Sail Like An Egyptian
It turns out the oldest seafaring ships ever found actually work
An archaeologist who examined remnants of the oldest-known seafaring ships has now put ancient Egyptian technology to the test. She teamed up with a naval architect, modern shipwrights and an on-site Egyptian archaeologist to build a replica 3,800-year-old ship for a Red Sea trial run this past December.
The voyage was meant to retrace an ancient voyage that the female pharaoh Hatsheput sponsored to a place which ancient Egyptians called God’s land, or Punt. Ship planks and oar blades discovered in 2006 at the caves of Wadi Gawasis provided a basis for the ship reconstruction.
“The planks that we looked at from the archaeological site are in great condition,” said Cheryl Ward, the maritime archaeologist at Florida State University who headed the effort.
Click here to see photos and more details about the ship’s birth and maiden voyage.
The nearly 4,000-year-old timbers even contained shipworms which had tunneled into the ships during sea voyages, leaving behind tube-like shells that filled up the wood like a sponge. Ward was able to estimate from the shipworms that the ship endured a six-month, 2,000-mile round trip to Punt — located in modern Ethiopia or Yemen.
A French production company called Sombrero and Co. approached Ward with the idea of recreating the ancient journey for a documentary, and so her team set about resurrecting a ship for the modern expedition.
Douglas fir from North America best resembled the cedar wood used by the Egyptians, in terms of strength and density. Naval architect Patrick Couser drew on better-known watercraft designs from ancient Egypt to design a ship which matched relief images seen on Hatshepsut’s funerary temple.
The 66-foot-long by 16-foot-wide ship was completed by October 2008 using ancient Egyptian techniques. Frames and nails didn’t enter the equation — instead planks were designed to fit like pieces of a puzzle. The timbers swelled snugly together after being immersed in the Nile River.
A 24-person international crew eventually took Min of the Desert on its maiden Red Sea voyage, after short trial runs on the Nile. Political considerations and the threat of modern-day pirates cut the voyage short after sailing 150 miles in a week, but the ancient Egyptian engineering held up.
“The technology we used had not been applied to shipbuilding for more than 3,500 years, and it still works as well today as it did then,” Ward said.
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