The sources for our understanding of the ancient ship
For the Paleolithic and Mesolithic there are no written sources or representations of water-crafts, nor do we have any archaeological finds that can help us understand the type of crafts used and the methods of construction of our ancestors. We only rely on learned guessing and indirect information related to migration and whatever help we can get from ethno-archaeology.
However, from the late Neolithic period and onwards there are some rock-carvings and graffiti depicting sea crafts; later in the early Bronze Age representations of ships can be seen on clay vessels and there are also clay models shaped as ships. With the passing of the centuries a wide number of testimonies become available to the scholars: Frescoes, sophisticated painting on vases, sculptures in deep and low relief, images of ships on seals, later on coins; intricate models made of clay, wood, metal and finally a large number of written sources give a multitude of details on the ship.
As we will focus our attention on the Greek Seas and the Aegean in particular, it must be acknowledged that all the people of the Mediterranean, an encircled sea, exchanged and borrowed shipbuilding techniques from each other. So there is no typology of a particular boat or a ship belonging exclusively to a region or to a particular race or culture that does not have parallels, similarities to another. However innovations appearing in a region of the East may have taken decades or centuries to be accepted and applied in another part of the West or vice-versa. One often notices that the newly imported technique is applied by integrating the novelty to preexisting methods.
The early transportation of Melian Obsidian and the “Papyrella”
Seamanship certainly goes back in time to the dawn of history and is counted in hundreds of thousand of years, but the earliest and only scientific testimony we have world wide of an open sea voyage is witnessed in the Cyclades, that archipelago in the Aegean Sea, and is dated to circa 11.000 B.C.
This voyage is related to the transportation of obsidian from the island of Milos – one of the southernmost islands of the Cyclades — to the Franchthi cave in the Eastern Peloponnesus. So, the only certitude we have is that in the late Mesolithic period this volcanic mineral — that brought a revolution in the microlithic tool-making technology — was transported on an open sea course over a relatively long distance. Was this sea-voyage as long as 150 n.miles — the distance Milos to the Franchthi cave, where it was found? Was it carried by sea on a shorter distance of only 75 nm to the shores of the Ermioni region (or by paddling over the same distance to the Lavreotic) and from one of these sites it would find its way over land to the Argolis? This will never be known! The fact is that even at its shorter stretch, 75 n. miles of open sea crossing represent an important distance for those ancient hunters and fruit-gatherers that turned occasionally to being mariners.
It is not surprising that it is in the Aegean, and more specifically the Cyclades, that such an early open-sea voyage took place. This sea, scattered with hundreds of islands, islets and rocks, most at a visible distance from each other, and with an indented coast alternating promontories and capes, to bays and coves, is the ideal scenery for the development of maritime mobility. If we add to this the advantages of a mild climate and clearness of the atmosphere for long periods of the year, we can then understand why the inhabitants of the Southern part of the Balkan peninsula — who were later to be called Greeks– satisfying their needs and curiosity, hopped from an island to the other, in all the directions and came to built rafts and boats and later beautiful and intricate ships. On a clear day if one steps on the heights of Kranidi, [in the vicinity of the Franchti cave, north of the Bay of Koilada, the island of Milos is visible, same as most of the other islands in between, up to Cape Sounion.
In 1989 a project in experimental archeology was carried out in Greece, by Greek scholars. It was an attempt aiming at understanding the sea route – the obsidian trail – that linked Milos to the Greek Mainland as early as 11.000 years from today.
There was a quest of several years. Because of the weather condition prevailing in the Cyclades where the sea is often rough and due to the limitation of the primitive tools available in the Mesolithic Age, the raft made of logs and the dug-out were eliminated, as considered inadequate for the obsidian transportation some 11.000 years from today. Attention was focused on the raft made of bundles of papyrus. Research in ethnography resulted in tracing a near to extinction primitive craft that was built, probably for millennia on the island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea. The method of construction of the Corfiot ‘papyrella’ was duplicated and the 6-meter experimental craft was paddled during autumn of 1989 from the Lavreotic, the southernmost tip of Attica, to the island of the obsidian, Milos. Hopping from island to island at an average speed of 2 knots; paddling during the day and resting ashore at night, six paddlers reached their destination in a week.
The scarce evidence of the Neolithic
In Neolithic Greece the tangible testimonies of water crafts are extremely limited. The only known archaeological remains were found in 1992 in Dispilio, on Lake Kastoria, in Macedonia. A 3,30 meters lake-craft, a dugout, was well preserved in mud and is dated to the early Late Neolithic or possibly even to the end of the Middle Neolithic. However, among a multitude of artifacts found in the settlement of Dispilio, which are in the process of being studied and dated, as many as ten clay models of dug-outs – most in a fragmentary state — were found. One is nearly intact and measures 20,50 cm in length; it is also dated to the end of the Middle Neolithic.
There are also two rock-carvings – deep graffiti — from Korfi t’Aroniou, in the Cycladic island of Naxos, that picture two sea-crafts. The first has two human figures standing, while in the second, there is a bovine on board and a human figure is the process of stepping on the boat. This representation, of the late Neolithic, pictures a sea-craft that is well elaborated, it has a raised stem (or stern) and sufficient stability and size as to also allow the transportation of a domesticated animal.