Penn archaeologist discovers ancient Egyptian boat in middle of desert

When Penn archaeologist Josef Wegner and colleagues first came across structures buried deep beneath the sand in the Egyptian city of Abydos, they anticipated finding more evidence of a pharaoh cemetery they discovered in 2014. Instead, in the middle of the desert, they found a vaulted building.

“We thought it might be a good prospect for a large royal tomb,” says Wegner, an associate professor of Egyptian archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the School of Arts & Sciences and associate curator at the Penn Museum. “We discovered it wasn’t a tomb at all, but a subterranean bunker for a boat.”

Within the cavity, the team found wooden planks now attributed to a boat that was part of the funeral procession for Pharaoh Senwosret III, who reigned around 1850 B.C.E. They also discovered about 150 jars and 120 preserved boat drawings on the building’s walls.

“Originally, the building must have had hundreds and hundreds of boat drawings,” Wegner says. “They are phenomenal images, with a lot of detail showing the structure of the boats, the form of the hulls, masted and unmasted boats, rowers, oars.”

Part of the researchers’ fascination with the discovery comes from its location. The boat was found about a half-mile from the edge of the Nile River flood plain, and about nine miles from the river itself, meaning despite traveling along some smaller canals, the boat also moved across land to reach its final destination.

Senwosret III constructed multiple tomb sites before his death, leading to the possibility that he was buried either in a pyramid he built in northern Egypt or in his Abydos tomb. Uncovering a royal boat burial like the one Wegner’s team found suggests the tomb was the king’s resting place.

“Senwosret III’s tomb at Abydos is one of the largest of its type in Egypt. It’s about 800 feet long, cut into the bedrock, lined with massive masonry blocks,” Wegner says. “A lot of evidence has come out that this was the king’s burial place, and the boat burial strengthens the case.”

Wegner says including a boat at a king’s final resting spot is a long-held tradition that ended not long after Senwosret III’s reign, though researchers don’t fully understand why. He’s hoping continued work at Abydos, including the excavation of nearby chambers that likely held other ceremonial equipment, can provide at least some additional context. He plans to return to the site with several Penn graduate students and Penn Museum specialists in 2017.

“Archaeology often involves piecing together tiny fragments of information. We may get some interesting clues from these wood fragments about the size and design of the boat itself,” Wegner explains. “I’d like to reopen the building and systematically excavate all of that to the lowest levels … to get a sense of the vessel’s scale.”

Egypt boat Penn Museum