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Ferrebeekeeper has had the same group of topics for a long time, so it is time to experiment with some new ones. Today’s topic—ancient ships—is not entirely new on this blog. We have already written about various galleys and longships (including a Greek trireme, an ancient Egyptian reconstruction, and a Viking longboat), however today we concentrate on the greatest warship of the Byzantine navy, the mighty dromon. The dromon was the mainstay of the Byzantine navy for seven centuries from the 5th century AD to the 12th century AD. The galley was based on the ancient Roman liburnian, a sort of small galley used for patrols and raids by the Roman navy. Dromons were different from liburnians in that they abandoned underwater rams (which were in declining use in the Empire) for an above-the-water spur. Additionally dromons featured a full deck, and they were rigged with lateen (triangular) sails by the age of Justinian.
The principal feature of the dromon, as with other ancient Mediterranean warships, were the banks of oars which propelled the ship in battle. Earlier dromons of the sixth century were single-banked (“monoreme”) ships with 25 oars per side, however by the ninth century it seems that dromons were being built with 2 banks of oars divided by a deck. The top bank held 25 rowers per side and the bottom could have had up to 35 which meant the ships were crewed b 120 rowing men.
Dromons were fearsomely outfitted with weapons. In addition to their sharpened spike (which was used to sheer off the oars of rival boats) they had great companies of marines—armored soldiers who boarded enemy vessels to fight their crews by hand. A grand spout on the prow was used to spray Greek fire, a sticky napalm-like flaming liquid which was extremely hard to douse (the exact nature of which has been lost to history). Large dromons had wooden castles at fore and aft from which marksmen could fire bows, crossbows, or scorpions.
Dromons were the principal craft which the Byzantines used in their many wars against barbarian invaders like the Vandals and the Rus and then against successive Muslim dynasties hellbent on taking the empire. These naval battles must have been horrifying and grand to watch. Greek fire gave the Byzantines some advantage (although it was treacherous stuff) but eventually the ships would become entangled. The marines would snatch up their shields from where they hung along the sides of the dromon and together with all the oarsmen (who were not slaves but fighters) would participate in brutal pitched battles.
This blog has featured replicas of two ancient sailing ships–the Greek trireme Olympias and the Norwegian Viking ship Dragon King Harald—however the prettiest modern replica of an ancient ship is a reconstruction of a much older vessel. The ship Min of the Desert was hand built by 4 men and 2 teenage boys in the modern Hamdi Lahma & Brothers shipyard in Rashid, Egypt (which was called Rosetta in classical times). The builders used traditional tools and original techniques to craft the Min after a sea-going Egyptian trade ship from 3500 years ago.
Archaeologists know a great deal about the boats which sailed the Nile–since they have the actual ships (which were preserved in tombs in order that Pharaohs could sail in the next world). However sea-faring ships were not preserved in the same way and only trace evidence from underwater archaeological sights survives. To build the Min, the modern shipwrights looked to river ships from tombs for technique, but they looked at ancient Egyptian art for a design. A 3,500-year-old bas relief from the pharaoh Hatshepsut ‘s funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes, provided the basic design for the Min of the Desert.
The ships pictured on the bas relief were trade ships which participated in Hatshepsut ‘s trade expedition to Punt, which took place in the ninth year of her reign (Hatshepsut was a lady pharaoh who lived in the 15th century B.C. and reigned as the fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty). From the time of the old kingdom onward, Egyptians had launched expeditions to the land of Punt, a kingdom rich in gold, frankincense, myrrh, and exotic timber. Numerous ancient Egyptian sources mention Punt (which was a trade destination for the Egyptians for over a thousand years) but none actually mention where it is—apparently everyone back then just knew. The actual location has eluded Egyptologists for 150 years. To get to Punt, ships were carried in pieces across the desert to the Red Sea port of Saww. Then the vessels sailed on the Red Sea…to where? Modern day Somalia and Arabia are the best guesses, but the issue remains in doubt.
When completed Min of the Desert measured 20 meters (66 ft) long and nearly 5 meters (16 ft) wide with a cargo capacity of about 17 tons. Held together entirely by mortise-and-tenon joints, the ship proved to be surprisingly seaworthy and fast. Sailors rowed the Min in to position to raise the sail (a labor which required substantial physical strength) and then traveled along at speeds between 5 and 9 knots. The ship handled 25 knot winds and 3 meter swells with ease. The modern sailors were surprised by the excellence of the 3500 year old ship.
Welcome to Egypt week at Ferrebeekeeper! All of this week’s posts will share an Egyptian theme. To start out Egypt week, we cast our gaze deep into the underworld beneath the Nile and the burning desert. The dark river passages beneath the world are said to be the home of the principle ancient Egyptian god of chaos, the great serpent Apep (AKA Apopis or Apophis).
According to myth, the sun god Ra carried the sun across the heavens on a mystical solar boat every day. Then every evening Ra returned from west to east via an unseen river path through the underworld. As night covered the world and the sun god struggled to return to the farthest point in the east in time for sunrise, the great serpent would appear from the dark waters to attack the boat.
Apep would try with all of his might to devour the sun in the manner than a serpent eats an egg. Some myths maintain that Apep was the sun god before Ra and wanted the sun back out of dynastic bitterness. In other sources the great demon is not ascribed with a back story and is only a huge snake who wants to eat the sun. Sources agree that Apep was not so much worshiped as “worshiped against.” Many prayers and liturgies from ancient Egypt are magical incantations to help the gods stave off attacks by the huge poisonous snake.
Ra was assisted in fighting off the nightly attack by an unlikely figure, the powerful god Set–a fratricidal maniac with the head of an unknown animal (who doubles as the god of evil and the desert). Whatever Set’s other faults might be, lack of vigilance against giant chaos serpents was not among them. In several passages from ancient literature, Set is heard to boast about his prowess and bravery in making sure the sun gets past the serpent in order to rise on time. The spirits of the devout who had passed to the next life could also help out by rowing the beautiful boat. In later Egyptian myth, the battle goddess Bastet would also assist Ra and Set in fighting the demon.
Of course despite the best intentions of the gods, Apep would occasionally get the upper hand and temporarily run off with the sun. Such (rare) days were marked by storm and overcast skies. Additionally the wily snake demon would sometimes leave the underworld and try to devour the sun as it gloriously made its way across the heavens. According to Egyptian superstition, these occasional daytime attacks were responsible for solar eclipses. Fortunately Ra and the other protectors of the sun could always rely on a reservoir of spiritual energy to drive back the snake (helping the gods defeat Apep was one of the purposes of worship in ancient Eypt). Because of the power of prayer, Apep, dreadful demon snake of the underworld, never did succeed in devouring the sun.
Last year I wrote about the world’s fastest human powered boat, the 170 oar Hellenic navy trireme Olympias, which is scheduled to visit New York’s harbor as part of the tall ship festival this summer (July, 2012). One of my friends has even been training to crew the classical warship while it is here, so we will be returning to that story soon! In the mean time, however I have been following the somewhat related story of the traditional construction of a Viking longboat in Norway.
Viking ships were up to three times as fast as the other ships of the time. They could be pulled entirely on the beach and they had flexible, clinker lined hulls which allowed them to conform to the waves in the manner of the serpents, dragons, and seabirds which were their emblems. Vikings used their superior ships to undertake prodigious feats of sailing. The Norse mariners sailed from North America in the west, to the far distant Sea of Azov beyond the Black Sea (and pretty much everywhere in between). Not only were the sea coasts of Europe, Central Asia, and North America accessible to Viking ships: because the vessels had such a shallow draft, they could operate on rivers which were regarded as non-navigable. From the 8th to the 11th centuries, Scandinavian sailors could appear almost anywhere to explore, trade, pillage, or hire out as mercenaries.
The ship being crafted today in Haugesund (Western Norway) is based on a large greatship (storskipene) of the Norwegian coastal fleet. The boat will be christened the Dragon Harald Fairhair in honor of King Harald Fairhair (c. 850 – c. 933) who welded the petty kingdoms of Norway together as a unified nation (that’s a metaphor—he used statecraft and war to assemble his kingdom rather than actual welding). In order to make the ship as realistic as possible, traditional boatwrights have pored over classical literary sources from medieval sagas, as well as analyzing drawings, carvings, and actual period boats from wrecks and burials. The project’s website describes the completed boat
At a hundred and fourteen feet of crafted oak, twenty-seven feet on the beam, displacing seventy tons, and with a thirty-two hundred square foot sail of pure silk, this magnificent ship will indeed be worthy of a king.
The Dragon Harald Fairhair will have 25 pairs of oars. It is necessary to have at least two people on each oar to row the ship efficiently. That will give a crew of at least 100 persons, yet the craft should be able to be sailed by only twelve.
When it is finished, the Dragon King Harald, will join a veritable fleet of reconstructed Viking boats (which can be seen here at vikingstoday.com). The craft should be seaworthy in summer of 2012, but its builders anticipate spending a season experimenting with rigging and sailing techniques (since there are no actual Viking sailors left to explain how to operate a working Viking longboat.
I have been working hard on a children’s book about how to construct toy vehicles out of items from the rubbish bin. Since I am getting close to finishing the 75 items required for the book, I thought I would share a few of my creations with you. I have been using things I found in the garbage can, plus wooden hobby wheels, dowels, and paint from the craft store (although I think the wheels could be cut out of cardboard, and, in a pinch, straws or chopsticks could stand in for dowels). Any feedback would be appreciated!
The book is part of the “Green and Groovy Crafts” series from Downtown Bookworks, which has already featured titles such as The Lonely Sock Club: One Sock, Tons of Cool Projects! and Boy-Made: Green & Groovy which are available at those online links and at finer bookstores around the nation. The theme of my book will be “Things that Go.” If the publishers like it, I am slated to make another one about how to create toy robots out of garbage!
The real shock of the project (other than realizing that 75 is a large number) is coming to terms with how much rubbish a household really produces. I regard myself as an environmentalist in the sense that I care deeply for the earth, its ecosystems, and the organisms that dwell there (although I feel that a great deal of the contemporary green movement is misguided in its philosophy and its ends). I don’t buy a lot of consumer goods (because they’re expensive and because many seem unnecessary). I cook rather than ordering take-out. I don’t even drive an automobile: when I go somewhere I take the train or walk. So, aside from the mixed-up-animal toys I design and produce (which are referenced in this post) I have always thought I have a fairly small ecological footprint.
Looking at all of the plastic bins, anchovy cans, milk cartons, syrup bottles, ointment jars, cups, rolls, bags, cans, bottles, and so on ad nauseum, that have showed up in my garbage certainly calls that view into question.
Anyway on to the rest of the pictures…. It has been fun to build a little society in miniature and my cat enjoyed stalking around the tiny vehicles and associated playscapes like she was Godzilla (you can see her there in a couple of the pictures). I’ll try to post some more images closer to when the book is due to come out and, naturally, I’ll tell you when that happens.