Ancient Egyptian Boats and Ships
        Building Min of the Desert

Min of the Desert is a reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian seagoing ship of the first quarter of the second millennium BCE. Built in the modern Hamdi Lahma & Brothers shipyard in Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt, using ancient techniques, Min is designed to expand our understanding of archaeological finds . Sombrero and Co ., a documentary production company based in France, has committed to fully funding the project.

In Egypt, archaeological finds of ceremonial river craft are remarkably complete in terms of the preservation of entire hulls. The Abydos plank-built canoes were likely paddled, the Khufu vessels towed, and while the Dashur boats probably were towed, they closely resemble models shown with sails raised.

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A reconstruction of the vessel enclosed in Boat Grave 10 at Abydos (left) with the remains of the hull (center) and graphic representation of the hull planks. Below left, the c. 2600 BCE re-assembled Khufu ship is held together by small mortise-and-tenon joints and transverse lashing (center). The Dashur boats (right) rely on large, deep mortise-and-tenon joints and some copper straps in isolated ligatures.

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Until recently, remains of seagoing ships were limited to a few plank ends dating to the Middle Kingdom at Sww’, the pharaonic anchorage for travel to Punt. Further University of Naples/Boston University excavations at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis led by Rodolfo Fattovich and Kathryn Bard have uncovered substantial ship remains, discarded there or recycled as architectural elements to reinforce work spaces carved into the fossil corral terrace from at least the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2500 BCE) to the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1475 BCE).

Because no seagoing ships exist to study, our reconstruction is entirely theoretical. Its basis is primarily the ship components from Gawasis. I compared the dimensions of those components with similar features illustrated in the Punt reliefs at Hatshepsut’s funerary temple, and they are constant across several dimensions and tests (steering oar blades, beam ends, oar looms, crutch height). They also correspond well to components illustrated in the 2m+ long models of Amenhotep II and in the Dashur boats, if the scale of the latter is doubled.

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Doubling the dimensions and curvature of the Dashur boats (above, right) as illustrated by naval architect Patrick Couser (above, left) actually produces a hull shape that fits the profile of the Punt ships in Hatshepsut’s temple, as well as the models, so we based our design on those shapes, deepening it by 10 cm to increase stability.

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Our effort uses 120-year-old, Douglas fir timber with physical characteristics and features comparable to cedar of Lebanon. We depend on ancient techniques, assisted in some cases by modern technologies such as electrical band saws for the rough cutting of plank shapes. Most work is done with hand tools made to specifications comparable to ancient examples, but of iron rather than hammered copper.

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The ship is 20 meters (66 ft) long and nearly 5 meters (16 ft) wide. It had a cargo capacity of about 17 tons, and displaces 30 tons of water. It is held together entirely by mortise-and-tenon joints in double lines along the plank edges. Mahrous Lahma (below left) shaped hundreds of Nile acacia tenons with his adze. Reda Lahma (below right) decreased the time required to cut a single mortise with a 1.2-cm chisel blade from 22 minutes to 13 minutes after a few weeks’ practice. Mahrous and Reda are two of the four men and two teenaged boys who built the ship.

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In addition to testing the specific performance of the reconstruction in terms of whether it sinks or not, we want to expand upon the data available from archaeological material and the technical study of ships and boats in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians sailed to Punt—at least 800 to 1000 miles from Gawasis—before 2500 BCE, and it is likely that they had done so for perhaps a thousand years earlier, if the Hierakonpolis frankincense pajamas indicate the use of the trade route.

How did they achieve this using their technology? What practical approaches to the use of watercraft are embedded in the construction of ceremonial craft? How can we combine the evidence of the disassembled and reconstructed pieces of ships at Gawasis and freighters at Lisht with that from ceremonial types?

Egyptian society relied from its earliest days on boats and maritime travel. Experimental archaeology can help us to understand the proven feats of cargo capacity—large scale transport of monumental stone objects and components indicates substantial carrying ability from early times. But what kind of sailing could be done with these vessels? Were they seaworthy and sufficiently watertight? Do the data correspond to texts that indicate travel times and speeds? Will the crew find the ship a good sailor and partner in a voyage and will ordinary tasks such as anchoring, maneuvering under oars, and adjusting the sail be achievable without significant effort?

Every ship embodies an equation between a number of forces in order to succeed at its task—moving people, ideas, and cargo from one place to another. Cheryl Ward provided basic design details and coordinates the team. Naval architect Patrick Couser used computer modeling to test hull performance. Maritime archaeologist and shipbuilder Tom Vosmer supervised the construction of the ship at Hamdi Lahma & Brothers Shipyard in Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt. Archaeologist Mohamed Mustafa Abd el-Maguid served as our on-site scientific recorder and liaison with the shipwrights.

Min of the Desert was available for testing for only a limited time. We made short trips on the Nile at first, and then in the Red Sea, before attempting the longer trial voyage south towards Sudan from Safaga along the route used by the Egyptians. The square sail is high above the deck and quite large at 14.25 x 5 m, and it has no brailing lines (an innovation of the late 13th/early12th century BCE). Day sails and practice in rowing prepared the crew for the longer trip in the Red Sea.

Author: Cheryl Ward
Last updated 20 February 2009