Byzantine shipwrecks reveal advanced shipbuilding techniques

Shallow shipwreck found in Turkey waters

A trove of ancient Byzantine ships found in waters near Istanbul, Turkey, displayed more advanced construction than scholars previously knew for that era. The ships include two unique Byzantine galleys propelled by oars, which are the first of their kind to be salvaged and were previously known only from text and images.

Officials are planning a large museum to show the ships, which date back between 800 and 1,500 years, but it may be several years before their hulls are prepared to the point that they may be exhibited. Ships so far removed from the waters of the Sea of Marmara have had to be continuously sprayed with water to prevent deterioration.

Numerous shipwrecks have been recovered from the Sea of Marmara

Numerous shipwrecks have been recovered from the Sea of Marmara (pictured). Source: BigStockPhoto

The Byzantine Empire, extant from 330 to 1450 A.D., at one point covered much of southern Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa. Several historians have called it a ‘maritime empire’ as the sea became vital to its very existence.

Excavated along with the galleys, were 35 other Byzantine shipwrecks at the port of Yenikapi in Istanbul, known then as Constantinople.

“Never before has such a large number and types of well-preserved vessels been found at a single location,” study author Cemal Pulak of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University told LiveScience.com. The ships are in very good condition.

A new report, published in December in the International Journal of Nautical Archeology, highlights eight of the ships. The report says the ships were built incorporating two techniques: building the shell first and then adding the skeleton, and vice versa. This shift in technique from shell first to skeleton first, which is more advanced, was underway by the seventh century. Scholars thought the skeleton-first technique came later in history.

Partial reconstruction of the Yassiada shipwreck from Byzantine times (7th c.), Bodrum, Turkey

Partial reconstruction of the Yassiada shipwreck from Byzantine times (7th c.), Bodrum, Turkey (Wikimedia Commons)

Six of the eight ships examined in the new report were round ships 26 to 48 feet (8 to 14.7 meters) long and between 8 and 16 feet (2.5 to 5 meters) wide. Round ships are propelled mostly or fully by sails.

The two others were oar-propelled galleys 100 feet (30 meters) long by 13 feet (4 meters) wide.

“Previously, Byzantine galleys were known only from books and artwork dating to the time period, and such sources tend to be difficult to interpret. Therefore the well-preserved remains of these vessels at Yenikapi play a crucial role in archaeologists’ study of Byzantine ships, the researchers said,” LiveScience reports.

A light galley of the late Middle Ages. Byzantine-style fresco

A light galley of the late Middle Ages. Byzantine-style fresco. (Wikimedia Commons)

The archaeological excavations of the Byzantine shipwrecks of Yenikapi began in 2004.

Much information about Byzantine ships prior to the 2004 find had come from several medium-size seagoing ships excavated in the Mediterranean Sea.

“Yenikapi has yielded a wide array of small rowboats, fishing boats, utility vessels and even naval ships, all directly from Constantinople itself, the capital of the Byzantine Empire,” Pulak told LiveScience.com.

Some magnificent discoveries have been made in Turkish waters in the last year, including eight Ottoman era shipwrecks near Antalya,  and an ancient ship in the Port of Urla underwater site, a port city located near Izmir, which is believed to date back an incredible 4,000 years, making it the oldest known shipwreck in the world.

Featured image: Shallow shipwreck found in Turkey waters. Source: BigStockPhoto

By Mark Miller

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