Monday, June 7, 2021

A Brief History of Ships' Eyes

 (condensed from the Master's thesis of Troy Joseph Nowak, Texas A&M University, 2006, "Archaeological Evidence for Ship Eyes: An Analysis of Their Form and Function 


Between the Bronze Age and the 3rd century BCE, all types of watercraft used in the Mediterranean from small boats to large galleys were commonly adorned with eyes on their bows.  In Greece, the earliest clear depiction of a ship with eyes is a Late Helladic clay ship model decorated with circular eyes discovered at Phylakopi, Melos. However, ship representations with eyes do not reappear in the archaeological record again until the Geometric Period.  Excavations in the Dipylon cemetery at Athens have yielded an impressive collection of Late Geometric I [c. 760 to 735 BCE] ceramics decorated with ships. Eyes adorn the bows of these galleys and typically take the form of 8- or 16-point stars enclosed in circles, although other related types are known. Slightly later examples dating to Late Geometric II [c. 735-710 BCE] show a greater variety of abstract forms used to indicate the presence of eyes. 

During the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, many representations of Greek galleys fail to include eyes on the upperworks of their bows. Instead, the eyes on these vessels are typically placed in association with the forefoot, which now takes on a stylized zoomorphic form that often resembles the head of a boar. The development of naval tactics involving the ramming and the subsequent disabling of enemy ships may coincide with introduction of eyes set in relation to the forefeet of warship bows.

Representations of ancient Greek warships dated to the 6th century BCE show that they were commonly decorated with two pairs of eyes. One was set low on the bow to impart a zoomorphic form to the embolos that has been identified for the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE as the head of a boar. Another was set on the upperworks of the bow as those during the Late Geometric Period but the eyes become more realistically depicted with a slight almond shape and a clearly delineated pupil. 

By the 4th and 3rd century BCE, more elongated, dolphin-shaped eyes were introduced and eyes on Punic vessels move to between the waterline and upper wale.

The form of the ship eye remains elongated until the 2nd century BCE when it appears to take on a more Roman appearance, both elongated, and naturalistic as well as, round, almond-shaped, and wadjet-eye-shaped. Moreover, ship eyes were no longer exclusively set in the upperworks of galleys.

I couldn't help but wonder if the wadjet-shaped eye was adopted because of trading relations with Egypt.  The wadjet was closely associated in ancient Egyptian religion with the Eye of Ra, a powerful protective deity. Like the wadjet, the eyes of a ship were thought to be apotropaic in nature and scholars have likened their use to decorations depicting the gorgoneion on armor, weapons and architecture.  Although the identification of which specific deity possessing the eyes may vary based on context, the eye motif seems to primarily, and almost universally, denote the presence of a protective supernatural consciousness that aids its user by keeping watch for invisible threats. Nowak examines human envy in literary sources as one of those primary invisible threats.

Archaic warship bows including those resembling a boar as illustrated by Troy Joseph Nowak

Bow of a 3rd century BCE warship with an elongated eye set on its upperworks and an ovoid eye near its embolos as illustrated by Troy Joseph Nowak.

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