Shipboard Life



Food & Accommodation Aboard ancient merchant ships

[…] ancient shipwrecks

Personal Hygiene Aboard

Underwater archaeologists have found a number of objects in ancient shipwrecks that could tell us something about personal hygiene aboard. While excavating the 13th century BCE Uluburun shipwreck, archaeologists came across a razor that most likely belonged to one of the crew members or passengers had travelled aboard the ship.

Finds dating to later periods could indicate the presence of bathroom type rooms on ships. A bathtub was recovered from a Hellenistic wreck at la Ciotat, on the southeast coast of France. It is 0.90m long at its base, 0.45 m tall and 0. 26m deep. This type of bathtub served for washing and is known in Greece since the 15th century BCE. Unfortunately, we cannot say if it was used aboard or was part of the cargo. The fact that there was only one may indicate that it was used aboard.

Louteria have been found on a number of ancient shipwrecks dating from the archaic period onwards. The word louterion refers mainly to a basin on a high stand used in religious ceremonies as well as for personnel hygiene. Stone louteria have been found at the entrance to sanctuaries or near altars and must have certainly play a role in religious life. A large number has also been found in houses and public buildings. We can deduce from this that the ancient Greeks use louteria for both personnel and hygiene and for religious purposes.

Gerard Kapitän studied a number of louteria which were found on the seabed and concluded that the sailors used them for religious ceremonies aboard ship. I believe, however, that sailors may have also used them for personal hygiene during sea crossings (see chapter 3.5). The louteria that archaeologists find in shipwrecks are usually in clay, stone, or marble and usually either one-piece or two-piece. Some have holes in the base that allowed it to be fixed to a vertical surface with nails. The two-piece louteria probably had the advantage of being able to be dismantled and stored when not in use.

Louteria or fragments of louteria of Greek origin have been found on shipwrecks or on the seabed dating from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE, notably at cap d’Agde in France, in the Balearic Islands, Italy, at Hvar in Croatia, at Kyrenia of Cyprus, and in the waters off Bodrum in Turkey. A clay louterion was found 100 metres from the coast at Cape Ali, near Messinia in the 1950s by divers from Taormina. It is 46 cm in height 36.5 cm in diameter and resembles louteria from tombs in a 6th or 5th century BCE Greek cemetery at Giglio. Another louterion was discovered in the port of Syracuse. It is also of clay and is 34 cm in height. There are ten holes in its base, most likely for the nails that would have held it in position against a surface.

It is of particular interest that only one louterion was found in each shipwreck. This fact would seem to indicate that it was not part of a cargo but rather meant for use aboard ship. Perhaps not all merchant ships had louteria and in that case the crews of those ships would have used buckets or other receptacles. Part of a bronze bucket was discovered in the archaic shipwreck at Giglio in Italy, the classical shipwreck at Alonissos in Greece and in the classical shipwreck at Tektaș Burnu in Turkey.

Louteria were also used for religious purposes.

Religion Aboard

Religion played a major role in the lives of the ancient Greeks both on land and at sea. Ancient mariners worshipped a number of divinities, including Aphrodite, Artemis, Dionysus, Dioscuri, Hera, Hermes, Zeus, and of course Poseidon. There is also evidence that they performed religious ceremonies aboard their ships. In fact, the gods played such an important role for sailors that ancient ships were often named after them. These divine names sometimes appeared on the sides of the stern or the bow of the ship and were intended to protect and guide the vessel and its crew. A number of artefacts having a religious purpose or connotation, including altars, louteria, pendants, ophthalmoi, and statuettes, have been recovered from ancient merchant shipwrecks. Anchors bearing symbols of a religious connotation have been discovered on or near the site of ancient shipwrecks. Among these symbols we find astragals, seashells and dolphins that were most likely intended to protect the ship and which express the hope for a safe and successful crossing. For more on the topic see Iriwn, D., Religion Aboard Ancient Merchant Ships, Journal of Hellenic Religion, Vol. 6, 1-18.

Sailing in Arms

Sailing in ancient times was probably quite dangerous at times. Apart from the obvious risk of shipwreck sailors and passenger would have feared attacks by pirates or others so would most likely have been armed. Weapons, or fragments of a variety of weapons have been recovered from a number of Greek, Punic and Roman shipwrecks excavated around the Mediterranean. These include offensive weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, arrow heads as well as projectiles such as slingshots. Archaeologist working on the 14th century BCE shipwreck at Uluburun on the coast of Turkey discovered a selection of weapons including swords, axes, daggers and spearheads. Two of the swords measured approximately 50 cm and were of the type used by Mycenaean’s in the Late Bronze Age. One sword was most likely made in Sicily or in the South of Italy and another was Canaanite. Two daggers and two double-edged axes were also recovered from the site. These were also common to the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age. There seems to be a general consensus that these arms had belonged to dignitaries who were travelling aboard, but we should not exclude the possibility that they belonged to a mixed crew. Two knives and several spearheads were also found in the Late Bronze Age shipwreck situated at Gelidonya near Finike in Southern Turkey.

We also have a few examples of weapons found in shipwrecks dating to the Archaic period. A single spearhead was recovered from the 6th century Bon Porté shipwreck located near Saint-Tropez in the south of France (source). There were at least thirty bronze arrow heads in an archaic shipwreck discovered off the island of Giglio situated on the coast of Tuscany. Lead slingshots were recovered from the classical shipwreck at El Sec near Palma de Mallorca, Majorca, in the Balearic Islands. Among the many interesting details revealed by the well-known 4th century Kyrenia shipwreck was a number of spearheads embedded in the wood of its hull. These are most likely the remnants of combat between attackers and the crew. Roman shipwrecks have also provided us with evidence that weapons were carried aboard ship. Archaeologists found an iron blade from a sword or dagger in the 3rd century wreck discovered in Vulpuglia off the coast of Syracuse. Two knives, an axe, and a spearhead were also recovered form the La Chrétienne C shipwreck off the coast of Fréjus in the South of France, and an iron dagger was found in the 2nd century Greco-Italic wreck at Punta Scaletta.

Since offensive weapons have been discovered in ancient shipwrecks, we would naturally expect to also find defensive armour, and that is in fact the case. A Corinthian helmet, dating to around 550 BCE, was found in an archaic shipwreck which lays near the island of Giglio off the coast of Tuscany. This helmet was not the only one on the ship when it sunk. In fact, archaeologists also found the nose of another similar helmet in the wreck and believe that others may have been pilfered by treasure hunters. Roman wrecks certainly provide evidence of armour being taken aboard merchant ships. In fact, fragments of helmets have been found in several Roman shipwrecks. The Spargi wreck, which sunk sometime in the 2nd century BCE, actually contained a helmet in which was found the remains of a human skull. This discovery is of great interest because human remains are, for obvious reasons, rarely found in shipwrecks. A human tibia and two human humerai, however, were recovered from the Vulpiglia wreck. Fragments of a helmet were also recovered from the 1st century Roman merchantman, and a piece of a bronze helmet was found in the Dramont A wreck from the same period, sunk off l’île d’Or in the South of France. We will never be able to know what happened to the people who were carrying these weapons, nor will we ever be able to determine who they were. These finds do, however, provide us with evidence to suggest that it was common for seafarers and their passengers to carry offensive weapons and armour aboard ship.

Free-time Aboard

As today, passengers and crew would have done what they could to keep themselves busy or entertained during a crossing. It would have been an opportunity for some to meet new people and chat and even get news of distant lands. It was also an opportunity for merchants to discuss business. There is also very good reason to believe that some passengers read or wrote while travelling on merchant ships. In Aristophanes’ Frogs, a character named Dionysus tells Heracles that he was on he crew of a warship and that he read Andromedes during a sea crossing. In later times, Ovide composed Tristia during a sea crossing. It doesn’t seem uncommon them for people to bring along reading material and for writers to write while at sea.

Some ancient writers mention the presence of musicians aboard ships and underwater archaeology has allowed to confirm the use of musical instruments on merchant ships. The Uluburun and the later Giglio wreck both revealed musical instruments (see ch. 1.8), which would seem to point to there being musicians aboard. If we consider that travelling musicians embarked on merchant ships we have to allow for the possibility that they could have performed, and of course, it is also possible that amateur musicians brought their instrument along with them to pass away the hours when travelling.

It also seems that people played games during se crossings. In fact, we know that board games were very popular in ancient Greece, and we come across descriptions of games in several ancient texts. It seems that one of the most popular games resembled something like our game of drafts or backgammon and was played with pieces (πετεία) and dice (κὔβεία). In one of the first verses of The Odyssey, we see the Penelope’s suitors playing a similar game in Odysseus’ court. Later, it is mentioned by Aristotle when he compares a man who lives outside the city to an isolated pawn.

Knucklebones (Astragales)

The Greeks, like the Romans, played the game of knucklebones for entertainment, but they also used the knucklebones for the more spiritual purpose of divination. Knucklebones have been found on at least four ancient shipwrecks dating from the 12th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE. George Bass believes that the knucklebone from the Cape Gelidonya wreck in Turkey was used of gaming and not the remains of livestock or meat. Archaeologist found four astragaloi in the archaic shipwreck at Giglio in Toscane, Italy. Two knucklebones were found in the classical shipwreck at Textaș Burnu, and two on the Hellenistic shipwreck at Serçe Limani. It would seem from this evidence that sea traders or passengers brought knucklebones along with them on sea crossings and that they most likely used them to play games.

Ancient History Timeline (approx.)

3300 BCE Early Bronze Age

2000 BCE Middle Bronze Age

1600 BCE Late Bronze Age

1200 BCE Iron Age

800 BCE Archaic Greece

550 BCE Classical Greece

509 BCE Roman Republic

323 BCE Hellenistic Period

27 BCE Roman Empire

284 CE Late Antiquity

476 CE Fall of the Roma Empire

5th C. CE Early Middle Ages begins

4th c. BCE Mazotos shipwreck. ARU, Photo University of Cyprus

4th c. BCE Mazotos shipwreck. ARU, Photo University of Cyprus

Diving on shipwrecks in ancient times

Diving on shipwrecks goes back further than you might expect. Herodotus tells us that around 500 BCE, the Greek sculptor Scyllias and his daughter Cyana were employed as salvage divers for the Persian king Xerxes. In ancient Roman times urinatores dived on shipwrecks to attempt to salvage goods. Salvaging wrecks became very organised in Roman times and fees were regulated. In shallow water where the urinatores could stand, the share was only one-tenth the value of the goods. From 3.6 to 7.6 metres, the share was one-third and in depths of over 7.6 metres the salvor’s share was one-half of all goods recovered. (The name urinatores may come from the fact that the divers urinated a lot due to pressure under water).

Modern Greek stamp showing Alexander the Great diving

Modern Greek stamp showing Alexander the Great diving

close-up of restored hull of Ma'agan Mikhael classical shipwreck, Hecht Museum

close-up of restored hull of Ma'agan Mikhael classical shipwreck, Hecht Museum

Reconstruction of the 4th c. BCE Kyrenia ship, Thalassa Museum, Ayia Napa, Cyprus

Reconstruction of the 4th c. BCE Kyrenia ship, Thalassa Museum, Ayia Napa, Cyprus

Joni Wreck, Albania photo: RPMN/ACMR

Joni Wreck, Albania photo: RPMN/ACMR

SCUBA (or Aqua-Lung)

Did you know that SCUBA (self contained underwater breathing system) was first used on a shipwreck site by Jacques Cousteau and Fernand Benoit when they investigated the 3rd c. BCE shipwreck at Grand Congloué between1951 and 1957.

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