Book Review

Sacred and secular: ancient Egyptian ships and boats (Archaeological Institute of America Monographs [n.s.] No. 5)
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum

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Review by LUCY BLUE
Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Southampton, Southampton, England

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Egypt preserves a tremendously rich resource of ancient ship and boat images depicted in the tombs and temples of the pharaohs. Since the excavation in 1894 of the Dashur boats this knowledge has been supplemented by spectacular archaeological discoveries of ships and boats. These include the Khufu I vessel at Giza which, as Ward states, 'revolutionised our knowledge of ancient Egyptian shipbuilding' (p.45), through to the recent findings of boat graves at Early Dynastic Abydos (comprehensively discussed in this volume). The information derived from the study of these vessels provides insight into 'not only the technological abilities and engineering skills of past ages, but... also... economics, culture and politics reflected within the features of the hulls' (p. 1). However, although there are numerous publications that discuss ancient Egyptian ships and boats, including Landström's (1970) pioneering volume, it is only now that a thoroughly comprehensive account of the construction of these vessels has been compiled.

As the title, Sacred and secular, suggests, the criteria that determined how ancient boats and ships were built and used is hugely diverse, and often hotly debated. The technological detail bound within this volume comprises a compendium of data meticulously compiled through the authors first-hand study of many of these vessels, and reveals how some traditional interpretations, such as the authenticity of the dove-tailed joints in the Dashur boats, should be revised.

Three introductory chapters outline not only the practicalities of woodworking and boat and ship construction, but also the contexts in which these vessels should be viewed (from the prevailing winds and currents of the Nile, to trade, tribute and an obsession with the afterlife). The chapter on natural timber resources is particularly enlightening as it dispels the myth surrounding the limited use of indigenous timbers in the construction of ancient Egyptian craft.

The following eight chapters provide a site by site description, in chronological order, of the physical remains of each vessel allowing the reader to formulate an impression of the development of the construction of ancient Egyptian ships and boats. This includes an excellent chapter describing the rock-cut and brick boats of the Old Kingdom. The final chapter summarises the principal features and distinctive characteristics of Egyptian hull construction. It highlights comparisons between ceremonial and cargo vessels, and the influences on how and systems in which, these vessels were constructed. Tables, photographs and numerous figures (many produced by the author and unpublished elsewhere) supplement the text throughout, as well as an excellent glossary.

Ward details each stage in the construction sequence as if it were a guide to building a boat. The data outlined are exhaustive and often insightful. The description of the construction of the Dashur boats, for example, is thoroughly comprehensive, to the extent that comparisons are drawn between the construction of this vessel and Khufu I, some five hundred years its senior, that imply a degree of continuity rarely commented upon. Ward goes on to demonstrate some of the problems encountered (and overcome) by boat builders in antiquity. Rarely is such detail extracted from the study of vessel construction and, as is demonstrated, it is this detail that also supports critical examination of technology and technological change, so crucial to a wider interpretation of society.

The account of the construction of Khufu I is equally comprehensive and adds much to earlier interpretations. Amongst other things, Ward highlights the use of three types of mortise-and-tenon fastening and outlines clearly why the plank edges were joggled. However, her description of the ligatures is less clear, the figure number referred to is incorrect, Table 4 includes errors, and no detailed photograph or sketch is provided, all of which hinder the reader's understanding of an already complex building sequence.

In fact, the only criticism of this book would be a lack of reader guidance. For example, many photographs and plans appear without scales, and reference is often made in the text to the alignment of a vessel and yet this is not clear in the Figures.

As the author rightly states, 'the luxury of comparing such large and stately vessels... is not often granted to archaeologists' (p. 68, in reference to the Khufu boats). Thus, for those of us not privileged enough to have been able to study these magnificent vessels first-hand, Ward provides a comprehensive 'handbook' on which to base informed interpretations of current and future finds of ancient Egyptian ships and boats. This long awaited publication is recommended to scholars of both maritime history and archaeology.

  • LANDSTRÖM, P. 1970 Ships of the pharoahs: four thousand years of Egyptian shipbuilding. London: Allen & Unwin.