Beneath the golden sands west of the Nile, at the ancient Egyptian sacred site of Abydos, archaeologists have made an extraordinary discovery: a whole fleet of boats that were sketched onto the interior walls of a subterranean mud-brick boat chamber in about 1840 B.C.
The structure was part of the mortuary complex of a 12th-dynasty king named Senwosret III, whose tomb lies nearby. This unique find reveals new details about how the rituals of the king’s funeral may have played out. It also suggests that an age-old royal burial tradition was still honored here, though that would soon fade as radically different funerary practices came into fashion.
The structure was first noticed during the winter of 1901-02, when British archaeologist Arthur Weigall exposed the barrel-vaulted roof as well as the tops of the interior walls. There he got the first glimpse of the building’s boat-themed decoration. But the central part of the roof collapsed as his crew excavated the sand from under it, putting an end to the project.
Now archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania, working with Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities, have exposed the ruins of what was once a grand hall some 70 feet long and 13 feet wide. This work was partly funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society.
The finely plastered, whitewashed walls were decorated with more than 120 incised drawings of boats, each slightly different from the next. Some were simple outlines of hulls curved like crescent moons. Others were more elaborate, showing a mast and sails and oarsmen. Most were crowded together, with many touching or overlapping.
At first, Wegner and his team had no idea what this building might have been used for. “We were quite mystified,” he says. “We were expecting it to be a tomb.” But the clues they’ve uncovered suggest it was constructed to bury a large wooden boat that had been used in a royal funeral, in line with a tradition that stretches back to the earliest days of dynastic Egypt.
As a graduate student, Wegner participated in an excavation at Abydos that found 14 wooden vessels—some as long as 75 feet— from about 3000 B.C. All lay in mud-brick structures arrayed outside the funerary complex of a 1st-dynasty king.
Wegner sees evidence of a similar scheme at this site, known as south Abydos.
When his crew dug a test trench to find the floor of the building with the boat sketches, they found a gentle curve—the perfect shape to cradle a boat’s hull. They also found a few pieces of wood that were badly decayed and ravaged by insects.
Wegner believes these are the remaining scraps of a boat that was looted in antiquity for its lumber. Since the boat had a royal connection, the lumber probably included expensive cedar planks imported from Lebanon—very much worth stealing, especially in a country where trees of any kind are scarce.
The boat would have been built at the height of the 12th dynasty, when Egypt sent military campaigns to both the Levant in the north and Nubia in the south. During this period of great wealth and power, the king must have had money to burn on any number of monumental projects—including more than one potential burial place. Each required an enormous investment of resources and reflected very different designs.
Senwosret III ruled from the north of the country, and he has one burial place there. His capital, Itjtawy [pronounced itch-TAU-wee], lay somewhere near the Fayum, a region about 280 miles north of Abydos. Its exact location was one of Egypt’s many mysteries until National Geographic explorer Sarah Parcak identified a likely site recently through satellite imagery. Following tradition, the king had a pyramid tomb built at the nearby site of Dashur, not far from the famous 4th-dynasty pyramids at Giza. But it doesn’t look like he was buried there.
He also had a tomb, mortuary temple, and associated funerary buildings prepared at the already ancient site of Abydos, far to the south. That spot was the mythical location of the tomb of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, and had long been an important pilgrimage site.
“Senwosret III had a personal interest in the cult of Osiris, who was worshipped in the main temple at Abydos,” Wegner says. In fact, at the same time the king was building his own final resting place, he assigned a commission of high officials to completely renovate the god’s temple.
The royal tomb was dug deep into the bedrock under a cliff known in antiquity as the Mountain of Anubis, the jackal-headed god associated with mummification. Wegner’s crew has been excavating there, too. Among other things, they’ve found a magnificent stone sarcophagus. It was empty and not in its original location. But together with other clues, it leads them to believe Senwosret III was, indeed, buried in Abydos.
The king most surely died somewhere else, so his body had to have been brought to Abydos. The logical route was the fluid highway of the Nile. Wegner envisions a great procession of boats traveling along the river, all accompanying the great craft that carried the mortal remains of the recently departed ruler.
As part of the funerary ceremonies, at least one of those boats was probably dragged across the sand and maneuvered into an underground chamber of mud brick.
And then, perhaps, each of the many people who had participated in this ritual left an individual piece of art—the image of a boat quickly scratched into the chamber wall to commemorate the king’s passing.
Senwosret III’s preparations for his own demise foreshadowed big changes in burial customs. Although kings would continue to build pyramids until about 1500 B.C., the idea of a hidden tomb gained momentum. By the time of the New Kingdom, Egypt’s next golden age, rulers were hiding their tombs beneath the Valley of the Kings, and the tradition of burying funerary boats had entirely died out.
The most famous discovery there, King Tut’s tomb, included exquisite model boats that served a similar function to Senwosret’s full-size ones. They were supposed to become available magically for the use of the deceased king in the next world. Those preparations for a life everlasting endured for 30 dynasties and almost 3,000 years, even as the details changed with the passage of time.