A unique ancient funerary boat has been unearthed near the Abusir pyramids, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister said in a statement.
The vessel dates to about 2550 B.C. and was discovered by archaeologists excavating a large mastaba, or ancient tomb, in a cemetery of the Old Kingdom officials in Abusir, south of the Giza plateau.
The 59-foot-long boat was found in the area south of the mud-brick tomb by a team of the Czech Institute of Archaeology at Charles University in Prague, led by excavation director Miroslav Bárta.
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Covered with the wind-blown sand, the 4,500-year-old remains of the wooden vessel were lying on a bed of stone with ropes and wooden components still in their original position.
The wooden planks, joined with wooden pegs, were found intact. The desert sand preserved the plant fibers that covered the planking seams, while some of the ropes that bound the boat together were also found in their original position with all their details intact.
“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 said.
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The exact meaning of ancient Egyptian funerary boats is not certain. According to some scholars they were intended as solar barques, used during the journey of the owner through the underworld. Others argue they were simply funerary offerings to be used by the deceased in the afterlife.
The Old Kingdom kings often had several boats buried within their pyramid complexes, but most of the pits have been found empty of any timber, or with little more than patterns of brown dust.
The only exception were the two boats of Khufu, the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid at Giza. Found in a dismantled state, they are in the process of reconstruction.
The Abusir boat is the first vessel of significant dimensions from the Old Kingdom that has been found in a non-royal context, the archaeologists said.
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“This is a highly unusual discovery since boats of such a size and construction were, during this period, reserved solely for top members of the society, who usually belonged to the royal family,” Bárta said.
Although the boat is located almost 40 feet south of the mastaba, its orientation, length, and the pottery collected from its interior, make a clear connection between the structure and the vessel.
A stone bowl discovered in one of the mastaba underground chambers bore the name of king Huni, the last pharaoh of the Third dynasty, thus dating the tomb to that time.
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However, the name of the mastaba’s owner remains unknown, as his burial shaft has not yet been located.
Most likely, he wasn’t a member of the royal family, since his boat is not located adjacent to a royal pyramid.
Nevertheless, the boat indicates his extraordinary social position.
“Both the size of the tomb, as well as the presence of the boat itself, clearly places the deceased within the elite of his time with strong connections to the reigning pharaoh,” the Czech archaeologists concluded.
The team will continue the excavation next spring. A project has been also launched by the Czech Institute of Egyptology experts and from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University to study the techniques used in the hull’s construction.