Nautical archaeology has taught us much about ancient seafaring, but some details do not survive in the archaeological record. To fill in the picture, we can turn to iconography, that is, ancient depictions of seagoing vessels—though we must remember that depictions of ships are not the ships themselves. Here are some examples of what we can learn from iconography.

The Voyage to Punt

Of the thousands of depictions of ancient Egyptian ships, only three illustrate seagoing vessels. One is a relief (see detail and drawing, above) in the mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri of Queen Hatshepsut (c. 1479–1457 B.C.)—who emphasized foreign relations rather than the conquests favored by her male counterparts.

This scene shows a fleet of ships that Hatshepsut dispatched to the land of Punt (possibly modern Ethiopia). Disassembled ships were hauled over the desert to the Red Sea coast, where the ships were re-assembled and sent south. Upon returning, the ships were again taken apart and hauled back overland to the Nile Valley.

To withstand the beating of the high seas, these ships were outfitted with “hogging trusses,” mighty hawsers strung from bow to stern over a row of stanchions. Think of them as giant suspenders for a ship. They prevented the ship from “hogging,” or bending amidships, when the ship sat on a wave crest with her bow and stern over the wave’s troughs.

The sails are shown both in their raised and furled states. Note the lifts, which are lines running from the yard (the horizontal bar that supports the sail) to the masthead. When the sail was furled by lowering the yard, the lifts became taut, but when the sail was in the raised position, the yard’s lifts hung in arcs—here represented in a stylized form.

The accurate depiction of Red Sea marine animals suggests that the artists based their renderings on empirical observation (rather than on stylized models).

In the accompanying inscription, the vessels are called “Byblos ships.” Thus they were probably merchant vessels normally used on the run from Egypt to Byblos (in modern Lebanon), from where they brought back cedar wood used in building temples.

Levantine Merchantman

The most famous ancient mariners, the Iron Age Phoenicians, inherited their sea legs from their Late Bronze Age Syro-Canaanite forebears. The most detailed depiction of Syro-Canaanite vessels (below) comes from the Theban tomb of Kenamun, who lived under Amenophis III (1390–1352 B.C.)

In the painting, a flotilla of trading ships arrives in port and anchors in the harbor, and then the passengers or crew engage in a lively trade on shore. The ships’ sails are similar to those on Hatshepsut’s ships—though both ends of the arc-shaped lifts are attached to the ships’ yards in some vessels, thus defeating their purpose. The artist, who probably worked from stock scenes, simply did not understand the rigging he depicted.

A Bronze Age Pompeii

In 1972 the Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos began uncovering colorful wall paintings (see detail, above) on the island of Thera (modern Santorini), which was destroyed in a volcanic eruption around 1628 B.C. One spectacular painting, with depictions of numerous sea scenes, is a 40-foot-long, 16-inch-high fresco called the Miniature Frieze.

The fresco’s principal scene shows a procession from one seaport to another. Bizarrely, the paddlers in these profusely decorated ships have to lean far over the sides to reach the water. Obviously paddling could not have been the normal manner of propelling these vessels; the oarsmen depicted in one of the ships indicate that rowing was known.

These clues suggest that the ships in the procession were outfitted in a deliberately archaic manner, perhaps as part of a festival. They probably hark back to a type of ship that no longer existed when the frieze was painted.

Unsinkable Warships

The drawing above, from a detail on a Greek vase, shows one of my favorite ships. When it “sank,” it didn’t really sink; it simply floated. Indeed, there are numerous classical references to warships having been towed off by the victors after they had “sunk.” This is one reason war galleys are so rarely found on the sea floor.

Showing a destitute crewman astride the hull of a capsized ship, this stylized image dates to the Greek Late Geometric II (c. 735–710 B.C.) period. Homer writes of long black-hulled ships cleaving the wine dark sea—and perhaps this is what they looked like. Although Homer’s epics take place before his own time (around 800 B.C.), he likely used contemporaneous galleys as models for the Mycenaean ships.

Roman Galley

In 1975 archaeologists found a Roman war galley (above) depicted on an ashlar block at Horvat Rafi in south-central Israel. This galley is rendered schematically—with its hull barely wider than its ram and its huge forecastle ending in a curving volute.

The closest parallels to this ship come from the early second century A.D., such as the ships on Trajan’s Column. The line trailing to the left on our graffito might represent the tail of a rampant triton figure—perhaps the ship’s tutela or guardian deity—common in depictions of war galleys of this period.

What is most interesting about this image, however, is not what remains but what has been defaced. A defaced figure once stood upon the forecastle. Three oarsmen also have been intentionally defaced. In the early second century, the Jewish community at Horvat Rafi played a prominent role in the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 A.D.) against Rome, and there is clear evidence of Jewish iconoclasm during this bitter struggle. Interestingly, while the human figures were defaced, the galley itself was left intact.

In this rude graffito, published by Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner and myself, we have a fascinating story—a Roman carving defaced by Jews obeying the commandment against “graven images”—that represents in microcosm the devastating final conflict between Rome and Judea.