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Eg y p t , t h e S e a p e o p l e s ; a n d t h e B r a i l e d Sa i l :

T e c h n o l o g i c a l T r a n s f e r e n c e in t h e Ea r l y R a m e s s i d e P e r i o d ?

Jeffrey P. Emanuel, Harvard University

Paper presented to the 2012 Annual M eeting o f the American Schools o f Oriental Research

Ramesses I ll’s well-known and much-studied naumachia relief at Medinet Habu is not
only the first naval battle represented in Egyptian iconography, but it serves as a monumental
“coming out party” for a seagoing vessel with several new features, including brailed, loose-footed
sails, partial decking, and top-mounted crow’s nest. W hile the Aegean origin and eastern
Mediterranean travels of at least some Sea Peoples provides a logical basis for these groups’
possession of this maritime technology, the question remains just how and when Egypt came to
adopt these innovations, and what role the Sea Peoples may have played their transference.

Contact and Conflict in the Late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean

Seaborne threats to coastal polities, even from small numbers of ships, were a significant
threat in the Late Bronze Age. Either the Sea Peoples themselves, or what appears to be their
forerunners, can be found in the Amarna Letters and Hittite documents, intercepting ships at
sea, conducting blockades, and carrying out coastal raids. Evidence from the mid-14th с. B.C.
onward shows that Egypt bore no special immunity to maritime marauding. An inscription of
Amenhotep son of Hapu, for example, refers to the need to secure “the river-mouths,” while in
a letter to Akhenaten, the King of Alashiya responds to an accusation of Alashiyan involvement
in a raid on Egypt by declaring that raids are carried out against his own villages by “men of
Lukki” on a yearly basis. Further evidence comes from the formulaic Aswan stela of the
Ramesses II’s second year, in which he claims to have “destroyed the warriors of the Great
Green,” so that Lower Egypt can “spend the night sleeping peacefully.”

The Egyptians first give a specific name to these raiders in Ramesses II’s Tanis II
rhetorical stela, which tells of the “Sherden of rebellious mind, whom none could ever fight
against, who came bold-[hearted...] in warships from the midst of the Sea,” and claims the

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pharaoh defeated them and “carried [them] off to Egypt” as prisoners - the first of many
Ramesside claims to have taken members of this group captive.

If the date of 1300 B.C. for several Ugaritic texts referring to Sherden is correct, and if
the srdnnm at Ugarit are to be identified with the Ramesside Srdn, then Tanis II supports the
movement or the dispersion of these people along the eastern Mediterranean coast at the turn of
the 13th century. As trade emporia dotted the region in this period, with shipping lanes and
anchorages alike serving as tempting targets for skilled privateers, we should not be surprised to
find warship-sailing “Sherden of the Sea” at various locations around the eastern Mediterranean
- particularly if their maritime exploits were based in some part on piratical activity, as Ramesses
II’s inscriptions have traditionally been read as reporting.

Sea Peoples and Maritime Innovation

A noteworthy element of the Tanis II inscription is the fact, first observed by Jean
Yoyotte and followed by Kenneth Kitchen, that the encounter it describes was unique enough
that it apparently forced the Egyptians to invent a new term for “warship” in order to
commemorate it. The result was the somewhat clumsy m rh rw ch і m -h r y -ib p i ym ‘ships-of-
warriors-on-the-sea’ (which Kitchen shortens to “ships of fighting”). As seagoing ships had
been used for some time in the Egyptian military, the need to fabricate a new term suggests a
certain lack of prior experience either with the type of vessel sailed by the Sherden, with the
capabilities of those vessels, or both. Thus, the term employed on Tanis II may have been
intended to describe Sherden vessels as maritime fighting platforms, or it may have been a
reference to a method of coastal marauding that made use of specialized ships or sailing
techniques to conduct lightning-fast raids and then disappear back into the sea and over the
horizon before military forces could be mobilized against them.

This absence of such fighting platforms from Egyptian maritime culture suggests, in turn,
that the pharaoh’s defeat of the Sherden took place either on land or in the “river-mouths” of the
Nile Delta, which had been defended since at least the time of Amenophis III, and where the
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Egyptian army would have been better able to ensnare an enemy whose success was dependent
on a combination of speed, stealth, and, above all, the avoidance of conflict with professional
soldiers. It was here that Ramesses III would claim a century later to have defeated another,
much larger onslaught o f‘Sea Peoples.’

As has been observed many times before, the ships on both sides of Ramesses I ll’s
naumachia are rigged identically, with the new brailed rig and loose-footed sail that would
become a mainstay of eastern Mediterranean sailing vessels for the next millennium, attached in
all cases to a downward-curving yard.

To this point, sailing craft had relied on large square sails held fast by upper and lower
yards. While it had its advantages, the boom-footed squaresail’s use was limited almost entirely
to downwind travel. The loose-footed sail, on the other hand, offered much greater
maneuverability, as well as the ability to sail much closer to the wind. Unlike the brailed rig, the
downward-curving yard, only previously seen in depictions of Syrian seagoing vessels, like a ship
from the tomb of Nebamun at Thebes, does not appear again on Egyptian ships after Medinet
Eg y p t , the S ea Peoples , a n d the Brailed Sa il ’ - ASO R 2 012

Only Egyptian rowers are depicted in the naumachia relief. However, this does not mean
that sail was the Sea Peoples ships’ sole means of propulsion. In fact, this was almost certainly
not the case; instead, the reason rowers are absent from this scene is because the Sea Peoples are
being shown as victims of a surprise attack by the Egyptians, who came upon them while at
anchor. This is supported by the accompanying inscription, which refers to the Sea Peoples as
being “capsized and overwhelmed where they are.”

The Egyptian surprise attack left the Sea Peoples rowers no time to run out their oars and
attempt to escape. This is also supported by the relief, which shows the Sea Peoples’ vessels
pinned against land, with the Egyptian fleet as waterborne aggressors and a supporting force on
land both firing arrows and collecting prisoners at water’s edge.

Technological Transference and Proliferation

The aforementioned change in Egyptian terminology following their encounter with the
Sherden, and the striking similarity between the two fleets in the naumachia, raises the possibility
that Ramesses IPs capture of Sherden warriors resulted not just in an increase in the ranks of
Pharaonic conscripts, but in the transference of maritime technology as well. An example of such
transference during a military conflict can be seen in Polybius’ account of the birth of the Roman
navy a millennium later (Polyb., Hist., 1.20)

Both more formal, and more chronologically relevant, transference of maritime

technology may be found in a unique text from the Hittite archives (KUB III 82). In this heavily
reconstructed letter, Ramesses II evidently writes that he is sending a pair of ships to the Hittite
king (one at that time and one the following year), so that his shipwrights can “draw a copy” of it
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for the purpose of building a replica. W hile the Amarna letters and other Late Bronze Age texts
contain references to the sharing of people (physicians, craftsmen, and others), this text is
particularly remarkable for the fact that Ramesses II is apparently sending not just a craftsman,
but a physical ship to the Hittites. It is further remarkable because of the Hittites’ well-known
lack of affinity for the sea. As a land empire, Hatti had long relied on its coastal vassals to move
goods by sea and project naval power.

However, there is reason to believe that Khattusha began looking to the sea with greater
interest in the waning years of the LBA, possibly as a result of the growing threat posed by the
Sea Peoples. Two texts in particular stand out in this regard: the Hittite king’s letter to the
prefect of Ugarit asking to question a Ugaritian about the “Sikala who live on ships” (RS 34.129)
and Suppiluliuma’s claim to have fought a trio of naval skirmishes against “ships of Alashiya,”
followed by a land battle, presumably against the same enemy (КВо XII 38). The latter is
reminiscent of Ramesses I ll’s land and sea battles against the Sea Peoples, which took place
during this same general time frame.

The Sea Peoples and the Helladic Oared Galley

As Professor Shelley Wachsmann has previously shown, the Sea Peoples ships pictured at
Medinet Habu were patterned closely after Helladic oared galley prototypes. The oared galley
was a ship well-suited to bellicose purposes, and once outfitted with the brailed rig, it became an
ideal vessel for rapid travel and lightning-fast raids on coastal settlements.

Connections between the Sea Peoples and an adapted form of the Helladic galley design,
with its partial decking, open rowers’ gallery supported by vertical stanchions, and loose-footed
brailed sail can be found outside the world of Egyptian iconography, as well. Of the fragments of
a Late Helladic IIIC krater found at Pyrgos Livanaton (Homeric Kynos) that appears to depict a
naval battle, one shows a nearly complete galley, with rowers, two spear-wielding warriors, and a
helmsman manning the quarter rudder. The circular masthead from which the forestay and two
Eg y p t , the S ea Peoples , a n d the Brailed Sa il ’ - ASO R 2 012

brails are suspended demonstrates that the vessel is outfitted with the new loose-footed sail and
brailed rig, though neither sail, yard, nor backstay is pictured.

The headdresses of the Kynos A warriors and those on the vessel facing it in the battle
scene, like those on several sherds from the island of Kos and on a krater from Bademgedigi
Tepe in western Anatolia, appear to be stylized versions of the feathered headgear worn by
several of the Sea Peoples in Ramesses I ll’s reliefs.

As might be expected given their different media and the fact that they are products of
different cultures, there are some differences between the Kynos and Bademgedigi Tepe
representations, and the Medinet Habu reliefs. This extends to the ships, with perhaps the most
notable difference being the lack of a crow’s nest atop the Kynos ship’s mast. Though the
absence of a feature in iconography does not necessitate its physical or historical absence, the
crow’s nest is neither a feature of Helladic ships, nor of pre-Medinet Habu Egyptian vessels.

Egyptian depictions of Syro-Palestinian vessels are the only source of crow’s nest
representations prior to the 12th с. B.C., a fact which suggests this innovation may have
originated on the Syro-Palestinian littoral. Two key examples come from a pair of Egyptian
tombs: the 18th dynasty tomb of Kenamun (TT 162) and the 19th or 20th dynasty tomb of Iniwia.
However, unlike the Medinet Habu vessels, the crow’s nests on these ships are side-mounted,
being hung from the masthead or affixed to forward face of the mast.
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Given their regular contact with the Syro-Palestinian littoral, as well as the clear value of
a lookout on a raised platform for raiding and paramilitary functions, it is unsurprising that the
Sea Peoples would have adopted the crow’s nest from Levantine seafarers and adapted it to their
needs, just as they seem to have adopted the brailed rig from this area.

If correctly dated to the late 18th or early 19th dynasties, a portion of a relief from Saqqara
may provide the missing link between Syro-Palestinian ship construction and the technology
utilized by both sides of the naumachia. The mast, furled sails, downward-curving yard, and top-
mounted crow’s nest of the seagoing ship depicted in the relief are identical to those from
Medinet Habu.

The Syro-Palestinian associations of this vessel are further suggested by the Canaanite
amphorae being unloaded in the scene, and its date, while over a century before Medinet Habu,
is consistent with late 18th and early 19th dynasty references to Sea Peoples in the eastern
Mediterranean, including Ramesses IPs defeat of “rebellious-hearted Sherden.” A Syro-
Palestinian provenience of the top-mounted crow’s nest and downward-curving yard helps
Eg y p t , the Sea Pe o pl e s, a n d the B r a i l e d Sa i l ’ - A S O R 2 0 1 2

explain both their absence on galleys depicted in their native Aegean milieu, and their presence
on those Sea Peoples’ vessels shown in the area of the Levant and Egypt.

Relevant differences having been noted, it is clear that Kynos A, if not the exact same
ship as the Medinet Habu prototype, is an extremely close relative. Mounting the yard and
furling the sail on Kynos A in the manner shown at Medinet Habu, and adding the missing oars
to the Sea Peoples vessels, produces two almost identical ships.

The connection between Sea Peoples and the brailed rig is further attested by
iconography on a sherd from the Philistine city of Ekron. The sherd, from a Philistine
Monochrome krater, feature the characteristic semi-circles of a furled brailed sail, along with the
horizontal line of the yard and three vertical lines, which represent a mast and halyards or brails.

The ‘Srdn of the Sea’ and the Helladic Oared Galley

As the first Sea Peoples group to be specifically named as such in the Egyptian sources -
and the first whose capture and impressment is documented - it is possible that elements of the
ships sailed by the Sherden at the time of their initial defeat by Ramesses II were used as
prototypes for the Egyptian vessels pictured in the at Medinet Habu.

Though the identity of the horn-helmed warriors present among the enemy sailors in the
naumachia relief should not be assumed, there are two reasons - the first textual, the second, and
more convincing, archaeological - to associate the Sherden with a variation of the Helladic oared
galley. First, they are associated with the Sea Peoples in two separate invasions: the Libyan
migration of Merneptah’s fifth year, wherein the they joined the Ekwesh, Teresh, and Shekelesh
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“of the foreign countries of the sea,” as well as the Lukka in an invasion of the western Delta; and
the invasion of Ramesses I ll’s eighth year as recounted in the pharaoh’s posthumous Papyrus
Harris I, wherein they replace the Shekelesh from the Medinet Habu list and join the
Philistines, Sikils, Denyen, and Weshesh among the named invaders.

Second is a wheeled model of a Helladic galley from a tomb in Gurob near the Fayum (I
am grateful to Professor Wachsmann, who is currently publishing the ship-cart model, for
allowing me to refer to it here). The polychromatic model features stanchions, which on a real
ship would have supported the superstructure and partial decking, and stempost decorated with
what may be an upturned bird’s head. Also present is the bow projection at the junction of
stempost and keel, shown on some Helladic vessels and on one of the Sea Peoples ships, which
would become a standard feature of oared galleys in the Iron Age. The rows of black dots that
flank the hull make it probable that the vessel represented was a fifty-oared pentekonter, and the
reconstruction carried out by Professor Wachsmann and the Institute for the Visualization of
History shows clear affinities for the Kynos A oared galley and the modified Sea Peoples ship
from Medinet Habu.

Sherden are connected with this region through the Wilbour Papyrus, a document from
the reign of Ramesses V that assesses landholdings for tax purposes. 109 Sherden, “standard-
bearers of the Sherden,” and “retainers of the Sherden” are listed in it as land owners and
occupiers. W hile the “good Egyptian names” borne by these individuals, and the references
within the Wilbour Papyrus to multigenerational residency, support significant acculturation by
this time, the continued use of the term “Sherden” at least into the 11th century shows they had
not yet completely assim ilated into Egyptian society - as does the cubic ship-card model from
Gurob, if in fact it does come, as Professor Wachsmann suggests and as I tend to agree, from the
tomb of a Sherden individual or one of his descendants.

None of the Sherden listed in P. Wilbour are associated with maritime pursuits, but this
is not surprising. An effort seems to have been made to downplay the nautical affinities of those
Eg y p t , the S ea Peoples , a n d the Brailed Sa il ’ - ASO R 2 012

who had entered Egyptian service and society, an example of which can be seen in the fact that
Sherden in the Egyptian military and society are never referred to as being “of the Sea.” Instead,
this epithet appears to be reserved for those fighting against Egypt. Thus, the ship-cart from
Gurob, if properly attributed to the Sherden, is powerful evidence not only for this group’s
association with the Helladic oared galley, but also for at least one Sherden’s attempt to maintain
a key aspect of his foreign identity during a period of accelerated acculturation into Egyptian

Hybrid Egyptian Warships

The ships of the pharaoh depicted in the naumachia were neither Helladic galleys nor
traditional Egyptian ships. Instead, they were evidently developed by combining elements of the
new Sea Peoples vessels and old, familiar riverine “traveling ships” into a hybrid form of warship.
Though a lack of hogging trusses, seen on earlier Egyptian vessels, points to a sturdier hull than
previous Egyptian boats and ships, the shape of the hull and “shell-first” construction evidenced
by its through-beams, the fore- and aftercastles, and the lion’s head stem have analogs in the
latter class of vessel.

Meanwhile, the entirely new elements featured on the Egyptian ships are depicted both
in identical fashion to their Sea Peoples counterparts, and as seamlessly-integrated components
of the vessels’ largely Egyptian foundation.

This, in turn, suggests that, rather than being new and experimental in nature at that
time, Egyptian shipwrights and sailors alike had had some time to develop and familiarize
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themselves with the foreign components of this hybrid vessel. The loose-footed, brailed sail in
particular was a radical change from the traditional Egyptian rig, with its boom and “web of
lifts,” and the combination of this rigging and downward-curving yard is unlike any previously
seen in Egyptian representation before or after. Though it is depicted in this fashion for the first
time, and though it is not being utilized for propulsion in the relief, the rig’s employment here
would logically seem to follow a period of experimentation. Appropriation of this technology
from the “ships of warriors on the sea” captured from the Sherden a century earlier would have
allowed for just such an experimental “breaking in” period for this new vessel type.

** Somefigures have been omitted due to copyright restrictions