ARCHAEOLOGISTS have uncovered a boat intended to carry the soul of its owner to the stars buried under the ruins of a 4500-year-old Egyptian tomb.
The find was made during excavations by the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Abousir, an ancient necropolis on the outskirts of modern Cairo.
It was a cemetery reserved for members of Egypt’s elite classes living in the nearby capital Memphis, though not members of the royal family.
The site is known for its ‘mastabas’, built-up brick platforms which were both a precursor of — and an alternative for — pyramids.
“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. This suggests the potential for additional discoveries during the next spring season,” excavation director Dr Miroslav Barta says.
“The discovery is important as this is the only boat of the Old Kingsom to be discovered next to non-Royal tomb which emphasis the status and rank of the Mastaba owner and his relation to the King at that time,” Dr. Mamdouh El Damaty, Minister of Antiquities, said.
The 18m funerary ship, dated to the end of the 3rd Dynasty about 2550BC, is reported to be in a very well preserved condition.
Wooden pegs and natural-fibre ropes used to hold the hull together are still in their original places, offering a rare glimpse of the time’s construction techniques.
Most previously discovered boats — other than those belonging to Pharaoh Khufu — were in very poor condition.
Mastaba AS 54’s cruciform offering chapel is in very poor condition. The Czech mission — which has been excavating the site since 2009 — does not yet know the occupant’s name.
His burial shaft has not yet been located.
A stone bowl discovered in one of the mastaba underground chambers carried the name of Pharoah Huni, dating the tomb to the Third Dynasty.
The boat itself was found under fine sand about 12 metres south of the tomb, though its orientation and pottery found in its hull provide a direct link between the two.
VESSEL OF MYSTERIES
The exact significance of ancient Egyptian funerary ships is not certain.
Some academics argue the ships were intended to serve their owners as solar barques — carrying their spirits to meet the sun-god Ra as he travelled the celestial Nile.
Others argue their purpose was the same as other funerary offerings: Practical objects intended to make sure their owner had everything they may need in the afterlife.
The 44m longships of Khufu, while in very good condition, were found in a dismantled state. Archaeologists are in the process of reconstructing the vessels.
Most other discoveries are limited to patterns of discoloured dust, or impressions in the sand.
“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,” Dr Barta said.