BMCR 2014.03.03

The Ancient Sailing Season. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 351

, The Ancient Sailing Season. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 351. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013. xv, 364. ISBN 9789004223523. $182.00.

The author aims to underline the fact that ancient seafaring was not strictly limited to the period from April through November, but could also occur during winter. Indeed, for a long time, some scholars, especially Lionel Casson and Jean Rougé, asserted that there was a ‘good season’, quite propitious for seafaring, and a ‘bad season’, when sea shipping was not possible, or at least considerably reduced. However, recent works, such as those by Jamie Morton or Pascal Arnaud,1 have deeply changed our view on navigation in winter. Beresford follows the same path of reconsidering the capacities of ancient ships, which have been disregarded for too long compared to the boats of the Modern Age.

Beresford starts by examining the main literary sources that deal with a limitation of seafaring in winter (chap. I). He then turns to the natural conditions in winter (especially winds, but also currents, visibility, darkness, etc), using the Pilot Charts, in order to understand their effects on the navigation (chap. II). To determine if the ancient ships were able to sail in winter, he considers their architecture, paying particular attention to the data from experimental archaeological projects, such as the reconstructions of the Kyrenia 2 and Olympias (chap. III). Thereafter, he turns to navigation practices, for instance open water seafaring or the use of the sounding leads (chap. IV); to winter navigation in the Indian Ocean (chap. V); and finally to the specific sailing seasons of pirates and fishermen (chap. VI).

The demonstration is clear and very readable. There are some interesting ideas. For instance, Beresford insists strongly on the evolution of seafaring over time. Natural conditions and ships are never described as frozen in time.

However, there is a significant lack of bibliography, especially on ship construction (chap. III). 2 Most of the references quoted are in English. Very few mention French authors, and almost none in any other language. Not a single paper from Archaeonautica is quoted, notably Patrice Pomey and André Tchernia on the tonnages of ancient ships (‘Le tonnage maximum des navires de commerce romains’, Archaeonautica, 2 [1978]). None of Pascal Arnaud’s works is even mentioned.

Moreover the bibliography is completely outdated: advanced research in ship archaeology cannot rely solely on Steffy’s and McGrail’s books,3 no matter how excellent they are. Most of the references are from the last century, with hardly ten from 2005 to 2010 (the most recent year). Some very interesting synthetic reports (Yaacov Kahanov, Patrice Pomey, etc) on Mediterranean ship construction are not cited.4 The main article about archaic sewn plank boats is not mentioned either.5

Thus, because of this bibliographical gap, the work gives only a brief – and quite outdated – insight into the subject. Last but not least, the book costs 131 euros (182 dollars). Such a price is not the choice of the author, but it is unfortunate, nonetheless.


1. Jamie Morton, The Role of the Physical Environment in Ancient Greek Seafaring, Brill, 2001; Pascal Arnaud, Les routes de la navigation antique: itinéraires en Méditerranée, Paris: Errance, 2005.

2. I am grateful to Emilien Afane for his advice concerning chap. II.

3. J. Richard Steffy, Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks, College Station: Texas A and M University, 1994; Sean McGrail, Boats of the world : from the Stone Age to medieval times, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

4. Essays by both are found in Hocker Frederick M., Ward Cheryl A. [eds.], The Philosophy of Shipbuilding College Station: Texas A and M University, 2004).

5. Kahanov Yaacov, Pomey Patrice, ‘The Greek Sewn Shipbuilding Tradition and Ma’agan Mikhael ship: A comparison with Mediterranean parallels from the sixth to the fourth centuries BC’, The Mariner’s Mirror 90 (2004), p. 6-28.