Peopling the Past brings you an ongoing blog series, “Unknown Peoples”, featuring researchers who investigate understudied and/or marginalized peoples in the past.
The bottom of the Mediterranean is covered in numerous remains of ships. Maritime archaeologists have used these remains to understand and elucidate trade patterns across water, connections between regions, and technological advancements in shipbuilding. The ship itself has essentially two major functions: one is as a means of transport and connectivity, the other is as a living and working environment for humans. The former is generally well explored in scholarship, gaining even more traction in recent years through the application of network thinking to shipwreck data whereas the latter, the human side of seafaring, is less well explored, at least in prehistoric and classical archaeology.
Archaeological material derived from shipwrecks offers a unique window into past lives and their related material culture. On land, much of the material that survived has been intentionally abandoned, destroyed, discarded or re-used, while shipwrecks can offer a more immediate view of the past – if put properly into context. The wide variety of objects found on a wreck cannot be found in the same way on land – depicting goods and humans in transit and reflecting a range of mundane activities that are otherwise often lost in the terrestrial archaeological record. By looking at wrecks individually, much knowledge can be gained about groups of people that are otherwise difficult to access – the daily lives of sailors, travelers, merchants and pirates.
In my research, I am approaching past life on board ships under the umbrella term of experience or, more precisely, maritime experience. Experience in general refers to a lived event that can lead to knowledge or skill. The maritime human experience refers to events that we contextualize in a distinct maritime setting, meaning on water and involving a ship. Those experiences can lead to knowledge – i.e. how to sail or fish or live and work on a ship, but can equally transcend into the symbolic or imaginary realm, such as specific myths and beliefs about the sea.
Experience is closely tied to the notion of phenomenology, which, in its basic definition, means the human encounter with and the experience and understanding of its surroundings, whether that be the environment or things and objects. The human experience at sea is well reflected in various materials that survive in the underwater archaeological record. Some activities are traceable through archaeological material, such as the experience of fishing and cooking through fish hooks and cooking pots, while some activities have to be inferred through more experiential sources, such as actually engaging in maritime activities or having knowledge about navigation. The main sources of seafaring, therefore, are archaeological material, ancient texts, iconography and experimental archaeology.
All ancient wrecks so far recovered in the Mediterranean were merchant ships, with sizes averaging between 14-15m, though few examples of larger and smaller ships exist, and generally operated by small crews. Galley wares, foodstuffs and related items can give insights into meal preparations, sailor’s diets and other activities. Written sources speak of rituals in connection with voyages, describe the act of loading a ship, departures and arrivals, and allude to the dangers of the sea. Unfortunately, no written accounts of sailors themselves have been preserved from antiquity – if they even existed. Iconography provides illustrations of specific scenes of the maritime experience.
Experimental archaeology can provide a powerful tool to bridge the gap between past and present maritime experiences – if done properly and consciously of caveats. Several replicas of ancient merchantships have been built derived from ancient wrecks found in the Mediterranean. Two of those, the Kyrenia II and the Kerynia Liberty (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2) were based on a small merchantship that sank in the early 3rd century BC off Kyrenia on the coast of Cyprus. The third, the Ma’agan Mikhael II, is a replica of a 5th century BC merchantship discovered off the coast of Israel. All three replicas have undertaken successful sailing trials.
Though they do not provide fully authentic experiences of ancient sailors, these modern replicas can contribute to the understanding of sailing performances and navigational techniques, and can at least give an idea about how an ancient sailor might have felt, sharing a small space with several other people and loads of cargo. By carefully drawing on these various sources, the tangible and the intangible ones, archaeologists can piece together how humans in antiquity interacted with their maritime environment and can give a voice to people who are otherwise difficult to grasp. Imagining the voyage of an ancient sailor, the material allows us to picture days spent laboring on board, sharing meals with others, taking part in barter at the shore and maybe spending quiet hours leisurely catching fish or making necessary repairs on board. Dangers were often present on water, in the guise of storms, bad weather and other humans. The possibility that a sailor might not return to shore was always present. But equally, the sea offered the possibility to become part of a world that was different yet so familiar at the same time and provided both livelihood and adventure.
Want to read more of Dr. Krieger’s work? Check out her latest article, “The Human Experience of Seafaring in Prehistoric Times” published in the Journal Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies here!
Cariolou, G. 1997. Kyrenia II: The Return from Cyprus to Greece of the Replica of a Hellenic Merchant Ship, in Swiny, S. et al (eds.), Res Maritimae: Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean from Prehistory to Late Antiquity. Proceedings of the Second International Symposium “Cities on the Sea”, Nicosia, Cyprus, October 18-22, 1994: 83-97. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
Cariolou, G. and Michael, M. 2017. Repair, Maintenance and Commissioning of the Replica Ship Kerynia Liberty – 2017. Report for the Honor Frost Foundation. https://honorfrostfoundation.org/2017/01/01/repair-maintenance-and-commissioning-of-the-replica-ship-kerynia-liberty/
Cvikel, D. 2019. Sailing Ma’agan Mikhael II – 2019. Report for the Honor Frost Foundation. https://honorfrostfoundation.org/2019/10/01/sailing-maagan-mikhael-ii/
Gibbins, D. and Adams, J. 2001. Shipwrecks and Maritime Archaeology, World Archaeology 32 (2): 279-291.
Knapp, A. B. 2018. Seafaring and Seafarers in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean. Leiden: Sidestone Press.
Muckelroy, K. 1978. Maritime Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parker, A. J. 1992. Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and Roman Provinces. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum.
Westerdahl, Ch. 1992. The Maritime Cultural Landscape, IJNA 21 (1): 5-14.
Dr. Anja Krieger graduated with a PhD in Classics from Stanford University in January 2021. Her thesis explored the archaeology and anthropology of seafaring in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 2nd and 1st Millennium BC. Her overarching research interests are not necessarily bound to a specific region or time period but deal with broader questions about social and cultural processes in relation to seafaring, inter-regional connectivity, and life with, from, and on the sea. She has published a sneak peak of her dissertation in an article about the human maritime experience and is currently working on two projects. One is a book project about new interdisciplinary approaches to seafaring in antiquity and the people involved and the other is an article about a group of people that are particularly marginalized in the literature about ancient seafaring – women.
Interested in more on how people experienced the sea in antiquity? Check out Peopling the Past’s podcast with Dr. Lana Radloff, Making Waves in the Aegean here.