The picture below is notable for being the "World's oldest depiction of a stern-mounted steering rudder (c. 1420 BC)".

Stern-mounted steering oar of an Egyptian riverboat

This much is clear enough. However, I'm curious about the man on the left and the man leaning over the side.

For the man on the left, I'm guessing he's holding something to check the depth of the river. Can anyone confirm this?

For the man leaning over the side, he is holding something in his hand. What is it and what is he doing?

  • My SWAG would be getting some river water for drinking, but I'm not sure why they'd artistically depict such a mundane activity. So SWAG #2 is that its performing some kind of scrying or religious purpose.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 16, 2018 at 14:49
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    Did a wee bit of research, and it seems the Egyptians did engage in a form of scrying with Osiris or Serapis that involved a saucer, oil, and river water. You wouldn't think a boat would be required for that though.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 16, 2018 at 15:08
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    Being sea_sick? ;)
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 16, 2018 at 15:11
  • @T.E.D. I'd hope he would have had better sense than to drink Nile water :) and, like you said, such an "artistically mundane" activity seems odd (especially for a funeral). I'll follow up on the scrying though. Feb 16, 2018 at 15:18
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    Another idea that occurred to me is doing some kind of dead reckoning activity. However, I was unable to find references to people doing that in the Ancient era, and you wouldn't think you'd need to do that on a river (assuming its a river due to the sounding/steering pole).
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 16, 2018 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


This wall painting is located in the tomb of Menna, which is one of the many tombs located at ancient Thebes. There are a lot of wall paintings in the complex, which you can learn about in full here.

The river boat in the image is actually part of a larger sequence of two boats on a pilgrimage to and from Abydos. You can find the entire image in hi-res segments halfway down this page.

The man on the bow is definitely using a sounding pole to measure the depth of the water to avoid running aground. Average depth of the Nile is 8-11m, but of course would vary across the river proper as well as the delta branches. Whereas lead lines were eventually used by ancient mariners to measure the Mediterranean depth, the Nile was on average 8-11 meters deep so long, graduated sounding poles worked just fine.

The man leaning over the side of the boat could still be up to interpretation. This isn't a funeral procession, but actually a pilgrimage to a holy site, as interpreted by other paintings in the tomb. So, due to the religious nature he could very well be gathering water for a ritual. Alternatively, I wouldn't rule out drinking water either. The Nile wasn't used for sewage and the Egyptians of this time had no working knowledge of bacteria. If you were thirsty, a quick drink from the river may have been normal.

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