In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Maritime Archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Theory and Methodology
  • Historical and Environmental Context
  • Ancient Maritime Trade
  • Cargos and Commodities
  • Harbors and Naval Installations
  • Warships and Naval Warfare
  • Ship Technology and Equipment

Classics Maritime Archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean
Justin Leidwanger, Elizabeth S. Greene
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0339


Maritime archaeology of the classical world explores the traders, travelers, pirates, fishermen, and warriors who sailed the ancient Mediterranean and its adjacent waters. Within the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, the sea and the distinctive opportunities it afforded for communication and interaction feature centrally to narratives of human development. Evidence for the socioeconomic world of seafaring comes not only from archaeological analysis of coastal and submerged sites, but also from literary and iconographic depictions of vessels, seafaring practices, and maritime life more broadly. From a methodological perspective, maritime archaeology involves survey and excavation both underwater and along the shore, focusing on shipwrecks, ports and harbors, inundated landscapes, as well as formerly submerged but now silted sites. These explorations require the adoption and adaptation of traditional archaeological practices alongside methods that borrow from the marine sciences. Maritime archaeology took hold early in the Mediterranean, where it owes its roots to the scientific exploration of ancient ships and harbors as some of the most sophisticated technologies among premodern societies. After more than a half century of focused explorations and detailed analyses, scholars have outlined diachronic development and regional patterns of Mediterranean shipbuilding techniques and seafaring practices. At the same time, survey work in recent decades has rapidly increased the bulk dataset while bringing new shores and deeper waters into the evolving picture of maritime connections. The vast numbers of shipwrecks recorded to date reveal long-term trends across the entire Mediterranean world; the prevalence of sunken merchant cargos and diverse ports allows increasingly sophisticated approaches to this data as a source for big-picture social and economic history. Along with the reconstruction of trade routes, networks of interaction and dynamic maritime landscapes have earned important places in this ongoing research. Increasing emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches that engage with earth sciences (geoarchaeology, oceanography, etc.) and social sciences (network science, economic theory, etc.) brings new tools for understanding an environmental and institutional context of the structure, scale, and drivers behind seaborne mobility and interaction. All the while, the intensely studied material remains of ventures lost at sea continue to offer unparalleled glimpses into the personal lives of the diverse individuals who integrated this ancient Mediterranean world through the goods, news, ideas, and values they carried from port to port.

General Overviews

Introductory works provide a sweeping chronological overview of ship and seafaring technologies, including maritime techniques, peoples, activities, and goods that moved across the ancient world, based on combined literary, historical, iconographic, and archaeological evidence. The dramatic increase over the past fifty years in archaeological approaches to ancient ships and harbors has shifted the balance in recent work toward ever more reliance on excavated and well-studied contexts, but interdisciplinary approaches remain critical for appreciating the breadth of maritime activity that marked the ancient Mediterranean. Casson 1995 remains the comprehensive treatment of the classical maritime world in English, while Casson 1991, Carlson 2011, and McGrail 2014 offer readable overviews of varying lengths. Morrison 1995 focuses specifically on naval warfare and galleys. Pomey 1997, Gianfrotta and Pomey 1981, and Bockius 2007 offer reliable coverage of these themes in French, Italian, and German respectively.

  • Bockius, Ronald. 2007. Schifffahrt und Schiffbau in der Antike. Stuttgart: Theiss.

    Accessible and well-illustrated survey, starting from the earliest evidence for seafaring but with a strong emphasis on the Roman world. Regional coverage of Europe beyond the Mediterranean allows inclusion of archaeological and iconographic examples of vessel types (e.g., barges) that were vital to transport along the rivers of Europe but are often left out of Mediterranean-focused Roman maritime studies.

  • Carlson, Deborah N. 2011. The seafarers and shipwrecks of ancient Greece and Rome. In The Oxford handbook of maritime archaeology. Edited by A. Catsambis, B. Ford, and D. L. Hamilton, 379–405. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Succinct overview of Greco-Roman ships and seafaring, situated within the developmental trajectory of the discipline and challenges facing maritime archaeology in the ancient Mediterranean context. Discusses major types of cargos, ship construction and outfitting, as well as merchant, naval, and river craft.

  • Casson, Lionel. 1991. The ancient mariners: Seafarers and sea fighters of the Mediterranean in ancient times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Engaging (if now somewhat dated) narrative on ancient seafaring, useful particularly for diachronic background. Archaeological, iconographic, literary, and historical evidence are woven together to paint a picture of life at sea among merchants, travelers, warriors, and pilgrims from their earliest traces through the end of antiquity. Limited black-and-white illustrations and bibliography.

  • Casson, Lionel. 1995. Ships and seamanship in the ancient world. 2d ed. Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Authoritative and comprehensive introduction to ancient seafaring, providing a good starting point for most major topics ranging from warships and merchantmen to sailing practices and crew life, vessel logistics and equipment. Includes a balanced consideration of primarily iconographic and literary/historical data supplemented with some key archaeological evidence, plus extensive references and indices. Originally published 1971 (Princeton University Press).

  • De Souza, Philip, and Pascal Arnaud, eds. 2017. The sea in history: The ancient world (La mer dans l’historie: l’antiquité). Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer.

    Large collection of up-to-date essays (in English and French) addressing the role of the sea in ancient life. Covers prehistory through Antiquity across the globe. Individual chapters address comparative periods and regions (e.g., Indian Ocean and Far East) from an ancient Mediterranean vantage point. Chapters also online via JSTOR.

  • Gianfrotta, Piero Alfredo, and Patrice Pomey. 1981. Archeologia subacquea: storia, tecniche, socperte e relitti. Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori.

    A classic (if now somewhat dated) illustrated work exploring the development and techniques of underwater archaeology in the Mediterranean. Draws on ancient shipwrecks as case studies for understanding maritime commerce and ship construction technology. A final section addresses submerged structures, while an appendix offers a detailed register of wrecks discussed, a brief overview of underwater archaeology beyond the classical world, and a helpful glossary.

  • McGrail, Seán. 2014. Early ships and seafaring: European water transport. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Archaeology.

    Basic overview of the construction and use of early ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Europe (to CE 1500) focused on vessel types, propulsion, steering, and environmental conditions (wind, tides, currents, landmarks, harbors, landing places). Includes archaeological, ethnographic, and experimental evidence, as well as basic glossary and useful diagrams. Discussion of Egypt and the Near East can be found in the companion volume by the same author (Early ships and seafaring: Water transport beyond Europe. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Archaeology, 2015).

  • Morrison, John, ed. 1995. The age of the galley: Mediterranean oared vessels since pre-classical times. London: Conway Maritime Press.

    Accessible introduction to the development and use of oared vessels in the Mediterranean from prehistory through the medieval era. Individually authored chapters focus on the naval fleets of specific periods as well as oared merchantmen, naval installations, mechanics of oar power, logistics, and economics. Includes black-and-white illustrations throughout, as well as bibliography and glossary.

  • Pomey, Patrice, ed. 1997. La navigation dans l’antiquité. Aix-en-Provence, France: Edisud.

    Succinct and engaging introduction to Mediterranean classical seafaring. Chapters by Pomey and other prominent scholars address navigation (seas, winds, currents), vessel types and shipboard life, ports and the mechanisms of commerce, and a well-curated selection of wrecks and cargos from a broad geographic, chronological, and typological span. Includes helpful illustrations (many in color) and diagrams, basic bibliography, and glossary of terms.

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