Marine Archaeologists Find First Example Of Ancient Nile River Barge

Marine archaeologists working in a flooded ancient port in Egypt have found the first known surviving example of a type of Nile River barge described by a Greek historian 2,469 years ago.

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote his book Historia (Histories) in 440 B.C. An “inquiry” into the causes of the war between Greek city-states and the Persian Empire, it is considered the first true work of history in Western civilization. Herodotus was called the “father of history” by later historians because he stressed natural and human causes instead of myth.

Herodotus devoted 23 lines to the construction of a type of Nile barge he saw during a visit to Egypt 10 years before he published his work.  Herodotus described how the barge, called a baris, had one rudder that passed through a hole in the keel, a mast made of acacia wood and sails made from papyrus. He described how the builders used cross-beam construction and used papyrus to stop leaks and seams in the hull.

No surviving example had ever been found and many scholars doubted the boat’s existence. But in 2000, the ancient, sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion was discovered on the Egyptian coast and marine archaeologists began working on it. The discovery of what was called Ship 17 revealed a vast crescent-shaped hull and a previously undocumented type of construction involving thick planks assembled with tenons—just as Herodotus observed, in describing a slightly smaller vessel.

Oxford University’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology is publishing the findings.

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