Minoan Seafarers

Greece has over 3,000 islands, some inhabitable, most are not. Crete, the largest island of them all, had an advantage over the others with its vast cypress forest, most of which is gone today. Ship building began very early. There is evidence to suggest trade in the Aegean began as early as 6,800 BCE. Tools made from Melian obsidian (from the island of Melos) has been found on Crete and Cyprus. In prehistoric times, the islands were accessible by means of primitive boats due to the narrow sea passages and shallow gulfs (see article by Andrea Salimbeti). However, for the purpose of this article, I will be referring to ships most of us are familiar with, and those featured in the Akrotiri wall frieze.


The construction of the ships met the needs of the Minoans who traded with their close neighbours, and as far as Spain today. The evolution of ships, and building bigger and different vessels grew as the Minoans increased their exporting and importing affiliations. The first boats built were from papyrus, good for short distance, however as time and sophisticated tools were invented, boats got bigger and faster.

Akrotiri marine fresco Athens Museum
Akrotiri marine fresco
Athens Museum

There are at least four different types of ships/boats in the Akrotiri frieze, and all but one was built for lengthy sea voyages. Looking at the frieze from left to right, where a flotilla of ships abounds in the colourful display, there is a small 10-oared boat, with a single helmsman and 10 rowers. Behind the helmsman is a person sitting, a person of nobility perhaps or a ruler. Further along are two 42-oared ships, similar yet the top one has a main sail. Another interesting feature is the ‘cabin’ where the assumption can be made that’s where a high ranking member sat. Both ships have a long slender stem as part of the stern. The function of this is still not determined, yet scholars suggest when in a storm, the wind would turn the vessel until the stern points into the waves.

The next two ships, a 42-oared and 36-oared ship have sunflowers appended to the stern, possible Minoan flagships that carried passengers. The ‘passengers’ are denoted by their coloured clothing. The next boat has two helmsmen with a main sail and what appears to be a noble person or captain in the ‘cabin’. Further along are 36-oared and 42-oared ships. It seems to be a procession, religious? or some other functionary purpose heading for Crete. In the harbour are three boats, and the building has been identified as the Palace of Knossos.

Wall frieze found at Akrotiri Courtesy of Wikipedia
Wall frieze found at Akrotiri
Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Minoan ships weren’t built for warfare but for transportation of goods and people, as seen by the frieze. That is not to say there wasn’t a sea battle. There happens to be a fresco from Akrotiri of perhaps the oldest sea battle of an Aegean fleet and their enemies or possibly pirates from Lybia.

I had watched a documentary on the Minoans with Bettany Hughes as the presenter. It was great and on it there were artisans who were re-constructing a Minoan ship, which you can view here a short clip or you can watch the full doco here. The tools they used and how they hewed the timber is nothing short of brilliance.

Thank you for your continued support and as always, I look forward to your comments and will respond.

Historical fiction novelist and a secondary teacher, Luciana Cavallaro, burnt out but not done… yet. Subscribe and receive a free PDF on how to survive 7th century BCE at http://eepurl.com/brIbFf

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    • cav12

      Ciao Bella,
      Me too. They were extraordinary and much more ingenious, considering they did not have the technology we take for granted today.


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