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22. Ships and Shipping

From the book Etruscology

  • Patrice Pomey


History attributes to the Etruscans a powerful maritime presence that testifies to their naval traditions. While the texts, unlike the iconography, provide little in the way of technical precision, histonography attributes several inventions to them, including the ram, and archaeology has confirmed, through the evidence of shipwrecks, their activity within maritime trade. The most ancient evidence is provided by Villanovian boat models from the 9th and 8th centuries BCE whose characteristics appear original and show that the origins of Etruscan boats reach far back into the past. This originality is confirmed by documents, graffiti or vase paintings, from the 7th and 6th centuries wherein the Etruscan ship often appears as a mixed propulsion craft with a hull that might be equipped with an “added” ram, following the invention of Pisaeus Tyrrheni (Pliny, HN 7.209). Sometimes it is a sail-powered merchant ship with a powerful cutwater, sometimes it is a warship with a rounded hull and a high set ram. As well as these typically Etruscan ships, towards the end of the 6th century BCE other boats appear whose characteristics correspond to Greek types: warships with a horizontal keel extending into a ram (hydria of the Micali painter); merchant ships with a concave stempost and two-masted rigging (Tomb a della Nave). Among the shipwrecks holding Etruscan goods, we should distinguish between those where Etruscan products from the same region predominate (La Love, Grand Ribaud F) and those carrying a varied cargo of Greek and Etruscan goods (Isola del Giglio, Ban Parté 1). While ships of the first category testify to a direct trade and can reach a large size (approx. 1000 amphorae and40 ton deadweight for the Grand Ribaud F), the second correspond either to the emporia trade (Isola del Giglio), or to a short distance redistribution trade undertaken by smaller craft (Ban Parté 1). As for naval architecture, all these shipwrecks refer back to construction systems of Greek tradition corresponding to the Archaic method of sewn boats of the 6th century BCE (Isola del Giglio, Ban Parté 1) or to an evolutionary phase that employed stitching and tenon-and-mortise joints at the end of the 6th and beginning of the 5th centuries BCE (Grand Ribaud F). All of this is tells us very little about genuine Etruscan naval construction, which we still cannot identify despite its originality.

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