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Ancient model of boat with its crew

Material: Wood
Length: 1.35m
Provenance: Egypt, very probably from Antinoopolis (el-Sheikh)>
Date: First Intermediate Period, Heracleopolitan Dynasty X (c. 2134-2040 BC.)
Inv. no. - Exhibition Room: Ξ 221, Egyptian Collection (Donation by Alexander Rostovitz)


The solid hull of the ship is flat-bottomed. The gunwales are sharp-edged, with a painted red stripe and there are several holes along the edge of the deck and sticks in two places. The decorative papyriform finials display yellow, black and red stripes on a white-off background. Both the prow and stern are attached to the hull by means of mortise and tenon joints and are topped with disk umbels. The canopy originally located above the figure of the male owner, who sits on a cube-shaped seat, is missing. He is flanked by two servants and the sitting helmsman (behind him) and four paddlers and the standing pilot (in front of him). All wear white loincloth and have a uniform hair-style.

On the basis of the appearance of the prow and stern finials and of its decoration, this model is thought to have come from the small necropolis of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom at the site of el-Sheikh, in Upper Egypt, where the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) much later founded Antinoopolis. A possible sister to the model in the National Archaeological Museum is held in the Department of Classics and Classical Archaeology (Sutro Egyptian Collection), San Francisco, CA, USA.

Models of boats, mainly in wood and clay, bear witness to shipbuilding in ancient Egyptians and to various local technical peculiarities. Their crews and passengers reflect the social and professional hierarchy of Egypt. Most examples of such vessels originate from tombs of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2040-1640 BC).

Of fundamental importance to all ancient Egyptians was the belief that the resurrection of the dead in the afterlife involved the crossing of the "Winding Watercourse". Since boats were thought to secure the safe transport of dead, the majority of population dealt with this burial need by employing models of boats, which functioned as magical substitutes for real vessels. The deceased had first to prove to the ferryman his or her chastity and righteousness, before being permitted to join the crew of the boat. From the period of the Middle Kingdom the pilgrimage either to Bousiris or, more usually, to Abydos, which was associated with Osiris' place of birth and burial, was considered a prerequisite. Models of boats in a sepulchral context were intended to meet this need, too, if the deceased had not been able to visit these sacred places. Burials often display two types of boats, one with sails and a second with paddles. On the Nile, vessels, aided by the current and the north wind sailed downstream with oars and travelled upstream using sails.

The Nile was the main means of communication and transport for the ancient Egyptians, who believed that even their god Sun-Ra sailed his divine boat across the sky every day and through the underworld every night.

Βibliography: Olga Tzachou-Alexandri (ed.), The World of Egypt in the National Archaeological Museum (Athens 1995) 38, 102-3 no. XVI. Η Αιγυπτιακή Συλλογή στο Εθνικό Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο (Αθήνα 1998) 16. D. Jones, Egyptian Bookshelf: Boats (London 1995). Α.Β. Μerriman, Egyptian Watercraft Models from the Predynastic to Third Intermediate Periods (Unpublished Diss. University College London 1995).

 
 
 
 
 

 
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