In the mid-1890s, William Matthew Flinders Petrie put forth interpretations for the decorations on late prehistoric Egyptian ceramics, one motif of which he understood as a “galley.” This interpretation was soon thereafter questioned by naval specialist Cecil Torr who instead interpreted the motif as an enclosure. Despite intense debate between Petrie, Torr, and other colleagues, Petrie’s galley interpretation became solidified in mainstream Egyptological thought at the beginning of the 1920s. However, a fresh look at Petrie’s arguments and the evidence on which they are based, reveals some problems with his galley interpretation, rarely questioned in modern scholarship. Study of the discussion’s historiography reveals that Petrie’s interpretation became established based not on evidence, but rather on the personalities of the key players in the debate. Modern anthropological frameworks such as Peircean semiotics can instead offer new possibilities for approaching these decorations.
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