A Medieval Boat Graffito from Silves, Algarve, Portugal
Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
© 2014 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2014 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 43, Issue 1, pages 184–188, March 2014
How to Cite
Gomes, M. V., Casimiro, T. M. and Vieira, A. I. (2014), A Medieval Boat Graffito from Silves, Algarve, Portugal. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43: 184–188. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12046
- Issue published online: 10 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
The excavation of a medieval cemetery in an area to the north-west and west of Silves Cathedral took place in 2004, supervised by one of the authors (AIV) (Fig. 1). In one of the graves, a red sandstone block, delimiting the tomb, was found to be engraved with the image of a boat (Casimiro et al., 2008: 247). The grave (No 156) consisted of an earth-dug pit, where a single male was buried in a supine position, arms crossed across the body at waist level, and with no grave goods. The pit was lined with an irregular series of stone blocks. The graffito was found on the exterior of the tomb, placed against the side of the pit, on what appears to be a reused building stone (Fig. 2).
The stone is a finely cut red sandstone Triassic parallelepiped block, a very common rock in the Silves area. This type of stone was the main material used in the many large medieval buildings found across the city: the castle, cathedral, city walls and many others.
The block measures 264 × 248 mm and has a maximum thickness of 82 mm. It is almost certainly one end broken from a longer block, which is presumed to have had the typical dimensions of an Islamic construction block: its depth corresponding to a ‘hand’ and the length, which is the width of the original block, could have been a cubit. Many of the Christian medieval graves from the cemetery reused structural elements and materials from nearby domestic Islamic buildings (Casimiro et al., 2008: 246).
The surface where the engraving was set is naturally flat. A patina that suggests the block was cut some centuries previously is visible on all its surfaces. In some places it is possible to see pecking marks left by the mason's chisel.
The image occupies the approximate centre of one of the block's largest surface and was engraved with filiform incisions, some of them lengthened and deepened through abrasion. Incisions were made using a fine, narrow metallic point, possibly made of iron, to sketch the figure, with the hull outlined in wider and deeper lines. The hull measures 184 mm long and 16 mm high. The longest ‘paddle’ measures 54 mm and the preserved part of the mast is 52 mm high. The incisions are 3 mm deep.
The image is easily interpreted: one can see a boat drawn in profile with a long, sub-trapezoidal hull and with the bow to the right (Fig. 3). The bow is higher than the stern and is curved and topped with a circular end-piece. The stern has an oval-shaped end-piece. A mast stands slightly fore of midships; two oblique lines, possibly representing the main sail tied to the yard, can be seen. Ten approximately equidistant, long, narrow, vertical lines, many of them crossing the hull and most of them starting at the sheer line, end well below the keel or waterline: these likely represent paddles.
In the lower part there is a concave line. If not an inaccuracy made by a not-so-specialized illustrator, or representing a troubled waterline, it is a rare depiction of a concave keel, hitherto absent from all the known medieval Islamic boat figures, were the keel is commonly represented with a flat or rounded silhouette, as in the examples mentioned below.
Other short, engraved lines can be noted on the stone, with no discernible meaning, as is often the case with graffiti throughout history.
This is clearly a stylized image of a boat of modest dimensions with a long, narrow hull, a high bow and that was both sailed and oar powered. The sail seems to correspond to the Latin or lateen type of triangular shape, which was developed in the East and very frequently used in Mediterranean boats during the Middle Ages. On the other hand, the hull does not show the multiple horizontal lines that characterize boats constructed with overlapped or clinker wooden boards, typical of northern European vessels.
The archaeological context of the graffito provides a date between the Islamic period from the 8th century, when the sandstone block was cut (post quem), and its reuse in the medieval grave of the Silves Cathedral's graveyard in the 14th–15th century (ante quem). Iconographic parallels might help narrow the date range; however, medieval engravings of vessels are rare and few similar boats have been found. This is perhaps surprising as naval themes are found from many eras.
A number of engraved boat images were found in 2010 on a stone slab in Mértola, in the yard of a 12th-century Muslim house in the town's medieval suburb in Alentejo. These finely incised illustrations were drawn on the underside of the slab, thus prior to its use as paving, and are dated to the 11th–12th centuries (Gómez Martínez and Lopes, 2011). One of the pictures is of a small vessel with a triangular sail, high bow, stern, rudder and at least ten paddles (Fig. 4a).
Another graffito has been discovered in the Nazari city wall of Albayzin in Granada, built 1338–1359: it has 14 paddles, some of them with the blade represented (Barrera Maturana, 2002: 303, 304, 320, fig. 29) (Fig. 4b).
Ship graffiti on the Denia castle walls, dated between the second half of the 13th century and the first half of the 14th century, show mainly galleys with large triangular sails and long series of oars. Other simpler vessels depicted are different types, such as fishing boats or cogs used to transport people and commodities (Bazzana et al., 1984) (Fig 4c).
A similar stylized boat with a Latin sail and a high bow and stern can be observed on a ceramic bowl produced in Tunisia in the late 11th century or the beginning of the 12th century, which was integrated in the decoration of the S. Michele degli Scalzi church in Pisa (Berti and Tongiorgi, 1981, bowl 292). Also, two large Pisan-type bowls (52 and 63), produced in Majorca during the late 10th or early 11th century, contain Islamic representations and each depicting a ship; one of them larger and more complete than the Silves example, the other smaller and less detailed. Considered to be auxiliary boats, these have Latin sails, wide hulls, high bows and paddles; they present similar characteristics to the Silves boat figure (Dodds, 1992: 238, 239; Berti, Pastor Quijada and Rosselló Bordoy, 1993: 24, 27, 36).
Two possible images of galleys, dated to the 13th century, are engraved on the inside wall of the Coaner circular tower (el Bages, Lérida) (Fig. 5). These have central masts with Latin sails, a series of paddles and spherical elements at the bow, similar to that of the Silves boat (Bolós and Sánchez, 2003: 771, 776, est. 2).
Possible ship type
The Iberian Muslims used several types of ships, each for different activities such as warfare, trade or fishing. These included small galleys called qarib/qawarib that had a low hull and a variable number of oarsmen. They were smaller when compared with other Islamic boat representations of large commercial or vessels used in warfare (Delgado, 1991: 339). These small boats were easy to manoeuvre and were used for many activities such as assisting large warships to disembark troops, or as commercial vessels taking commodities up small rivers. Nevertheless the boat depicted might also have been used to cross streams and rivers, to transport people and merchandise between ports, and in fishing activities (Delgado, 1991: 329–42).
The engraved graffito in Silves most likely represents a qârib/qawârib boat with a triangular sail and 20 oars, which was probably used in cabotage, or fishing.
Delgado (1991: 337) refers to several uses for such vessels, mostly in assisting larger war and merchant ships, or as pilots in medium sized rivers, such as the Arade River would have been at that time. Such boats would have been common on the Arade River and the in port of Silves between the 10th and 13th centuries, the period in which the boat depicted was sailing and when its picture was made.
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