Ship Construction

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Ship Construction


Maritime Technology . Boats and ships were always a crucial technology in ancient Egypt because the Nile River tied Egypt together and the empire had long coastlines on the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Watercraft were an important theme in Egyptian art. In the Predynastic and Pharaonic Periods extraordinarily detailed paintings and models make scholars better informed about the actual construction of Egyptian ships than they are about any other ancient nautical tradition before the Greco-Roman Period. Even better than this artistic documentation, however, are the actual remains of Egyptian boats, which are known from Dynasties 1, 4, and 12, as well as from the Persian Period. Unlike most ancient boats or ships, Egyptian boat remains have all been discovered on land, not in underwater excavations. The Egyptian boats or boat fragments that are known are mostly funerary, designed to accompany a dead person into the next world. As such, they probably differ in many details from working boats of the time, but there is good reason to think that they also duplicate much of the basic technology that would have gone into any large wooden vessel.


In the fifth century B.C.E., the Greek historian Herodotus, in the course of researching his great history of the wars between Greece and Persia, visited Egypt, then a province of the Persian Empire. Herodotus was fascinated with all aspects of Egyptian history and with the ways of life of the people of Egypt, and many of his descriptions of things he saw are among the most valuable sources for the history of Egypt. In one fascinating passage, Herodotus describes the construction of a particular kind of Egyptian freight boat, called a “baris.”

The boats with which they carry cargo are made of acacia. Cutting two-cubit (approximately three feet) planks from this acacia, they build the hull like a brick-layer in the following way: they pound the two-cubit-long planks onto closely-spaced, large tenons (that is, flat pegs of wood), and when they have built up the hull in this way, they lay deck-beams above (at deck-level). They do not use frames (that is, ribs); and they lash the hulls together from the inside with papyrus (cords). There is one steering oar, which passes through the bottom-plank. They use acacia masts and papyrus sails. These boats are unable to sail upriver if the wind is not strong, so they are towed from the land. There are a great many of these boats, and some carry many tons.

Source: The History: Herodotus, translated by David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 170.

The Royal Ship of Khufu (Cheops) . The largest and best-preserved ship from antiquity is the funerary ship of Khufu (Cheops), the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza. This ship, which is about 150 feet long and built mainly of imported Lebanese cedar, was found in the 1950s c.e. disassembled in a sealed pit next to the pyramid. It was in remarkably good condition and was reconstructed and put on display in a special museum near the pyramid, where it can be seen today. The remarkable thing about the Khufu ship, which it shares with most ancient Egyptian watercraft, is that it was not nailed together like a modern wooden ship would be, nor was it put together with wooden pegs, as the Greeks and Romans had built their ships. Rather, the Khufu ship was literally sewn together by means of heavy ropes that were threaded through channels cut in the inner surfaces of the planks. This type of construction was extremely long-lived in Egypt—there is evidence that it survived down to the Greco-Roman Period, possibly even into the early Middle Ages. Egyptian “sewn” vessel-construction technique was quite practical on many grounds. Maintenance was simplified: damaged pieces could be more easily removed than on a ship that was nailed or pegged together. A “sewn” ship could be taken apart and put back together again with a minimum of special tools, which was an advantage in the overland transportation of ships. Remember that to get their ships from the Nile River to the Red Sea, the Egyptians,

such as Henenu, would disassemble a vessel, carry it in pieces through the desert, and then put it back together again on the Red Sea coast.

Other Egyptian Vessels. Scholars know other Egyptian boats from Dynasty 1. These boats, which were buried in a royal cemetery, were also intended to accompany a pharaoh into the next world. Excavation of these vessels has only just begun, but it appears that, much like the Khufu boat, these vessels were lashed together. An unusual feature of the boats is that they seem to have had reed bundles fastened between the planks to act as caulking. Aside from these complete vessels, wooden fragments have been discovered in a nonroyal cemetery that were worked in ways that strongly recall the techniques that went into the construction of the Khufu vessel. While it is unsure whether these particular planks come from ships, they do show that the techniques that went into the Khufu vessel were in use as early as Dynasty 1, and may well be far older. Four other intact boats are known from Dynasty 12, all excavated at the Egyptian site of Dahshur. These vessels, like the Khufu ship, were sewn together, although the technique was somewhat different. Finally, a boat that dates to the Persian Period, discovered near Cairo, shows an interesting mix of native Egyptian and Greek-style hull construction.


Björn Landstrom, Ships of the Pharaohs: 4000 Years of Egyptian Shipbuilding (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970; London: Allen & Unwin, 1970).

Paul Lipke, The Royal Ship of Cheops (Oxford: B.A.R., 1984).

Steve Vinson, Egyptian Boats and Ships (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, U.K.: Shire Publications, 1994).

Cheryl A. Ward, Sacred and Secular: Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats (Boston: University Museum for the Archaeological Institute of America, 1999).