Dig for Pharaoh's Boat Begins

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Lifting one of the limestone slabs which sealed the pit. Photo courtesy Rania Galal.credit: Rania Galal

Today archaeologists began excavating a pharaonic boat hidden for 4,500 years in an underground chamber on the southern side of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Consisting of disassembled beams and planks, the boat is one of two which were buried near the pyramid to follow the dead Khufu, also known as Cheops, in his journey into the afterlife.

The first boat, entombed in a pit sealed by 41 stone blocks, was discovered in 1954. As with the newly excavated boat, it was completely dismantled.

Made of 1,224 components and about 142 feet long, Khufu's first ship was fully reconstructed in 1971 and the model now stands resurrected in a specially built museum near the Great Pyramid.

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While evidence of a second pit near to the first one was noted already in 1954, the second boat was detected only in 1987 by an electromagnetic radar survey.

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The pit has been the focus of a $10 million research project (a grant from Waseda University) since 2008 by staff from the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities, a delegation from Waseda University and the Japanese Institute for Restoration Research.

"It is one of the most important archaeological and conservation projects in the world," Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Minister of State for Antiquities, told reporters.

Following a comprehensive study, which involved viewing the inside of the boat pit from a camera inserted through a hole in the chamber's ceiling, researchers concluded that the boat can be restored.

"Conditions are now ideal to remove the stone cover," said Hawass.

This morning, a team of archaeologists lifted 41 limestone slabs weighing about 16 tons each, and extracted the first pieces of wood.

The archaeologists expect to unearth about 600 pieces of beams and planks in the next couple of months.

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According to researchers who closely analyzed the images from the inside of the boat pit, the first and second boats are sister ships.

Both made from Lebanese cedar and Egyptian acacia trees, they are likely to feature the same overall appearance, although the second ship is thought to be smaller than the first.

Excavation is expected to reveal interesting aspects about the ships' construction and assemblage.

At least in the case of Khufu's first ship, the timbers were carefully placed in the underground chamber.

The ships were stored like Ikea furniture — pre-fabricated and ready for assembly and stacked in a sequence that basically led to the vessel's finished form.

As the oldest surviving vessels from antiquity, the boats raise many questions. For example, what was their purpose? Was the embalmed Khufu taken to his pyramid in one of these ships? And why were there two boats? But most of all, why did the ancient Egyptians first build and then disassemble and bury two expensive, full-sized royal ships at the base of the Great Pyramid?

According to Hawass, the boats were not used in the funerary procession to carry Khufu's body from his palace at Memphis to his tomb at Giza.

Instead, they were symbolic vessels.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun traveled from east to west in a "day boat," called Mandjet, moving to a "night boat," called Mesektet, for the return trip to the underworld.

"The second boat was intended to carry the king across the daytime sky, while the first one was for his night voyage," Hawass told Discovery News.

As for the boat being disassembled — that wasn't a problem.

"The sun god knew how to reconstruct it. That's why they dismantled these ships and buried them in a pit," Hawass explained.

Restorers might have much harder time in reconstructing the boat. Although the wood was stacked ready for assembly, it took the late master Ahmad Youssef, chief restorer of Antiquities Department of Egypt, 13 years and five attempts to reassemble the first boat.

For the second boat, restoration is expected to take about four years.

The ship will be then displayed at the Solar Boat Museum near the Great pyramid, while the first boat will be moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is currently under construction.