Rock Boats - Part I

I shall now trace boats back to the time when they were known in the Eastern Desert, and beyond, to Mesopotamia. Below is a map that permits orientation, showing modern places.

The area of interest is from Qena to Edfu on the Nile, and from Bur Safajah to Marsa al'Alam on the Red Sea.

This map shows the location of various petroglyph sites, marked with small dots. For a large view click on the picture above. Not all sites are shown on my map. I merely show a section to get some idea of how prevalent they are.

Note that they are in wadis near to or on the trade routes from the Dead Sea. The land distance between the Red Sea and the Nile is on the order of a 100 miles to 110 miles at the nearest point. Mountains rise up from the Red Sea and create a natural divide between the drainage to the Sea and to the Nile. This divide is very close to the Red Sea, perhaps twenty miles. The remaining drainage is into the Nile. The wadis on the Red Sea side are not suitable to rock art because of the ruggedness of the country. Hence, all rock art is on the Nile side of the divide. The more thickly populated examples are about 40 miles from the Nile, but many examples exist on the Wadi Mia and Wadi Baramia where they are up to 60 miles from the Nile.

This map is from Rock-Drawings of Southern Upper Egypt, Hans Alexander Winkler, Oxford University Press, 1938-39. The numbers are his site numbers.

I also used Rock Pictures of Upper Egypt and Nubia, Paul Cervicek, Instituto Universitario Orientale, Napoli, 1986. This work was a continuation of the work by Hans Winkler. As Winkler stated:


Rock-drawings all over the world are in some degree comparable. Nearly all have in common a certain primitivity. Styles exist, but they have not yet the sharp definition which makes a style unmistakable, like the style of dynastic Egypt, or of ancient Greece or China. And the subjects of the rock-drawings are again of a similar primitivity all over the world: animals and men. We are therefore the more surprised to find boats in these Upper Egyptian rock-drawings, and boats in such great numbers. We know rock-drawings from all continents, but only in Scandinavia and in Egypt do they contain a mass of boats. In the preceding classification the presence of particular forms of boats was the reason for ascribing one group of rock-drawings to people who lived in predynastic and early dynastic times in the Nile valley, and it was again the reason for claiming an overseas origin for the authors of another group of drawings.

. . . Two main types of boats are distinguishable. One type is curved like a segment of a circle. We may call this form sickle-shaped boats or sickle-boats. The other main type has a straight base and more or less vertical prow and stern. We call it the square-shaped or square-boat. Between these two extremes are two distinct intermediate forms. One has the curved base of the sickle-boats, but the ends are curved inwards in various shapes. We call the type incurved sickle-boat. The other has sometimes a fairly straight base and. the prow bent up in a right angle -- by this peculiarity recalling the square-boats -- but the stern is incurved. We call the type incurved square-boats. From the square-boat various different forms are derived. Prevailing straightness of lines is characteristic and common to them. We call them square-boat derivations A, B, C, D, E, and F.

Winkler goes on to list the various types. Note that this is only about 40% of the total. His work was cut short by World War II; he was killed in action in 1945. Cervicek then attempted to complete the work. The following list shows the distribution of various peculiarities among these different types. (Winkler's work only.)

Winkler noted several features. As he said: The curved forms -- sickle-boats, incurved sickle-boats, and incurved square boats - have some features in common that are rare or absent in the square-boats of the pure type, proving there is a fundamental difference.

Winkler goes on to list features of the pure square boats and how they differ from the sickle boats. For example, no dancing figure ever accompanies a square boat although there is frequent representation of people. No square boat has a free standing mast in the middle of the boat. I noted a strange object on the stern of a square boat on the Gebel al-Arak knife. The lack of lines representing cross-beams, and the straightness of the main lines, along with other features, leads him to deduce that these square boats are strictly row boats, with rowers lined up one after another, and not on two sides of the boat. He thinks they are dugouts, but we know from Abydos that they can be constructed boats. He mentions boats from the South Seas as sea-going vessels, with vertical prows and sterns, as a vivid illustration of how these boats might have looked.

Following are examples of various boats from the rock art.

This is an example of a incurved sickle boat. It has fronds on the bow, a cabin, and a dancing figure. This boat has more than 28 rowers. We do not know if this is illustrates a single line of rowers, or a double-line. The boat would be more than 130 feet in length.

Here two different boats are illustrated, both with a human figure. One is a sickle boat, the other a square boat. Both boats show a separation between rowers, as we saw on the pottery boats. The arrangement of the rowers in the boat to the left suggests that we are looking at oars on both sides of the boat. This may also be true on the other boat, and not people with oars. Note that we have here a separation of the rowers, as on the pottery boats and on Hierakonoplis boats. We can see that there are many different kinds of boats.

The details show how the draughts men did not merely imitate size, shape, or function but tried to portray additional aspects. Two rope-like objects hang down from the stern of the first boat. This boat may be 70 feet long. The second boat shows two flying rope-like objects projecting inward, as if the boat were in swift motion, but this may be a false deduction. This boat is only slightly longer than the first.

The proximity of the two boats of two different types suggests that both navigated the same regions.

The peculiar coloration to this picture is not real. It is a result of my attempt to improve the contrast. This petroglyph shows a square boat without separation of the rowers. This probably represents an illustration of rowers on either side of the boat as in the preceding figures. It also has a human figure in the center. The figures of animals external to the boat suggests the boat is skirting a shore line, or the artist was attempting to capture a hunt. This boat may be more than 100 feet in length.

This boat has two appendages projecting from the stern. Two similar appendages project inward in the boat above. There is no separation between the rowers. All these human figures seem to be serving under the instructions of a Chief, directing its course.

This boat has a very large number of rowers. I estimate about 70 rowers. This is a sickle boat, and would be more than 275 feet long. This boat is accompanied by different animals and other figures, barely discernible on the drawing. There is no separation of the rowers. The huge size of this boat shows how far the boat builders had taken their trade.

This is a square boat with high prow and stern. It has a cabin. The two strokes half-way toward the stern is uncertain, but we see them in the illustration of the Sahure boat. This boat has more than 48 rowers, with a break between rowers as in many boats. In this and the preceding boat the oars seem to be out of the water, as though the boat were at attention, waiting direction. However, we can see from the Sahure boat that the oars probably were attached to the boat in some fashion. This boat is more than 200 feet long.

I could go on with many other illustrations. The following are sketches showing the many different types of boats found in the rock art.


Some of the above boats are found in the Wadi Barramiya, the road from the Kanais Temple of Seti I (30 miles from Edfu) to Marsa al'Alam on the Red Sea. Refer to G. Fuchs who documented a number of these sites (Petroglyphs in the Eastern Desert of Egypt: New finds in the Wadi el Barramia. Sahara,. 1991, vol.4 pp59-70; and Rock Engravings in the Wadi el Barramia, Eastern Desert of Egypt. The African Archaological Review, vol.7 pp127-153.)