The Bronze Age and the sophisticated ships of the Minoans

With the spreading of the use of bronze tools the shipwrights kept improving their techniques and performance and the evolution of ship-construction culminated with the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean surprising planked vessels that date from the 16th to the 12th century B.C.

The earliest representation of Early Bronze Age vessel date from the 3rd millennium B.C. and their provenance are the Cyclades islands and Crete. Several long ships with a large number of oars are represented, incised, on the so-called “frying pans”. These are earthenware, rounded, with a shallow rims and their use is still a matter of controversy among archaeologists. They are dated from 2.800 to 2.300 B.C. From nearly the same period we have some clay ship models from Mochlos, Crete and a ship representation found at Orchomernos, Boeotia.

Mycenaean Ships

During the second millennium a large number of talismanic seals and rings, as well as clay models of ships and paintings from Crete strengthen the theory of a Minoan sea hegemony.

However the most important iconographical document related to the Bronze Age shipbuilding in the Aegean was found in 1971, during the excavations at Akrotiri, on the volcanic island of Thera. It is important to note that on the so called “procession of ships”, in the renowned fresco of the “West House”, all the means of propulsion are represented: the sail, the oars supported on tholepins and the free paddling. The fresco dates from the middle of the 16th c. B.C., a few years before the eruption of the volcano that destroyed the town of Akrotiri, and affected the geomorphy of most of the island of Thera. At the same time the pumice, which resulted from this catastrophe protected the site. As in a time-capsule the dwellings, including three-floor houses, some richly decorated with frescoes, as well as a multitude of structures and everyday-life objects were preserved.

The scene of this procession, which is stylized, pictures seven large ships, as well as three smaller and a rowing boat. The fleet supposedly sails from a town in the Aegean and reaches the African coat. That there were regular sea contacts between the dwellers of the Aegean, and of the Greek mainland with Egypt is attested by numerous artifacts of Egyptian provenance found in Crete and other Minoan and Mycenaean centers, as well as finds from Greece mainland and its islands buried in the Land of the Pharaohs. The Minoan presence at El Dabba, (Avaris) in the Nile Delta, at the time of the Hyksos, confirms the intense sea trade between the people of the Aegean and Egypt. There were dense sea routes and commercial and cultural exchanges between the Aegean islands and the Mediterranean shores of Egypt.

It should be noted that world-wide, wherever paddling survived, there is very little progress in the naval architecture and the crafts remained primitive. In the Aegean however there was a boom in ship construction, which progressed steadily after the Bronze Age as the new tools added greatly to the evolution of the technology. The size of the ships increased and their characteristic were constantly improved when the stone adzes, bow-drills and scrapers were replaced by metal tools.

Ship of Thera

We have no representation of ships in the Greek space – the mainland or the islands — before the 3rd millennium; except for the rock-carvings of Naxos and the ship models of Dispilio mentioned above, the reason may well be that the rise of the Mediterranean Sea — which, in the region of the Franchthi cave is over 100 meters for the Mesolithic times — may have submerged such evidences. In consequence representations of boats made as rock carvings or graffiti that had once decorated the partitions of caves neighboring the littoral have been irrevocably submerged and lost.

But from the end of the 3rd millennium and onwards we have the testimony of a multitude of superb representation of ships from the Greek Mainland and the islands that confirms a high level of seamanship.

Towards the end of the Mycenaean period, the finds of Kynos, in Central Greece (1220 B.C.), attest for the first time, a differentiation between the merchantman and the warship. Before that period it appears that cargo vessels were used when, and as necessary, for warfare. The ships of the Homeric epics probably resembled the ships depicted on the sherds of pottery found on the site of Kynos (Near Atalanti on the Aegean coast of Central Greece).

After the disappearance of the Mycenaean civilization in c.1150 B.C. and during the nearly three centuries that follow, which are known as the Dark Ages, we have no representation of any ship. But this lack of evidence should not induce us to believe that ships and maritime activities disappeared altogether from the Greek space. There is an evidence of migration from Greece’s mainland and the islands of the archipelago to the shores of Asia Minor and Cyprus and the ship and the shipbuilding techniques have certainly played an important role in this maritime mobility to the East.