Odysseus’ Boat? New Mycenaean Evidence from the Egyptian New Kingdom


Emanuel, J. P. (2014). Odysseus’ Boat? New Mycenaean Evidence from the Egyptian New Kingdom. In Discovery of the Classical World: An Interdisciplinary Workshop on Ancient Societies, a lecture series presented by the department of The Classics at Harvard University . Cambridge, MA.
Odysseus’ Boat? New Mycenaean Evidence from the Egyptian New Kingdom

Date Presented:

30 Apr


In 1920, a small wooden ship model was discovered in a shallow tomb in Gurob, near the Faiyum oasis in Middle Egypt. Incorrectly assembled (twice) but perceptively labeled as a “Pirate Boat” by the overseer of its excavation, Flinders Petrie, the model was paired in antiquity with a pavois and a wheeled cart, likely signifying its use as a cultic object. Following two brief mentions by Petrie (in 1927 and 1933), the model was largely forgotten until the turn of the millennium, when it was “rediscovered” in the Petrie Egyptological Museum and published by in 2013 by Shelley Wachsmann, who recognized the small model as representing a Helladic oared galley of the type known from the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

The galley’s introduction was a critical inflection point in the history of ship architecture, as its design allowed for unprecedented freedom of movement on the seas. Adopted around the Eastern Mediterranean, the Helladic galley ultimately spawned both the Phoenician bireme and Greek dieres, and its use was critical to these cultures’ Iron Age exploration, expansion, and colonization. The Gurob model, which dates between the mid-13th and mid-11th centuries BCE, is the most complete three-dimensional evidence we have for this important vessel type, as well as the only polychromatic representation found to date. As such, it confirms much that has been theorized about these vessels, while also providing new evidence for their construction and adornment, including the use of color – a facet of Mycenaean seafaring that had only previously been accessible in Homeric epithets like μἐλας ‘black’ and κυανόπρῳρος ‘dark-prowed’, as well as the less-well-understood μιλτοπάρῃος ‘red-cheeked’ and φοινικοπάρῃος ‘purple-cheeked’ descriptors. The latter are only used in the Homeric epics to identify the vessels of Odysseus, and the uniquely polychromatic nature of the Gurob ship-cart allows to understand them much more fully than in the past.

This lecture discusses the Gurob model and its significance for our understanding of Mycenaean seafaring and Homeric ship descriptions, and includes three-dimensional representations, composed by the Institute for the Visualization of History, of this ship-cart model as discovered and as reconstructed. Additionally, the design, spread, and influences of the Helladic oared galley are discussed in their internationalist Eastern Mediterranean context, with particular emphasis on framing Odysseus’ maritime to Egypt, vividly recounted in the hero’s ‘second Cretan Lie,’ within the larger context of the epic’s fictive date in the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age transition.

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Last updated on 06/08/2016