The Mediterranean vs. the Nordic boat-building traditions

*WOOHOO!* I got my øvingsoppgave approved!! 😀

Well… it’s really no big deal – just an essay that has to be submitted and approved before being allowed to sit the final exam. However, for someone such as myself, who has no previous knowledge whatsoever on boats and anything remotely connected to the word maritime (don’t ask me why I’m in the MPhil in Maritime Archaeology program – it’s rather complicated), it is a big step.

Anyway, I’m posting the essay below. As I am still in the process of expanding my knowledge in the field, comments and/or suggestions are very much welcome.

Main question:
Describe and evaluate main differences between the Mediterranean and Nordic boat and ship-building traditions.

Two distinct boat/ship-building traditions found in Europe are the Mediterranean and the Nordic, or Scandinavian boat/ship-building traditions. Each makes use of distinct building techniques and thus produce boats/ships that differ in appearance. These differences between the two boat/ship-building traditions are, in turn, a product of differences between their respective environments, both physical and social (e.g. interactions with other peoples from their surrounding areas).

The Mediterranean. The Mediterranean has always been an important area to consider in the study of human history. Through millennia it has seen the rise and decline of numerous ancient civilizations. Significantly reliant on water-borne transport both for trade and warfare, each of these civilizations developed boat/ship-building traditions that reflect both the physical environment around them as well as their social interactions with one another. In this section will be discussed the main civilizations and their respective boat-building traditions that contributed to the formation of an overall Mediterranean boat-building tradition.

The Egyptians. Situated at what one can consider the crossroad where peoples from the eastern and western Mediterranean, Egypt has been the source of a tradition of boat-building which have exerted strong influence on those of later civilizations within the region. Here, the existence of the Nile which acts as the main conduit connecting all the regions of Egypt, and the relative accessibility of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, as well as environmental restrictions in the form of availability of suitable timber, were all factors which contributed to the development of a boat-building tradition characterized by 3 types of vessels: the reed raft, the wooden river boat, and the wooden sea-going ship.

Reed rafts. Relatively easy to make, requiring only the simplest of tools in their manufacture, reed rafts are by no means the earliest form of watercraft in Egypt alone. However, the relative abundance of papyrus reeds all along the Nile as opposed to the shortage of timber suitable for boat-building, has given the reed raft a special place in the Egyptian boat-building tradition. Not only has it persisted in being used throughout the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms (ca. 2700 BC – ca. 1000 BC), as depicted in the murals and bas-reliefs in tombs of Egyptian noblemen, its influence on later types of ancient Egyptian watercraft is also unmistakable. Made up of bundles of reed lashed together at regular intervals, these lashings were later conventionalized in the form of vertical lines painted on the hulls of later wooden ships (e.g. those belonging to Rameses III). Even the basic sickle (banana) form – a result of bending the aftermost portion as far forward as possible, then lashing it to the hull, to achieve rigidity – were retained in later wooden watercrafts such as the sea-going ships used in Hatshepsut’s Pwnt expedition (ca. mid-2nd millennium BC).

Wooden river boats. Evidence for use of wooden river boats date back as early as the beginning of the 4th millennium BC in the form of a scrap of papyrus showing a portion of a sickle-shaped hull where the paddlers appear to be sitting inside the craft instead of on it, as would have been the case on rafts. However, it was not until around 2700 BC that their existence became certain. The appearance of grandiose architecture in Egypt at the time points to the use of vessels more capable of transporting building materials from quarries further up the Nile than the earlier reed rafts.

Still necessarily limited by the scarcity of suitable (long) timber, the Egyptians developed a technique of boat-building designed to remedy the situation. Likened by Herodotus (5th century BC) to the process of brick-laying, the technique involved cutting short lengths of wood (acacia) and putting these together like bricks, joining them together at the sides with dowels and small butterfly (dovetail?) clamps. The resulting vessel lacks a keel and retains the rounded hull and sickle-shaped profile of its reed raft predecessor. (This point to the possibility that Egyptian wooden watercrafts trace their origin from reed boats whose buoyancy were increased by cladding them with wooden planks.)

Examples of this type of watercraft are the two boats buried around the pyramid of Sesostris III at Dashur. The Dashur boats, in addition to lacking a keel, have no frames to reinforce the hull. Instead, they are provided with thwarts running across each at gunwale level for lateral rigidity as well as supporting decking at the stem and stern.

Wooden sea-going ships. Essentially enlarged versions of the wooden river boats, they differ in that the sea-going ships are fitted with elements that compensate for the hull’s weak design and thus make the vessel (a little more) sea-worthy. Running above the decks are hogging trusses that provide longitudinal reinforcement in place of keels, and round the hull below the sheerstrake is a webbed girdling truss which provide some lateral reinforcement in addition to 16 deck beams. These sea-going ships also have 2 large steering oars, one on each side of the stern, and are provided with square sails. The sails differ from those in Northern Europe in that they are furled by lowering the yard to the foot/boom and are manipulated through braces running to the yard ends rather than through sheets attached to the lower corners of the sails.

Examples of this type of watercraft are the ships used in Hatshepsut’s Pwnt expedition, depicted on the reliefs in her temple at Deir el-Bahri. The ships were also depicted as having straight stemposts and curved sterns decorated at the end with the papyrus umbel – a probable survival form of the splay of reed bundles beyond the end lashings of reed boats.

The Minoans (Crete). Roughly contemporaneous with the Egyptian civilization is that of the Minoans of Crete. Not burdened by the natural restrictions as the Egyptians, the Minoans show that as early as 3000 BC, two types of watercraft, each with possibly different origins, are already in use in the Aegean. The first type, peculiar to Crete and found especially on Minoan seals, has the characteristic sickle-shaped hull of reed boats and of contemporaneous Egyptian watercrafts. It is also asymmetrical in side profile, the hull being provided with an upcurving stern and a projecting stem.

The second type, representations of which are found in the bottom of shallow terracotta dishes as well as terracotta models throughout the Cycladic Islands, is characterized by a high straight (almost vertical) projection on one end and a projecting foot or ram at the other. The projecting foot or ram is of special interest here as it hints at the possibility of this type of craft being the precursor of the later Greek warships. The projecting foot, moreover, is indicative of a craft’s probable origin from a dug-out.

The Phoenicians. After the destruction of the Minoan civilization around 1400 BC and the decline of the Egyptian empire, the Mediterranean again became open to the influence of ‘newcomers’. Among these so-called ‘newcomers’ competing over influence in the Mediterranean, are the Phoenicians and the Greeks.

Very little is known about the Phoenicians themselves except that they were primarily a trading people, considered as the heirs to Egyptian trading stations in the Levant. Ironically on the other hand, more seems to be known about their ships and ship-building traditions, albeit from the works of Egyptian (e.g. relief from the tomb of Kenamon in Thebes, dated ca. 1400 BC) and Syrian artists (e.g. relief in the palaces of Sargon and his son, Sennacherib, at Nineveh, dated around 700 BC). From these sources, the ships were depicted as having much in common with Egyptian watercrafts, particularly the sea-going ships of Hatshepsut’s Pwnt expedition: rounded hulls with sickle-shaped profile, straight rising stems, and deck beams projecting through the hull just below the sheerstrake.

That Phoenician ships seem to echo Egyptian ones comes as no surprise, considering the possible relationship the two peoples might have had with one another. Phoenician ships, however, have certain differences from Egyptian ones which make it more apt to say they were developing from rather than mimicking the latter: (1) the hulls are shorter than their Egyptian counterparts, which probably makes them more sea-worthy; (2) a wicker fence is provided along the sheerstrake for protecting the deck cargo; (3) the ships do not have visible hogging trusses, indicating that they were possibly of more sound construction than the Egyptian ones and may even have a proper keel; and (4) some of the ships are provided with what appears to be an up-curved ram. This last element is observed in one of two types of ships depicted in the palace of Sennacherib, which may be interpreted as a warship. The presence of this so-called ram may also be taken as an indication of influences on Phoenician ship-building other than Egyptian (Greek?).

A possible source of information on the ship-building technique employed by the Phoenicians is the Gelidonya wreck. Found in Cape Gelidonya on the Anatolian coast, the ship is dated 1200-1300 BC based on items found in what was probably the captain’s quarters, and is probably either Syrian or Phoenician, based on the personal possessions of the crew. Timber found under the cargo showed the planks were fastened together using dowels.

The Greeks. In contrast to the Phoenicians whose main concern was in trade, the emerging Greek kingdoms of the time were primarily concerned with territorial expansion, and thus viewed sea-power as an instrument of conquest. This is consequently reflected in their ships and ship-building tradition, as indeed one of their greatest contribution to Mediterranean ship-building tradition is the development of the warship as a distinct type of watercraft from trading/merchant ships.

Information on ancient Greek warships can be found mainly from two sources: descriptions from literary texts (e.g. the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, ca. 8th century BC) and depictions on artworks such as murals and paintings on vases. From these two sources can be deduced the general characteristics of these warships: (1) they are variably long and narrow; (2) they are asymmetrical in side profile, being fitted with a ram at the stem, which is relatively low compared to the sternpost, which is high and curls over the steering position; (3) they are primarily propelled by oars, but are also fitted with loose-footed square sails; and (4) the mast is usually dismountable and set in a tabernacle above the keel.

Here, special note should be given to the ram, the introduction of which around 1000 BC (as depicted on vases from the Geometric Age) subsequently led to further developments in the design of warships. In particular, the stresses exerted by ramming on the ramming ship necessitated the whole bow area to be more heavily constructed and both the keel and hull to be further reinforced. The consequent increase in the weight of the ship, in turn, necessitated an increase in oar-power so as not to lose the tactical efficiency of ramming, without increasing the ship’s length or weight. This dilemma was solved by adding more levels, or banks, at which additional oarsmen could be placed – the birth of the triremes and polyremes, the mainstays of the Mediterranean navy up until the Byzantine Age.

Overview. At this point, an overall picture of Mediterranean ships and ship-building tradition becomes apparent. Mainly as a product of the experiences and interactions between the indigenous peoples of the area, there emerged two distinct types of watercrafts. From the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, both primarily trading peoples, came the merchant or trade ships. Almost symmetrical, their rounded hulls and sickle-shaped profiles are especially reminiscent of ancient Egyptian watercrafts, which trace their origins from reed rafts.

Warships, which later became popularly exemplified by the triremes of the Roman period, on the other hand, were mainly a contribution of the Greeks. Primarily concerned with territorial expansion, they saw the ship as a weapon with which to achieve this goal. Thus the main hallmark of Greek-inspired warships became their asymmetry, having been fitted with a ram at the stem (for attacking other ships) and an upcurving sternpost curving over the steering position such that their overall appearance mimics that of a (terrifying) sea-creature. The warships are primarily propelled with oars although they are also fitted with dismountable masts and sails.

In terms of ship-building technique, it is reasonable to say that the one used consistently is that which Herodotus likened to brick-laying, as evidenced by the accounts of Homer as well as the Dashur boats and the Gelidonya wreck. This involved putting the wooden planks in brick fashion, then joining them together at the edges with dowels and clamps, and/or by means of mortise-and-tenon joints.

Scandinavia. In stark contrast to the Mediterranean ship-building tradition is the Nordic or Scandinavian ship-building tradition found distributed in the region around the present-day countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Characterized by highly symmetrical boats/ships, later with high stem- and sternposts (e.g. Nydam boats, ca. 400 AD), boats/ships of the Nordic tradition are all clinker-built. That is, they were built shell first with the hull made of overlapping planks which were fastened to each other at the overlap using iron nails clenched on the inside over iron roves; the frames/ribs where subsequently added later and fastened to the hull/shell either by lashing them with ropes onto carved cleats on the hull planks, or by nailing them there using treenails. Moreover, the Nordic tradition did not distinguish between cargo ships and warships up until towards the Viking age (ca. 800 AD), and here not very clearly. As exemplified by the Gredstedbro boat (dated ca. 600-650 AD), here seems to appear a Nordic type of vessel where, instead of lashing the frames/ribs of the vessel onto carved cleats on the hull planks, these were notched to fit the lapped inner face of the hull and fastened onto this with treenails. Although this direct fastening of the frames/ribs onto the hull with treenails was also observed later in the Åskekarr ship (dated 8th century AD), its significance was perhaps not realized until the 1950s excavation of the Skuldelev ships in Roskilde fjord, Denmark. These were 5 ships sunk at around the 10th century AD; although they all are more or less similar in appearance, the main difference lies with 2 of the ships, Skuldelev 1 and 3, being treenailed like the Gredstedbro and Åskekarr while the other 2, Skuldelev 2 and 5, retained the traditional lashed-to-cleat fastening of frames/ribs. This was interpreted as indicating the existence at the time of two types of vessels used for different purposes. Skuldelev 1 and 3 were taken as trade vessels, the added durability of treenailing the frames/ribs to the hull being seen as more suitable for cargo carrying ships. On the other hand, Skuldelev 2 and 5 were taken as warships, the ship’s flexibility resulting from lashing the frames/ribs to the hull planks being seen as more suitable for warships, especially in consideration of the Vikings’ raiding tactics.

Conclusion. The main differences between the Nordic and Mediterranean boat and ship-building traditions can be divided into two classes, namely: structural differences, and methodological differences.

Structural differences. By structural differences we refer here to the differences in the overall appearance as well as the appearances of constituent parts of Nordic and Mediterranean boats/ships. These include the shape or form of individual vessels, their configuration, and the number and/or type of masts and sails used on them.

Shape or form. Here Mediterranean boats/ships differ from Nordic ones in that the latter do not distinguish between warships and merchant/trading vessels. Nordic ships, particularly those from the 7th century AD until the 11th century AD, are very much symmetrical. The high stem and stern posts, both curved above the sheerline, are identical such that it is hard to distinguish which is the forward part of the vessel and which is aft. This symmetry in form can be observed both among warships and merchant/trading vessels, the difference being that hull planking on cargo vessels are fastened to the ribs throughout with wooden treenails (for example, the Askekarr ship) while those on warships were still lashed on to the ribs via cleats on the inner side of the planks.

In contrast, Mediterranean warships are very distinct from Mediterranean merchant/trading vessels. Mediterranean warships, especially those from the Greek Bronze and Iron Ages (as depicted in Homeric sagas) are asymmetrical – they have upcurved sternposts curling over the steering position like some sort of canopy, and low bows with concave stems provided with a projecting foot which was later developed/used as a ramming device. Mediterranean merchant/trade vessels, on the other hand, are symmetrical like the Nordic ships but differ from these in that they are round hulled and sickle(banana?)-shaped.

Configuration. For lack of a better term, I use “configuration” here to refer to the number of layers, banks, or decks found on a ship. Here again, a substantial difference can be seen between Nordic ships and Mediterranean ships, particularly warships from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Whereas Nordic warships are so far observed to be single-banked with 15-16 oars on each side (e.g. Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune), some Mediterranean warships are known to be multiple-banked – e.g. Athenian triremes of the Hellenistic Age. That is, they are warships with three layers of rowing positions on each side. This development in the Mediterranean warships came about as a result of the desire to maximize the ship’s speed (in ramming its adversary) by adding more oarsmen without the need to increase the ship’s overall length and thus minimize the risk of hogging (breaking its back against waves).

These differences between the Mediterranean and Nordic ships and ship-building traditions can be explained by each of the respective regions’ historical experience and the purpose or use they had of their ships. In the Mediterranean, the warship is basically a late addition contributed by the Greeks. Primarily concerned with territorial expansion, these people saw the ship more as an offensive weapon with which to defeat enemies and exert dominance in the Mediterranean. It is thus logical that their warships were not only designed to look intimidating1 but were also fitted with devices for offensive purposes (e.g. the ram at the stem).

On the other hand, the opposite may be said of the Nordic region. Here it seems that the cargo or trade vessel is the late comer, appearing when the need for bigger carrying capacity came as a result of the increase in the types of items traded (no longer limited to luxury goods such as choice furs, glass, etc.), presumably around the 7th century AD. Moreover, the symmetrical properties of Nordic (Viking) warships may also be attributed to their warfare tactics. Unlike the Greeks who seem to favour offensive tactics like ramming, Viking tactics seem to focus more on raiding tactics – fast attacks on coastline settlements coupled with the capability for fast retreats when needed. Here the advantages of having the stem and stern indistinguishable from one another, is pretty obvious.

Methodological differences. Less apparent than structural differences but nonetheless important are the differences in methods employed between Nordic and Mediterranean ship-building. Mediterranean ship-building has been consistent with the use of the mortise-and-tenon technique as early as 1200-1300 BC, as shown by the Gelidonya wreck, where timber recovered from underneath the ship’s cargo demonstrated that the planking was fastened together by dowels. That is to say, the planks were “laid” side by side and fastened at the sides/edges by the dowels – much like how one fits pieces of Lego™ blocks together. In contrast, Nordic ship-building has been consistent with the use of the clinker method, where the planks overlap with each other along the sides and are joined together using roved (iron) nails.

This apparent difference in the preferred boat-building methods in Mediterranean and Nordic cultures can be attributed to the differences in each of the groups’ cultural as well as natural environment. The use of the mortise-and-tenon technique in the Mediterranean, for example, can be said as an extension or logical application of already existing knowledge. Here it is interesting to note that methods similar to the mortise-and-tenon technique were used on a large scale by nations in Mediterranean antiquity when constructing edifices such as temples – small stone ties inserted into slots cut into stone or marble blocks can be found on such sites as the Greek temple at Sounion. In fact, Herodotus himself on explaining Egyptian ship-building likened it to the process of brick-laying.

Such architectural tradition of using stone blocks are, on the other hand, lacking in the Nordic region up until quite recently. In fact, the seeming absence of megalithic structures in the region2 seem to point that the architectural tradition within Scandinavia focused mainly on the use of skin as building materials, especially among nomadic groups as exemplified by the Sami, and/or wood among more or less settled societies like those of the Vikings. Thus, it is not surprising that the Nordic tradition incorporates techniques or methods of building shelters or houses of skin and/or wood into ship-building. And here it is interesting to mention that, indeed, among the evidences supporting a skin-boat origin for Nordic vessels is the latter’s characteristic overlapping hull planks. Following Marstrander, this overlapping of planks at the edges might have been inspired by the overlapping and joining of skins by stitching on the hull of skin boats – a practice that is still in use among the Eskimo of today.


1 note the attempt to make triremes appear like ferocious sea-monsters through the stylization of the upcurved sternpost as a tail and the painting of eyes on the stem, a little after the ram.
2 with the exception of the Viking age stone boat-shaped burials.

Bass, George F. (ed.). 1972. A history of seafaring – based on underwater archaeology. Thames and Hudson.
Christensen, Arne Emil. 1982. Viking Age ships and ship-building. NAR 1982:19-28.
Johnstone, Paul. 1980. The Sea-craft of Prehistory. London and Henley.
Muckelroy, Keith. 1978. Maritime Archaeology. Cambridge University Press.

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