How did Navigation Develop in the Ancient World

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16th Century Astrolab

Navigation played a critical role not just in trade but also in warfare and the spreading of ideas, diseases, migrations, and even technologies that accelerated cultural change. Navigation increasingly made movement by sea easier over time; however, much of this knowledge that facilitated movement was accumulated knowledge that took many centuries or even millennia to develop.

However, such as knowledge of astronomy grew and reached a critical threshold, we begin to see rapid developments in navigation. These advances made navigation more manageable and allowed for technologies (e.g., the astrolabe) to be developed.

Early Developments

We first see evidence of the sail and sea-born ships depicted by the early Chalcolithic (6th millennium BC). The evidence comes from boat models and even tokens from sites in Arabia that were likely trade colonies or settlements established by a southern Mesopotamian (i.e., southern Iraq) culture, called the Ubaid culture, which was first established by 6500 BC and lasted until c. 4000 BC. [1]

In the 6th and the 5th millennium BC, the Ubaid culture began to expand and Arabia, particularly along the Persian Gulf coast, became a key focus region due to trade interests, including such items as copper and stones. The boat depictions from this era mostly suggest that reed boats with sails were utilized, where pitch, or bitumen, was used to seal boats to prevent them from sinking.[2]

Pressed reed mats or evidence for them has been found along sites in the Persian Gulf. Most likely, prevailing wind patterns from the west in the Mediterranean and the east in the Persian Gulf were well known and utilized by the early sailboats.

Up to this point, most likely ships had to stay near land to be near the shore to avoid storms, in essence, they could shelter quickly if needed, and for boats to use land as a means of navigation. In other words, landforms served as markers to guide sailors. While the early sailboats were used to connect Mesopotamia and Iran with the Persian Gulf and the Levant and the Aegean world with the eastern Mediterranean, it took several more millennia before major new advancements were made.[3]

By the 2nd millennium BC, accumulated knowledge of stars and constellations began to facilitate more direct travel across the Mediterranean, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, as trade began to expand, and other regions. As increasing knowledge of astronomy began to spread and became more precise, navigation across open water became more possible and less risky. Detailed knowledge of the constellations, eclipses, and moon movements made navigation during day and night much easier.[4]

Other developments include the use of sounding weights, which helped sailors determine the depth of water in given locations.[5] Weights would be lowered from a boat and would inform on the location’s depth. This knowledge could help with regards to how far ships were from land, as shallower seas could indicate that land was nearby or approaching.

Classical Developments

Fragment of a Greek Antikythera mechanism

By the late first millennium BC, new developments facilitated further navigation capabilities. These advancements included the development of navigational charts and information passed down to sailors. These charts include types of notes and descriptions that likely assisted sailors over generations.[6]

The Antikythera mechanism, found in 1900 near the Greek island of Antikythera, was a mechanical device with gears and wheels that seems to have been used to aid navigation in the 3rd or 2nd century BC.[7]

Mostly likely this device allowed sailors to calibrate the positioning of starts during different times of the year. The device integrates a lot of accumulated knowledge, particularly in astronomy, where sailors could utilize this mechanism for travel and predicting astronomical events such as eclipses. Most likely, the device utilized complex Babylonian-inspired predictions used for astronomical positioning. In effect, the device was a sort of computer that likely helped sailors determine navigation from any given point utilizing astronomical positions. Similar to this, the astrolabe is perhaps the best-known device to have been utilized by this time. This device allowed calculations of location to be made based on measuring stars and planets altitude above the horizon.[8]

Later Changes

A simple wood kamal with with equally spaced knots.

The invention of the magnetic compass invented or first utilized by the Han Chinese (206 BC-220 AD), proved to eventually be revolutionary, as it allowed boats to operate much more easily even in overcast skies as it did not depend on navigating using stars. However, this invention does not seem to have spread across from China until the early 2nd millennium AD during the Song dynasty (970-1279).[9]

In the early Medieval period, by the late 10th century AD, new navigation technologies soon developed in Europe and the Near East. This included the kamal, a type of device that allowed sailors to determine latitude through the measurement of angles. Other innovations include the quadrant and new forms of sails, including the caravel, which made navigation more maneuverable. The caravel most likely developed before the Portuguese made this type of sailing boat popular in their navigation along the Atlantic and other regions. Maps were now also utilized more frequently.[10]

At this point, shipping truly becomes global, allowing the well-known discoveries, including the discovery of the New World and long-distance navigation (e.g., navigation around Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese) around famous landforms, in the 15th and 16th centuries AD to be possible.


After initial innovations in the Chalcolithic era in the Near East, we do not see major development in navigation again until the 2nd and 1st millennium BC. After this period of development, navigation technologies once again stall until the end of the 1st millennium AD. Technologies enabled greater and easier movement across the seas over the millennia. Furthermore, as changes in technologies became progressively more rapid in the late Medieval period, it was shipping and navigation that made innovation and spread of knowledge easier, as now easy movements across the oceans and across vast distances allowed great wealth and ideas to spread far. These developments though first needed technologies and understanding of navigation that took thousands of years to accumulate before these later developments became possible.


  1. For information about an early Ubaid period boat model from Kuwait, see: Carter, Robert. 2006. “Boat Remains and Maritime Trade in the Persian Gulf during the Sixth and Fifth Millennia BC.” Antiquity 80 (307): 52–63. dos:10.1017/S0003598X0009325X.
  2. Evidence for bitumen and barnacles on boats from the Ubaid are found from sites along the Persian Gulf, see: McClure, H. A., and N. Y. Al-Shaikh. 1993. “Paleogeography of a ’Ubaid Archaeological Site, Saudi Arabia.” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 4 (2): 107–25. dos:10.1111/j.1600-0471.1993.tb00045.x.
  3. For more information about early Bronze Age navigating societies, see: Demand, Nancy H. 2011. The Mediterranean Context of Early Greek History. Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  4. For more information on how astronomy played a crucial role in improving navigation, see: Cotter, Charles H. 1968. A History of Nautical Astronomy. London, Sydney [etc.]: Hollis & Carter.
  5. For more information on how sounding weights were used, see: Oleson, John Peter. 2000. “Ancient Sounding-Weights: A Contribution to the History of Mediterranean Navigation.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 13: 293–310. dos:10.1017/S1047759400018948.
  6. For information on Classical navigation charts, see: Major, F. G. 2013. Quo Vadis: Evolution of Modern Navigation. New York: Springer, pg. 298.
  7. For more information on the Antikythera mechanism, see: Stikas, Constantin. 2014. Antikythera Mechanism; the Book: Unwinding the History of Science and Technology.
  8. For more information on the astrolabe, see: Johnson, Donald S., and Juha Nurminen. 2007. The History of Seafaring. London: Conway, pg. 107.
  9. For Information about the history of the magnetic compass, see: Gurney, Alan. 2004. Compass: A Story of Exploration and Innovation. New York: Norton.
  10. For further information on early Medieval, including Arab navigation techniques, see: McGrail, Sean. 2015. Early Ships and Seafaring: Water Transport beyond Europe.

Updated December 15, 2018.

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