You are here

Sacred and Secular: Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats

Sacred and Secular: Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats

By Cheryl A. Ward. Pp. xiv + 162, b&w figs. 79, tables 16. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadephia 2000. $77.75. ISBN 0-7872-7182-9 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The Nile was the primary transport route of ancient Egypt, and watercraft played a key role at all levels of Egyptian society. Testifying to its importance are thousands of surviving boat images and models informing us about the appearance of Egyptian ships and boats, and texts telling us about shipbuilding materials, ship construction, names of hull parts, ship types, the uses of ships, tonnages, and voyages. Much of this material has been studied and published (B. Landström, Ships of the Pharaohs [New York 1970]; A. Göttlicher and W. Werner, Schiffsmodelle in alten Ägypten [Wiesbaden 1971]; S. Vinson, Egyptian Boats and Ships [Princes Risborough 1999]). The excavation and publication of a large wooden ship found near Khufu’s pyramid brought scholars and the public for the first time into direct contact with the sophistication of Egyptian wooden shipbuilding (N. Jenkins, The Boat Beneath the Pyramid [New York 1980]; P. Lipke, The Royal Ship of Cheops [Greenwich 1984]).

It is less commonly known that we now possess the remains of more than 20 boats and ships from ancient Egypt, nearly all ranging in date from the Predynastic period to the Middle Kingdom, with the exception of one wreck of the Persian period. Ward’s monograph is the first to provide a comprehensive study of these wooden hull remains and place them in their cultural context (closing date of manuscript is 1996). Her work significantly enhances our understanding of Egyptian shipbuilding technology and water transport, as well as their role in society. For these reasons, it deserves a place in every research library concerned with ancient Egypt or technology. Written in accessible language with ample illustrations and a glossary of nautical terms, it should find its way also onto the bookshelves of many lay readers.

The study of ancient Mediterranean shipwrecks was revolutionized in the 1970s by J. Richard Steffy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. Steffy developed rigorous standards of documentation and was the first to point out the potential of shipwreck studies to go beyond technical analyses in order to recover environmental, economic, social, and cultural information (Wooden Shipbuilding and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks [College Station 1994]). Ward, who was trained by Steffy, follows in his footsteps. Whereas our knowledge of ancient shipbuilding in this area of the world was until now largely focused on Mediterranean seagoing vessels from later periods, the Egyptian remains inform us about river craft as early as the Bronze Age.

Ward’s introductory chapter gives an overview of the rise and organization of the Pharaonic state, the role of watercraft in society and art, as well as the process and organization of shipbuilding. Chapter 2 reviews the materials used. In contrast to prevailing opinion, Egyptian texts list a surprising abundance of native woods suitable for boatbuilding, which often have been ignored by Egyptologists because of the frequent use of imported woods. Chapter 3 discusses form and function of Egyptian tools and analyzes Predynastic to Old Kingdom woodworking practices. Ward concludes that late Predynastic furniture and coffin makers had already established a number of key characteristics of later Egyptian wooden watercraft: the economical use of local timber, the manufacture of short planks that do not have straight edges but follow the natural curvature of the tree, and different methods for fastening (lashings, pegs, dowels, mortise-and-tenon joints).

The next chapters review the construction, function, and societal role of most extant Egyptian hull remains: 12 or more Early Dynastic boats found in the royal funerary complex at Abydos (ch. 4); the Khufu I and II ships (Fourth Dynasty) found near Pharaoh Khufu’s pyramid at Giza (chs. 5, 6); four boats (12th Dynasty) from Senwosret III’s pyramid complex at Dashur (ch. 8); more than 100 timbers from disassembled freight boats reused in causeways, roads, and construction ramps of Middle Kingdom pyramids at Lisht and Lahun (ch. 10); and a sixth–fifth century utilitarian boat from Mataria (ancient Heliopolis), a suburb of Cairo (ch. 11). Interspersed are discussions of Old Kingdom rock-cut boat pits (ch. 7) and a planked boat model from a 12th-Dynasty high official’s mastaba at Lisht (ch. 9). While these hull remains do not span the variety of Egyptian craft known from images and texts, they belong to two major categories with very different roles in society—royal ceremonial craft (Abydos, Giza, Dashur) and heavy cargo carriers (Lisht)—as well as other utilitarian craft (Mataria). Thus, they provide welcome opportunities for comparing the use of material resources, characteristics of construction, craftsmanship, and levels of labor.

Ward’s discussions are in many ways excellent. Her arguments that the preserved ceremonial vessels from Abydos, Giza, and Dashur, and the grave boat model from Lisht were funerary vessels and not solar boats, are convincing. Whenever she was able to study the actual hull remains herself—the boats from Dashur and a timber of a freighter from Lisht—she provides detailed technical descriptions and good contextualizations. Elsewhere, she makes interesting observations but is obviously handicapped by a lack of information. In spite of the uneven data, she is able to draw up the general characteristics of Egyptian vessels. All show superb craftsmanship and an excellent understanding of wood qualities. Boatbuilding principles remained the same throughout: the hull planking was the primary structure; planks were thick and their edges shaped in such a way that they hooked into one another, thus increasing the longitudinal stiffening of the hull; planks were carefully joined edge to edge with lashings, dowels, and mortise-and-tenon joints—the last becoming the main method in the Middle Kingdom. The absence of a locking mechanism for the tenons (except perhaps on the Mataria boat) is remarkable because locked tenons were already known in Predynastic furniture, and this fastening system played an important role in ancient Mediterranean seagoing ships. Ward plausibly explains its absence in Egyptian watercraft as possibly due to the fact that Egyptian hulls often needed to be disassembled and transported over land, as well as to the builders’ concern not to pierce the hull planking below the waterline and cause leaks.

Apart from those similarities, there are clear differences in materials and labor between elite ceremonial vessels and utilitarian craft. Utilitarian vessels use local wood and economize on its use, whereas royal and elite craft are made of imported wood employed in a more wasteful manner; they also show finer workmanship and finish. Ward argues convincingly that the long underappreciated Dashur boats are top-quality royal craft. She also persuasively links the high degree of standardization in the manufacture of the Dashur boats, the Lisht model, and the heavy freighters from Lisht to the intense bureaucratic and economic control of the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs. This reviewer would add that, in spite of their expensive manufacture, the royal Dashur boats show an unmistakable trend toward cost- cutting in materials and labor with respect to the Old Kingdom Khufu ships (smaller hulls, less wood, reuse of timbers, less labor-intensive techniques, standardization)—a trend that is also clearly seen in Middle Kingdom pyramid building. Fascinating is Ward’s reconstruction of the Lisht freighters built with short, thick interlocking planks of stiff local acacia and tamarisk, whose many interior hull stiffeners fill much of the space in the hold (fig. 70), resulting in extremely stiff and strong hulls with low center of gravity. This explains how Egyptian cargo ships were able to carry many tons of building stone on deck, as we know from Egyptian images and texts. In this context, this reviewer would have liked to see a comparison of the cargo-carrying efficiency of the various Egyptian hull designs. Lipke’s calculation (1984:103) that the Khufu I ship could carry only 55 tons for 94 tons of displacement indicates that the thick, heavy hull planking of Egyptian ships made for poor cargo efficiency.

In spite of its many good qualities, Ward’s study is not always systematic. One sometimes has the impression of a number of individual essays put together rather than a strongly integrated text. So the chapter on the Khufu I ship goes into great detail about construction and function, but, unlike the chapters on the Abydos, Dashur, and Lisht vessels, it does not elaborate on its significance in terms of centralized control over resources at the height of Pharaonic power. Ward estimates the amount of imported wood needed for the royal boats of Abydos and Dashur but not for the Khufu I ship, nor does she mention Lipke’s estimate of 40 tons (1984:103), three to four times the amount needed for all of the Abydos or Dashur boats together. Elsewhere, Ward gives the frame spacing of the Khufu I ship and the rock-cut boats of Khafra but not of the Lisht freighters where frame spacing was crucial for hull strength.

The chapter on the Mataria boat (ch. 11) and the concluding chapter (ch. 12) seem hastily written. For instance, Ward first states that locked tenons on the Mataria boat were used only to join frames to planking (138) but then contradicts herself (they joined planking edge to edge [143]). Several passages lack necessary references (e.g., “by the later Old Kingdom, an autobiographical inscription brags of building a 30-meter-long freighter in only seventeen days” [138]). It would have been helpful if the concluding chapter had contained a table comparing the major characteristics of all the discussed hulls. Minor problems are the absence of a scale in many illustrations and the omission of the high, middle, and low chronologies in the timeline (appx. 2).

In spite of these few shortcomings, this study provides fascinating insights into the world of Egyptian boatbuilding and woodworking, and is a must-read for anyone interested in these key facets of ancient Egyptian life.

Aleydis Van de Moortel
Department of Classics
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee 37996-0413

Book Review of Sacred and Secular: Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats, by Cheryl A. Ward

Reviewed by Aleydis Van de Moortel

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (October 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1114.VandeMoortel

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.