Pottery Boats

The history of Egyptian boats can be traced back to the period of Naqada, circa 4,000 BC. This we do through decorated pottery. I shall show several examples. These will permit us to deduce the level of knowledge and ability during that period. I make no attempt to classify the type of pottery, wavy handled, etc.

The first two examples are from the Petrie Museum in London. The remaining examples I collected from various, unrecorded, sources.

Each of the examples, above and below, shows two deck houses. The deck houses each show two small loops, as though intended to be carried by two long rods. We do not know the purpose behind these two loops.

Each boat also shows a curvature that is found in many illustrations. Note the nearly flat boat in the illustration below. This should not be interpreted as a reed boat compared with a wooden boat. I shall show why these had to be wooden boats.

Each shows a frond-type decoration at the bow of the boat. That this is the bow is shown in the third photograph where the human figure presumable is facing toward the front. We also would expect the frond to show the bow. The stern of the boats have no decoration.

This differs from the bow and stern decorations of the IVth Dynasty. During this early period the Egyptians had not yet developed this type of decoration.

We cannot tell the relative size of the frond because the respective details are exaggerated. However, the illustrations are suggestive of a large size, suitable to the boat size. We can only guess at the source of the frond; it may be natural, or it may be fabricated.

This picture shows a sketch of a boat showing the frond and other details. From this sketch we see that the frond is double sided. The oblong upright object standing on a single pole may be a representation of an ensign, or it may be a sail. The rectangular object next to the frond may be a captains cabin. Here the bow and stern show a development in the decoration.

If this depiction was representative, the number of rowers is much larger than in any of the other boats here illustrated.

We can only guess at the two pole-like objects behind the second cabin. However, every visible case on the photographs shows these pole-like objects. They probably are standards identifying the ownership and authority of the individual operating the boat.

In order to calculate the size of the boats we must make a decision on how to treat the superstructures, and the placement of the rowers. Did the superstructures take up the entire width, as in the Khufu boat, or were the boats wide enough to have rowers arranged beside the superstructures? All pottery illustrations suggest the latter. If so, these boats would be much wider than the Khufu boat.

The Abydos boats were assumed 75 feet in length and could accommodate as many as 30 rowers. This is based on 2.5 foot per rower. But those were row boats, not large boats containing superstructures. Since they were only about seven to ten feet wide we can see how the paddles would be much smaller than on the Khufu boat. From the Khufu boat we know that each rower had about 3.5 feet assigned to him. (36 feet estimated from the model, divided by ten rowers.) From the Sahura boat we make the same estimate, about three to 3.5 feet.

We also must add distance from the last rower to the bow and stern of the boat. Each photograph also shows a space between rowers near the center of the boat. This may have been necessary for embarking and disembarking of passengers. In all cases I have added 30 feet for these three spaces.

I assume that the long lines sticking down from the boats represents oars. If so, the number of rowers is as follows:

Number of Rowers Length of boat in feet
1 14 + 17 150
2 22? +17 170
3 12 + 12 115
4 22 + ? ?
5 19 + ? ?
6 26 + 24 205
7 <20 + 18 <165
Sketch 32 + 44 300

We can see why these had to be wooden boats. They were fairly massive, in most cases larger than the Khufu boat. If we take the assumptions that the rowers were arranged next to the superstructure the beam of the boat probably was on the order of 35 to 40 feet wide, perhaps wider.

The boat illustrated in the Sketch is very much larger than any of the other boats. Unfortunately, the information is too tentative.


Thus we can conclude that large boats were built as far back as 4,000 BC.

We cannot estimate the level of their technology, but it must have been as good as in the Khufu and Sahure boats.

The figures shown on the drawings illustrate purpose of function. In the third picture above we see what must be a chief, with a sword and perhaps a dagger.

In the fourth picture are what appear to be hunters, with bows and arrows. In this scene mountains are illustrated at the bottom of the pot, suggesting an expedition. The figure with hands raised above the head shows a dancing figure we see in many illustrations. This dancing figure, along with hunters, also appears in the last illustration.

On all boats a problem existed of maintaining the rowers in synchronization with one another. Someone had to call out a beat. It may be that the dancing figure served this purpose, not only by voice, but also by body movements.

Here are models of dancing figures from the Cairo Museum.