Homer repeatedly mentioned beaching ships. In Odysseus’ time, the ships may have been of the eikosoros-type, with two files of 10 rowers. This oared ship is the ancestor of what would later be called a ‘triaconter’ (triakontoros) with two files of 15 rowers and a length of around 20 m. Such a ship may have weighted one or two tons.
It is worth comparing this to Senegalese traditional fishing boats (“pirogues”). Most of these boats are 10 to 20 m long with a 1 to 4 m beam. They are made from a single tree-trunk (monoxyle pirogues) which is enlarged by lateral planks. Considering the rather rough Atlantic wave climate, one of the questions is how fishermen operate to land on and to leave from the beach. Pictures from Franck Boyer (Kamikazz Photo agency, Dakar) give some clues:
A nice time lapse of the hauling operation, which took around 3 hours, is shown on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXLDRCjTuBA
Rankov (2012) explains that it was possible to haul a 50-ton trireme on a slipway in a harbour with a team of 140 men, provided the slipway had the correct slope (say no more than 1:10, or 10%, or 6°) and was adequately greased. However, he considers that “it is hard to see that triremes would have been beached except from necessity”. This can be understood because the friction on the beach is higher than on a greased slipway. In addition, the beach slope depends on the its grain size (Komar, 1998): the very fine sands (or silts) found in large deltas yield a very flat slope which keeps ships far from land. Conversely, a shingle beach (e.g. Nice, France) has a steep slope that is dangerous for landing ships on.
Hence, with increasing ship sizes (and weights), beaching became unpractical, if not unfeasible, and places for safe anchorage were sought.
Greg Votruba (2017) provided convincing argumentation that cargo ships did not habitually beach and concluded that “from the Classical period at the latest, the standard practice was to remain afloat at anchor”.
From our Catalogue, we know that for around 5500 ancient coastal settlements, ports and harbours, we have around 650 ports (only 12%) with some kind of ancient port structure such as breakwaters and quays.
Only three options were therefore available for loading and unloading ships outside of a port with heavy infrastructures:
- Stay offshore at anchor and load/unload by means of small barges, as mentioned by Strabo for Ostia (Geography, 5, 3, 5), by Pliny the Elder for Muziris (Natural History, 6, 26, 10) and by Isidore of Seville (Etymologiae, 19, 1, 19). This option may also have been chosen at Ashkelon (Galili, 2021).
- Draft-beach and load/unload by means of labourers wadding between the beach and the ship, as shown on a famous mosaic found at Sousse (Tunisia).
The mosaic above shows a draft-beached ship, i.e. resting gently on the sea bed at its bow, with its stern still afloat. This is the closest to the beach a ship can get without getting stuck (in a place without any tide). A very similar operation is performed by Senegalese fishermen unloading their ship before hauling it on the beach.
3. Moor at some kind of timber jetty built on the coastline, as shown on the famous Stabiae fresco.
Ancient timber piled jetties have been built in many places, but few remains have been found. Recent archaeological excavations at Yenikapi (Istanbul) have uncovered a large piled timber jetty with three rows of piles. A similar timber piled jetty with three rows of large piles was also found in Marseille in front of the dolia dock and in Bordeaux. Outside such large ports, much smaller timber jetties must have been built in many places.
BOUSSO, T., (1994), “Typologie des engins et techniques de pêche artisanale utilisés au Sine Saloum (Sénégal)”, Mémoire de confirmation, Doc Scientifique N° 141, Centre de Recherches Océanographiques de Dakar-Thiaroye, (114 p).
GALILI, E., et al., 2021, “The First Marine Structures Reported from Roman/Byzantine Ashkelon, Israel: do they solve the enigma of the city’s harbour?”, in “Under the Mediterranean I”, Honor Frost Foundation, edt. Stella Demesticha & Lucy Blue, Sidestone Press, Leiden, (p 195-204).
KOMAR, P., 1998, Beach processes and sedimentation, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall.
LALOË, F. & SAMBA, A., (1990), “La pêche artisanale au Sénégal : Ressource et stratégies de pêche”, Collection Etudes et Thèses, ORSTOM, Paris, (397 p).
RANKOV, B. (2012) « Trireme Olympias, the final report », Oxbow Books, (243 p).
VOTRUBA, G., (2017), “Did Vessels Beach in the Ancient Mediterranean? An assessment of the textual and visual evidence”, The Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 103:1, (p 7-29).