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Ancient Ships: The Ships of Antiquity

Ancient Ships in art history: Illustrations from Greek Pottery of the History of Ancient Greece, the Greek Epic Poems and the Trojan War

The Trojan War: The Abduction of Helen of Troy
Illustrations of Themes from Classical Greek Literature

It is fortunate for sake of Greek history that verbal descriptions of Bronze Age ships from ancient Greece abound in the stories of Homer. However the identity of Homer is not entirely certain and the stories which make up the Iliad and the Odyssey may  be the products of a long oral tradition of story telling in the ancient Greek culture which were not committed to written text until as late as the 6th Century BCE, however it is Homer who is criedited to have committed these stories to their first written copies. Under such circumstances Sirens tempting Ulysses  from "The Iliad" by Homererrors and anachronisms might be expected to abound in accounts of events that took place during the Trojan war as much as 600 years earlier. For the practical historian it is noteworthy that in practice the ships described in Homer appear to be carefully delineated from those of the period in which the texts were actually written. For example Homer never speaks of a ship of the Trojan war using a ram, although the ram was a prominent feature of post 8th century BCE Greek galleys, nor does he describe multi-banked galleys, which are found in Greek ship iconography after  the 8th century BCE and before the Homeric poems were written. We can assume that Homer was familiar with these elements of ship technology but did not mention these features as part of the configuration of the ships that were used during the Trojan Wars and its' period of Greek history.

Pottery of Ancient Greece   from the Geometric period showing illustrations of soldiers and chariots
Ship image from a late Geometric Krater circa 760-750 BC  restored in Photoshop

Illustration of small ship from Geometric Krater aboveThe true advantage that we have is that the artisans of the ancient Greek culture often illustrated events similar to those  that are described in the stories written by the Greek poets. Similar  themes  to those in the classical Greek Poems were frequently painted on Vases and other ceramics starting as early as the Geometric period 1600 BCE.

Later illustrations on Attic vases reflected classical  Greek Literary and mythological themes. Attic vases were containers and can be thought of in many respects to be the first commercial packaging with pictures on them. The artisans would take a utilitarian item and decorate them with aspects of story lines from Greek culture. For simple artistic reasonís few utilitarian items are richer in their content than the Greek attic vases. 

This decorative tradition was begun in the area of Aegean Sea with the Minoan potters as early as 1700BCE.   It should be noted that the iconography of daily life was painted on pottery and recorded as decorum in the culture long before  written records of the same activities began to occur as classical Greek literature and poetry. This trend of the artisans illustrating aspects of the Greek culture in which they lived in non textual  Iconographies prior to the introduction of formal writing systems is true for cultures other that the Agean as well as the early Agean Cultures.  These illustrations within their archeoloical context give archeologists and investigators the advantage of being able to see and understand aspects of the culture of ancient Greece which are not clearly delineated  in  the written records of the Greek culture. Ship  as shown on attic Pottery

Someone in their wisdom has said a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the prehistoric cultures of the Aegean Sea we often have a visual record that tells a story, all you have to do is read the writing on the wall or pottery so to speak, in order to see various aspects of the story of these prehistoric Agean cultures.

The ships found in Homer are usually described as fast and hollow, which means without a deck or open, long, narrow, low and light, with black painted hulls. There were no accommodations for living in them and they were built to be hauled onto a beach at night so that the crews could camp on the shore. Speed and flexibility were the premium with these boats. Gear was stowed under vestigial decks at the stem and the stern. These are also features that were also common to later Greek warships, most notably the trieres or trireme.

The key to the speed of and ability to navigate these ships were the crews. Men on oars were the mechanism for maneuverability  and the wind  in their sails was the primary motor for long distance travel.

Phoenician Coin

Homer classifies his ships into a number of well-defined types that have no exact parallel in the ships of the 8th century. There are, for example, small twenty oared galleys used for transport, exploration or dispatch duties. The fifty oared pentecontor (25 oars per side) which was used as a troop carrier, and the larger 100 oared vessels (50) per side) which were used as heavy transports. He does not anywhere in his writing  mention the thirty-oared triacontor, which was in common use in  the eight century BC.


Ships were an essential part of Greek Culture
A Greek war ship from the time of the Persian wars Circa 600 BCE

Greek history shows the importance of pottery


Pottery of the Cyclidic culture from Thera 1600 BCE demonstrates  the extensive use of iconography for decorative purposes within the Aegean Cultures. These types of features were traditionally used  on pottery of the Aegean cultures, though they varied in style and proficiency of execution, for the next 1400 years. The images in this iconography gives us clues to cultural exchanges that occurred which would  be unavailable through the written records.  Much of the Iconography suggests several cultural influences and where written records are not  available are the only means to do analysis of the social dynamics of the ancient world.

Geometric pottery could be illustrations of  themes from HomerWhere shipbuilding is discussed in Homer, most obviously in the famous passage from Calypso's island, Homer speaks in technological terms such as keels, stem and sternposts, frames, planks, gunwales, cross beams and through beams fastened with treenails and mortise and tendon joints fabricated from a variety of preferred woods including oak, poplar, pine and fir. These methods of construction were certainly common in the eight century and had probably developed from similar methods used in the previous millennium. One of the best records of ship iconography from this historic era are those recorded by the Egyptians during the Invasion of the Sea peoples into Egypt during approximately the same time period of 1200 BCE.

 An overview of iconography from the eastern Mediterranean would suggest that the ship building technologies were know and shared between cultures. The Egyptians were known to have sought the support of ship builders  and traded for timbers for ship building from Byblos as early as the construction of the Pyramid complex of the Pharaoh Sahure 2450 BCE. 

 This would explain the projecting forefoot, not at this stage a ram, which is characteristic of the limited iconography for this period, particularly the Pylos vase and the Gazi Larnax as having derived from Egyptian ships which prominently featured these characteristics as early as 1250 BCE.

Illustration of Ships form the  time of the Iliad, see  similar images on Greek attic pottery at the Perseus Project

A pair of ships form Ancient GreeceThe oars in Homeric galleys were rowed against thole pins and held in place by a leather strap. Only one steering oar was used , again this is consistent with the twelfth century Mycenaean iconography, and also with the ships illustrated in Thera Frescos from the 16 th Century BCE.  Twin steering oars were standard by the 6th century. Where sails are described the mast was usually dismountable and was set in the tabernacle above the keel and held in place by two forestays and one backstay without shrouds. A single loose-footed square sail was used made up of patches of linen. Standing rigging included braces to the yardarm, sheets, and brailing lines. Homeric ships were also expected to carry lines and stone anchors, and they may have been equipped with bilge drain plugs to facilitate and drying out the boats after beaching.  

Phoenician Ship From 800 BCE Stone Relief Sculpture

The Argo

Argo was the name of a Greek navigation system.

ArgonautsThe Argo was built near Pelion Mount most possibly at Pagasses. The story of the Argos is pure  high adventure. The men who took part in the expedition were called Argonautae or Minyas, and the journey was the Argonautica Expedition or the Argonautica.

The shape of the ship was oblong and this is the reason for giving her the name "the long vessel", as well. It was the first long vessel as, until that time, the Greeks  had been using  mostly small round-shaped ships. Some sources say that the Argo was a fifty-oared ship while some others say that there were thirty oars on each side. Hence, they estimate that the Argo's length must have been between 22 or 25 meters. The wood that was used was probably oak and pine. The Argo was equipped with all those implements and tacking necessary for the management and guiding of the ship. It was a hard constructed ship, able to sail in open seas and stand up well to the blows of  huge waves. 

This could be a ship from the Trojan War ?Although the Argo - and most prehistoric Hellenic ships - had no engine, she had a great advantage compared to the ships of today. The ship would not need a port to call at. Because of her low draught she could be hauled ashore at the convenience of the crew as weather or other circumstances may have demanded.

Because she had to be hauled up the beach in order to avoid possible destruction by a sea-storm, the Argo did not have a deck as its additional weight would render her hauling more difficult or impossible. The ability to haul ashore  was a great advantage of the prehistoric Hellenic vessels, which made possible the accomplishment of those amazing and incredible explorations made at that time.  

At the prow of the ship Athena fitted in a "speaking" timber from the oak of Dodona, which would advise the Argonauts on the right course. In fact, that "speaking " timber ("Koraki" in the Hellenic nautical terminology) operated like a compass, and it corresponded to the North while the steering oar ("Diaki" in the Hellenic nautical terminology) to the South. The imaginary line between the steering oar and the "speaking" timber extended towards a certain point of the horizon-which was determined by the positions of stars (I.E. the Pole Star)- enabled the Captain to trace the course of the ship approximately

Fortunately for the person interested in this period of Greek history even quite small boats represent a considerable expenditure of labor and wealth and required a high degree of organization to navigate and operate. Boats therefore were usually valuable and prized objects in the societies that produced them. Boats are also relatively large structures. Indeed they are still probably the largest moving objects made by man and for this reason alone ships and boats have  imposed themselves on the imaginations of artists and story tellers from the earliest times to the present day. We are fortunate to have pictures of ships appear in many forms and in many different places. 

The formulation of crews to man the ships represented a major commitment and effort to create team work, all involved knowing they were dependent on one another for the ultimate success of the voyages.

Where societies were particularly reliant on ships for trade and war the ship became an important part of the culture, perhaps a dominant part as in the case of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and the Vikings. Traditionally and by definition the seafaring boat and ship has been identified with trading enterprises and exploratory adventures into the unknown and in some cultures it was associated with the ultimate voyage from life to death, which is why boats find their way into Egyptian pyramids and the graves of Saxon and Viking nobles. From antiquity to the Renaissance the ship became the vehicle for exploration and discovery into Africa and the Known World. In this role, too, ships and boats have appealed to the artist and cultural historian.

Fortunately representations of ships are widespread throughout recorded history. How accurate these pictures are is another matter, depending on the cultural attitudes and technical competence of the artists. Ship iconography as found on artifacts is beset with distortions however the images remain from antiquity giving us critical and credible clues to the use and evolution of ships and boats in various cultures.

Fortunately modern archeology is allowing us to fill in some of the blanks as deep water finds are revealing additional information on ship building technologies and trade associations.

Ship from the Trojan War
A Greek crew setting ashore

Compare this image to the Original on a Greek vase dated 540BCE

Greek history
An outlined study of Greek Colonization in the Mediterranean
from the time of the Trojan Wars 1200 BCE
to The time of Alexander the Great 300 BCE

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