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June 2011 The Egyptian Boat

The theme of ‘modes of navigation’ was one of the key areas in which Pitt-Rivers sought to demonstrate his ideas about the development and spread of culture. To this end he collected together not just relevant information from books, but also several boat models from all corners of the world in order to establish their mode of construction. ‘Taken together’ he wrote in 1875 ‘they enable us to trace back the history of ship-building from the time of the earliest Egyptian sculptures to the commencement of the art.’ Clearly for Pitt-Rivers, Egypt was an important point of reference in his typological sequences. It is therefore easy to see why he purchased a large Middle Kingdom Egyptian boat model (Fig. 1) from the auctioneers Rollin and Feuardent sometime before 1879. Today, this boat is one of the most popular displays in the Museum.

While for Pitt-Rivers the significance of this Egyptian boat was in the nautical technology i t displayed, for the ancient Egyptians such boats were of enormous symbolic value. The Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt. Transport along it was a vital part of ancient Egyptian life in many practical ways, such as in the movement of goods and people. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the boat was ingrained into the consciousness of ancient Egyptian society from early in its history (Fig. 2) and it became a key symbol for the notion of travel in a much wider sense. Boats were one of the primary means by which the gods themselves traversed the heavens and the underworld, while on earth their images were carried from temple to temple in such vessels. Boats also carried the dead from this world to the next and it is in this context that the Pitt-Rivers model has to be understood.

Fig 1

Models like the one on display in the Museum’s court were made specifically for the tombs of wealthy individuals from around the time of the First Intermediate Period (2160–2055 BC), but particularly during the Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 BC). They would have been placed in the tomb chamber around the coffin, possibly along with other types of models depicting scenes of food preparation or the bearing

of offerings. Very often such ship models were found in pairs, with one rigged for transport upstream, the other for downstream. Not only would these watercraft have been able to provide transport for the deceased, but they would also allow

Fig 2

the deceased to undertake one of the most important of all Middle Kingdom pilgrimages: the journey to Abydos.

The site of Abydos, in Upper Egypt, was the cult centre of Osiris, god of the dead. It was here that in the Middle Kingdom an annual festival was staged. During the festivities the image of Osiris was taken from the temple by the Nile to his tomb in the desert amidst a dramatization of his murder and subsequent rebirth. Egyptians sought to witness this so that they could be associated with the god that promised life after death. The desire to be part of these ceremonies even after death was so strong that pilgrimages to Abydos are often depicted on the walls of private tombs from the Middle Kingdom onwards. It is this pilgrimage that is probably represented by the Pitt-Rivers model, because it is the deceased himself that appears to be seated on the boat. This is suggested by the tightly wrapped white linen garb he wears, typical of mummiform figures on similar model boats, all of whom were seeking eternal life after death.

Alice Stevenson Post-Doctoral Researcher in World Archaeology, Pitt Rivers Museum

Figure 1: Pitt-Rivers’ Ancient Egyptian Boat Model. PRM 1884.81.10 Figure 2: Predynastic Egyptian Pottery Vessel (c. 3500 BC) showing one of the earliest types of representation of boats in Egypt. PRM 1901.29.74

Thursday 7 – Tuesday 26 July Visit the Archaeological Dig at Marcham Pre-booked visits to this Romano-British site can be arranged by contacting Megan Price or 01865 284390

Family Fun

FREE drop-in activities for children aged 5+. Please note: An adult MUST accompany children at all activities.

Half Term Activities: Thurs 2 – Saturday 4 June 13.00 - 16.00

Book Bonanza Pop-up, fold-out, and flip… Get creative making books as you go around the Museums sketching the littlest and largest objects!

Pitt Stops and Holiday Activities Saturday 2 July

13.00 - 16.00 Let’s Go Fly A Kite

Celebrate the start of summer by making your own Chinese kite and testing it out on the Museum lawn!

Saturday 23 July – Monday 5 September during opening hours

Trail: All Going on a Summer Holiday What will you pack? Who will you meet? A sensory self-guided trail with lots of things to see, hear, and touch. Joint activity with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

26 July – 24 August Tuesdays and Wednesdays 14.00 – 16.00

Afternoon Activities: Bags of fun! Borrow a backpack full of games, puzzles, and real museum objects, and become a family of museum explorers! Joint activity with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Saturday 6 August 13.00 - 16.00

Swap Shop Get bartering in our special museum market stall and make an object inspired by the new temporary Trade exhibition.

Saturday 3 September 13.00 - 16.00

Indian Summer Discover beautiful objects from India and listen to some Indian storytelling.


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