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Rope and the Art of Knot-Tying in the Seafaring of the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean.

William Charlton
Thesis: August 1996
Chair: Bass
Nautical Archaeology Program


Fibers woven into cords or ropes and tied together with knots form one of mankind's earliest tools. When he first went out onto the water on anything more sophisticated than a simple paddle-driven dugout canoe he had to have done so with the assistance of some type of cordage. He may have needed a line tied around a stone that would serve as an anchor, a line to retrieve his fishing spear, and a line to moor his craft on the beach. And soon he would need lines to hold a mast erect so he could raise a sail. In fact, no waterborne vessel, in ancient times, as today, could function without rope.

As ships got larger and more complicated, the requirement for many different types and sizes of cordage became increasingly important. Depictions of seagoing vessels from the ancient eastern Mediterranean--Eqyptian, Greek, Phoenician, or Roman--give some idea of the great quantities od cordage that would have been required to keep these ships at sea. Yet, when rope has been found on ancient shipwrecks, or in other nautical contexts, those examples have received comparatively little attention. Likewise, the overall subjects of the making of rope and the art of knot-tying in the ancient world, both without which ships could not have set sail, have received little attention.

Evidence from antiquity that can open these subjects up to the modern world does exist. The Greek and Roman writers reveal a great deal about rope, and the materials used in its manufacture, although they are less open about knots. Ancient artists were less revealing with specific detail on rope and knots, but there is some information there. Archaeological remains of ancient rope are found on many shipwrecks and, while it occurs less often, a few knots have been found on ancient sites.

This thesis is a review of this material from the ancient world. It will provide insight into an important, but little known subject, and will add to our understanding of seafaring in the Mediterranean area during antiquity.

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