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October 31, 2000

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Early Pharaohs' Ghostly Fleet

By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD

New York University Photo
Excavations at the Abydos site south of Cairo began at the turn of the 20th century. In 1988, archaeologists discovered traces of the grave boats. These conservators work to preserve the exposed wooden planking.


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Egyptologists hope to learn more about the significance of boats in ancient Egyptian religion and royal funerary practices, related to the belief that the sun-god Ra traveled by boat through the sky by day and the netherworld by night in cycles of regeneration. Click here for a larger image.


Archaeologists have excavated the hull of a boat fit for an ancient Egyptian king's eternal journey in the afterlife.

The 5,000-year-old wooden hull, they say, is the earliest surviving example of a "built" boat, one constructed out of planks fitted together and representing a major advance in boat-building technology over the dugout logs and reed vessels of more ancient vintage.

The boat about 75 feet long and 7 to 10 feet wide at the widest part, with narrowing prow and stern and a shallow draft was examined in detail this summer by American archaeologists at Abydos, 300 miles south of Cairo. Here the earliest pharaohs known to history were buried, long before the pyramids at Giza, outside Cairo, or the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, across the Nile from Thebes.

A study of the Abydos boat and at least 13 others buried in parallel, like a fleet riding at anchor near mortuary monuments, is expected to provide scholars with new evidence about the wealth, power and technological prowess of the earliest royal dynasties of the Egyptian civilization. The boats have not been precisely dated, but other remains indicate they were associated with pharaohs of the first dynasty, beginning around 3000 B.C.

"I'm thrilled to see an example of early technology like this," said Dr. Cheryl Ward, a nautical archaeologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee who examined a 10-foot-long section of the hull. "In the ancient world, boats were the most complex machines produced. They were one of the premier symbols of the leadership of the pharaoh."

Egyptologists hope to learn from these findings more about the significance of boats in the ancient religion and royal funerary practices, related to the belief that the sun-god Ra traveled by boat through the sky by day and the netherworld by night in cycles of regeneration. Boats were buried near a king's tomb so that in death he, too, could achieve endless renewal.

The Abydos boat, archaeologists said, predated by as much as 400 years the famous boat recovered at Pharaoh Khufu's pyramid at Giza, but in meaning and function it appeared to be a direct ancestor. The boat's design and construction also should provide insights into the craft plying the Nile on more mundane missions in early Egypt.

"Our boat experts say this is an actual and viable boat, not a symbolic one," Dr. David O'Connor of New York University, director of the expedition, said in an interview. "But there's no evidence that any of these boats were ever actually used in water. Would you give a king a used boat?"

An official announcement of the excavations was made in Cairo last week by Farouk Hosni, Egypt's minister of culture, and Dr. G. A. Gaballa, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The council licensed the work at Abydos by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Yale University and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

"It's tremendous news," said Dr. Rita E. Freed, an Egyptologist at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, who was not involved in the project. "This is clearly a boat technology the Egyptians would have used in daily life. It also shows their abilities for organization and technology."

Until now, the only evidence of such ancient Egyptian boats came from illustrations on pottery and tomb walls, and archaeologists could not be sure how realistic these were. Of the few actual boats to survive, the oldest had been two found in boat- shaped pits next to Khufu's pyramid at Giza; each was 142 feet long.

"The rarity of royal boat burials suggests that kings' burials might have more often included boat models, magically empowered substitutes for the real thing," Dr. O'Connor said. The tomb of Tutankhamen, who lived much later, in the 18th dynasty, more than 3,300 years ago, contained 35 boat models.

Boats of one sort or another have a much deeper history. Dugout boats from about 6000 B.C. have been uncovered in Denmark, and rafts and reed vessels were probably in use for thousands of years earlier than that. People were presumably floating some kind of boats as early as 50,000 years ago, or how else could humans have first settled Australia.

"We don't see built planked boats until we get to Egypt, not until the start of urban civilizations," Dr. Ward said in an interview. "It takes a lot of skill to build a boat like the ones at Abydos, something we don't think about in our day of power tools. There had to be trained workers shaping the wood, usually with stone tools. It took planning and discipline and a higher level of organization in a society, which the Egyptians must have had 5,000 years ago."

Archaeologists have been digging the ruins of Abydos since the turn of the 20th century. In 1988, while exploring a northern sector of the site, more than a mile away from the royal tombs, the American team, including Dr. O'Connor, found lines of mud brick peeking from the wind- deposited sand. At first, they took these to be buried walls. After closer examination three years later, Dr. O'Connor reported what he then called a "startling and significant discovery." Each "wall" turned out to be part of an enormous boat "grave."

Preliminary excavations in 1991 revealed 12 such graves, each lined and topped with brick and each enclosing a wooden boat. The outline of each grave was the shape of a boat. Each grave surface was originally coated with mud plaster and whitewash, giving the impression of a great white fleet, and a small boulder had been placed near the prow or stern of several graves, the suggestion of anchors. Dr. O'Connor said the placement of the boulders "seems deliberate, not random."

Except for a few scattered probes to determine the presence of actual boats, archaeologists made no attempt then to excavate any of the graves. They needed to make arrangements for the conservation and perhaps reconstruction of any excavated boats, and to obtain permission from the Egyptian authorities. All this came together in time for last summer's digging season.

The excavators started by clearing a three-foot-deep covering of sand off the No. 10 boat. Dr. Matthew Adams, a Penn archaeologist and the associate project director, said this particular grave was chosen because part of its buried hull had already been exposed in 1991 and appeared to be revealing, even though it was in a poor state of preservation. All the better, the team figured, for investigating what it will take to preserve the remains from more promising graves.

For about five days, Dr. Adams recalled, excavators carefully probed the midsection of the buried boat beneath its mud brick topping. They uncovered wooden planks, the remains of rope and reed matting and bundles. Wood-eating ants had been busy, and in many places all that was left of the hull was frass, the ants' excrement.

"The frass retained the shape of the original wood," Dr. Adams said. "So we could see from the frass as well as the remaining wood the profile of the original wooden hull."

Noting that the type of wood has yet to be identified, Dr. Adams said: "Wood was a precious commodity in Egypt, and when we determine the type of wood, we'll be able to pinpoint just where it came from, which opens a whole new avenue of understanding about trade, political relationships and power."

After examining the hull section, Dr. Ward said the flat-bottomed boat reflected "a previously undocumented style of construction" for that period. The boat appeared to be built from the outside in, in contrast to the later shipbuilding technique of starting with an internal frame. The thick planks were lashed together by rope fed through mortises. The seams between planks were filled with bundles of reeds to make the boat watertight. Additional reeds carpeted the floor.

Judging by the length of these boats, from 60 to 80 feet, she said, they probably would have been propelled by as many as 30 rowers. Two additional boat graves were found during the most recent excavations.

Dr. O'Connor said that other artifacts found in and around the boat graves might eventually help with dating and understanding this royal fleet. Archaeologists have already uncovered more than 30 pottery jars, each about a foot tall and of a shape that typically was used for beer, and some seal impressions. So far, none of the remains bear the name or other identifying clues of the king for whom the boats were interred.

The current assumption is that all the Abydos boats were buried at about the same time and were intended for the use of one king in the afterlife. But which king?

Archaeologists have ruled out what once appeared to be the most likely candidate, Pharaoh Khasekhemwy from the late second dynasty, about 2675 B.C. The ruins of a huge enclosure of thick mud-brick walls, standing near the row of boat graves, has been associated with the performance of sacred rituals for this particular pharaoh after his burial at Abydos. But further research has established that the graves lie in a lower stratum of sediment, and thus probably were dug sometime during the first dynasty, which extended from about 3000 B.C. to 2800.

Dr. O'Connor said that the boat graves might have been associated with Pharaoh Djer of the first dynasty, whose probable cult center has been uncovered in the vicinity, or even to Aha, the first of the first dynasty rulers of Egypt, whose reign began shortly after 3000 B.C.

Whomever they were intended to venerate, the Abydos boats were an impressive expression of religion and power by the ancestors of Egyptians who would later outdo themselves in temples and pyramids throughout the land.

"This is the oldest, largest and most amazing waste of labor we know of up to this time," Dr. Ward said. "This is an incredible investment by the government in validating itself by burying all these boats."

But the mode of expression was based on the Egyptian concept of life after death. "Virtually everything the Egyptians did on this scale was religious," said Dr. Freed of the Boston museum.

The American team plans to return to the site this winter to make a more detailed inspection of the wood and other material and also to continue treating the fragile wood to prevent its deterioration. Dr. Deborah Schorsch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in charge of the conservation work, which is supported by a grant from the United States International Development Agency in Egypt.

In two years, archaeologists expect to dig up another of the Abydos boats, one they have reason to think is better preserved. Egyptologists may then have an even better idea of what it was like to cruise the Nile 5,000 years ago and how people prepared their kings for the ultimate voyage.


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