Ancient Egypt, New Kingdom, 18th to 20th Dynasty, ca. 1549 to 1076 BCE. A finely preserved, hand-carved wooden model of a funerary boat with a tapered base, a flat top with a trio of narrow mortises, a frontal prow in the shape of a raised ibex head, a central canopy supported by a pair of columnar poles, and a back prow depicting a stylized lotus bloom. Two oarsmen, one kneeling and one seated, have petite tenons beneath their bodies that fasten within the mortises. The raised ibex head in front has a singular, serrated horn, a conical snout, and perky ears, with a dark scarab shown atop the canopy, and alternating red-and-orange frets along the boat body. Once carved, each component was covered in white gesso and painted with vibrant pigment in red, dark-brown, and orange hues. Model boats and boatmen like those in this example were created to be servants in the afterlife, ready to row the deceased upon the eternal Nile, as real boatmen would have done in the realm of the living. Size (boat): 16.375" L x 3.8" W x 9.3" H (41.6 cm x 9.7 cm x 23.6 cm).
The funerary boat - customarily decorated with red, white, yellow, orange, brown, and black as we see here - is a traditional Egyptian tomb offering created to symbolize the transport of a deceased individual from life to the afterlife. Scholars believe that the Egyptians envisioned death as a journey via boat across the River Nile - the sacred river which ran down the center of the country and was respected as a resource for agriculture, trade, transport, and a symbol of fertility. During the Sixth Dynasty, it became common to place wooden models of lifelike scenes in Egyptian tombs; by the Middle Kingdom, they were placed in the tomb chamber, around the coffin, although some very rich tombs had a separate chamber just for wooden models.
Two ships are found in almost all tombs that have models from this time period, and those ships are, during the Middle Kingdom, staffed by boatmen. According to the curatorial team at the MFA Boston, such funerary vessels were "made of papyrus bundles lashed together, transported the deceased either to a cemetery across the Nile or to the sanctuary of the god of the afterlife, Osiris, at Abydos. Models of such vessels were painted white with reddish lines representing the bindings." As the practice of creating wooden boat models with boatmen continued into the New Kingdom, the numbers continued to increase. In fact, scholars believe that more than 700 figures populated the tomb of Seti I (1294 to 1279 BCE).
For a stylistically similar example with several additional oarsmen, please see The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 32.1.124a.
Another stylistically similar example, of a larger size and with several additional oarsmen, hammered for GBP 118,750 ($147,526.09) at Christie's, London "Antiquities" auction (sale 17198, July 3, 2019, lot 5).
Provenance: private J.H. collection, Beaverton, Oregon, USA; ex-private Montrose, California, USA collection
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