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Identifying various ship types

Malta’s long-established maritime history can be seen in the various ship types depicted in the graffiti assemblage. In many cases a graffito may be little more than a few lines more akin to a scrawl than a fully-detailed vessel. Whereas in the case of detailed examples of ship graffiti, vessel types can even be identified, which can inform on the potential age of the graffito itself. For further reading see Muscat, J. 2002. Il-Graffiti Marittimi Maltin. Malta: Pubblikazzonijiet Indipendenza.

_0001_HMS_Dreadnought - graffiti_0000_HMS_Dreadnought

Ship Identification

Dreadnought Battleships

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Royal Navy introduced a new class of battleship known as the Dreadnought-class. These types of ships featured a clearly identifiable inverted bow which is also represented in the graffiti. With the Mediterranean Fleet based in Malta, ships including the HMS Iron Duke (1912) would have often been visible in the Grand Harbour, a very short distance from the graffiti site in the left image. Although Dreadnought-type ships are relatively uncommon in the graffiti assemblage, their inverted bows are immediately distinctive.

Graffiti sites in Malta and Gozo are often uncovered due to developments and refurbishments of historic buildings- as such the catalogue of graffiti in Malta is constantly expanding. 

Ship Identification

Ship of the Line

​At the beginning of the 18th Century it was decided to bolster the Maltese naval fleet with a sailing squadron of ships of the line to complement the already formidable galleys of the Order. This new sailing squadron was able to operate throughout the year, with this type of vessel also used by privateers for corsairing throughout the Mediterranean. Ships of the line are quite common in the graffiti assemblage and are sometimes depicted with full sails, detailed beakheads (the protruding front part of the ship) and other such features. 
_0001_ship of the line graffiti_0000_ship of the line replica

Ship Identification

The Maltese Tartana

Ship graffiti isn’t just limited to bellicose vessels, with traditional boats and merchant ships also depicted in the assemblages. The tartana is an example of this type of vessel having traditionally been used for transporting goods and people as well as for corsairing purposes. Tartanas can be often found in the graffiti and are recognisable by their three lateen sails (triangular-shaped instead of square). They can also sometimes be depicted with a line of cannon.

Ship Identification

Traditional Maltese Boats

The 'Luzzu', the 'Dgħajsa' and others

However, not all incisions depict large vessels- a number of graffiti depict traditional boats used for fishing or transport of goods and people. These traditional Maltese boats, the Luzzu and Dgħajsa are brightly decorated with bold, primary colours and are symbolic of the Maltese islands. Unfortunately, the introduction of fibreglass hulls, increasing costs of timber and the labour and time-intensive construction has seen a decline in these traditional boats during the 20th Century, with some boat types now limited to only a handful of examples left.  

Ship Identification


The carrack was a ship of great dimensions, primarily destined to serve as a merchant vessel. At times, the carrack also proved to be a formidable warship. This type of ship formed a part of the Order of St John’s naval force. Some known carracks belonging to the Order were known as the San Giovanni, Santa Marija and the Sant’Anna. These ships are characterised by their sheer size, having six decks in the case of the Sant’Anna. Carracks were equipped with two decks housing at least 50 gun ports for cannon, a gun deck for lighter guns and a battery. Other defining features of a carrack include the fore and aftercastle. The aftercastle may be depicted as having lanterns with flags, displaying their allegiance to the Order, the Faith and the Grandmaster. Carracks may be depicted with a ram protruding from the bow of the vessel. The carrack was propelled by sails located on the main and fore masts, the stern mast and the mizzen. For more detailed information see Muscat, J. 2000. The Carrack of the Order. Malta: Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza.

Ship Identification


The galley is a type of ship which is associated with the Order of St John. A galley served more than one function but it was commonly used in warfare. The galley is commonly found as a ship graffito in Malta. The Chapel of wied il-Qleigħa in Mosta and the old parish church at Birkirkara are two locations where galley ship graffiti can be found in abundance. This type of ship is often depicted with a hull of one or two decks. Galleys are known for their long but shallow hulls, projecting a minimal amount above the waterline. A row of oars are often etched onto the graffito in a series of parallel lines. This type of ship was propelled by large lateen sails on the main mast and foremast. The Order of St John’s galleys are identifiable also by the Order’s flag that is sometimes included in the graffito.
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