Shipboard Life

Shipboard Life

A merchant ship is not only a machine designed to serve as a means of transport, it is also a community, with its own hierarchy, customs, and conventions. 

Black-figured kylix from Athens, 520-500 BCE. British Museum

These pages aim to bring together as much information as possible related to life aboard ancient merchant ships, including conditions aboard and the daily activities of sailors, merchants, and passengers who sailed aboard them. As the ancient sailors navigated the seas, exchanged with other cultures, spread ideas and created wealth, we hope that your navigation through these pages will be an enriching one.

The civilisation of the Ancient Greeks was one of the most sophisticated in the world and is today one of the most popular study choices for students of history and archaeology. Much is known not only about the achievements of the Ancient Greeks but also about daily life in their city-states and colony settlements around the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. Among their many achievements was the development of a great shipbuilding tradition, which led to the production of efficient warships and well-built, seaworthy, merchant vessels. The might of the Athenian navy and the availability of a large number of merchant ships contributed in large part to Greek political, economic and cultural domination of the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions during the Classical and Hellenistic periods. But centuries before the creation of the first Athenian navy fleet and 'organised' sea trade, and perhaps as far back as Minoan times, merchant ships had already been plying the Mediterranean Sea transporting food produce and manufactured goods. Unfortunately,  very little information has come down to us about what it was actually like to sail aboard an ancient merchantman, and even less is known about the seafarers who forged a living aboard these ships. Up until very recently, historians interested in shipboard life in the ancient Greek world had little choice but to rely on a limited number of ancient texts that deal with sea voyages. However, with the recent and rapid development of underwater archaeology and all the technical advances that accompany and contribute to it, we now have the privilege of being able to excavate shipwrecks and thus learn much more about the ships that sailed in ancient times. These investigations sometimes lead to outreach programmes involving museum exhibitions displaying part of the ship’s cargo and everyday objects that were used by ancient sailors. 

In recent years archaeologists have surveyed and excavated a number of ancient shipwrecks dating to as early as the Bronze Age. Some of the artefacts discovered in these wrecks have helped us in our attempt to learn about shipboard life in ancient times. Artefacts found in the 14th century BCE shipwreck at Uluburun indicated that the ship was likely sailing from the Levant to Greece with Mycenaean and Syro-Cannanite merchants and sailors aboard. Although, excavators concluded that the ship's home port was north of the Carmel coast, this cannot be conclusive and it may just as well have left from a port in Greece. Organic remains of almonds, pine nuts, fig seeds, grape pips and pomegranate seeds, as well as olives and charred barley and wheat probably represented the ship's stores and thus the crew's diet. Fishing tackle from the wreck indicates that the crew most likely fished during the voyage in order to supplement their diets. The presence of knucklebones suggest that the crew, or passengers, may have played board games in their free-time or practised divination. Gold, silver and jewellery discovered among the artefacts in the wreck could mean that 'wealthy' people were sailing aboard. The swords and daggers found in the wreck are a testament to the need to protect oneself and one's cargo from pirates. 

Two Mycenaean swords indicate that there may have been 'Greeks' aboard the Uluburun ship.

On some occasions, excavations lead to the construction of replicas for use in experimental archaeology and so that the public can view them and learn about ancient shipbuilding, ancient sea trade and the lives of ancient mariners. 

In the 1960s a Greek-Cypriot diver discovered an ancient shipwreck off the town of Kyrenia in northern Cyprus. The shipwreck was later excavated by a team of divers and archaeologists led by Michael Katzev.

Certain artefacts recovered from the wreck provide information on life aboard the ship. Four wooden spoons, four oil jugs, four salt dishes and four drinking cups recovered from the shipwreck suggest that her crew on her last voyage consisted of four seamen.  A large casserole pot and a bronze cauldron indicate that the sailors cooked during their voyage. Arrowheads found stuck in the remains of the ship's hull suggest that it may have been attacked by pirates before being scuttled.

Remains of the hull allowed archaeologists and boat builders to construct a replica of the boat. Launched in Piraeus on June 22, 1985, the Kyrenia II sailed to Cyprus and back as part of an experimental voyage, which allowed experts to get an idea of what conditions may have been like aboard a small ancient merchantman of the 4th century BC and provided them with the opportunity to judge the seaworthiness of such ships.  

The Kyrenia II, an experimental voyage

The number of sailors needed to crew a merchant ship obviously depended on the size of the vessel. Smaller ships of 10 or 20 tons were most likely manned by small crews of four or five, as was likely the case of the Kyrenia ship. Textual evidence from the Classical period onwards attests to large crews of up to twenty or thirty men. Some texts also mention the different positions and roles of the men aboard and indicate that a hierarchy existed aboard merchantmen.

Both archaeological and textual evidence suggests that the crew of merchant ships was often a mixed one consisting of sailors of different origins. Artefacts from the Uluburun shipwreck indicate that people of different origin were sailing on her. Written sources from the Classical period onwards also seem to suggest that it was common for merchant ships to be manned by a mixed crew of 'Greeks' and foreigners. Some of these texts provide us with name, origin and sometimes status of the some of the people aboard.  

Likewise, we can say that passengers of diverse origins and backgrounds embarked aboard merchant ships in ancient times, including statesmen, dignitaries, military men, merchants, physicians, musicians and poets, farmers, and slaves. Women also travelled aboard merchantmen in ancient times. Some of the more well-known Ancients to have travelled aboard merchantmen were Solon, Demosthenes, Hippocrates, Herodotus, Themistocles, Alcibiades, and later St. Paul. The number of passengers also depended on the size of the vessel. Again, written sources from the Classical period and later mention merchantmen transporting two to three hundred passengers.

 
 
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There is very little information available about accommodation aboard the earliest merchant ships but we can deduce that living space and sleeping conditions were most likely very basic. Although earlier boats may have had some form of small cabins there is no real evidence for this until the Classical period and they are not mentioned directly in written sources until Roman times. If we are to believe Atheneaus, the naukleros of the 3rd-century-BCE Syracusia had his own private cabin (σκηνή, or δίαιτα) on the giant grain carrier. There were other cabins on the ship for certain members of the crew and for some passengers. Other written sources from the Roman imperial times also refer to cabins on merchant ships. It is likely that the ship cabins were reserved for the captain and/or social elite traveling aboard while the crew and other passengers camped out on the deck. Very early depictions of boats from Thera, Tiryns and elsewhere in Greece seem to show some sort of cabin or deckhouse but many historians and archeologists believe that cabins didn't appear until Roman times. In fact, this area has not yet been studied in enough depth and more research needs to be carried out. Unfortunately there is little chance of us finding a cabin intact on a shipwreck as this structure is often one of the first to be broken up after sinking.

 
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There are no specific records of what provisions were taken aboard a merchant ship and what people ate at sea. However, thanks to writers like Homer, Hippocrates, Atheneaus, and others we know a lot about the diet and eating habits of the ancient Greeks. We can imagine that some types of food eaten on land would have been brought to sea as provisions and thanks to recent archaeological data obtained from shipwrecks we can attempt to get an idea of what was eaten aboard ship. Drinking water was, of course, essential and this was often stored aboard ship in large pithoi and some of the larger ships had their own built-in storage tanks. As for food, ancient texts provide us with some information. In The Odyssey (2.285-290), the goddess Athena ordered Telemachus to prepare and load his ship with provisions before he left in search of his father. She told him to seal everything in ‘containers’; ‘the wine in jars, the barley-meal, that gives men strength, in strong skins’. In Knights (625-8), Aristophanes has his Athenian knights, load transport ships with wine and vegetables including onions and garlic. Plato (Rep., 372c) informs us of the importance ὂψον. And, Pliny the Elder (N.H.,19.41.6) tells us that sea kale was consumed during long voyages by sea.  Organic remains from shipwrecks has also helped archaeologists learn about the diet of ancient sailors. Foods remains from a number of wrecks across the Mediterranean, including grains, fruit seeds, animal bones, fish bones, etc., suggest that ships' crews ate a variety of food stuffs while at sea and may very well have also cooked and even baked bread aboard ship.   

 
 
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Embarking on an open sea voyage aboard a merchant ship involved a number of serious risks. Crew and passengers of an ancient merchantman would have had to deal with such dangers as rough seas, storms, and collisions in situations of low visibility. Navigation would have been particularly difficult in some coastal areas. Certain capes were, and still are, particularly difficult to round due to contrary winds and strong currents. Surface reefs in some zones were a real danger and sailors would have been particularly careful to avoid them. Technical problems could also arise during a trip. In rough weather, a ship’s sail could tear, its rudder or mast could break or the ship could take on water putting it and its crew in serious danger. In case of physical injury to an individual aboard, the patient would have had to depend on rudimentary first-aid from his fellow travellers or crew and hope for the best until he arrived at a port where perhaps medical assistance was available (unless of course there was a physician aboard). Certain coastal regions were also infested with pirates and crew and passengers were at risk of being attacked, and sold in to slavery or killed. Another, perhaps lesser-known, risk was that of being swindled or even killed by a fellow merchant. A number of ancient texts mention these dangers.

 
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Religion aboard ancient merchant ships is a complex subject, which had long been neglected. However, recent studies on the topic tend to show that religion was an importance aspect of shipboard life. Ancient mariners worshipped a number of divinities, including Aphrodite, Artemis, Dionysus, Dioscuri, Hera, Hermes, Zeus, and of course Poseidon. There is also evidence that they performed religious ceremonies aboard their ships. In fact, the gods played such an important role for sailors that ancient ships were often named after them. These divine names sometimes appeared on the sides of the stern or the bow of the ship and were intended to protect and guide the vessel and its crew. A number of artefacts having a religious purpose or connotation, including altars, louteria, pendants, ophthalmoi, and statuettes,have been recovered from ancient merchant shipwrecks. Anchors bearing symbols of a religious connotation have been discovered on or near the site of ancient shipwrecks. Among these symbols we find astragals, seashells and dolphins that were most likely intended to protect the ship and which express the hope for a safe and successful crossing. For more on the topic see Iriwn, D., Religion Aboard Ancient Merchant Ships, Journal of Hellenic Religion, Vol. 6, 1-18.

 
 
 
 
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 It is difficult to know exactly what people did in their free time during a sea crossing. Naturally, we can imagine that passengers and crew may have taken the opportunity to socialise, to tell stories and to share information. Travellers would have shared news of different regions where they travelled and merchants may have shared business news and business ideas. Thankfully, there is archaeological and written evidence available to help us get an idea about how people spent time aboard merchantmen. From this we know that merchants conducted business aboard and even amended or wrote contracts in some cases. Cooking utensils and food remains also prove that people prepared meals during their voyage. Meal times would have presented the perfect opportunity for socialising. There is also evidence that, to pass the long hours aboard, people may have played board games such as the popular knucklebones game, read, played music and even written (Ovid may have composed Tristia during a sea crossing). Some ancient writers mention the presence of musicians aboard ships and finds from shipwrecks confirm the use of musical instruments on merchant ships (the Uluburun and the later Giglio wreck both revealed musical instruments).

 

 

 
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Dr. Derek Irwin (Ireland) is a specialist in Classical shipboard life. He has participated in the excavations of several shipwrecks around the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea, lectured at a number of underwater archaeology field schools, and has written about various themes related to shipboard life.
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