CAIRO, Egypt – Archaeologists will excavate hundreds of fragments of an ancient Egyptian wooden boat entombed in an underground chamber next to Giza’s Great Pyramid and try to reassemble the craft, Egyptologists announced Saturday.
The 4,500-year-old vessel is the sister ship of a similar boat removed in pieces from another pit in 1954 and painstakingly reconstructed. Experts believe the boats were meant to ferry the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid in the afterlife.
Starting Saturday, tourists were allowed to view images of the inside of the second boat pit from a camera inserted through the a hole in the chamber’s limestone ceiling. The video image, transmitted onto a small TV monitor at the site, showed layers of crisscrossing beams and planks on the floor of the dark pit.
“You can smell the past,” said Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Experts will begin removing around 600 pieces of timber in November, said professor Sakuji Yoshimura of Japan’s Waseda University, who is helping lead the restoration effort with the antiquities council.
The discovery of the boat pits more than 50 years ago by workmen clearing a large mound of wind-blown debris from the south side of the Great Pyramid is considered one of the most significant finds on the plateau. They are the oldest vessels to have survived from antiquity.
The reconstructed ship is on display in a museum built above the pit where it was discovered. It is a narrow vessel measuring 142 feet with a rectangular deckhouse and long, interlocking oars that soar overhead.
The cedar timbers of its curved hull are lashed together with hemp rope in a technique used until recent times by traditional shipbuilders along the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
The unexcavated boat, made from Lebanese cedar and Egyptian acacia trees, is thought to be of similar design, but smaller and less well preserved.
John Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University, said new research into the second boat could fill in some blanks about the significance of the vessels and help determine whether they ever actually plied Nile River waterways or were of purely spiritual import.
“In Egypt, almost everything real had its counterpart meaning or significance in the spiritual world. But there’s a lot of debate as to whether these vessels ever were used or not,” Darnell said.
Those who argue the vessels may have touched water point to rope marks on the wood that could have been caused by the rope becoming wet and then shrinking as it dried.
But Hawass believes these were symbolic vessels, not funerary boats used to bring the pharaoh Khufu’s embalmed remains up the Nile from the ancient capital of Memphis for burial in the Great Pyramid, the oldest and largest of Giza’s pyramids.
He said solar symbols found inside the second pit offer more evidence that those who disassembled and buried the boats believed Khufu’s soul would travel from his tomb in the pyramid through a connecting air shaft to the boat chambers and that he would use the boats to circle the heavens, like the sun god, taking one boat by day and the other by night.