Boat Graves and Pyramid Origins

New Discoveries at Abydos, Egypt

By: David O'Connor

Originally Published in 1991

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The study of ancient Egypt revolves around a number of questions about major aspects of Egyptian culture, questions not yet fully resolved in spite of their fundamental nature. One such set of questions concerns that most “Egyp­tian” of forms, the pyramid, or rather, the pyramid and the complex of cult structures which are attached to it and give it meaning. Recently, excavations at an apparently already well-worked site—Abydos, in south­ern Egypt—have provided some ex­citing new evidence about the origins of the pyramids and their associated complexes.

Abydos is located at the junction between the fertile floodplain and the low-lying desert that fronts the steep cliffs of the Nile gorge. The site lies about 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the river, adjacent to a flood-plain that is now, as in the past, agriculturally rich. The arid desert over which the site extends (some 7 square kilometers) is much more for­bidding. Much of it consists of ceme­tery fields; the dips and hillocks covering much of the site are plun­dered or excavated tomb shafts and pits, with the spoil dumped beside them.

Abydos is most famous as the south­ern cult-center for Osiris, the god of the dead. However, his cult was not manifest at the site until about 2000 B.C. A thousand years earlier, Abydos was already an important site to the Egyptians, for it was here the earliest historic pharaohs were buried.

In West Abydos are located the tombs of all kings of Dynasty I, two of Dynasty II, and some of their royal predecessors of Dynasty “0,” most of them excavated by Flinders Petrie at the turn of the century. Abydos was, therefore, the “Giza” of Early Dynas­tic times, a focus for technological innovations and ideological develop­ments. East Abydos became more important in the Middle and New Kingdoms, and contains a number of royal cenotaphs or dummy tombs from these periods.

North Abydos, however, is the ancient core of the site. Here the funerary cults of the early kings were celebrated within massive mud brick enclosures (Fig. 1). To the east of the enclosures a town grew; dating back at least into Early Dynastic times, it became a major settlement in the Old Kingdom. Within the town stood a temple, dedicated initially to the local god Khenty Amentiu, who even­tually merged with Osiris. In the desert hinterland, a vast cemetery developed, for the inhabitants of the town and perhaps for those of the region as well. This cemetery was im­portant in the Old and Middle King­doms, but much less so in the New Kingdom, when the chief town or towns probably lay in East Abydos (Fig. 2b).

In this article I shall focus on another perhaps surprising aspect of Abydos: its connection to the great pyramids and pyramid temples that are typical for pharaohs’ burials else­where in the Old and Middle King­doms of Egypt.

Pyramids and Mounds

Pyramid complexes have of course often been excavated, sometimes very well; outstanding in this regard, for example, were the excavations of George Reisner, the American Egyp­tologist at Giza. Nevertheless, many questions remain to be answered, and interest in the archaeology of pyramids has revived markedly in recent years. For instance, Zahi Hawass, Director of Giza and Saq­qara for the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, and Mark Lehner, of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, have developed a comprehensive approach to the re-exploration of the Giza Plateau; Dieter and Dorothea Arnold of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, have been re-investigat­ing the great Middle Kingdom pyra­mids; while Rainer Stadelmann, Director of the German Archaeologi­cal Institute, Cairo, is studying the Old Kingdom pyramids of Snefru at Dahshur.

Abydos, however, is particularly important in addressing the question of pyramid origins. The first true pyramids occur relatively late in Egyptian history, in ca. 2560 B.C.; before then, between 2650-2570 B.C., we have the step pyramids of Saqqara, covering Dynasty III. But the earliest historic royal tombs—those at Abydos­begin in 2900 B.C. What was their connection with the pyramid com­plex?

Various answers have been prof­fered. A particularly important sug­gestion has been that the royal tombs of Dynasties I and II at Abydos had mound-like superstructures, i.e., a sand and gravel mound held in place by mud brick retaining walls, rising perhaps 2.40 to 3 meters (ca. 8 to 10 feet) in height. From these, the stepped pyramid typical of Dynasty III evolved in some way not yet fully documented. However, recent excava­tions at the Abydos tombs by Werner Kaiser and Gunter Dreyer have shown that the evidence Petrie found and interpreted as the remains of superstructures rising above ground level, in fact belonged to mounds set over the burial chamber but buried below ground level. The Abydos tombs therefore would seem to have had no visible or prominent super­structures. Dreyer believes they did exist, but so far no trace of them has been recovered.

In Dynasties I and II there were also elite tombs at Saqqara, thought by some scholars to be royal, al­though this is now a minority view. These Saqqara tombs had large rec­tangular superstructures; hidden with­in each was a mound, placed over the burial pit. In one case the mound was in stepped form. Some suggest that the superstructure became transform­ed into the towered enclosure wall of the step pyramids, and the mound evolved into the step pyramid it­self—now visible and on a much larger scale.

Our recent work at Abydos has prompted us to come forward with a new and different theory—at the moment a working hypothesis, but one supported by certain important if fragmentary evidence. This work has focused on the cemetery field of North Abydos. Here, almost two kilo­meters away from the royal tombs, archaeologists long ago discovered that large mud brick enclosures had been built for some of the early pharaohs, presumably to house their funerary cults. Two were for Kha­sekhemwy and Peribsen, at the end of Dynasty II (see time chart). There were at least four of Dynasty I (ca. 2920-2770 B.C.), for pharaohs Deer, Deet, Queen Mother Meretneith, and another pharaoh. The existence of Deer’s enclosure (and hence the prob­ability of one for his successor, Djet) was proven by our excavations in 1988. However, apart from a few interior features recovered by earlier archaeologists, the large interiors of these enclosures remained generally mysterious and unknown.

We decided to re-investigate these enclosures, including the best pre­served, that of Pharaoh Khasekhem­wy of the end of Dynasty II (Fig. 3). This extraordinary feature is built entirely of mud brick, defining an area of over half a hectare. Its walls are 5 meters thick and still stand about 11 meters high, although they were built somewhere between 2700 and 2650 B.C., that is, about 4700 years ago. The interior is heavily encumbered with windblown sand which has discouraged systematic excavation (Fig. 4), although there were large-scale—and very damaging—clearances attempted in the 19th century and later. In addition, the whole interior is pitted with large, deep holes used for the burial of sacred ibises in the 1st millennium B.C. (Fig. 5).

We were fortunate enough, despite the difficulties, to expose some sur­viving fragments of the original Dynasty II surface. Of these, one was particularly important. We found a large expanse of the thick Dynasty II mud plaster floor. At one edge a line of brickwork survived (Fig. 6), be­longing to a feature which had other­wise been completely removed in antiquity, at least so far as the area covered by our excavation units was concerned. The bricks were laid at an angle, i.e., they were not simply part of a horizontally bedded wall. This point is evident in plan and section (Fig. 7).

We are fairly sure that what once stood here was a large mound made of sand and gravel; it was covered with a brick skin, of which this brick­work is the lowest and only surviving piece. Similar mounds were found at Saqqara, placed over the burial pits of the elite tombs. However, the Saqqara mounds were probably smaller than the Abydos example, and they were hidden within the rectangular superstructures of the tombs. They were perhaps inspired by the ‘hidden’ mound the German expedition has discovered at the royal tombs in West Abydos. Khaekhemwy’s mound rose above the ground surface of the enclosed area and was visible to any one who entered that enclosure.

Now, we also know from the studies of the archaeologist Quibeil, and later Lauer, that the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqaxa, the first built (ca. 2620 B.C.), was simpler in its original form. It had stone-built en­closure walls, and a large mound feature in stone masonry. This stone mound was located in much the same position as that of the brick-covered mound in the Abydos enclosure. In other words, the first version of Djoser mound looks like a larger-scale stone copy of the Khasekhemwy’s complex, but led on to the true step pyramid (Fig. 8) and ultimately the true pyramid. Whether the mound occurs in Abydos enclosures earlier than Khasekhem-wy is some­thing we have yet to determine. How­ ever, Khasekhemwy’s enclosure, like Peribsen’s, is closely modeled on the type established as early as Der’s reign, so it is possible that the mound tradition extends back this far as well.

The Boat Graves

The discovery of the Dynasty II mound or proto-pyrarnid at Abydos occurred in 1988. In October of 1991, we made an equally startling and significant discovery. In 1988 we had found, northeast of the Khasekhemwy’s enclosure, a bastion-like feature in mud brick which we thought might be the corner of a hitherto unknown enclosure. This past season (1991) we carried out large-scale ex­cavations throughout this area with most surprising results.

The topography of the area ex­cavated was very varied. Sometimes the archaeological remains were vir­tually coincidental with the modern surface and could be defined initially by scraping with a trowel. In other cases, the remains were buried under several feet of wind-deposited sand, extremely difficult to excavate in. However, it eventually became clear that we were not dealing with an enclosure or the remains of a series of superimposed enclosures. Rather, what emerged was a series of “walls” of a curious shape and all running, in local terms, “east” to “west” (in actu­ality, northeast to southwest).

Each “wall” is in fact an enormous boat grave (Figs. 9, 10). Some twelve, arranged in a more or less continuous row from north to south, were de­lineated in 1991. It is possible that the series continues on towards the south—a possibility that will be tested in a future season of excavation. They are not likely to run much further to the north, because in that area is the large funerary cult enclosure built for Pharaoh Deer early in Dynasty I. The boat graves are not likely to be earlier than this and may in fact have been built for Djer, but this remains to be proven (Fig. 12).

However, there is no doubt that the boat graves are, like the enclo­sures which surround them, Early Dynastic in date, i.e., built in Dynasty I or II. The matrix surrounding them was abundant in Early Dynastic pot­tery sherds, usually unmixed with those of later date (the latter oc­curred higher up in the overlying deposit). In one case, clusters of Early Dynastic offering ears had been deposited under the “prow” of one of the boat graves.

Why do we call these structures boat graves? The first reason is be­cause of their shape. Each boat grave, when complete, had consisted of a mass of laid brickwork rising up to a height of approximately 50 centi­meters above the Early Dynastic ground surface. They were therefore relatively low in height, but enor­mously long: the shortest was about 19 meters long, the longest 29 meters. The average length of all twelve was about 27.40 meters (89-1/2 feet). Each grave was quite narrow, typi­cally about 3.25 meters at the widest, and in plan curved gently outward, then in again on each side, replicating the outline of a boat. In addition, each boat grave had a strongly de­fined “prow” and “stern” (Fig. 11).

The final effect must have been quite extraordinary. Each grave had originally been thickly coated with mud plaster and whitewash, so the impression would have been of twelve (or more) huge white “boats” moor­ed out in the desert, gleaming bril­liantly in the Egyptian sun. The no­tion of their being moored was taken so seriously that an irregularly shap­ed small boulder was found placed near the “prow” or “stern” of several boat graves (Fig. 13). These boulders could not have been there naturally or by accident; their placement seems deliberate, not random. We can think of them as “anchors,” in­tended to help moor the “boats.”

Moreover, these graves are indeed containers—brick-built boxes—for actual wooden boats. Because of the erosion suffered on the top of the graves, we could actually see the outline of the upper edge of each wooden boat showing up as a dark brown line in the surface of the eroded mud plaster. At least in some cases (the situation was not always clear), the boat seemed to fill most of the grave, except for the “prow” and “stern” which were built of solid mud brick. This means that some of these boats are probably up to 22 meters long (72 feet). However, this is an estimate, because we decided not to attempt to excavate any of the actual boats until proper arrangements had been made for conservation and per­haps reconstruction. The excavation, conservation, possible reconstruction and study of selected boats will be carried out in the next season by a multidisciplinary team of archaeolo­gists and other relevant experts. To ensure the stability of the boat graves, they were all reburied under a deep bed of sand; those selected for detailed study will be re-excavated next season.

The exteriors of the boat graves, the surfaces surrounding them, and the stratified matrix in which they lay were all carefully mapped and re­corded during the course of excava­tion. In addition, some of the boat graves had been cut into in ancient times by intrusive pits, probably for secondary graves dating to periods much later than the Early Dynastic Period. We made the most of the opportunity provided by these pits and excavated one (Fig. 14), thereby obtaining a fine profile of one of the boats, or rather of its hull, and a good idea of the internal structure of a boat grave.

The particular segment of wooden hull exposed was about 1.47 meters wide at the top, while the flattish bottom was about 41 centimeters wide. The depth of the hull was about 41 centimeters, but it may have originally been deeper, depending on the amount of erosion the top of the grave had experienced. The wooden planks or sheil of the hull was about 10 centimeters thick (Fig.

15). These are impressively large ves­sels, even as defined by the hull alone. The largest actual boat ever discovered in Egypt, from the boat pit at Khufu’s pyramid (“the Great Pyramid”) at Giza, was 43.40 meters (142 feet) long, about twice the esti­mated length of the largest Abydos hull; but all other known actual boats from Egypt are smaller.

The profile makes it clear that, at this point, no decking is present. If  cabins, steering oars, rowing oars, or attached prows and sterns were in­cluded with any of the boats, they must have been laid flat in the hull, or on the fill of the hull, and remain to be discovered through excavation.

The exposed section also showed how the boat grave was built. First, a shallow trench was cut in the desert surface, and a single layer of brick­work laid down on each side of the trench. This kept the hull in place while the rest of the brick walls defin­ing the sides of the grave were built. Their internal profile followed the curve of the hull, indicating the walls were built after the hull was in place. The hull, in this instance at least, was then filled solid with mud brick, and the whole “casing”—top and sides—was covered with mud plaster and whitewashed.

The Significance of the Boat Graves

The discovery of these boat graves further enriches our understanding of the Early Dynastic royal funerary enclosures at Abydos and, like the apparent “proto-pyramids” discussed earlier, indicates these enclosures, their contents, and surrounding fea­tures are in the mainstream of pyra­mid-complex development and evo­lution in Egypt. Such boat graves of Early Dynastic times are not unique to Abydos. They have been found associated with the elite graves of the First Dynasty at Samara, and even with the graves of people of lesser status in the huge Early Dynastic cemeteries at Heiwan, across the river from Saqqara, and Memphis, the capital of early Egypt.

The Saqqara and Heiwan boat graves are similar to the Abydos ones in that a shallow trench was cut to hold a hull in place; the hull was filled with sand or rubble, and a brick encased superstructure was built to contain the hull. However, there are also important differences which emphasize the special character of the graves at Abydos.

First, the Abydos boat graves, and the boats they contain, are larger than any of the other known Early Dynas­tic boat graves. The largest boat grave at Saqqara was 22.15 meters, and none of the Heiwan boat graves appears to have exceeded 20 meters; usually they were substantially less than that. Second, the architectural form of the boat graves at Saqqara and Heiwan, while trying to convey the impression of a boat, was dif­ferent from the form employed at Abydos, with its emphatically de­fined “prow” and “stern.” Finally, at Saqqara and Heiwan, each boat grave is an isolated unit associated with a specific tomb, i.e., the boat graves are not found arranged in groups, whereas at Abydos they form a virtual fleet, “moored” up against one of the royal funerary cult enclosures.

Unfortunately, we cannot be sure yet to which of the known (or yet to be discovered’) enclosures the Aby­dos boat graves belonged. Strati-graphically, they appear to be earlier than the enclosure of Khasekhemwy (end of Dynasty II), in front of which they lie. All the other known en­closures in their immediate vicinity date to Dynasty I. It is to one of these, such as Djer’s (the earliest known), that the boat graves probably be­longed.

However that may be, it seems reasonable to see in this fleet of boat graves at Abydos the prototypes of the boat pits—pits containing actual (but sometimes dismantled) boats—that flanked later royal pyramids. The most famous are the five of Khufu (one of his queens also had a boat pit; Fig. 16), but such boat pits are found with other pyramids of Dynasties IV and V, and later (with the boat buried in sand, rather than in a pit), with one of the Dynasty XII pyramids. If this conjecture is cor­rect, then the strong relationship between early Abydos and later pyra­mid sites is again reaffirmed.

The other important aspect of the Abydos boat graves is that the hulls (and perhaps other components) they contain, while not perfectly pre­served, seem generally much better preserved than any of the other boats found at Samara and Helwan. At these sites, sufficient traces of the wood remained to sometimes attempt a graphic reconstruction of the boat involved, but the Abydos boats are likely to provide much more material and information. They are therefore significant additions to the tiny list of weil-preserved actual boats known from Egypt, specifically the two boats at the Khufu pyramid, and some six probably real boats (i.e., not models) associated with the pyramid of Senwosret II at Dahshur. The Dahshur boats were each about 10 meters (32-3/4 feet) long.

This is an important discovery then not only for our understanding of boats and ships in ancient Egypt, but also for the development of boat building and use in general through­out the Mediterranean Bronze Age world.

In future seasons, we shall not only search for additional boat graves. Several royal funerary cult enclosures remain to be discovered, for there are more early pharaohs buried in West Abydos than we have enclosures for in North Abydos. Moreover, we shall try to establish if enclosures earlier than Kbasekhemwy’s, the latest at the site, also had mounds—mounds that, we suggest, are proto­pyramids, from which ultimately the awe-inspiring monuments of Giza emerged.

Cite This Article

O'Connor, David. "Boat Graves and Pyramid Origins." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 3 (November, 1991): -. Accessed September 30, 2023.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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