The Abydos Boats

Boats - II

A fleet of the oldest built wooden boats in the world was discovered at Abydos, Egypt, more than eight miles from the river Nile.

The Funerary Enclosures at Abydos

The following plan shows the location and situation of the Abydos context.

Possible owners
of the enclosures

1. Khasekhemwy

2. Funerary Boats

3. Anedjib or Semerkhet

4. Merytneit (or Den ?)

5. Peribsen

6. Djer

7. Djet

8. Qaa (?)

Note the location of the boats, next to the tomb of Khasekhemwy. In this illustration twelve boats are laid out side-by-side. Archaeologists have now discovered two additional boats.

The most likely candidate for the ownership of the boats, Khasekhemwy, from the late second dynasty about 2675 BC, has now been ruled out as the Pharaoh who buried the boats.  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. 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 BC to 2800 BC.

During the May/June 2000 excavation season, a team that included expert conservators and an ancient boat specialist was able to establish that the boats were placed in their graves many years before Khasekhemwy's funerary enclosure was built.

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, suggestion of anchors. The placement of the boulders "seems deliberate, not random."

Part of the fleet of Abydos boats in their brick-built graves. The two newly discovered (2000) boat graves are further to the left. In the background is the brick funerary enclosure of Pharaoh Khasekhemwy of Dynasty II.

The graves each contain a wooden boat that was filled in with brickwork. In addition, each brick boat grave is itself shaped to represent a boat.

The boats are estimated to be between 60 and 80 feet long. A large section of one boat has been exposed, conserved and studied by a team of archeologists. For comparison, a boat for the transportation of the Hatshepsut obelisk in Karnak had to be at least 200 feet long.

Early excavation of a ten-foot portion of one of the wooden hulls has already yielded surprising results. The boats were not models, as many mortuary-associated objects could be, but viable vessels which could accommodate as many as 30 rowers. According to boat expert Cheryl Ward, the mode of construction is unique among surviving ancient Egyptian boats. About 75 feet in length and seven to ten feet in width at the widest point, these boats are only about two feet deep, with narrowing prows and sterns. The portion of the boat hull excavated revealed thick wooden planks, lashed together by rope fed through mortises.

Internal framing a universal aspect of later shipbuilding is not in evidence, and some of the boats in their graves appear twisted or lopsided, symptomatic of vessels without an internal structure to support them out of the water.

Residue of yellow pigment indicates that these boats were probably painted.

Two of the Abydos brick-built boat graves.

Boat Grave #10, with part of the wooden planking of the actual boat exposed for study and conservation.

Remains of any boat gear oars, rudders, dismantled seats, intact prow and stern (the test boat's prow was too disintegrated to provide clear information), as well as evidence for the boats' decoration, have not yet be recovered.

The boats were sealed by mudbrick casing. Traces of some pigments have been found on the wood planks, indicating that the boats could have been painted white. They were placed with their prows towards the Nile.

Although the type of wood has not yet been determined, we know that long distance trade was engaged in by Aha's immediate predecessor, Narmer. He had a great deal of relations with the Near East (Canaan) as attested in various sites, especially by Serekhs with his name engraved on wavy handled jars (fragments). The hard cedar wood of Lebanon has been found in poles and beams of the Umm el Qaab tombs but it was already imported earlier.

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. How else could humans have first settled Australia. Refer to companion papers.

After examining the hull section, one of the archaeologists stated that 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.

Equally surprising was the amount of labor necessary. Each had to be hauled from the Nile, and then arranged for burial.  This included the construction of individual brick enclosures, as well as the filling in of the grave to build a tomb for each boat. As Cheryl Ward exclaimed, "This is an incredible investment by the government in validating itself by burying all these boats."