4,500-Year-Old Boat Found Near Pyramids

The 59-foot-long boat, dating to about 2550 B.C., was discovered at an ancient tomb, in a cemetery south of the Giza plateau.

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.

The 4,500-year-old funerary boat as it is excavated.

In one of the most ambitious and innovative projects ever, Egypt’s main pyramids will be investigated by a team from Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering, Nagoya University in Japan and Paris-based non-profit organization Heritage, Innovation and Preservation. Cutting-edge technologies like infrared thermography, muon radiography and 3-D reconstruction will look inside four pyramids, which are more than 4,500 years old. They include Khufu, or Cheops, Khafre or Chephren at Giza, the Bent pyramid and the Red pyramid at Dahshur. The current survey focuses on the Bent pyramid, so named because of its sloping upper half. Built by Snefru, founder of the Fourth Dynasty, the monument is the first with smooth faces after generations of stepped pyramids. Cosmic-ray muon radiographies are expected to provide more information about its construction. The work is under the authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

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A team led by specialist Kunihiro Morishima, from the Institute for Advanced Research of Nagoya University, Japan, has entered the pyramid to install 40 plates. The monument has two entrances, one on the north side and one on the west side. These entries open onto two corridors leading to two burial chambers arranged one above the other.

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The plates contain two emulsion films that are sensitive to muons, so they basically work as muon detectors. Muons continually shower the Earth's surface. Just like X-rays pass through our bodies allowing us to visualize our skeleton, these elementary particles, weighing around 200 times more than electrons, can easily pass through any structure, even mountains. Plate detectors placed inside the pyramid allow researchers to discern void areas -- that muons cross without problem -- from denser areas where some of them are absorbed or deflected.

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Now covering a surface of about 10 square feet in the pyramid's lower chamber, the plates have been left at the site to accumulate data. In early 2016 the emulsion films will be processed in Cairo. Then they will be analyzed to generate muon radiographies images, potentially revealing hidden chambers in the pyramid. "In case a void is detected, the images generated from the emulsion film analysis show a contrast difference," Mehdi Tayoubi, co-director with professor Hany Helal of the ScanPyramids mission, told Discovery News. "The principle is that you have to count the muons. Then you scan and process the image to generate an image with contrast," he added.

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The difficult part of the technique is producing highly sensitive detectors, which can be either gels like the ones used for silver prints or scintillators. Enough data then needs to be accumulated over days or months to emphasize the contrasts. In order to find out the best chemical formula of the emulsion films, plate samples have already been installed in the Queen Chamber of Khufu's Pyramid. "We need to find the best formula for the environment inside the pyramid. The installation will be completed at a later stage in 2016," Tayoubi said.

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