This paper introduces three sites from the Mediterranean, with ship iconography depicted on mosaic floors produced in the black-and-white technique. These mosaics cover the period from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD. The mosaic floors are related to different architectonic structures, such as private villas, public or private baths, and maritime traders' and shippers' offices in the Mediterranean. The sites are Migdal, in Israel, Althiburus, in Tunisia, and Ostia, in Italy (fig.1). The ships depicted on these mosaics will be described below and also related to the specific names depicted on the Althiburus floor, as well as mentioned in historical references.

Migdal, on the Kinneret

Migdal is situated on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), about 5 km north of Tiberias. It is also known as Magdala, the home of Mary-Magdalena 1. Mainly, Migdal is noted as one of the places where many Jews from Tiberias sought refuge at the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 67 AD. In The War of the Jews, Josephus wrote about the Revolt which took place on the shores of the Kinneret, and which was one of the most bloody sea battles between the Jews and the Romans 2. Josephus himself was personally involved in this war, being the Governor of Galilee during that period. The sea battle was carried out in fishing boats of different sizes, which were taken from the local fishermen.

In Strabo's Geography Migdal was known as Taricheae, where the lake supplied excellent fish for pickling 3. The Aramaic name of Taricheae is Migdal Nunia, i.e.
"Tower of Fish"
4. The name "Taricheae" is indicative of the source of the local population's livelihood.

Archaeological Remains

The various names attributed to Migdal attest to its maritime character. Remains of a harbor were discovered near the courtyard belonging to the Franciscan Monastery. Dr. V. Corbo, from the Franciscan Institute in Jerusalem, conducted the archaeological excavations carried out between 1971-77. During the excavations were revealed the town-square, some streets, various buildings and a water system (fig. 2). Also an urban villa was revealed (Area C) to the northeast of the Water Tower (fig. 2). Most of its floors were paved with mosaics. The mosaic floor of Room C6 is the subject of this paper. The room is located in the most central part of the villa (fig. 2). It forms a square of almost 2.80 x 2.50 m. Two layers of mosaic pavements were found in the room. For an accurate dating of the villa it was necessary to remove the upper mosaic floor which was of a later period. The lower floor revealed the mosaic produced in the black-and-white technique. The style of this mosaic, and the ceramic remains found beneath this floor, established the dating of the villa as 1st century AD. The mosaic floor consists of two parts:

1.  A short Greek inscription "kai su" (to you or you too), made of black tesserae on a white background. The inscription was found on the southern doorstep 5.

2.  Two black frames enclose the area of the mosaic with a white strip dividing them. The entire rectangle measures 1.10 x 1.12 m. The objects depicted within the area are formed with black and a very few brownish-red tesserae on a white background. They are depicted in the same orientation. The patterns represent a kantharos, on a half ring are attached two strigilis and an aryballos. There are some other objects that have not been identified properly. A unique depiction is a ship, which is situated close to the lower left corner of the frame (fig. 3). Beneath the stern and slightly to the right is the partially preserved fish's head. Although the objects are depicted schematically they still provide us with a general outline and a possible identification.

The Migdal Ship

The ship is depicted from the port side, with the bow pointed and almost touching the left side of the black frame. The hull, mast, and ropes are depicted with black tesserae, while the oars and the sail are depicted with brownish-red stones (fig. 4). The hull has an elongated shape, with a pointed stem and a rounded stern ended with an inner-turned volute above the aft-deck (fig. 4). Beneath the bow is the pointed cutwater, which resembles the shape of the fish head beneath the stern (fig. 3). The stempost extends almost horizontally above the cutwater, though it is a continuation of the gunwale. This extension may indicate the bowsprit. Along the same line as the pointed cutwater is a single brownish-red tessera, probably indicating the oculus 6. A horizontal wide white strip that extends about 2/3 of the hull's length may represent the lateral wale or rubbing-strake that reinforces the outer hull and also supported the oars (fig. 4). Above the port gunwale there are four protrusions, probably indicating the heads of the crew. They appear to be seated behind a screen or fence attached above the gunwale, or on lower thwarts, facing the stern with their back turned to the bow. The hull does not show any line of flotation or draft, nor is a water line indicated.

The ship is rigged with one mast and a yard with the adjacent cordage, and three oars placed obliquely to the port hull with the looms pointing towards the stem (fig. 4). The mast is a vertical spar set on the forward third of the vessel, between the second and third rower. It is depicted with a single row of black tesserae. The length of the mast (from its tip to the presumed bilge, ca. 1cm above the bottom) is about 2/3 of the hull's length. The yard represented by a horizontal spar makes a 90° angle with the masthead and is parallel to the deck. It is slightly offset, towards the stern. The length of the yard is equal to the length of the mast. Attached beneath the yard is a line of brownish-red tesserae. This line is a bit shorter that the yard and represents the furled sail by means of brails (fig. 4).

Only two distinctive lines can be associated with the standing and running rig. An angular strip of black tesserae stretches from the starboard side of the masthead (behind the furled sail) to the tip of the bowsprit. This line may represent the forestay. From the starboard edge of the right yardarm, behind the sail, an almost vertical line is hanging down towards the port gunwale. This line indicates the right brace or sheet (fig. 4).

There are two kinds of oars depicted on the port hull. Only their shafts, without blades, represent two of them, the left and the middle oars. The third oar (right-hand) is depicted with a shaft and at its lower end is a blade with round shoulders and a straight cut end (fig. 4). All the oars are made of brownish-red tessera. The blade constitutes about 1/3 of the shaft's length.

The Migdal ship is depicted schematically with no indication of specific type, other than a merchant vessel or a passenger transporter. It appears to be shown in 3/4 view (a side perspective). The highly raised stern, with an attempt shortening the voluted sternpost, emphasizes it. This vessel may also portray a fishing boat, which could be rigged with sailing gear for when the wind conditions were favorable. Inner-voluted stemposts have appeared in ship iconography since the 7th century BCE 7. This feature became a decoration on merchant vessels from the 1st -2nd centuries AD 8. It also appeared in some wargalleys 9. The shape of a bow with the projecting cutwater was a characteristic feature of merchant vessels since the middle of the 1st century AD 10. The closest parallel of the shape of the bow of the Migdal ship appears in the 1st century BCE graffito of a ship from Delos 11 (fig. 5). In the graffito the bowsprit is supported by an arched stempost. One may assume that the Migdal ship had a similar device (fig. 4). The forestay of the ship in the Delos graffito is attached to the aft tip of the bowsprit, while on the Migdal ship it is attached to the fore tip of the bowsprit.

The depiction of different oars in the Migdal ship was probably meant either to distinguish the row-oars from the steering-oars, or that the blades of the left and middle oars are submerged in the water and the right-hand oar is in the process of maneuvering. Most probably the same number of oars were set on the starboard hull, though the picture shows the port hull only. The use of brownish-red tesserae for the oars was probably for the purpose of distinguishing them from the hull. The heads of the crew above the gunwale or the fencing, and the angled oars, may indicate that the ship was rowed in a two-oars/sit/pull technique 12, which would indicate the left-hand sailing of the ship. The oar with the blade may indicate the steering-oar set on the port quarter and worked by a helmsman seated beneath the voluted stempost.



Designed by: onyx studios


Fig 1:
Sites mentioned in the text

Fig 2:
General plan of the excavated site

Fig 3:
Migdal mosaic panel

Fig 4:
Drawing of the Migdal ship

Fig 5:
Ship graffito from Delos

Copyright ©Zaraza Friedman