Ancient ship and boat models have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean, especially from ancient Greece, Egypt, and Phoenicia. These models provide archaeologists with valuable information regarding seafaring technology and the sociological and economic importance of seafaring. In spite of how helpful ancient boat and ship models are to archaeologists, they are not always easily or correctly interpreted due to artists’ mistakes, ambiguity in the model design, and wear and tear over the centuries.
In the Ancient world, ships “were among the most technologically complex mechanisms of the ancient world.” Ships made far-flung travel and trade more comfortable and economical, and they added a whole new facet to warfare. Thus, ships carried a great deal of significance to the people of the ancient world, and this is expressed partly through the creation of boat and ship models. Ancient boat and ship models are made of a variety of materials and are intended for different purposes. The most common purposes for boat and ship models include burial votives, house hold articles, art, and toys. While archaeologists have found ship and boat models from societies all around the Mediterranean, the three of the most prolific ship model building cultures were the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Egyptians.
Ship models are helpful to archaeologists in that they allow archaeologists to make estimates regarding the size the vessel would be in real life. While this technique makes the assumption that artists scaled the models appropriately, it is useful to get some sense of how large these ships and boats may have been in real life. Archaeologists estimate the Phoenician vessel above (H-3134) to be about 6 meters long and the beam about 2 meters. Archaeologists are able to calculate these estimates of size by employing a series of assumptions about the distance between benches, the lateral distance between rowers, and a maximum draft of the vessel.
Egyptian ship and boat models are perhaps some of the most enchanting and well-preserved types of ship models available to archaeologists. Some small models made from ivory, wood, or clay exist, and archaeologists believe these models were actually children’s toys.This is fairly rare, however, because ancient Egyptian ship and boat models more often were placed in tombs of prominent people as “magical substitutes for the actual objects which the deceased has used in life and which he expected to use again in the next world.”
Boats placed in tombs of Egyptian royalty can be separated into two types: boat models that represent actual vessels used on the Nile, and boat models that represent boats that are considered necessary for religious purposes. The second type of model may or may not have been used in real life, but were purely magical boats. The majority of boats found in tombs are carved from wood.
Several boat and ship models were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, dating back to the Sixth Dynasty, and in the tomb of Meketre (2061-2010 BC). The wide variety of vessels depicted by the models in these two tombs has provided archaeologists new information on the types of boats that were used in Egypt. Moreover, the presence of boat and ship models in the tombs attests to the paramount importance of boats and ships to the Nile-going people of Egypt.
The boat models discovered at Meketre′s tomb feature several different kinds of boats, including traveling boats, sporting boats, and several papyriform crafts. Two of the papyriform skiffs have a trawling net slung between them. It is uncertain whether or not the net is meant to be depicted as being under the water or being pulled out of the water by the fishermen. In the event that the artist meant for the net to be in the water, it is interesting to note that the net is upside down. Needless to say, the upside down net would not work for catching fish. This ambiguity points up the question of artistic veracity of the craftsmen who make ship models. As is attested by the ambiguity of the holes in the sides of the Phoenician model, and the skiff from Meketre, archaeologists need to be aware of the possibility of artistic error while interpreting ancient ship models. While a mistake involving an inverted trawling net may seem trivial, the lesson is important. It is important for archaeologists to be aware of the possibility that ancient artists may not have been familiar with the finer details of ships and boats.
Despite some of the limitations of interpreting ancient Mediterranean ship models, archaeologists have been able to glean a great deal of information from these items. This information has been instrumental in filling in gaps in knowledge about ancient seafaring technology and culture