A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Digging an ancient armada
Fourteen ships, built in the early part of Dynasty I (2950-2775 B.C.), were buried side by side amid funerary enclosures belonging to Egypt's earliest kings. (Penn-Yale-IFA)
Investigating a series of mud-brick enclosures near Khentyamentiu's temple a mile north of the cemetery at Umm el Qa'ab in 1991, we fully expected to find more enclosures dedicated to Egypt's earliest kings. Instead, we found the remains of 14 ancient ships "moored" in the desert, miles from the Nile. The ships, which date to early Dynasty I (2950-2775 B.C.), appeared to be associated with the enclosure of an early king, perhaps even Aha, the first of the Dynasty I rulers. The discovery was exciting, but also frustrating. The ships were the earliest planked vessels to survive anywhere in the world, but were so fragile they presented excavation and conservation challenges exceeding our field capabilities at the time, beyond a limited exploration of one vessel.
We returned to our ships in May 2000, exposing about ten feet of the same hull we had briefly examined in 1991. Our conservators successfully removed and conserved the exposed planking, as well as reeds and rope fragments belonging to the boat's structure. So far, we have found no human remains in the boat-graves. The only associated materials are crude offering pots, some of which once had inscribed mud stoppers, of which only fragments survived.
The function of the Abydos boats remains a mystery. Did they serve as "solar boats," which, in later belief, were used by deceased kings to travel through the cosmos like the sun-god? Or were the vessels, like food, clothing, and servants, simply buried to serve the king in the afterlife? Our planned excavation of an entire ship in 2002 may answer some of these questions.
See also "World's Oldest Planked Boats."
David O'Connor is Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Matthew Adams is a research scholar with the Institute of Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania Museum.