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Specimen of the Week 387: Trader, Raider, Warship: The Gurob Model Boat

By Katie Davenport-Mackey, on 2 August 2019

This blog was written by Edwin Wood, Museum Visitor Services Assistant at UCL Culture.

The Gurob model boat is thought to represent a Mycenaean Galley, a type of vessel used in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Mycenaean Bronze Age, c.1500-1100 BC. This form of ship would have been used primarily in coastal waters, keeping within sight of land and mooring at night. The ship served as a trading vessel, for carrying goods to and from the Hellenic states and their neighbours such as the Hittites and of course, the Egyptian kingdom. It also would have served well as a warship, able to carry warriors for raiding and also equipped with a prow mounted ram for ship to ship engagements.

Seafaring was a crucial part of the ancient world, connecting dispersed communities with one another, and allowing an interconnected world of trade/raid to develop around the Mediterranean basin (Stos 2009, 163). Sailing was often quicker than walking and while piracy was endemic, it was less of a risk than land based banditry. The evidence for this interconnection can be found across the region, with Mycenaean ceramics found in Egypt, indicators not of a trade in pots, but of the precious commodities they contained, olive oil, wine, perfumes and other luxuries.

The full size vessel would have had a central mast to provide propulsion via a square rigged sail, a single bank of oarsmen would have been used when the wind was low, close in to shore or during battle for manoeuvring. One or perhaps two rudders attached to the stern of the ship allowed the steering of the ship. A ram, possibly capped with bronze was attached to the bow of the ship and was designed to breach the hull of an enemy vessel below the waterline. Like the Viking longboats of later periods they were boats designed to be fast, carry men, equipment and cargo, a truly multipurpose vessel, adaptable to the ever changing world of the Mediterranean Bronze Age.

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/travel/ships.html

Ships in Homer’s Odyssey are often given the epithet ‘Black’ (Ody. Bk.III ), this is perhaps a reference to a genuine colouration that can be seen on the Gurob boat. Above the ‘waterline’ the boat is painted red, then there is a narrow white band, below which the ship is black. In this case the black colouration comes from the use of natural asphalt (Wachmann 2013). This use of natural tar for coating a ship’s hull would have two effects, firstly acting as a form of water proofing for the vessel, but also serving to deter the biggest threat to wooden sailing vessels, shipworm a type of bivalve mollusc that burrows into wood. If not regularly inspected an infestation of shipworm can cause the complete disintegration of a wooden vessel extremely quickly as attested by this example from the Grant Museum of Zoology (Q146).

The Gurob boat is a reminder that Ancient Egypt did not develop in isolation but as part of a much wider maritime network stretching from the Atlantic coast of Iberia and Africa to the Persian Gulf. Hellenic traders and ships would have jostled in Egypt’s ports and markets alongside those from modern day Sudan, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. It also reminds us that those same traders could very well be next week’s raiders in the volatile world of the Later Mediterranean Bronze Age.

Further Reading

Stos, Z.A. 2009 ‘Across the Wine dark seas… sailor tinkers and royal cargoes in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean’ in eds. A Shortland, I Freestone and T Rehren From Mine to Microscope: Advances in the study of Ancient Technology Oxford: Oxbow Books pp.163-180

Wachsmann, S. 2013, The Gurob Ship-Cart Model and its Mediterranean Context Texas A&M University Press

Homer, The Odyssey

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