Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Reefing and Tacking, Libya to Crete

Could Bronze Age sailors sail across open water from Libya to Crete during the calm summer months?  Michelle Creisher's thesis looks at this question.

The prevailing assumption appears to be that prehistoric, Mediterranean sailboats needed to make a complete counter-clockwise tour of the basin in order to return to their home.  In other words, it is assumed that early square-sail boats lacked the versatility and the sailors lacked knowledge to sail against the wind.

There's several questions that the author asks.

1.  What were the wind conditions in the Mediterranean in the second and first millennium?
2.  Were some Bronze Age vessels built for the open water?
3.  Were Bronze Age sailors capable of reefing and tacking?
4.  Is there evidence of direct trade between two points?

Summer Wind only "Wind and Waves Atlas of the Mediterranean Sea (2004)" via Ancient Ports Blog

The paper is a good read on descriptions about sailing and weather from the ancients, but is only concerned with the regular Bronze Age.  I won't cover that here, but there's several things to note about this map (assuming that the prevailing winds had already shifted to the sub-tropic)

First, if we peel the onion back several hundred more years and look at Mediterranean wind patterns, (probable) ancient ports [see also Ancient Ports] and water currents, the settlements of Beakers in the Tyrhennian sphere make more sense (or only make sense).  Remember, the first place Beakers come to our attention is within a coastal inlet.

It is also worth noting the places that are (so far) fairly light on Beaker artifacts, Corsica, Southern Italy, Eastern Sicily, and the Adriatic.  These places have the appearance of having a common denominator of unfavorability for wind-powered boats moving with purpose.

Bell Beaker artifacts in Italy (joeyc91 2015)

Like horses and wagons, there is circumstantial evidence that sailing was changing the world in the 3rd millennium, possibly much earlier.  When you look at the behavioral patterns of the Beakers and the Epi-Beaker phenomenon, then I think it is possible to make an argument that sailing may have played a part, even though right now the evidence is limited to several (well made) cleated-plankers and logboats in anaerobic environs of the Northwest.

Square-rig sailboat with oars in 3,200 B.C. Late Gerzean Period (Bowen, 1960 Antiquity)

If you were to go back in time to 3,200 B.C. you might occasionally see square-rigged boats pulling in to Dilmun or traveling around the Eastern Mediterranean.  The same may be true for the Western Mediterranean, the Western Atlantic and to the North Sea.  I thought about this while looking at the Beaker settlement concentrations in Portugal, the Bay of Biscay and Western France.  The settlements could be interpreted in light of wind, currents and depths.

Taking to the open waters has several advantages, one being that your voyage can be two weeks instead of ten months.  That's pretty important if you are a trader and you like your job.  The other aspect is security, especially if you're transporting things other people might want.  When you go out to the blue water you really don't need to worry pirates and general shenanigans of thugs, tyrants and tributes.  The sail (invented at least before 5,000 B.C.) took a rower out of the boat and put something of material value in his place.

I have 2 more posts on the ancient DNA papers of late.  Unfortunately, I will be busy for a few days and will not be responding to comments or posting during this time.

*See also - "The Navigator's Tale:  Exploring agency behind the Beaker phenomenon" VandeNoort, 2012*

*And Related: 1 "Grey waters bright with Neolithic argonauts? Maritime connections and the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition within the ‘western seaways’ of Britain, c. 5000–3500 BC"  Garrow & Sturt


Bronze Age Sailors in the Libyan Sea: Reconsidering the Capacity for Northward Voyages between Crete and North Africa, Michelle Creisher, Brandeis University, May 2015[Link]

"This thesis re-examines the factors which would have allowed for the possibility of a direct northward trade route between the North African coastal ports and Crete during the Bronze Age. The subject has been the topic of much scholarly debate over the years with various features being hailed as sticking points for any model of a two-way trade system in the Libyan Sea in the second millennium B.C. This paper offers a systematic discussion of each of the three major factors which have been purported by scholars as prohibiting northward voyages: the patterns and characteristics of the winds in the Mediterranean Sea, Bronze Age ship technology and the sailing techniques and practices of the time and finally, the physical evidence, both literary and archaeological, which supports a bi-directional theory."


  1. Something I wonder about this is if the Atlantic megalith traders operating out of Portugal by virtue of having to sail in the Atlantic developed techniques which could then be used (by them) in the Med.

  2. I wonder what's the thing on the left end of the boat - I googled around a bit and Mycenean ships had something resembling it (http://odysseus.culture.gr/java/image?foto_id=1923&size=l1)

  3. I cant speak for Bronze Age med sailors, but (stone age) Polynesians would always sail against the prevaing wind. That is to say, they waited for the right breeze sailing out, in the knowledge that the wind would eventually turn and blow them back home, if they needed.