It is hard to overstate the significance of ships and boats to ancient Egyptians. Their language boasted over 100 words for such vessels, which enjoyed an importance that stretched well beyond the mundane but essential tasks of fishing, trade, and transport. The sun god supposedly voyaged through the sky by boat, while cult images of other deities would reside in shrines resembling rivercraft. Despite this prominence, study of the ships and boats themselves has traditionally relied on images, ancient texts, and models that were intended to convey the deceased to the afterlife. Pharaoh Khufu famously preferred to think big and had two full-size boats buried beside his Great Pyramid tomb. Until recently, such finds of actual vessels were exceptional, with only about 20 examples known. The resulting uncertainty concerning the true nature of Egyptian ships is particularly acute during the Late period (664-332 BC), when images of them become much rarer. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why the discovery of more than 70 wrecks – many probably dating to this Late period – in the former waterways of Thonis-Heracleion promises a revolution in knowledge.
The excavation of the first of these craft, known as Ship 17, has recently been published (see further information, p.40). ‘We did three seasons of work on the ship, but in total that was only 50 days,’ says Alexander Belov, author of the report, and archaeologist with Franck Goddio’s Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine [IEASM], as well as a researcher with the Centre for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. ‘We were a very small team: it was just me, a draftsman, and another archaeological diver. Because Ship 17 was only 6.5m to 7m underwater, we could spend lots of time on the wreck: up to eight hours on some days. Visual surveillance of Thonis-Heracleion by divers in 2001 revealed that wooden objects were buried on the site, and Ship 17 was the first to be properly excavated. It was chosen because of its size, about 28m in length, and because it was not buried deep in the sediment. Even then, some of it rested in the underlying clay, which means you have to dig very slowly. The clay is so dense that you have to cut it away with a spatula, taking great care not to damage the wood. So those were the reasons, but we now know that it is a type of ship called a baris – from which we ultimately get the English word ‘barge’ – and it is representative of many, many vessels of the same type at the site.’
Despite the dramatic fate that befell Thonis-Heracleion (see CWA 60), Ship 17 was already submerged when the city was inundated. ‘It had 14 poles around the hull to fix it in place,’ explains Alexander. ‘Damian Robinson, the head of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, has looked at the context of these ships, and his conclusion is that most of them are not shipwrecks, but that this was a ships’ graveyard. Some of them were abandoned, and some of them were reused in harbour infrastructure. It seems that Ship 17 was used to increase the length of a nearby pier.’
The size of Ship 17 may have made it particularly well suited to such a utilitarian afterlife, but its origins lie in the 6th to the first half of the 5th century BC. This was a time when foreign trade ships were obliged to enter the Nile delta via the river’s westernmost, or Canopic, branch, so that appropriate tolls could be levied on their cargo. As Thonis-Heracleion controlled access to this channel, it benefited from a monopoly that allowed the city to flourish. Another arrival from the west during this period was the ancient author Herodotus, who was sufficiently struck by the barides operating in the Nile delta that he dedicates 23 lines in his Historia to describing their appearance and use. Among his observations are that ‘their boats with which they carry cargoes are made of acacia… From this… they cut planks two cubits long and arrange them like bricks’. Study of Ship 17 has vindicated almost all of Herodotus’ observations.
‘It is astonishing,’ says Alexander. ‘His description of “bricks” suggests a very unusual way of building a hull. Generally, the longer the planks the better, but in Ship 17 they really are like bricks. They are very thick and rectangular in section; none of the planks is over 3.7m in length, and most are under 2m. These are longer than the ones that Herodotus saw, as two cubits is about 105cm, but the resulting appearance is the same. Indeed, the result doesn’t just make the hull look like brickwork, because when you examine the planking, you see that the procedure was also to build it in the same manner as a brick wall! To my knowledge, boats were not constructed in this manner anywhere else in the world.’
‘The reason is that this design was imposed by the wood. As Herodotus says, this was acacia. According to ancient sources, the maximum length of plank you can cut from this tree is 12 cubits, or 6m. Usually, though, they are much shorter. Acacia is very hard wood, and some trees have a density exceeding that of oak. It is very heavy, but also very brittle, so if you don’t use your tools correctly it will just break. There is also a high silica content, which rapidly blunts woodworking tools. So, acacia is not easy to work with, but it is also characteristic of the Nile valley. What we are seeing is an ingenious approach to using a difficult but plentiful wood source that can be dated back to the Old Kingdom, and which we can now confirm continued until at least the 5th century BC.’
Life on the Nile
Examining the vessel also reveals clues about where it was used. ‘We can guess from the construction that Ship 17 was not designed for sea voyages,’ Alexander says. ‘It had an open hull with no deck, while the lower external surfaces show no traces of erosion from when it was beached, which suggests that it was used in a clayey rather than sandy environment. Also, when the boat was fully loaded it would have sat quite low in the water, so most probably this ship was navigating within the delta. Unfortunately, there were no traces of the cargoes that Ship 17 carried, or any of the crew’s belongings, but some of the other barides at the site seem to have transported stone blocks. We’ve calculated that Ship 17 could transport about 112 tonnes of cargo.’
‘We know that the ship had a sail, because there was a notch for the mast visible in the keel. There is no arrangement for rowers – probably it was too heavy to row – so this was a sailing ship. Herodotus tells us that a baris could sail upstream if there was a favourable wind, but at other times it was hauled along from the bank. In that regard it was very like the pre-steam barges that inherited its name. The Nile delta is not an easy environment. You need a lot of knowledge to navigate safely the various water flows, islands, sandbanks, and so forth. Back then there was no sailing academy or anything like that, so it was something that was passed down through the generations. This was very valuable knowledge. We know from the ancient sources that sometimes to oppress a polis as a maritime force, it was sufficient simply to kill the helmsmen and captains. It is not very nice, but it happened.’
The results from the excavation of Ship 17 have now been published, alongside a discussion of its wider context and new translation of Herodotus’ account of a baris: A Belov (2019) Ship 17: a baris from Thonis-Heracleion. Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology Monograph 10, Oxford, £45, ISBN 978-1 905905362.