Why did the ancient Egyptians put models of boats in their tombs?
A large number of boat models have come down to us from the Middle Kingdom -by this stage they were an essential feature of an Egyptian tomb. These models included oars, sails, as well as the deck captain and crew, all of which were made and painted with great attention to detail.
It was believed that the ancient Egyptian sun-god Re travelled across the sky each day in a boat. These boat models were primarily included in tombs so that the deceased owner could accompany Re, make a pilgrimage to Abydos, as well as travel along the rivers of the Underworld. Abydos was a sacred Egyptian city, where Osiris (god of the dead and underworld) was believed to be buried. Making this journey was thought to enhance the chances of resurrection and eternal life for the dead person. These models can also be viewed as evidence for the spread of Osirian belief.
Several boat models were sometimes placed in a person’s tomb, the wealthy nobility often would even have complete model fleets including different types of boats. These included fishing vessels, long-distance boats, and funerary barks (for example, the model funerary bark Ukhhotep, currently at the met). These boats would of course have different purposes, such as allowing the deceased to travel, or to replenish his food supply. Boats lacking a sail with only oars (such as the one shown), would have been intended to journey north, following the current of the Nile. Like with servant models, it was expected that the magical funerary rites would give these boats the size and operational ability of the originals.
The shown example dates to circa 2000 BC, and is currently located at the Louvre. Photos taken by Rama. When writing up this post, Ann Rosalie David’s Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt (1998) was of use.