Some of the Abydos boats in their brick-built graves.

The Abydos Boats: Transporting the Pharaohs Through the Afterlife


The Abydos boats are a fleet of ships discovered in the sands of Abydos, Egypt. Sea vessels played an important role in ancient Egypt, not only in the everyday life of its people, but also in its religion and mythology.

The flowing of the Nile from the south to the north of this civilization meant that boats were an indispensable mode of transportation. Additionally, the ancient Egyptian god, Ra, was believed to travel across the sky in a solar-boat.

Excavating the Abydos Boats

Although there are numerous artistic depictions of boats and ships, not many actual boats from this ancient civilization are known to have survived the ravages of time. Thus, the Abydos boats are considered to be a significant discovery.

In October 2000, it was reported that a 5000-year-old hull of a wooden boat was excavated by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Yale University Expedition to Abydos. To date, 14 vessels have been discovered at the site, and they are believed to have been built around 3000 BC.

The excavation of some of the boats. Abydos, Egypt.

The excavation of some of the boats. Abydos, Egypt. (David O’Conner)

The existence of at least a dozen boat graves had already been known as early as 1991 by archaeologists working at Abydos. These boat graves were located adjacent to a massive funerary enclosure for a late 2nd Dynasty pharaoh, Khasekhemwy. Yet, they were not excavated at that time, perhaps due to conservation concerns.

Although they were located next to the funerary enclosure of Khasekhemwy, experts have determined that these boats were placed there many years before this enclosure was built, and that they had been intended for an earlier pharaoh, perhaps one from the 1st Dynasty.

Statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Khasekhemwy. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum.

Statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Khasekhemwy. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum. (Udimu/CC BY 3.0)

Description of the Abydos Boats

On average, the Abydos boats measured from 18-24 meters (59-78.7 feet) in length, 2-3 meters (6.6-9.8 feet) in width, and about 60 cm (23.6 inches) deep. Scholars speculate that these boats could have accommodated up to 30 rowers each. Therefore, it has also been determined that these boats were not just models, but could have been vessels used for sailing.

It is unclear, however, if these boats had been used prior to their burial, or were built specifically for funerary purposes. Nevertheless, this is a rare find indeed, as models were commonly used in lieu of the real thing for mortuary purposes. For example, 35 boat models were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Two examples of model boats from Tutankhamun’s tomb, from an expo in Paris in 2012 and Berlin in 2013

Two examples of model boats from Tutankhamun’s tomb, from an expo in Paris in 2012 (CC BY SA 3.0) and Berlin in 2013 (Thomas Quine/CC BY 2.0)

It has also been claimed that the Abydos boats are the earliest surviving examples of ‘built boats.’ These are boats that are constructed out of planks fitted together, as opposed to reed vessels or dugout logs. Thus, the Abydos boats also represent a major development in the history of boat-building.

Due to the complex technology required to build these vessels, it has been suggested that the Abydos boats are a reflection of a pharaoh’s wealth and power. By extension, these ships have the potential to provide scholars with more information about the power, wealth, and technological prowess of ancient Egypt’s earliest dynasties.

Ra’s Daily Boat Journey

Apart from practical uses, the Abydos boats may have also had a more symbolic function. In the religion of the ancient Egyptians, the sun god, Ra, was believed to travel through the sky by day and the netherworld by night in a solar boat.

Ra travelling on his solar boat.

Ra travelling on his solar boat. (Public Domain)

This daily journey represents the regenerative cycle of Ra. Therefore, by burying boats near the tomb of a pharaoh, it was hoped that the pharaoh would also enjoy this eternal cycle of regeneration in their afterlife.

This symbolism of the boat is also visible in the famous Khufu ship, which was discovered at Khufu’s pyramid at Giza, and was possibly constructed about 4 centuries after the Abydos boats. The Abydos boats could be the direct ancestors of this ship – transporting the pharaohs on their journey to regeneration.

The reconstructed Khufu ship. Giza, Egypt.

The reconstructed Khufu ship. Giza, Egypt. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Featured image: Some of the Abydos boats in their brick-built graves. Photo source: Maritimehistorypodcast.com

By: Ḏḥwty

References  

Dollinger, A., 2000. Ships and Boats. [Online]
Available at: http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/navigation.htm

Gordon, S., 2015. A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks. Lebanon, New Hampshire: ForeEdge.

New York University, 2000. After 5,000 Year Voyage, World's Oldest Built Boats Deliver -- Archeologists' First Look Confirms Existence Of Earliest Royal Boats At Abydos. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/11/001101065713.htm

Pierce, R., 2000. After 5,000 year voyage, world's oldest built boats deliver. [Online]
Available at: https://www.abc.se/~pa/mar/abydos.htm

Schuster, A. M., 2000. This Old Boat. [Online]
Available at: http://archive.archaeology.org/online/news/abydos.html

Wilford, J. N., 2000. Early Pharaohs' Ghostly Fleet. [Online]
Available at: https://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/farflt.htm

Comments

Half of the ancient Egyptian past will never be unveiled in my personal opinion due to the massive amounts of sand covering the Valley floor. There must be ways to scan below the depths of sand to reveal what lies beneath. There has to be temples and ruins elsewhere and long lost history.

Hey Jason. Scanning has been done actually - on the sphinx and the pyramids anyway. This is how geologists discovered the tunnel complex that ruins beneath the pyramids, natural or man-made is a point of conjecture. I think it's a bit of both. There is also a room deep under the Sphinx that geologists found ages ago but have been denied permission to excavate by the one and only 'Dr.' Hawass. Who knows what's inside that room/box. Probably a time capsule similar to Gobekli Tepi so I'm not surprised Hawass and his cronies don't want it exposed to the world. They are hell bent on sustaining their warped version of Egypt's history to the grave and beyond.

It would be great if more scanning could be done in other regions though. I would expect we would discover more sites inundated with sand or mud. Who knows what's hidden under the sands of Egpyt; and the Sahara for that matter.

Hopefully, in time, we can change things for the better and remove these egotistical baffoons who call themselves experts in Egyptology and get a real account of history happening.

I agree entirely sir !!

What about scanning from satellites? I know they’ve discovered ancient rivers and such so temples and other structures should also be visible. Or so I would think.

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