In ancient times, ships would often be at sea for extended periods of time. During this time, I'm assuming they must have done some form of cooking, otherwise they would have just eaten cold, pre-prepared food for the whole time between stops at ports.

As these ships were wooden and possibly covered with tar for waterproofing, how would they have cooked without risking a fire in the galley?

From the research I've done so far, ships a couple hundred years ago would have had a barrel/bin filled with sand on which they lit their fires:

Sailing ship provisions - Food and drink

I can't find any references for ships further back in history (this is possibly because I'm not sure how/what to search for).

If possible, I'm mostly interested in Egyptian and Middle Eastern ships.

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    Years? Even today I don't think that would be possible. Maybe with a nuclear powered aircraft carrier that's resupplied by air and tenders, but that would be immensely unpractical. – Ross Ridge Jul 31 '17 at 18:23
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    The use to the word `ancient' in the title puts me in mind of classic times, or at least of time before, say, 1000 AD. Year-long voyages appeared 'round about the end of the renaissance for European powers (and those ships generally made port of anchorage several time on the voyage). Now, the time-frame doesn't actually affect the answer much, but perhaps the question and title could be clarified. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 1 '17 at 13:21
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    @dmckee and those year long voyages were only possible because of frequent stops to acquire new supplies. – jwenting Aug 2 '17 at 5:41
  • A lot of the houses in the USA are made of wood. The same principles, and in some cases the same techniques, apply. – Pete Kirkham Aug 2 '17 at 10:10

That's a good question. As far as we know, most ancient voyages didn't venture that far from land. Ships like the Bronze Age Uluburun and Cape Gelidonya shipwrcks are thought to have been coastal traders. They simply plied their trade around the coast of the Mediterranean, probably never getting far out of sight from the shore. This would mean that they could go ashore at night to cook at a convenient anchorage (and also avoid the potential dangers of navigating at night). Suitable galley wares were found on the Uluburun wreck.

If cooking on board ship was required, an area would typically be lined with "fire bricks" to reduce the risk of fire on board, as found, for example, on the Roman period Cabrera III shipwreck. In fact, fire-bricks would continue to be used to protect galleys on wooden ships right up to the eighteenth-century. As they do not decay in seawater, they are one of the more common finds on the wreck sites, including, for example, from sixteenth-century Spanish galleons in the Americas.


Rations on ships during the age of exploration were typically of a type that would require little or no cooking. They included things like "hardtack" (unleavened bread), and salted meat, that could be stored for months without spoiling. Salted meat was "boiled" which required less fuel and lower temperatures than regular "cooking" (212 F vs. 400 F). The "fire brick" solution referred to in another answer was "suitable only for boiling," not for regular cooking.

Besides the danger of fire on ships, another thing that inhibited cooking was "freshness." Prior to the 19th century, there was no refrigeration on ships, meaning that food could not be kept "fresh" for more than a few days. (Cooking is most necessary for "fresh" foods.) Once a ship was launched, there was no "fresh" food, and hence no need for cooking, until it reached land. If the sailors could then obtain fresh meat or vegetables (fruit needed no cooking), it would be cooked ashore and eaten there, or possibly salted and preserved before being brought on board.

In "ancient" times, things were even simpler. Ships sailing the Mediterranean, Baltic, North, Arabian, or Red Seas, were only a day or two from land at any time, and could "put in" on a regular basis for "fresh" food, using preserved foods as a "stopgap."

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    Certainly in the 17th and 18th century Royal Navy, the salted meat was boiled on board before being eaten. It wasn't edible without being cooked. – Mike Scott Jul 31 '17 at 14:59
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    I'm not sure quite what you mean by "regular cooking" in this context. I'm pretty sure that boiling, frying in a pan, or cooking on a griddle - all over an open fire - were the most common forms of "cooking" in the ancient world. I seem to remember being told that that Apicius (4th or 5th century AD if memory serves) has less than 50 references to cooking in an oven in all of his 10 volumes. Most of those were for baking bread, or cooking dishes that were out of the reach of most ordinary seamen. – sempaiscuba Jul 31 '17 at 17:34
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    The cooking fire used to heat the water to 212F is certainly hotter than 212F. It is probably just as hot as the fire used to fry or etc. Reference: Have gone camping. – Wayne Conrad Jul 31 '17 at 17:51
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    @WayneConrad Boiling water certainly uses more energy than cooking over a fire! Temperature is not energy. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_capacity Most of what is being heated in meat is water. – ignorance Jul 31 '17 at 22:24
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    @aidan.plenert.macdonald Lower temperature means away from the flash point of flammable materials on board means less risk of fire. – özg Aug 1 '17 at 22:55

While not an expert on Egyptian ships, I did once inquire about Dane traders and raiders diet in the Heddeby museum. They told me, that on a viking, they would mainly eat pre-prepared provisions that didn't need extra heating before consumption, as there wouldn't be a chance to light a fire aboard unless the sea was very calm. Also, they told me that often the traders did land at the coast whenever possible to keep the stock of those provisions (for example, salted fishes and butter) high, as falling below a certain amount of them would cause the traders to abort their travel.

As far as I know about ancient Egyptian ships, they had relatively few seagoing ships. As their main internal trade routes where along the Nile, there likely wasn't a need to light fires aboard on these routes.

The Phoenicians and Greeks had seagoing ships some time before the great Greek colonialisation. Yet I have no clue how they prepared provisions aboard. However, I would not rule out, that they did rely on pre-prepared provisions and cooking on shore when possible, as the shipboards were relatively comparable to viking Knarr type longships for most trading vessels: quite bulky but flat and a low seaboard. These don't generally allow much protection from wind and weather for a possible fireplace, but it could be made possible with careful stowing and a rock/clay/ceramic basin for the fire.

On the other hand, the warship reconstructions I saw (bireme & triere types) didn't seem to include a storage space large enough to operate much more than getting supplies in it, let alone indicate a dedicated kitchen, thus again leading to the conclusion of probably preprepared provisions.

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    biremes and triremes were strictly coastal vessels until much later when they were used to cross the Mediterranean from Italy to northern Africa and Spain. Those voyages would still only take a few days though, not weeks or months, so having to survive on salted meat and bread for the duration was no problem. – jwenting Aug 2 '17 at 5:45

I remember seeing in a National Geographic Magazine, an artist's rendition of a ship's galley on a ship from before Roman times in the Mediterranean sea whose wreck was found sometime in the 1960s. There was a proper counter, pots on some type of stove (I do not remember the details). I do remember a string of garlic hung next to a rectangular porthole. The image was typically done based on what was discovered when the remains of the ship was found.


I know this is probably something of a dead thread, but I thought some of you might be interested in a link that I stumbled upon while searching for the answer to the same question myself:


Hope this is helpful.

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    Providing a summary of the relevant contents would be good as links rot. – Lars Bosteen Sep 21 '19 at 23:44

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