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AJA Online Publications: Book Review

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).

The Nile was the primary transport route and a glossary of nautical terms, it should find
of ancient Egypt, and watercraft played a key its way also onto the bookshelves of many lay
role at all levels of Egyptian society. Testifying readers.
to its importance are thousands of surviving The study of ancient Mediterranean ship-
boat images and models informing us about wrecks was revolutionized in the 1970s by
the appearance of Egyptian ships and boats, J. Richard Steffy of the Institute of Nautical
and texts telling us about shipbuilding materi- Archaeology at Texas A&M University. Steffy
als, ship construction, names of hull parts, ship developed rigorous standards of documenta-
types, the uses of ships, tonnages, and voyages. tion and was the first to point out the potential
Much of this material has been studied and of shipwreck studies to go beyond technical
published (B. Landström, Ships of the Pharaohs analyses in order to recover environmental,
[New York 1970]; A. Göttlicher and W. Wer- economic, social, and cultural information
ner, Schiffsmodelle in alten Ägypten [Wiesbaden (Wooden Shipbuilding and the Interpretation of
1971]; S. Vinson, Egyptian Boats and Ships, Shipwrecks [College Station 1994]). Ward, who
[Princes Risborough 1999]). The excavation was trained by Steffy, follows in his footsteps.
and publication of a large wooden ship found Whereas our knowledge of ancient shipbuild-
near Khufu’s pyramid brought scholars and ing in this area of the world was until now
the public for the first time into direct contact largely focused on Mediterranean seagoing
with the sophistication of Egyptian wooden vessels from later periods, the Egyptian re-
shipbuilding (N. Jenkins, The Boat Beneath the mains inform us about river craft as early as
Pyramid [New York 1980]; P. Lipke, The Royal the Bronze Age.
Ship of Cheops [Greenwich 1984]). Ward’s introductory chapter gives an
It is less commonly known that we now overview of the rise and organization of the
possess the remains of more than 20 boats and Pharaonic state, the role of watercraft in society
American Journal of Archaeology Online Book Review

ships from ancient Egypt, nearly all ranging in and art, as well as the process and organization
Copyright © 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America

date from the Predynastic period to the Middle of shipbuilding. Chapter 2 reviews the mate-
Kingdom, with the exception of one wreck of rials used. In contrast to prevailing opinion,
the Persian period. Ward’s monograph is the Egyptian texts list a surprising abundance
first to provide a comprehensive study of these of native woods suitable for boatbuilding,
wooden hull remains and place them in their which often have been ignored by Egyptolo-
cultural context (closing date of manuscript gists because of the frequent use of imported
is 1996). Her work significantly enhances our woods. Chapter 3 discusses form and function
understanding of Egyptian shipbuilding tech- of Egyptian tools and analyzes Predynastic to
I11.4 ( October 2007)

nology and water transport, as well as their Old Kingdom woodworking practices. Ward
role in society. For these reasons, it deserves concludes that late Predynastic furniture and
a place in every research library concerned coffin makers had already established a num-
with ancient Egypt or technology. Written in ber of key characteristics of later Egyptian
accessible language with ample illustrations wooden watercraft: the economical use of local
timber, the manufacture of short planks that do the main method in the Middle Kingdom.
not have straight edges but follow the natural The absence of a locking mechanism for the
curvature of the tree, and different methods tenons (except perhaps on the Mataria boat)
for fastening (lashings, pegs, dowels, mortise- is remarkable because locked tenons were
and-tenon joints). already known in Predynastic furniture, and
The next chapters review the construction, this fastening system played an important role
function, and societal role of most extant Egyp- in ancient Mediterranean seagoing ships. Ward
tian hull remains: 12 or more Early Dynastic plausibly explains its absence in Egyptian wa-
boats found in the royal funerary complex tercraft as possibly due to the fact that Egyptian
at Abydos (ch. 4); the Khufu I and II ships hulls often needed to be disassembled and
(Fourth Dynasty) found near Pharaoh Khufu’s transported over land, as well as to the build-
pyramid at Giza (chs. 5, 6); four boats (12th Dy- ers’ concern not to pierce the hull planking
nasty) from Senwosret III’s pyramid complex below the waterline and cause leaks.
at Dashur (ch. 8); more than 100 timbers from Apart from those similarities, there are
disassembled freight boats reused in cause- clear differences in materials and labor be-
ways, roads, and construction ramps of Middle tween elite ceremonial vessels and utilitarian
Kingdom pyramids at Lisht and Lahun (ch. craft. Utilitarian vessels use local wood and
10); and a sixth–fifth century utilitarian boat economize on its use, whereas royal and elite
from Mataria (ancient Heliopolis), a suburb craft are made of imported wood employed
of Cairo (ch. 11). Interspersed are discussions in a more wasteful manner; they also show
of Old Kingdom rock-cut boat pits (ch. 7) and finer workmanship and finish. Ward argues
a planked boat model from a 12th-Dynasty convincingly that the long underappreciated
high official’s mastaba at Lisht (ch. 9). While Dashur boats are top-quality royal craft. She
these hull remains do not span the variety of also persuasively links the high degree of stan-
Egyptian craft known from images and texts, dardization in the manufacture of the Dashur
they belong to two major categories with very boats, the Lisht model, and the heavy freight-
different roles in society—royal ceremonial ers from Lisht to the intense bureaucratic and
craft (Abydos, Giza, Dashur) and heavy cargo economic control of the Middle Kingdom Pha-
carriers (Lisht)—as well as other utilitarian raohs. This reviewer would add that, in spite of
craft (Mataria). Thus, they provide welcome their expensive manufacture, the royal Dashur
opportunities for comparing the use of mate- boats show an unmistakable trend toward
rial resources, characteristics of construction, cost- cutting in materials and labor with respect
craftsmanship, and levels of labor. to the Old Kingdom Khufu ships (smaller
Ward’s discussions are in many ways hulls, less wood, reuse of timbers, less labor-
excellent. Her arguments that the preserved intensive techniques, standardization)—a
ceremonial vessels from Abydos, Giza, and trend that is also clearly seen in Middle King-
Dashur, and the grave boat model from Lisht dom pyramid building. Fascinating is Ward’s
were funerary vessels and not solar boats, are reconstruction of the Lisht freighters built with
convincing. Whenever she was able to study short, thick interlocking planks of stiff local
the actual hull remains herself—the boats acacia and tamarisk, whose many interior
from Dashur and a timber of a freighter from hull stiffeners fill much of the space in the
Lisht—she provides detailed technical descrip- hold (fig. 70), resulting in extremely stiff and
American Journal of Archaeology Online Book Review

tions and good contextualizations. Elsewhere, strong hulls with low center of gravity. This
she makes interesting observations but is obvi- explains how Egyptian cargo ships were able
ously handicapped by a lack of information. to carry many tons of building stone on deck,
In spite of the uneven data, she is able to draw as we know from Egyptian images and texts.
up the general characteristics of Egyptian ves- In this context, this reviewer would have liked
sels. All show superb craftsmanship and an to see a comparison of the cargo-carrying ef-
excellent understanding of wood qualities. ficiency of the various Egyptian hull designs.
Boatbuilding principles remained the same Lipke’s calculation (1984:103) that the Khufu
throughout: the hull planking was the primary I ship could carry only 55 tons for 94 tons of
structure; planks were thick and their edges displacement indicates that the thick, heavy
shaped in such a way that they hooked into hull planking of Egyptian ships made for poor
one another, thus increasing the longitudinal cargo efficiency.
stiffening of the hull; planks were carefully In spite of its many good qualities, Ward’s
joined edge to edge with lashings, dowels, and study is not always systematic. One sometimes
mortise-and-tenon joints—the last becoming has the impression of a number of individual

essays put together rather than a strongly to edge [143]). Several passages lack necessary
integrated text. So the chapter on the Khufu references (e.g., “by the later Old Kingdom, an
I ship goes into great detail about construc- autobiographical inscription brags of building
tion and function, but, unlike the chapters a 30-meter-long freighter in only seventeen
on the Abydos, Dashur, and Lisht vessels, it days” [138]). It would have been helpful if
does not elaborate on its significance in terms the concluding chapter had contained a table
of centralized control over resources at the comparing the major characteristics of all
height of Pharaonic power. Ward estimates the discussed hulls. Minor problems are the
the amount of imported wood needed for the absence of a scale in many illustrations and
royal boats of Abydos and Dashur but not the omission of the high, middle, and low
for the Khufu I ship, nor does she mention chronologies in the timeline (appx. 2).
Lipke’s estimate of 40 tons (1984:103), three In spite of these few shortcomings, this study
to four times the amount needed for all of the provides fascinating insights into the world of
Abydos or Dashur boats together. Elsewhere, Egyptian boatbuilding and woodworking, and
Ward gives the frame spacing of the Khufu I is a must-read for anyone interested in these
ship and the rock-cut boats of Khafra but not key facets of ancient Egyptian life.
of the Lisht freighters where frame spacing was
crucial for hull strength. Aleydis Van de Moortel
The chapter on the Mataria boat (ch. 11) and
the concluding chapter (ch. 12) seem hastily department of classics
written. For instance, Ward first states that university of tennessee
locked tenons on the Mataria boat were used knoxville, tennessee 37996-0413
only to join frames to planking (138) but then avdm@utk.edu
contradicts herself (they joined planking edge
American Journal of Archaeology Online Book Review