EM 1110-2-1100 (Part I)
30 Apr 02
History of Coastal Engineering
I-3-1. Ancient World
The history of coastal engineering reaches back to the ancient world bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the
Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. Coastal engineering, as it relates to harbors, starts with the development of
maritime traffic, perhaps before 3500 B.C. Shipping was fundamental to culture and the growth of
civilization, and the expansion of navigation and communication in turn drove the practice of coastal
engineering. The availability of a large slave labor force during this era meant that docks, breakwaters, and
other harbor works were built by hand and often in a grand scale similar to their monumental contemporaries,
pyramids, temples, and palaces. Some of the harbor works are still visible today, while others have recently
been explored by archaeologists. Most of the grander ancient harbor works disappeared following the fall
of the Roman Empire. Earthquakes have buried some of the works, others have been submerged by
subsidence, landlocked by silting, or lost through lack of maintenance. Recently, archaeologists, using
modern survey techniques, excavations, and old documents, have revealed some of the sophisticated
engineering in these old harbors. Technically interesting features have shown up and are now reappearing
in modern port designs. Common to most ancient ports was a well-planned and effectively located seawall
or breakwater for protection and a quay or mole for loading vessels, features frequently included in modern
ports (Quinn 1972).
Most ancient coastal efforts were directed to port structures, with the exception of a few places where life
depended on coastline protection. Venice and its lagoon is one such case. Here, sea defenses (hydraulic and
military) were necessary for the survival of the narrow coastal strips, and impressive shore protection works
built by the Venetians are still admired. Very few written reports on the ancient design and construction of
coastal structures have survived. A classic treatise by Vitruvius (27 B.C.) relating the Roman engineering
experience, has survived (Pollio, Rowland, and Howe 1999). Greek and Latin literature by Herodotus,
Josephs, Suetonius, Pliny, Appian, Polibus, Strabo, and others provide limited descriptions of the ancient
coastal works. They show the ancients' ability to understand and handle various complex physical
phenomena with limited empirical data and simple computational tools. They understood such phenomena
as the Mediterranean currents and wind patterns and the wind-wave cause-effect link. The Romans are
credited with first introducing wind roses (Franco 1996).
I-3-2. Pre-Roman Times
Most early harbors were natural anchorages in favorable geographical conditions such as sheltered bays
behind capes or peninsulas, behind coastal islands, at river mouths, inside lagoons, or in deep coves. Short
breakwaters were eventually added to supplement the natural protection. The harbors, used for refuge,
unloading of goods, and access to fresh water, were closely spaced to accommodate the safe day-to-day
transfer of the shallow draft wooden vessels which sailed coastwise at speeds of only 3-5 knots.
Ancient ports can be divided into three groups according to their structural patterns and the development of
engineering skill (Frost 1963).
a. The earliest were rock cut, in that natural features like offshore reefs were adapted to give shelter to
craft riding at anchor.
History of Coastal Engineering