Merchant Ships

Surprisingly, the oldest pictures of ships are found in Scandinavia as stone carvings and paintings (Alta and over 300 other places in Norway, Sweden and Finland)[10]. Although dating petroglyphs is difficult, the Norwegian pictures are as old as 5000 BC, and perhaps even 8000 BC at Efjorden.

Petroglyph featuring Neolithic fishermen
(Alta, Hjemmeluft, Bergbukten3A, Norway, ca 4000 BC).

Egyptian rulers have been sailing during the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3300-2100 BC), i.a. Pharaoh Khufu-Cheops importing stones from the Sinaï (ca. 2570 BC), Sneferu (ca. 2575 BC), Sahure (ca. 2450 BC) and Sesostris I (ca. 1950 BC) sending ships to Byblos for wood and to Puntland for exotic goods[11]. In the Gulf, Mesopotanians were sailing to the Indus valley and to East Africa, via Dilmun (Bahrein) and Magan (Oman)[12].

One of the oldest pictures of a ship (Egyptian Protodynastic, 3200 BC acc. to P. Tallet, 2012[13]).

Similar petroglyphs are found in the Egyptian Eastern Desert (Lankester, 2012) and other examples are shown on vases of the same Gerzean period (e.g. British Museum N° 35324, 35502 & 36326) and on the handle of the so-called Gebel el-Arak knife.

Minoans from Crete were probably the first “professional” merchant seafarers sailing internationally in the Mediterranean area. This spanned, in round figures, the period between 2000 BC and 1500 BC.

Egyptians developed river and sea ships for 2000 years during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC[14]. Around 1450 BC, Queen Hatshepsut sent a fleet on the Red Sea from Myos Hormos (Quseir) to the Land of Punt to bring back exotic goods. This was even possibly achieved 500 years earlier from Marsa Gawasis.

Hatshepsut’s fleet sailing back from Puntland (ca. 1450 BC), relief found in Deir el-Bahari temple.

Later on, Ramesses II won a famous battle against the Sea Peoples ca. 1278 BC and provided shipbuilding assistance to the Hittites in ca. 1259 BC (Tablet KUB III 82 found at Boghazkoy/Hattusa[15] [16]). Ramesses III’s war ships are shown on the Medinet Habou relief (ca. 1180 BC) where it can be noted that the lower yard has been removed so that the sail has a lose foot[17]. This development can perhaps be seen as opening the way to the lateen sail concept that will emerge around 1400 years later.

After this, Egyptian and Mycenaean seafarers seem to vanish from the scene while Phoenician seafarers appear. Between 1200 and 600 BC, Phoenicians were involved mainly in (fairly) peaceful maritime trade, sailing all over the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, but very few written or iconographic documents of this period came down to us[18]. In this period, the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II sent an expedition to circumnavigate Africa (ca. 600 BC).

Sargon II’s Palace relief showing log transport (ca. 715 BC), found at Dur Sharrukin (Khorsabad in Iraq).

This period was followed by the beter known “Greek Classical Period” (500-323 BC), the “Hellenistic Period” (323-31 BC) and the Roman period[19].

Early large Greek merchant ships of the Kerkouros type with combined rowing and sailing capacity seem to have been in use between 500 BC and 100 BC[20]. They could carry an average of 250 tons of cargo, up to 500 tons. Their average dimensions may have been 21 x 3 m, with 1:7 beam over length ratio, up to 50 x 7 m for the larger ones.

Kerkouros relief, 1st c. AD, possibly a bireme (7 oars below & 6 oars on top) with cargo near the stern, behind the gubernator (source: Antike Denkmäler, Band III, Tafel 31A, DAI, 1926, now in Torlonia Mus.).

It may be noted also that Kerkouros ships usually docked stern first, while later ships also docked bow first as shown on the Torlonia relief. Alongside docking was required if heavy cargo (live animals, barrels) was to be lifted by cranes.

Later ships were more bulky and had no significant rowing capacity anymore, like the Roman Corbita type with 1:4 beam over length ratio. Exceptional ships like the Isis, 55 x 14 m, could carry 1200 tons with around 4.5 m draught, but normal ships ranged between 20 and 50 m for 100 to 500 tons of cargo with up to 3.5 m draught. Both concave bows (sharp bulbous bow, also called ‘cutwater’) and convex (rounded) bows were in use (see Foro delle Corporazioni at Ostia mosaïc below). The stern was quite high as these ships could easily be overtaken by waves travelling at 10 to 20 knots during a storm.

Roman ship showing stowed amphoras, after the Madrague de Giens shipwreck, dated 75 to 60 BC, estimated dimensions 40 x 9 m and 3.5 m draught for 375 ton of cargo (by Jean-Marie Gassend, 2005).

Large merchant ship from a graffito in Pompei (source: M. Langner, 2001, “Antike Graffitizeichnungen”).

Most of our knowledge is taken from shipwrecks that tell us about the ships and about their content. The port(s) of origin can often be guessed from the content of the ship, but the port of destination is usually more difficult to identify. It may be said that large ships (and a few smaller ones) were sailing on the long haul between major hubs, but that local redistribution was conducted by small ships only[21]. See “Maritime trade” for more on this subject.

Many web sites provide further information, e.g. Navis, Navistory, Navigation dans l’Antiquité.


[10] GJERDE, J.M., 2019, “An overview of Stone Age rock art in northernmost Europe – what, where and when?”, in Rock Art of the White Sea, Cambridge, (p 204-224), and
GJERDE, J.M., 2019, “Alta (Norway), Rock Art of”, in Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, C. Smith (ed.), (10 p).

[11] MARCUS, E., 2002, “Early Seafaring and Maritime Activity in the southern Levant from Prehistory through the Third Millenium BCE”, in van den Brink & Levy eds, Egypt and the Levant, interrelations from the 4th through the Early 3rd millenium BCE, New approaches to Anthropological Archaeology, (p 403-417).
See also Wikipedia:

[12] POTTS, D., 2016, “Cultural, economic and political relations between Mesopotamia, the Gulf region and India before Alexander”, in Megasthenes and His Time, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, (p 109-118).

[13] TALLET, P. & LAISNEY, D., (2012), “Iry-Hor et Narmer au Sud-Sinaï (Ouadi ‘Ameyra) – Un complément à la chronologie des expéditions minières égyptiennes”, Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, Tome 112, Le Caire, 2012, (p 381-398).

[14] POMEY, P., (2015), « Navires et construction navale dans l’Égypte ancienne », in Entre Nil et mers, la navigation en Egypte ancienne », edt B. Argémi & P. Tallet, Actes des rencontres de Provence Égyptologie, Musée Départemental Arles Antique, le 12 avril 2014.

[15] POMEY, P., (2006), « Le rôle du dessin dans la conception des navires antiques. À propos de deux textes akkadiens », in L’Apport de l’Égypte à l’histoire des techniques. Edt B. Mathieu, D. Meeks, M. Wissa, Méthodes, chronnologie et comparaisons, BdE 142, Cairo.
See also discussion Pomey, 2009 and Bash, 2009.

[16] EMANUEL, J., (2014), « Sea Peoples, Egypt, and the Aegean: The Transference of Maritime Technology in the Late Bronze–Early Iron Transition (LH III B–C) », Aegean Studies, No. 1, 2014, (p 21-56), online publication December 1, 2014.

[17] See note above

[18] VAN ALFEN, P., (2015), « Phoenician Trade: An Overview », Working Paper v.31.3.2015.

[19] For a superb overview of the Roman history, have a look at: Badel, C. & Inglebert, H., 2014, “Grand Atlas de l’Antiquité romaine – Construction, apogée et fin d’un empire”, éd. Autrement, Paris, (191 p).

[20] ARNAUD, P., 2012, “La mer, vecteur des mobilités grecques”, in “Mobilités grecques”, Capdetrey & Zurbach (edt.), Scripta Antiqua 46, Ausonius, Bordeaux, (p 89-135).

[21] BOETTO, G., (2012), “Les épaves comme sources pour l’étude de la navigation et des routes commerciales: une approche méthodologique”, in: Rome, Portus and the Mediterranean, edt. S. Keay, British School at Rome, Oxbow Books.