In 1954, Egyptologist Kamal el-Mallakh discovered a pit carved into the bedrock at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Underneath a row of 40 massive limestone blocks covering the pit was a full-sized wooden ship, disassembled into 1224 pieces and untouched since the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589–2566 B.C.) in the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. It is commonly known today as a solar boat, a ritual ship to transport the pharaoh in his incarnation as the sun god Ra on his daily voyage across the sky, but it’s possible it was used as a funerary barge to carry Khufu’s body on the Nile to Giza. Mallakh spent 20 months painstakingly excavating the ship parts. Then Egyptian Department of Antiquities conservator Ahmed Youssef Moustafa spent another 13 years reconstructing it. At 143 feet long and 20 feet wide and 4500 years old, Khufu’s ship is the oldest and largest intact ship in the world.
Mallakh found a second pit next to the first one and was convinced there was a second boat, but it was left unexplored until 1987 when a team of archaeologists fielded by the National Geographic Society ran a camera under the limestone cover stones and confirmed Mallakh was right. Without the budget to safely excavate the extremely fragile second boat, its disassembled parts remained undisturbed until 2011 when a team of Japanese and Egyptian researchers, funded by a $10 million grant from Waseda University, raised the slabs covering the second pit. It took another two years before they were ready to recover more than 700 pieces of Lebanese cedar and Egyptian acacia wood.
The original estimate was that excavating and reconstructing the ship would take four or five years, but archaeologists have had to employ great caution going through the 13 layers of wood beams and the recovery is still ongoing today. Last week, the team raised a beam from the eighth layer that is eight meters (26 feet) long, 40 centimeters (15.7 inches) wide and four centimeters (1.6 inches) thick. It was taken to the laboratory built on the Giza Plateau for the Khufu Second Boat Project for it to be dried and stabilized.
Upon closer examination, the beam was found to have unique features: a number of U and L-shaped metal hooks embedded in the surface of the wood. There are no such metal elements in any of the beams from Khufu’s first solar boat. Archaeologists believe the metal parts may have been the ancient version of oar locks.
From the boats found across Egypt, “we have not found the use of metals in their frames like in this boat”, Mohamed Mostafa Abdel-Megeed, an antiquities ministry official and expert in boat-making in ancient Egypt, told AFP on the sidelines of a Cairo press conference.
The U-shaped hooks were used “to place the paddles to prevent friction of wood against wood”, said Sakuji Yoshimura, an Egyptologist from Japan.