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by Stan Roberts - Cedar Park, Texas - USA

The Early Voyagers - Bronze Age

Bronze was so important to the march of civilization that it became a turning point of human technological evolution. The Bronze Age began approximately 3000 BC and lasted until the development and widespread use of iron tools, about 1500 BC.

The importance to the history of boatbuilding is that development of bronze tools allowed the construction of larger and more complex boats and ships in a shorter period of time using fewer workers. Tools such as the hand saw, bow drill and cross cut saw were first invented in this period since bronze was hard enough to hold an edge long enough for useful work to be done. An added advantage for boatbuilders was that ship nails and special hardware could be cast or formed from bronze, which is both very strong and corrosion resistant.

Prior to the development of hard, edged tools, and especially a useful saw and sharper adze, boatbuilders were limited to simple designs that could be lashed together, hollowed out or crudely carved. A decent boat shape could be formed from a lashed wood frame using small bent branches or naturally formed roots for ribs and stem pieces, but waterproof coverings for the hull were limited to materials like bark or skin. With bronze tools, for the first time in history long keels could be cut and formed to design, planks could be cut and shaped accurately for good fit, ribs and stem pieces could be cut to a specific curve. Boats and ships could be built that were longer, with more beam and still be reasonably light yet strong enough for long sea voyages. Bronze Age boats and ships could evolve into specialized designs for specific purposes.

Greek Admiral Apostolos Kourtis stands next to the replica of a Minoan ship from 3,500 years ago. With no salvaged wrecks to work from, Kourtis and his team had to turn to historical sources for help to build the 56 ft. long and 12-foot beam replica.

Minoan ships used linen cloth set in natural resins to waterproof the hulls. The cloth was then painted with various designs.

One particular sea going civilization developed during the Bronze age, the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were regarded as rulers of the sea, occupying what is now modern day Lebanon and the coastal parts of Syria and Palestine from around 1200 BC. Their empire lasted for approximately one thousand years, until the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC by the Romans.

This civilization is credited with many discoveries, including the alphabet, insurance, and the use of the pole star for navigation. Their trading activities reached as far as Cornwall, England, African west coast, Black Sea, and the East Indies. Byblos (one of the oldest cities in the world), Tyre, Sidon were Phoenician cities. Carthage was established as a trading center around 800 BC. Ezion-Geber, on the Red Sea, was also used as an important trading port. By 1700 BC, Phoenicia had established a trading empire that extended throughout the known world.

Phoenician shipbuilders were far more advanced in the art of shipbuilding than their contemporaries of other civilizations. The Mediterranean Sea has characteristically light variable winds during much of the year and this encouraged the development and long term use of the rowing galley. The early Egyptian ships were hardly more than large canoes that were paddled, whereas the Phoenician shipbuilders learned that ships moved faster by rowing, with the rowers facing the back of the ship.

Three types of Phoenician ships are known. The first was a small craft with a prow in the shape of a horse’s head that was rowed by one or two men for short distances. The second was a merchant vessel which was the mainstay of Phoenician seafaring activity over a period of a thousand years. A Phoenician merchantman in 1200 BC is thought to have been able to carry cargo loads of between 20 and 100 tons. They carried rectangular sails and were rowed when the wind died or when maneuvering in port.

"For the king's ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Hiram. Once every three years the merchant ships came, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and monkeys." 2 Ch 9:21

The third type was a warship--lighter, propelled by oars with a full crew of fifty men and fitted with a ram as the primary weapon. These fighting vessels were very successful in battle, thanks not only to the good design, but also to the highly developed Phoenician seamanship. Only when the Romans had caught up in technology and fighting skill did the Phoenicians, suffer significant reversals in battle. The Phoenician fleet is considered today to be the first naval power in history.

Stone anchor carved in the form of an Octopus

Archaeologists have studied the bronze age ship wreck at Uluburun, just off the coast of what is today Turkey but back then was on the Byblos - Cyprus - Greece trade route.

The ship was laboriously and painstakingly built by carving a mortise into each piece of wood in the hull to create a row of "pockets" along the edge. The tenon was glued into the mortise using a natural resin. Finally a round hole was drilled through each side of the tenon, and a slightly larger wooden peg was driven in the hole. When all the pegs were in place, the two boards could not be separated by any amount of force by wave or cargo. And this was done for virtually every board in the hull. [Diagram and info from Appendix A: Art of Boatbuilding by Phoenicians: Lebanon's Epic Heritage]

"Thy builders have perfected thy beauty. They have made all thy planks of fir-trees from Senir; They have taken cedars from Lebanon to make a mast for thee. Of the oaks of Bashan have they made thine oars; They have made thy benches of ivory, Inlaid in box-wood, from the isles of Kittim. Of fine linen with broidered work from Egypt was thy sail, That it might be to thee for an ensign; Blue and purple from the isles of Elishah was thy awning. The inhabitants of Zidon and of Arvad were thy rowers; Thy wise men, O Tyre, were in thee--they were thy pilots. The ancients of Gebal, and their wise men, were thy calkers. All the ships of the sea, with their mariners, were in thee, That they might occupy thy merchandise." Ezekiel 27:2

The ancient Phoenician boatbuilding skills are not a lost art . . . in fact they are still in use today. Sanford Holst documented this remarkable experience in Lebanon: "When I was in Tyre in 2004, the local boatmaster was just finishing one-and-a-half years of work constructing a boat by hand using the old Phoenician methods "

The Greek historian Herodotus 484–425 B.C. recorded a fascinating voyage said to have occurred about 150 years earlier. According to Herodotus’ account, in about 600 B.C. Pharaoh Necho of Egypt chartered some Phoenician ships for an exploratory voyage. The ships were 50 oared galleys suitable for extended coastal explorations. The galleys set out from Ezion-Geber, a port on the Red Sea, to sail around Africa in an effort to find the shortest route to the markets of Europe.

According to Herodotus, the ships finally made their way to the Mediterranean, arriving in Egypt nearly three years after setting out. The cruise, estimated at over 15,000 miles, was the longest ever made in ancient times.

Re-creating this historical voyage is the major objective of the Phoenician Ship Expedition. A reconstruction of a Phoenician trading vessel, built at the ancient Phoenician port of Arwad, embarked in 2008 on a journey to re-trace the Phoenicians' route around Africa...

The Phoenician replica after rounding the Cape of Good Hope and entering the Atlantic.
The Phoenician Expedition replica on the 80 day passage to the Azores.

The Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabra was attempting to round Africa in 1500 AD when he was blown off course and landed on the Brazilian coast. Cabra is given historical credit for the discovery of Brazil. However, consider this evidence: in 1872 a Brazilian landowner sent a copy of strange writing found on a carved stone to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. This Phoenician writing was eventually translated by American language expert Cyrus Gordon as:

"We are sons of Canaan from Sidon, the city of the king. Commerce has cast us on this distant shore. We sacrificed a youth for the exalted gods and goddesses in the nineteenth year of Hiram our mighty king. We embarked from Ezion-Geber into the Red Sea and voyaged with ten ships. We were at sea together for two years, around the land belonging to Ham [Africa], but were separated from the hand of Baal and we were no longer with our companions. So we have come here twelve men and three women, on a shore which I, the Admiral, control. But auspiciously may the exalted gods and goddesses favor us!"

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