Underwater surveys carried out along the Israeli coast in recent decades have revealed numerous shipwrecks, and cargoes and artifacts associated with ancient ships. Among the finds two groups of lead artifacts are of interest. These objects will be described, and their possible use in ancient maritime activities will be discussed below. One group is comprised of five lead bands bent into cylinders which were found at Neve Yam (fig. 1). Another assemblage comprises four elongated bars of trapezoidal cross-section, which were recovered from the northern bay at Atlit (fig. 1). Nail holes found at the sides of the bands, and negative impressions of woodcarvings in the bottoms of the bars indicate that both groups of artifacts were fixed to wooden objects.

The sites and the archaeological context

The lead bands were discovered about 120 m off the Neve Yam shore, at a depth of 3.5 m. The wreckage site is partly protected by a submerged kurkar (eolianite) ridge. Other wreckage assemblages recovered from the area indicate that the site may have been used as an anchorage in historical times 1. Along with the lead bands were also found bronze nails, a bronze bell, several bronze coins of Ptolemy II
(late 2nd century BCE), two lead cooking pots and several lead fishing weights 2. This assemblage and the lead bands were probably from the same wreck.

The lead bars were recovered in the northern bay of Atlit about 150 m off shore, at a depth of 5 m. The bay is partially protected by a small island and a submerged kurkar ridge. The site does not provide a safe shelter in heavy storms. In this area were found many remains of shipwrecks and cargoes, including bronze nails, silver coins of Ptolemy II (late 2nd century BCE), bronze handles of small objects, stone stocks of wooden anchors, and a unique bronze battering ram (3rd -2nd century BCE) 3. The lead bars most probably belonged to the same context as the silver Ptolemy coins 4.

The Neve-Yam assemblage

Four of the bands were bent into cylinders (figs. 2: a, b, c; 3: a, b, c, d) while the fifth had a wavy shape (figs. 2: e; 3: e). Two of the bands bore Greek inscriptions (figs. 2: a, b; 3: a), probably referring to names. The inscription ALE (figs. 2: a; 3: a) seems to be an abbreviation of Alexander, or Alexandrin, or Alexes, etc. The second inscription APXAN (fig. 2: b) is probably a name or an abbreviation of the name Archeion 5. The weights of the bands varies vary from 1.1 to 2.625 kg (Table I). On the lateral sides of four of the bands are found square holes for nails (figs. 2: b, c, e; 3: a, b, c, e).

Table I: Weights of the Lead Objects (kg)

Item ref. a b c d e
Bands 2.625 2.350 1.100 2.050 1.950
Bars 8.6 7.5 10.8 8.3  

The Atlit assemblage

The bar-shaped lead objects (figs. 4: a, b, c, d) have a trapezoidal cross section with a small concave cavity on the top (fig. 5: a, b, c, d). This cavity may have resulted from post-casting shrinkage due to solidification. One bar has one pin-extension on either side (figs. 4: a, 5: a) and another has only a single pin on one side (figs. 4: b, 5: b). Two of the bars have a pin-extension on one side and also a tongue-shape extension at the corner of the bar (figs. 4: c, d; 5: c, d). On the bottoms of the bars negative impressions of woodcarving are visible in the bottoms of the bars (figs. 5-6: a, b, c, d).


The nail holes on the lateral sides of the bands and the negative impressions of woodcarving at the bottoms of the bars suggest that they were used with wooden gear. It seems reasonable that the lead objects presented above may have been part of the hull or movable gear of ancient vessels. The cylindrical shape of the bands, and the nail holes (figs. 2: b, c, e; 3: a, b, c, e) at the lateral sides, indicate that these artifacts were nailed onto rounded wooden poles (fig. 7). We may suggest that the bands could be added to the looms of rowing oars, as balance weights (fig. 7). This assumption is supported by an ancient text written by Athenaeus, where he described the construction of a forty-banked ship by Ptolemy Philopator of Egypt . The author wrote that the longest oars (probably the thranites) "carried lead on the handle and were very heavy inboard, were yet easy to handle in actual use because of their nice balance" 7. This passage clearly indicates that lead weights were used on the handles of the oars and not in them.

In Book 11.93, Thucydides mentions that each oarsman "had to carry his oar, cushion and oar-loop" 8. When describing the gear of a trireme, Amit M., relying on an ancient text, said that thirty perineos-oars were carried on the board the vessel. These oars were carried as spare gear and used to replace broken ones, or to be handled by non-rowers in an emergency 10. We may suggest that the wavy-shaped band (figs. 2: e; 3: e) found along with the cylindrical bands might indicate that such weights were also carried on board as spare gear. It seems that when a rower had to balance his oar band weights were nailed around the loom. Such weights were modular and could be added or removed to achieve a good balance (fig. 7). To identify his weights the oarsman probably inscribed his name on the band, and from then on it became part of his possessions, along together with the oar, the cushion and the oar-loop (strap).

The use of lead weights for balancing rowing oars was well attested by the Olympias trials in 1988 11. During the trials it was observed that the oars had to be balanced by inserting lead into the looms 12. However, inserting lead into the looms may have had some disadvantages:

1.  The cast lead could not be removed in order to readjust the balance of the oars.

2.  The cavities of the cast lead weakened the loom. If the lead had to be removed the oar either had to be remodeled (probably shortened) or replaced 13.

The use of lead- band weights was more efficient (fig. 14), as they were not only modular and removable (fig. 7) but they only slightly weakened the oars.

Counter-weights for the steering gear

The lead bars under discussion may have served as cores or weights for wooden objects on board a ship (steering-oars, rudders or wooden anchors). The morphology of wooden anchors with lead cores is well known. 14 (fig. 8: a). Negative impressions of chisel marks in the wooden grooves are found in the bottoms of such stock cores (fig. 8: b). The cores were cast into trapezoidal grooves, as seen by their cross-section. A solidification groove appears in the top surface of the cast lead. The one-armed anchor from the Ma'agan Michael ship (c. 400 BCE) is a perfectly preserved example of a wooden stock with lead cores (fig. 9) 15. The lead bars discussed above are different in shape from the lead cores of wooden anchors. These objects have two kinds of lateral extensions close to the bottom: one is a pin-shaped (figs. 4: a, b, c, d; 5: a, b, c, d), and the second is a tongue-shape extension at the corner of two bars (fig. 4: c, d; 5: c, d). We may suggest that these bars were used as counterweights on steering-oars of ancient ships (fig. 10: a, b). The bars were probably cast into wooden grooves made in the blade of the steering oar (fig. 11: a, b, c). It may be assumed that the blade was made of two wooden plates (fig. 11: a) attached to each other by mortise-and-tenon joints or other fittings. Before the plates were attached, a trapezoidal groove and the pin/tongue extensions were cut in each plate but in opposite directions (fig. 11: b). Judging by the shape of the bars, we may deduce that after the plates were attached the grooves in the second plate were deepened by irregular chiseling (fig. 11: c), as attested by the negative impressions in the bottoms of the bars (figs. 5-6: a, b, c, d). The lead casting may also have strengthened the wooden plates in addition to the other joints.

The lead bars under discussion could also have been used as weights or cores in the wooden stocks of wooden Classical and Roman anchors.

Lead weights and their contribution to the hydrodynamics of the steering gear

The hydrodynamic forces affecting a steering oar, whether ancient or modern, are similar. Three major forces that act upon a rudder are the buoyancy, water flow (lift+drag) and gravity (fig. 10: a). There are also lateral forces and turbulence, which act on the blade, but they are not relevant to this discussion. One of the methods of overcoming the forces that act to lift the submerged steering oar is a tackle that passes through the upper quarter of the blade and then to the gunwale 16. However, we assume that additional weights to the blade may have reduced the buoyancy and the lift + drag forces, and there was no need for other methods of support. Our assumption is related to composite steering oars, where the blade is inserted into a groove made in the lower part of the shaft. In ship iconography there is at least one example where bands surrounding the blades of steering oars may be interpreted as lead weights. On the starboard blades of the famous Isis ship,
17. (mid- 3rd century BCE) a network pattern is depicted on the upper and lower parts, as well as along the axis of the blade (fig. 12). Two thin strips are depicted on the blade of the port side steering oar. Lawrence V. Mott 18, suggested that these bands reinforced the fixing of the blades to the shafts. Remains of concretion, found on the fragments of the steering oar of the Kyrenia ship, were also referred to by Mott as remains of such reinforcement of the blades 19.

During the Olympias trials it was observed that the rudders had to be weighted. Lead strips were added around the lower part of the blades (fig. 13). The network pattern on the starboard rudder of the Isis (fig. 12) may indicate lead bands used as counter-weights similar to those on the Olympias rudder blades (fig. 13). The lead bars discussed above, and the results of the Olympias trials, support our suggestion that lead weights were needed for balancing the rudders of ancient ships.


The use of the late 2nd century BCE lead objects presented above can be summarized by the following statements:

1.  The lead bands are very well suited to be used as modular and/or removable weights on the oar looms for counterbalancing oars.

2.  The inscribed names on two of the bands may indicate that band weights were personal property similar to the oar, cushion and the oar-loop (strap).

3.  The lead bars were most suitable for use as counterweights cast into the blades of the steering oar, probably of merchant vessels.

Zaraza Friedman
The Leon Recanati Institute
for Maritime Studies
University of Haifa

Ehud Galili and Ya'acov Sharvit
Marine Archaeology Branch
Israel Antiquities Authority
P.O. Box 180


1. Galili, Sharvit and Shifrony, 1998: 35.
2. Galili and Sharvit, 1999: 100.
3. Casson, Steffy and Linder, 1991: 3, 66.
4. Galili and Sharvit, 1999: 99.
5. Liddell and Scott, 1991 (reprint): 121.
6. "The ship was four hundred and twenty feet long (c. 138.6 m); from the top of the sternpost to the water line it measured seventy nine and half feet (c.26.24 m). It had four steering-oars, forty-five feet long (c.14.8 m), and the oars which are the longest measured fifty-seven feet (c.18.8 m)"; Deipnosophistae V.203-204.
7. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae V.203-204.
8. Thucydides (Peloponnesian War, 429/8 BCE) made this reference, when the Peloponnesians planned to raid Piraeus . Each oarsman had to carry his own gear while crossing the Isthmus to reach the forty ships anchored at Nisaea, the harbor of Megara . This is one of the ancient texts, which prove that a trireme had as many oars as oarsmen; Rhodes , 1988: 262.
9. Amit, M., 1965:14, n. 4 .
10. Ibid., n. 5.
11. Coates, Platis and Shaw, 1990: 49, fig. 29. The oars of Olympias launched in 1987 were heavy, weighing 12.3 kg, and the force needed to keep the blade out of the water was very high. To reduce it, in the 1988 trial, the oar-handles (looms) were counterweighted with lead; Morrison, Coates and Rankov, 2000: 216.
12. Coates, Platis and Shaw, 1990: 49, fig. 29.
13. In a trireme the oars were divided into four categories: thramites, zygites, thalamites and perineos. The last group consisted of the spare oars, to replace the broken ones or to be handled by non-rowers in emergency; Amit, 1965: 14.
14. Haldane, 1986.
15. Both arms of the stock were hollowed and each separately filled in with about 22 kg of lead. The stock is affixed so that its weight lies on the arm side of the axis of the shank as is required for anchors of this type; Rosloff, 1991: 224, fig. 2.
16. The Torlonia relief; Mott, 1997: 12, fig. 1.2; Casson, 1971, fig 144; Basch, 1987: 465, fig. 1038.
17. Lucian, Navigium 5, described the Isis ship in detail. The illustration of this ship appears on a fresco dated to the middle of the 3 rd century BCE; Basch, 1987: 495, fig. 1130.
18. Mott, 1997:43.
19. Ibid.

* We wish to thank Baruch Rosen for his useful remarks and John Tresman who edited the article.


Amit M., 1965: Athens and the Sea: A Study in the Athenian Sea-Power, Collection Latomus, vol. LXXIV; Revue d'Etudes Latines; Bruxelles-Berchen
Athenaeus (Gulick Ch. D., ed.), 1957: The Deipnpsophists, vol. 2; the Loeb Classical Library; Harvard University Press
Basch L., 1987: Le Musee imaginaire de la marine antique; Athens
Casson L, Steffy R. J. and Linder E., 1991: The Athlit Ram; Texas A & M University Press, College Station
Coates J. F. and Platis S. K. (introduction), 1990: The Trireme Trial 1988: Report on the Anglo-Hellenic Sea Trial of Olympia; Oxbow Books
Galili E., Sharvit Y. and Shifrony A., 1998: Neve-Yam - Underwater Survey; Excavations and Surveys in Israel, vol. 18: 35-36 (English edition of Hadashot Archaeologyot 106,1996)
Galili E. and Sharvit Y., 1999: Underwater Survey in the Mediterranean 1992-1996; Excavations and Surveys in Israel, vol. 19: 96-101 (English edition of Hadashot Archaeologyot 107, 1997)
Haldane D., 1986: The Wooden Anchor. Unpublished Master's Thesis; Department of Anthropology, Texas A & M University
Liddell H. G. and Scott, 1991 (reprint): An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon; Oxford, Clarendon TressPress
Morrison J. S., 1996: Greek and Roman Oared Warships 399-30 BC; Oxbow Monograph 62, Oxford
Morrison J. S., Coates J. E. and Rankov N. B., 2000: The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Warship; Cambridge, University Press
Mott L. V., 1997: The Development of the Rudder: A Technological Tale; Texas A & M University Press, College sStation; Chatham Publishing
Rhodes P. J., 1988: Thucydides, History II; Aris & Phillips, Ltd., England
Rosloff P. J., 1991: An one-armed anchor of c. 400 BCE from Ma'agan Michael vessel, Israel . A Preliminary report; IJNA 20.3: 223-226
Strassler R. B., 1998: The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Pelloponnesian War; The Free Press
Thucydides (Smith Ch. F., ed.), 1958: History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I; The Loeb Classical Library; Harvard University Press

List of illustrations

Fig. 1: Location map of the northern Israeli coast (drawing: Sharon Ben-Yehuda).

Fig. 2: The lead bands (photo: Z. Friedman).

Fig. 3: The lead bands (drawing: Israel Antiquities Authority).

Fig. 4: The lead bars (photo: Z. Friedman).

Fig. 5: The lead bars (drawing: Israel Antiquities Authority).

Fig. 6: Negative impressions of woodcarving in the bottoms of the lead bars (photo: Z. Friedman).

Fig. 7: Suggested reconstruction for the use of the lead bands as counterweights on rowing oars (reconstruction: Z. Friedman, based on Coates and Shaw, 1993: 33, fig. 9.1).

Fig. 8 a: Lead core of a wooden anchor stock (photo: Z. Friedman).

Fig. 8 b: Negative impressions of woodcarving in the bottom of a lead core
(photo: Z. Friedman).

Fig. 9: One-armed wooden anchor from Ma'agan Michael, c. 400 BCE (Rosloff, 1991: 224, fig. 2).

Fig. 10: Suggested use of lead bar weights in steering oars with the main forces affecting the oar (drawing: Z. Friedman and E. Galili).

Fig. 11: Reconstructed stages of the grooves used for casting the lead weights into the steering oar blade (drawing: Z. Friedman).

Fig. 12: Detail of the Isis Ship ship steering oars (Basch, 1987: 495, fig. 1139).

Fig. 13: Lead band surrounding the blade of the Olympias rudders
(photo: Z. Friedman).

Fig. 14: Lead band surrounding the loom of the Kyrenia rowing oars
(photo: Z. Friedman).



Designed by: onyx studios


Fig 1:
Location of the northen
Israeli coast

Fig 2:
Lead bands

Fig 3:
The lead bands

Fig 4:
The lead bars

Fig 5:
The lead bars

Fig 6:
Negative impressions
of woodcarving in the
bottom of the lead bars

Fig 7:
Suggested reconstruction for the useof the lead bands as counterweights on rowing oars

Fig 8:
: Lead core of the wooden anchor stock
b: Negativeimpressions of woodcarving on the bottomof a lead core

Fig 9:
one armed wooden anchor from Ma'agan Michael, c.400 BCE

Fig 10:
Suggested use of lead bar weights in steering oars with the main forces affecting the oar

Fig 11:
Reconstructed stages of the grooves used for casting the lead bar weights into the
steering oar blade

Fig 12:
Detail of the Isis ship steering oars

Fig 13:
lead band surrounding the blade of the Olympias rudders (Zaraza Friedman)

Fig 14:
Kead band surrounding the loom of the Kyrenia oars

Copyright ©Zaraza Friedman