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. ( 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. ( 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.
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.
- The stunning temple of Seti I in Abydos, Egypt
- The Abydos King List is a trove of information, preserving the identities of 76 kings of ancient Egypt
- Abydos carvings
- Foundations of 3,300-year-old pyramid containing burial chamber discovered in Abydos
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. ( 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. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Featured image: Some of the Abydos boats in their brick-built graves. Photo source: Maritimehistorypodcast.com