Egyptian boat


Egyptian model funerary boat 1884.81.10

Alice Stevenson

After completing the first two catalogues of his collection (Lane Fox 1877), Pitt-Rivers turned his attentions to ‘modes of navigation’ as another area in which to demonstrate his ideas about the development and spread of culture. To this end he collected together not just relevant information from other books, but also several boat models from all corners of the world in order to establish their mode of construction. ‘Taken together’ he wrote in 1875, ‘they enable us to trace back the history of ship-building from the time of the earliest Egyptian sculptures to the commencement of the art’ (Lane Fox 1875, 434). Thus for Pitt-Rivers, Egypt was an important point of reference ‘ the cradle of western civilisation, certainly the land in which western culture first began to put forth its strong shoots’ (Lane Fox 1875, 413). Within this context his rationale for purchasing the large Egyptian boat model from the London-based antiquities dealers Rollin and Feuardent, some time before 1879 is clear. At this time it was installed in the Bethnal Green Branch of the South Kensington Museum, most probably in the cases devoted to modes of navigation.

Today the 1.12 metre-long boat sits in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Court case number 45 (‘Funerary Model Boats’), which is situated directly behind the totem pole. Its crew—a standing pilot, a sitting helmsman, two standing lookouts and 14 rowers—are a motley bunch.[1] Their mismatched features suggest that they in fact come from a number of different models, a deception most likely pulled by the auctioneers, or who they acquired it from, in order to increase the model’s commercial value. Despite these additions, the model remains incomplete with two rowers, seven oars and the mast missing.

While for Pitt-Rivers the significance of this Egyptian boat was in the nautical technology it displayed, for the ancient Egyptians such boats were of enormous symbolic value. The Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt. Transport along it was a vital part of ancient Egyptian life in many practical ways, such as in the movement of goods and people. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the boat was ingrained into the consciousness of ancient Egyptian society and it became a key symbol for the notion of travel in a much wider sense. Boats were one of the primary means by which the gods themselves traversed the heavens and the underworld, while on earth their images were carried from temple to temple in such vessels. Boats also carried the dead from this world to the next and it is in this context that the Pitt-Rivers model has to be understood.

Models such as this were made specifically for the tombs of wealthy individuals from around the time of the First Intermediate Period (2160–2055 BC), but particularly in the Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 BC). [2] On the basis of the style of the stern of the Pitt-Rivers boat it has been suggested that it would originally have been made around and interred in a Theban burial (Merriman 2009, 607). It would have been placed in the tomb chamber around the coffin, possibly along with other types of models that would have performed other scenes such as food preparation or the bearing of offerings (see Tooley 1999). The largest collection of such models known came from the tomb of Djehuty-nakht at Bersheh, where no less than twelve offering bearers together with almost 55 model boats were discovered (Freed et al 2009).More usually, such ship models were found in pairs, with one rigged for transport upstream, the other for downstream.

Not only would these watercraft have been able to provide transport for the deceased, but they would also allow them to undertake one of the most important of all Middle Kingdom pilgrimages; the journey to Abydos.

The site of Abydos (see O’Connor 2010), in Upper Egypt, was the cult centre of Osiris, god of the dead. Abydos rose to prominence during the Predynastic period and it was here in the desert area known as the Umm el-Qa’ab that the first kings of the Egyptian state chose to construct their royal tombs. One of these tombs, that of King Djer’s, was identified by later Egyptians as the resting place of Osiris himself and it was across this landscape, from the temple by the Nile to the tomb in the desert, that an annual festival was staged. During the festivities the image of Osiris was taken from the temple to his tomb amidst a dramatization of his murder and subsequent rebirth. Egyptians’ sought to witness this so that they too could be associated with the god that promised life after death.

It is this pilgrimage that is probably represented by the Pitt-Rivers model, because it is the deceased himself that is shown seated on the boat towards the stern end. He is wrapped in white linen, an indication that he is a mummiform figure and not a representation of the individual in life. It thus links him and his vessel to funerary ceremonies, the journey to the afterlife and the promise of rebirth.


Freed, R.E., Berman, L.M., Doxey, D.M. and Picardo, N. 2009. The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.

Lane Fox [Pitt-Rivers], A.H. 1875. ‘On early modes of navigation’. The Journal of the Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland 4, 399–437.

Fox [Pitt-Rivers], A.H. Lane 1877. Catalogue of the Anthropological Collection lent by Colonel Lane Fox for exhibition in the Bethnal Green branch of the South Kensington Museum June 1874 Parts I and II. London: Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education HMSO [Re-issued 1879]

Merriman, A.M. 2009. Egyptian Watercraft Models from the Predynastic to Third Intermediate Periods. Unpublished PhD thesis, UCL, London.

O’Connor, D. 2010. Abydos. London: Thames and Hudson.

Tooley, A. 1999. Egyptian Models and Scenes. London: Shire publications.


[1] As Merriman (2009, 513) in her PhD thesis, this ‘helmsman’ is certainly not original as it is actually the figure of a paddler, who would have been positioned elsewhere on a vessel originally.

[2] For an example of a recently excavated (2007) intact tomb with models see here 

February 2011


prm logo