Monday, April 21, 2014


Max Kunze (ed.), Vom Nil aus um die alte Welt: Rekonstruktionen ägyptischer, minoischer und griechischer Schiffe. Kataloge des Winckelmann-Museums. Ruhpolding; Mainz: Franz Philipp Rutzen im Kommission bei Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013. Pp. 96. ISBN 9783447069564. €30.00.

Reviewed by Clayton Miles Lehmann, University of South Dakota (

Version at BMCR home site

This catalog accompanied an exhibition at the Winckelmann Museum in Stendahl (Germany) from 27 April to 22 September 2013. The exhibition featured exquisite models of seven ancient Egyptian, Minoan, and Greek ships, six of them constructed by Michael Bormann, accompanied by a group of artifacts and copies of artifacts, that illustrate primarily the sources from which the models derive and secondarily the use of ancient ships and the extent of seafaring in the ancient Mediterranean world, especially with reference to Egypt. In addition to descriptions of the objects in the exhibition, the book includes several essays about the ships and their use, Bormann's approach to the reconstructions, and modern scholarship on ancient ships. The reader unfamiliar with nautical terminology in German will frequently consult the labelled drawing of an Egyptian boat at the beginning of the book.

The seven reconstructions provided the framework for the exhibition. The first two represent sea-going vessels: one (0.6 m long at a scale of 1:36) based on representations of ships in the Fifth-Dynasty mortuary temple of Sahure, and another (0.75 m long at a scale of 1:36) based on the famous reliefs showing the expedition to Punt in the Eighteenth-Dynasty mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. Bormann built the third, a model of a river-going cargo ship of the New Kingdom (0.45 m long at a scale of 1:50), on the basis of reliefs from the Tomb of Meri-Ra, Chief Priest of Aten about 1340, supplemented by Herodotus's accounts Egyptian ship construction. The fourth model (this one by Christian Tietze and Dieter Cöllen, 2.17 m long at a scale of 1:20) represents the Fourth-Dynasty burial ship discovered and now exhibited on the southern side of Khufu's pyramid. The Egyptian models conclude with a Neschmet bark, the type of boat used to transport gods during processions, bodies on their way to burial, and images of the deceased on the journey to Abydus. For this model (0.30 m long at a scale of 1:20) Bormann worked from reliefs in the Eighteenth-Dynasty tomb of Rekhmire in the necropolis of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna.

The artifacts associated with these five models of Egyptian boats include the drawings in Carl Richard Lepsius's Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien (1849-1859) of some of the reliefs on which Bormann based his work. Clay models of boats and objects imported to Egypt from elsewhere in the ancient Near East further illustrate the construction and use of ships for transport, warfare, hunting, pleasure, and religious and funeral ceremonies on the Nile and its canals and marshes, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Red Sea. A series of essays that accompany the catalog entries treat these topics comprehensively, particularly with respect to expeditions to Punt and technical considerations of ship construction. Except for the model of the Khufu Boat none of the entries has to do with the excavation of buried or wrecked ships, though the essays emphasize the importance of such work for providing information about the construction of the ships, and the longest essay in the book, by Michael Haase, treats the boats buried around Khufu's pyramid. Surprisingly, Bormann and the other authors never discuss the importance of working replicas (the Kyrenia II, the Argo, and the Olympias) for generating practical information about how the ancients made and sailed their ships.

Attention then turns to the Minoan thalassocracy and Greek seafaring, although always with attention to Egyptian connections. Bormann built a model (0.85 m long at a scale of 1:36) of a Late Minoan boat on the famous Flotilla Frieze from Akrotiri. Finally the exhibition features a model of a sixth-century double-oared Greek penteconter (0.80 m long at a scale of 1:36) painted on a black-figure kylix (British Museum 1867,0508.963). The Minoan and Greek parts of the exhibition include small artifacts or copies of artifacts from the Aegean, Levant, and Magna Graecia that illustrate ships—hence a cast of the famous Lenormant fragment showing a trireme (Acropolis Museum 1339, 2163)—and that attest to long-distance connections between the Aegean and the greater Mediterranean world.

The exhibition concludes with a survey of scholarship on ancient ships beginning with Lazarus Bayfius's De re navali (1536), Jakob Gronovius's Thesaurus antiquitatum graecarum (vol 11, 1701) and Bernard de Montfaucon's L'antiquité expliquée et representée en figures (vol 4.2, 1722). These works depended primarily on ancient texts and a limited amount of archaeological information, notably the Column of Trajan. Only with Richard Pococke's A Description of the East (1743-45) and Anne Claude Philippe Caylus's Recueil d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques, romaines et gauloises (vol 7, 1767) did Egyptian ships begin to appear in Western scholarship. Winckelmann restricted his discussion of representations of ancient ships to the chronology of the art and iconography of associated myths. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt (1798-1801) and European excavations in ancient sites unleashed the Egyptomania of the nineteenth century. Here the exhibit returns to Lepsius's illustrations of the reliefs discovered by the Prussian excavations in Egypt in the 1840s. Vom Nil aus um die alte Welt ends there, having displayed all of these books along with three coins, an amphora, and a watercolor copy of a fresco in Pompeii; the accompanying essay notices, but the exhibit itself omits, the excavation of ships on land and underwater in the twentieth century.

The level of scholarship and presentation suits this popular exhibit. The notes and bibliographies provide access to the principal studies of ancient shipbuilding, types of ships, and their use. The selection of ancient artifacts (or copies thereof), drawn from regional museums—in particular from the Winckelmann-Institut of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and from the Winckelmann Museum—libraries, and private collections, complements the theme of the exhibition, even if it includes no major objects and the curators sometimes make arbitrary selections (as for the amphora and watercolor at the very end of the exhibition). But the models themselves constitute the true stars of the exhibit. They and Bormann's essays make this a book that anyone interested in ancient shipbuilding will want to consult. Bormann explains the textual, graphic, and archaeological evidence for his decisions as he developed his CAD designs and realized them in wood and fiber for every aspect of each boat: dimensions, hull configuration and framing, rigging, and steering and propulsion. So, for example, the representations give ample evidence for the length of a ship, but to calculate the beam Bormann had to work from principals of seaworthiness and evidence from shipwrecks. Again, the illustrations show ships with their masts stepped—sails furled or unfurled—or unstopped, but how did mariners work the sails, masts, and rigging? The Egyptians left no texts describing the working of a boat as Homer did in the Odyssey. I found quite exciting the insightfulness of Bormann's suggestions about such matters as he designs and realizes the models. The concreteness of the exercise adds a great deal to scholarship otherwise limited to a comprehensive collection and analysis of texts and representations such as Caroline Sauvage's recent study of seafaring in the Late Bronze Age.1 The photographs of the models and Bormann's description of how he designed and built them will intrigue and delight anyone who has built his or her own wooden boat.

The contributors, aside from Bormann, include Stephanie-Gerrit Bruer, Michael Haase, Frank Hildebrandt, Elke Mählitz-Galler, Azel Rügler, Veit Stürmer, and Karin Wild. Franz Philipp Rutzen has produced a slender, full-color volume nicely laid out and beautifully illustrated with drawings and photographs to illustrate the essays and objects in the exhibition. All the images appear large enough to convey detail adequate to the discussion. The text suffers from very few errors, but many of the captions and cross-references between text and figures have gone awry. Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly on page ninety-six in the middle of the entry for 6.13, the watercolor copy of a fresco from Pompeii; the printer omitted the last pages in order to avoid including an additional quire with many blank pages. Otherwise the catalog includes all items from the exhibition except for two small cases of the materials and tools that Bormann used.2

Let me conclude by emphasizing the crucial role drawings such as those featured in the exhibit and reconstructions such as Bormann's play in giving us access to the ancient world. Photography cannot substitute for archaeological drawing and reconstructions; the latter require, at every stroke of pen or chisel, that the artist work out both the real relationships between the parts of an object and also how it functioned as a whole and useful thing.


1.   Routes maritimes et systèmes d'échanges internationaux au Bronze récent en Méditerranée orientale, Travaux de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée, 61 (Lyon: Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée—Jean Pouilloux, 2012; BMCR 2013.12.37.
2.   Stephanie-Gerrit Bruer of the Winckelmann-Gesellschaft provided this information; she also identified Karin Wild, who appears in the book only as "KW."

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