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Shipsheds of the Ancient Mediterranean

Shipsheds of the Ancient Mediterranean

By David Blackman, Boris Rankov, Kalliopi Baika, Henrik Gerding, and Jari Pakkanen. Pp. xxii + 597, figs. 199, maps 3. Cambridge University Press, New York  2013. $160. ISBN 978-1-107-00133-6 (cloth).

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If warships served as the backbone of ancient sea power, and their construction reflected a vast economic commitment, how were these valuable vessels kept safe, ready for action, and on conspicuous display? With their exploration of the archaeological, literary, and epigraphic evidence for shipsheds, Blackman and his colleagues offer a comprehensive tour of this ancient Mediterranean phenomenon. The multiauthored work is divided into two parts: a “Study” of the history, elements, and types of shipsheds ranging from archaic Greek to Roman (some earlier material is discussed); and an alphabetically organized archaeological “Catalogue” of sites where shipsheds have been recorded. Certain details are duplicated in the two sections, an issue noted in the introduction as designed to increase the utility of the volume; the majority of users of this comprehensive work will find the replication helpful.

In two introductory chapters, Blackman and Rankov lay out a brief history of research on the topic, including epigraphic, historical, archaeological, and geophysical investigations. Two subsequent chapters on Greek and Roman shipsheds flesh out the picture with a closer look at nonarchaeological evidence for these monumental structures. Blackman limits his classical and Hellenistic chapter to historical and epigraphic sources, while Rankov is able to explore cartographic and iconographic evidence, too, despite rejecting the archaeological identification of any definitively Roman shed on the basis of chronological, typological, and practical issues. Rankov suggests that the nature of republican military organization would not have lent itself to the establishment of permanent bases for fleets; exploration of later bases offers hope for future discoveries, particularly in the vicinity of Rome, though their numbers are far smaller than those of the Greek world, and their historical locations are often heavily overbuilt today. Together, the first four chapters offer a clear backdrop for more specialized studies, but the volume might have benefited from a single chapter that could be used as a freestanding introduction to the topic or a current state of the discipline. For this, Blackman’s chapter, “Naval Installations” (in R. Gardiner, ed., The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels Since Pre-Classical Times [Annapolis, Md. 1995] 224–33) may remain a more obvious selection.

The rest of the first part falls into two categories: a series of technical chapters that address specific details of the sheds (size, mechanics of entry and exit, substructures and superstructures) and an assortment of more analytical chapters on economics, urban planning, fortifications, and small-scale naval bases. Chapters in the former category are dense with practical information. Drawing heavily on the reconstruction and trials of the trireme Olympias, Rankov provides an informative overview of the various types of oared warships, their tactics, and proposed dimensions—these numbers based largely on evidence compiled from shipsheds. His “Slipping and Launching” chapter smoothly melds literary and archaeological evidence with contemporary practice to explain how such large ships were hauled in and out of the water. “Ramps and Substructures” (Blackman) and “Roofs and Superstructures” (Gerding) are indeed specialist studies, most useful for harbor archaeology and shipshed reconstructions. In their search for answers to technical questions, these practical chapters paint a broad chronological picture, gleaning evidence from all possible sources, while leaving the door open for technical and architectural studies that focus more specifically on individual sites or periods.

In the analytical category, Pakkanen’s excellent analysis of the economics of shipshed complexes takes Zea as a case study and follows in the tradition of Burford’s The Greek Temple Builders at Epidauros: A Social and Economic Study of Building in the Asklepian Sanctuary, During the Fourth and Early Third Centuries B.C. (Liverpool 1969) and DeLaine’s Baths of Caracalla: A Study in the Design, Construction, and Economics of Large-Scale Building Projects in Imperial Rome (JRA Suppl. 25 [Portsmouth, R.I. 1997]), with his concentration on the practicalities of materials and labor expenses, organization, and management. Through detailed calculations for the various construction stages, Pakkanen gives a sense of the annual man-labor costs associated with building the shipsheds and offers some comparison with other major monuments. In classical Athens, shipshed construction seems to have cost Athens about four talents annually (or 200 talents over a 50-year period) compared with more than 30 annually for the Parthenon; both figures pale in comparison with the cost of 2 talents per month to keep a single trireme out at sea (72–3). The chapter serves as an intriguing starting place for consideration of relative expenditures devoted to civic, military, and religious infrastructure and activity. In the size and scale of its facilities, Athens clearly stands as unique, with sheds serving a symbolic and monumental function akin to temples; the degree to which this data is applicable to other sites will be interesting to see. Readers may find it helpful to view the chapter alongside the extensive catalogue entry on the Piraeus, an illustration of the productive page-flipping exercises necessitated by nearly every part of the volume.

Chapters by Baika on topography and fortification offer useful explorations of the incorporation of naval infrastructure into the urban plan, the monumentality of harbor structures, and their association with other urban fortifications. The patterns, “topographic objectives,” protective mechanisms, and intercommunications detailed by Baika in these two chapters clearly highlight the harbor’s role as much more than liminal to the urban layout. According to Baika, by “the Hellenistic era, the urban design of a maritime city began with its defensive core: the naval port zone (210).” The changing relationship between harbor and city over time is well worthy of further consideration, especially in the contrasts that might be drawn between commercial ports and military installations. Finally, Baika explores small-scale naval bases (with capacity for three or fewer ships) and their use in coastal defense, the protection of sea routes from pirates, and the permanent or occasional stationing of ships away from home. The well-illustrated discussion, which includes ample new material from her survey of rock-cut slipways in the Aegean Sea, drives home the importance of maritime control at different scales of operation. The chapter’s conclusion offers tantalizing suggestions about how such naval stations reflect military networks and fleet deployments around the Mediterranean. Given the heavy reliance on historical sources and topographic details, fuller inclusion of Roman material might have been possible.

A detailed and alphabetically organized catalogue of shipsheds around the Mediterranean makes up more than 50% of the book. These entries, which highlight classical and Hellenistic sites in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, offer a wealth of detail. Where applicable, they include summaries of topography and location, previous research, fortification, overview of shipshed complexes or slipways, architectural descriptions, features related to hauling and slipping, related installations, chronology, catalogue of written sources, illustrations, and bibliography; the features of each complex are also presented in tabular form. Particularly useful summaries are provided of recent work by Blackman and Lentini at Sicilian Naxos, Lovén at Zea, and Baika at Corcyra and the small Aegean complexes. Discussions of construction phases and chronological developments as known will surely hold relevance for historical investigations into the navies of particular cities. McKenzie’s standardization of presentation, maps, and plans makes for easy comparisons between sites, although a single map that provided the location and chronology of each discussed site would be helpful. In the final section on probable, possible, and rejected shipsheds, some more comprehensive discussion of alternatives (from warehouses to shipyards to fish tanks) would also have been welcome; such structures, too, hold exciting potential to shed light on the details of ancient seafaring. These are small critiques of an enormous undertaking. Ongoing research at harbor cities such as Miletus and a growing awareness of the topic in the maritime community means that the corpus of sites to be catalogued will surely increase.

As is often the case with multiauthored volumes, some lack of coordination between chapters leads to repetition of key references and inconsistency in certain details. For example, Matalon is identified in Gerding’s catalogue with a probable Roman date (389–92), despite Rankov’s assertion (45) that there is no dating evidence for the site. Greater stylistic consistency would have been helpful, as some chapters use Greek characters while others opt for transliteration; ancient texts and inscriptions are inconsistently included in their original language.

Blackman and Rankov remind in their conclusion, “Not Just Ship Garages,” that these essential structures of the Mediterranean landscape are more than functional spaces. Indeed, as “emblems of the independent Greek polis” (259), shipsheds stand as proxies for warships and play a key role in the assertion and maintenance of social, political, and economic control. This amazingly comprehensive compilation of evidence for the structures built to provide preservation, storage, launching, landing, and display for warships offers a reference work for historians and demographers, practical tools for geomorphologists and archaeologists, and a valuable resource for future investigations into the topic of naval power in the ancient world.

Elizabeth S. Greene
Department of Classics
Brock University

Book Review of Shipsheds of the Ancient Mediterranean, by David Blackman, Boris Rankov, Kalliopi Baika, Henrik Gerding, and Jari Pakkanen

Reviewed by Elizabeth S. Greene

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Greene

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