Archaeologists working in Egypt have uncovered an intricate tableau of boats inside a subterranean vault belonging to the funerary complex of Senwosret III, who passed away in 1839 BCE. The 120 drawings, incised on three walls to form a mural that stretches 82 feet in length, were likely created as part of a significant funerary boat burial — an ancient Egyptian ritual dating to the Early Dynastic Period. They would have once enclosed a full-sized boat, ritually interred as part of a larger, funerary ceremony for the pharaoh, which they believed would help him to travel on through the netherworld.
Although Egyptologist Arthur Weigall had first glimpsed these drawings during his own dig in 1901, a collapsed roof prevented him from fully examining them then. They remained untouched until 2014, when a team with the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania started excavations at the site. Curator Josef Wegner recently published these findings from his team’s two-year research in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Boat burials, as he writes, died out after the Middle Kingdom, and this 12th Dynasty vault with its drawings represent some of the latest surviving evidence of when boat interments played a significant role in royal funerary practices.
Rather than a scene suggestive of a narrative, the tableau features a stream of boats oriented at random. They are incised in various sizes: the largest stretch nearly five feet in length and the smallest, about four inches. Some are very detailed, depicting masts, sails, rigging, rudders, oars, and even cabins; others are simply composed of suggestive shapes and lines. Aside from some rowers, signs of life include floral motifs and animals, from cattle to gazelle.
“These boat images do not compose a unified scene as occurs, for instance, in mortuary imagery in tombs, or on the decorated causeways of the royal pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom,” Wegner writes. “However, the uniformity of theme transcends that of a random collection of graffiti … the images were created over a short timeframe by a group of people with common intention: commemorating or establishing personal connections with a boat or boats.”
It’s possible the drawings were completed prior to closure of the mudbrick building, as part of the king’s burial ceremony, or that they survive as the votive images from visitors who somehow had access to the vault’s interior. More likely, however, Wegner writes, they were the creations of people who helped transport and install the full-length boat that once occupied most of the vault. The boat no longer exists — the archaeologists believe individuals at some point took it apart for its valuable material — but found fragmentary planks and a cavity in the floor suggest the past presence of a 65-foot-long vessel. It may have also been just one of a group of royal funerary boats associated with the pharaoh, who is buried nearby.
“What is clear is the individuals who created these drawings recognized the building to be associated with a boat,” Wegner writes. “The drawings express some form of individual link, not just with boats in general, but in all likelihood the images somehow articulate a personal connection to the specific vessel contained within the building. While numerous questions remain regarding the purpose of these images, what is unique is the astounding quantity of so many boats depicted together in one location.”
The team also found about 145 pottery vessels outside the mudbrick structure’s entrance, arranged in a way that suggests they served a ritual function. Used to store liquid, they were potentially all deliberately knocked over while still filled; their contents would have drained against the building’s face and seeped into the sand — a gesture, Wegner writes, to perhaps symbolically sail the buried boat into the next life with the king. Another possibility is that they may have traveled with the boat on a wooden sledge as the procession journeyed to the vault, and their contents served to lubricate the ground as people maneuvered the large vessel to its sandy home. Carrying ritual significance, they would then have been laid to rest along as ceremonial objects that helped fulfill this significant rite.
Wegner’s team plans to continue examining the site at Abydos not only to resolve some of these newly emerged mysteries but to perhaps also locate more interred boats to better understand this ancient tradition.