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Iconography and the Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Watercraft

Noreen Doyle
Thesis: May 1998
Chair: Bass
Nautical Archaeology Program


Pharaonic Egyptian civilization was Nilocentric and dependent upon watercraft. As a result, a nautically rich iconography legacy is available to enhance the evidence provided by the archaeological remains of actual boats. Egyptian literature abounds in nautical metaphors and presents a vast reservoir, imperfectly understood, of Egyptian nautical terms. Artists, generally highly skilled professionals, were familiar with watercraft in their daily lives. However, the dictates of their artistic conventions make modern interpretation of both two- and three-dimensional representations of boats and crews difficult, as have artistic errors caused by constraints of the media, techniques or carelessness. Past interpretive errors have included mistaking rower's seats for tholes, stepped gangplanks for "ladders", and loaves of bread for anchors.

The Egyptian artist depicted ideals and attempted to portray objects and figures in such a way as to reflect the conceptual, rather than perceptual, reality of his world. Key details such as lanyards and crosspieces are often omitted from representations. A single piece of evidence may remain our only evidence for a type of ship or activity; subjects and features known from contemporary literature or the archaeological record, including passenger ferries, harbor works, and the participation of women, do not appear or are scanty in the iconography. Artists picked and chose from the reality around them to suit their own needs, not ours, and, thus, present an incomplete picture of the ancient reality. Even the extant, published iconography is incomplete; reliefs have lost their original painted surfaces and many scenes are in fragments. The publications themselves, although invaluable, present their own difficulties to researchers, who must be prepared to alter their constructions and hypotheses as new sources and the opportunity for better examination of the record become available.

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