Ancient Mediterranean

Digital Project

Sea Peoples naval battle

Cat. No.



ca. 1176 B.C. (8th year of Rameses III)


Mortuary temple at Medinet Habu



Stone relief, originally painted

Accession Number


Artzy 1987: 75, 78, fig. 3; Basch 1978: 66-69, nos. 123-130; Broodbank 2013: 461, fig. 9.14; Casson 1971: 36-42; Dothan 1982: 7-13; Drews 2000; Emanuel 2013; 2014; Knapp 2019: 130-131, fig. 31; Nelson 1930; 1943; Noort 1994: 66-72; Pomey 2015: 11, fig. 25; Raban 1989; Sauvage 2012: 225-26, fig. 65; Wachsmann 1981; 1982; 1998: 29-32, figs. 2.35-2.41, 166-174, figs. 8.1-8.15, 8.18; 2000: 105-17, Figs. 6.1-6.11; Yasur-Landau 2010a: 399, 402-404, figs.1-3; Yon and Sauvage 2015: 77, 87, fig. 3a

I 3a: Sea People ship: slightly rockered hull with perfectly symmetrical, vertical posts ending in outward facing bird head devices. The fore- and aftercastle are identical. They are raised, solid and rectangular in shape. The hulls of ships N.1, N. 2, N. 4, and N. 5 have three horizontal lines (from top to bottom A, B, C). Ship N. 3 has one additional horizontal line (X) between lines A and B. Using clues from the positioning of the warriors and corpses relative to these horizontal elements, it is possible to deduce from three independent clues that XB is an open space, ie an open rower's gallery, located between the caprail (B) and a light bulwark (XA). Wachsmann suggests that line X was potentially painted on the other ships. The warriors depicted in the ships indicate that there was a deck that ran the full length of the hull. The intertwined bodies observable on ship N. 3 further confirm that the deck did not extend the entire width of the ship, instead leaving planking out along the sides. The rigging is identical as that of the Egyptian vessels. The mast is amidships, with a top mounted crow's nest and a down-curving yard. The ship is equipped with the newly introduced brailed rig and loose-footed squaresail. The sail is furled, with the central bunch being larger than those on either side. Coming down between each bunch are the brails, attached at the base of the mast. The ships carry two, one, or no quarter rudders. Ship N. 1 has both quarter rudders placed on its starboard quarter, while ship N. 5 has a rudder on either side. The one on the side of the viewer (starboard) appears to be held in a wooden bracket. The normal complement must be assumed to be two, with some lost during battle. Ships N. 4 and N. 5 have small but clearly delineated cutwaters at the stern. Some elements are missing and were plausibly painted. These include line X for all ships except N. 3, the tillers of the quarter rudders, and possibly the stanchions required to support the bulwark and central deck.

I 3b: Egyptian ship: Low, elongated crescentic hull, with a light bulwark above it. The stempost ends in a lion's head device with Syro-Canaanite head in its mouth, while the sternpost is undecorated, and simply continues the curve of the hull into a tapering point. Rectangular fore- and after castles. The aftercastle is at the minimum partially roofed, as indicated by the helmsman which is recurrently shown seated on top of it as well as the archers standing on it. The butt ends of through beams are shown on three ships. A single quarter rudder is shown attached to a stanchion that appears on at least one of the ships (E. 3). The tiller is short and straight. The rigging is identical to that of the Sea People's ships. The crow's nest is occupied by slingers. The number of rowers varies from eight (E. 1 and E. 2) to eleven men (E. 4) on each side. Faulkner and Casson argue that the Ramses III vessels are influenced by foreign construction. Wachsmann argues that they are a variant of the 18^th^ Dynasty travelling ship.

Naval battle between the Egyptian forces and a coalition of various Sea Peoples (Peleshet, Sikila, Denyen, Shekelesh) in the eight year of the reign of Ramses III (ca. 1176 B.C.). The relief is situated on the outer wall of the mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, and is part of seven scenes in total recording the war with the northerners, of which five pertain to the historical narrative itself: 1) the "reception center" where soldiers were drafted, registered and equipped; 2) the march out to meet the enemy forces; 3) the engagement with invaders on land; 4) the sea battle with the enemy fleet; 5) the celebration victory. The naval battle relief is flanked by the celebration of victory to its left, and a lion hunt to its right. The relief furthermore has four subdivisions, with the naval battle itself occupying the upper left corner. The scene shows five enemy ships facing four Egyptian ships. One of the enemy ships is capsized. The scene can be summarized by the following salient points:

- Each side depicts a single ship prototype that was replicated to produce a fleet. The Sea People's ships have a bird head device decorating both stems, while the Egyptian ships have a prow decorative device comprised of the head of a lioness grasping the head of an Asiatic in her mouth.

- Several elements parallel the accompanying text which suggests that the Sea People were caught in an ambush in an enclosed waterway, possibly somewhere in the Nile Delta. On both sides the vessels have their sails furled to the yard. The Egyptian ships however are still under oars, while the foreign ships are dead in the water, their oars stored. The fact that the enemy was caught off guard is further highlighted by the chaotic state of their vessels compared to the orderly advance of the Egyptians. In the context of the narrative and ideological purposes of the relief, the scene depicts not so much the actual battle but rather the divinely pre-ordained massacre of Egypt's enemies (O'Connor 2000: 95).

- The artist has interwoven various phases of the battle, each illustrated by the confrontation of a vessel from either side: the beginning of the battle, shown by Egyptian ship E. 1 and Sea Peoples ship N. 1; the middle phase illustrated by ship E. 2 and N. 2; and the end of the battle represented by E. 3 and N. 3. The final stage consists of ship E. 4 which is loaded with shackled prisoners being led to a victory celebration.

- The attacking enemy forces are all armed with swords, spears and round shields. The artists distinguish two types of foreigners differentiated by their attire. These are grouped in fighting units by ship according to their origin. Two ships are manned by warriors wearing horned helmets, while three ships have warriors with feathered hats.

- The Medinet Habu reliefs are unique for the vivid nature of the encounter which departs to a certain degree from conventional Egyptian art. Emphasis is placed on the variations in features and various expressions of fear, distress, or anguish.

Technical reliability factors & preservation:

1) The scene is stereotyped, with a minimal number of elements deemed sufficient to distinguish the enemy forces from the Egyptian army. Each faction shows a single ship that was repeated to produce a fleet. The number of ships is likewise kept at a minimum, dictated by the requirements of the narrative. This minimalist, generalizing portrayal is best illustrated when contrasted with the text. Thus an inscription on the Second Pylon at Medinet Habu indicates that on the Egyptian side at least three classes of ships took part in the battle, whereas only one is depicted. Likewise, the text mentions four different groups of Sea Peoples, but only two are depicted in the relief.

2) Artists took part in Egyptian campaigns and trading expeditions outside the borders of Egypt. It is therefore possible that a field artist was present, allowing him to execute a sketch that later served as a master copy. Examples of this include the foreign fauna and flora in Thutmose's III botanical garden at Karnak, as well as the Red Sea marine life depicted beneath Hatshepsut's punt ships.

3) Egyptian artists were likely able to closely examine the Sea People captives. This is confirmed by the precision and fidelity in their portrayal of the headgear and body armour of the warriors which finds almost identical parallels in different media from Cyprus. Knowledge of the enemy vessels however may have been second hand rather than direct. No captured ships are reported, although these cannot be excluded.

4) The device decorating the posts of the Sea Peoples' vessels was perceived as distinguishing feature by the Egyptian artist, similarly to the two different types of enemy head gear.

5) The Egyptian artist did not differentiate between the relief and the painting. This is confirmed by another, better preserved war scene from Medinet Habu, which shows that the bare sculpture was supplemented extensively with painted details that enrich the composition. The fact that the paint is gone thus means that many aids to the interpretation of the ships are now lost, with the relief preserving only the skeleton of the original work. This likely explains why some elements of the sea people's ships are not represented consistently, as they were presumably applied in paint in some cases, while they were both carved and painted in others. In addition, plaster was widely used both to make corrections and to cover up defects in the masonry. In some instances only the initial draft of the design is preserved, with the final modifications into the plaster gone. Thus there are numerous elements which disappear in some parts. Wachsmann points out the brails of ship N. 2 which appear only on the left side of the mast, or the missing eye on the bird device at the stern of ship N. 5. Likewise the quarter rudders of the Sea People's ships lack tillers, which were originally painted.

6) Despite the likelihood of a master artist guiding the general organization of the relief, the carving was most probably carried out by multiple hands. There are several identifiable artists' errors in the vessels 'construction. The mast erroneously crosses area AB in ship N. 2 and area AX in ship N. 3, although they are correctly shown in ships N. 1, N. 4 and N. 5. Likewise on ship E. 1 one of the soldiers bending over to grasp a sword from a corpse is shown leaning in an impossible manner, his upper body sandwiched between the sheer and the screen of the ship.

7) the figures are depicted on a scale larger than the ships. The actual length of the ships is therefore difficult to determine.

Artzy, M. 1987. “On Boats and Sea Peoples,” BASOR 266: 75-84.

Basch, L. 1978. “Le Navire mns et autre notes de voyage en Egypte,” MM 64: 99-123.

Broodbank, C. 2013. The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Formation of the Classical World (2 Million to 500 BC). London: Thames and Hudson.

Casson, L. 1971. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dothan, T. 1982. The Philistines and their Material Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Drews, R. 2000. “Medinet Habu: Oxcarts, Ships, and Migration Theories.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 59.3: 161-190.

Emanuel, J.P. 2013.“Šrdn from the Sea: The Arrival, Integration, and Acculturation of a Sea People.” JAEI 5.1: 14–27.

―――. 2014. “Sea Peoples, Egypt, and the Aegean: Transference of Maritime Technology in the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Transition (LH IIIB-C),” Aegean Studies 1.1: 21-56.

Knapp, A. B. 2019. Seafaring and Seafarers in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Nelson, H. H. 1943. “The Naval Battle Pictured at Medinet Habu.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2: 40–55.

Nelson, H. H. et al. 1930. Medinet Habu I : Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. UC, OIP 8. Chicago.

Noort, E. 1994. Die Seevölker in Palästina. Kampen.

Pomey, P. 2015. “Navires et construction navale en Égypte ancienne,” in : B. Argémi and P. Tallet (eds.) NeHeT 3. Entre Nil et mers : La navigation en égypte ancienne. Actes des rencontres de Provence Égyptologie Musée Départemental Arles Antique le 12 avril 2014, pp. 1-29.

Raban, A. 1989. “The Medinet Habu Ships: Another Interpretation,” IJNA 18.2: 163-171.

Sauvage, C. 2012. Routes maritimes et systèmes d'échanges internationaux au Bronze récent en Méditerranée orientale. Lyon: Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée-Jean Pouilloux.

Wachsmann, S. 1981. “The Ships of the Sea People,” IJNA 10: 187-220.

―――. 1982. “The Ships of the Sea People (IJNA 10: 187-220): Additional Notes,” IJNA 11: 297-304.

―――. 1998. Seagoing Ships & Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

―――. 2000. “To the Sea of the Philistines,” in E.D. Oren (ed.) The Sea Peoples and Their World: A Reassessment. University Museum Monograph 108. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, pp. 103–43.

Yasur-Landau A. 2010a: On Birds and Dragons: A Note on the Sea Peoples and Mycenaean Ships, in: Y. Cohen, A. Gilan, and J.L. Miller (ed.) Pax Hethitica: Studies on the Hittites and Their Neighbours in Honor of Itamar Singer, Wiesbaden, pp. 399–410.

Yon, M. and C. Sauvage. 2015. “La navigation en Méditerranée orientale à l'Âge du Bronze Récent,” in : B. Argémi and P. Tallet (eds.) NeHeT 3. Entre Nil et mers : La navigation en égypte ancienne. Actes des rencontres de Provence Égyptologie Musée Départemental Arles Antique le 12 avril 2014, pp. 73-103.

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