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Navigation in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean

Danny Lee Davis
Thesis: May 2001
Chair: Dr. Shelley Wachsmann
Nautical Archaeology Program


Studies of ancient navigation have traditionally derived their information from ancient geographers and the authors of various periploi ("sailing around"), a type of coast-pilot written in and after the fifth century B.C. The resultant paradigm portrays a scene in which ships voyage from headland to headland, never traversing the open sea, and rarely, if ever, sail intentionally past sunset. The investigation presented here, however, offers a different scenario, one which characterizes ancient seafarers as both naturalists and pragmatists, devoted to accurate wayfinding not only on coasting voyages, but also on the open sea. To this end they became students of their maritime environment, making a science of winds (dividing and subdividing them into a wind "compass") and wind predicition, and compiling a body of weather lore that still rings true today. At times, contrary to ancient conventions and modern interpretations of the sailing season, their confidence emboldened them to extend their activity into the winter months. They acquired wayfinding clues by observing the behavior of shore-sighting birds and birds in their natural environment. They also invented aids to navigation: the crow's nest, a Late Bronze Age innovation, extended the viewer's horizon by several miles and helped ships avoid dangerous reefs on approaches to land; the sounding lead indicated depth and type of bottom; man-made seamarks and landmarks (temples, shrines, funeral mounds, towers and lighthouses) offered invaluable position-finding information. Sailing past sunset, a very-well documented practice in antiquity, presented a host of additional challenges and hazards. Their response, quite logically, was to make sense of the night sky. Systems of celestial navigation eventually evolved, facilitated by the Mediterranean's clear summer skies: the circumpolar constellations provided rough positions north or south of predetermined reference points; and evidence suggests that ancient seafarers utilized guide-stars and "star-paths" (a Polynesian practice) to point them in the direction of their destination. In addition to presenting the subject, there is also a case to be made that ancient seafarers invented wayfinding instruments and practices that allowed them to sail safely on the open sea, day or night.

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