National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Aleydis Van de Moortel

Affiliation: University of Tennessee

Aleydis Van de Moortel is Professor and Head of the Department of Classics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  She holds her degrees from Bryn Mawr College (Ph.D.), Texas A&M, Catholic University of Leuven, and Universitaire Faculteiten St. Ignatius, Antwerp. Her research interests are the rise and decline of complex societies, Aegean prehistory, Minoan pottery, cultural interconnections in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean, and ancient and medieval ship construction.  Professor Van de Moortel is director of archaeological excavation at the Mitrou Archaeological Project, Central Greece, Minoan pottery analyst for the Abords Nord-Est (Malia, Crete), and director of archaeological study of the medieval Utrecht I Ship (Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, Denmark).


Our understanding of Bronze Age Aegean ships is largely based on a record of about 400 ship images, most of them small and schematic. On the basis of the characteristics of a Middle Bronze Age boat found at Mitrou, in central Greece, the speaker will argue for a new ship typology for the Bronze Age Aegean that is based on shipbuilding principles rather than iconographic details.

Recently found ship images suggest that in the Early Bronze Age, the East Aegean region had advanced shipbuilding technology and was the first area of the Aegean to use the sail. All this would have given East Aegean seafarers a decided advantage over those from the other parts of the Aegean, somewhat comparable to those enjoyed by Viking seafarers over other northern European seafarers in the early Middle Ages. The advanced East Aegean shipbuilding and ship propulsion technology in turn would help to explain the sudden appearance of Anatolian cultural features in the Central and West Aegean during the later part of the Early Bronze Age. The East Aegean innovations had a major impact on Aegean boatbuilding and seafaring, as they soon were adopted by shipbuilders in Minoan Crete and other areas.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

2017     Van de Moortel, A., “A New Typology of Bronze Age Aegean Ships: Developments in Aegean Shipbuilding in Their Historical Context,” in J. Litwin (ed.), The Baltic and Beyond. Proceedings of the 14th International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology, Gdańsk, September 21-25,  2015 (Gdańsk) 263-268.

Five years of archaeological excavations and surveys at Mitrou by the University of Tennessee and the Greek Archaeological Service have produced a uniquely rich data set for studying the rise of an indigenous elite in central Greece. During the early part of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1700/1600 – 1400 BCE), Mitrou’s elite manifested itself through the construction of large building complexes and elite tombs as well as a reorganization of the settlement structure and burial practices. Access to far-flung exchange networks provided it with high-status goods and chariot technology.

Unlike contemporary elites in the Peloponnese, which were much influenced by Aegina and Crete, Mitrou’s elite developed strategies for projecting and legitimizing power that were its own and owed little to the southern Aegean. It will be argued that Mitrou’s leaders constructed a new ideology of power, claiming special status and asserting their local, central Greek identity possibly in reaction to the expansion of southern Aegean activities in the area. Only in the 15th century BCE did they increasingly adopt the elite culture of Mycenae, and to all appearances this adoption was voluntary. Mitrou’s elite ostensibly was defeated early in the 14th century BCE, when the site was destroyed and apparently taken over by an outside palatial power–a phenomenon observed in other areas of Greece as well. For the next 300 to 400 years, their monumental tomb became the focus of special activities suggestive of the awe and esteem in which the former elite was held by the local population.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Maran, J., and A. Van de Moortel, 2014 “A Horse Bridle Piece with Carpatho-Danubian Connections from Late Helladic I Mitrou and the Emergence of a Warlike Elite in Greece During the Shaft-Grave Period,” American Journal of Archaeology 118.4 (Oct. 2014) 529-548.

Van de Moortel, A., 2016 “Politics of Death at Mitrou: Two Prepalatial Elite Tombs in a Landscape ofPower,” in A. Dakouri-Hild and M.J. Boyd (eds.), Staging Death: Funerary Performance, Architecture, and Landscape in the Aegean (Berlin: De Gruyter) 89-116.

Van de Moortel, A., S. Vitale, B. Lis, and G. Bianco, 2019 “Honoring the Dead or Hero Cult? The Long Afterlife of a Prepalatial Elite Tomb at Mitrou,” in E. Borgna, I. Caloi, F. Carinci, and R. Laffineur (eds.), MNHMH/MNEME. Past and Memory in the Aegean Bronze Age. Proceedings of the 17th International Aegean Conference, University of Udine and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, 17-21 April 2018 (Liège and Leuven: Peeters) 277-292. Aegaeum 43.

Since 1994 hundreds of ancient engravings cut into bedrock have been discovered in an area of Attica located south of Athens, Greece. The finds include both verbal and pictorial engravings. Among the latter are about 250 depictions of ships, consisting mostly of longships, but including also merchantmen and vessels of other types. On the same and nearby rocks there are some 1200 inscriptions, mostly simply stating that “I am so-and-so.”  Sometimes the inscriber added that he was a shepherd or goatherd. The writing as well as the ship depictions find their best parallels in the 6th century BCE.

This lecture will present an overview of the various types of ships and boats represented among these engravings, and will explore the possible meaning of these ship graffiti through contextual analysis. The spatial distribution of the ship graffiti will be discussed in relation to those of other images and writing. Likewise, their relationship to geographical and geological features as well as to settlements, sanctuaries and other sites will be considered.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Van de Moortel, A., and M.K. Langdon, 2017 “Archaic Ship Graffiti from Southern Attica, Greece: Typology and Preliminary Contextual Analysis,” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology  46.2 (Sept. 2017) 382-405. U.K. DOI: 10.1111/1095-9270.12268.

Excavations of medieval seagoing ships in northern Europe have attracted much public attention in the last 50 years or so, but the increasing number of wrecks of river-going boats is of growing importance for our understanding of medieval shipbuilding traditions, inland communication routes, transport, and trade. In this paper a systematic overview will be given of all known remains of medieval boats from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. These comprise many logboats and more than eighty remains of planked boats. Even though different hull types can be distinguished among the planked boats (barges, hulks, cogs, Nordic-type ships), it will be argued that all, except for ships with Nordic features, belonged to the same boatbuilding tradition. This tradition appears to have been formed in the early Middle Ages through a hybridization of the ancient Romano-Celtic boatbuilding tradition and new boatbuilding principles and practices brought from the east by Germanic migrants. On the basis of our current finds, it appears that this hybridization took place in the Low Countries and then spread east towards the Baltic.

Our current archaeological and written record also shows an interesting pattern related to economic development. Until ca. 1200, there is a limited variety of ship types both in the archaeological and historical record. From the 13th century onwards, there is a proliferation of ship types that no doubt is related to the rapid increase in waterborne trade fueled by the booming economy of the medieval cities. This growth is also reflected in the rapid increase in the carrying capacity of cargo ships. At the same time, studies show that ship timber had to be imported from farther and farther away. Thus shipwreck archaeology provides us with important evidence for medieval economic history.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Van de Moortel, A., 2011 “Medieval Boat and Ship Finds of Germany, the Low Countries, and Northeast France: Archaeological Evidence for Shipbuilding Traditions, Shipbuilding Resources, Trade and Communication,” Settlement and Coastal Research in the Lower North Sea Region 34:1-38. Journal of the Niedersächsisches Institut für historische Küstenforschung–Lower Saxony Institute for Historical Coastal Research.

Van de Moortel, A., 2017 “Blending Boatbuilding Traditions in the Cultural Landscape of Europe’s Early Medieval Migration Period,” in J. Gawronski, A. van Holk, and J. Schokkenbroek (eds.), Ships and Maritime Landscapes. Proceedings of the 13th International Symposium on Boat and  Ship Archaeology, Amsterdam, Oct. 7-12, 2012 (Eelde, NL: Barkhuis) 296-303.

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