Ancient Egyptians engaged in some of the most elaborate funeral practices of any great civilization. They tried to provide their dead with everything necessary to complete the journey from this life to the next, and sometimes beyond. The funerary boat is one example of the Egyptian attempt to care for their dead long after death.
Boat to the Afterlife
Ancient Egyptian funerary boats were once thought to have been used only in the burial of pharaohs. The 2012 discovery of one of these symbolic craft next to an ordinary mud-brick mastaba, or step-pyramid, along with other rare discoveries at the graves of non-royals is changing that perception. Without more evidence to determine which levels of Egyptian society used the boats, it is up for speculation if the practice was universal or reserved for the elite.
Ancient Egyptian funeral boats were crafted of wood imported from elsewhere in the Middle Eastern region. Since trees do not grow in the desert, the expense of obtaining the materials to make these boats was great. No nails were used in the construction of the most expertly crafted funeral boats. Instead, rope was used to tie them together in a woven pattern. Grooves were cut into each plank to enable a flush fit for the rope and to prevent leaks.
Size and Purpose
The funerary boats measured about 20 feet in length on average. In some cases, these boats could be much larger. The Pharaoh Khufu, who also built the Great Pyramid, was buried with a 144-foot-long funerary boat with 12 oars and a mysterious purpose. Some experts believe it was used to symbolically carry the king's soul to the afterlife, while others believe it was used by the dead pharaoh to cross the sky alongside Ra, the sun god, each day.
Rather than a basic hull, the most elaborate of Egyptian funerary boats were built with all the accoutrements necessary to a comfortable journey. The decks were ringed with lattice over which canvas could be stretched to create a sheltered space for rowers. A wooden deck house with a canvas roof sat atop the boat, perhaps as a shelter for the passenger. The oars used to power the boat were cut from solid wood to ensure a strong and lasting finished product.
Funerary boats did not all live up to the standards of a great pharaoh. Many were small, simple craft with little more than a scooped-out hull and a few oars. In some cases, the construction of a life-size boat was not possible, so model funerary boats were enclosed within the tomb as symbolic gestures. These models had all the detail and significance of the larger versions, but were only a few feet long at best. These boats even contained model rowers, all crafted of wood to ferry the deceased on his way.
- Al Arabiya: Wooden Sheets of Early Egyptian King’s Funerary Boats Found
- Public Broadcasting System:
- Australian Museum: Funerals in Ancient Egypt
- Archaeology Magazine: Oldest Egyptian Funerary Boat
- BBC: Egyptian Funerary Boat
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Funerary Boat being Rowed
- Bluffton University: Solar Boat/Funerary Boat of Cheops (Khufu)
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