Archaeologists excavating the mortuary complex of 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senwosret III (r. 1878-1841 B.C.) in Abydos have unearthed a building with more than 120 drawings of boats incised on the walls. The structure was first discovered in 1901-2 during the excavation of the tomb of Senwosret III by archaeologist Arthur Weigall. He was only able to excavate the part of the barrel-vaulted roof before the mudbrick vault collapsed when he attempted to clear the debris underneath it. He caught a glimpse of a few boat drawings at the top of the whitewashed walls.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum has been excavating the complex, one of the largest royal necropoli ever built in Egypt, since 1994. In the 2014 dig season, the team finally got the building that had remained untouched since Weigall’s abortive attempt at excavation. The interior was excavated in 2014, and the front of the building from November 2015 until January 2016. Unfortunately the surviving edges of the vaulted roof were angled inwards and under pressure from exterior brickwork and limestone blocks. They could not be preserved. The team carefully removed them in order to be able to excavate the interior.
Once the remains of the barrel vault were removed, archaeologists could see a crowded tableau of nautical designs incised on all three surviving walls. The dense cluster of images cover 82 feet, carved into the gypsum plaster surface of the interior walls. Details depictions of ships, sails, masts, oars, . Making less frequent of a presence are some animal figures — — more roughly drawn than many of the ships.
The boat images range significantly in size and complexity. At the upper end of the variation are large, well-rendered boats depicted with masts, sails, rigging, deckhouses/cabins, rudders, oars, and in some cases rowers. At the lower end of the range are highly simplified boats, schematically rendered as one or two curving lines depicting a hull, surmounted by a schematized rectangular deckhouse, but devoid of other details. The size of the drawings varies. The larger boats measure nearly 1.5 m in length. Smaller examples measure only c.0.08–0.10 m. Interspersed among the boat images are occasional depictions of animals and other figural elements: cattle, gazelles and floral designs. The imagery in the tableau can be broadly subdivided as follows: 1) simple curved boat hulls of one or two lines and a rudimentary rectangular cabin; 2) boats with a rectangular cabin, and/or rudder and oars but no mast; 3) boats with a rectangular cabin, masts and rigging with the sail furled; 4) boats with a rectangular cabin, masts and rigging and sail unfurled; 5) boats with a rectangular cabin, masts, rudders and oars as well as human rowers; 6) cattle; 7) gazelles; and 8) floral/lotus motifs.
The commonalities between the carvings — they’re mostly masted ships, they have raised prows and sterns, there are cabins on the decks — indicate they were all done around the same time, albeit by different hands of differing abilities. The building is subterranean and the entrance was sealed with mortared bricks more than three feet thick, so the carvers couldn’t have come in after the boat was buried and building closed off. It’s more likely the structure was built, but the burial still not concluded when they added their decorative flavors.
Weigall thought the building was a tomb constructed significantly after Senwosret’s — not a wild conjecture given that the tombs of three 13th Dynasty pharaohs were added to the complex as were eight royal tombs from the late Second Intermediate Period — but the mudbricks of the boat building are the exact same size and material as of those used in Senwosret III tomb enclosure. The exceptional quality of construction also confirms this building dates to the period when Senwosret’s tomb complex was being built, around 1850 B.C.
They also found a very good reason for the motif. The building was not a tomb, as Weigall had thought, but a boat burial, likely one of several associated with the tomb of Senwosret III, a fleet to accompany him to the afterlife. The long hall has a central cavity with sloping sides cut into the desert floor for the full length of the building. Archaeologists believe this is a hull cavity, meaning the ship was buried intact rather than in pieces. Surviving wood planking fragments have been found, albeit in very poor condition. The usual preservative powers of the desert were powerless against the armies of white ants that gorged on the wood. What’s left needs very cautious handling and stabilization before it can be analyzed for age and wood type, but the size and dimensions match those of cedar deck planking found at the pyramid complex of Senwosret III at Dahshur.
A report on the findings has been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, and can be read in its entirety free of charge here.