New Light on Ancient Seafaring

New Light on Ancient Seafaring June 22, 2024

 

Preparing to distribute wheat.
The Church’s humanitarian efforts are many and varied.  (LDS.org)  How regrettable!

Although I no longer possess public political opinions or interests, I’m reliably informed that a national election is approaching in the United States of America.  In fact, I’ve actually seen apparent political news coverage.  (And somebody to whom I’m as close as anybody possibly can be really, really, really liked this article.)  But I have a complaint about how political issues are covered, at least in this country:

Almost all of the coverage is analogous to the coverage that we might see for a horse race.  Who’s ahead?  Who’s behind?  How will this new policy affect Politician A’s standing among ambidextrous brown-eyed Zoroastrians in Ohio?  How much has Politician B’s recent fumbling of a question about transgender dung-beetle conservation hurt her lead with unemployed Orthodox Jewish stamp collectors in rural New Mexico?  There is — if you pay attention — relatively little notice given (i.e., almost none) in the mainstream cable and broadcast news venues to actual substantive questions (e.g., What ought our policy be toward China’s maritime aggressiveness?  Would raising the minimum wage actually help or hurt marginal workers?  Should we do anything about entitlement reform, or should we merely kick that can down the road yet again?  Is it just and fair to decree blanket forgiveness of student loans?  Is it elitist and unjust to tax the 62% of Americans who lack college degrees in order to heavily subsidize graduate tuition at public law schools and business schools that will likely make their graduates wealthy?)  If I cared at all about such issues, it would be quite disappointing.

Guercino's image of Christian charity
Il Guercino, “Christian Charity” (ca. 1625).  Wikimedia Commons public domain image

In my experience, it has long been the assumption that ancient seafaring was mostly confined to sailing along the coasts.  Unless they were blown off course, ancient sailors, it was thought, would essentially hug the shoreline, traveling from one port to another.

That always seemed dubious to me.  After all, it was along shorelines that most small islands were to be found, along with rocks and shoals and reefs and barely submerged near-islands.  In other words, shorelines could be treacherous whereas (in certain respects, at least) the open sea offered fewer potential hazards.  Moreover, hugging the shoreline from, say, Rome to Beirut or from Athens to Alexandria, would inescapably mean much longer sailing distances than would traveling in a more direct route.  Further, with tools and technology that were essentially no more developed than they were for the ancient Mediterranean, such voyagers as the medieval Vikings and Polynesians indisputably covered enormous distances across open oceans, both Atlantic and Pacific.

It seemed to me, in other words, that, at least for larger ships attempting to travel between distant points, there must likely have been at least some open-sea voyaging.  But maritime archaeology in deep-water areas, as opposed to shallow coastal areas, has been difficult to impossible.  Certainly, recently and even now, systematic archaeological surveys of deep sea bottoms would be prohibitively expensive.  Which means, of course, that most finds of undersea wrecks are likely to occur along shorelines — thus seeming to reinforce the assumption that that is where ancient mariners preferred to sail.  And obviously, too, just as today, shipping would tend to cluster near ports and towns on the shore, precisely as it does today.  Flying across the sea, one sees tankers and large fishing vessels and cargo ships and passenger liners bunched up near shorelines and only very rarely further out into the open sea.  For one thing, the open sea has a far greater surface area.

So this discovery has caught my interest for reasons that should be readily apparent:  “Newly discovered 3,300-year-old shipwreck ‘changes the understanding’ of sailing in ancient world”

One might say, of course, that I have a bit of a religious dog in the fight, given my belief in the trio of ancient transoceanic migrations described in the Book of Mormon.  And perhaps I do — but not necessarily.  The Jaredite and Nephite voyages seem to have occurred under divine guidance and inspiration; the Liahona, I presume, was not standard-issue navigating technology.  I don’t think that I’m required to assume that the Book of Mormon’s  oceanic crossings simply grew out of acquaintance with then-existing seafaring culture, although they may well have been influenced by available knowledge; neither the Nephites nor the Jaredites were peoples with a tradition of seafaring.

And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.

Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.  (1 Nephi 18:1-2)

And we know essentially nothing of the Mulekite migration.

Women getting water in Africa
A principal focus of Latter-day Saint humanitarian work is providing accessible and clean water in third-world countries.  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

I’m quite clear about the fact that my reports from the Christopher Hitchens Memorial “How Religion Poisons Everything” File™ don’t — they can’t — begin to exhaust that inexhaustible fountain of horrors.  Still, even if I can’t do everything I can at least do something.  Here is a selection of some new items from the Hitchens File:

A contemporary witness!
A meeting of Ensign Peak Advisors with leaders of the Church, roughly as imagined by certain critics. (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

And, finally, there is this superb, inspiring 26-minute video from my friend Kirk Magleby that is absolutely crammed full to overflowing with appalling corporate crimes and repulsive financial abominations taken directly from the Hitchens File.  I strongly encourage you to set aside the time required and watch it:  “The Church’s AMAZING NEW Humanitarian Initiative.”  Heck, Kirk even briefly takes a moment to praise the much-maligned and heavily-criticized investment managers at Ensign Peak Advisors.  Can you even imagine such a thing?

 

 

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