Hints of Noah's Ark in Ancient Ships

Copyright Tim Lovett Nov 2005 | Home | Menu

Clues from the Earliest Ship Designs

According to the Bible, all people on earth are descended from Noah's three sons. The flood left nothing of previous civilizations and their technology, so the Ark is the archetype of all ancient ships in our history (the time since the Flood). Shipwrights tend to stick with tradition, so when they built ancient ships they may have included features of the original Noah's Ark. For example;

"This projecting forefoot, evidenced as early as the third millennium B.C., is a feature that will be found during the whole of antiquity, on seagoing craft as well as small boats. Its reason for being is unclear. A bifid stem, which leaves a very similar projection at the waterline, is characteristic of many forms of primitive craft, skin boats, dugouts, and even planked boats. Shipwrights, who are as conservative as seamen, may simply have perpetuated it as a traditional feature." Casson 1 

So the familiar high stem and even the projecting forefoot may have been inherited from the first ship in our history - Noah's Ark. 

 

 Clues from Ancient Ships.  With Noah's three sons steeped in marine technology, the emergence of a shipbuilding industry soon after the Flood should come as no surprise.   

So if we see particular traits in ancient ships, the chances are they may have been derived from the archetype of all ships - Noah's Ark.

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Mysterious Stern Appendage

(Note: All quotes from Casson 1 unless otherwise stated.)

Compared to ancient construction in stone, we know relatively little about ancient ships, especially anything prior to 2000 B.C.  

(Fig 23, Casson) Clay model from Palaikastro, Crete. Before 3000-2000 B.C.

"The hull in a good many representations terminates at one end in a lofty vertical or nearly vertical post, while the other, with no upright fixture at all, trails off into a low horizontal extension at the waterline."

(Fig 22, Casson) Terracotta "frying pan" from Syros, before 2000BC. Notice the waves shown as spirals, indicative of the orbital motion of real ocean waves.

Outline from the terracotta image above. One of the earliest pictures of a large ship, a multi-oared galley. The Aegean craft were not the double-ended design like the Egyptian typecast. Casson strongly argues that the lofty stem was the prow, the trailing appendage at the stern - exactly opposite to the (much) later Greek warships. (See Appendix). A fish symbol appears to be mounted on a pivot at the top of the prow, perhaps acting as a wind vane to detect wind direction relative to the vessel. The cords or beams hanging below it are rather mysterious, although they might conceivably act as some sort of wind catching element.. 

The hull is slender, straight, and low; joining it at a sharp, almost right-angle is a narrow and high-rising stempost bearing at its top a fish-shaped device; the stern, finished off equally sharply with apparently nothing more than a vertical transom, has a needlelike projection at waterline level. And, though the drawing is too primitive to inspire faith in the exact number of oars shown, the clear implication is that there was a good number. We see, in effect, a sizable swift galley whose shape is particularly distinguished by the absence of curves. Its descent from a dugout seems beyond question, and this is just what we would expect in an area as well supplied with timber as the Aegean was during the Bronze Age.

Casson asserts "beyond question" that this design is a legacy of the dugout, yet gives little support for this theory. His only hint is the "swift" form and an "absence of curves". In the rest of his writings, Casson points to dugouts and reedboats as the only true ancestors of the ship (assuming inflated skins as a developmental dead-end). Casson's statement about the angularity of the vessel presumably excludes the reedboat as an ancestor, leaving only one alternative - the dugout. Yet a "primitive" dugout is no near relative of this ship. The scale (32 oars, 16 on each side), and the shape (high stem and appendage) show a vessel about as opposite to a dugout as one could get. With a gradual evolution of ships in mind, the dugout is simply Casson's estimate of a primitive origin in wood rather that reeds, but Noah's Ark makes a more appropriate prototype.

Is this where they got the idea? A proposed Noah's Ark with the Biblical slender hull, and directional stormkeeping afforded by a high prow and a trailing stern. 

These craft reappear on a series of graffiti that span the second millennium B.C.

(Fig 24,27 Casson) Graffiti found on Malta, ca. 1600 B.C, and from Cyprus, 1200-1100 B.C.

The graffito from Cyprus, reproduces every feature of the Syros ships down to the projection at the stern. It also includes a sail—presumably the mast was stepped and sail stowed away in all the other representations—which is shown bellying toward the high end. This settles once and for all a long-standing argument about which end of these ships was the prow. 2 

We know Cretan ships almost wholly from tiny and often stylized portrayals on seals. Despite the lack of detail, one point seems fairly clear: the island's shipwrights went in chiefly for rounded hulls distinguishable at a glance from the straight-lined, angular-ended Aegean versions. In the earliest period, before 1600 B.C. or so, the prow alone was rounded (and finished off with a three-pronged or arrow-shaped device), and the stern was given an appendage or bifurcation. This last feature is a puzzle, whose solution will have to wait until more evidence turns up. With the passage of time, as we shall see in a moment, both ends came to be rounded.

Depictions on ancient Minoan seals dated around 2000 B.C. also show an asymmetrical profile, a high stem at one end and low extension at the other. While the illustrations are to a certain extent symbolic, the repetition of certain details adds credibility to the depictions. For example, the lofty stem has a forked appearance, something akin to the raised stem of the Greek triremes some 1500 years later. Contrary to the theory linking these early ships with the much later Greek trireme with its ramming bow, there was an extended intervening period when ships were rounded at both ends. 

Minoan seals, ca. 2000 BC, edited from Casson figures 34,35. Casson claims the the first figure shows the high end as prow; (See Appendix).

Cretan vessels around 1500 B.C. had a prominent prow and stern, both devoid of any ornamental device. It is very clear that the origin of so called "ornamental" stems was not ornamental at all. They appear to have have been there for a reason, such as passive stormkeeping effected by catching the wind at one end.

The clay models that have been preserved, from Cyprus and Melos and other islands as well as Crete, seem to show small craft. The most significant are a few which have a distinct projection where the stempost joins keel (occasionally where stern-post joins keel as well)... This projecting forefoot, evidenced as early as the third millennium B.C., is a feature that will be found during the whole of antiquity, on seagoing craft as well as small boats. Its reason for being is unclear. A bifid stem, which leaves a very similar projection at the waterline, is characteristic of many forms of primitive craft, skin boats, dugouts, and even planked boats. Shipwrights, who are as conservative as seamen, may simply have perpetuated it as a traditional feature.

(Fig 54, Casson) Small craft with bifid stem - projecting forefoot together with a raised stem. Clay model from Mochlos "2700-2500"BC

Scant as it is, the evidence unmistakably reveals the second millennium B.C. as a crucial period for Mediterranean maritime history. It witnessed the development of the true seagoing ship, both galley and sailing craft, built with some system of internal bracing.(...) The Aegean produced a hull design distinguished by straight lines, angled ends, and a lofty prow; this, brought further along by the Bronze Age Greeks, served as prototype for the later Greek warship and very possibly the merchantman.

Thera Fresco

One of the best examples of the stern appendage is found in the 13th-century BC fresco from the island of Thera (Santorini, 60 miles from Crete). The extended feature is clearly stern. Interestingly, these  illustrations seem to indicate the feature was added to the hull. The stem is long and slender with mysterious objects attached, similar to the Aegean "frying pan ship". If a storm wind came against the side of the vessel, the stem would catch the wind while the stern appendage drags in the water, turning the vessel around until the stern points into the waves. 

The Thera ships have one other interesting feature, namely the flat projection extending outwards from the stern just above the supposed waterline level. This has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate both in terms of the relationship between the Thera ships and other contemporary ships known to exist on the same area. and of the function of the stern projection on the ships themselves. (J.S. Illsley 8)

Egyptian ships are assumed to follow a reed-boat form - curved up at both bow and stern often with each end tied with a rope over the mast to counter hogging. Even after they began importing timber to build boats in wood, the Egyptian form remained relatively distinct, with a gradual upturn at each end. In Egypt, a "reed-boat" shape does not preclude wood as a building material. 

Egyptian craftsmen shaping a wooden ship, the form apparently inherited from their reed boats.

Designed for a Seakeeping Function

If other nations supposedly used a ramming bow in those early years, why not Egypt? 6

 

Noah's Ark remembered in China

In China, the same worldwide flood described in Genesis was remembered in the ancient Book of Documents (Shu Jing), written around 1000 B.C. The main character in the legend is Nuwa, who escaped a flood where "the heavens were broken, the nine states of China experienced continental shift and were split, and water flooded mountains and drowned all living things." 7 While the story is one of countless flood legends around the globe, the Chinese have even more clues contained in their ancient characters. 

One of the better known is the Chinese symbol for ship (large boat), being the combination of symbols for boat, eight and mouth (or person to feed). In other words, a concept of a large boat originated with the famous eight-person boat, Noah's Ark. Following images from Voo K.S (TJ 2005).

The is a similarity between the asymmetrical shape of the Chinese boat symbol and the depictions from the Mediterranean around 2000 B.C. There is no "ramming bow" argument in this part of the world, so why is the Chinese boat so obviously high on one and and low on the other?

The following undated forms of the character for boat or ship show some more asymmetrical profiles. These bronzeware characters are "probably the side view of a boat with a roof" (from 15, fig 3). 

It appears the third symbol became the default representation for "boat", which is not the familiar equal-ended Noah's Ark depiction. The most interesting symbol is the fourth one;  

A side (profile) view of a pointed hull with protrusions on either end - perhaps one to catch the water and the other to catch the wind. Such as arrangement could create the self-steering effect on a drifting ship to keep it riding through waves instead of being trapped side-on (broaching to a beam sea). Although this may appear to be reading a lot into one small Chinese symbol, the anti-symmetry of bow and stern is otherwise mysterious in these early depictions. 

A high prow and trailing stern already makes perfect sense for a drifting ship designed to handle wind generated seas, so the hint of asymmetrical bow and stern depicted in the earliest ships reinforces the case for a wind-steered Noah's Ark.  


Appendix: Which End was the Front?

The hull in a good many representations terminates at one end in a lofty vertical or nearly vertical post, while the other, with no upright fixture at all, trails off into a low horizontal extension at the waterline.

This evidence is hardly debated, but one question remains; Which end is the front (prow)? Casson believes the high end is the prow, exactly the opposite to the (much) later design of the bow ram seen on Greek warships. Other commentators conclude the horizontal extension was the forerunner of the ramming bow, but Casson argues the original depictions show otherwise. He highlights the controversy as follows;

Some take the high end for the prow, some the low.3 To complicate matters, those who take the low end for the prow see in the horizontal extension the earliest form of that naval weapon par excellence of the ancient world, the ram.4 Though there were enough clues to have settled the question long ago,5 new evidence (the lead models and Fig. 27; cf. 31 above) provides an incontrovertible answer: it is the high end that is the prow. With this established, the argument for the ram at this period ceases to exist. The horizontal extension still needs explaining, but, until conclusive evidence turns up, little is gained by guessing.

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References

1. Casson, L., Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, Princeton Univ. Press, 1971 Revised 1995 John Hopkins Univ. Press. Ch3  Return to text

The following references 2 - 6 and comments by Casson (simplified);

2. Lead models found on Naxos, show the low end, finished off in a sort of transom, as the stern, and the high end, coming to a point, as the prow. C. Renfrew, "Cycladic Metallurgy and the Aegean Early Bronze Age," AJA 71 (1967) pp1-20, esp. 5, 18. Return to text

3 Earlier commentators who view the low end as the prow; Miltner F., Seewesen in RE, Supplementband v, (1931) p906, ;  Marinatos S., "La marine creto-mycenienne," BCH 57 (1933) pp182-183, 125-27. Return to text

4 This opinion, flourishing for a while (cf. Marinatos 183), then rejected (Marinatos 183, note 4; Miltner 906), has been revived by Kirk G., "Ships on Geometric Vases," BSA 44 (1949) pp125-127 and is back in the handbooks (cf., e.g., F. Matz, Kreta, Mykene, Troja, Stuttgart 1956, p. 77). See also note 6 below. Return to text

5 For one, to take the low end as prow means that the fish emblem points backward, which goes not only contrary to sense but to the location of the emblem on the one example we have where prow and stern are indisputable. For another, high prow and low stern are characteristic of early craft (see Evans, Palace of Minos n 240-41), which is why the specialists see no problem (cf., e.g., C. Hawkes, The Prehistoric Foundations of Europe, London 1940, p. 156; Behn in M. Ebert, Reallexikon der Vorgeschichte XI 240 [1927]; Woolner, op. cit. 63). Among those who take the low end as prow, only Marinates has studied the question comprehensively, and behind his conclusion lie inconsistencies and inconclusive statistics; see L. Cohen, "Evidence for the Ram in the Minoan Period," AJA 42 (1938) 486-94, esp. 489, notes 7, 8. Return to text

6 Kirk (125-27) simply accepts Marinatos' conclusion that the low end is the prow, making no effort to improve on the arguments, and holds that the projections were at first structural but then soon became a ram. That neither Homer nor the Peoples of the Sea knew anything of the ram he explains by assuming that the ships involved were all merchantmen. This posits a distinction between oared merchant vessels and warships which is not only unproven but most unlikely at this age. And what of the Egyptian ships shown attacking the Peoples of the Sea (Fig. 61)—fighting craft pure and simple, yet with no ram? If the ram was known in the Bronze Age, the Egyptians would necessarily have adopted it, for it was a weapon like the naval gun—once one fleet had it, all had to have it. Return to text

7. Voo K.S., Sheeley R., Hovee, L.D.,  Noah's Ark hidden in the ancient Chinese characters, TJ 19(2): 96-108, 2005.  Return to text

8. From History and Archaeology of the Ship http://www.arch.soton.ac.uk/Prospectus/CMA/HistShip/index.htm. The Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Department of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. Return to text


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