Kemet or Ancient Egypt (for those who are not initiated yet) is located in the extreme North East of Africa. And that location allows the country to possess some coastal borders (Sea). There is one with the Mediterranean Sea and another one along the Red Sea. But the country for those who really know its history was not in the beginning what we could call a coastal power. Especially because its people came from the inside of the African continent and not from the coastal areas. And they settled around the Nile river which is in the middle of the country.
But the country possesses another specificity, which is that the great majority of its territory is uninhabited. The reason is that most of it is a desert. Life is only possible around the Nile river. So, people in the country only live around the Nile river. In other words, they were not a “Sea people” as the Vikings for example, at least in the beginning. Their sailing techniques were more related to the Nile River. But through time they managed to develop their technology to be able to sail on the sea. Alexander Belov, a Russian archaeologist, who spent many years studying the sailing techniques of the people of Kemet has recently concluded that the Kemites may have actually invented certain sailing technologies on their own. Technologies that were previously thought that they learned from their Mediterranean neighbors. He discovered that loose-footed sails and a system of brailing were 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 buntlines, 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 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 Aten in Karnak. You can see the crew members on a boat with a sail and a portion of its rigging in the sketch below. The red lines depict 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.
These are major innovations because brails allowed many configurations of the sail’s shape in order to take better advantage of wind conditions and thus better control of the ship. For the ship depicted above, it wouldn’t be possible to change the shape of the sail with only four brails. According to Belov, it would “just flutter.” It is probably also true for another 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.
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 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)