Naqada Pottery of Predynastic Egypt; a 5,400-year-old Representation of a River Festival

This unprovenanced jar in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to between c. 3450 to 3330 BCE. It is a particularly fine example of late Neqada II decorated ware, pottery made of fine marl clay and embellished with recurring motifs representing the Egyptian desert and Nilotic environment.

It depicts three boats travelling in procession within the Nile Valley landscape, with desert ibex shown in close proximity to flying birds and mountains, as well as flamingos surrounded by water plants. The zig-zag decoration is thought to represent water, and indeed, water is later symbolised in hieroglyphs in this way (𓈖). The boats each hold a different set of figures accompanied by individual standards, acting a ceremony or ritual and being observed by groups of people on the land nearby.

The figures on this boat are women, and the dominant character stands atop the cabin with her arms raised above her head in a gesture thought to represent a ritual greeting or dance. In decoration of this type, the women are always shown as the largest figure, often with one or two men on a smaller scale, a device used in later pharaonic art to indicate social status and dominance.

In ancient Egypt, boats were employed for travel, commerce and fishing, and the symbolism of the boat and the river form an intrinsic part of the predynastic material culture. Boats are found in the form of pottery decoration, but also as models in burials, hinting at their ritual significance which develops over time.

The earliest depictions in the late Neqada I period are of simple boats associated exclusively with the ritualistic hunting of crocodile and hippo. When the human form is introduced, it is shown as a victorious hunter, killing or capturing animals and dominating rows of prisoners in the same way that they controlled and tamed the wild.

By the late Neqada II period, boats become more sophisticated and are depicted bristling with oars and having wooden cabins on their decks. The boats link to earlier ritualistic hunting is built upon, with the river becoming a focus for religious activity that eventually culminates during the pharaonic period in the grand river processions associated with ancient Egyptian religious festivals, and the rivers central role in the journey of the deceased into the afterlife.

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