The History of Ships: Ancient Maritime World
The ships we come across nowadays are large, sturdy and self propelled vessels which are used to transport cargo across seas and oceans. This was not the case centuries ago, and the current ship has undergone countless centuries of development to become what it is today.
In ancient marine times, people used rafts, logs of bamboo, bundles of reeds, air filled animal skins and asphalt covered baskets to traverse small water bodies. To be precise, the first boat was a simple frame of sticks lashed together and covered expertly with sewn hides. These boats could carry large and heavy loads easily. You get to know about examples of such ancient boats among the bull boats of North American plains, the kayaks of the Inuit’s and the coracks of British islanders. Yet another ancient boat was the dugout which is a log that is hollowed out and pointed at the ends. Some of these were even as long as sixty feet. Here is a brief attempt to traverse lightly over the history of ships and how they evolved to what they are now.
The Usage of Poles and Invention of Oar
Ancient marine history makes for quite an interesting study of the strength and survival instincts of humanity at large. For instance, in ancient times, the simple oar was not in use. Instead people used their hands to paddle along in their tiny boats. They moved rafts by pushing poles against the bottom of the rivers. Slowly, using creative instincts and ingenuity, man learnt to redesign the poles by flattening them and widening it at one end, and thus the paddle was designed to be used in deeper waters. Later on, it was again ingeniously transformed to become the oar-a-paddle that is fixed on the sides of boats.
Invention of Sails
The invention of the sail was the greatest turning point in maritime history. The sails replaced the action of human muscles and sail boats could embark on longer trips with heavier loads. Earlier vessels used square sails that were best suited for sailing down wind. Fore and aft sails were devised later.
Egyptians take the credit for developing advanced sailing cargo ships. These were made by lashing together and sewing small pieces of wood. These cargo ships were used to transport great columns of stone for monument building.
Phoenicians and their Contribution
History of ships is never complete without mentioning the Phoenicians. They deserve special mention since it is highly probable that they were the pioneers of the wooden sailing vessels that were to sail the high seas centuries later. The Phoenicians fashioned out galleys from the earlier dugouts with sails and oars providing power. As the galleys grew larger, according to specifications and requirements, rowers were arranged at two levels.
These were called the biremes by the Greeks and Romans. They also built triremes that are galleys with three banks of oars.
Types of Ships in Ancient Maritime History
As marine history and along with it, the history of ships unfolds; it draws images of intrigue and amazement at the expert and diligent craftsmanship of the ancient mariners. The medieval ships were clinker built, which refers to the clenching of nail -on technique used for securing planks. The clinker design was adapted from the earlier skin boats which had to be over lapped to make it water tight.
The Irish, in the medieval ages were in possession of more advanced vessels like the Irish curragh. These had wooden frames and a hide covered wicker hull; it is speculated that these ancient ships were fitted with removable masts rigged using primitive sails.
By 1000 AD, the famed Viking Long ship was permitted a travel into the Mediterranean. These ships were wider and had a more advanced mast stepping design.
By 800 AD an alternative form of the north European ship design, the hulk came into vogue. The Utrecht ship is an example of the hulk. Its planks are flush, butted end to end and tapered in order to draw up at the sides and at the bow and stern.
Improvements in Marine Vessels
Ships continued to develop as overseas trade became increasingly more important. By late 1100’s a straight stern post was added to ships to facilitate the hanging rudder. This aspect improved greatly the handling characteristics of a ship. The rudder permitted larger ships to be designed. It also allowed for ships with increasingly higher free boards to be built.
As years passed, in order to avoid risk of water damage, cargo was transported in large gallon barrels called tuns. The crew could now sleep on big leather bags on deck; the passenger space was termed “steerage” and this term is still in use today to refer to passenger accommodation of minimal facilities.
The British relied heavily on the nef, a term used for ships. At this point of time, ship design took a different turn – the first distinctive feature was the plank on frame construction. This allowed for much larger ships to be built. With more ships at sea, trade occurred from nearly all ports and there arose a need for a ship that could sail from anywhere to anywhere.
The carrack was designed and she was truly one of the tall ships. It has its origin in Genoa and sports the design of three Mediterranean vessels set to sail north through the Atlantic trade in the Bat of Biscay. The carrack was almost exclusively built of carvel, a type of construction that had its uses in both skin and frame built ships. In this design, the planks are fitted edge to edge rather than overlapping. In fact the carrack was the first to use the full skeletal design with planking framed on ribs the entire way to the keel.
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For marine history: would a galley under sail gain speed or stability on course by also rowing? I see historic images of both modes combined in operation, mostly for small galleys. Thanks in advance, C. Carrillo
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Minimalist. Far to much to be said
what is boat?
What sources as in researchers, libraries, museums, archives have a collected history on the ancient practices of shipping of livestock? Zeng He in the 15th century transported wild animals. There are, of course, much earlier records of Chinese exploration (2 BC, e.g.) I am interested in the care of the animals and the loading and unloading practices.
@Jimmy: This article might be helpful – https://www.marineinsight.com/types-of-ships/7-differences-between-a-ship-and-a-boat/
Evolution of ships flowchart.
It always frustrates me how “ancient maritime history” are so western-centric and completely ignore the oldest sailing cultures in the world: the Austronesians. Even when they do mention it, they only mention the Polynesians and ignore all the rest. Heck, even the crab-claw sail used by most sport sailing boats today are continually misidentified as “lateen” sails. They literally are the first humans to invent ships that could cross oceans. Doing it almost 1500 years before Phoenicians, and they did it in the open oceans of BOTH the Pacific and the Indian oceans, not the relatively protected waters of the Mediterranean. Austronesians colonized places as far apart as Madagascar and Easter Island before the colonial era. The technologies they invented like fore-and-aft sails, outriggers, and multhull ships are now used on almost all modern high-speed sailing and commercial/military ships. They deserve more attention.