Ships of the Ancient Sea-Going Peoples

The boats of the ancient peoples were very sea-worthy, as proven by Thor Heyerdahl’s reed boat, Ra.

The first boat – or ship – mentioned in ancient literature was the Ark that carried Noah and his family through the flood. It had the same dimensions as a modern sub, and was a “tumbler”, meaning it could roll over without flooding. It was completely covered and water-tight, which it had to be to survive the waves that they encountered. The fact that Noah had to break a window out to see if there was still water on the ground only adds to that description.

The burning question there is, what is “gopher wood”. That question has been debated more than the mechanics of the flood itself.

The two “prime suspects” for that answer is white oak and cedar wood. A distance third is cypress wood. All three are impervious to rot.The other choice is a tree that did not survive the flood, which seems to be universally ignored, including here. Now that we have settled the type of wood as “wood”, it’s time to look at the characteristics of this wood. First, it’s hard enough to survive a collision with an uprooted tree without breaking the hull, which leads us into the construction of the hull.

The ancient ship’s hulls were made with thick planks with deep tongue-and-groove joins so that the torquing of the hull in rough seas would not open up the seams. These hulls were then reinforced with bound reed inner hulls that acted as shock absorbers. These reeds were further treated with tar from either the “tar pits” that were very prevalent in the Middle east, or with pitch from the pines or cedars from the local forests to make them water-proof, so that, if the hull was cracked, the water got no further than the reed inner hull.

Then, on the ships destined to sail either the Atlantic or Indian oceans, there was yet another interior hull of planks, so that they were actually triple-hulled.

The Phoenician and Greek ships that have been retrieved are about 60 feet long and 20 feet wide, so were capable of carrying very largo cargoes. The preferred masts were made of cedars from Lebanon, and were fixed in such a way that they could be folded down during storms or when in dock. Other woods used for masts were seriously subject to breakage, as the sailors to the Americas found out to their sorrow.

All the sea-going ships had decks that protected the cargo below, but had no fires lanterns aboard due to the hazards they presented. Rather, the decks were fitted with translucent or transparent semi-precious gem stones cut with beveled edges that were embedded in the decks at various distances and locations depending on the design of the ship. These were the “windows” in Noah’s ark, and the lights in the famous American Clipper ships. Glass in the “olden days” was too fragile to be used, so natural gem stones were necessary to survive the waves that swept over the decks.

The Phoenician merchant ships were of a different design from the war ships. The war ships had a long, metal-covered ram-spear extending from their bow that was used to puncture the hulls of enemy ships below the water line. Their rear extension was a crescent-moon shaped curved structure that would allow a look-out to see far to the front while being protected in the back end of the ship. They also had oars, which most merchant ships did not have. No wind in the sails was bad news.

The merchant ships had one more feature that was unique. Both the front and back arch extensions had a flat deck that was engineered to be at the same level as the dock at their home port, so that persons would step from the dock onto the deck, then descend vertical stairs into the ship proper. Cargo could simply be lowered right into the hold from the dock without the need for plank extensions that were unstable on even gently rolling waters.

The best sails for the Phoenician ships were made of Egyptian flax. Egypt was happy to trade their flax sails for the masts of Lebanese cedar, so there was a symbiosis there.

The cooking vessels used on these ships were made of clay, and were designed to sit down into a pit of coals. The sides were tapered out to hold a lot of food on the bottoms, then tapered back in to a narrow neck to prevent the food from spilling when the ship rolled in the waves. The fire-pits were made from thick round deep tubs of clay to contain the coals safely during sailing, and this model was also used in their shore dwellings, so that the foods prepared at sea were the same as those on land.

Sleeping hammocks minimized the swaying of the ship during sailing, and pumps at the back end of the ship were used to bring up sea water for bathing. The “poop deck” was just that, with appropriate holes so the users were facing forward during their business.

For the most part, the ships were as safe as land travel, and just a suited for daily living, unless a major storm came up, of course, then all bets were off, but that, and snakes, were true on land as well.