Archeologists Find a Rare 4,500-Year-Old Egyptian Funerary Boat

The watercraft is so well preserved that it still has the pegs, ropes and plant fibers that once held it together

Egyptian funerary boat
An archeologist surveys the in-progress excavation of an approximately 4,500-year-old boat. Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology Faculty of Arts Charles University in Prague

Desert sand has long buried the area surrounding the Abusir pyramids, a necropolis known for its royal burials from Egypt's Fifth Dynasty, circa 2480 B.C. But that sand has also helped preserve the artifacts there. Now, Czech archeologists have uncovered an ancient funerary boat, a unique find, seeing as its wooden planks had to last through millennia.

The 62-foot-long boat, dating back more than 4,500 years, was found in a tomb or mastaba made of mud bricks, reports ARCHAEOLOGY magazine

The discovery is unusual not just because it is so well preserved but also because the practice of boats burials, which began in Egypt's Early Dynastic Period, was thought to be reserved for members of the royal family. The Abusir discovery, however, was not located close enough to a royal pyramid to suggest that its owner was royal. The size of the tomb, however, indicates that whoever was buried in it was an elite, a press release from Charles University in Prague writes. 

The millenia-old planks' wooden pegs are still visible in their original positions. Even plant fiber battens that covered the boat's seams are also still there, as are some of the ropes that held the boat together. "All these minute details are of the highest importance, since most of the ancient Egyptian boats and ships have survived either in poor state of preservation, or were dismantled in pieces," the press release notes.

Abusir excavation
The site where the funeral boat was found. Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology Faculty of Arts Charles University in Prague

Egyptologists still don't know exactly why boats were buried in tombs. They may have been the barges that bore the deceased into the afterlife or a form of transportation the dead could use once they arrived to the underworld. In Egypt's Old Kingdom, royals often had several boats buried inside their pyramids. Most of these boats have been lost thanks to the inexorable grind of time. Only "brown dust in the shape of the original boat" remains in some of the pits designed to hold them, according to the press release.

“It is by all means a remarkable discovery," says director of the excavations at Abusir, Miroslav Bárta. "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." 

One of the only other surviving ancient Egyptian boats is a ship that was buried in pieces, found in the Great Pyramid of King Khufu in 1954. That 144-foot-long vessel was carefully reconstructed and put on display. Researchers hope this smaller vessel will help them learn more about the purpose of these boats and perhaps indicate the possibility of future discoveries in the area.

As Bárta puts it, "...[W]here there is one boat, there very well may be more."