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Ancient Ships: The Ships of Antiquity

The Solar Barque of Khufu 4th Dynasty 2550-2528 BCE

Egypt had woods as a resource but the quality of the native woods for shipbuilding was minimal. This shortage of vital materials required that the Egyptians trade with regions with higher quality timber resources. The ancient cities of the Lebanese coast were known for large timbers harvested from the Cedars of Lebanon "Song Of The Cedars".  The Egyptians created trade alliances with the city-states of this region in order to acquire the needed timbers, shipbuilding and seafaring technologies.  

A stamp issued by the modern Egyptian government featured this illustration of the Solar Barque of Khufu

The Solar Boat of Khufu - Copyright (c) Copyright 1997 Andrew Bayuk, All Rights ReservedIt is known that as far as back as 3200 B.C., the people of Byblos on the modern Lebanese coast were harvesting cedar trees in the mountains of Lebanon, to be shipped to Egypt and Mesopotamia for use in building ships and for making structural elements in buildings. In return, the Phoenicians established trading alliances and brought back, grain, paper, gold, ivory, copper, and turquoise and other trade goods from the Nile Valley and Sinai. The Egyptian culture was trading to the south with Nubia, Punt and Kush to provide a trade link for many of these goods to the Northern regions.   Canaanite ceramic pieces have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2999 B.C. The importance of the evidence for early trade between these two cultures for the purpose of creating ships cannot be underestimated. This trade relationship and the importance and influence of the ship building technologies of the Phoenicians would continue and spread for another 2000 years.

In 1954, archaeologists found Cheopís (Khufu) funerary barge at Giza in a chamber beneath his pyramid. The barge was made of Lebanese cedar wood and faint scent of the cedar was still in the grain at the time of its discovery.

The boat's 1,224 separate components included cedar wood planking and oars, ropes of halfa grass, wooden dowels and battens, and copper staples. Its near-perfect preservation allowed conservators to reconstruct the 144-foot-long craft, which is now housed in a museum built over the pit where it was found. The timbers in the hull are bound together by rope and not nailed or pinned together. Modern rope was used during its re-construction, but its timbers are 95 percent original.

Cabin of boatAs you observe this composite set of images, you'll see the boat's 12 oars, ten along the sides and two larger ones at the stern. The blades were insufficient to move a vessel of this size and were either ornamental or used for steering only. The high, curving prow and stern resemble those of papyrus boats common in ancient Egypt. Notice also the cabin and canopy amidships, which were originally covered in rush matting.

This ship demonstrates a tremendous investment of resources and technical skill. It is representative of the effort to which the Egyptians would have gone to in order to construct other ships, those ships needed to transport materials for buildings and monuments and to establish trade.  It is safe to assume similar efforts were made to create the more utilitarian vessels.

One of the greatest technologies used to build the great pyramid is often overlooked because of its hidden quality.

The King's Chamber at the central core of the pyramid is built from granite blocks (diorite) that was quarried near Aswan, This means that some of these blocks which reach wieghts of over eighty tons had to be tranported by barges nearly 300 miles down the Nile River Valley and off loaded from the barges and placed at the core of the Great Pyramid.

This implies the Egyptians had a very real and practicle understanding of the law of specific gravity and could engineer and build barges that could transport these blocks. This accomplishment is not an easy feat. The shear maginitude of the task would be difficult even in modern times.

It is understood from the archeological record that the quarrying of great blocks and their tranportation is a technology the Egyptias traded to their suppliers of timbers for these barges. The area of Byblos on the Lebanese coast shows evidence of the trade of cedar timbers for ths the quarry technologies.

This points to the longstanding relationships of trade, transportation and technologies in the ancient world.

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