How did the man navigate in antiquity? How did they calculate the route and set course? How they did learn to sail our coasts? And those are just some of the questions that sometimes, when we turn our gaze to the sea, they come to our mind and invite us to try to imagine the old navigator on his way with the bow of his ship.

Engraving of three Roman merchant ships in the Sarcophagus of Copenhagen from the late third century AD. Source: Le musée imaginaire de la marine Antique.

Navigation in Antiquity

Cover page of ‘Arte de nauegar’.

Navigation, for centuries, has been considered as the communion between ‘art’ and ‘science’. It was not in vain that the facsimile called » Arte de nauegar en que se contienen todas las Reglas, Declaraciones, Secretos, y Avisos que a la buena nauegación son necesarios, y se deben saber» was published in 1545 by Pedro de Medina: cleric, mathematician, cosmographer and historian. We find a work written by a mathematician and cosmographer in reference to an art: the navigator must know as much of mathematical calculations and astral positioning as of a subtler tradition and one cannot learn from a book if not from experience, and is the sixth nautical sense. Read the sky, know how to sail each wave, smell the proximity of land … They are small things that make navigation something far beyond a demanding science: an art.

But then, how did they do before publications like: «El arte de navegar’ (The Art of Sailing)? The oral tradition of teacher to apprentice was always the main of the ways, nurturing with the passage of the years and with the experiences of each navigator of which formed this chain of wisdom that was kept alive throughout the centuries.

Nowadays, this knowledge has evolved with progress and we have little left of how the Phoenicians or even their predecessors navigated in antiquity: texts, engravings and all what archeology brings us. But sometimes the simple recording, recovery and study of the materials and their ins and outs is not enough and we must go one step further: reviving the story.

Sailing Living History Lab

Experimental archeology seeks to understand how our ancestors carried out certain activities, some of construction, manufacturing, or simply the development of an activity. By recreating the activity in first person, the study allows to modify or to discard theoretical ideas that many times, until they are not tried to carry out, we are not able to see if they are viable or not.

In the coming weeks, within a joint project between Sailing Living Lab and a master’s degree research at the University of Cadiz, we will try to approach, through aspects of experimental archeology, navigation systems that were used in antiquity until Roman times. The testing area will be the area between Cabo de Gata (Almería) and Cabo de Palos (Murcia) and the Sea of ​​Alborán (between the peninsula and Morocco), where we will carry out various experiments, analysis and, above all, a lot of navigation!

An innovative project in which to merge a line of research in the Master’s Degree in Nautical and Underwater Archeology at the University of Cadiz and the technology aboard the Sailing Living Lab. We will test science and technology with the art of navigation to bring us a little closer to that sailor who crossed our waters more than two thousand years ago.

Cèlia González Sánchez