Oldest-Known Funerary Boat Uncovered in Egypt, in Commoner's Grave

The huge 60-foot wooden boat, preserved by the desert sands over 4,500 years, had to have been very expensive to build.

60-foot long boat dating to ca. 2550 BCE found inside the Old Kingdom cemetery at Abusir,
Martin Frouz, Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology

A huge 60-foot wooden boat, preserved by the sands of the Sahara for over 4,500 years, has been found in the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Abusir. Its cedar planks, connected by wooden pegs, are intact, as are the rib seams, which were caulked with plant materials.

While ancient Egyptian royals had been known to be interred with their vehicles, and though this one was made of hugely expensive imported wood - this magnificent boat was found in the grave of a commoner.

A boat for the Gods

From prehistoric times the Nile was not only a source of food, water and symbol of fertility, but also a highway. The history of Pharaonic Egypt was therefore inextricably linked with the use of boats and ships. Even the sun god Ra was thought to travel in two different barks, across the sky by day and throughout the Netherworld by night.

Finding boats in ancient Egyptian cemeteries has happened before. The practice of burying boats with their royal owners began in the Early Dynastic Period, apparently to symbolically carry the deceased pharaohs into the afterlife.  But few have been found at non-royal tombs. Most Old Kingdom officials of non-royal origin settled for small model boats as a part of the funerary equipment. Ordinary people sailed the ubiquitous papyrus skiffs.

A ship of that splendor would have been a symbol of distinguished travelling, says Bárta. "As such, it was from the very beginning connected with the realm of gods. It was expensive, it was limited to the elite. In this context, the Abusir discovery is really unique."

4,500 Year Old Egyptian Boat Found Near Pyramids YouTube

Whose was it?

But who owned this one? A stone bowl with the inscription of King Huni from the Third Dynasty was found inside a large underground chamber, located 12 meters south of the ship. “We know that the tomb belonged to a very high official of the Third Dynasty," says Bárta.  His chapel was badly damaged in antiquity and thus we do not know his titles or name. But the boat is further confirmation of his extraordinary status

General view of the pyramid field of Abusir
M. Frouz, Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology

With the discovery of the well-preserved ship at Abusir, researchers have the opportunity to better understand ancient Egyptian seafaring and shipbuilding technique. 

“It is by all means a remarkable discovery. The careful excavation and recording of the Abusir boat will make a considerable contribution to our understanding of ancient Egyptian watercraft and their place in funerary cult. And where there is one boat, there very well may be more,” Bárta concludes.

The greatest challenge for the Egyptian shipbuilders was the absence of a local supply of suitable timber.

“Given the length of individual planks and their shapes, we think it is very likely that major part of the boat’s trunk was made of cedar wood coming from Lebanon," Dr. Miroslav Bárta, director of the excavations told Haaretz. 

Timber - mostly cypress and cedar – was imported since early times. By the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. Egypt traded with Byblos and into the Sinai and Punt. The boat could therefore provide further insights on trade relations in the Levant during the Old Kingdom period, around 2700-2200 BCE. Meanwhile, together with experts from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas, the excavations at Abusir will continue, to uncover the whole boat and document the hulls construction.

View of the site where the 4,500-year old wooden boat was discovered - in a non-royal grave in the cemetery of Abusir, just south of Cairo.
L. Jirásková-Vendelová, Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology