What Were Sails Made Of?

By Eve Black and David Samuel, published August 1991


From the study of ancient wrecks, using modern archaeological techniques including carbon14 dating, a great deal is now known about hulls and ship’s carpentry. However, apart from pictures, very little is known in detail about sails, since practically nothing has been preserved. Forms of propulsion for boats gradually evolved from manpower to wind assisted, as written in the Book of Jonah (400BC). The earliest known picture of a square sail, on an Egyptian decorated vase dated 3100BC, is now in the British Museum. The manufacture and use of linen started very early on in Egypt and evidence exists of its use on many wooden boat models found in Egyptian tombs dating from 2060-1900BC. Shield sails, used in upper Egypt 100 years earlier, were probably made of animal skins, wood or woven reed. Matting, fixed to bamboo, was popular on Chinese boats and Caesar in his Gallic Wars speaks of Celtic ships having sails of leather. In the New World sealskins were used by the Indians of the eighteenth century. Over time attempts were made to make linen sails stronger, more durable, windproof and waterproof by mixing fibres and chemical treatments. The search for new and better man-made sail making materials continues.

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Filed under: Prehistory | Antiquity | Mediterranean
Subjects include: Archaeology | Shipbuilding & Design

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