Phoenician seafaring

The area of archaeological research that has developed into a separate discipline is the underwater archaeology. It has been the diving sport that had initiated this development. Because of this knowledge of seafaring in antiquity has increased enormously in the past decades. Archaeologists depended before that time on paintings (graffiti in rock caves and painitngs on vases), the ceramic shipmodels of Cyprus and the writings of the Greeks and Romans. Only with the discovery of shipwrecks, like the one near Uluburun in Turkey of 1300 BC, much more has become known of ancient seafaring 1. This monography is about phoenician seafaring in the first millenium BC.

The Gaulos and the Hippos

Merchant vessels were particularly round and broad, ideally shaped to carry merchandise. The wooden hull was built without the use of metal like nails, but assembled with wooden pins, whereas the seems were stuffed with rope and covered with tar, giving the ship a black appearance. The Greeks called them gauloi and hippoi, the first meaning tub which indicated the form of the ship and the second referred to the horsehead shape of the bow. Possibly gaulos is also derived from the phoenician word golah that indicated the ship. Stability was obtained by using rocks and sand if no amphores were loaded. The ship did not have any keel. The gaulos was used by phoenicians and Greeks alike, but it is known that also the Italics and the Sards possessed them 2. The Sards produced bronze artifacts resembling vessels with ornaments in the shape of animals, the bow like a deer and with birds on it. This has inclined many to believe that the Sards had a thriving seafaring tradition and were themselves able merchants.

On an average gaulos there was place for twenty rowers, but the ship was mainly driven by a quadrangular shaped sail that was hauled together with the yard in top. Rowing was limited to the harbours and on days there was no wind. Mast and sail were not adapted to side winds. This limitation would only be overcome in the Middle Ages with the Latin triangular sail. On board you would find an oarsman who managed the rudder, a large oar attached to the side of the stern of the ship. The captain was either the merchant himself or a trusted person 3. It was custom to paint two large eyes on the bow of the ship, which was believed would give the ship the means to find it‘s way on the sea.

Navigation in antiquity

It was supposed for a long time that navigation was limited to the daytime and along the coast between two points that would not be more distant than one day of travel. It has been proven that the Phoenicians and the Greeks did more than that. The captain knew every coastline, every wind and every current in sea and could navigate on the sun and the stars. One of the most brightly shining stars (possibly the Polar star) was called the Phoenician star. A ship could be over 24 hours navigating from one coast to another in open sea, as for instance between Carthage and Sardinia, or from Sardinia to Ibiza (Ebusus). The season for seafaring was limited to the summer, not only because of the weather, but also because the crops needed to be attended. In the summer time vines and olives did not need that kind of attention. Therefore the summer was ideal for trading, seafaring and also war and piracy 4.

Since 2008 a group of scientists and amateurs have been building a replica of a phoenician ship. The intention is to circumnavigate Africa, exactly what Herodotos wrote about the phoenicians that undertook this voyage at the request of pharao Necho in 600 BC. The progress of the ship, the Phoenicia, can be followed on a satellite map. It departed the 25th of october of 2009 from Oman. On the site there are pictures of the ship and the building phase as well as the first voyages to try it out.

Harbours and ports

Artificial harbours were not known to the Phoenicians. They dropped their anchors in shallow waters like the lagoons or hauled their ships onto the shore where there were beaches. That is the reason many colonies and trading places were founded near lagoons or on peninsulas. There was always a safe place for their ships even though disembarking meant wading kneedeep through the shallow waters with a heavy amphora filled with oliveoil or wine on the shoulders 5.


1 Renfrew and Bahn 2000, p.374-375
2 Casson 1971, p. 66-67; Aubet 1993, p. 147-148
3 Casson 1971, p.68-70 en 224-228
4 Casson 1971, p. 270-296, Aubet 1993, p.140-144
5 Casson 1971, p. 361-363; Aubet 1993, p. 151-152


1. Aubet, M.E. 1993: The Phoenicians and the West. Politics, Cambridge (first published in Spanish, 1987)
2. Casson, L. 1971: Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, Baltimore
3. Renfrew, C. and P. Bahn 2000: Archaeology: Theories Methods and Practice, London

Last updated 03/06/2014

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