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Ancient Ships

Ship Petroglyphs

Egyptian Prehistory 4500-3100 BCE

The ship petroglyphs of the Egyptian Eastern desert    

The earliest historic record of seafaring ships that can be found seem to be the Neolithic petroglyphs or rock art that are found in the Egyptian eastern desert.

Many of these patterns have been dated to the Naqada period of Egyptian history which covers approximately the period of 4500-3100 BCE. Modern research is currently being done to obtain datable materials found in conjunction with the petroglyphs to more firmly establish the dating of when the images were made..

Current dates on many sites have been derived by comparative analysis with images found on artifacts and grave goods that are dateable by carbon fourteen analysis. However more conclusive dating of  when these artifacts were created is  yet to be made.

One of the primary motifs of the Eastern Desert petroglyphs.  A  crew rowing the ship with a leader pointing the way.  Not Dated

Early interest in the culture that produced the petroglyphs was generated by England's archeologist Flinders Petrie in 1920. Petrie created one of the earliest  archeological surveys of Egypt and did extensive work in Naqada. 

While exploring Egypt Petrie was also instrumental in establishing one of the first historic chronologies to help organize the evidence of his findings. The spirit of his efforts established Petrie as a true pioneer in the science of modern archeology and  Egyptology.    

The ship petroglyphs and related artifacts

A double ruddered sailing vessel from Winkler's Site 26 in the Wadi Abu Wasil. Dated to Naqada II period, 3100 BCE

The Eastern desert of Egypt holds some of the  earliest surviving evidence of mans  seafaring activities. The pictorial record of these activities was recorded  permanently for posterity in the form of beautifully rendered petroglyphs of  various types of ships. These pictures made as rock art are spread  throughout the Eastern Egyptian desert on the rocks and walls of the Wadis between the Nile river valley and the coast of the Red Sea.

Many of these petroglyphs recreate images that are common to other artifacts from the Naqada and prehistoric phases of Egyptian Civilization. Grave goods from the Naqada periods reflect the same Iconography that are found in the pertoglyphs this phenomena  has lead archeologists to conclude many of these images can be dated to the Naqada period of Egyptian Prehistory which runs from  4500-3100 BCE.

Winkler site ED-1 dancing goddess petroglyph

Located in Wadi Barramiya

Visit David Rohl's ISIS Site

The petroglyphs and their images are silent witness to the central role that ships and shipping had on the prehistoric Nile River Culture. The Nile when traveled by boat and ship is a  natural highway that runs the length of Egypt and  Sudan. Understanding the impact of the river on the lives and culture of this region is central to understanding ancient NileValley cultures.

Within the Ships of Antiquity there is provided  a chronological study of artifacts from antiquity that specifically carry ship motifs. The collection covers the period of 4500-100 BCE. The progression of ship technologies in antiquity can be seen and traced from the chronological arrangement and study of these images.

It is apparent by comparing the Abydos boat burials which can be carbon dated to 3000 BCE that the motifs of many of these pertoglyphs predate the Abydos boat burials.

WD-3 Dancing goddess
WD-3 Dancing Goddess Wadi Hammamat 

The motifs within the petroglyphs suggest that the Nile valley may have been visited by distant cultures  for trade or that the Nile Valley culture was sending  regular expeditions to other cultures. There are artifacts that contain records of Mesopotamian motifs suggesting that travel  by seas to a from the  Persian Gulf and Euphrates river occurred on a regular basis.

The exploratory imperative bringing contacts with distant cultures to the Nile Valley is suggested by the pointing leader motif. The reason for these contacts may have included, trade for metals, access to the interior of Africa via boat and a leisurely trip down the Nile to the delta and Mediterranean while having the advantage of provisioning their ships along the way. 

The motifs within the Petroglyphs and their location along ancient trading routes both  suggest  the scenario that contact with Mesopotamia occurred along seafaring routes on a regular basis. Because there are no written records that correspond to the time in which the petroglyphs were created we are left with interpolation and interpretation of the artifacts themselves as the primary means for drawing our conclusions.

For those of us who love the art of spin the interpretation of these artifacts  is  prime territory for creative analysis.

What is needed for the exact dating of the pertoglyphs will be additional archeology of eastern desert sites specifically related to the petroglyphs and the use of dateable materials recovered at these sites for analysis. However comparative analysis and interpolation from my personal studies indicates the dating will be to as early as 4500 BCE.

If, as some archeologists have suggested, there are burials associated with the Petros, finding an undisturbed burial at a petro site would yield datable artifacts in a time capsule form. Creating such a find or finds seems to have a lot of potential for clearing up some of the prehistory associated with this phase of ancient seafaring.

An early survey of petroglyph sites at Kanais in the Wadi Abbad were taken by Arthur Weigall  in 1907 and then by Hans Winkler in 1936.   Wadi Barramiya sites were originally discovered by Walter Resch in 1967 and later recorded by Gerald Fuchs between 1985 and 1990.   A more current  survey which is adding additional site locations is being taken by  The "Followers of Horus" which is an archeological team organized by Dr. David Rohl and  Dr. Toby Wilkinsen.

What can be discerned from the examination and an analysis of the petroglyphs and related artifacts about the early Bronze Age Egyptian Culture??

The following links are various commentaries written about the Egyptian Eastern Desert Petroglyphs:


Commentaries on the Eastern desert Petroglyphs: By Richard Pierce on the Abydos Boats
Francis Lancaster's accounts of his visits to the Egyptian Petroglyph sites in the Eastern Desert


Ship with mast from Wadi Barramiya

Naqada period Artifacts and Grave Goods 

Naqada II Period Pot with ship and flamingo motifs.

Dancing Bird Goddess has anthropomorphic features which is also a common theme within the Eastern desert petroglyphs Dated to the Naquada II period

Rare predynastic boat model (Berlin)  dated to 3000 BCE


Predynastic motif with figure pointing-compare
with Wadi Mia and Wadi Kanais pointing figures.


The Guebel el-Arak dagger

Guebel el-Arak dagger
Probably from Guebel el-Arak, south of Abydos
c. 3300-3200 BC  (Nagada II)
Silex blade and ivory handle (hippopotamus tooth)
L 25.5 cm; H of handle 4.5 cm
Collection of the Louvre 

Similar daggers to this with finely carved handles can be found elsewhere, but the scenes depicted here are unique. On one side there is a battle scene on land and water; the other side depicts animals such as lions, ibexes and dogs. On the Back side at the top, above the knob, a man in the robes of a Sumerian priest-king is restraining two rampant lions.

The motifs on this piece raises questions about contacts with Mesopotamia. The animal trainer motif being Mesopotamian in its origin. It could depict a battle between Nile Valley communities whose differences can be seen in the design of their boats, however it may also be an indicator that Mesopotamian traders were visiting the Nile valley at this time in History.

 What is certain is that it is an early example of Egyptian bas-relief and it is carved with great mastery. The silex is an example of expert flint napping  with a polished blade on one side earmarked  by thin parallel groves; the handle is covered with carving at its most refined, and characteristic of this period  of Egyptian civilization. 

Ship Images from Naquada period tomb Paintings


General location of the known Eastern desert Petroglyphs.  

Surveys of the Rock art show they are generally distributed along routes that were used for trade. It can be concluded the survey has yet to find all sites and that their is much to be discovered in conjunction with the Petroglyphs.


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