Conservation work of the newly uncovered beam from Khufu’s second boat (photos: Khaled El-Fiki)
A cruise fit for a king
Was Khufu’s second solar boat intended for a Nile cruise rather than to transport the pharaoh through all eternity, asks Nevine El-Aref
The newly revealed wooden beam with pieces of metal on it that has been taken from the pit of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu’s second solar boat on the Giza Plateau has raised controversy over the original use of the boat.
Was it intended to transport the deceased king throughout eternity as was once thought? Or was it simply a Nile cruiser?
Why did the beam with metal pieces on it not exist in the first boat, now on display in a special museum on the Giza Plateau? What was the function of the pieces? Are they oar-holders, as has been suggested? Or were they used to link ropes like those found in the Middle Kingdom port of Marsa Wadi Gawasis in Sinai?
There is no evidence available that might serve to answer these questions, but scientific consultant to the Khufu’s second solar boat project Mohamed Mustafa Abdel-Meguid told Al-Ahram Weekly that Egyptologists were actively seeking a solution.
“The discovery of Khufu’s boats on the Giza Plateau in 1954 raised controversy over their original usage in antiquity, but the recently uncovered beam with the metal pieces on it in the king’s second boat pit has added even more mystery,” Abdel-Meguid said.
Over half a century after the discovery of the first boat, scholars are still debating its purpose. Some say the vessel is a solar barque that Khufu would have used in his persona as the sun god Re during his daily voyages across the sky and that it was never intended for use on water. Others say the ship was a funerary craft to transport Khufu’s mummy on the Nile to the Giza necropolis, or a ceremonial vessel used by the king on pilgrimages to holy sites.
“Like much else surrounding this magnificent creation, its function remains an enigma,” Abdel-Meguid said, adding that the newly found beam in Khufu’s second boat added more mystery to the enigma.
The beam was unique, he said, and nothing like it had been found in Khufu’s first boat or in other ancient boats discovered elsewhere.
“Although the remains of boats found in Marsa Wadi Gawasis in Sinai contain copper pieces, these are of different shapes and sizes,” he said, adding that the metal pieces found in Khufu’s second boat were C and U-shaped, while the ones at Marsa Gawasis were rounded and used to tie the sail ropes and fix the beams together.
“For many, the beam may be an oar-holder, and the metal pieces could be the remains of a frame to prevent the steering rows from falling into the sea when using the oars to change the boat’s direction,” he said.
Most probably this boat was a royal ceremonial craft that took the king across the Nile, he added.
Similar beams with C-shaped copper pieces have been found in a naval scene painted on the walls of the tomb of an Old Kingdom nobleman named Ty in the Saqqara necropolis, he said, supporting the idea that the second boat was used for royal transportation.
“I think that both boats may have been Nile cruisers with different functions,” Abdel-Meguid told the Weekly, suggesting that the first was dedicated to the royal family while the second was used by sailors to pull the first boat.
The first boat did not have steering oars like the second one, and the 12 oars found in it would have been used to change the boat’s direction, Abdel-Meguid added. He said the royal shrine in the first boat was a luxurious superstructure, while the captain’s shrine was found in the second boat.
All these suggestions are speculative, however, and they await the results of recent studies and the completion of the excavation of Khufu’s second boat before they can be confirmed.
A number of studies are still to be conducted in order to find out whether the second boat sailed across water in antiquity. The studies will include analysis of the beams to measure the humidity and the number and kind of scratches on them. Hieratic symbols engraved on them will also be documented in order to find the best technique to correctly rebuild the boat.
A study comparing these symbols with those found on boats in Marsa Wadi Gawasis was also to be conducted, Abdel-Meguid said.
He added that every uncovered beam had been digitally documented in order to facilitate its reconstruction. “The project is a great opportunity to conduct special studies that will reveal the number of cedar trees used in the construction of the boat and the age of every tree when it was cut down,” he concluded.