The wooden beam that may once have held the oars of the Pharaoh Khufu’s second boat was lifted yesterday from its pit on the Giza Plateau, Nevine El-Aref reports
History has a special scent and taste on the Giza Plateau, where an unsurpassed assembly of soaring pyramids, the awe-inspiring Sphinx, and splendid chapels and tombs reflects the great civilisation of ancient Egypt. Although most of the plateau has been thoroughly excavated, there are still secrets to be revealed.
The Japanese-Egyptian team as well as journalists and photographers, yesterday gathered around the pit of the Pharaoh Khufu’s second boat on the southern side of the Great Pyramid at Giza to watch minute by minute the lifting up of a boat beam that had recently been discovered, revealing a further such secret.
The beam is carved in wood with metal pieces in different shapes and sizes. The restorers had earlier removed other beams from the pit and covered them in situ with a special chemical solution to protect them from the atmosphere.
The present beam has now been taken to the laboratory on the plateau where restorers will first reduce its humidity until it has reached 55 per cent and then treat and consolidate it.
“This may be the beam that once held the oars of Khufu’s second boat,” Eissa Zidan, director of restoration at the project told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that the beam had been found during excavations carried out inside the pit on the boat’s eighth layer.
He said the beam was 8m long, 40cm wide and 4cm thick, while the metal pieces were in L and U shapes. “Until now the Egyptian-Japanese team has not been able to identify the kind of metal used in the fabrication of these pieces, but it could be copper,” Zidan said.
“We cannot decide on the original function of the beam or why it looks like it does. But we are sure it is a unique piece, and nothing like it was found in Khufu’s first boat or in other ancient boats discovered elsewhere,” site manager Hiromasa Kurokoch told the Weekly.
“The only suggestion we have is that the beam may be the oar holder, and the metal pieces could be a frame to prevent the steering rows from falling into the sea when using the oars to change the boat’s direction,” he added.
Zidan said he thought the beam could be an oar holder made by the ancient Egyptians to prevent friction with the body of the boat which would have damaged the timber. The beam is not in very good condition, but with scientific cleaning and restoration it could reveal more of its secrets, he said.
Kurokoch said that more studies would be carried out in order to discover the beam’s original function and why it was in the second boat and not the first one. There were also other questions about the boats, he said. Was the first a solar boat and the second only a boat for transportation, he asked.
Mamdouh Taha, Supervisor of Khufu’s second boat project described the discovery as “very important” and possibly revealing more secrets about Khufu’s boats. He said the Japanese excavators and restorers were working hard with their Egyptians colleagues to protect one of Egypt’s most distinguished monuments.
When all the beams are recovered, Taha said, the boat would be reconstructed to join the first one in a special display at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Plateau.
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 boat was removed piece by piece under the supervision of restorer Ahmed Youssef, who spent more than 20 years restoring and reassembling the boat which is now on display at Khufu’s Solar Boat Museum on the Giza Plateau.
The second boat remained sealed up until 1987 when it was examined by a Japanese team from Waseda University in Tokyo with non-invasive scanning devices.
Later in same year the pit was examined by the American National Geographic Society in association with the Egyptian Office for Historical Monuments. A hole was bored into the limestone beams covering the pit and a micro-camera and measuring equipment inserted. The void space over the boat was photographed and air measurements made, after which the pit was sealed.
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 was not the case as natural air leaked into the pit and mixed with the air inside. This allowed insects to thrive and affected some parts of the wooden beams.
Water also leaked from the nearby museum housing the first solar boat and affected part of the wood, making it necessary quickly to finish the studies and restore it.
In 2008, Kurokoch said, a Japanese scientific and archaeological team from Waseda University headed by Sakuji Yoshimura had 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.
A temporary magazine and laboratory was established on the Plateau 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 was installed.
A laser scanning survey documented the area and the wall between the Great Pyramid and the boat pit. A solar electricity system was installed at the site to save energy during chemical treatments.
Diaaeddin Ahmed, the inspector of the project, said that while the filling around the sides of the covering stone was being cleaned, the team had uncovered the cartouche of the Pharaoh Khufu inscribed on one of the blocks and beside it the name of Djedefre.
This, he argued, meant that the boat had 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 begin the restoration work,” Yoshimura told the Weekly.
He said 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 covering stone and then lifted it up, he said.