Model of an Oarsman

By
Paul Watson
Paul Watson (Class of 2018) is a student in the Computer Science department of the Whiting School of Engineering. He was extremely grateful to get the opportunity to work with and study an ancient Egyptian statue for the first time.
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First Intermediate Period or early Middle Kingdom (ca. 2118-1830 BCE), Wood, H. 23 cm, W. 9.5 cm, D. 14 cm, Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, ECM 218

This statue depicts an Egyptian man seated with his arms outstretched forward, resting on his knees. It is made of multiple solid wood pieces fastened together with pegs. The pegs can still be seen on the outside of the figure’s shoulders. The figure was plastered and painted and has short, black hair.  He also has brick-red skin, which was typical for men in ancient Egypt, and is wearing a plain, white kilt that extends to his knees.  Overall, the execution is rough with little attention to detail.

The figure’s pose indicates that he was originally part of a larger wooden boat model. He is seated as an oarsman would have been, and the position of his arms and the slots carved into his hands suggest that the figure originally had been holding wooden oars. The Nile River was central to life in ancient Egypt, and because of this, boats played a vital role in the day-to-day lives of the ancient Egyptians. Boats provided access to food through fishing and fowling and transported goods and people along the Nile River. Funerary boats were used when transporting the recently deceased across the Nile to their tombs and were also used in pilgrimages to Abydos, the holy city of Osiris. In fact, the Nile, and boats, had a religious as well as a practical role. According to the Egyptian belief system, the sun god Ra sailed in a boat across the sky during the day, providing light and warmth, and through the underworld during the night. Deceased Egyptians also traveled on boats in their passage to the afterlife.

Front view

Front view

This statue likely came from an elite tomb from the First Intermediate Period or the early Middle Kingdom, as wooden models of boats were common during these periods. These models were placed in the burial chambers of wealthy individuals. This oarsman could have once been on a boat that was meant to carry the deceased into the afterlife, helping to ensure a smooth transition, or a boat that the deceased could use to fish, hunt, or simply travel once in the afterlife.

References:

Roth, Ann Macy. “The Meaning of Menial Labor: ‘Servant Statues’ in the Old Kingdom Serdabs.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 39 (2002): 103-121.

Taylor, John. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum, 2001.