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L’influence de la mer dans l’histoire : deuxième table ronde

Textes et enregistrements audio des interventions sur : Technologies maritimes (Président : Michel Balard) « Les transformations des technologies maritimes (typologie navale, techniques de construction, techniques de navigation) ont-elles contribué à l'essor des sociétés ? »


Professeur d’archéologie, Université de Calgary, Canada

Warao Society and Seagoing Canoes

At the time of European contact in the Caribbean, the indigenous watercraft was the dugout canoe. There have been few recoveries of ancient canoes in the Caribbean but a large number of canoes have been recovered in Florida. Some of these canoes date to about 6,000 years ago and would have been contemporaneous with the earliest human migrations to the Caribbean Islands.

Canoes were crafted from a single log. However, in some cases such as the Windward Islands these were reportedly built-up using a single washstrake. This was also done on the large seagoing canoes used by the Warao of the Orinoco Delta to travel to Trinidad.

The Warao seagoing canoe provides an excellent example of how embedded and intertwined with almost all aspects of society, maritime technology can be. Living in the largely aquatic environment of the Orinoco Delta where dry land is largely lacking, the Warao found it necessary to travel to Trinidad for materials such as stone for tools and tobacco. Tobacco is particularly important, being the currency necessary to propitiate the supernatural in the building of seagoing canoes and to pay shamans and healers for their services.

Not having a canoe in Warao society has been described as being a pauper, undistinguished, and ineffective. It is high status to be a master canoe maker and in the afterlife guarantees a place with the ancestors. The name Warao means Canoe People.

In Warao mythology the invention of the canoe was made in ancient times, predating the Warao themselves. The construction of the original canoe is attributed to the culture hero Haburi who crafted it in order to escape to Trinidad from the evil Tree Frog Woman. What may seem only decorative or functional aspects of even a small canoe relate to this mythology. The original canoe became transformed into Daurani the Serpent Goddess of the Forest.

It is from Daurani that permission must be obtained to manufacture a large canoe. The tree itself is a daughter of the Serpent Goddess and the spirit of the tree becomes wedded to the Master canoe maker. The dimensions for a large seagoing canoe are given to the craftsman while undergoing initiation in a tobacco induced trance. The entire process of construction is accompanied by great danger to the entire community should the proper protocols not be observed. There are consequences for humiliating the spirit of the tree.

Navigation to Trinidad also requires the appeasement of the supernatural beings. The entire crew on a voyage is re-enacting the voyage of Haburi and his two mothers. It is forbidden for instance for a young man to go on such a voyage if his wife is pregnant with their first child. In one myth a young man defies this rule and is swallowed by Hahuba the world-encompassing serpent.

Considering the necessity of watercraft in order to adapt to the environment that the ancestors of the Warao found themselves in with the post- Pleistocene rise of sea-level that eventually separated Trinidad from the mainland, the pervasiveness of the technology in their lives is not surprising.  Canoes are required for travelling even short distances. I have observed small children taking canoes across bays to visit friends. Their houses are built over the water on stilts and traveling through the surrounding swamps would be impossible. So even from a young age the canoe is a necessity for social interaction.

The canoe is required for obtaining all that is necessary for survival. Any fishing, hunting or trading activities include the use of the canoe and during flood seasons the whole family may live in it. Traditionally the canoe gave access to neighbours who grew tobacco. Without tobacco and stone for axes and adzes seagoing canoes could not be manufactured and without tobacco payments could not be made for healing services.

The manufacture of large canoes is the primary means for a household to gain status in Warao society. It binds the society to its past in forming a direct link to the ancient master canoe makers including Haburi the inventor of canoes. Canoe manufacture binds the past to the present, forms the means by which the group can function economically, and allows social interaction over short and long distances. The canoe is the central artefact in traditional Warao society and appears to have great antiquity.



Directeur du musée naval, Gênes, Italie

In the heart of Middle Ages, some important maritime historians, among others F.C. Lane, found an intense period of navigation evolution, especially in the Mediterranean Sea, following the introduction of some new technologies. These included the compass, nautical charts and the transformation of shipbuilding, with the introduction of, for example, the central rudder or the bowline that gave better handling of the sailing ship in a headwind.

Many historians have spoken of a “nautical revolution” in the Middle Ages that effectively opened up the seas for winter sailing. At that time, it was rare for ships to put to sea between the feast of St Michael (29th September) and Easter.

But, in 1983, Lane wrote: "at the current state of historical knowledge it is not yet possible to confirm or refute the hypothesis that technological advances in the art of navigation and shipbuilding contributed decisively to economic growth of Europe in the Middle Ages and in the dawn of the modern age" (F.C. Lane, Le navi di Venezia fra i secoli XIII e XVI, p. 201, Torino, 1983).

In more than 30 years later, can we give a different answer than that given by the great maritime historian of Venice?

To believe that the adoption of these innovations changed navigation and helped medieval society develop makes our job easier. In this case, evolution of navigation becomes a progressive positivist concept.

On the contrary, from my studies, our experiences as a maritime museum and, in particular, the comparison with other Mediterranean seafarers, such as Arabs and Africans, I am convinced of a more complex reality.

The seafaring world in the Middle Ages, but also in the modern age, is a separate world.

In many important maritime societies, such as Venice, Genoa, Catalan and Marseilles, poor people were forced to embark, due to the harshness of conditions of their countries, or they would literally “starve to death”.

Sailors embarked in the Middle Ages only as an alternative to famine and death by starvation. This was because, on board, the level of risk was very high. Death from drowning, disease, injury or other cause was very common at sea.

If we look at the work of Jacques Heers on Genoese seafaring of the fifteenth century (J. Heers, Gênes au XVe siècle, Paris, 1971), we discover how many sailors were not from towns along the coast, like Chiavari, Noli or Camogli, or even from the city of Genoa. They were, for the most part, from the mountains of Liguria, the countryside of hunger and migration.

This, then, is the social context to which we refer in these notes. A context where poverty and misery are prevalent.

Even today, there is a cynical expression, in the Italian language, which divides humanity into three categories: "the living, the dead and the sailors", as if to say that this third category cannot be defined, in full, in either of the other two.

This "social framework" strongly affects the innovation question.

Innovation, in historical experience, is often or always associated with minorities who make a difference. Minorities with cultural tools, such as writing or mathematics, that make them "privileged".

But did they exist between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, among the large crews of the time? Personally, I believe that if these men existed, they would have been only a small minority.

So what were the factors that enabled the development of navigation?

The impression is that there has been a very articulate and complex process in which, on the one hand, there was a minority of captains, merchants, craftsmen and cartographers from the sailing world, they had much in mind the needs of their time and their profession.

On the other hand, most of the men of the sea, sailors but also captains and ship-owners, were far from convinced of the need for change and when did have to adopt them, they often made only half changes.

An example: the single central rudder, known as the "bayonese", already began to spread in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Over a century later, in the mid-fifteenth century, lists of equipment on board the galleys present in the arsenal of Genoa indicate that, at the side of the helm station, there were still two aft side oars, with the function of the rudder. But for at least 150 years, sailors in the Mediterranean had been experimenting the logic and effectiveness of the central rudder.

This, however, is indicative: the accurate study of boats reveals, even after centuries, the survival of archaic, sometimes medieval, elements.

An example is the inclination of the mast towards the bows, necessary for the presence of a triangular lateen sail, as well as other details which may be examined in the various configurations of traditional seafaring.

Based on these observations, we should now talk about what was the most important development in navigation between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the introduction of the compass.

It is worthy of note that, at its origins, the Italian word for the compass, “bussola” comes from the Latin boxum (box), but this term, which refers to a particular object, a magnetic needle with its wind rose, all kept in a box, is from a later period, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, you will find only the reference to the agogie da  navegar (needles), that sailors kept in their trunks (called capsie) together with junk goods, personal clothes and possessions.

How were these needles used? It was a complex procedure and anything but quick, especially if done on board and perhaps in the storm. The iron needle had to be put to float, maybe inside a straw (hence the term magnet) in a basin of water.

The needle had to be magnetized by running a piece of magnetite above the straw, until the magnetic field began to turn the needle. At that point, the needle was magnetized and, on removing the magnetite, it would turn to a north-south magnetic axis for a few minutes, allowing the navigator to work out the position.

This was a complicated process, vaguely spiritual, and was regarded with some suspicion by simple sailors. Ferdinando Colombo, in a famous episode of his Historie, tells how his father Christopher cheated his crew, taking them to Tunis while thinking they were going to Marseille.

To conclude: the Middle Ages produced the development of important processes that, in the long run, brought radical changes to seafaring. However, these innovations caught on with extreme slowness, contrasted by ignorance and tradition. The sea world is confirmed for what it is: a place of conflict between men, between cultures, and also between the old and the new.



Conseiller pour les musées, historien, Royaume-Uni

Medieval maritime technology and the development of society

Medieval maritime technology had all kinds of effects on society, both big and small. This paper is concerned the most profound of those impacts.

Until the later Middle Ages, the maritime technology of medieval Europe was split between two great traditions: skeleton or carvel hull construction and lateen rig in the Mediterranean and southern Iberia, and clinker construction and square rig in northern Europe. The evidence for this comes mostly from records of government and trade, along with archaeology and iconography.  Occasionally, contemporary chroniclers also recorded technological change, like the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani. He wrote that in 1304 the Genoese and Venetians started using North European cog ship-types after Basque pirates introduced them into the Mediterranean. Other sources make clear that cogs – coche (plural) in Italian – started to come into use as trading vessels at Genoa and Venice in the period 1302-1312.

Mediterranean shipbuilders did not adopt the clinker construction of the northern cog, but they did make use of its capacious hull form, its single-masted square rig and its stern rudder. The cocha (singular) began to replace the older Mediterranean lateen-rigged sailing ships, which were steered by side-rudders.  Both economic and technical factors probably lay behind this change: it is likely that the square sail was less labour-intensive than the lateen, square rig was more stable and the stern rudder was less vulnerable to damage or loss than its Mediterranean predecessor.

Coche were used as both bulk carriers and warships. They could attain considerable size, and coche of up to 1000 tons existed by the 1370s. Their large size must have made them difficult to manage with a single sail, and in the mid-14th century a smaller, lateen-rigged mizzenmast was introduced to help manoeuvre these leviathans.

Sea travel had a very direct impact on society in the late 13th century, when Italian galleys had pioneered the trade route to northern Europe (England and Flanders). However, their limited cargo space restricted them to carrying low-volume, high-value goods.  The nature of this trade changed considerably after 1340, as the Genoese replaced their galleys on this route with coche, no doubt to carry alum and other valuable bulk cargoes.  The alum was bought in large quantities by the English and other cloth industries. The English and other northerners called these coche ‘carracks’: the word first appeared in English sources around 1350, and these Genoese carracks were later followed by similar vessels from Venice and Catalonia.

Southern European maritime technology also started to be transferred to the North, although at first slowly and hesitantly. For example, there is little doubt that the four ‘great ships’ built for Henry V of England as warships between 1413 and 1420 were vessels of the carrack type, but they were clinker-built.  The records of Henry’s fleet also show that the English were starting to first use, and then build, two-masted ships, the Italian-derived word mesan first appearing in English in about 1416.

The spread of the two-master in Northern Europe occurred at about the same time that a new kind of three-masted ship was being developed. This involved placing a foremast with a square sail in the bow of a vessel, to supplement the square mainsail and lateen mizzen. Initially just another manoeuvring sail, the foresail eventually became large enough to assist with propulsion.

First recorded in a Catalan drawing of 1410, this three-masted rig seems to have been commonplace among European sea-going ships by the 1460s, if not before, and its basic pattern endured until the 19th century.   This rig improved the manoeuvrability of vessels and also enhanced their survivability, by giving seafarers more options for changing sail and direction in difficult conditions.

Although Mediterranean technology was beginning to influence the shape and rig of some North European vessels, skeleton construction was largely unknown to northern shipwrights until the middle decades of the 15th century. The technique came to be called ‘carvel’ construction in English, French, German and other northern languages because the skeleton-built Portuguese caravel, known as a ‘carvel’ in the North, played a part in the transfer of the technology.

There is no space here to explore this topic in detail, but Portuguese caravels began to appear in northern waters from the 1430s. In some cases northerners apparently learned about skeleton construction by analysing and copying the small caravel hulls, although in other instances the technique was taught to them by itinerant shipwrights. It is probable that the reasons for adopting this technology included the greater strength and durability of skeleton-built hulls as opposed to clinker-built ones, the relative ease with which they could be repaired, and the fact that they used fewer expensive iron nails and less timber than clench-fastened hulls. By the late 15th century, if not before, skeleton construction was established in England and various other countries as the normal method for building sea-going vessels of significant size.

Irrespective of local or national differences in hull form, the spread of skeleton construction and the three-masted rig produced a new kind of ship, a truly ‘European’ vessel, one that was better-suited to making long and dangerous sea passages than its medieval forerunners. Although the small, lateen-rigged caravels played their part in the early history of transoceanic exploration, the ocean routes that developed were soon dominated by the three-master. The new type did not make transoceanic exploration and colonization possible – the Scandinavians had maintained a tenuous link to colonies in Greenland between the 11th and 15th centuries using one-masted clinker-built ships, for example.  However, the new three-master made the whole process of overseas expansion much more feasible.  As events were to prove, it had a better chance of completing repeated round-trip voyages, a crucial requirement for establishing a transoceanic empire.

The new ship-type was the tool that enabled Europeans, driven by a mixture of politics, greed, religious zealotry and curiosity to conquer and reshape large parts of the world.  This was the most profound effect of medieval maritime technology: for good and ill, it assisted at the birth of the global society in which we all live today.



Archéologue, Université  de Southampton, Royaume-Uni

Further indicative questions:

  • What were the most important technological developments in the ancient and medieval periods?
  • What factors drove maritime technological change?
  • Who benefited from the medieval nautical revolution?
  • How important were public or private fleets?
  • Did quantity or quality matter most in maritime technologies?
  • How was maritime technology transferred in the ancient and medieval periods?
  • How do we account for major regional variations in seafaring technologies?
  • What impact did environmental features have on seafaring capabilities?

My own perspective on this theme is one of concern for the detail of the maritime technologies that we seek to understand through our study of archaeological and historical material, in all its forms. More specifically, my research concerns watercraft, rather than the port facilities and infrastructures that supported them. In doing this, I have sought to access a broad evidence base from the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean through to the early second millennium AD, and to encompass and include surrounding and related areas of Sea and Ocean; the Red Sea and Indian Ocean being perhaps the most obviously connected to the Mediterranean within my own research.

In doing this my expertise is focused squarely on the propulsion of watercraft and especially the sailing rigs of the ancient world, which have been somewhat overlooked from an interpretive perspective. Such research obviously has to include an understanding of the hulls on which such sailing rigs are set and can then be extended to try to understand the technical practice required to use the sailing rigs that can be identified from the assorted evidence.

Broadly, we are perhaps concerned with understanding three elements, in relation to the questions set out above, for the theme of maritime technology in antiquity;

  • The construction of watercraft.
  • The propulsion of watercraft.
  • The use of watecraft

To some extent these can inform us of different parts of a maritime society, but they remain complimentary to one another, rather than mutually exclusive. Hull construction perhaps has a tendency to inform us of issues affecting those situated on the land; shipbuilders, shipowners, etc. whose concern is with the provision of  watercraft, rather than in their day to day use.

In contrast, the propulsion element, including the hull, can tell us much about the capabilities of ancient vessels; speed, range, durability, etc. Finally, the use of these vessels allows us to reach the mariners of antiquity through the technology (primarily the rigging, itself critical to the propulsion) that they are creating, adapting and utilising on a daily basis. There is also an implicit feedback loop within this, that the adaption of maritime technology, specifically the rigging of ships, will cause a change in its outward appearance. Such change is then likely to be reflected in the wider material culture, primarily iconography, that seeks to depict such vessels in the first place.

Throughout the ancient world we see a range of variations to the maritime technologies of hull construction and rigging: frame and shell based construction; sewn and mortise-and-tenon (M&T) fastenings; square, sprit and lateen sailing rigs.

Our traditional approach has been to try to trace developmental sequences of such technology from one to another, based upon such technology bringing about a radical improvement in maritime capability. To me, this is a false image. The evidence that we have indicates that capabilities (in broad terms) in the early/mid first-millennium BC (sewn or M&T shell-based construction with a square-sail), were little different to what we can see in the early medieval period (iron nailed frame-based construction with a lateen-sail). My belief is that we are very much looking at societies selecting and shaping an available range of maritime technology to fit their needs and aspirations at a particular point in time.

Further illustration of this comes through the non-widespread adoption of the sprit-rig, despite its undoubted upwind abilities – attested through modern scientific research. Yet prior to this we witness the development of the brailed sail and the artemon as an aid to upwind sailing at the same time as eastern Mediterranean routes expand to the central and western Mediterranean during the archaic period.

To address the Fundamental Question

It seems to me that the evidence, taken across the period, illustrates a process whereby maritime development is driven by society, rather than vice versa. I see a world where change in maritime technology occurs in the wake of wider developments, rather than in advance of them. Such technology may have allowed developments to be cemented and confirmed as normal practice, but I don’t believe that they cause them to happen in the first place. The apparent pathways of maritime development in the first millennium BC in the wake of the expansion from east to west of Mediterranean sea routes may be a good example of this.

In addressing some Indicative Questions according to my own expertise

I would say that there is no single key development, just an increase (over time) in the range of available options from which people could choose. If pushed, I would highlight the development of the brailed loose-footed sail in the Late Bronze Age, the improvement that this offers, seems to have allowed vessel specialisation and a divergence of warship and merchant hull forms during the early first millennium BC – in other words, the development of pure sailing vessel, not reliant on auxiliary propulsion. This has significant implications in terms of cargo capacity, crew size, range of sailing, etc.

Considering two of the key instances of maritime technological change that we can see; the switch to frame-based construction and the introduction of the lateen sail. My own view is that economic considerations lie at the heart of the adoption of such technology. But that such technology allows existing routes, performance and maritime practice to be continued, while reducing overall construction and maintenance investment.

The impact of environmental factors in maritime technology and the development of that technology is hard to summarise here. The environment is obviously highly important at a basic level; the wind blows, a boat must float to function, etc. But, and we can think more globally here, even in the harshest of places people have taken to the sea. It is striking that in very different environments of the eastern Mediterranean and the North Sea, our reconstructions of the archaeological remains of vessels from those waters have broadly similar capabilities. With this in mind, we are perhaps returning to a viewpoint that people in the past have firmly shaped their own maritime capabilities (which we have probably underestimated), the environment may just serve to regulate the frequency of the related activity of, and connections between, people.

Regional variation in seafaring technology should simply be accounted for in the same way as regional variation in ceramics, or building architecture – an outward reflection of the underlying society. Our challenge is actually to begin to establish this variation as clearly as possible based on the available evidence. It undoubtedly exists within the archaeological record, as is being demonstrated in hull construction, we just have not recovered enough of that record to quantify the variation in other areas. If we can achieve this across a range of technology, we will stand a much better chance of understanding the major instances of change relating to construction that we currently cannot explain in a fully satisfactory manner.

Taking into account all of the above. We must also be aware of the considerable periods of continuity that we can observe (at least in general terms) within the maritime technology of antiquity. Shell-based mortice and tenon construction can be archaeologically documented for 1,800 years. The single-masted loose-footed brailed square-sail is visible for perhaps 2,000 years through iconographic sources. That such technology can endure in a recognisably consistent form, across such periods of time, and more notably across such a huge range of cultural contexts is remarkable. We perhaps don’t spend enough time explaining such continuity, preferring instead to focus upon change. But, we have to address both of them to understand either of them fully.

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