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This Old Boat December 11, 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster

[image] Wooden planking is visible in a test excavation in a boat grave at Abydos. (Penn-Yale-NYU) [LARGER IMAGE]

The excavation of a 5,000-year-old wooden boat buried at Abydos in southern Egypt is providing new clues to ancient ship construction and early funerary cult practices. Discovered nearly a decade ago, the ship is one of 14 that had been encased in mud brick and buried near a massive funerary enclosure belonging to the Dynasty II (ca. 2675 B.C.) pharaoh Khasekhemwy (see "Dig Disputed," September/October 1992). Initially, site excavator David O'Connor of New York University and his team assumed that the ships, buried side by side, were intended for that pharaoh's mortuary complex. However, recent examination of the vessel and associated pottery jars has led them to believe that the ships were buried some centuries before Khasekhemwy's enclosure was built. The fleet may have been intended for use in the afterlife of a much earlier pharaoh, perhaps even Aha, the first Dynasty I ruler of Egypt whom O'Connor believes may have had a similar enclosure nearby.

The excavated ship is a "sewn boat," its thick wooden planks lashed together with rope running through mortises. It is about 75 feet long, seven to ten feet wide, has a draft of two feet, and a narrow prow and stern. Seams between the planks were packed with bundles of reeds. The ship lacks internal framing, a characteristic of later vessels. Yellow residue on the planks suggests the boat may have been painted.

The burial of boats around pyramids is well-known from the Old Kingdom (2650-2134 B.C.), among the most famous being those surrounding the 4,500-year-old Pyramid of Khufu, the largest on the Giza Plateau. How early the practice of boat burials began remains unknown. Smaller ships, similar in date to those found at Abydos, have been excavated just south of Cairo, at Saqqara, and Helwan.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America