The Abusir Boat-Burial and the Entangled Ships of Ancient Egypt

Lecture by Douglas Inglis, PhD Candidate, Texas A&M University

  • 5:00 pmIllinois
  • The Oriental Institute of the University of ChicagoLaSalle Banks Room
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Boats were essential to life and death along the Nile; they facilitated travel and commerce, the construction of the pyramids, and long-distance voyages across the sea. This talk will explore the fundamental role boats played in the lifeways of ancient Egypt, and how they became deeply entwined with religious rituals, conceptualizations of the afterlife, and the mortuary cult. The ancient Egyptians decorated their tombs and temples with images of boats, included boat-models as burial goods, and even buried entire vessels alongside their tombs and pyramids, leaving us with more information about Egyptian watercraft than any other Bronze Age civilization. 

As part of this conversation, we will focus on a thrilling new discovery from the necropolis of Abusir – a Third Dynasty boat-burial that is a technological missing link between Khufu’s royal ship and the enigmatic boat burials of the First Dynasty. The Abusir Boat is absolutely unique in its preservation of organic components, including sections of in-situ lacing, wadding, and battens that served to bind the planks together and make the vessel watertight. Moreover, the Abusir boat has revealed how early Egyptian shipwrights were entangled with and guided by the physical properties of local woods such as acacia and tamarisk, as well as the Nilotic environment. The advent of large-scale seafaring expeditions, monumental stone transport, and the use of imported cedar during the Fourth Dynasty drove innovations in ship design and entangled shipwrights in a vast, international network that imported copper from the Sinai and timber from Lebanon. We can see how these innovations took root by comparing the Abusir boat to famous vessels like Khufu’s royal ship (located beside the Great Pyramid at Giza) or Senwosret III’s boats from Dashur (one of which is at the Field Museum). Over the course of this talk, we will see how the early fishing and trading boats of the Nile evolved into ships of exploration, symbols of state power, and vessels for traversing the netherworld. 

About the speaker:

Douglas Inglis is a nautical archaeologist and PhD candidate at Texas A&M, where he specializes in ancient Egyptian watercraft. Inglis oversaw the recording and excavation of a Third Dynasty funerary boat that was discovered in the Abusir necropolis by the Czech Institute of Egyptology. The Abusir boat-burial and its social context are the subject of his PhD dissertation. Inglis is both a terrestrial and underwater archaeologist, and has worked on archaeological projects around the world, including Egypt, Israel, Tobago, Bermuda, Vietnam, Guatemala, and the United States. Inglis runs Interactive Heritage LLC, a cyber-archaeology firm that creates virtual museums, as well 3D models of archaeological sites and artifacts. He is currently working with the Oriental Institute Museum to create models of artifacts from Serabit al-Khadim in the Sinai, and recently taught a seven-week course on Egyptian watercraft at the Museum.