A Japanese-Egyptian team is reconstructing Khufu’s second solar boat, 4,500 years after it was buried to ferry the pharaoh to eternity, writes Nevine El-Aref
The southern side of Khufu’s Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau is a hive of activity these days. Dozens of workers, Egyptologists and restorers are removing piece by piece the wooden beams of the pharaoh’s second solar boat, which has remained in situ for 4,500 years after it was buried to ferry him to eternity.
Restorers are cleaning the timber, oars and beams, while Egyptologists are busy documenting them in the laboratory recently established at the site to rescue the different parts of the boat.
The boat was discovered along with the first one inside two pits neighbouring each other in 1954, when Egyptian archaeologists Kamal Al-Mallakh and Zaki Nour were carrying out routine cleaning on the southern side of the Great Pyramid.
The first pit was found under a roof of 41 limestone slabs, each weighing almost 20 tons, with the three westernmost slabs being much smaller than the others leading them to be interpreted as keystones. On removing one of the slabs, Al-Mallakh and Nour saw a cedar boat, completely dismantled but arranged in the semblance of its finished form, inside the pit. Also inside were layers of mats, ropes, instruments made of flint, and some small pieces of white plaster, along with 12 oars, 58 poles, three cylindrical columns and five doors.
The boat was removed piece by piece under the supervision of restorer Ahmed Youssef, who spent more than 20 years restoring and reassembling the boat. The task resembled the fitting together of a giant jigsaw puzzle, and the completed boat is now on display at Khufu’s Solar Boat Museum on the Giza Plateau.
The cedar timbers of its curved hull are lashed together with hemp rope in a technique used until recent times by traditional shipbuilders on the shores of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
The boat’s prow and stern are in the form of papyrus stalks, with the one on the stern bent over. It is essentially a replica of a type of papyrus reed boat, perhaps dating back to the pre-dynastic period in Egypt. It is not difficult to find many objects of a similar style made in the Old Kingdom in more durable material. The boat has a cabin, or inner shrine, which is enclosed within a reed-mat structure with poles of the same papyrus type. It also has a small forward cabin that was probably for the captain.
Propulsion was by means of 10 oars, and it was steered using two large oar rudders located in the stern. There was no mast and therefore no sail, and the general design of the boat would have not allowed it to be used other than for river travel.
On the walls of the pit were several builders’ marks and inscriptions, including some 18 cartouches containing the name of Khufu’s son, Djedefre. This suggested to many Egyptologists that some parts of his tomb complex were not completed until after Khufu’s death. One scholar has theorised that the two boat pits were built by Djedefre as a gesture of piety connected with the establishment of the local divine cult of his father and founder of the royal necropolis in Giza. However, if the boats were used at the funeral of Khufu, it would have been natural for Djedefre to bury them with his cartouches.
In the neighbouring pit, the second boat remained sealed up until 1987 when it was examined by the American National Geographic Society in association with the Egyptian Office for Historical Monuments.
They bored a hole into the limestone beams covering it and inserted a micro-camera and measuring equipment. The void space over the boat was photographed and air measurements made, after which the pit was sealed again.
It was thought that the pit had been so well-sealed that the air inside would be as it had been since ancient Egyptian times, but sadly this has not been the case, as natural air leaked into the pit and mixed with the air inside. This has allowed insects to thrive and affect some parts of the wooden beams.
Youssef wrote in his diary at the time that several parts of the second boat had been lost in the sand and its wooden beams were drastically deteriorated and it was too risky to remove them from its original pit. This, Youssef wrote, was the reason that led the American team to cancel their rescue project for the second boat.
Regretfully, water also leaked from the nearby museum housing the first solar boat and affected a small part of the wood, making it necessary quickly to finish the studies and restore the wood.
In 2009, a Japanese scientific and archaeological team from Waseda University headed by Sakuji Yoshimura offered to remove the boat from the pit, restore and reassemble it and put it on show to the public. The team cleaned the pit of insects and inserted a camera through a hole in the chamber’s limestone ceiling in order to examine the boat’s condition and determine appropriate methods to restore it.
Images were obtained showing layers of wooden beams and timbers of cedar and acacia, as well as ropes, mats and the remains of limestone blocks and small pieces of white plaster.
Yoshimura, Cairo bureau chief from the Institute of Egyptology at Waseda University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that a large hanger had been constructed over the area surrounding the second boat pit, with a smaller hanger inside to cover the top of the boat itself.
The hangers were designed to protect the wooden remains during analysis and treatment. A temporary magazine and laboratory has also been established inside the hanger to use during the restoration process. State-of-the-art equipment such as a device to adjust the temperature and humidity vital to the preservation of the wooden boat’s remains has been installed. A laser scanning survey has documented the area and the wall between the Great Pyramid and the boat pit. A solar electricity system has been installed at the site to save energy during chemical treatments.
According to Yoshimura, while the filling around the sides of the covering stone was being cleaned, the team uncovered the cartouche of Khufu inscribed on one of the blocks and beside it the name of Djedefre. This, he argued, meant that this boat has been constructed during the reign of Khufu and not, like the first boat, during the reign of Djedefre.
“In 2011, the Japanese-Egyptian team lifted aside the first stone block, weighing 16 tons, to start uncovering Khufu’s second boat and began concrete restoration work,” Yoshimura told the Weekly.
He continued that the on-site team had developed a new technique to lift the blocks. They had first inserted a chemically-treated piece of wood beneath the cover stone and then lifted it.
Restoration work supervisor Eissa Zidan said the beams, timbers, ropes and oars of the boat were buried in sand on 13 levels that housed approximately 1,200 pieces of the boat. 250 pieces had been removed from the pit, he said, and 50 of them restored. Fifteen had been removed to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) and another 30 pieces would be transferred later this week.
“When we first started the restoration work, we realised that the boat’s wooden beams were in a very bad conservation condition,” Zidan said, adding that some of the beams had turned into powder. The high rate of humidity due to the leakage of water from the neighbouring museum had had a negative impact on some beams, transforming them into powder.
Restorers had removed the beams from the pit piece by piece and covered them in situ with a special chemical solution in order to protect them from the atmosphere outside the pit. In the laboratory, restorers had first reduced the rate of humidity of the beams until it had reached 55 per cent and then subjected them to treatment and consolidation. 3D documentation of every piece of the boat was also carried out in order to document all the pieces, helping in the reconstruction of the boat. Zidan said that 12 oars had been removed from the pit, only one of them complete.
Yoshimura said that the project would last until 2018 in order to complete the restoration and start the reconstruction of the boat. He said that the recent restoration work has been carried out as “first aid” and the complete restoration would be done when the boat was reconstructed.
The team had removed 200 pieces and restored them in situ. “When they are restored and transferred to the GEM, the team will remove another 200 pieces from the pit and so on,” Yoshimura said, adding that studies were taking place in order to select the best method to reconstruct the boat.
One way would be to reconstruct the boat on a polymer structure in order to protect it and give viewers a complete view of the boat even with the missing parts. Archaeological supervisor of the project Afifi Rohayem told the Weekly that each piece of the boat had been documented to assist in the restoration being carried out on it. Each piece had been given a number and accurately documented, photographed and drawn before and after restoration in order to help in the reconstruction.
“A comparative study between the first and second boat is also being carried out in an attempt to identify the shape of the second boat and if it is similar to the first one or not,” Rohayem said. He said that if 80 per cent of the piece of the boat was in a very good preservation condition, after restoration the boat would be reconstructed like the first one. But if only 70 per cent of the boat was in good condition, it would be reconstructed on a polymer fibre glass structure.
The two pits are not the only ones to have been found, since five boat pits have been discovered in total, three boat-shaped pits with narrow prows and sterns on the east side of the pyramid, and the other two on the southern side that are rectangular in shape and were cut to house full-size wooden boats that had been dismantled.
Two of the boat pits on the east side are now empty. Their walls were probably surfaced with limestone slabs, which reduced their width and simplified construction of a roof to cover them. The British archaeologist Flinders Petrie found some roofing blocks covering the end of the southern trench some time ago, but some scholars think that they were never covered, since pillars would have been needed to help span their width.
The third boat pit, also empty, is located on the upper north edge of the causeway, and therefore at the very threshold of the mortuary temple. It has a convex floor and is accessible by way of an ancient staircase with 18 steps. Though these pits probably did at one time hold boats, some scholars have speculated that they could themselves have simulated boats, rather than containing real ones.
However, cordage and pieces of gilded wood have been found inside the third pit along the causeway, indicating that a boat had once been present.
According to archaeologist Mark Lehner, the boat pits on the southern side of the complex differ from the others since they are long, narrow and rectangular, rather than boat-shaped, and they contained the disassembled parts of real boats. The fact that the pits were built no later than the end of the Fourth Dynasty is demonstrated by the observation that they lie partially under the pyramid’s southern enclosure wall, which is dated to the end of the dynasty.
According to Egyptologist John Darnell of Yale University in the US, 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 the River Nile or were of purely spiritual importance.
“In ancient 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 were ever used or not,” Darnell said.
There are three schools of thought concerning the function of the pits and the boats they contained. The first, propounded by archaeologist Jaroslav Cerny, is that four of them were ritual boats for carrying the king to the four cardinal points and the fifth was the boat in which the body of the king was transported to Giza.
The second school, originally expressed by archaeologist Walter Emery in reference to the First Dynasty mastaba at Saqqara and then adopted by Egyptologist Selim Hassan, holds that they were solar boats and thus carried the king to visit the sun god Re, or accompanied him in his voyage across the sky.
The third concept, expounded principally by Egyptian Egyptologist Abdel-Moneim Abu Bakr, suggests that all the boats were originally used in the king’s lifetime for pilgrimages and other ceremonies.
Some Egyptologists argue that the boats may have touched water, pointing to rope marks on the wood that could have been caused by the rope becoming wet and then shrinking as it dried.
However, former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass believes that these were symbolic vessels, not funerary boats, and were not used to bring Khufu’s embalmed remains up the Nile from the ancient capital of Memphis for burial in the Great Pyramid.
He said that solar symbols found inside the second pit offered 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 then use the boats to circle the heavens, like the sun god, taking one boat by day and the other by night.