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Bronze Age Ships & Rigging

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Boating technology changed a lot in the Bronze Age. In this lesson, we'll examine Bronze-Age ships in a few different cultures, and see how boating changes impacted other changes in these societies.

Ships in the Bronze Age

Societies of the Bronze Age like bronze. You've probably guessed that. However, they also like other things, like gold and olives and wine and pottery. Not all of these were readily available. Actually, not even bronze was readily available.

Trade exploded in the Bronze Age as societies developed more frequent contact with each other, and exchanged products on greater scales than ever before. One thing that made this possible was the development of better, more efficient boats. Boating technology improved a lot in the Bronze Age and helped people become more connected than ever before. Compared to what it had been before, trading in the Bronze Age was smooth sailing.

Chinese Boating

Boating technology in the Bronze Age was different everywhere in the world, and a lot of it is still mysterious to us. Few of these societies wrote explicitly about their boats, and boat materials tend to decompose with time. So, we have to make some educated guesses.

This is the situation for boat technologies in China. We know that by the early Iron Age, Chinese emperors were employing some impressive boats for trade and warfare. But where did these technologies come from? We don't have any major shipwrecks from China's Bronze-Age Shang or Zhou Dynasties, but there is a little evidence from oracle bones, a major divination tradition of the time. While archaeologists had assumed that Chinese Bronze-Age boats were basically large canoes, Shang oracle bones suggest boats made of connected wooden planks. Some scholars think there is evidence of sails being used by 1,200 BCE, but that opinion is controversial at best.

Atlantic Europe

We get more concrete evidence of Bronze-Age ship technology from Atlantic Europe, notably the British Isles and Scandinavia. Bronze-Age people left behind thousands of rough images of boats in rock etchings, and we can identify a few kinds. Some are logboats, or dugout canoes, a basic kind of boat used for river travel since the Stone Age. Other boats, however, are plank-sewn, which means they were built with planks of wood that were stitched or sewn together with yew or animal tendons. Many boats of this era were steered with paddles, with some evidence of oared rowing.

Depiction of a boat in Scandinavian rock art
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While there's still a lot that's unclear about boating technology in this part of the world, it's obvious that boats were a big part of Bronze-Age life. As cultures started relying more on fishing and trading, they began depicting rough images of boats everywhere, and seem to have incorporated boats into many of their ceremonies. There was even a tradition that emerged of designing stone burial sites to look like boats.

Mediterranean Boats

Where we see the most dramatic change in boating technology during the Bronze Age is around the Mediterranean. Cultures around Egypt, the Levantine, and Greece, all came to rely heavily on boats for fishing, transportation, and trade, and innovations abounded.

Egyptian boat with a large steering oar
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Mediterranean vessels were built of planks joined using wooden joints. They were built hull first, with some scholars thinking that ships of this time still did not have real frames. They were often painted, and the prow or bowsprits were carved with images of birds or other animals. Most boats of this time were powered with paddles or oars, but rowing (which was more efficient) became a much more consistent practice over time, replacing paddling. This was especially true after the development of steering oars, which were attached to the hull using a strap. By the 2nd millennium BCE, the rudder was emerging to make boats even more maneuverable, replacing the steering oar. These ships were very popular, culminating in the invention of a shallow, but long oar-powered ship called the galley. This was one of the most ubiquitous ships of the ancient world because it could travel quickly, and carry a large load of trade supplies or people.

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