Fleet of World's Oldest Ships Emerges From Egyptian Desert
November 2, 2000
A fleet of the oldest built wooden boats in the world, located in the desert sands of Abydos, Egypt-more than eight miles from the river Nile-are painstakingly being excavated by archeologists. The work is revealing remarkable new evidence about the wealth, power and technological prowess of the earliest days of Egyptian civilization.
To date, 14 of the large vessels, dating from 3000 B.C. and estimated to be between 60 and 80 feet long, have been identified, and a large section of one boat has been exposed, conserved and studied by a team of archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Yale University and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
Dr. David O'Connor, the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and Curator Emeritus and Research Associate, Egyptian Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum, has been working at Abydos since 1967 and is Project Director for the Abydos Boats project and co-director, with Dr. William Kelly Simpson of Yale University, of the long-running multi-faceted Abydos Expedition.
"Ancient Egypt is a riverine civilization, yet before these boats were discovered, we knew very little-beyond representations on ancient pots-about ancient Egyptian boats earlier than the reign of Khufu, one of the greatest fourth dynasty pharaohs," noted Dr. O'Connor. "These boats provide us with a window into better understanding Egypt at the dawn of its extraordinary, long- lived civilization.
Although precise dating, through carbon 14 testing (only accurate to about 200 years), remains to be determined, early excavation of a ten-foot portion of one of the wooden hulls has already yielded surprising results: the archaeologists now believe the boats were not models, as many mortuary-associated objects could be, but viable vessels which could accommodate as many as 30 rowers.
Boats figured largely in ancient Egyptian life, where few people lived far from the life-giving Nile River. The Abydos boats appear to be the prototype of the pharaonic boats that appear, both real and in symbolic form, in funerary contexts much later in Egyptian history. Egyptians believed that the king, or pharaoh, at his death joined the sun god Ra, sailing in his boat down the heavenly Nile. The most famous and elaborate of these boats-featuring carved prow and stern and a deck cabin-was found in a boat grave at the Great Pyramid of Giza, attributed to the Pharaoh Khufu (ca. 2500 B.C.). No intact boats had been found of earlier construction-until now.
Archaeologists hope that material evidence found in and around the boats may eventually help with dating and better understanding the royal fleet-and Egypt in the first dynasty.
(c) 2000 Cosmiverse
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