Curator’s Choice – Beni Hasan Boat

Posted: 28th June 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Beni Hasan Boat

This Ancient Egyptian model boat is nearly 4000 years old and comes from an 11th Dynasty 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’.

This tomb, along with an incredible 900 others, was excavated between 1902 and 1904 by John Garstang of the University of Liverpool and a large team of local excavators, led by chief foreman Saleh Abdel Nebi.

The wooden boat is nearly 88cms long and 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.

The carved and painted wooden figures are shown with characteristic Middle Kingdom wigs and wear white skirts. Their bodies are painted red and their eyes have been added in black and white. Look closely and you can see that each is slightly different – the carved shape of the head and the painted features give the rowers an individual expression.

Original photographs of the tomb 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 River Nile was the main means of transportation in Ancient Egypt and models and paintings of boats were popular features of many tombs. A sailing boat was used for going south with the prevailing wind, while 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 essential for those wanting to complete the important pilgrimage to the tomb of Osiris, god of the Underworld, at Abydos.

The boats were not the only models buried with Tjay. He also had models of a granary, a bakery, brick-makers, a butcher and a leather-worker. Everything, in fact, that he would need in the afterlife.
Many of the tombs excavated at Beni Hasan contained model boats. The best preserved and most elaborate examples are to be seen in the Cairo Museum but others were distributed to museums and private collectors around the world. Objects from this particular tomb (Tomb 275) are to be found in Bristol Museum, National Museums Scotland, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the British Museum.

This boat found its way into the collection of Albert L. Reckitt (of Reckitt & Sons of Hull), who donated it to Hull Museums in the 1930s. Luckily, rather than going on display in the Municipal Museum – which was destroyed during WWII – it was placed in the Museum of Fisheries and Shipping in Pickering Park, with other model craft from around the world. It now takes pride of place in the Egyptian Gallery at Hands on History in Trinity Square.

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