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E - 180: Naval Sophistication in 400 BC

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Replica of the Kyrenia Ship - there are three - I do not know which one this is

Yesterday’s blog reminded me of my promise a few weeks ago to talk about the type of ships which were used in the Great Greek Grain Trade. These boats followed mostly the coastline to benefit from the morning and the afternoon breeze. These gentle winds allowed them to make 5 knots per hour or 30 nautical miles a day. The evenings were spent in safe bays or harbors where the crew cooked, ate, socialized and spent the night.

There were a couple of crossings though where following the coastline was not an option. The route from Brindisi to Corfu over the Adriatic sea, the transfer from Kythera to Crete or the crossing from Crete to Egypt. For these longer, open-sea distances sea-worthy boats were necessary. We know from written records that by 400 BC, mariners were able to build sea-worthy boats 25 m long carrying up to 200 tons of cargo. By sheer chance, a young sponge diver discovered one of these ships in 1965 just outside the harbor of Kyrenia on Cyprus’ north coast.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyse the structure of the ship

The ship was smaller than the standard size. It was “only” 14.7m long and 4.4m wide with a square sail, could carry a cargo of about 40 tons and had a crew of a captain and three deck hands. Built around 400 BC from Aleppo pines, it sank 100 years later during the time of Alexander the Great. It was a sturdy boat that underwent several repairs and served more than one generation of mariners – quite an achievement! Contrary to today, the planks were built first. Then its body was strengthened with wooden ribs. These days, we build first a skeleton and then add planks. The planks were stitched together with wooden pegs, often reinforced by copper nails which split the pegs in half and made them stiffer. This structure gave the boat enormous structural stability and strength. To make it watertight, the part of the hull in the water was covered with led sheets. Amazing technology. 2’000 years later the Royal Navy would cover the hulls of its fighting ships with copper sheets. If you can spare 30 minutes of your time, please watch the 1975 documentary of the ships restauration on YouTube. The video’s style is a bit outdated but the fashion and hairstyles definitely worth a look – am just kidding. Great documentary – maybe 3 times too long but still worth watching.

Have a look and judge yourself:

The cargo of the Kyrenia ship was also most interesting. It carried about 400 amphorae with wines from Samos and Rhodes, 9000 almonds and 29 milling stones from Kos which were used as ballast. Plus spoons, jugs, dishes and drinking cups for the crew. It did not carry grain – for that it was too small. It was a high value cargo ship. Given that about 1 ton of its cargo is missing, some researchers argue that it was sunk after being plundered by pirates. But who knows?

As today's wine bottles, the Amphora shape indicates where it was from

The restauration of the ship took more than 8 years and today it is well preserved in an air-conditioned shelter in Kyrenia’s old Venetian Fortress. Kyrenia is now called Girne after the Turkish invasion in 1974 when it became part of the Republic of Northern Cyprus. We did not know about this treasure when we were in Cyprus in 2019 – definitely would have made a detour to see the ship. It is thus still on our to-do-list.

Detailed Mapping of the Ship by the Restauration Team

To get back to yesterday’s blog, the Kyrenia ship gives us a good idea of what type of boat called on the harbor of Sybaris 2’400 years ago and what type of port facility it required. When we stand on the piers of Sybaris’ old harbor this summer, we can imagine how boats like the Kyrenia ship approached, dropped anchor and unloaded their cargo. The Kyrenia ship is about half as long as the AFAED and we have a good idea how big our boat is.

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Josephine Verine
Josephine Verine
Jan 13, 2021

Finally got the pushmail, and indeed i love the hairstyle of the youtube film, you know how to talk to women:) :)


Jan 12, 2021


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