Archaeology Odyssey 4:2, March/April 2001

Field Notes

By Judith Harris

Archaeology Odyssey

In Upper Egypt, a 1st Dynasty king was laid to rest with his favorite fleet

The desert sands of Abydos, Egypt, 300 miles south of Cairo, have revealed an improbable ancient secret: A pharaoh from the 1st Dynasty (2920–2770 B.C.) was interred with a fleet of 14 full-size boats to help him navigate through the afterlife.

Unlike mortuary models from other pharaohs’ tombs, these 60- to 80-foot vessels discovered by archaeologists from New York University, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania are fully operational.

Not only that—their wooden plank construction represents a major advance over earlier boat-building techniques. Although human beings had mastered the construction of rafts, dugouts and reed vessels thousands of years earlier, planked boats required techniques that simply weren’t developed until the rise of early Egyptian civilization. Wood, a rare commodity in ancient Egypt, had to be shaped with stone tools. Thick planks were lashed together by rope fed through mortises and made watertight by reed caulking. As many as 30 rowers would have been needed to propel each boat.

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