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Byblos Ship 10: Mast and Yards

Ancient Egyptian ships initially carried bipodal masts. Traditional, single masts do not appear in depictions of seagoing ships before the New Kingdom. In fact, the first ships to be depicted with a single mast come from the burial complex of Hatshepsut (1507 - 1458 B.C.), an entire millennium after the Byblos ships of Sahure’s tomb..

Lowered mast
The mast lowered on the support on a seagoing ship.

Due to the mast’s great weight it tended to raise the centre of weight and destabilise the ship when the sail was taken down. For this reason the crew would lower the mast when travelling under oars and rest it on a support towards the stern.

As with everything else, the depictions offer a detailed view of the mast’s size and shape.

The two legs were held together by a series of lateral planks and united at a solid wooden top that was curved forward, supposedly to hold the forestay clear of the sail.

The ships in Sahure’s grave are depicted either departing for their journey to Byblos, or just arriving back to Egypt and thus have their masts lowered. No depictions survive of a Byblos ship with a raised mast showing the shape and size of the sail. Depictions of Nile ships of the same period show that the Egyptians used two yards, one at the top and one at the bottom of the sail. The lower yard was stabler and tied to the mast. When the crew wanted to retract the sail they would lower the upper yard upon the lower.

Mast raised
The mast raised, with yard and sail attached on a Nile ship.

The yards were probably constructed from more than one parallel poles that appear to be held together by a rope tightly wound around them. The upper yard appears to be thicker in the middle and have upturned carved ends.

When the mast is depicted lowered the yards are missing. They were probably removed and stored on deck.

Making the mast:

Making the yards:

Attaching the mast and yards to the ship:

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