ABovE Egyptian boatbuilding. here, the keel is being trimmed with an adze, as shown in a 3rd-millennium BC depiction in the tomb of ti at Saqqara. traditionally, the study of Egyptian boats has been heavily dependent on such images.
the emporium of thonis-heracleion lay at the westernmost entrance to the Nile. When this city sank into the Mediterranean, it created an extraordinary underwater repository of ancient activity, complete with ports and canals crammed with traces of ancient craft. Alexander Belov told Matthew Symonds what the first ship from the city to be excavated reveals about rivercraft that once caught herodotus’ eye.
It is hard to overstate the significance of ships and boats to ancient Egyptians. Their language boasted over 100 words for such vessels, which enjoyed an importance that stretched well beyond the mundane but essential tasks of fishing, trade, and transport. The sun god supposedly voyaged through the sky by boat, while cult images of other deities would reside in shrines resembling rivercraft. Despite this prominence, study of the ships and boats themselves has traditionally relied on images, ancient texts, and models that were intended to convey the deceased to the afterlife. Pharaoh Khufu famously preferred to think big and had two full-size boats buried beside his Great Pyramid tomb. Until recently, such finds of actual vessels were exceptional, with only about 20 examples known. The resulting uncertainty concerning the true nature of Egyptian ships is particularly acute during the Late period (664-332 BC), when images of them become much rarer. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why the discovery of more than 70 wrecks – many probably dating to this Late period – in the former waterways of Thonis-Heracleion promises a revolution in knowledge.