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(Note: the first article in the list of contents is a personal account by the editor of some unusual places he went to while the Diggings tour was being cared for by assistant editor David Coltheart. It is a fascinating article, but unfortunately too long to be e-mailed – and in any case, the photographs that go with it are essential! Subscribe and ask for your subscription to begin with the June issue so that you can learn about Egypt’s “Hunger Rock”, St Peter’s anchor, Caesarea’s obelisk and the house of Tobias.)
I never cease to be astonished at the dedication of those who seem to spend their lives searching for “proof” that the Great Pyramid contains some deep dark mystery which is being deliberately concealed by a gang of evil conspirators – the names of Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner usually head the list – aided and abetted by the CIA, the Catholic church and/or the Masons.
One gentleman of this persuasion recently wrote to me drawing my attention to “evidence” that the blocking stones in the Ascending Passage were built in place, not slid down the passage after Khufu’s burial. The only trouble was that the measurements upon which he based his conclusions had been made by Piazzi Smyth, the original pyramidiot, whose work is not only old but largely disproved by the more accurate measurements taken by Flinders Petrie.
Sometimes, however, the enquiries we receive are based upon a misunder-standing rather than perversity and such was the letter which came from a lady asking for further information about reed boats which had been discovered at Abydos. Unfortunately I could find nothing to give her; the history books do not record the discovery of any of reed boats, nor could I find any mention of such a finding in the reports from the Middle East upon which we base our researches and articles.
We know that the ancient Egyptians made boats out of papyrus reeds – rather like Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra – and many of the model craft recovered from tombs (including Tutankhamu’s tomb) appear to be based upon a reed original. In addition, there is no a priori reason why such boats should not have survived to the modern age; the dry climate of Egypt has preserved far more fragile things than tightly bound bundles of reeds. The fact remains, however, that the Egyptians do not appear to have considered reed boats worthy of inclusion among the funerary goods that accompanied the princes and paupers of that land on their voyage to the West.
A day after writing to the lady regretting my inability to assist her I received a news report concerning American excavations at Abydos, led by Dr David O’Connor of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. His team has recently excavated the first of a possible 14 wooden boats dating to the First Dynasty, whch would make them 5,000 years old if the conventional chronology is adhered to.
The boats were buried, not in pits like the more famous boats of Gizeh, but in mud-brick buildings more than six miles from the Nile. They have been overlooked so long because they are close to the tomb of Khasekhemwy, the last ruler of the Second Dynasty, and that attracted the attention of archaeologists who were more interested in monumental stone than in crumbling mud-brick.
It was in June 2000 that the first work began on the mud-brick mounds and excavators were surprised and thrilled by the appearance of huge timber planks. The wood was very much the worse for wear and large sections of what turned out to be the prow had been devoured by white ants, but what remained was clearly a boat, probably about 75 feet long and up to 10 feet wide. When new the ship could have held thirty rowers in addition to the passengers.
Unlike the Gizeh ships, which were dismantled and stored as a parcel of planks and rope, the Abydos boats were buried complete and intact. This has given us a remarkable insight into ancient Egyptian boat-building methods, for although the Gizeh boat is held together by ropes, that is merely a deducation based upon the holes found in the wood and the amount of rope present in the burial pit. Although the restorers drew the rope as tight as they could, this still left gaping holes between the planks and though it is probable that when the wood was new and unwarped, these holes would have been greatly reduced, there was still plenty of room for water to leak into the craft and no one knew how the ancient Egyptians might have solved the problem.
The new boats from Abydos provide the answer: between the planks there is a caulking of reeds, hammered in between the seams of the planking. (Even in modern times wooden boats have to be caulked, usually with rope which is laid along the seam and then forced in between the planks with a hammer and a caulking iron. When the boat is placed in the water the rope swells, thus making a good seal between the planks. Should the caulking be displaced by heavy seas, the result is disastrous.)
The ship must have been an impressive sight when it was new, for traces of yellow pigment indicate that it was brightly painted and probably decorated as well. Thirty jars, pointed on the bottom like amphorae, have been recovered from the part of the ship so far excavated. The jars were sealed shut and the seal impressions are still legible, though none of them give us a royal name. However Dr O’Connor hopes that more jars will be found, some of which will bear the name of the owner of the ships. In addition timber has been removed for carbon-14 dating, which may enable us to identify the king in whose rule they were made.
When I read this report I suddenly realised the source of the lady’s question: she must have heard about these boats and, either through the reporter’s incompetence or her own distraction, misunderstood the purpose of the reeds. She thought that the boats themselves were made of reeds. The truth, I am glad to say, was much more interesting than the report.