Boat-Building and Its Social Context in Early Egypt: Interpretations from the First Dynasty Boat-Grave Cemetery at Abydos

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Studying the origins and techniques of boat-building provides new data for examining social organisation, regional trade and technological conservatism in a nascent state society. A total of 22 boats have been found in Egyptian contexts dated between c. 3050 and 450 BC, either whole or disassembled and recycled in mortuary complexes, or abandoned on the river's edge (Ward 2000). Fourteen of these, buried as part of a First Dynasty funerary monument at Abydos, are the world's most ancient complex watercraft (Ward 2003; O'Connor 1991). In addition to making direct contributions to our understanding of the cultural value and social significance of watercraft, partial excavation of one boat at Abydos (Ward 2003, 2004) revealed details indicating a codification of early technologies by the developing state as early as 3300-3100 BC.

Just as this period established principles for an artistic canon (Iversen 1975: 60-6; Davis 1989), so it marks the creation of a specialised repertoire of techniques, materials and cultural behaviour for building boats and other artisan crafts. Other scholars have examined maceheads, ivory-handled flint knives and architectural details in works discussing the development of the Egyptian state (e.g. Hoffman 1991 ; Kemp 1991 ; Bard 1994; Trigger 1995), but until recently, it was not possible to consider another major artefact class--boats--in a similar study.

The Egyptians built wooden boats like no other culture in the world then or since. I argue here that wooden boat-building technology evolved independently within Egypt in response to local conditions and that the way the boats are built reflects aspects both of the legitimisation of power and participation in a regional trade network at least occasionally accessing the Red Sea before the third millennium. Expansion of boat-building technology coincides with the expansion of early chiefdom-level settlements such as Nekhen, Thinis and Nagada, and is likely to be directly related to the demonstration of status and hierarchy through acquisition of both prestige and exotic goods by long distance travel (Figure 1).


Origins of wooden boats in Egypt

Early boat-builders in Egypt had raw materials, easy conditions for travelling on the Nile and other resources that made travel attractive to sedentary populations. Abundant native timbers and buoyant grasses or reeds allowed experimentation and evolution, both of which are visible archaeologically in the earliest villages in Egypt. Pottery from Palestine, shells from the Red Sea at villages in both upper and lower Egypt, and southern pottery finds in northern sites indicate a regular trade between upper and lower Egypt by the fourth millennium. Movement on the Nile itself is facilitated by its current flowing from south to north, and its steady winds blowing from north to south.

Although the earliest rivercraft were probably simple rafts made of bundles of reeds or papyrus, Hendricks and Vermeer (2000: 35) have pointed out that these were adequate by 7000 BC to fish the main channel of the Nile. An important feature of this early water transport is that individual bundles of reeds were lashed together in symmetrical lines that run across the hull. From the side, the lines appear as regular, vertical divisions of the hull. Several Badarian models illustrate this concept, as do a number of early fourth millennium examples (Brunton & Caton-Thompson 1928: pl. 23; Petrie 1933; Aksamit 1981). The feature is seen repeatedly on representations of other early Egyptian boats, and indicates 'accepted practice': the correct way to build and to portray a boat incorporated transverse lashing of major components.

By the fifth millennium BC, some boats were able to move large loads because they relied on displacement rather than simple buoyancy. Representations on pottery and rock faces in both the western and eastern deserts of upper Egypt suggest that the shift to wooden boats took place in the middle of the fourth millennium BC and was documented in drawings of large vessels along seasonal watercourses (wadis) and elsewhere in the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea. …