The Shipsheds of Zea – The Shelter of the Almighty Athenian Fleet

The Shipsheds of Zea

Dockyards (neoria) were installations near the sea which were used as safekeeping places for battleships, throughout antiquity. Ancient dockyards were thus organized as to be equipped with all essential military infrastructures, the most important of which being the webs of shipsheds (neosoikoi).

The shipsheds were built to accommodate fleets in period of peace. The long warships could not be preserved and maintained battalious if not kept ashore and protected. For instance, in case hull-fragile triremes, stayed into the sea for a long time, they would become particularly heavy, hence cumbersome and slow.

The shipsheds were long, narrow buildings with a roof and an open at the sea end. They were built on the limestone bedrock with a 1:10 incline to allow the ships to be pulled up, stern first. The shipsheds’ individual halls were separated by colonnades or walls. The ships were pulled on land and then secured with ropes.

The refloating of battleships was conducted either on built sloping shelves (ramps) or on woods, placed at regular intervals across the dockyards, whereas the exact method of the ships’ refloating (manually or by mechanical means) cannot be confirmed. However, in a, segmentally preserved, Athenian epigraph, it is mentioned that 140 men were needed for the triremes’ refloating and, at least, 120 for their launching.

Generally, the infrastructure and the construction of ancient shipsheds provide us with important information about the ancient technology as well as naval architecture and are currently the only material remains that largely confirm the ancient ships’ sizes. Moreover, each shipshed was named after the ship it was hosting, some of them being “Danae”, “Pagrateia” and “Tauropolis”.

The shipsheds were the oldest buildings in Piraeus. According to Plato, it was Themistocles who had the first permanent installation built – late 6th to early 5th century. Referring to the Piraeus shipsheds, Pausanias mentions “they were still standing, up to my days”, thus confirming that some of the shipsheds were still in use although Athens was under roman administration at the time.

The total number of shipsheds in all three ports was 378, from which 83 were in Munichia (Mikrolimano), 196 in Zea (Pasalimani) and the rest 94 in Cantharus (Piraeus Port). The harbour of Zea, second largest of Piraeus, had been the largest and most important naval station of the mighty Athenian fleet throughout antiquity.

In Zea, the shipsheds were divided into two groups, east and west, along the coastline of the harbour. The lack of slopes, at the centre of the bay, made it impossible for the shipsheds to be located there. According to the layout of the Zea sheds, they were organized into groups of 10, separated with partitions and served by an entrance from an outside corridor. Each shipshed was 6.5 metre wide and could accommodate one trireme (32 – 35 meters long) or two smaller vessels. The shipsheds of Zea were divided by colonnades.

From the shipsheds of the western side of the harbour of Zea no traces have survived today, while from the eastern side a small section is preserved, in the basement of an apartment building on the corner of Moutzopoulou Coast and Sirangiou Street, in Pasalimani.

The place, which is apparently under the control of the Archaeological Service, is enclosed in dark glass for the protection of the ancient relics from the sunlight. At night, it is discreetly illuminated, showcasing the ancient ruins scattered among the foundation columns of the multi-storey building.

The Shipsheds of Zea – The Shelter of the Almighty Athenian Fleet
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