Boats Fitted Out for Eternity
by Nevine El-Aref
30 June - 6 July 2011
Issue No. 1054
Khufu's second solar boat is to be exhibited at the entrance of the Giza plateau after the completion of four years of restoration, writes Nevine El-Aref
Workers lifting up one of the blocks covering the boat pit
The north side of King Khufu's Great Pyramid, which dominates a Giza plateau that has been all but deserted since the January Revolution five months ago, was crowded again last Thursday as foreign and Egyptian journalists, photographers and TV crews armed with digital recorders and cameras awaited the arrival of Minister of State for Antiquities Zahi Hawass and the head of the archaeological and scientific team of Waseda University, Sakuji Yoshimura.
They were assembled to witness the lifting of the 41 blocks that have covered the pit of Khufu's second solar boat for the last 4,500 years, and the announcement of the start of the second phase of the boat's restoration project.
In a hanger built to cover the boat pit, a dozen workmen were helping Egyptian and Japanese scientists and archaeologists in white uniforms, yellow helmets and white masks to wrap the first stone block, weighing 16 tonnes, and to lift it aside so as to start uncovering Khufu's second boat.
The on-site team has developed a new technique to lift the blocks. They first inserted a chemically-treated piece of wood beneath the cover stone and then lifted it.
When Hawass and Yoshimura arrived they took journalists to a neighbouring hanger where a small LCD screen showed scenes of the boat in situ and the operation to lift it.
The boat was discovered in 1954 by Egyptian architect and archaeologist Kamal El-Mallakh, together with Zaki Nour. At the time El-Mallakh and Nour found two boat pits during routine cleaning on the south side of the Great Pyramid. The first pit was found under a roof of 41 limestone slabs, each weighing almost 20 tonnes, with the fact that the three westernmost of the slabs were much smaller than the others leading them to be interpreted as keystones. On removing one of the slabs El-Mallakh and Nour saw a cedar boat, completely dismantled but arranged in the semblance of its finished form. Also inside the pit 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 the master of restorers 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 therefore essentially a replica of a type of papyrus reed boat, perhaps dating back to the predynastic period. It is not difficult to find many objects of a similar style made in the Old Kingdom in more durable materials. The boat has a cabin or inner shrine, which is enclosed within a reed-mat structure with poles in 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 suggests to many Egyptologists that some parts of his tomb complex were not completed until after Khufu's death. One scholar, Vassil Dobrev, has theorised that the two boat pits on the south side of the Great Pyramid were built by Djedefre as a gesture of piety connected with the establishment of the local divine cult of his father, founder of the royal necropolis at Giza. If the boats were used at the funeral of Khufu, however, it would be natural for Djedefre to have buried them with his cartouches.
In the neighbouring pit, the second boat remained sealed in its pit 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 that covered it and inserted a micro camera and measuring equipment. The void space over the boat was photographed and air measurements taken, after which the pit was resealed. 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 air had leaked into the pit and mixed with the air inside it. This had allowed insects to thrive and affect some parts of the wooden beams.
In 1992, in collaboration with the Japanese government, a Japanese scientific and archaeological team from Waseda University headed by Yoshimura offered a grant of $10 million 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, but Yoshimura told reporters that water had leaked from the nearby museum which housed the first solar boat. This had affected a small part of the wood, hence the necessity quickly to finish the studies and restore the wood. The Japanese team inserted a camera through a hole in the chamber's limestone ceiling to transmit video images of the boat onto a small TV monitor on the site. Images screened showed layers of wooden beams and timbers of cedar and acacia, as well as ropes, mats and remains of limestone blocks and small pieces of white plaster. The camera allowed an assessment of the boat's condition and the possibility of restoration.
Yoshimura told reporters that while the fillings around the sides of the covering stone were being cleaned, the team uncovered the cartouche of the Fourth-Dynasty king Khufu inscribed on one of these blocks, and beside it the name of the crown prince Djedefre. This, he argued, meant that this boat was constructed during the reign of King Khufu and not, like the first boat now on display at a special museum on the plateau, during the reign of his son and successor Djedefre.
Yoshimura said that restoration and reconstruction work would last for four years. A special small museum will be constructed for it at the entrance of the Giza plateau on the Cairo- Fayoum road, while the first boat will be transferred to the planned Grand Egyptian Museum.
Hawass said that the second boat was in a much better state of preservation than was the first when it was discovered in 1954. "I was really afraid when I first saw the condition of the wooden beams, but I am very optimistic," he said.
He continued that the first phase of the project was to make an assessment of the area surrounding the second boat pit by using topographical radar surveys. A large hanger has 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 laser scanning survey also documented the area and the wall between the Great Pyramid and the boat pit.
"Plans are now underway to construct a temporary magazine and laboratory inside the hanger to use during the restoration process," Hawass said. He added that the latest technological equipment would be installed, including a device to adjust the temperature and humidity vital to the preservation of the wooden boat remains.
So far five boat pits have been discovered in the pyramid complex of Khufu; three boat-shaped pits with narrow prows and sterns at the east side of the pyramid, and two on the south 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, but some scholars think that the pits were never covered, since pillars would have been needed to help span their width. The third boat pit, which is 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. Although these pits probably did at one time hold boats, some scholars have also speculated that they could, rather than containing real ones, themselves have simulated boats. However, George Resiner found cordage and pieces of gilded wood inside the third pit along the causeway, indicating that a boat had once been present.
The two pits on the south contained intact boats. According to Egyptologist Mark Lehner, the boat pits on the southern side of the complex differ from the others in one important aspect. They are long, narrow and rectangular rather than boat shaped, and they contain the disassembled parts of real boats. That the pits were built no later than the end of the Fourth Dynasty is demonstrated by the fact that they lie partially under the pyramid's southern enclosure wall, which is dated to the end of that dynasty.
According to John Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University, 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 waterway or were of purely spiritual importance.
"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 or not these vessels were ever used," Darnell said.
In fact, there are three main schools of thought concerning the function of Khufu's pits and the boats they contained. The first, propounded by Jaroslav Cerny, is that four of them were ritual boats for carrying the king to the four cardinal points and that the fifth was the boat in which the body of the king was transported to Giza.
The second school, originally expressed by Walter Emery in reference to the First-Dynasty mastaba ("bench" tomb) 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 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 Khufu's 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, 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, the oldest and largest of Giza's Pyramids. He says 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.
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