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Römerzeitliche Schiffsfunde in der Datenbank Römerzeitliche Schiffsfunde in der Datenbank “Navis I”

Römerzeitliche Schiffsfunde in der Datenbank Römerzeitliche Schiffsfunde in der Datenbank “Navis I”

Edited by Allard Mees and Barbara Pferdehirt (Kataloge Vor- und Frühgeschichtlicher Altertümer 29). Pp. ix + 213, b&w figs. 160, color figs. 224, tables 2. Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums, Mainz 2002. €39. ISSN 0076-275X; ISBN 3-88467-063-8 (cloth).

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In the last 50 years, the number of ancient shipwrecks found in Europe has grown thanks to the invention of SCUBA gear and the establishment of legislature protecting shipwrecks under water and on land. In 1996 the NAVIS I project was set up with funding by the European Commission to establish an online searchable database of ship remains from Europe from the earliest finds through A.D. 1200. Originally eight and now 11 museums and research centers from various European countries participate in this project under the leadership of the Museum für Antike Schiffahrt of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum at Mainz, Germany. Currently this database (; 16 September 2005) provides basic information, bibliography, about 3,000 images, and a distribution map of some 150 shipwrecks throughout Europe. The database is searchable by more than 130 keywords in eight European languages. It also contains essays on selected topics as diverse as maritime trade, Roman war fleets, and wood conservation.

Even though the online database receives a high number of visitors, the coordinators Allard Mees and Barbara Pferdehirt of the Mainz museum felt that many ship enthusiasts would still prefer a book format; thus, the present edited publication focuses on Roman-era ship finds.

The book is divided into three parts of unequal length. The first part takes up nearly the entire volume, with descriptions, discussions, and images of some 40 Roman-era boats and ships, organized by country of origin. The primary focus is on hull construction, but wherever the evidence allows it, propulsion and vessel function are also addressed. Part 2 presents full-sized modern replicas of two Roman ship types from Mainz, and part 3 reports on modern models of three ancient ships. Most of the texts are in German, with others in English and Italian (for English translations, the reader is referred to the online database). Of the 39 contributions, 23 were written by Ronald Bockius and Barbara Pferdehirt of the Museum für Antike Schiffahrt at Mainz. Pferdehirt limits herself to German finds, whereas Bockius discusses remains from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy. English contributions consist of short summaries of wrecks from Belgium and Britain (Marsden) as well as Guernsey (Howell and Sebire), with one longer essay on a boat from Slovenia (Gaspari). Italian essays deal exclusively with Italian finds (Boetto, Berti, Scotti, and Beltrame).

This is the first book to present basic information and bibliography on the hull construction of an extensive array of Roman-era ship and boat remains from Europe. It is thus a valuable reference work for ship specialists as well as for any Roman historian or archaeologist whose work touches upon shipbuilding. Nonspecialists, however, need to know that the texts contain many specialized ship terms without providing a glossary either in print or online.

Readers will be delighted with the numerous detailed photographs and/or color drawings of the Mainz, Oberstimm, and Fiumicino boats, including the useful overlays comparing sizes and shapes of various ships (82, fig. 5; 109, fig. 4). The colored hull drawings are especially useful for highlighting significant features of hull construction. Most welcome are the detailed photographs of the little-known wreck from Montfalcone in Trieste, and those of the already well-published Comacchio wreck, a 20-m long river-going and coastal vessel with sewn hull from the Po delta.

The wrecks included in this survey are almost exclusively inland craft, with a few seagoing vessels from the channel area (Guernsey wreck, Blackfriars ship) and small Mediterranean fishing boats from Herculaneum, as well as harbor craft from the Roman harbor of Portus (Fiumicino airport). Not included are scores of Roman shipwrecks with preserved hull remains from the Mediterranean; adding these would have more than doubled the size of the book, but the editors should have at least mentioned their existence, referring the reader to A.J. Parker’s gazetteer, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces (Oxford 1992). More troublesome is the ommission without explanation of a number of important inland ship finds, such as the large barges of Bevaix and Yverdon 1 from Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland (whereas the smaller Yverdon 2 wreck is included). Their absence is the more puzzling because the Bevaix and Yverdon 1 wrecks have been well published, they are part of the NAVIS I database, and a scientific replica of the Bevaix barge has been constructed and published. One also misses the ship finds from Barland’s farm (Magor, Gwent, Wales), Lough Lene (Ireland), and Xanten (Germany), which are listed in the online database.

Stronger editorial control would have been desirable with regard to some aspects. So do the lengths of the various chapters vary to an unusual degree, ranging from very short summaries by Peter Marsden on the boats of Bruges and London to much more detailed studies, such as those by Boetto on the Fiumicino boats. The Oberstimm boats are even treated twice (described by Pferdehirt and discussed in-depth by Bockius). One would have wished for a more balanced treatment. Likewise, it would have been preferable if the authors had adhered to a uniform terminology (e.g., using either “Romano-Celtic” [3] or “Gallo-Roman” [118], but not both). Even the terms “boat” and “ship” are used casually (e.g., the plank-built estuarine cargo vessel from Bruges is called a boat, but the extended logboat Zwammerdam 3 is called a ship) when “ship” should have been reserved for the largest vessels.

More importantly, the editors missed the opportunity offered by this printed publication of an extensive online database to provide basic syntheses, such as of the spatial and chronological distribution of ship finds or the existence of different building traditions in Roman-occupied Europe—these would have given the book more unity and would have significantly enhanced its value. Distribution maps would have been welcome as well, especially of all the boat finds and their construction features (sewn planking versus mortise-and-tenon joinery and non-edge joined planking).

The shortcomings pointed out here do not substantially detract, however, from the overall high quality of the book, which is strongly recommended especially to those who prefer to read good, basic essays on Europe’s Roman ship finds in print rather than on their computer screen.

Aleydis Van de Moortel
Department of Classics
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee 37996-0413

Book Review of Römerzeitliche Schiffsfunde in der Datenbank Navis I, edited by Allard Mees and Barbara Pferdehirt

Reviewed by Aleydis Van de Moortel

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 1 (January 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1101.vanderMoortel

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