The sea in the Straits looks calm on the surface in spite of the currents.
Off the coastal plain where Achaeans and Trojans waged war for ten years, ships now pass quietly. Winds, waves, gales, are still lurking, just as when they were kept at bay by sacrifices to the Gods. But, everything else looks different.
The large eyes on our ship’s bow look concentrated on the course, as much as those of the helmsman. The oars have been pulled onboard: here the wind always blows southward, in our direction and the wide square sail is enough to pull us ahead.
Others, long before us, were not as lucky, and after being dashed against African shores, had to suffer ten more years at sea, before going back. We are coming back home too; after a three year long journey, our ship, scarred by the hardships she endured, is returning to her home port. She bears the name of a Goddess, in fact, the Mother of the Gods, the Mother Goddess by definition, the Mistress of Animals.
The half-naked oarsmen rest in the sun, enjoying the morning warmth. Even in the summer, nights are chilly when sleeping on a ship’s deck.
But suddenly, the call of a siren, closer and closer, brings unrest to the crew: the helmsman veers sharply, the sail deflates, and the ship slows down. A modern missile corvette of the Turkish Navy closes by, turns around us, and gives a salute with another blow of its siren — coming across a 6th century BCE bireme does not happen every day, even in Dardanelles, facing the ruins of Troy.
Kybele, as our ship is named, is the replica of a Phocaean bireme, one of the ships that sailed at the end of the Archaic Period of Ancient Greece from the Aegean Sea to find colonies in the Western Mediterranean. She was born by Professor Osman Erkurt’s mind, and hands, in an Experimental Archeology project in cooperation with the Department of Archeology of Ankara University (ANKUSAM), directed by Professor Hayat Erkanal.
During summer 2009, Kybele has travelled from Foça, Turkey to Marseille, France, which was founded by colonists from the ancient Phokaia. I met her at that time, while she was passing between Punta Campanella, with the ruins of the temple that according to Strabo Odysseus was dedicated to Athena, and the Island of Capri.
After an incredible series of hardships, she landed in Istanbul, where she was involved in the “European Capital of Culture 2010” events, and in an exhibition about ancient seafaring. Then, with 24 hours’ notice, she departed from Pendik Marina, on the Asian side of the Turkish metropolis, heading to Foça, where she had sailed off three years earlier, to celebrate its anniversary. The telephone call I had waited for three years made me rush to Istanbul, and the next day I was part of the ruffled crew of an ancient ship.
Experimental Archeology is a new way to study ancient artifacts, tools or vehicles.
To head out at sea on a ship similar to those of ancient seafarers can teach us a lot about navigation in those times, but it can also tell us something about seamen’s conditions too.
Sleeping on decks, living in a cramped space with no shelter from the sun or salt, with little fresh water and a bucket as a latrine, can surely give some ideas about the living conditions aboard. But to sail by sight, in nowadays’ familiar world, is not like traveling on an unknown sea, without the relief of a map, along deserted or perhaps hostile lands. Any navigational skill was enclosed in the pilot’s mind, the only one capable of memorizing routes and references, to reach a destination and, with the Gods’ help, to return home.
We have GPS, maps, compasses, cellular phones and even the internet, but even with none of these things, each of us knows where we are, knows at least roughly the course and the Sea we are crossing, and the destination’s location. The feeling of a sailor or an oarsman of the past must have been very similar to that of a sci-fi movie’s astronaut.
And still, the sea voyages occurred, ships departed, and most importantly, did come back, loaded with booty, or merchandise.
“We still know too little about the history of seafaring. But new discoveries are challenging many of our old convictions, and cast new light on a more and more fascinating history” professor Erkurt explains to a group of visitors, during Kybele’s stop in harbor. “We believed that it was only possible to sail in sight of the shore, but recently in Crete, Cyprus and the Cyclades, artifacts dating as far back as the Paleolithic period have been found: those ancient seafarers did not know metals, but they could sail for days in open sea!”
Professor Erkurt knows firsthand the risks and chances of ancient seafaring: before Kybele, he reconstructed the famous Uluburun shipwreck, from the 14th Century BCE, on which he sailed five thousand miles along Turkey and Cyprus’ shores.
“One of the things which surprised us, with Uluburun II, and then with Kybele as well, has been the resistance of these boats to rough seas. On Uluburun II, in the same spot where the original ship sank, we faced a terrible storm, which badly damaged the support motor yacht, but not our ship. The same thing happened later with Kybele, on the journey to France.”
Actually, both Uluburun II and Kybele, are experiments about sea routes and navigational abilities, not about naval construction: both of them have been built with modern planking, if still along ancient ships lines, and not by the original “mortise and tenon” system, much stronger though very difficult to follow. But Professor Erkurt’s next project with Professor Erkanal’s ANKUSAM, is also concerned with shipbuilding: in a series of more and more complex experiments, he built hypothetical Cycladic boats, from the first Maritime Civilization in the Aegean Sea, in 2500 BCE, made up of stitched planks, with no use of caulking or metals.
On them, Professor Erkurt will sail for his next voyage.
“Archaeology usually studies remains left behind by human beings who lived before us. With these experiments, on the contrary, we are our own guinea pigs, to study not only techniques, but even the feelings of men and women who preceded us.” finishes Professor Erkurt.
And so, when the World seems to be completely explored, to learn how to see through different eyes means to begin again to discover new things, things which seemed to be known, but were lost instead.
Originally published in Italian on Mediterranea