Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


28 March 2021

A. B. Knapp, 2018. Seafaring and Seafarers in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean, Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Softcover, 296 p., 5 maps, 40 b/w figures, 20 color figures, 5 maps, ISBN: 978-90-8890-554-4.

Reviewed by Stefanos Spanos (Ephorate of Antiquities of Eastern Attica, PhD in Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Athens)

In his book Seafaring and Seafarers in the Bronze Age Eastern Me­diterranean Knapp deals with seafaring in 7 chapters. Preface and acknowledgements precede (p. 11-12) and then follows the list of illustrations.  In the preface, Knapp expresses his gratitude to some scholars for their comments and/or unpublished material and the drawings of illustrations. The e-book version is free of charge. The list of the illustrations consists of maps (maps 1-5), figures (figure 1-51), tables (tables 1-5). The maps precede the first chapter in the book.

In the first chapter (introduction) (p. 21-27) Knapp notes the study of Broodbank (2010), of Wachsman (1998) and asked the question again that Broodbank asked ‘occupying less than one percent of the planet’s blue expanses, made such a disproportionate impact on the archaeology of seafaring and the maritime history of humanity’?’  and continues by addressing Wachsmann’s question again ‘what insights into a culture can be gleaned from studying its ships and the manner in which it interacted with the sea’?’. Wachsmann (1998) has reviewed in detail the available material, textual and iconographic evidence. Knapp repeatedly refers to this. Broodbank (2010) presented some of the evidence for seagoing, sailing ships, their representations and ship-building technology in the Late Chalcolithic through Iron Age Mediterranean, focusing on their sociocultural impact.

Knapp attempts to evaluate available evidence like ships wrecks, harbours etc. in his book and considers how seafaring and the seaborne trade start in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in the Early Bronze Age and made the region an economic center by the Late Bronze Age (p. 21). Besides these two studies, he mentions two others, one of Sauvage (2012) and a second of Broodbank (2013). Broodbank (2013) explores the nature of Mediterranean prehistory and early history, and the obstacles and affordances presented to the people and polities who lived and functioned within and around the Middle Sea. His work covers the art, archaeology, history, economics and mentality of the peoples of the entire Mediterranean. Finally, Sauvage (2012) surveys and synthesizes evidence from multiple disciplines. Sauvage treats much of the same Late Bronze Age data that is presented in Knapp’s book, but Sauvage does not attempt to engage with the mechanisms that moved people, materials and objects around the eastern Mediterranean. She does not consider the diachronic developments in maritime commerce vis-à-vis social, political and economic change, or of why and how long-distance maritime exchange emerged in the first place.

Knapp’s study differs from the previous like he argues (p. 22). He does not deal with the style, design, construction and function of the ships but he is interested in who might have built the ships used for maritime trade during the Bronze Age and who captained or sailed them, and which ports and harbours were propitious for the ships, merchants, sailors and maritime trade. And addresses the question is ‘it possible to trace the origins and emergence of these early trade networks?’ And ‘Can we discuss at any reasonable level who was involved in these maritime ventures?’. Also, he focusses on social aspects and the relationship different people had with the sea and then follows a brief (pre)history of the Bronze Age of the Mediterranean Bronze Age (p. 23-27).

In the chapter ‘Maritime Matters and Materials’ that follows, he presents the social and material aspects (p. 29-61). He first includes issues about seascapes and seafaring, merchants, mariners and pirates. As for the seascape and the seafaring he takes in account the studies of Parker (2001), Westerdahl (1994), and others. In Parker’s (2001: 23) view: ‘… a full understanding of the landscape [sc. seascape] involves a functional interpretation — the web of interactions which constitute the maritime cultural landscape, … or the system, the total of all activities which have taken place in a given sea area’. Westerdahl (2010: 283) sees it differently: the liminal zone along any transition point between the sea and land is dangerous, at times even supernatural, loaded with magical or spiritual meaning. Knapp argues (p. 31) ‘Early seafarers and seafaring communities must have had an ‘attitude’ to the sea (Parker 2001: 37-39), and seagoing would have been a normal activity in such communities.’ …Archaeologists can gain some access to such ideas and attitudes by considering material features.’ Regarding the merchants, the mariners, pirates he focuses mainly on Akkadian texts of Ugarit, Akkadian letters from Amarna, Hittite documents from Hattusa and Egyptian texts which mention the Sea people and others like the Lukki and the Misi. He spends a lot of time on pirates and piracy in this chapter but also later in the book (f.e p. 42, 50, 189 etc.)

In the second sub-chapter (material aspects) Knapp presents first the shipwrecks of the Bronze Age like that of Ulunburun and that of Iria and others. Then Knapp mentions ports and harbours and quotes a scene of the tomb of Kenamun from Thebes which shows people outloading goods (p. 53). Besides this, he mentions ports and harbours of Israel, like Tell Nami, Askelon etc., from Egypt, Cyprus and the Greek Area, like Kommos and Pylos.

Then he continues with the maritime transport containers (p. 55-57). The basic criteria for identifying as maritime transport container (MTC) are ‘the vessel should be of closed type and found in quantities, either on shipwrecks or at sites distant from their place of origin. The most significant attribute of MTCs is that they were designed for maritime transport, not just used for it.’ (p. 56). Such containers are the Levantine ledge-loop-handled jars from Early Bronze Age and Canaanite jars from the Middle Bronze Age which were fοund in Egypt and in the shipwreck of Iria and of Ulunburun. These MTCs are one group of main evidence of this book, see also the subchapters in the next three chapters but also the 6 th chapter and the conclusion.  He relies on his own previous work with Demesticha (2016). After the containers Knapp discusses the ships’ representations. The ships’ representations help ‘to illustrate the key role that seafaring and seafarers played in everyday maritime practices.’(p. 59). At last Knapp deals with stone anchors, fishing, and fishing equipment like a bronze trident.

In the three next chapters (3-5) Knapp presents chronologically and geographically the evidence from the Early (chapter 3, p. 63-80), Middle (p. 81-101) till the Late Bronze Age (p. 103-164).

Chapter 3 is relatively small when we compare it to the 4th and 5th chapter and has been divided geographically in three sub-chapters. He makes efforts to answer the question addressed in the introduction about the origins and emergence of the early trade networks. The first sub-chapter concerns Egypt and the Levant (p. 63-71) and consist of 4 smaller units ports and harbours, ships’ representations, stone anchors, maritime transport containers. The evidence is limited but with interest (p.63) for the Early Bronze Age, the Old Kingdom (p. 63-64), like texts from the Fourth Dynasty or the Sixth Dynasty e.g. the so-called autobiography of Weni (Uni) with information about the actions of Ḥeryu-sha. In the sub-chapter about the ports and the harbours, are mentioned the sites Wadi el-Jarf and Ayn Sukhna with anchors and possible various facilities, and the case of Byblos ‘Material and analytical examples of these early contacts between Egypt and the central Levant, and especially Byblos…’. (p.64)

Then Knapp focuses on some preserved representations of this period like f.e. on an incense burner from the ‘elite tomb’ at Qustul, a sherd from Taur Ikhbeiheh in Gaza and on a part of canopy from Gerzeh in Egypt.

In the next sub-chapter (stone anchors), not only the anchors are described which were found in the tombs of Abusir and Saqqara but also those from sites in Israel. More important for the maritime trade concerning Egypt and the Levant is the evidence from the maritime transport containers which are described in the last sub-chapter. Knapp reports their discovery in the area of Egypt, f.e. Abydos. The second sub-chapter concerning Cyprus is very small (p.71-74). The evidence is of different nature and is limited to metallurgical and ceramic evidence. The last sub-chapter deals with Anatolia.

The next chapter (4 p. 81-102) deals with the Middle Bronze Age and the first sub-chapter here again being ‘the Levant and Egypt’. Most Egyptian Middle Kingdom documentary or epigraphic references to the seagoing ships seem pertain to the Red Sea and/or the Land of Punt, not to the Mediterranean. Within this sub-chapter Knapp first focuses on shipwrecks but the evidence from shipwrecks looks very little and then on ports and harbours from Egypt. One port complex was revealed near Tell ed-Dab‘a (ancient Avaris). He mentions also another 400 km to the southeast of Tell ed-Dab‘a, Mersa/Wadi Gawasis. Then, he moves on with the ports and harbours of the Levant where he lists many sites but some of them may not have served as MB ports (p.89). Then Knapp continues with ships’ representations (on a cylinder seal, wall painting, ship models), Maritime Transport containers (oval-mouthed amphorae, Canaanite jars) and finishes the sub-chapter with stone anchors. The next two sub-chapters are Cyprus (ship representations, MTCs) and Anatolia shipwrecks at Sheytan Deresi, Hisaronu and the sites of Liman Tepe, Ηesme-Baglararasi).

The next chapter (5 p. 103-166) is larger than the previous two chapters together and is titled ‘Late Bronze Age’. In this chapter, Knapp has named a sub-chapter ‘The documentary record’ that precedes the sub-chapter ‘The Levant and Egypt’, which was the first sub-chapter in the previous chapters. ‘the evidence is much more extensive, complex and controversial, especially the large corpus of cuneiform texts from Ugarit’ (p. 103).

He lists in this sub-chapter Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite and Ugaritic texts like the Kamose Second Stela or the Akkadian Letters from Amarna and many others that concern ships and their cargoes, merchants and mariners, ports and harbours, and seafaring in general. He criticizes Linder’s (1970) work for his interpretation of the Ugarit texts (Canaanite Thalassocracy). Knapp mainly relies on Sauvage (2012), Monroe (2009).

In the next sub-chapter ‘The Levant and Egypt’ he presents the evidence from many sites from Syria (e.g. Ugarit), Lebanon (e.g. Byblos, Beirut), Israel (e.g. Tel Akko, Tell Abu Hawam) and Egypt related to port harbours, ships’ representations from the Levant and Egypt, maritime transport containers, stone anchors, fishing Tackle and fish. No shipwreck remains are documented. Then he moves on with Cyprus and Anatolia.

Chapter 6 titled ‘Seafaring, seafares and seaborne Trade’ (p. 167-190) is organized in 3 sub-chapters. In the first sub-chapter Knapp summarizes the material and the documentary evidence presented in the previous chapters but also address again the questions raised in the introduction (p. 22):

  • who might have built the ships with which Bronze Age maritime trade was conducted?
  • who captained or sailed them, i.e. who was involved in these early maritime ventures?
  • which ports and harbours were the most propitious for ships, merchants and maritime trade?


Knapp suggests concerning the Early Bronze Age ‘the early maritime ventures between Egypt and the Levant involved ships built in the Levant and manned by Levantine merchants and mariners’ (p. 169). Concerning the MB ships were built by people from Levantine ports but the Egyptian involvement cannot rule out.  During LB the evidence is more and ‘the the primary role of Levantine merchants, mariners and ship owners or captains in the business of seafaring throughout the eastern Mediterranean seems beyond doubt’ ( p.172).

Knapp argues that ‘The documentary evidence also makes it clear that Levantine port towns like Ugarit, Arwad, Beirut, Byblos, Tyre, Sidon and Jaffa were intricately linked into the commercial networks that distributed, or facilitated the distribution of, a wide range of raw materials, organic goods, finished products and exotica between and beyond the other polities of the eastern Mediterranean: Egypt, Anatolia and Cyprus.’ (p.172)… and he continues ‘Documentary and material evidence alike make it clear that a great variety of mineral, organic, manufactured and ‘exotic’ goods moved to or through several Levantine and Mediterranean Egyptian ports, most notably Ugarit, Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Tel Akko, Tell Abu Hawam, Tel Nami, Tell el-‘Ajjul and Marsa Matruh (p.173).

In the second sub-chapter ‘networks and routes of exchange’ (p. 178-183) Knapp considers issues like the origins and emergence of early trade networks, social aspects of seafaring, ‘seascapes’, voyaging, mobility, connectivity. Here Knapp tries to answer the question addressed in the introduction about the origins and emergence of these early trade networks.

‘To develop maritime networks of exchange, it was essential for land-based polities to support people (merchants, sailors, tinkers) who were motivated to travel, and to promote the ‘technologies of mobility’ (boats, sails, port facilities) and socioeconomic institutions (the ‘palace’, merchant organisations) that assisted them (Kristiansen 2016: 156)’. (p. 178-179).

Wachsmann (2000, 811‑815, fig. 7) based on known shipwreck sites, outlined several possible Bronze Age sea routes in the eastern Mediterranean (p. 179). Tartaron (2013,185–203, 186 table 6.1) has proposed a framework with four different ‘spheres of interaction’ (coastscape, maritime small world, regional and interregional) for interpreting Late Bronze Age Aegean maritime connections and for enhancing our understanding of maritime landscapes.

Knapp (p. 181) following Tartaron (2013: 213–284) argued that the entire Aegean was a ‘regional’ sphere, comprising many small worlds, such as the Saronic Gulf, the southeastern Aegean and Miletos, and the Bay of Volos.

In the last sub-chapter ‘Seafaring, seafarers and bronze age Polities’ (p. 184-190) Knapp considers the impact of seafaring and maritime trade on the Bronze Age polities and economies of the region, the identities of ships’ captains or merchants, sailors and raiders. ‘Certain Levantine port towns and Cypriot coastal polities, owing at least in part to their geographic position, probably had fleets of commercial vessels (both ‘heavily capitalised’ large ships and smaller independent boats) that were intimately interconnected in the commercial networks that underpinned maritime trade in the LB eastern Mediterranean.’ (p.190).

Knapp (p. 190) assumes ships were built locally, and captained by local mariners and/or merchants, texts from Ugarit strongly support this suggestion. ‘Certainly Egypt was capable of building seaworthy ships and conducting trade on the Red Sea, but it appears to have had a more ambiguous relationship with the Mediterranean’.

In the last chapter (Conclusions p. 191-197) argued ‘The Bronze Age is indeed a ‘gray area’ when it comes to our understanding of seafaring, seafarers and the ships they sailed in the eastern Mediterranean.’ Many of the questions are partly answered (p.191).

The questions addressed by Knapp in the introduction can only partly be answered, especially about the emergence of the early trade. The evidence concerning the Early and Middle Bronze is very limited.  The other questions about the identity of the builders of the ships and their captains are answered, but only when enough written or other evidence is available f.e. from Ugarit and others sites. But Knapp concludes that ‘the ships of the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean were built and sailed by people from Levantine coastal ports, Egypt and Cyprus’. The evidence about the harbours used in bronze Age is again limited because there are no physical remains. Knapp focuses on the eastern Mediterranean but he is not so much concerned about the Aegean.

The book informs very well the informed public and the expert about seafaring in east Mediterranean from Early to Late Bronze Age. It is not easy to understand by ‘ordinary people’. The pictures, maps and tables are well-chosen. Knapp is an expert on using literary evidence from the whole eastern Mediterranean world, like Hittite or Akkadian texts but also some Greek or Roman texts.



Broodbank, C. 2010. ‘‘Ships a-sail from over the rim of the sea’: voyaging, sailing and the making of Mediterranean societies c. 3500-800 BC’, in A. Anderson, J. Barrett and K. Boyle (eds), The Global Origins and Development of Seafaring, 249-264, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Broodbank, C. 2013. The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean From the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World, London: Thames and Hudson.

Demesticha, S., and A.B. Knapp (eds) 2016. ‘Maritime Transport Containers in the Bronze–Iron Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean’, Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology and Literature, PB 183, Uppsala, Sweden: Åströms Förlag.

Kristiansen, K. 2016. ‘Interpreting Bronze Age trade and migration’, in E. Kiriatizi and C. Knappett (eds), Human Mobility and Technological Transfer in the Prehistoric Mediterranean, 154-180, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Linder, E. 1970. ‘The Maritime Texts of Ugarit: A Study in Late Bronze Age Shipping’, Unpublished PhD dissertation: Brandeis University.

Monroe, C. 2009. Scales of Fate: Trade, Tradition, and Transformation in the Eastern Mediterranean, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 357, Munster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Parker, A.J. 2001. ‘Maritime landscapes’, Landscapes 1: 22-41.

Sauvage, C. 2012. Routes maritimes et systèmes d’échanges internationaux au Bronze récent en Méditerranée orientale, Travaux de la Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée 61, Lyon: Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée–Jean Pouilloux.

Tartaron, T.F. 2013. Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wachsmann, S. 1998. Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant, Texas A&M University Press: College Station, Texas.

Wachsmann, S. 2000. ‘Some notes on Mediterranean seafaring during the second millennium BC’, in S. Sherratt (ed.), The Wall Paintings of Thera 2: 803-824. Athens: Thera Foundation.

Westerdahl, C. 1994. ‘Maritime cultures and ship types: brief comments on the significance of maritime archaeology’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 23: 265-270.


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