The evidence from all sources falls short of what is needed for a complete description of the ships; for although our information on certain points is ample and conclusive, there are many points on which we have no information whatever. Practically, this is not a matter of importance, as nobody is likely to resuscitate the ancient style of shipbuilding in its entirety; and hitherto no attention has been given to the devices that might still be serviceable. (Torr 1895, ix)
Objectives and Methods of Ancient Warship Study
The objective of ancient warship study through archaeological evidence is not to test hypotheses based on written and iconographic evidence developed by historians. Rather it is compulsory upon archaeologists to assess the material culture associated with ancient warships, from which separate hypotheses will emerge.
The study and expertise of the archaeologist, and particularly maritime archaeologists, includes the methods of construction, types of material, and performance characteristics associated with ancient sea-going vessels. Direct examination of ancient hull timbers provides a unique analytical perspective for maritime archaeologists. Moreover, the first-hand interaction with ancient wrecksites also provides distinctive knowledge concerning the utilization of, and depositional environments for, ancient vessels. The nature of the material culture and its assessment by archaeologists can address questions different from those dealt with by historians. Once archaeologically-based hypotheses are formed, it is possible to then create a dialogue with those based on historical and iconographic evidence.
Hierarchy of Evidence
Implicit within the archaeological study of warships and rams is a hierarchy of evidence in the formation of hypotheses. This hierarchy is:
- Direct Archaeological Evidence – warship timbers and waterline rams
- Indirect Archaeological Evidence – ship sheds
- Inscriptions / Lists – dedicatory, inventories
- Historical Accounts – the accounts in ancient histories and literature
- Iconography – paintings, sculptures, reliefs, coins
Moreover, the ordered nature of the list reflects only the relative rank of evidence types, but does not reflect the full qualitative differential. For example, the ‘gap’ if you will between Direct and Indirect Archaeological Evidence is far less than the gap between Historical Accounts and Iconography. Scholars have wrestled with the design, construction, and operation of ancient warships since the middle ages. Arguments for the nature of ancient warships played out in early scholarly journals of the 19th century. However, the data available to the scholars of these earlier periods was limited to inscriptions, literary references and iconography; no direct archaeological data was available. As such these early scholars were ancient historians and classicists, while archaeologists were largely on the sidelines. In 1895, Torr published a comprehensive article on the subject as it stood at the time and included a hierarchy of the evidence he used: inscriptions at the forefront, then statements by ancient authors, followed by the remains of docks and shipsheds, and lastly artistic works. Another prominent work by Torr in 1905 essentially followed this hierarchy of available data. Over the course of the 20th century two major trends were taking place. First, the ancient historians and classicists were gradually turning this hierarchy of data on its head and establishing more of their arguments on a foundation of iconography and artistic works.
The Effect of Direct Evidence on Maritime Archaeology
The second trend was the advent of maritime archaeology beginning in the 1960s that over the course of several decades provided a solid understanding of ancient ship construction based on direct archaeological evidence. All of the evidence for ancient ship construction in the Mediterranean was derived from the analysis of merchant vessels. It was not until 1980 that the first direct evidence for ancient warships came to light, the Athlit Ram. Steffy (1991) was able to apply his intimate knowledge of ancient ship construction to the timber remains of the Athit warship and thus ushered archaeologists’ into the study of ancient warships. While ancient historians continued to build layer upon layer of hypotheses on what was increasingly iconographic and literary sources, archaeologists were forced to await supplementary direct evidence for ancient warships in order to further their lines of inquiry. Additional indirect archaeological evidence was investigated at this time, such as the Actium War Memorial by Murray (Murray and Petsas 1989) and Blackman’s (1982, 1987, 1991, 1995) work on ancient shipsheds. With the discovery of the Battle of the Egadi Islands archaeological new direct archaeological evidence was provided. Additionally, there was the serendipitous find of the Acqualodroni ram in 2008 off NE Sicily.
The numerous rams and associated artifacts discovered with the Egadi rams is providing a wide variety of data for archaeologists to pursue the investigation of ancient warships. Archaeologists are now forming new hypotheses about the construction and nature of ancient warships that are often independent of those proffered by ancient historians and classicists. For the archaeologists, the hierarchy of data is quite different and yet more consistent with the earlier tradition: direct archaeological evidence, indirect archaeological evidence, inscriptions, followed by literary references and finally iconography. Armed with new direct evidence for ship construction, operations, deposition, and use of materials, our understanding of ancient warships will become clearer.