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The Gurob Ship-Cart Model and Its Mediterranean Context

July 2014 (118.3)

Book Review

The Gurob Ship-Cart Model and Its Mediterranean Context

By Shelly Wachsmann. Pp. xxii + 321, figs. 281, maps 5. Texas A&M University Press, College Station 2013. $75. ISBN 978-1-60344-429-3 (cloth).

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Tomb 611 in Gurob, excavated in 1920 by two of Petrie’s assistants, Guy Brunton and Reginald Engleback, yielded a single artifact: a wooden model of a ship-cart, its ship part colored red, blue, and yellow and measuring 38.5 cm long and 13.2 cm tall. The tomb in which the ship-cart model was found is one in a series of tombs dating to the 18th or 19th Dynasty (167). The object was dated based on radiocarbon samples to 1256–1054 B.C.E. (214). Wachsmann initially intended to publish this model, now exhibited in the Petrie Museum for Egyptian Archaeology, in an article (xviii). Yet during his search for the cultural meaning of this model, the article evolved into a monograph, which, in many ways, is a sequel to Wachsmann’s significant book, Seagoing Ships & Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant (College Station, Tex. 1998). The main argument presented in the book under review is that the Gurob model represents an Aegean-style galley. Its findspot in Gurob, at the entrance to the Fayum, is explained by Wachsmann in connection with the presence of the Sherden, one of the Sea Peoples that settled in this area in the 13th century B.C.E.

Chapter 1, “The Gurob Ship-Cart Model,” is an in-depth discussion of the artifact. This chapter is aided greatly by online resources that include maps, satellite photographs, and a virtual reality model.

Chapter 2, “The Iconographic Evidence,” places the Gurob model within the context of representations of Late Helladic galleys, as well as those of Sea Peoples’ ships in the Medinet Habu reliefs and the Dakhla Oasis ship graffito. Bringing in numerous parallels for elements of the Gurob model, Wachsmann, convincingly to my mind, makes the case for an Aegean inspiration for this model. The discussion brings forward many other themes connected with ship iconography and also presents compelling evidence for identifying the people on the Dakhla Oasis ship as Tjemhu (i.e., Libyans). Wachsmann’s argument connecting the stern ornament of the Gurob model with bird-head ornaments of the central European Urnfield “bird boat” (Vogelbarke) may be somewhat far-fetched. The uppermost element in the stern ornament from Gurob is vertical (e.g., fig. 1.6, appx. 2.7) rather than horizontal, as could be expected were it to represent a bird head and beak. In fact, it may well be that most Aegean boats (with the exception of the cult boat on the Tiryns sherd [fig. 2.9c]) did not have bird heads, but rather depicted other animals (perhaps dragons) with upturned snouts, as many of the features on Late Helladic stern ornaments are inconsistent with avian anatomy (A. Yasur-Landau, “On Birds and Dragons: A Note on the Sea Peoples and Mycenaean Ships,” in Y. Cohen, A. Gilan, and J.L. Miller, eds., Pax Hethitica: Studies on the Hittites and Their Neighbours in Honor of Itamar Singer [Wiesbaden 2010] 399–410). Thus, for example, the animal heads in the Skyros (fig. 2.39b) and Bedengedi─či (fig. 2.47b) stern ornaments clearly have ears, and the Kynos (fig. 2.39e) and Gazi (fig. 2.40a) examples have hair or a mane on their necks and on the top of their heads. However, real birds are shown perching on Aegean boats, such as those in the Tragana (fig. 2.40c) and Enkomi (fig. 2.38a) depictions. This, however, does not cast doubt on the likely correct identification of the Gurob boat as one with Aegean ancestry.

Chapter 3, “Wheels, Wagons and the Transport of Ships Overland,” investigates the Gurob model wheels, suggesting that the model reflects a prototype that was intended also to travel on land. This is a tour de force of the history of ships on wheels from the beginning of the New Kingdom in Egypt through Classical-period Greece and to contemporary Egypt, exploring numerous examples of model boats placed on wheels, as well as literary and iconographic evidence for the land transport of boats mounted on wheels.

Chapter 4, “Foreigners at Gurob,” attempts to identify the owner of the model. Based on a plaque, or pavonis, attached to the model, Wachsmann argues that this model was of cultic nature. The Aegean inspiration for the model may indicate that it reflects the owner’s foreign religious beliefs (163). The chapter thus flings open wide a window to material culture and literary evidence for the presence of foreigners in Egypt in general, and particularly in Gurob, in the New Kingdom. During this time, the settlement in Gurob supported the harem of Mi-Wer and housed a significant manufacturing center (178). There is literary evidence for the presence of both Syro-Canaanites and Libyans at the site—the presence of the former mirrored, perhaps, by a relatively small number of Canaanite objects found in the tombs. The name of Anen-Tursha, a harem official whose coffin was found at the site, was connected by Petrie to the Teresh, one of the Sea Peoples mentioned in the Libyan campaign of Merneptah. As the origin of the name may well be Hurrian, Anen-Tursha was likely a foreigner (183). Perhaps the most compelling evidence is that of the Wilbour Papyrus of year 4 of Rameses V (ca. 1143 B.C.E.), which includes a lengthy list of land owners, of which a significant number are Sherden, a group that was active in the eastern Mediterranean since the 14th century, and one of the Sea Peoples that attacked Egypt in year 8 of Rameses III. The Wilbour Papyrus provides evidence for Sherden residing in the region of Gurob around the time in which the ship-cart model was interred. Wachsmann further connects the “burnt groups” in Gurob—pits under the houses in which burnt deposits containing furniture and personal belongings were placed—to Sea Peoples with Urnfield connections. The Weshesh, a Sea Peoples group carrying out the Urnfield tradition, may have conducted this practice in their Gurob houses. However, as the burnt objects are Egyptian, more evidence is needed to connect decisively this rather odd practice to a non-Egyptian population.

Chapter 5, “Conclusions,” recaps the arguments of the preceding chapters and stresses the importance of the Gurob ship-cart model, concluding that “unless and until someone discovers, excavates, and reports on an actual Helladic galley, the Gurob ship model may be the closest we will ever get to this remarkable vessel type” (201–6).

The main body of the book is followed by seven very helpful appendices. Appendix 1 is a line drawing of the Gurob ship model (Catsambis); appendix 2 presents the Gurob ship-cart model in virtual reality (Sanders); appendix 3 discusses ship colors in the Homeric poems (Davis); appendix 4 deals with Sherden and Tjuk people in the Wilbour Papyrus (Wachsmann); appendix 5 gives the radiocarbon age analysis of the Gurob ship-cart model (Prior); appendix 6 is an analysis of pigments from the Gurob ship-cart model (Siddall); and appendix 7 is on wood identification (Cartwright).

The quest for meaning of this rather small model causes the book to read much like a good detective story. Whether one accepts Wachsmann’s theories about the Sea Peoples connection in full, the wealth of information introduced and the depth of analysis of numerous maritime matters make this book a very important contribution to the study of material culture and cultural interaction in the Late Bronze Age.

Assaf Yasur-Landau
Department of Maritime Civilizations and the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies
University of Haifa
31905 Haifa

Book Review of The Gurob Ship-Cart Model and Its Mediterranean Context, by Shelly Wachsmann

Reviewed by Assaf Yasur-Landau

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3  (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.Yasur-Landau

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