Sunday, May 22, 2011

Homer's Ships - Two Views

Since few of us read much academic literature, and even fewer read the literature of more than one field of interest, our views of the distant past are necessarily colored by the interpretations of experts who do. Where experts agree, and where their interpretations have been promulgated in popular literature or other media, our views may be about as accurate as those of the experts', albeit considerably less nuanced and detailed. But sometimes, even the experts' best guesses can be wrong: for example, tyrannosaurus rex used to be depicted with an upright posture, based on the consensus view of paleontologists. But with more research, that view changed, and the consensus is now for a more birdlike posture, with the torso held horizontal. The new consensus has been sufficiently popularized so that anyone under the age of 30 or so probably pictures the "new" version of the beast while, for some of us over 50, it's hard to shake the image of the upright t.rex we knew and loved in our youth.
Left: tyrannosaurus rex, Beta version
Right: the new, improved t.rex 2.0
Where the experts disagree with one another, however, we non-experts are left to choose among competing visions based on incomplete evidence. Obviously, the experts' evidence is incomplete too, or they would not be in disagreement. But at least they're disagreeing on the interpretation of the best available evidence, while we non-experts can only guess at who's right based on a fraction of the available evidence and, more likely, on which expert's argument is more persuasive to our untutored intellects.

That's why it's hard (for me, at least) to choose between two different interpretations of Greek warships of the 8th century BC, by Lionel Casson (in Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World) and Bjorn Landstrom (in The Ship: An Illustrated History). This was the period when the Iliad and the Odyssey were first written down. When Homer's epics were composed for oral recitation is a matter of dispute, however. Some believe it may have been only 50 years or so before they were committed to writing; others think it was much closer to the time of the events they describe: some 400 years earlier. In any case, we'll be looking here at the graphic evidence for the vessels from the 8th century BC. Whether that graphic evidence was an accurate depiction of the vessels of Homer's time (whenever that was), and whether Homer was accurate in his descriptions of the vessels of Odysseus's time, are both different questions.

Casson describes the aphract as a vessel with a single bank of rowers, based on painted images on pottery like the one below, labelled "Casson #1." Note the ram bow, the small platforms in the bow and stern, and especially the structure between the ram and the bow platform. This appears to be a shield for a warrior on the platform, and perhaps it is also meant to deflect spray from the rowers. The raised stern would seem to perform the same functions. Although it is obscured, there appears to be a horn-like decoration mounted atop the bow "shield." Note also the white band that runs horizontally beneath the rowers -- we'll address this detail below.
Casson #1: An aphract, a galley with a single bank of rowers, mid 8th-century BC. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Following is Landstrom's lovely illustration of a vessel very much like the aphract. (I "cleaned up" this illustration using a free-download design tool, removing extraneous and overlapping images from the picture for clarity, and knitting together two separately scanned halves into a single image. In doing so, I have made Landstrom's image somewhat less crisp and lovely, but I have not altered his interpretation. I apologize for the amateurish quality of the alterations.) 
Greek galley, from Landstrom. This dugout-based boat seems to logically interpret every feature of the aphract pictured on the pottery fragment in Casson #1 above.
Note that Landstrom's vessel, while lovely and undoubtedly fast, could not possibly be a seagoing ship. It is clearly a boat suited only for the most protected waters. But the oddest thng is that Landstrom's illustration was based on Greek originals that, though similar to the aphract pictured in Casson #1 in many respects, were apparently more substantial vessels.

See the illustration below labeled Casson #4. Casson interprets this illustration as a two-banked warship -- i.e., one with rowers on two levels. Landstrom, in contrast, insists that it is a single vessel with two lines of rowers -- i.e., two rowers per thwart, sitting side by side. A third interpretation is possible: that Casson #4 represents two vessels side by side, seen overlapping in perspective. I make this interpretation based on what clearly (to me) appears to be two bow rams. If my interpretation is correct, then I do not think that the arrangement of rowers in the two boats can be definitively interpreted. While the artist may be showing an early use of perspective (although Landstrom says that this technique was not known at this time), he is almost certainly not attempting to depict such details as rowing arrangements with literal accuracy.
Casson #2: Warship ashore; two views on the same piece of pottery.

Casson #3: Warship cruising with upper level manned

Casson #4: "two banked warship"
Casson believes that Casson #2, above represents a decked vessel, and that rowers would have sat below the deck. (Oars are not in evidence because the vessel is beached.) But while the presence of a deck seems clear, the black hull is virtually unchanged from Casson #1. Is it possible that, rather than a deck/platform, the grid of fine lines above the black hull represents rowing outriggers as shown in Landstrom's illustration?

Casson #3 represents, in Casson's view, a two-banked warship, with rowers shown on the top level only. The broad white area between the main hull and the level on which the rowers are shown would appear to represent a lower bank where more rowers might be seated -- perhaps during a sea battle, leaving the upper level free for combat, and protecting the rowers from missiles. But if we interpret the broad white band as a lower level, then what do we make of the narrow white band in Casson #1?

In Casson #5 below are two more images showing, in Casson's interpretation, the bows of two-banked galleys. Graphically, these are still very similar in most respects to Casson #1, (showing the same ram, "shield," horn ornament, and overall hull shape) but Casson interprets them as quite different vessels; biremes with semi-enclosed rowing cabins vs. open single-banked vessels.
Casson #5: Note: i) the horns mounted on the bow shield, ii) the round, "spoked" decoration on the bow shield, and iii) the apparent presence of an upper deck, i.e., two banks of oars.. 
Here, then, is Casson's interpretation of the vessels shown in Casson #3, #4, and #5:
Casson #6: reconstruction of an 8th Century BC bireme: a true warship with two banks of rowers.
Casson's and Landstrom's interpretations couldn't be more different. Landstrom's is a dugout canoe -- a simple boat not even extended vertically with the addition of washstrakes. Casson's is a full-fledged, sea-going ship, built plank-on-frame, with an upper deck consisting of a fighting platform that runs the length of the vessel amidships, and thwarts to each side of it, upon which a second bank of rowers could sit in good weather or anytime when not engaged in battle. There may be a keelson, but it is very slight, and two wales have been added for longitudinal strength. Note how the round, spoked decoration -- merely painted on in Landstrom's version -- is a large hole pierced through the otherwise solid timber bow, with actual spokes added for decoration. The horns -- actual antlers on Landstrom's dugout -- are probably fabrications on Casson's vessel meant to represent (immensely oversized) animal horns. I doubt they would be real elephant tusks, for their presence in the illustrations is too consistent while elephant tusks would, I presume, have been extremely rare in 8th century BC Greece.

The plank-built ship of Casson's interpretation is obviously more capable than Landstrom's dugout canoe of having crossed the Aegean Sea to make war on Troy. But there is a grace to Landstrom's illustration of a fast dugout that is so appealing that one hesitates to reject it entirely.


  1. I think that the "dug-out" interpretation is the correct one for the earliest vessels but either these or slightly later versions would be a little more sophisticated in that they were following the classic 5 piece canoe known from the Pacific to the Baltic. This is solid stem and stern sewn to one keel and two side planks. Boats like the Hjortspring go further and have two planks a side.

    It is a very easy method of construction and does not rely on the size of an original tree for its finished size.

    However, see the book Monoxylon II by Radomir Tichy to see how seaworthy in the mediterrabean a simple dugout could be, with a bit of finishing their craft could have looked like the Achean's.

  2. In terms of sea-worthiness it should be remembered that logboat with realtively thick sides and bottom does, when dry, possess buoyancy of material so a fair bit of water can be tolerated in board before sinking. Enthusiastic bailing could have made the difference and bailing was probably necessary in plank-sewn boats anyway. The hull of the dugout is as homogenous as a modern fibre-glass one. More dangerous might have been a problem in large logboats of water sloshing to and fro to cause a capsize, sadly we now call this the RORO effect following that ferry disaster.

  3. Bob, Checkout the book "Lords of the Sea:The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and Birth of Democracy" author John R. Hale and Illustrated by a neighbor of yours in Maine, Sam Manning

  4. Edwin:
    Is Monoxylon II by Radomir Tichy available in translation? The only references I can find appear to be in Czech.
    While it may not sink readily, Landstrom's boat would certainly swamp easily. It would take just one inconvenient wave to fill it. I would think that in choppy seas, even a skilled crew might not be able to avoid swamping, and might not be able to empty it once swamped. I'm not aware of any sea-crossings that have been done in comparable monohull dugouts -- is there info. in Tichy (or anywhere else) to the contrary?

  5. Anonymous:
    Thanks for the reference. I saw some of Sam Manning's original illustrations to Lords of the Sea pre-publication during a Xmas party at his home. But I haven't read the book. One more for the list!