Ep. 020 – The Sea Peoples Sail South: Vol. II

Today we wrap up our look at the Late Bronze Age Collapse. We focus heavily on Egypt's naval clash with the Sea Peoples in 1177 BCE. Our main sources are the inscriptions and relief at the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. The relief in particular is very enlightening, revealing for the first time the use of a new sail type by both the Sea Peoples and the Egyptians. We talk about this technological development and finish up by looking a bit at where the Sea Peoples ended up and how the stage was set for the dawn of the Iron Age.

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  • Steiner, Margreet L., & Ann E. Killebrew, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant: c. 8000-332 BCE (2014).

  3 comments for “Ep. 020 – The Sea Peoples Sail South: Vol. II

  1. Jon Desautels
    June 11, 2016 at 10:23 am

    I don’t believe they have a new sail type. I think the sails have been gathered and secured to the yards so that they can’t be damaged in battle. They did all maneuvering by ores once they joined battle.

    • Brandon Huebner
      June 14, 2016 at 9:08 am

      Hi Jon, thanks for the comment. You’re quite correct to observe that the sails in the Medinet Habu relief are shown furled to the yards. As you also observe, this was probably because they were engaged in battle. They did maneuver by oar in close quarters, but one theory is that the Egyptians didn’t include oars on the Sea People’s ships because they were trying to indicate the success of Egypt’s surprise attack on the invaders.

      On the issue of whether the sail type was “new” or not, I hope I didn’t mislead. What I intended to convey was the idea put forward by Jeffrey Emmanuel in his paper, The Sea Peoples, Egypt, and the Aegean: Transference of Maritime Technology in the Late Bronze–Early Iron Transition (LH IIIB–C). The basic idea is that the Medinet Habu relief is our first clear evidence that this sail type had been widely adopted across the near east, as well as in Egypt. Most every depiction before 1177 BCE shows the use of a standard, boom-footed square sail. It’s with the Medinet Habu depiction that we first see the loose-footed, brail-rigged sail in use by both the Sea Peoples and the Egyptians, so by 1177 it must have become popular enough to have entered standard usage over a wide area. This type is certainly closer to what us modern people think of as a sail, but before this type was widely adopted the typical square sail didn’t include the brails that could be used to easily furl the sails, it was essentially just tied to two spars as a square and held fast. Not quite as effective or adaptable as the sail depicted in the 1177 relief.

      Anyway, hope that is adequate clarification but feel free to add any other thoughts. Thanks for listening!

    • September 11, 2017 at 10:58 am

      Hi Jon,

      Certainly close combat would have involved maneuvering by oars, although we should note that the Ram, and the tactic of ramming an enemy vessel, would not be developed for several more centuries. Instead, fighting on sea was largely like fighting on land, with spears and bows being thrown or fired from mobile platforms, with a key exception being the grapnels shown in Medinet Habu relief.

      The evidence for the rigging depicted in the Medinet Habu relief (and in other artistic representations appearing at this time, including from Kynos and Skyros in the Aegean, Hama in Syria, and at Ekron and on the Carmel coast in the Levant, to name a few) comes from two particular data points: the removal of the “boom,” or lower yard, that had previously served as the lower support for the squaresail in use to that point in the Mediterranean, and the reduction in the number of “deadeyes,” or discs atop the mast for running lines through, from several on old boom-footed vessels to just two on the new loose-footed rigs. (Pulling representative images from the internet, you can compare, for example, the web of lines and lifts used on the boom-footed Punt ship https://www.nilemuse.com/muse/pic/boats/Punt2L.gif to the simple fore-and-back stays used on loose-footed vessels like this one https://qph.ec.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-9b8880c5389fef9d4e36cf73fa8e6325).

      The sails are furled on both sides’ ships in the Medinet Habu battle, but their form – “brailed up,” as we call it – and the lack of a lower yard (boom) demonstrates that they are of this new type. Sailing vessels of the boom-footed type, on the other hand, generally collapsed their sails by lowering the upper yard to the boom, as seen in this reconstruction http://www.salimbeti.com/micenei/images/ship136.jpg

      I hope this helps, and thanks to Brandon for the engaging podcast!

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