Technology once thought adopted by Egyptians may have been innovated by them instead

Medinet Habu
Drawing of the Medinet Habu bas relief depicting Ramesses III defeat of the Sea Peoples. Public Domain image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Russian archaeologist, Alexander Belov, has concluded that Ancient Egyptians may have actually invented certain sailing technologies on their own rather than adopting them from Mediterranean neighbors as previously thought.

medinet-habu sea peoples boat
Portion of the famous bas-relief at Medinet Habu showing a loose-footed sail with
four brails-the points where the sail is tied to the yard. Note the five furls.
Public domain image from Wikipedia before modification.

Specifically, he believes there is ample evidence of loose-footed sails and a system of brailing present during the Amarna period as represented on a set of fragments to a previously unknown bas relief. This relief shows a portion of a ship’s yard with brailing and bunting lines configured to hold up a furled sail.

A yard on a ship is the horizontal arm that is fixed to the mast. The yard is what stretches the sail horizontally. The points where the sail is fixed to the yard are brailings and bunt lines, which pull the bunts, or foot, of the sail up. If these lines are pulled, the sail is raised much like a Venetian blind. A sail that has no boom, or additional horizontal bar at its base, is referred to as a loose-footed sail. With a boom it’s a boom-footed sail.

Alexander Belov, a professor at the Centre for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, noted that until recently the oldest known Egyptian depiction of a boat with a sail was with a relief on a talatat from the temple of Aton in Karnak. In the sketch below of this relief, named PC-103, you can see the three crew members on a boat with a sail and a portion of its rigging. The red lines are an interpolation of what may have been on neighboring talatats.

Talatat PC-103 has been dated to about 1352-1336 BCE and shows a loose-footed sail with its foot shaped somewhat like a crescent. The sail in this relief also appears to have a line (about a 50° angle from the mast to the yard on the sail) that represents a brail. If so, then interpolating the rest of the ship gives this loose-footed sail four brails.

Brails were an important invention because it allowed for many configurations of the sail’s shape to take better advantage of wind conditions and thus better control of the ship.

What is a talatat?
During the 18th Dynasty rule of Akhenaten, talatat were used in the construction of temples. These where small blocks of 1/2 by 1/2 by 1 cubit (27 cm x 27 cm x 54 cm) and decorated on one side with relief depictions and hieroglyphs. These sandstone blocks are thought to have been more efficient for construction but went out of style after the Amarna period.

For the ship depicted on PC-103, however, it wouldn’t be possible to change the shape of the sail with only four brails. According to Belov, it would “just flutter.”

Feagans drawing of PC103
Drawing of Amarna Period bas-relief, PC 103, with recreation of the
loose-footed sail. Drawing by Carl Feagans.

The same would probably be true for the ship depicted in another Amarna period talatat. When Akhenaten’s reign ended, the temple of Aton in Karnak was destroyed and many of the materials, including the talatat, were used to fill a pylon in the temple of Amon. Over 12,000 blocks were recovered from the 9th pylon of this temple and cataloged. Belov used the database to locate 5 of them, from which he was able to puzzle together a portion of the image of another loose-footed ship with a furled sail.

These five blocks made up a portion of the relief (A0058) and from them he was able to interpolate a rough estimate of the remaining ship, giving some idea of the size and basic configuration. Belov concluded that the ship had no boom (thus loose-footed), did have a rudder stock attached to a tiller, and various lines stretching to the yard under which there were five furls.

At this point, you might be wondering what the difference is between a brail and a buntline. The difference is subtle and key to Belov’s conclusion. Both are involved in furling the sail, but, unlike a buntline, a brail is used to change the shape of the sail itself, making it more effective when tacking upwind. A buntline will just be used for furling or dousing the sail.

These two Amarna period (1352-1336 BCE) depictions are important because, together, they show loose-footed sails of Egyptians at least 150 years before they’re represented on the relief at Medinet Habu (1184-1153 BCE). And there are several other depictions of early sailing by Egyptians that Belov discusses, each dating to before the sea battle shown by Ramesses III at Medinet Habu.

Kyrenia II
Cypriot stamp of Kyrenia II, a recreation of
a Greek ship with a loose-footed sail very
similar to that shown on the Amarna Period
bas-relief.

The loose-footed sails in the PC-103 and A0058 talatat blocks each have too few brails to be used for shaping the sail for efficiency, so this means that the brails were being used strictly as buntlines to furl the sails. Previously, the Medinet Habu relief was considered the earliest depiction of brailed sails, which were shown on the ships of the Sea Peoples.

With Belov’s new observations, it seems likely that the Egyptians may have innovated the loose-footed sail and brailing, which began as as buntlines to furl the sail, on their own, rather than adopt it from their Mediterranean neighbors.

You can read Alexander Belov’s forthcoming paper, “Loose-footed Sails of the Egyptian New Kingdom Ships,” in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (2019), doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12335

About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.