Friday 4 June 2021

Phantom Lemb Syndrome

Liburnians and Illyrian Lembs Iron Age Ships of the Eastern Adriatic.
Boršić, Luka & Dzino, Danijel & Rossi, Irena. (2021).
Archaeopress, Oxford

Most people who lose a limb suffer residual pain and feel like the appendage is still there some of the time. We all have the feeling now and then that we still own some possession we lost or gave away long since.

This is a book which one hopes will consolidate the vague ideas and references that lurk in the back of one's mind concerning the elusive lemb. That war-galley one has heard of but lost a clear picture of what it was, Like a jabberwock or the Schleswig-Holstein Question. Brilliant, this tome should plug the gap!  But the phantom feeling remains even after reading it. 

Many books make reference to the lembus / lembos which was a small galley used to support larger types or as a raiding or pirate vessel. But, as with the liburnian(sic) which this book also covers, one is left with that feeling there is not much really there.

Lembus? on an Illyrian coin 200BC

Liburnians and Illyrian Lembs tries to flesh -out the small-galley experience and consolidate what we know about these ships. This book is a specialised offering devoted to the lembus and the liburnian.  The lembus is a diminutive type of war-galley that crops up  in the 3rd century BC and has a career down to Later Roman times. The liburnian was adopted by the Romans in some form as their standard light war-galley in Imperial times.

200-odd pages gets you about 80 pages of collated archaeology and discussion and an exhaustive catalogue of literary extracts featuring said ships. There are 4 maps and 30 figures, some in colour. 

The difficulties of writing about ancient vessels with no modern noun to hand always gives problems when writing about war-galleys.

The approach adopted here is to suggest we call the lembus (Latin) or lembos(Greek) a 'lemb'.
They think the latin and Greek plurals are clumsy. The problem here is that lemb has no related name or connotation in English. Best to stick with Latin and Greek because these ships only exist in the world of ancient war-galleys, I think.

Similarly with the liburnian. They opt for liburnica. OR liburnian. Or liburna

This smacks of making montaines of molehills. There is a pre-existing format -lembus-lembi and lembos-lemboi. And liburnian. Kein problem. 

(Neither am I encouraged to support 'lemb' because it sounds like the Danish euphemism for a male member!)


The inclusion of recent finds in marine archaeology is a big plus. Especially from countries we don't hear so much from in the anglophone world viz. war-galleys. There have been some finds of sewn boats that add up to North Adriatic boat 'tradition' from the late centuries BC. 

The catalogue of 'testamenta' or extracts concerning said vessels is the main reason to buy the book. Lots of obscure - though often slight -  references to these ships are interesting and revealing to browse through. 


Neither liburnians nor lembi were sewn ships. The liburnian and the lembus are not the same ship type. The liburnian was probably larger than the lembus. The original lembus was probably enlarged for use in war. Message ends. Of course there many more details but as for addressing the identity of these ships this is, for me  at least, disappointingly minimalist.


The authors never try to recreate an image of the ships. No line-drawings. No artists impressions.( One brief refernce - a paragraph, a photo and a line-drawing draws an analogy with a Burmese dug-out canoe but this goes nowhere.).This can be sensible to avoid the slings and arrows of outraged armchair experts disappointed that their pet fancies are not included but not to even attempt to reconstruct the ships the book is about, not one ship type but two ship types! Looks like carelessness. 

Coin of the Illyrian Daorsi tribe. 200BC

The archaeological remains of sewn hulls are from vessels of 8 metres or so. These cannot be the vessles that transport 50 troops at a time or contest the seas with triereis and pentereis.... So we are left with our imaginations dangling.

Something which is not dangling is a stone relief recently found in Croatia which is from 'Liburnia' where the liburnians come from. The authors do not attempt reconstruction of the ship illustrated. BUT, and I kid you not....they actually state..'no ram or other extension is shown on the bow which is shown with an unusually(sic) looking circular shape,' (Who is going  to tell them..never seen a pine-cone on Roman sculpture?)

roundish thing approaches .. what could it be?

The Novilara ships are included with some caveats but the doubts on the stela's authenticity need to be addressed more deeply or the stela should be ruled out.

The authors also make a valiant attempt to decry any hint that the inhabitants of the eastern Adriatic coast were piratical by nature.They were, apparently, forced into it by their elites: who were forced into it by the need to participate in a modern world of expensive internationally-traded luxury goods: because they had to maintain their elite status. Any resulting piracy was part of the same system of exchange as trading, the only difference being the negative perception. Let that sink in. Rape, burning, looting, murder,  theft, ransoming, slavery and protection rackets add up to simple trading. Just the pirates were forced into it by socio-economic pressures. Now where have I heard that before recently?

Language : this book is a multi-lingual collaboration so it must have been a chore to keep the translation issues under control. I am not one to carp, dealing with a second language in my everyday world I know the problems but there are quite a few errors, none hinder reading or understanding. (but what is a swamping ship?)

The BIG bonus with this book is the compilation of extracts that deal with ancient war-galleys and use of light galleys. Being able to look at all these in one volume is justification for the book alone. But it would be a good one to get from the library to peruse.

Last but not least, (Archaeopress!) this cost me an arm and a leg. And I still get twinges from their loss.

My earlier entry on the liburnian HERE.

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