The Rowing Style in Ancient Egypt
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At this point, two questions are of interest to us. Firstly, did the Egyptians have certain typical postural and movement patterns? Secondly, were these patterns identical with those found in their art?
A Master’s Thesis which was written in 1978 deals with ancient Egyptian rowing style. This piece, written by Lutz Weber, is perhaps the only piece of research which deals with the question as to what extent ancient Egyptian drawings, reliefs and paintings reflect physiologically accurate portrayals of movement in everyday life. 1) For this reason, his work is presented here.
The Egyptians used combined sailing-rowing ships on the arms of the Nile, on the Nile itself, as well as when they were out at sea. Since rowing was based on the necessity of using ships primarily as a means of transport (sporting uses were only secondary), the rowing technique had to be suitable for long distances.
For his examination, Weber used representations of an ancient Egyptian ship on an expedition to the land Punt during Queen Hatschepsut’s reign (18th dynasty). The paintings in her temple at Deir-El-Bahari show several ships with their crews. In Fig. 2, we can see rowers who have been portrayed during certain phases of a rowing stroke. Lutz Weber was hence able to realistically reconstruct the acient rowing style. Through comparisons with representations from the Old and Middle Kingdom, he was able to show that the reconstructed style of rowing was not only employed in the New Kingdom.
Weber did not confine his research to pictorial material, he also carried out practical experiments. As part of Weber’s thesis, two Egyptian rowing benches were reconstructed on a pontoon boat on the river Rhine simulating the antique conditions including the construction of copies of the oars.
Lutz Weber describes the rowing movements in detail, he reconstructed them as follows (see Fig. 1 and 2):
“The rower stands firmly with both legs on deck and holds the arms away from the body in order to go into the starting position. At this stage in the sequence, the oar is not in the water and is carried to the prow of the ship ready for use (phase a in Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 Schematic drawing of a rowing stroke in the Egyptian style
When the oar cuts the water, the rower pulls the oar towards his body using his arms and trunk. Simultaneously, he stems his legs on the deck. When pulling with his upper part of his body, the rower moves his rear towards the rowing seat (phases b and c). Shortly before he sits down, he bends his arms more to complete the pull of the oar. (phases c and d).
To raise the oar out of the water, the hands are pushed downwards. The leg innermost to the ship is moved back at the same time to enable the rower to stand up again. By getting up from a stepping position and bending the upper body forward from the hip joints, the rower can move his hands further downwards (actio-reactio) making movement of the oar blade out of the water (phases e to g). The oar is then moved backwards, the hind foot now having been placed beside the other foot again, so preparing for the next stroke.” 2)
Fig. 2 Rowers at work, New Kingdom
(left: phase c; right: phase f of the description)
As is obvious, in this movement sequence, the whole body participates in the activity and the rower uses gravity to his own advantage by utilising his own weight. 3) A deliberate and fluent movement is facilitated with as little effort as possible and without excess strain on the back or shoulder girdle.
Even today in Egypt, a similar kind of movement employing the extension mode may be observed - particularly among the fellahs (the peasants) and the people of Nubia. I have personally made such observations, for example among the rowers on the Qamrun-lake in the border of the oasis Fayum. Siko, the captain of a felucca (a small ship with oars and/or sails) in Assuan, utilized this mode of movement too.
In analyzing Egyptian art we can frequently safely state that the portrayed people give us the impression of having been well balanced with respect to use of their intrinsic and extrinsic musculature. This fact was then apparently observed by the artists.
Cultures in which fighting and aggression play a significant role frequently possess an aesthetic ideal involving over-developed extrinsic musculature. This was not the case with the ancient Egyptians. They had comparatively long periods of peace in the course of their history. They also rarely had conquest ambitions, and, if so, these were modest, particularly in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Furthermore, they were seldom subject to attempted invasion from other peoples. It is therefore no wonder that representations of ancient Egyptians rarely show over-developed, “armoured” extrinsic musculature. 4)
To summarize, one may say that the ancient Egyptians frequently lived with exemplary movement patterns and with an integrated body structure. 5)
1) Lutz Weber, Rekonstruktionsversuch der ägyptischen Rudertechnik in der 18.Dynastie, unveröffentlichte Diplomarbeit an der Deutschen Sporthochschule Cologne, 1978
2) Ibid, p. 34
3) Contrary to the Egyptian style of rowing, the common way of performance in the galleys/ships of the Romans and of other Western people was to sit all the time during rowing. The technique which is connected with this habit, with all its disadvantages, cannot be discussed here.
4) Similary, this applies to some people of the far east too (India, China). As we can observe in the artistic portrayals of these cultures, the outer muscles were shown as little over-developed as in the Egyptian ones. The reasons for this cannot be discussed here. People of these far east cultures were perhaps acting more out of the core of their being (hara) than Western people usually do.
5) Despite the manner of movement which was considerate towards the body, spinal and bone disease was frequent. The causes were to be seen in extreme temperature fluctuation between day and night. Additionally, people from the lower classes had frequently additional pathogenic working conditions.
Excerpt from the book: Hans Georg Brecklinghaus, The Human Beings are awoken, you have set them upright. Body Structure and Conception of Man in Ancient Egyptian Art and the Present Day, Freiburg 2002, ISBN 3-932803-04-3