Depictions of Ships on Ancient Greek Vases



Potters began to enrich vases in the Geometric Period with depictions of people, animals, ships, and more.


Center for Hellenic Studies

The Dipylon Vase

Following the heroic age of the Myceneans is the silence of the Greek Dark Ages. In the proto-Geometric period (c1150–c950 BCE), the pre-Greek tribes make war, then consolidate and start forming city states. The Doric tribes mix with the Attics of Athens, and art focuses on motifs that express “order”: concentration and intensity. There is no expression that refers to myth or religion. The Minoan and Mycenaean palaces and civilization are lost and so are the writing systems Linear A and B. The systems of communication allowing trade, wealth, art and culture have vanished.

In the eighth century this period of introversion comes to an end. The Dark Ages flow over into the mid-Geometric period. Potters start to enrich the decorations of the vases with forms of people, animals and—in the so-called Orientalizing style—with lions, panthers, rosettes, palmettes and lotus flowers. Lastly, in the Late Geometric Period, the artists start to communicate with the viewer by adding narrative content into the decorations. The Late Geometric period is the start-up of the pre-Classic Greek history and it coincides with the formative stage of Homeric poetry.

The decorative theme of the meander is at the core of it—everything that figures is reduced to this essential ingredient [1] [2].

Around the mid-eighth century BCE the entrance of the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens is flanked by two pylons. Craters marked the places of males, amphorae those of females. They were painted in a Late Geometric style, many of the by the same artist: the so-called Dipylon Master (active 770–750 BCE, Athens) [3].

Fragments of a beautiful kratēr made by the Dipylon Master are shown in Figures 1 and 2. The vase, a grave-marker and one of the high points of the Geometric period, is decorated with scenes of a funerary event; a corpse’s procession, named ekphorae, showing the deceased on a bier flanked by mourners, passing silently through the streets of Athens.

Fore and aft of the bier are chariots, horses, and warriors carrying the Dipylon type of shields. The section beneath the handles represents a warship, suggesting that the deceased was a naucraros: a part of the Athenian maritime nobility [4]. Each human in the decoration consists of a triangle for a torso, the two long sides of which extend into arms which are raised in lament. The hands close above the heads, thus forming a second, larger, triangle. The faces point in the direction of the procession. The waist lines are slender; the legs are curved sections, providing a rather athletic profile.

The patterned veil that has been put over the deceased is painted above him, rather than over him, so all parts can be depicted, and the dead man is shown as if viewed directly from above. For the same reason, the horses, standing beside each other, have their legs put in the same plane. The artist used dimensions, aspect, and relative placement of the various elements rather on basis of essence than in an attempt for realistic representation [5].

Figure 1: Dipylon vase: transport of the mortal remains to the place of burial. / Photo by Hervé Lewandowski, Louvre Museum

Figure 2: Dipylon vase: guardian birds surrounding the ship of the deceased. / Photo by Hervé Lewandowski, Louvre Museum

Figure 3: Dipylon vase: detail of the ship’s forebody. / Photo by Kosmos, Louvre Museum

The narrative that is decorated on the vase is split-out over various compartmentalized sections. The section below the handles shows an elegant vessel with a slender hull, curved keel contour and a large stem with horn. The athletic oarsmen framed in this section, at which we look as if it were through a window, keep the ship at speed. In the image, however, they are arrested in the stop-motion picture that tells the narrative of the depicted event.

The ship itself is protected by long-necked water birds at the bow and stern and garlanded by the handles of the vase. The shape of the bird-heads, facing in the direction of the procession, which is toward the stern of the ship, regenerates in the curved contour of the stem post. This gives the impression of the ship being “steep-horned” [orthokráraon]. The cutwater [steira] is reduced to its essential lines and curves slightly upward in a continuation of the lines of the keel contour. The wheel in the side of the bow seems to be a decoration; or is there an essential meaning that we do not know of? The remaining spaces are filled with talismanic flowers and butterflies [6].

For the interpretation of the ships depicted on the Geometric vases one wonders whether the ships are fitted with a deck, fitted with a fighting platform that runs from fore to aft, or even fitted with an upper level and a lower level of rowers. Let’s first look at some guidance from the Homeric poetry, which in this same 8th century period was taking on its present shape. 

From this textual source we know that the dual benched ships of Odysseus were single decked, with a raised deck at the stern and in the forebody. The open ships of Homer were áphraktos (undefended, not fenced). The name áphraktos may be at the origin of our word “frigate”. The deck of the ships was a deck in the full sense, adding safety and seaworthiness to the design.

An ancient ship having one line of oarsmen on the portside and one line on the starboard was called dikrotos (compare monokrotos; single-banked) or, synonymously “diērēs”: a two-banked galley. 

Furthermore, the ships were classified against the number of oarsmen that they carried: thirty-oared ship was a triākontoros and a fifty-oared long ship a pentekontoros. The latter, the pentekontoros became the standard Greek war-vessel, paving the way for the Roman biremis and triremis, which were very well defined multi-level ships types. The name diērēs suggests something that was never there: a standard class of ancient Greek two-decked ships. [7]

Lastly, we know that the ancient ship on 6th century vases—depicted in more realistic detail—were covered by a single main deck only. I would therefore argue that the raised deck, as shown on the ships on the Dipylon vases, is a geometric technique in which the relative placement of the deck is based rather on a wish to depict the oarsmen in detail—their triangular bodies shown from the front—than on the need for a realistic representation of the event.

Notes on historic background

A side note should be that history is written through the acts of lords; lords who lived in cities. Most people, however, lived outside the cities. They were barberoi; people who spoke a language that, in the Greek ear, sounded like “bar-bar”. They paid no tax, did not conduct involuntary labor and they could move freely through the country. [1] The term “Dark Ages” is therefore an expression that is mainly used by the people that are interested in the acts of lords: the common man continued his business as usual. [2]

Notes on the use of the aft deck:

  • Iliad 15.729: Therefore, he left the raised deck at the stern, and stepped back on to the seven-foot bench of the oarsmen.
  • Odyssey 2.416: Telemachus shared the aft deck with Athena on the voyage to Pylos and with Theoclymenus on the way back [Odyssey 15.285].
  • Odyssey 12. 411: The falling mast struck the head of the helmsman in the stern of the ship
  • Odyssey 13.73: Odysseus slept on the aft deck of the Phaeacian ship during the voyage to Ithaka. 

Note on the use of the foredeck: 

  • Odyssey 12.229: I stepped onto the foredeck.

Notes on the application of a curved keel and bow line, allowing the ship to be easily beached:

  • Odyssey 13.113–115: The ship, hard-driven, ran up onto the beach for as much as half her length, such was the force the hands of the oarsmen gave her.
  • Odyssey 4.778–86: And off they went to the swift ship on the shore. They dragged her first of all into deep water.

The Kerameikos Vase

The Kerameikos Kratēr

The Athenian Kerameikos was the potters’ quarter of the city, from which the English word “ceramic” is derived. Kerameikos was named after Keramos, son of Dionysos and Ariadne, hero of potters [8

The Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam is one of my favorites and as it goes, I fell for a reconstruction mounted to the wall in a corridor of this Museum, below a light switch. The painting showed a huge oared ship, fully manned. Two sides of a transparent plate have been covered with the image of a two-banked galley [dikrotos]. Inspired by the replica I went looking for the original, which appeared to be a painting on the front of a mixing vessel, a kratēr, painted in the tradition of the Dipylon Master, dated about 735 BCE (Late Geometric).

This vase, from Thebes, is kept at the British Museum. [5] The vase depicts the scene of Ariadne and Theseus departing from Crete. Maybe the woman is not Ariadne, but Penelope, Helen or Medea or someone we do not know about, but let us assume she is Ariadne, identified by the circular object that she holds in her hand. This object may be the Crown of Light with which she lighted the labyrinth, helping Theseus in combat and escape. After Theseus left Ariadne on Naxos, Dionysos placed her diadem into another crown of light, immortalizing her in a small constellation named Corona Borealis. [6]

A particularly notable pedestalled kratēr of this area is kept at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, where it is soberly referred to as the New York MMA 34.11.2 vase [2]. The vase is dated to the late first quarter of the 8th century BCE.

The main subject of the vase’s decoration is the lying-in-state of a body [prothesis] as depicted in the central metope on each side of the vase. For us, however, the interest is the frieze with two ships imaged below the handle zone, as depicted in Figure 1 below.

The image shows a ship that is quite like the ship depicted on the Dipylon vase. The height of the forecastle of the ship and the horns of the bow contour do not extend above shoulder level of the standing fighters. This quite agrees with the shoulder height of the sitting oarsmen on the Dipylon ship. A difference, however, is that the artist used a different scale for the horizontal dimensions of the Kerameikos ship. The horizontal scale of the Kerameikos image suggests a ship of considerable length while the length of the Dipylon ship allows for four oarsmen only. I would like to argue that the dimensions of both depicted ships are essentially the same.

The wheel-shaped feature in the forebody compares to that of the Dipylon ship but has been framed within a square construction in place of where the catheads should be. [3] Also, in other places in the fore and aft, the paint strokes of the Kerameikos artist depicts more details of the hull structure than his colleagues of the Dipylon cemetery.

Figure 1: The Kerameikos kratēr: a theoretical voyage overtaken by events

To describe the imaged scene, we should firstly note the figure sitting under an awning in the center of the ship. Is he the delegate of a city, a theōros; a man on a theoretical voyage with the objective of broadening his vision? Behind his back, three Odyssean raiders [4] disturb his “rose-colored vision” and his silhouette gives away the state of panic that he is in. The raiders wear the typical Dipylon shield.

The water bird that is perched on the stern of the ships suggests that the death of our theoros is near. Some solace may be found in the idea that his terrible fate resulted in immortalization through depiction on this beautiful grave-marking vase.

For the description of the ship I will stay close to Professor Moore of Hunter College of the City University of New York. In her paper “Ships on a ‘Wine-Dark Sea’ in the age of Homer” for the Metropolitan Museum of Art she observes how the essence of Geometric narrative is that everything, whether figure or object, is reduced to its essential ingredients. I therefore dare to doubt that the decorative band below the ship represents the strip of land on which the ship has beached, or that the deck over which the warriors move around, is a raised deck. Quite like what we see on the Dipylon vases, the relative placement of the deck and warriors is based on the wish to depict the event in detail rather than on the wish to provide the observer with a realistic representation. Although we see the depicted persons on a raised level, the imaged ship is operated from one single level, being the main deck. The sails are not shown as they play no role in the narrative context.

Both the Dipylon ship and the Kerameikos ship qualify as dual benched ships [dikrotos], quite like those of Odysseus; single decked, with a raised deck both at the stern and in the horned forebody. The profile of this áphraktos shows the stanchions in between which side-screens could be placed. The horizontal line above the gunwale that goes through the middle of the stanchions compares with the horizontal rails that are on the ship’s image of the François kratēr. The oars are operated from underneath the rails.

Figure 2: The Kerameikos kratēr: detail of the stern of the ship.

Also, the Kerameikos ship cannot be classified against the number of oarsmen that she carried: the seventy stanchions do not necessarily indicate 140 rowers, as the distance between two stanchions does not necessarily match with the size of the interscalmium: the space between one oar, and another.  Apparently, the crew does not have relevance, because apart from the indication that they are large in number, they remain out of sight. The same applies to the steersman, or kubernētēs, because his steering-oar [pēdálion] is left unattended.

The Thebes Vase

The Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam is one of my favorites and as it goes, I fell for a reconstruction mounted to the wall in a corridor of this Museum, below a light switch. The painting showed a huge oared ship, fully manned. Two sides of a transparent plate have been covered with the image of a two-banked galley [dikrotos]. Inspired by the replica I went looking for the original, which appeared to be a painting on the front of a mixing vessel, a kratēr, painted in the tradition of the Dipylon Master, dated about 735 BCE (Late Geometric).

This vase, from Thebes, is kept at the British Museum. [9] The vase depicts the scene of Ariadne and Theseus departing from Crete. Maybe the woman is not Ariadne, but Penelope, Helen or Medea or someone we do not know about, but let us assume she is Ariadne, identified by the circular object that she holds in her hand. This object may be the Crown of Light with which she lighted the labyrinth, helping Theseus in combat and escape. After Theseus left Ariadne on Naxos, Dionysos placed her diadem into another crown of light, immortalizing her in a small constellation named Corona Borealis. [10]

Figure 3: Thebes vase: detail of Ariadne and Theseus.

From left to right we see the image of Ariadne, detailed with long hair and wearing a latticed robe. Theseus takes a good grip at her arm and is ready to board the ship. With one hand he holds the stern post and his foot is lifted for the step. The vertical height of the two persons exceeds the distance from keel to the top of the stern contour. The height of the oarsmen compares with the height of the small Dipylon shield, shown in silhouette, that is casually stored on the raised aft deck.

The contour of the stern of the ship curves inward. The ship, ready for departure, is appended with a set of two steering-oars. On the prow is a long-necked water bird in silhouette, looking in the direction where the ship will go.

About forty rowers are shown. The relative placement of the decks suggests two vertical levels, but let’s assume that essentially all rowers are on the main deck. The artist of the Allard Pierson Museum, however, expresses that the ship is too short for twenty rowers in a line [stoikhos] and suggests two ranks of single rowers, divided over two vertical levels.

Figure 4: Thebes vase: overview of the depicted ship (reconstruction).

Figure 5: Thebes vase.

In Classic Greece there was less doubt that the heroic ships were double-decked, as we can take it from Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs [7]:

Aeschylus
Then you taught all our youth how to be idle chatterers and crap on about nonsense all day. You’ve emptied our wrestling schools and destroyed the wonderful bums of our young men. All they do is stand around these days, chattering and chattering and encouraged the crew of our public ship, Paralus, to talk back to their commanders. Not like the olden days when all these men knew was how to pull hard at the oar and shout, “heavvvvvve hooooo!” That’s how they’d earn their food!

Dionysus
By Apollo, how true is that, ey?  Hehehe!  Those on the upper rows would fart straight into the mouth of the rowers below, drop shit into his mess mate’s food bowl and when they’re out on the shore for their leave, they steal everyone’s clothes…They were the days!

Aristophanes Frogs 1069–1075, translated by G. Theodoris

Appendix

Notes

  1. Scott, James C. 2017. Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States.
  2. Sandars N. K. 1985, The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean 1250–1150 BC.
  3. Denoyelle, Martine. 1994. Chefs-d’oeuvre de la céramique grecque dans les collections du Louvre.
  4. Kirk, G. S. Ships on Geometric Vases
  5. Moore, Mary B. 2000, Ships on a ‘Wine-Dark Sea in the Age of Homer.
  6. Casson Lionel. 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World.
  7. “The locale [khōrion] known as the Kerameikos has its name from the hero Keramos, and they say that he too was son of Dionysus and Ariadne”. Pausanius 1.3.1 translation by Jones 1918, modified by Gregory Nagy 2017.11.06 (Classical Inquiries, 2017.11.09)
  8. Terracotta Krater attributed to the Workshop of New York MMA 34.11.2, The Met Fifth Avenue, New York.
  9. Epōtides; beams projecting like ears on each side of a ship’s bow. Sometimes the expression is used for box-like structures, outside of the bulwark.
  10. Odysseus declared, although within the context of a lie, that he led nine successful maritime raids prior to the Trojan War (Odyssey 14.229–233).
  11. Pottery spouted krater, Athenian Geometric, 735–720 BCE, BM, GR 1899.0219.1. British Museum.
  12. Corona Borealis is a small constellation in the Northern Celestial Hemisphere. It is one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy and remains one of the 88 modern constellations.
  13. The Aristophanes comedy The Frogs dates from 405 BCE. Translation by G. Theodoris

Bibliography

Biers, William R. 1996. The Archaeology of Greece, an Introduction. Ithaca. Cornell University Press, 

Casson Lionel. 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press. Available online at Project MUSE, Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.

Denoyelle, Martine. 1994. Chefs-d’oeuvre de la céramique grecque dans les collections du Louvre, 1994, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux.

Emanuel, J. P. 2017. Black Ships and Sea Raiders: The Late Bronze–Early Iron Age Context of Odysseus’ Second Cretan Lie. Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kirk, G. S. “Ships on Geometric Vases”. The Annual of the British School at Athens 44 (1949): 93–153. doi:10.1017/S0068245400017196.

Moore, Mary B. 2000, Ships on a ‘Wine-Dark Sea in the Age of Homer, Metropolitan Museum Journal v35, New York

Sandars N. K. 1985, The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean 1250-1150 BC, Fibula-Van Dishoek, Haarlem. 

Scott, James C. 2017. Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press.

Wachsmann, Shelly. 2008. Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series. Texas A&M University Press. College Station, Texas.

Whitley, James. 2001 The Archaeology of Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Originally published by the Kosmos Society, The Center for Hellenic Studies under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.

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