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The Byblos Ship 2: No Keel, No Frames

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

Khufu's solar boat
Image 1

The carvings in Sahure’s grave complex do not provide enough information on the hull’s construction. To better understand the structure of the hull we will need to turn to Khufu’s solar boat. The ship was found unassembled and stashed inside a trough, near Khufu’s pyramid (Image 1). It had been stored in this form so that it could be reassembled if needed. It has been suggested that Egyptians disassembled their ships after construction, in order to transport them overland to the coast of the Red Sea, where they could be reassembled for journey to the land of Punt. The ship was put together reconstructed piece by piece by Ahmed Youssef Moustafa, the main conservator of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. All our understanding of ancient Egyptian shipbuilding is owed to Moustafa’s painstaking reconstruction and a few ancient stone reliefs.

Structure of a wooden hull
Image 2: Structure of a wooden hull

The construction of a wooden ship usually starts with the internal structural elements, mainly the keel and frames. The external planking is then nailed on this skeleton (image 2). In ancient Egyptian ships (and many other ancient ships) the construction started with the planking. Once the ship was shaped, some reinforcing elements were added to the inside of the planking. Due to the absence of a keel the planking had to be of considerable thickness to withstand the rigours of water travel. The planks used in the construction of the solar boat were almost 13cm thick. Considering the boat was made for travel on the Nile and not the open sea, we can assume that planks on the seagoing ships depicted on Sahure’s grave complex must have been at least as thick. The Egyptians used cedar wood in ship construction, which they imported from Byblos in modern Lebanon. Due to the difficulty in acquiring the wood they tried to avoid cutting the planks and make the best use of the complete length of the trunks. In the solar boat the planks are up to 12m long and their shape seems irregular, as they follow the natural shape of the wood. Planks were cut in a characteristic jagged pattern so they could lock onto each other and provide the necessary stability, since the ship lacked an internal skeleton (image 3).

The planks of Khufu's solar boat
Image 3: The planks of Khufu's solar boat

The model's first planks
Image 4: The model's first planks

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