.

Speaking to Ars Technica, archaeologist Miomir Korac, director of the Archaeological Institute and head of the Viminacium Science Project explained how the largest ship was badly damaged by the miners as their mining equipment dug into the ground.

“The [largest] ship was seriously damaged by the mining equipment. Approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of the ship was damaged. But the archaeological team collected all the parts, and we should be able to reconstruct it almost in full.” With any luck, that reconstruction will help archaeologists understand when the three ships were built and how they came to rest in the riverbed,” Korac revealed.

The largest of the three ships was built having a large single deck eating at least six pairs of oars. It also had a triangular sail dubbed a lateen sail. A ship of this size would have easily carried a crew of up to 35 sailors. Before eventually sinking and being buried by gravel and mud, the ship is thought to have served the empire extensively.

Archaeologists have found traces of repairs to the hull, which indicate that the ship was used extensively and during longer periods.

Archaeologists have revealed that iron nails and other iron fittings that held the core of the ship together were discovered and were preserved in pristine condition thanks to the salt and clay that sealed the ship, protecting it from microbes, oxygen and other factors that could have contributed to its destruction.

Although experts estimate the ships to be around 1,300 years old, and the ship’s elements displaying typical Roman construction techniques, the experts revealed that the same shipbuilding techniques may also have been used in later Byzantine and seven medieval shipwrights, so further analysis is needed to understand the history of the shipwrecks.

Regrettably, with the Coronavirus pandemic currently spreading at an alarming rate around the globe, it will take much longer to obtain test results.

The archeological have already sent wood samples from preserved oak trees buried near the ships to a laboratory that will perform radiocarbon dating.

Despite the understandable uncertainties regarding the age of the ships, Archeologist Korac believes that the ships are of Roman origin. Furthermore, there aren’t any historical reports that mention any sports in existence in the region father the ancient Roman city Viminacium fell to invading forces.

In other words, if this is the case, then the three recently-excavated ships may provide experts with an unprecedented historical snapshot of either commerce or conflict during ancient Roman times.


Archaeologists digging below Istanbul’s Yenikapı neighborhood uncovered more than a rich hoard of Byzantine shipwrecks. They also turned up evidence that the great city’s history is even older than previously thought — by nearly 6,000 years.

“Before the excavation, we believed that Byzantium [the precursor to Istanbul] had been established in the seventh century B.C. by Greek colonists,” says archaeologist Ufuk Kocabas. “But then under the [Byzantine] harbor, we found Neolithic remains, which was very surprising. Now we understand that this city’s history goes back to the Neolithic Age.”

Human remains found in the earlier layers are still undergoing analysis. But funerary urns, wooden burial structures and the remains of buildings found below the Port of Theodosius date back around 8,500 years, according to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, which supervised the Yenikapı excavations. The most heralded finds at the site provide insight into Byzantine shipbuilding techniques and trade routes. But thousands of other discoveries are revealing new details about animal populations of the time and their use by humans, as well as the Neolithic-era movement of people through Anatolia and Thrace in Europe, Kocabas says: “There are many phases to this excavation. We’ll be studying [the results] for years.”

Apuleius Books

Some twenty years ago my wife and I visited the village of Olymbos on Karpathos in the Dodekanese islands. (Locally known as Elympos.) Our guidebooks had said that it was the most Byzantine of Greek villages and in fact preserved some medieval Greek and even Doric words not used elsewhere. At that time Olymbos or Olympos was still quite off the beaten path – the beaten path from the airport at the south end of the island being possibly the worst maintained road I’ve ever taken. I was happy that a cab driver convinced me not to rent a car. He likely saved our lives and was himself unwilling to drive it at night. The road – which had only been pushed through the rocky and mountainous countryside a decade or so before – was on the side of a cliff, largely unpaved, and it often washed away. There are Youtube videos of it and it seems not to have improved since. En-route to Olymbos our middle aged driver tells us that everyone (every male I presume) in the villages that we passed had worked in either Germany or the USA. At twenty-two his father had picked him a fourteen year old bride. Inheritance had passed through the first daughter on Karpathos, he told us, but today a father tries to provide a house for each girl child.

Olymbos is the female form of the Mt Olympos on which it is built. (There are quite a few peaks with that name.) It is thought to have been founded by refugees fleeing Saracen pirates who regularly attacked their villages in the 7 th and 8 th centuries. The mountainside is still lined with windmills, some of which still operate. Their horseshoe shape which resembles the towers of a fort was probably intended to deceive pirates. Not much is known about the specific history of the town or island during its Byzantine period but I was told by a local resident that the remains of four actual forts remain on Karpathos. That fact motivated me to write a never published short story about the people there preparing to fend off attackers intent on seizing their children as slaves, for indeed except for sheep there is little else of value on the stony mountains that form Karpathos.

This isolation for years kept the modern world from encroaching and even now the few hundred remaining residents keep alive their Byzantine era music, dances, and costuming – at least at festival times. Many Olympiaites now live in communities on Rhodes and Piraeus but visit their birthplace for festivals. We were there for a traditional Easter service and festival until the Tuesday after Easter when everyone including many ancient ladies seemingly effortlessly make their way along a steep and rocky path down to the cemetery where they distribute and share food – from home made cheeses to candy bars. A list of Olymbos festivals can be found at .

The Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, after ejecting the Saracens who had occupied that part of the Dodekanese, formed the Thema of Crete which included Karpathos. Later it was governed by the Cretan-Venetian Kornaros family until 1537 when the Turkish navy overthrew “Frankish” rule. The distant Turkish rulers allowed the island a rare semi democratic self rule.

Of daily life on Olymbos Constantine Minos and Manolis Makris write that before the introduction of machine made shoes many men were shoemakers or blacksmiths. A unique hand made boot is still made and worn at Olymbos. “Nobody was idle in Olympos, apart from the sick. The living conditions and the environment enforced a certain lifestyle from the early age. Weak people could not live for long in Olympos. One had to have a very good face ‘from one night to the next’ which means from ‘from sunrise to sunset.’ The women were no exception. On the contrary, besides taking care of their children, the women had care of cooking as well, whereas Saturdays were baking and washing days. On Saturdays the men were also busy digging, cutting wood, bee keeping, or repairing their “stivania” (a kind of laced boots) or their tools. Only on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings were the men free to go to the kafenio where they learnt the news and met other people. The husband and wife in Olympos were two inseparable partners working together against the difficult conditions in order to make a living for themselves and their many – six on average – children. If, on the other hand they were down on their luck, and they had to raise a loan, the man would put his field or house in pledge. If it were necessary to spend the wife’s sovereigns (gold British sterling coins), he would give her his house or field in return.“

Writing about local music and dance, Minos and Makris continue that even today “there are many traditional songs written in fifteen syllable lines calked sirmatika … The songs start very slowly. Somewhere in the middle of the song the beat becomes faster and becomes a crescendo towards the end. The songs are heroic, originating from the Byzantine era, ballads, some are historic songs, some talk about immigration … The exterpore martinades (couplets) are still flourishing.” Some praise and express their wishes to a newly wed couples, to the child who has just been christened… (and) to immigrants who have recently returned from abroad.

Much of this material and more can be found in an on-line article by Constantine Minos, Lecturer at the Aegean University. and his associate the writer Manolis Makris. I also recommend to the reader the photography of Julia Klimi, and quite a number of other photos and excellent videos also available on-line. Many of the videos are narrated in English but there are interviews with the islanders in German and Greek as well.


Pre-history Edit

4th millennium BC Edit

Evidence from Ancient Egypt shows that the early Egyptians knew how to assemble planks of wood into a ship hull as early as 3100 BC. Egyptian pottery as old as 4000 BC shows designs of early boats or other means for navigation. The Archaeological Institute of America reports [1] that some of the oldest ships yet unearthed are known as the Abydos boats. These are a group of 14 ships discovered in Abydos that were constructed of wooden planks which were "sewn" together. Discovered by Egyptologist David O'Connor of New York University, [2] woven straps were found to have been used to lash the planks together, [1] and reeds or grass stuffed between the planks helped to seal the seams. [1] Because the ships are all buried together and near a mortuary belonging to Pharaoh Khasekhemwy, [2] originally they were all thought to have belonged to him, but one of the 14 ships dates to 3000 BC, [2] and the associated pottery jars buried with the vessels also suggest earlier dating. [2] The ship dating to 3000 BC was about 75 feet (23 m) long [2] and is now thought to perhaps have belonged to an earlier pharaoh. [2] According to professor O'Connor, the 5,000-year-old ship may have even belonged to Pharaoh Aha. [2]

The first true ocean-going vessels were built by the Austronesian peoples during the Austronesian expansion (c. 3000 BC). From Taiwan, they first settled the island of Luzon in the Philippines before migrating onwards to the rest of Island Southeast Asia and to Micronesia by 1500 BC, covering distances of thousands of kilometers of open ocean. This was followed by later migrations even further onward reaching Madagascar in the Indian Ocean and New Zealand and Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean at its furthest extent, possibly even reaching the Americas. [3] [4] [5]

Austronesians invented unique ship technologies like catamarans, outrigger boats, lashed-lug boatbuilding techniques, crab claw sails, and tanja sails as well as oceanic navigation techniques. They also invented sewn-plank techniques independently. Austronesian ships varied from simple canoes to large multihull ships. The simplest form of all ancestral Austronesian boats had five parts. The bottom part consists of a single piece of hollowed-out log. At the sides were two planks, and two horseshoe-shaped wood pieces formed the prow and stern. These were fitted tightly together edge-to-edge with dowels inserted into holes in between, and then lashed to each other with ropes (made from rattan or fiber) wrapped around protruding lugs on the planks. This characteristic and ancient Austronesian boat-building practice is known as the "lashed-lug" technique. They were commonly caulked with pastes made from various plants as well as tapa bark and fibres which would expand when wet, further tightening joints and making the hull watertight. They formed the shell of the boat, which was then reinforced by horizontal ribs. Shipwrecks of Austronesian ships can be identified from this construction, as well as the absence of metal nails. Austronesian ships traditionally had no central rudders but were instead steered using an oar on one side. [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

  • Hōkūleʻa, a Polynesian voyaging catamaran with crab claw sails
  • Balatik, a Filipinodouble-outrigger (trimaran) paraw with a lug sail
  • A Melanesiansingle-outriggertepukei with a forward-mounted crab claw sail from the Solomon Islands
  • A Tobelo double-outrigger kora-kora with a rectangular canted tanja sail , narrow Māoriwar canoes propelled by paddling

The ancestral Austronesian rig was the mastless triangular crab claw sail which had two booms that could be tilted to the wind. These were built in the double-canoe configuration or had a single outrigger on the windward side. In Island Southeast Asia, these developed into double outriggers on each side that provided greater stability. The triangular crab claw sails also later developed into square or rectangular tanja sails, which like crab claw sails, had distinctive booms spanning the upper and lower edges. Fixed masts also developed later in both Southeast Asia (usually as bipod or tripod masts) and Oceania. [6] [7] Austronesians traditionally made their sails from woven mats of the resilient and salt-resistant pandanus leaves. These sails allowed Austronesians to embark on long-distance voyaging. [11] [12] [13]

The ancient Champa of Vietnam also uniquely developed basket-hulled boats whose hulls were composed of woven and resin-caulked bamboo, either entirely or in conjunction with plank strakes. They range from small coracles (the o thúng) to large ocean-going trading ships like the ghe mành. [15] [16]

The acquisition of the catamaran and outrigger technology by the non-Austronesian peoples in Sri Lanka and southern India is due to the result of very early Austronesian contact with the region, including the Maldives and the Laccadive Islands via the Austronesian maritime trade network (the precursor to both the Spice Trade and the Maritime Silk Road), estimated to have occurred around 1000 to 600 BCE and onwards. This may have possibly included limited colonization that have since been assimilated. This is still evident in Sri Lankan and South Indian languages. For example, Tamil paṭavu, Telugu paḍava, and Kannada paḍahu, all meaning "ship", are all derived from Proto-Hesperonesian *padaw, "sailboat", with Austronesian cognates like Javanese perahu, Kadazan padau, Maranao padaw, Cebuano paráw, Samoan folau, Hawaiian halau, and Māori wharau. [14]

Early contact with Arab ships in the Indian Ocean during Austronesian voyages is also believed to have resulted in the development of the triangular Arabic lateen sail. [14] [13] [17] [18] [19]

3rd millennium BC Edit

Early Egyptians also knew how to assemble planks of wood with treenails to fasten them together, using pitch for caulking the seams. The "Khufu ship", a 43.6-meter vessel sealed into a pit in the Giza pyramid complex at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza in the Fourth Dynasty around 2500 BC, is a full-size surviving example which may have fulfilled the symbolic function of a solar barque. Early Egyptians also knew how to fasten the planks of this ship together with mortise and tenon joints. [1]

The oldest known tidal dock in the world was built around 2500 BC during the Harappan civilisation at Lothal near the present day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast in India. Other ports were probably at Balakot and Dwarka. However, it is probable that many small-scale ports, and not massive ports, were used for the Harappan maritime trade. [20] Ships from the harbour at these ancient port cities established trade with Mesopotamia. [21] [ full citation needed ] Shipbuilding and boatmaking may have been prosperous industries in ancient India. [22] Native labourers may have manufactured the flotilla of boats used by Alexander the Great to navigate across the Hydaspes and even the Indus, under Nearchos. [22] [ full citation needed ] The Indians also exported teak for shipbuilding to ancient Persia. [23] Other references to Indian timber used for shipbuilding is noted in the works of Ibn Jubayr. [23]

2nd millennium BC Edit

The ships of Ancient Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty were typically about 25 meters (80 ft) in length, and had a single mast, sometimes consisting of two poles lashed together at the top making an "A" shape. They mounted a single square sail on a yard, with an additional spar along the bottom of the sail. These ships could also be oar propelled. [24] The ocean and sea going ships of Ancient Egypt were constructed with cedar wood, most likely hailing from Lebanon. [25]

The ships of Phoenicia seem to have been of a similar design.

1st millennium BC Edit

The naval history of China stems back to the Spring and Autumn period (722 BC–481 BC) of the ancient Chinese Zhou Dynasty. The Chinese built large rectangular barges known as "castle ships", which were essentially floating fortresses complete with multiple decks with guarded ramparts. However, the Chinese vessels during this era were essentially fluvial (riverine). True ocean-going fleets did not appear until the 10th century Song dynasty. [26] [27]

There is considerable knowledge regarding shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient Mediterranean. [28] Malay people independently invented junk sails, made from woven mats reinforced with bamboo, at least several hundred years BC. [29]

Early 1st millennium AD Edit

The ancient Chinese also built ramming vessels as in the Greco-Roman tradition of the trireme, although oar-steered ships in China lost favor very early on since it was in the 1st century China that the stern-mounted rudder was first developed. This was dually met with the introduction of the Han Dynasty junk ship design in the same century. It is thought that the Chinese had adopted the Malay junk sail by this period, [29] although a UNESCO study argues that the Chinese were using square sails during the Han dynasty and adopted the Malay junk sail later, in the 12th century. [26]

The Malay and Javanese people, started building large seafaring ships about 1st century AD. [30] These ships used 2 types of sail of their invention, the junk sail and tanja sail. Large ships are about 50–60 metres (164–197 ft) long, had 5.2–7.8 metres (17–26 ft) tall freeboard, [31] each carrying provisions enough for a year, [32] and could carry 200–1000 people. This type of ship was favored by Chinese travelers, because they did not build seaworthy ships until around 8–9th century AD. [33]

Southern Chinese junks were based on keeled and multi-planked Austronesian jong (known as po by the Chinese, from Javanese or Malay perahu - large ship). [34] : 613 [35] : 193 Southern Chinese junks showed characteristics of Austronesian jong: V-shaped, double-ended hull with a keel, and using timbers of tropical origin. This is different from northern Chinese junks, which are developed from flat bottomed riverine boats. [36] : 20–21 The northern Chinese junks had flat bottoms, no keel, no frames (only water-tight bulkheads), transom stern and stem, would have been built out of pine or fir wood, and would have its planks fastened with iron nails or clamps. [34] : 613

Archeological investigations done at Portus near Rome have revealed inscriptions indicating the existence of a "guild of shipbuilders" during the time of Hadrian. [37]

Medieval Europe, Song China, Abbasid Caliphate, Pacific Islanders, Ming China Edit

Until recently, Viking longships were seen as marking a very considerable advance on traditional clinker-built hulls of plank boards tied together with leather thongs. [38] This consensus has recently been challenged. Haywood [39] has argued that earlier Frankish and Anglo-Saxon nautical practice was much more accomplished than had been thought, and has described the distribution of clinker vs. carvel construction in Western Europe (see map [1]). An insight into ship building in the North Sea/Baltic areas of the early medieval period was found at Sutton Hoo, England, where a ship was buried with a chieftain. The ship was 26 metres (85 ft) long and, 4.3 metres (14 ft) [40] wide. Upward from the keel, the hull was made by overlapping nine strakes on either side with rivets fastening the oaken planks together. It could hold upwards of thirty men.

Sometime around the 12th century, northern European ships began to be built with a straight sternpost, enabling the mounting of a rudder, which was much more durable than a steering oar held over the side. Development in the Middle Ages favored "round ships", [41] with a broad beam and heavily curved at both ends. Another important ship type was the galley which was constructed with both sails and oars.

The first extant treatise on shipbuilding was written c. 1436 by Michael of Rhodes, [42] a man who began his career as an oarsman on a Venetian galley in 1401 and worked his way up into officer positions. He wrote and illustrated a book that contains a treatise on ship building, a treatise on mathematics, much material on astrology, and other materials. His treatise on shipbuilding treats three kinds of galleys and two kinds of round ships. [43]

Outside Medieval Europe, great advances were being made in shipbuilding. The shipbuilding industry in Imperial China reached its height during the Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, and early Ming Dynasty. The mainstay of China's merchant and naval fleets was the junk, which had existed for centuries, but it was at this time that the large ships based on this design were built. During the Sung period (960–1279 AD), the establishment of China's first official standing navy in 1132 AD and the enormous increase in maritime trade abroad (from Heian Japan to Fatimid Egypt) allowed the shipbuilding industry in provinces like Fujian to thrive as never before. The largest seaports in the world were in China and included Guangzhou, Quanzhou, and Xiamen. [ citation needed ]

In the Islamic world, shipbuilding thrived at Basra and Alexandria, the dhow, felucca, baghlah and the sambuk, became symbols of successful maritime trade around the Indian Ocean from the ports of East Africa to Southeast Asia and the ports of Sindh and Hind (India) during the Abbasid period.

At this time islands spread over vast distances across the Pacific Ocean were being colonised by the Melanesians and Polynesians, who built giant canoes and progressed to great catamarans.

Ming China Edit

Shipbuilders in the Ming dynasty (1368

1644) were not the same as the shipbuilders in other Chinese dynasties, due to hundreds of years of accumulated experiences and rapid changes in the Ming dynasty. Shipbuilders in the Ming dynasty primarily worked for the government, under command of the Ministry of Public Works.

Early Ming (1368

During the early years of the Ming dynasty, the Ming government maintained an open policy towards sailing. Between 1405 and 1433, the government conducted seven diplomatic Ming treasure voyages to over thirty countries in Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and Eastern Africa. The voyages were initiated by the Yongle Emperor, and led by the Admiral Zheng He. Six voyages were conducted under the Yongle Emperor's reign, the last of which returned to China in 1422. After the Yongle Emperor's death in 1424, his successor the Hongxi Emperor ordered the suspension of the voyages. The seventh and final voyage began in 1430, sent by the Xuande Emperor. Although the Hongxi and Xuande Emperors did not emphasize sailing as much as the Yongle Emperor, they were not against it. This led to a high degree of commercialization and an increase in trade. Large numbers of ships were built to meet the demand. [44] [45]

The Ming voyages were large in size, numbering as many as 300 ships and 28,000 men. [46] The shipbuilders were brought from different places in China to the shipyard in Nanjing, including Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Fujian, and Huguang (now the provinces of Hubei and Hunan). One of the most famous shipyards was Long Jiang Shipyard (zh:龙江船厂), located in Nanjing near the Treasure Shipyard where the ocean-going ships were built. [44] The shipbuilders could built 24 models of ships of varying sizes. [44]

Several types of ships were built for the voyages, including Shachuan (沙船), Fuchuan (福船) and Baochuan (treasure ship) (宝船). [47] Zheng He's treasure ships were regarded as Shachuan types, mainly because they were made in the treasure shipyard in Nanjing. Shachuan, or 'sand-ships', are ships used primarily for inland transport. [44] However, in recent years, some researchers agree that the treasure ships were more of the Fuchuan type. It is said in vol.176 of San Guo Bei Meng Hui Bian (三朝北盟汇编) that ships made in Fujian are the best ones. [47] Therefore, the best shipbuilders and laborers were brought from these places to support Zheng He's expedition.

The shipyard was under the command of Ministry of Public Works. The shipbuilders had no control over their lives. The builders, commoner's doctors, cooks and errands had lowest social status. [48] The shipbuilders were forced to move away from their hometown to the shipyards. There were two major ways to enter the shipbuilder occupation: family tradition, or apprenticeship. If a shipbuilder entered the occupation due to family tradition, the shipbuilder learned the techniques of shipbuilding from his family and is very likely to earn a higher status in the shipyard. Additionally, the shipbuilder had access to business networking that could help to find clients. If a shipbuilder entered the occupation through an apprenticeship, the shipbuilder was likely a farmer before he was hired as a shipbuilder, or he was previously an experienced shipbuilder.

Many shipbuilders working in the shipyard were forced into the occupation. The ships built for Zheng He's voyages needed to be waterproof, solid, safe, and have ample room to carry large amounts of trading goods. Therefore, due to the highly commercialized society that was being encouraged by the expeditions, trades, and government policies, the shipbuilders needed to acquire the skills to build ships that fulfil these requirements.

Shipbuilding was not the sole industry utilising Chinese lumber at that time the new capital was being built in Beijing from approximately 1407 onwards, [44] which required huge amounts of high-quality wood. These two ambitious projects commissioned by Emperor Yongle would have had enormous environmental and economic effects, even if the ships were half the dimensions given in the History of Ming. Considerable pressure would also have been placed on the infrastructure required to transport the trees from their point of origin to the shipyards. [44]

Shipbuilders were usually divided into different groups and had separate jobs. Some were responsible for fixing old ships some were responsible for making the keel and some were responsible for building the helm.

  • It was the keel that determined the shape and the structure of the hull of Fuchuan Ships. The keel is the middle of the bottom of the hull, constructed by connecting three sections stern keel, main keel and poop keel. The hull spreads in the arc towards both sides forming the keel. [47]
  • The helm was the device that controls direction when sailing. It was a critical invention in shipbuilding technique in ancient China and was only used by the Chinese for a fairly long time. With a developing recognition of its function, the shape and configuration of the helm was continually improved by shipbuilders. [47] The shipbuilders not only needed to build the ship according to design, but needed to acquire the skills to improve the ships.

Late Ming (1478–1644) Edit

After 1477, the Ming government reversed its open maritime policies, enacting a series of isolationist policies in response to piracy. The policies, called Haijin (sea ban), lasted until the end of the Ming dynasty in 1644. During this period, Chinese navigation technology did not make any progress and even declined in some aspect. [44]

Early modern Edit

West Africa Edit

Documents from 1506 for example, refer to watercraft on the Sierra Leone river, carrying 120 men. Others refer to Guinea coast peoples using war canoes of varying sizes – some 70 feet in length, 7–8 feet broad, with sharp pointed ends, rowing benches on the side, and quarter decks or focastles build of reeds. The watercraft included miscellaneous facilities such as cooking hearths, and storage spaces for the crew's sleeping mats. [49]

From the 17th century, some kingdoms added brass or iron cannons to their vessels. [50] By the 18th century, however, the use of swivel cannons on war canoes accelerated. The city-state of Lagos for instance, deployed war canoes armed with swivel cannons. [49]

Europe Edit

With the development of the carrack, the west moved into a new era of ship construction by building the first regular oceangoing vessels. In a relatively short time, these ships grew to an unprecedented size, complexity and cost.

Shipyards became large industrial complexes and the ships built were financed by consortia of investors. These considerations led to the documentation of design and construction practices in what had previously been a secretive trade run by master shipwrights, and ultimately led to the field of naval architecture, where professional designers and draftsmen played an increasingly important role. [51] Even so, construction techniques changed only very gradually. The ships of the Napoleonic Wars were still built more or less to the same basic plan as those of the Spanish Armada of two centuries earlier but there had been numerous subtle improvements in ship design and construction throughout this period. For instance, the introduction of tumblehome adjustments to the shapes of sails and hulls the introduction of the wheel the introduction of hardened copper fastenings below the waterline the introduction of copper sheathing as a deterrent to shipworm and fouling etc. [52] [ page needed ]

Industrial Revolution Edit

Though still largely based on pre-industrial era materials and designs, ships greatly improved during the early Industrial Revolution period (1760 to 1825), as "the risk of being wrecked for Atlantic shipping fell by one third, and of foundering by two thirds, reflecting improvements in seaworthiness and navigation respectively." [53] The improvements in seaworthiness have been credited to "replacing the traditional stepped deck ship with stronger flushed decked ones derived from Indian designs, and the increasing use of iron reinforcement." [53] The design originated from Bengal rice ships, [53] with Bengal being famous for its shipbuilding industry at the time. [54] Iron was gradually adopted in ship construction, initially to provide stronger joints in a wooden hull e.g. as deck knees, hanging knees, knee riders and the other sharp joints, ones in which a curved, progressive joint could not be achieved. One study finds that there were considerable improvements in ship speed from 1750 to 1850: "we find that average sailing speeds of British ships in moderate to strong winds rose by nearly a third. Driving this steady progress seems to be continuous evolution of sails and rigging, and improved hulls that allowed a greater area of sail to be set safely in a given wind. By contrast, looking at every voyage between the Netherlands and East Indies undertaken by the Dutch East India Company from 1595 to 1795, we find that journey time fell only by 10 per cent, with no improvement in the heavy mortality, averaging six per cent per voyage, of those aboard." [55]

Initially copying wooden construction traditions with a frame over which the hull was fastened, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Britain of 1843 was the first radical new design, being built entirely of wrought iron. Despite her success, and the great savings in cost and space provided by the iron hull, compared to a copper sheathed counterpart, there remained problems with fouling due to the adherence of weeds and barnacles. As a result, composite construction remained the dominant approach where fast ships were required, with wooden timbers laid over an iron frame (Cutty Sark is a famous example). Later Great Britain ' s iron hull was sheathed in wood to enable it to carry a copper-based sheathing. Brunel's Great Eastern represented the next great development in shipbuilding. Built in association with John Scott Russell, it used longitudinal stringers for strength, inner and outer hulls, and bulkheads to form multiple watertight compartments. Steel also supplanted wrought iron when it became readily available in the latter half of the 19th century, providing great savings when compared with iron in cost and weight. Wood continued to be favored for the decks.

During World War II, the need for cargo ships was so great that construction time for Liberty ships went from initially eight months or longer, down to weeks or even days. They employed production line and prefabrication techniques such as those used in shipyards today. The total number of dry-cargo ships built in the United States in a 15-year period just before the war was a grand total of two. During the war, thousands of Liberty ships and Victory ships were built, many of them in shipyards that didn't exist before the war. And, they were built by a workforce consisting largely of women and other inexperienced workers who had never seen a ship before (or even the ocean). [56] [57] [58]

After the Second World War, shipbuilding (which encompasses the shipyards, the marine equipment manufacturers, and many related service and knowledge providers) grew as an important and strategic industry in a number of countries around the world. This importance stems from:

  • The large number of skilled workers required directly by the shipyard, along with supporting industries such as steel mills, railroads and engine manufacturers and
  • A nation's need to manufacture and repair its own navy and vessels that support its primary industries

Historically, the industry has suffered from the absence of global rules [ citation needed ] and a tendency towards (state-supported) over-investment due to the fact that shipyards offer a wide range of technologies, employ a significant number of workers, and generate income as the shipbuilding market is global.

Japan used shipbuilding in the 1950s and 1960s to rebuild its industrial structure South Korea started to make shipbuilding a strategic industry in the 1970s, and China is now in the process of repeating these models with large state-supported investments in this industry. Conversely, Croatia is privatising its shipbuilding industry.

As a result, the world shipbuilding market suffers from over-capacities, depressed prices (although the industry experienced a price increase in the period 2003–2005 due to strong demand for new ships which was in excess of actual cost increases), low profit margins, trade distortions and widespread subsidisation. All efforts to address the problems in the OECD have so far failed, with the 1994 international shipbuilding agreement never entering into force and the 2003–2005 round of negotiations being paused in September 2005 after no agreement was possible. After numerous efforts to restart the negotiations these were formally terminated in December 2010. The OECD's Council Working Party on Shipbuilding (WP6) will continue its efforts to identify and progressively reduce factors that distort the shipbuilding market.

Where state subsidies have been removed and domestic industrial policies do not provide support in high labor cost countries, shipbuilding has gone into decline. The British shipbuilding industry is a prime example of this with its industries suffering badly from the 1960s. In the early 1970s British yards still had the capacity to build all types and sizes of merchant ships but today they have been reduced to a small number specialising in defence contracts, luxury yachts and repair work. Decline has also occurred in other European countries, although to some extent this has reduced by protective measures and industrial support policies. In the US, the Jones Act (which places restrictions on the ships that can be used for moving domestic cargoes) has meant that merchant shipbuilding has continued, albeit at a reduced rate, but such protection has failed to penalise shipbuilding inefficiencies. The consequence of this is that contract prices are far higher than those of any other country building oceangoing ships.

Present day shipbuilding Edit

The market share of European ship builders began to decline in the 1960s as they lost work to Japan in the same way Japan most recently lost their work to South Korea and China. Over the four years from 2007, the total number of employees in the European shipbuilding industry declined from 150,000 to 115,000. [60] The output of the United States also underwent a similar change. [61] [62] Key shipbuilders in Europe are [ when? ] Fincantieri, Navantia, Naval Group and BAE Systems. [ citation needed ]

Modern shipbuilding manufacturing techniques Edit

Modern shipbuilding makes considerable use of prefabricated sections. Entire multi-deck segments of the hull or superstructure will be built elsewhere in the yard, transported to the building dock or slipway, then lifted into place. This is known as "block construction". The most modern shipyards pre-install equipment, pipes, electrical cables, and any other components within the blocks, to minimize the effort needed to assemble or install components deep within the hull once it is welded together. [ citation needed ]

Ship design work, also called naval architecture, may be conducted using a ship model basin. Previously, loftsmen at the mould lofts of shipyards were responsible for taking the dimensions, and details from drawings and plans and translating this information into templates, battens, ordinates, cutting sketches, profiles, margins and other data. [63] However, since the early 1970s computer-aided design became normal for the shipbuilding design and lofting process. [64]

Modern ships, since roughly 1940, have been produced almost exclusively of welded steel. Early welded steel ships used steels with inadequate fracture toughness, which resulted in some ships suffering catastrophic brittle fracture structural cracks (see problems of the Liberty ship). Since roughly 1950, specialized steels such as ABS Steels with good properties for ship construction have been used. Although it is commonly accepted that modern steel has eliminated brittle fracture in ships, some controversy still exists. [65] Brittle fracture of modern vessels continues to occur from time to time because grade A and grade B steel of unknown toughness or fracture appearance transition temperature (FATT) in ships' side shells can be less than adequate for all ambient conditions. [66]

As modern shipbuilding panels on a panel line become lighter and thinner, the laser hybrid welding technique is utilized. The laser hybrid blend focuses a higher energy beam on the material to be joined, allowing it to keyhole with a much higher depth to width ratio than comparative traditional welding techniques. Typically a MIG process trails the keyhole providing filler material for the weld joint. This allows for very high penetration without excessive heat input from decreased weld metal deposited leading to less distortion and welding at higher travel speeds. [ citation needed ]

Ship repair industry Edit

All ships need repair work at some point in their working lives. A part of these jobs must be carried out under the supervision of the classification society.

A lot of maintenance is carried out while at sea or in port by ship's crew. However, a large number of repair and maintenance works can only be carried out while the ship is out of commercial operation, in a ship repair yard.

Prior to undergoing repairs, a tanker must dock at a deballasting station for completing the tank cleaning operations and pumping ashore its slops (dirty cleaning water and hydrocarbon residues).

Copper for coins

Archaeologists think that the ship was journeying from the Baltic Sea and was bound for Antwerp (now in Belgium, but in the early 1500s was in the Netherlands) when it sank. The cargo of copper on board could represent one of the earliest uses of copper for coins in Europe.

Stamps on the copper plates showed they that had been produced by the wealthy Fugger family of Germany, Manders said, adding that chemical tests on the metal showed it was identical to the first copper coins used in the Netherlands.

Cities in the Netherlands were early adopters of copper coins in the 16th century, when the currency was first introduced as an affordable alternative to payments in gold and silver coins and by barter, he said.

The shipwreck, therefore, represents three key developments in Dutch history: a pivotal change in shipbuilding techniques, the growth of the Dutch economy after the 1500s, and the introduction of copper coinage. "So we have three things that make this such an exceptional ship, without having dived on the ship yet," Manders said.

The timbers brought up by the salvage grab from the seafloor showed no evidence of infestation with shipworm and were in remarkably good condition, he said. Maritime archaeologists hope to make their first dives to the wreck this summer. Until then, the shipwreck site is being watched by the Dutch coast guard.

Portuguese Carrack: The Nao

The Nao (lat. Nava) was the generic Portuguese name given to carracks, which were widely used alongside caravels to build the first colonial empire in 1415, extending from Africa to Asia. One of the most well known Nao was the Flor de la Mar (1501 or 1502) recorded in the “Roteiro de Malacca” register. Another famous Nao was the Sao Gabriel, Vasco de Gama’s flagship and the Victoria, Magellan’s ship. These solid ships married Latin and Nordic influences and were well suited to the Atlantic and long travels. Their construction required clinker assembly and reinforcing beams. They had large holds to store food, water, live animals, an iron worker, a millstone, glassware for barter with indigenous, but also weapons and gunpowder to show strength. Artillery however was overall modest (gun port had just been invented) consisting in a few heavy pieces and a large majority of smaller calibre breech-loading swivel guns and swivel-fixed arquebus in the castles. The idea was more to frighten and impress the locals than to fight against possible encounters at these latitudes.

Byzantine shipwrecks reveal advanced shipbuilding techniques - History

Long Island is the home of the famous "Wreck Valley". Hundreds of charted wrecks can be found in the waters off Long Island. And there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of wrecks that are yet to be discovered or have not been charted. An Interesting, recommended, and well researched book, written by a native Long Islander and occassional visitor to this site is WRECKS AND RESCUES ON L.I. by Van Field is available from Runaway Bay Book Store in Sayville, the Souwester Books Shop in Bellport, Preston's in Greenport, Book Revue in Huntington, at Fire Island and Montauk Lighthouses. His stories also appear in L.I. Boating World every month along with Harlan Hamilton's LI Sound Lighthouse stories. They are both interesting publications considering they are FREE at any marina or boating supply store. L.I. Boating World also has a web site at

Wreck Name Type Depth Location Loss Date
Coimbra Tanker 180 feet SE of Long Island, NY January 15, 1942
Hylton Castle Freighter 100 feet Fire Island, LI, NY January 11, 1886
Kenosha Freighter 105 feet Fire Island, NY July 24, 1909
Lexington Steamboat 80-150 feet Long Island Sound January 14, 1840
Normandie Liner NA New York Harbor February 2, 1942
SS Oregon Liner 130 feet SE of Fire Island, NY March 14, 1886
USS San Diego Cruiser 115 feet Long Island, NY July 19, 1918
USS Tarantula Gunboat 115 feet South of LI, NY October 28, 1918
Texas Tower Radar Tower 180 feet South of Fire Island, NY January 15, 1961
USS Turner Destroyer 55 feet Off Sandy Hook Point January 3, 1944

Construction on the paddlewheel steamship Lexington began during the month of September, 1834 at the Bishop and Simonson shipyard in New York, New York. Her hull was 120 feet long and 21 feet wide. The Lexington was 490 gross tons. Work was personally supervised by Cornelius Vanderbuilt, who ensured that the finest grade of materials would be used. Seasoned white oak and yellow pine was used in the box frame design of the hull and deck. The strength of the hull was derived from bridge plans in the publication, Town's Patent for Bridges . Her wood burning, vertical-beam engine was built by the West Point Foundry. Ship furnishings included teak railings, paneling, and stairways. The highest quality of fixtures was used throughout the ship. Safety was considered in every aspect during the planning and construction of the ship. The single smokestack was encased throughout all decks. Exposed combustable materials were not used near the boilers and steampipes. A pipe was fitted into the hull which allowed the hot cinders from the boilers to pass into the water instead of on the decks. A fire engine was installed with hoses and pumps. Three lifeboats were placed on the Lexington near the stern and a life raft on the forward deck. These lifeboats could only carry half of the full complement, but they fit the requirements of the day.
On June 1, 1834, she began service as a day boat between New York, NY and Providence, RI. Passengers enjoyed the fastest boat on Long Island Sound. Service and accommodations were first class. In 1837 the very successful service was moved to Stonington, Connecticut. The New Jersey Steamship Navigation and Transportation Company purchased the Lexington in December of 1838 for $60,000. The boilers were converted to burn coal, and the interior was refurbished at a cost of $12,000. The coal fired engines were force fed by fans, which in turn would drive the steamship even faster and hotter.
Daybreak found the Lexington tied up in New York on January 13, 1840. The morning air was very cold, about zero degrees. Ice was beginning to form on the surface of the water. One hundred and fifty bales of cotton were loaded under the promenade deck of the steamship. Some of these bales were placed within a few feet of the smokestack casing. A fire had occured in the casing only a few days earlier, but no one took the problem seriously even after repairs were made. It was a mistake that would later prove disastrous.
For the evenings Long Island Sound crossing, Captain George Child was in charge of the ship and crew of thirty-four. The regular master, Captain Jacob Vanderbuilt (Cornelius's brother), was home sick with a cold. A number of sea captains were boarding on their way home to see loved ones. Passengers began arriving in the early afternoon and paid $1.00 for the trip to Stonington. The fare was 50 cents if passengers stayed on the decks, but the temperatures were too cold for anyone. For those passengers traveling beyond the Connecticut destination, a train would continue their journey to Boston. Adolphus Harnden boarded with $20,000 in silver coins and $50,000 in bank notes for the Merchants Bank. The ship took on about 115 passengers and departed her dock for the last time around three o'clock in the afternoon. The twenty-three foot diameter paddlewheels propelled the vessel down the East River and around Throgs Neck into Long Island Sound. A brisk north wind was blowing, producing a heavy sea. Additional coal was thrown on the fire and the Lexington began to pick up speed as she began her journey into the open sea. White caps could be seen on the water as Manhattan drifted into the setting sun.
By six o'clock the passengers were settled in and enjoying dinner. They had a choice of baked flounder in a wine sauce or mutton with boiled tomatoes. Conversations covered the lastest news, politics, and banking rates. Some ventured out onto the decks for a short time, only to return quickly to the warm interior. One table was engrossed in a game of cards. No one knew of the horror that was about to happen.
At seven thirty, a fire was reported by the first mate. Looking out the wheel house, flames could be seen shooting from the aft section of the promenade deck, near the smokestack casing. Captain Child steered the vessel south toward the north shore of Long Island in an effort to beach her, but soon the steering became unresponsive. The Lexington then turned to a heading of east, on its own, as if trying to out run the flames. The lines between the rudder and the wheelhouse were burned through. With her steam engine running at full power, the Lexington was now out of control. The fire quickly engulfed the entire aft section of the ship. Crew members in the engine room were forced out by the flames before the engines could be shutdown. Launching the lifeboats while the Lexington plowed through the water was impossible. The fire fighting equipment was not deployed properly and any chance of stopping the fire was lost. The silver coins were dumped onto the deck so the wooden box could be used in a bucket brigade. Flames were now as high as the smokestack. They could be seen from the shoreline of Connecticut and Long Island. Many boats in the shoreline marinas were blocked by low tide, ice, and rough seas in an attempt to reach the burning steamboat. Captain Child ordered the launching of the lifeboats.
The scene on the decks were of terror and panic. As the crew were preparing a boat for launching, passengers stormed the lifeboat, filling it well beyond capacity. In the wake of a trashing paddlewheel, the boat and everyone in it was quickly swept away and lost. The Lexington was slowing down, giving some the chance to throw cotton bales over the side as rafts. By midnight the steamship was burned from bow to stern. Its deck had collapsed into the hull. At three o'clock the next morning, the Lexington slowly sank into Long Island Sound.
Many people who remained in the water succumbed to the freezing cold water. In the end, only four people would survive. All but one of the survivors was frostbitten. The Second Mate, David Crowley was able to dig into the center of a cotton bale to stay warm. He floated for forty-eight hours until he was washed ashore. He was to keep the bale in his Providence, Rhode Island home for many years until he sold it for the Civil War effort.
On September 20, 1842, the Lexington was lifted by heavy chains to the surface, only to break up and sink again into 130 feet of water. A thirty pound melted mass of silver was recovered from inside the hull.
Today the wreck lies broken up across the bottom in anywhere from 80 feet deep to 140 feet of water. The wreck is covered in wire from the salvage operation, fishing line, and other wreckage. The bottom is very dark, cold, and extremely hazardous. Navigation lines are a must. A paddlewheel is located at Loran 26679.1/43979.9 in 80 feet. The bow is at 26652.1/43962.8 in 140 feet.

History and Construction of the Dhow

For many centuries, boats that sailed on the Indian Ocean were called dhows. While there were many different types of dhows, almost all of them used a triangular or lateen sail arrangement. This made them markedly different than the ships that evolved on the Mediterranean. These ships had a characteristic square sail. The dhow was also markedly different than the ships that sailed on the China Sea. These ships were known as junks.

Unfortunately, there is almost no pictorial evidence of early dhows. Most of our knowledge of the dhow&rsquos early construction comes to us from the records of Greek and early Roman historians. Added to this, we can compare some similar hull constructions used in the later Roman period, after they had opportunity to learn from the Arab sailors. Along with this we can examine early shipwrecks, and lastly we can learn from modern day construction of dhows. It seems that dhow making is considered an art, and this art has been passed down from one generation to another, preserving, at least in part, the dhow&rsquos basic design and use. (Some modern dhow makers now nail their hulls together, and many are now making a square stern rather than a double-ended vessel.) By taking all of these into consideration, we can get an excellent idea of how the ancient dhow was constructed and what its sailing abilities were.

Despite their historical attachment to Arab traders, dhows are essentially an Indian boat, with much of the wood for their construction coming from the forests of India.

In Europe, boats names are based on the type of sail rigging the boat has. Thus, it is typical for Europeans to label all Arab boats as dhows. In the Middle East however, boats are classified according the shape of their hull. Thus, dhows with square sterns have the classifications: gaghalah, ganja, sanbuuq, jihaazi. The square stern is basically a product of European influence, since Portuguese and other boats visited the Arab gulf since the sixteenth century.

Older type vessels are now called buum, zaaruuq, badan, etc., and still have the double-ended hulls that come to a point at both the bow and the stern.

The generic word for ship in Arab is markab and safiinah. Fulk is used in the Quran. The word daw is a Swahili name, and not used by the Arabs, although it was popularized by English writers in the incorrect form of dhow.

The dhow was known for two distinctive features. First of all, it&rsquos triangular or lateen sail, and secondly, for it&rsquos stitched construction. Stitched boats were made by sewing the hull boards together with fibers, cords or thongs.

The idea of a boat made up of planks sewn together seems strange. Actually, it is a type that has been in wide use in many parts of the world and in some places still is. In the Indian Ocean, it dominated the waters right up to the fifteenth century, when the arrival of the Portuguese opened the area to European methods. A Greek sea captain or merchant who wrote in the first century AD reports the use of small sewn boats off Zanzibar and off the southern coast of Arabia. Marco Polo saw sewn boats at Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. He took a dim view of them: &ldquothey were twine and with it stitch the planks of the ship together. It keeps well and is not corroded by sea-water but it will not stand well in a storm.&rdquo (Marco Polo, Book I, ch xviii, translated by H. Yule, 3rd edition, London, 1903, I, p.108)

Later travelers reported seeing large sewn boats of 40 and 60 tons&rsquo burden and versions of fair size were still plying the waters of East Africa and around Sri Lanka in the early decades of the twentieth century.

&ldquoThe earliest surviving example of a sewn boat, as we shall see, was found beside the great pyramid of Giza, but it is unquestionably a descendant of ancestors that go back to Egypt&rsquos primitive times. Sewn boats are mentioned by ancient Roman writers, from tragic poets to the compiler of Rome&rsquos standard encyclopedia, in ways betraying their conviction that such boats belonged to the distant past, the days of the Trojan War, of Aeneas and Odysseus. They were surely right in connecting sewn boats with an early age. They were wrong only in assuming that it had not lived on: marine archeologists have found remains of sewn boats that date from the sixth century BC on into the Roman Imperial age. By the fashioning of a hull by sewing planks together, despite its early appearance and continued existence, remained a byway. As the following chapters will reveal, the mainstream of boat building followed a different channel.&rdquo (Ships and Seamanship in The Ancient World, Lionel Casson, Princeton University Press, 1971)

History of the Dhow

According to Hourani, fully stitched construction was observed by medieval writers in the Red Sea, along the east African coast, in Oman, along the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts of India and in the Maldives and Laccadive Islands.

Deloche summarizes the characteristics of pre-European influence, ocean going Indian ships based on pictorial evidence. They were double-ended craft. Prior to the eleventh century AD, the stern was raked, but after that time, a long projecting bow became the predominate characteristic. Hull planks were flush-laid and stitched with the stitches crossed and penetrating right through the planks.

Procopius, writing in the sixth century AD, tells us that ships used in the Indian Seas &lsquoare not covered with pitch or any substance, and the planks are fastened together, no with nails but with cords.&rsquo (Ray, 1994, pg 173)

Some illustrations of stitching can be found in Sanchi sculptures of the second century BC, and paintings accompanying al-Harari&rsquos Maqamat of AD 1237. The thirteenth century AD account of Marco Polo is less than complimentary: &ldquoThe vessels built at Hormuz are the worst kind, aand dangerous for navigation, exposing the merchants and others who make use of them to great hazards.&rdquo

A possible reconstruction of early ocean-going dhows. Their main characteristics were sewn double ended construction, steering oars at the stern and a lateen rigged sail.

A possible reconstruction of a later dhow with stern rudders and a rope system of steering.

Contemporary records prove without a doubt that during the third millennium BC, Babylon carried on extensive overseas trade through the Persian Gulf southward to the east African coast and eastward to India. Hardly anything is known about the vessels used on these ambitious runs other than that they were very small the largest mentioned has a capacity of some 28 tons. (Ships and Seamanship in The Ancient World, Lionel Casson Princeton University Press, 1971, Page 23)

A &lsquoseagoing boat&rsquo of 300 gur is mentioned in a document of 2000 BC see A. Oppenheim &ldquoThe Seafaring Merchants of Ur.&rdquo (Journal of the American Oriental Society 74, 1954, 6-17, especially 8 note 8. For the size of the gur, see Appendix 1, note 5)

Masts and sails

In early times the masts and yards were probably made of coconut wood and teak, although a number of woods were used in later construction. It is thought that originally sails were woven from coconut of palm leaves, and that eventually cotton cloth became the favorite for merchants on long voyages. Cotton cloth was manufactured in India. Two main sails were carried, one for night and bad weather, and the other for day and fair weather. Sails on a dhow could not be reefed.

The lateen sail used by Arabs stops short of being completely triangular. Their sails retained a luff at the fore part in proportion to the leech of roughly 1-6 in the mainsail. The retention of this luff added a much greater area of sail to be hoisted than would a completely triangular design. During the Byzantine era the Lateen sail completed its evolution into a triangle, and this idea spread from Byzantium to the rest of Europe, where it developed into the varieties of mizzen sails which later gave European sailing ships so much flexibility. From there it was eventually developed in the west into all the types of fore-and-aft rig known to yachtsmen today, a form superior still to the lateen for sailing close to the wind.

It is assumed by some that the lateen sail developed on the Red Sea, and spread from there to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. There is some evidence that a fore-and-aft lateen rig arrived in the Aegean Sea from the 2nd century onward, and in the Persian Gulf around this time.

The masts and rigging of the dhow was similar in all types of dhows, with added rigging in larger vessels. Masts were secured at the base by being slotted into a mast step, which fit over the floor timbers. The rigging of a typical dhow can be seen in the diagram below. Cables were often made of coir.

The lateen sail on the dhow looks triangular to the casual observer, but in fact it is quadrilateral and is correctly termed a settee sail. Was sail is made of several cloths, sewn parallel to luff and leech. Different types of sail were made according to the requirements: a sail wanted for reaching would be made less flat and with a fuller luff than a sail wanted for beating.

The lateen yard was normally very long in proportion to the mast and hull, and was sometimes made of more than one piece of timber. In this case, it was fitted with a strengthening piece, along the middle. Two holes were them made so that the halyard type could be secured to prevent it from slipping along the yard. On a yard of very great length a second strengthening piece would be fitted along the middle of the first.

Modern Dhows

There were a number of different types of dhows that evolved. Some of the types common during the last two hundred years are illustrated below.

Above: A baghlah with a modern square stern. Illustration taken from Paris' Souvenirs de Marine, 1882.

Above: a Cuch dungiyah. Illustration taken from Paris' Souvenirs de Marine, 1882.

Above: a sewn fishing badan, as seen in the 1830's.

Above: A cargo badan seen in the 1830's. Drawing first published in Paris' Essai sur la construction.' Note the double keel pieces and the rope system of steering on each of the two above dhows.

Above: A baggarah with a rope steering gear in the 1830's from Paris' Essai sur la construction. The hull of this small boat is very similar to a battil, but the stern-piece is continued in a straight line instead of the club like shape of the battil, but lacks protection despite it's high stern post. This vessel is also known today as a shahuf, and is often used as a fishing vessel along the coasts of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Yemen.

Dhow shipbuilding is a very ancient trade. In various places around the world, ship building techniques and styles developed until they were successful. Once they reached this stage, schools of shipbuilding, with their various skills and knowledge solidified certain styles of boats. These styles changed very slowly over the centuries as ship building techniques were often closely guarded secrets. Ship builders took special pride in their particular style of building.

Thus, three styles of ships developed in the ancient world. On the Mediterranean, triremes and trade boats shared similar styles, with small square sails, and outboard steering oars. On the Indian Ocean, dhows, with their triangular sails and stitched hull design dominated the waters. On the China seas, Chinese junks, with their tall forecastles, multiple masts, and unique sail rigging and sternpost rudder existed for centuries.

Each of these seas was separated from the other, some by landmasses, and some by dangerous striates and massive cultural differences. Bridging the gaps between these civilizations were other smaller civilizations that daringly took goods and knowledge from one sphere to the other. In Arabia, the Nabataeans played this role. In Asia, sailors with their lashed-lug ships seemed to have played this role.

It was only when ship builders saw a proven improvement that they would adapt it into their own design. Thus, ship design changed very slowly over time, allowing us to fill in the gaps in shipbuilding knowledge, but looking at previous designs and later designs. Changes in shipbuilding technique also point to nautical contacts between these three great shipbuilding spheres. Added to this, it must be accepted that many if not most dhows were built in India, and sold to Arab traders.

Dhows and the Nabataeans

As mentioned in my paper Who were the Ancient Arab Traders, the Nabataeans were known as seamen, and at various points in history totally dominated the shipping that was taking place on the Red Sea. While they originally obtained their boats by piracy, they must have either bought boats from India, or constructed or remodeled them themselves. It is interesting to note that some nautical historians point to the Red Sea as the probably place where the lateen sail was first developed. Perhaps the Nabataeans played a role in its development, since the lateen sail would have made it possible for them to bring the frankincense harvest up the Red Sea to their port at Leuke Kome. (See Sailing and Navigation) Whatever the case, dhows were the preferred boat for transporting cargoes on the Indian Ocean, and they dominated this scene for almost two thousand years.


Casson, Lionel, Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times, British Museum Press, 1994, London

Flecker, Michael, A ninth-century AD Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesia: first evidence for direct trade with China. World Archaeology, Volume 32(3): 335-354 Shipwrecks, Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2001

Griffith, T., Marco Polo: The Travels, Wordsworth, London, 1997

Hourani, G. F., Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995

Manguim, P. Y., Southeast Asian shipping in the Indian Ocean during the first millennium A.D. In Tradition and Archaeology, (eds H. P. Ray and J.F. Salles), State Publishers, New Delhi, 1996, pp 181-198

Paris&rsquo Essai sur la construction, 1930

Paris&rsquo Souvenirs de Marine, 1882.

Ray, H. P. and Salles J. F., _Tradition and Archaeology: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Oce_an, State Publishers, New Delhi, 1996

Tibbetts, G. R., Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the Coming of the Portuguese, London: Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1981

Vosmer, T., 1997, Indigenous fishing craft of Oman, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 26(3): 217-235

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Cypriote Ships – Archaic Shipbuilding Techniques

Archaic vessels give a strong impression of the skill of Cypriote boat builders for a variety of purposes – fishing, coastal transport and transporting cargo.

Although no real ships of this early period remain, much can be learnt about early shipbuilding methods by examining clay models found in tombs, designs on pottery vases and graffiti on temple walls. Many clay models display singularly or in combination such features as the poop-deck, tumble home, scuppers, mast and oars and even a projected keel or ram.

Early ship construction

The conventional way of shipbuilding was to construct the shell or hull first instead of the skeleton, a much later method. The Uluburun and Kyrenia wrecks were built in this way. First the keel or backbone of the ship was laid down and then planks of wood (strakes) were joined together rather like a brick layer building a wall. Each plank had a projection at one end which fitted into a corresponding cavity in another piece (mortise and tenon) and fastened with fibre ropes.

The shell-like hull of the ship was then reinforced with wooden cross beams and made watertight from the inside with fibre. Frames to strengthen the hull were usually added later or even postponed until the hull began to show signs of weakening.

As a rule boats were equipped with two cross planks (thwarts) which served a double purpose to keep the hull together, making the vessel more seaworthy, and as seats for the oarsmen. These often appear on the models as small decks on the bow and stem. Some ships had half decks as a place for the helmsman and to shelter the cargo and some had poop-decks constructed as an extra deck on the stern.

Clay ship models from Amathus

The International Symposium Cyprus and the Sea ( 1993) refers to a clay model from Amathus of a large sailing ship – now in the BritishMuseum. The hull is typically deep and rounded with a second deck supported by 2 pillars and a poop-deck flanked by bulky towers to house the steering oars. A cross beam surrounds the mast socket in the middle. The poop-deck takes up one third of the space (for navigation and quarters), with the remaining space being for cargo.

Merchant ships as well as men-of-war of Cypro-Archaic times had a prolonged keel or ram, which was originally simply a construction detail and not intended to inflict damage. Another model from Amathus, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, shows a rounded hull with an instantly recognizable keel. Two parallel strakes just below the gunwale are also visible, probably to protect the hull when coming alongside.

Clay models also reveal other interesting construction details which show that the Cypriots employed advanced ideas such as “tumble-home” where the sides of the ship slopes slightly inward above the greatest breath and “scuppers” or openings in the hull to carry off deck water or to facilitate the oars.

Oars and sails

Models depict mast sockets amidships and rows of holes along the gunwale for fastening the lines for supporting the mast (stays) or for rowing. Cypriote Ships from The Bronze Age to C. 500BC (Karin Westerberg) says that some models have as many as 75 holes in the gunwale, others have 18 on each side. A “penteconter” had 50 oarsmen – 25 on each side. It was 30m long and a 10m mast. Cargos of 450 tons were not unusual.

Paintings of ships on vases all show ships with masts. For example, a vase from CyprusMuseum is decorated with a slim vessel having two stems curving upwards – one crowned by a bird’s head and the other by a small ram. A mast in the middle supports a long yard. Two loose stays run from the yard to the gunwale. A loose rope holds the anchor. Two steering oars are depicted astern.

Graffiti or wall drawings such as on the temple walls at Kition, Graffiti found in Enkomi on the east coast actually portrays a ship with a swelling sail in a fair wind.

Watch the video: The Bozburun Byzantine Shipwreck Excavation Dr Fred Hocker (January 2022).