The Beni Hasan boat
This Ancient Egyptian model boat is almost 4000 years old! It comes from an 11th Dynasty in the Middle Kingdom shaft tomb at Beni Hasan in central Egypt. The tomb belonged to an official called Ja’Y or Tjay – described on his coffin as a Steward or “Controller of the Household”.
The wooden boat is around 88 cm long. It features eight oarsmen (now missing their oars) and a helmsman facing them with a steering oar. Images of the model in the tomb show that originally there was a standing figure at the prow – in the position now taken by one of the seated oarsmen.
Tjay’s tomb (also known as Tomb 275) was excavated between 1902 and 1904 along with 900(!) others. The tombs were excavated by John Garstang of the University of Liverpool. He was accompanied by a large team of local excavators led by chief foreman, Saleh Abdel Nebi.
Original photographs of Tomb 275 show that our boat was one of two found sitting on the top of the coffin. The other, a sailing boat, is now in Bristol Museum.
The boats were not the only models buried with Tjay. He also had models of a granary, a bakery, brickmakers, a butcher and a leather worker with him. Everything he might need in the afterlife.
The significance of boats in Ancient Egypt
The River Nile was the main means of transportation in Ancient Egypt. A sailing boat was the choice for journeys heading south with the prevailing wind. Whereas a voyage north, down the Nile, required rowers.
As well as being essential for getting around, boats were also important religious symbols. Boats transported the gods across the sky and the pharaohs to their tombs. They were also needed for the pilgrimage to the tomb of Osiris, god of the Underworld, at Abydos.
So it’s no surprise that models and paintings of boats were popular features of many tombs.
In fact, many of the tombs excavated at Beni Hasan contained model boats. The best-preserved and most elaborate examples are in the Cairo Museum. Others are in museums and private collections around the world. Objects from Tomb 275 are in Bristol Museum, National Museums Scotland, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the British Museum.
Acquiring the Beni Hasan boat
This boat found its way into the collection of Albert L. Reckitt of Reckitt & Sons, Hull. He donated it to Hull Museums in the 1930s.
Luckily, the boat never went on display in the Municipal Museum – which was destroyed during WWII. Instead, it went to the Museum of Fisheries and Shipping, with other model craft from around the world.
Middle Kingdom, 11th Dynasty, c. 1990 BC. Now in the Hull Museums and Galleries. KINCM:1989.6 HERM