by Frederike Berg
The beginnings of shipbuilding
Whether in shipbuilding, ship maintenance or in ports – scaffolding systems from Scafom-rux are used in the most diverse areas of the maritime industry. Nowadays, it is completely normal that scaffolding is used when working on ships and boats. But like scaffolding itself, shipbuilding has a long history. During this time, the way people build their vessels has naturally evolved a lot. We want to take a closer look at this and take you on a short journey through time to the beginnings of shipbuilding.
About 50,000 years ago: the first seagoing boats
As early as about 50,000 years ago, mankind was concerned with the question of how to get around on oceans and rivers. Already at that time, the techniques of building seagoing boats must have been well developed. How else could the ancestors of the Aborigines have crossed over 80 km of open sea to finally reach the Australian continent?
The oldest archaeological evidence of vessels comes from what is now northern Europe and can be dated back to around 6,500 BCE. These could at most be rafts made of wood tied together, right? Not quite. The indigenous peoples of this time actually built the first real boats - the so-called dugout canoes. These consisted of tree trunks that were hollowed out with stone tools and then carefully burned out.
The oldest boat ever found is also a dugout canoe: this three-metre long and only 45 cm wide boat is a full 8000 years old. Dugout canoes dating back to later times already showed a technological development. For example, longer boats for transporting goods were designed with a flattened bottom to prevent them from capsizing. Thinner sides for more buoyancy, crosspieces for stiffening or planked sides are also signs that prehistoric boat building was constantly being improved.
Of course, it is no longer possible to say with certainty when the first truly seagoing boat was used by humans as a means of fishing, travelling or exploring. What is certain, however, is that at the latest with the oldest advanced civilisations, ships were firmly used as a means of transport on the water.
3,500 BCE: the ships of the ancient Egyptians
The fact that the ancient Egyptians established themselves as pioneers in shipbuilding was only logical in the land of the Nile. Considering the annual Nile flood alone, which regularly inundated the river's edge regions then and now, vessels were indispensable for everyday life.
Both the river itself and the adjacent fertile land were made usable for people in the first place with the help of boats and ships - and thus contributed to the emergence of Egyptian culture.
The use of the first Egyptian boats and ships was recorded for posterity in paintings on tombs, monuments and vases, for example. These millennia-old pictures show crescent-shaped boats and ships that were rowed with paddles. Initially made of papyrus reeds tied together, with the use of wood, ancient Egyptian vessels were no longer used only for river traffic, but also for war and trade purposes at sea.
The first sailing boat also probably dates back to the ancient Egyptians. With one decisive difference to modern ships and boats: even larger ships did not have a keel that would have given them stability in keeping the direction of travel. Instead, they had to be counter-steered with several oars at the stern.
1st millennium BCE.: The first ships of antiquity in the Mediterranean region
In the following centuries, too, shipbuilding established itself as an integral part of the great powers of antiquity. Historians today consider the Phoenicians to be the most successful shipbuilders and seafarers. Even before the Greeks, this people of antiquity, who lived on the eastern Mediterranean coast, ventured into the Mediterranean and even the Atlantic with their vessels in the first millennium BCE. These ranged from small, oar-driven ships and boats to large, sail-equipped merchant and warships.
Following the Phoenician model: the galleys of the ancient Greeks
The Phoenician ships were probably also the first to come close to today's seagoing ships. No surprise, then, that the Greeks soon took Phoenician shipbuilding as a model for their rowing and sailing ships called galleys. In the Mediterranean region, the development of Athens into a large city in the 5th century BCE was accompanied by the increasingly perfected construction of warships and merchant ships.
The ancient Greeks proved to be particularly skilled imitators of Phoenician shipbuilding. They decisively developed the carvel construction method of hulls, which was primarily used in Mediterranean shipbuilding in antiquity. In contrast to the clinker construction method, in which ship planks were placed overlapping, ship planks were preferably placed edge to edge. This method of construction was already known to the ancient Egyptians, but with one decisive difference: the shipbuilders of ancient Greece mortised the planks together. This significantly reduced the need for lashing the planks together and sealing the seams. The result was both elastic and highly stable hulls.
What’s surprising when you consider the construction of today's ships: the hull planking was built even before the supporting inner skeleton - and this was still the case as late as the 7th century CE.
Rome develops into a maritime power
Before the Roman Empire also developed into a maritime power from the 3rd century BCE, boat and ship building did not play a major role or the Romans at first. It was not until the violent conflicts over the Mediterranean that Rome began to decisively advance its own shipbuilding and copied, among other things, the Greek galleys.
The Romans also soon produced their ships in series. For this purpose, they used partly huge shipyard complexes and further tapped the development potential of ancient shipbuilding. With the progressive expansion of the Roman Empire, shipbuilding according to the Roman model soon also reached Central Europe, where local shipbuilders took up the new technologies.
In some respects, therefore, the people of prehistory and antiquity are already similar to us in their way of shipbuilding. If you want to learn more about the topics of shipbuilding, it is worth taking a further look at our blog.
Are you active in the maritime industry yourself? Then take a look at our industry brochure.
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