The Abydos boats were discovered in October 2000. Initially, they appeared to be a white, ‘ghostly’ fleet of 14 boat images in the desert sand. They are not the oldest boat remains to be discovered in Egypt as is sometimes proclaimed, but they have proved to be important to the history of Egyptian boat design and nautical architecture.
On October 31, 2000 the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Yale University Expedition to Abydos, Egypt issued a press release in which they described the discovery of the royal solar boats at Abydos. At a site a mile distant from the royal tombs, lines of mud brick uncovered by blowing sand were first noticed in 1988. Although the Abydos boats are not the oldest boat remains to be discovered in Egypt, nor are they the world's first boats as is sometimes proclaimed, they are extremely important to the history of boat design and nautical architecture. Understandably, these brick remains at Abydos were first thought to be walls. In 1991, an important clarification was made. A research consensus decided these bricks were remnants of ancient walls after all, but not in the usual sense. They were actually the boundaries for more than a dozen ship burials from an early dynasty. Each ship grave had its own brick boundary walls. The outline of each grave was in the shape of a boat, and the surface of each was covered with mud plaster and white wash. Small boulders at the prow or stern of each grave represented anchors. Because of the fragility of the boat remains, almost no excavation was done initially as the situation had to be carefully studied for future conservation.
The one exception to the supposed 'look but don't touch'-policy was the so-named boat no. 10, which was slowly appearing due to apparent soil erosion. For five days, archaeologists carefully examined the midsection of the ship. They uncovered wooden planks, disintegrated rope, and reed bundles. Wood-eating ants had reduced much of the ship's hull to frass (ant excrement), but the frass had retained the shape of the original hull. The midsection of this boat revealed the construction methods used and confirmed the oldest ‘planked’ constructed boat yet discovered. The boat's construction revealed it had been constructed from the outside in, as there was no internal frame. Averaging 75 ft long and 7–10 ft wide at their greatest width, these boats were only about two feet deep, with narrow prows and sterns. Several boats were white-plastered, as were the Abydos tombs, and no. 10 was painted yellow.
“One of the most important indigenous woodworking techniques was the ﬁxed Mortise and tenon joint. A ﬁxed tenon is made by shaping the end of one timber to ﬁt into a mortise (hole) that is cut into a second timber. A variation of this joint using a free tenon eventually became one of the most important features in Mediterranean and Egyptian shipbuilding. It creates a union between two planks or other components by inserting a separate tenon into a cavity (mortise) of the corresponding size cut into each component."
Seams between planks were filled with reed bundles, reeds also covered the floor of each Abydos boat. Without internal framing, some of these boats became twisted, as was unavoidable without an internal skeleton for support when out of the water. The wood of the Abydos boats was local Tamarix - tamarisk, salt cedar - not cedar from Lebanon which was used for Khufu’s Solar Barque and favored for shipbuilding in Egypt in later dynasties.
Lebanon cedar was used for the poles and beams of the Umm el-Qa'ab tombs and had already been imported earlier; pigment residues hinted at bright colors. The wood planks were painted yellow on their outside and traces of white pigment have also been found. “A part of the mud brick casing suggests that there could have been a support for poles/pennants on top of the boats, as in the boats depicted on pottery or atop the archaic shrines onto some mace heads/palettes and in the HK loc. 29A cultural center.” This technology for ship construction persisted in Egypt for more than one thousand years and the standardization of this earliest phase of plank boat construction in Egypt is striking.
To scholars, the use of unpegged joints seems odd, if not eccentric, and is not found in well established, ancient Mediterranean shipbuilding traditions. This approach allowed Egyptian boats used in trade to be easily disassembled, the planks transported long distances through the desert and then re-assembled to be used on important trading routes such as those in the Red Sea. There are pictographs of boats dating from Predynastic Egypt and the First Dynasty along the first half of the route in the desert known to be used to reach the Red Sea from Upper Egypt. A sketch on an ostracon found at depicts priests carrying the Solar Bark of Amun across the desert. This rock art is not only evidence for take apart, portable boats, but has magical significance as well.
The Abydos boats were found in boat graves with their prows pointed towards the Nile. Experts consider them to have been the royal boats intended for the Pharaoh in the afterlife. Umm el-Qa'ab is a royal necropolis that is about one mile from the Abydos boat graves where early pharaohs were entombed.
The Abydos boats are the predecessors of the great solar boats of later dynasties upon which the Pharaoh joined the Sun God Ra and together journeyed down the sacred Nile during the day. They would have had many of the important attributes and metaphors that were attached to the Solar Barks of later dynasties, and indeed perhaps should be called Solar Boats of an earlier design. The magnificent Khufu ship, built for the Pharaoh Khufu - Cheops - ca. 2500 BC., is usually identified as the earliest Solar Ship. It was buried in a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
The Abydos boat graves were adjacent to a massive funerary enclosure for the late Dynasty II (ca. 2675 B.C.) Pharaoh Khasekhemwy at Abydos which is 8 miles from the Nile. Umm el-Qa'ab is a royal necropolis at Abydos, Egypt where early pharaohs were entombed. However, these boat graves were established earlier than late in Dynasty II, perhaps for the afterlife journeys of Hor-Aha, the first king (ca. 2920–2770) of the First Dynasty of Egypt, or Pharaoh Djer also of Dynasty I. Two more recently located mortuary discoveries have been identified as those of King Aha, who may been the son of the famous King Narmer, to whom the first unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is often attributed.
The Abydos boats are not the only find of First Dynasty ships. 19 boat burials were found at Helwan by Z. Saad, but only four out of these were poorly published. Six boat graves were found at Saqqara by Walter Bryan Emery of which again only four were published. Finally two full-sized model boats made out of clay are known from Abu Roash Hill. Helwan is a huge cemetery field 20 km south of Cairo adjoining Saqqara in which at least 10,000 tombs have been cataloged. The size of Helwan indicates a very large population for Early Dynastic Memphis. Almost all the tombs date from Dynasty 0 through the Third Dynasty. There are 19 elite tombs where 1st Dynasty funeral boat burials have been discovered that resemble those at Abydos, but little published information is available.