Notes on Diving in Ancient Egypt
Article first published online: 3 AUG 2011
© 2011 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2011 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 40, Issue 2, pages 424–427, September 2011
How to Cite
Ragheb, A. A.-R. (2011), Notes on Diving in Ancient Egypt. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 40: 424–427. doi: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2011.00322.x
- Issue published online: 3 AUG 2011
- Article first published online: 3 AUG 2011
The majority of geographical characteristics of the ancient Egyptian environment were aquatic in nature: the Nile River, main or secondary branches of the Nile delta (Butzer, 1982: 498; 2001: 543–51), coastal lagoons and interior swampy lakes (Gardiner, 1947: 7*–8*) the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Red Sea to the east (Helck, 1980: 1276–7). All these aquatic spaces involved the ancient Egyptian throughout his history in interacting with this environment through various activities: fluvial navigation (Degas, 1997a: 8), fishing (Brewer and Friedman, 1990: 21ff) and seafaring (Degas, 1997b, 19ff). The objective of these notes is to shed light on diving in ancient Egypt as a vital aspect associated with various aquatic activities.
Despite the richness of ancient Egyptian literature, very rarely do the texts deal with the underwater environment. In the papyrus ‘Chester Beatty I’, which includes the story of Horus and Seth and dates from the reign of Ramses V, we find a rare example with some terms related to diving and depths of water: ‘Then Seth said to Horus: come, let us change ourselves into two hippopotamuses and plunge into the flood in the midst of the Wadj-Wr. And he who emerges in the course of three whole months, he shall not receive the office. So they plunged together’ (Gardiner, 1932: 48; Lichtheim, 1976: 218). Despite the fact that the text is mythological, it includes the following terms, which are related to the underwater environment and reflect that ancient Egyptians were aware of depths and diving. The term ‘hrp’ which means ‘sunken, dive or plunge’ (Erman and Grapow, 1928: 500); the term ‘Mtr’ means literally ‘flood, or water of the flood’ (Erman and Grapow, 1928: 174) and may be derived from ‘mDwt’ which means depths of the sea; and the expression ‘3 Abd.w n hrw’ symbolizes the bottom-time of the dive. The exaggeration of the time reflects the fact that the bottom-time was the most important aspect of the dive. Here, it is the criterion to get office for a god, either Horus or Seth.
The main documented activity associated with diving in ancient Egypt was fishing. Fishing with nets is a common theme depicted by artists since the old kingdom (Van Elsbergen, 1997: 14). A unique representation from the tomb of Ankhtifi at Mo'alla (Dynasty 8/9) (Fig. 1) represents a team of fishermen on the shore hauling a net with short vertical floats. Three fishermen on each side hold the end rope of the net which is curved up (Vandier, 1950: 143–4, pl. 40; Kanawati, 1999: pl. 14). Two of the men are depicted in the water (Fig. 2); one of them is in the act of diving in, while the other is emerging and addressing his report to the team on the shore: ‘Pull out well! (It is) a Happy day! Measure you, measure you, for you, good great fishes’.
Another scene (Fig. 3) from the tomb of Djar at Deir el-Bahari (Dynasty 11) (Winlock, 1932: 29, fig. 30) represents three fishermen with a net. Among them and in the middle of the scene, a diver is seen upside-down and completely under water. He is holding the lower rope of the net which is full of fish, and helping in pulling it. Walter Wolf proposed that the diver is arranging the weights in their proper position (1957: 253–4, fig. 223). Wolfgang Decker comments on what is going on in the Djar scene: ‘He is adjusting the weights of the net, which have become disordered, or he is clearing a net that has been caught by water plants’ (1992: 498). Moreover, two crocodiles opening their mouths are represented beneath the net, waiting for any fish which may escape from the net. The scene in the Djar tomb raises a question about the motivation of the artist, depicting crocodiles together with divers. The artist presumably represented a realistic scene; Dietrich Sahrhage (1998: 88, abb. 31) thinks that the artist wanted to reflect the dangers which faced both divers and fishermen.
Two other fishing scenes with nets, in tombs nos 2 and 3 at Beni Hssan, represent fishermen in the water (Newberry, 1893: pls. 22 and 32). They help the team of fishermen on the shore in hauling the net. It is possible that the net represented in tomb no. 2 (Fig. 4) is in deep water, but divers are working close to the shore. This possibility is supported by the scale of the people, and no bottom is shown, nor the traditional animals such as crocodiles or hippopotamus.
The fishing method which is used nowadays by some Egyptian net fishermen (whether in small boats or from the shore), is identical to these scenes. Modern methods may therefore help us towards a clearer interpretation of these fishing and diving scenes. It consists of the following phases. Firstly, a diver plunges into the water to explore the site before they install their nets. If there are schools of fish in the prospected zone, the diver gives the signal that they can spread their net there. Then one or more divers begin to drive and corral the schools of fish into the nets (Fig. 5). When there are enough fish in the net, the diver(s) inform the fishing team to pull the net out of water, and help them in this process. And if the net is caught on the bottom, the diver has to clear it. These phases of fishing with nets are important to economize on both effort and time. It is remarkable that the scenes from both Ankhtifi and Djar represent divers who are carrying out the last two phases of the process of fishing with a net.
Fishing was not the only motivation for diving in ancient Egypt. Ancient sailors and fishermen were very probably obliged to plunge sometimes into the shallow water of the open sea. As we know, ancient ships and boats used stone anchors. Cargo ships used heavy anchors, while fishing-boats and small watercraft used smaller ones (Kapitän, 1984; see also Basch, 1985; Bakr and Nibbi, 1991; Nibbi, 1991; Nibbi, 1992; Frost, 1993; Frost, 1996). Such anchors work effectively on a sandy or rocky sea-floor. But sometimes the anchor grips in a cleft in the rock, and sailors are unable to bring it up. In the case of a very heavy anchor or deep water, the anchor rope may have to be cut, and a reserve anchor brought into use. But in the case of small anchors or shallow water, diving was the best solution for recovering trapped anchors. Even today Egyptian fishermen and sailors with small boats in shallow water dive to release anchors which have caught on an obstruction. It is highly probable that diving for this purpose was common among sailors and fishermen in ancient Egypt.
Recent underwater discoveries in Alexandria (Goddio and Bernand, 2004: 146–52) and Abukir bay (ancient Canopus) (Goddio, 2007: 115) have brought to light many harbours from the late pharaonic and Ptolemaic periods. These harbours consist of two main structures: breakwaters, which were constructed to reinforce natural barriers against waves; and quays. The underwater excavations carried out on these harbour structures have demonstrated that wooden timbers and piles were installed beneath the stone blocks of quays to reinforce their foundations, while other wooden sheets and posts were installed in front of some quays (Goddio and Bernand, 2004, 153–4). Logical speculation about the techniques used by ancient engineers to construct, extend or improve harbours, imply that diving was an essential tool. Constructing breakwaters and quays must be (at least) proceeded by exploration or sounding of the sea-bed by repetitive dives to verify whether the bottom is sandy or rocky. Furthermore, the occasional maintenance of harbour structures also implies diving for visual inspection.
All the direct and indirect evidence above indicates that diving was more essential for marine activities in ancient Egypt than we might generally think. Finally, although diving was known in the eastern Mediterranean basin in Antiquity (De Vries, 1978: 409; Holloway, 2006: 381, fig. 9), we can conclude that the diving scenes in both tombs of Ankhtifi at Mo'alla (Dynasty 8/9) and of Djar at Deir el-Bahari (Dynasty 11) are the oldest evidence of diving from the ancient Near East so far known.
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