This is the second in a series of posts on ancient boat iconography at the British Museum. The first post looked at ancient Egyptian boat models. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Dating from the second phase of the Naqada culture (3500–3200 BC) in what is now Egypt, this is one of the earliest undoubted images of a boat with a sail from anywhere in the world. The medium-aspect squaresail, hung from a mast stepped far toward the bow, appears to have a boom along the bottom edge. As the mast crosses the sail somewhat off-center, it could conceivably have been a lugsail, although there is no good evidence for the use of lugsails in ancient Egypt, and with the mast so far forward, the boat could only have sailed before the wind in any case, so it was likely used only while traveling upstream on the Nile. No rigging is shown, but this is surely a function of the illustration’s overall paucity of detail, not an indication that none was used. The prow rises vertically very high and the stern is also raised. There is a great deal of rocker and sheer. Just behind the raised stem and beneath the leading edge of the sail is what appears to be a tiny platform: perhaps this was a pilot’s station or a base for a votive image. Aft, vertical posts support a forward-sloping platform, roof, or awning. Rectangular blocks of “waves” all around the boat represent the sea. Here is the British Museum’s record and another photo.
|The redware pottery jar stands 58.5cm tall.|
This big (75cm long) model, from a grave in Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, dates to the Akkadian period (2300-2150 BC). It’s made of bitumen mixed with earth and is very similar in form to plank-built boats called taradas used in the Iraqi swamps well into the 20th century. Taradas and boats made of reeds were both coated with bitumen, which occurs naturally in the area. It’s unclear if the model represents a boat of reeds or planks, but to me it feels more like the former. Grave boats in Ur were originally loaded with containers thought to have held provisions for the afterlife, or possibly as bait to distract evil spirits. British Museum record and photos.
We’ve leapt forward well over a milennium, to 750 BC-600 BC. The vessel depicted on this Bronze Age Cypriot jar has its mast stepped amidships and would have been more capable than the earlier Naqada boat of sailing across or into the wind on the open Mediterranean. The furled sail, of low or medium aspect, has no boom along its bottom edge. Rigging is clearly shown but is hard to interpret. (Guess: the lower, upside-down V represents shrouds; the upper, rightside-up V represents braces.) Both bow and stern turn up abruptly and rise to great heights, with decorative flourishes at their upper ends. There is a large structure in the bow (right side), and a helmsman stands at the stern managing double steering oars or side rudders. Large amphorae, probably containing wine, oil, or fish sauce, constitute the cargo. Just out of the frame to the left side, a crewman defacates over the stern, making this probably the world’s earliest depiction of shipboard sanitary arrangements. The Nautical Archaeology Society uses this image (minus the biological function) as its logo. More about this item in this article from the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. British Museum record and photos.
Three terracotta ship models from tombs on Cyprus. Top and middle: 600BC-500BC. Bottom: 750 BC-475 BC. With no suggestion of a rig, they appear to be rowing galleys, probably warships, judging by the rams on two of them. Although they’re similar, they all differ slightly in the forms of the ram or prow, the upper extensions of the stem and sternpost, and decoration. All three have oculi and are 16-17cm long. British Museum records and photos: top, middle, bottom.
|The starboard sides of the Cypriot galley models.|
This terracotta merchant ship from Cyprus (600-500 BC) has a mast step amidship in the bottom, and the vessel was surely rigged with a square sail. The ends of the posts have fishtail-like shapes. The broken parts of the hull aft (right) may have been the location of steering oars. Where the sides bend inward at the top probably represents a bulwark, not a tumblehome hull shape. Forward is a cross-beam that probably served as catheads for anchor handling. British Museum record and photos.
This more elaborate merchant ship model is also from Cyprus (750-500BC) and also has a mast step amidships. There are several cross-beams and an elaborate sterncastle and poop deck, with structures to secure steering oars or side-rudders. As this was a sailing merchant ships, the rows of holes on both sides do not represent oar ports, and they are too low and too numerous to be fastening points for shrouds. I believe they are scuppers that would have been located at deck level, at the bottom of the bulwarks. British Museum record and photos.
Not iconography, but an example of an important type of cargo carried by Cypriot ships. This is a 37 kg copper ingot, dated to about 1200 BC. It’s thought that the distinctive "ox hide" shape made them easier to carry. Copper was the primary metal required for the establishment of the Bronze Age. British Museum record and photo.