A Boat And Horse In The Desert
Ancient Egypt|March / April 2021
Barbara Tratsaert investigates two interesting finds at the Wadi Bakariya gold mining settlement in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.
Barbara Tratsaert

At times unusual artefacts or depictions have been found at archaeological locations that make one wonder what they are doing there. Two such items have been found at Wadi Bakariya: a boat depiction and a terracotta horse’s head. Neither find makes much sense as there are no rivers in the desert for boats to sail on, nor were horses used as freight animals in the desert caravans. So why are they here?

The Wadi Bakariya site is an early Roman Period goldmining settlement in the central portion of the Eastern Desert, approximately 110km inland from the Red Sea coast. The horse’s head was found at the centre of the site where the administration was located. Other sections are a residential area, a shrine, a well, and an area that has been identified as the ‘transport zone’ where the boat depiction was found.

Desert Boat

The boat depiction was found in a short side wadi on the perimeter of the gold-mining settlement. This wide, sandy wadi opens up to the western perimeter, leading to the southern border and the rest of the desert. Architectural finds suggest that the mined material might have been transported out of the wadi from here. A cairn built on top of the hill opposite the entrance appears to indicate the way into the wadi. There is no evidence for mining activity such as pits and trenches, as the rock type is coarse-grained biotite granite.

It was the strategic location that made this wadi important, since it is reachable from the centre of the settlement and has easy access to the desert. The remains of huts were found in the wadi (see above and opposite centre right). They have thin walls with a maximum two rooms, and were built with stones found in the vicinity.

The boat depiction was found in one of the buildings at the end of the wadi. The building itself has only one room and is roughly square; the door faces towards the centre of the wadi and has a full overview of the entire location. One large boulder forms both the doorpost and part of a wall, and it is here that the boat drawing was found.

The drawing (bottom, right), measuring 61cm long by 15cm high, is very simple; the boat has a hull with slightly curled up stern and bow, one steering oar and a cabin-like feature on deck. The cabin, which is rectangular, seems to cover the entire deck of the boat and is divided into three sections, the middle being the largest, while the others are of the same size. There is no other decoration or insignia. Beside the one steering oar at the stern, there are no other oars. There may be a sign at the top of the stern: a pole with a triangular shape pointing towards the cabin – a flag maybe?

Boat Type?

Reisner created a catalogue of the boat models in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. He distinguished between four groups of boats with subgroups. Based on his description and the images in his catalogue, the Wadi Bakariya boat might belong to group 1 – type II, dated Middle Kingdom or later (see top).

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