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This boat model, made of some 30 parts, is the most complex object in our Egyptian Collection. Purchased at the auction in 1913 by Ernest J. Wunderlich, a trustee of the Australian Museum, it has no documentation or provenance.

The boat is just over one metre long, depicting a funeral journey. Its shallow hull is decorated at both ends with inward-looking ram heads. In the centre is a figure of an embalmed human body resting on a bier, flanked on each side by a pair of squatting mourners. On the flat canopy above is the figure of a reclining jackal - Anubis – deity, invariably associated with the dead, and preparation for the afterlife. The model may represent an actual funerary boat with elements of the divine (solar) barque, but the unique combination of symbols makes it to stand alone, conforming neither to solar barque nor funerary boat models, prevalent in the Middle Kingdom. It was the period when such models were frequently placed in the tombs to provide the vessels for the afterlife journey.

Model of a Funerary Boat
Among the Australian Museum’s outstanding Egyptian collection, is this small funerary boat, acquired by Wunderlich probably from an artefact dealer (hence its specific provenance is unknown). Like many other boats of this kind, it belongs to the Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 BCE) of Egyptian history. At that time, funerary boats were popular and frequently placed in tombs, presumably to assist the soul of the departed person in their journey to the afterlife. The form and design of this boat stand out in contrast to other, more common examples. For this reason, over the years, scholars were unsure what to make of this intriguing artefact. An initial carbon-14 date indicates at least part of the object originated in the Middle Kingdom. More analysis is being done in an effort to resolve this mystery. Wood, plaster, pigments 105 (long) x 22 (wide) x 55 (deep) cm Provenance unknown Middle Kingdom (c2055–1650 BCE) Donated by the estate of E. Wunderlich, 1962 AM African Collection E060381 Photographed for the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition and catalogue in 2017. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Due to its unusual design, this model was considered a probable replica. However, it remained largely unexamined for over a century. In this research (published in 2021) we examined materials and construction, analysed symbolic elements, and obtained radiocarbon dating.

Conforming to Egyptian tradition the hull of the boat is made from at least five separate pieces of wood joined together with wooden pegs and glue as revealed by x-ray images. Most of the parts are fittings and figures pegged onto the deck. Some timber was identified - a deck is made from Lebanon’s Cedar, Anubis figure of Sycomore Fig, and one of the pegs (dowel) of hardwood Sidr (Ziziphus spina-christi). The samples of wood for dating were taken from six separate pieces and eight radiocarbon dates were obtained from three laboratories.

These dates, analysed and interpreted, indicate the origin of the boat or some of its parts before the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BCE), just on the crest of the decline of the Old Kingdom and cultural transformation rooted in the First Intermediate Period or somewhere between the end of the Old Kingdom and the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 2350–1850 BCE).

In contrast to many modern replicas, the boat is elegant, with aesthetic sophistication in its form and balanced proportions. The human figures are of the right size and carved with attention to detail. Once fully painted, it shows only traces of pigment, read the upper part of the boat and green (or originally blue) below the waterline. Despite an impression of simplicity, the boat contains a variety of mineral and organic materials processed and combined in various ways, including adhesive, gesso, and pigments. The materials, construction methods, arrangements of figures, and painting demonstrate the boat’s compatibility with ancient Egyptian craftwork. Although we do not know for whom it was made or from which burial centre it was taken, well-preserved wood suggests the model was kept in a tomb where stable temperature, humidity and darkness made its survival possible.