Khufu Vessel I: Ships as Displays of Power and Prestige in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, ships and boats were sometimes used as displays of power and prestige. The development of shipbuilding technology and tradition and the use of watercraft for ritual purposes are all testimony to this point. I believe one ancient Egyptian ship in particular, Khufu Vessel I, is the most evident example of ships being used to demonstrate power and prestige, as well as a convergent point for early Egyptian shipbuilding development and watercraft rituality. In Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Khufu was the second king of the Fourth Dynasty from around 2609-2584 BCE. Khufu is well known for building the Great Pyramid at Giza, but not much is known about Khufu himself. The only surviving depiction of Khufu is a small figurine that was found at Abydos. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian described Khufu as “cruel and impious” (Hawass, “Khufu”). The construction of Khufu’s Great Pyramid complex may support Herodotus’ characterization due to Khufu’s apparent ability to control the immense quantity of materials and human labor resources that were needed to construct the tomb. Khufu created a reputation for himself that Egyptians would remember and talk about throughout their history.
The Great Pyramid is extraordinary and world renowned, however, not many know about the equally extraordinary Khufu Vessel I, a ship that was found buried and disassembled in a pit next to the Pyramid. This ship is one of the oldest in the world; subsequently it is also the largest and most well preserved ancient boat known to archaeologists (Jenkins, 8). The Khufu vessel is one of the most important sources of information about ancient shipbuilding for archaeologists. The Khufu vessel is a prime piece of evidence of the sophisticated civilization that built it. By the time the Khufu ship was built, there had been a long tradition of shipbuilding, and therefore a longstanding relationship between ships, power, and prestige. The complexity of the Khufu ship exhibits the amazing abilities of the shipbuilders, as well as the importance of ships and boats in demonstrating prestige. Dating to around the same time as Khufu’s reign, Khufu Vessel I is an angular, papyriform boat of approximately 43 meters in length (Ward, “Seafaring”). The ship was built from 38-40 tons of cedar imported from the Levant, or what is now Lebanon. With about 1200 timbers, V-shaped lashings, and countless mortise and tenon joints, the ship’s construction is more technically complicated than the immense pyramid it was buried next to. The Khufu Vessel I exhibits a straight, vertical prow and a stern post that is drawn back in a curve over the ship, with the all-seeing eye of Horus painted on the front (Jenkins, 134). The ship was built by skilled artisans that were trained in the long traditions of shipbuilding (Jenkins, 114).
The exact purpose and function of the Khufu vessel is not known, but there are logical speculations about it. Some scholars believe the ship to be a solar barque, meant to carry a dead king up to eternally make rounds with the Sun god. Other academics say that the ship is a funerary boat that was used to carry Khufu’s body down the river from Memphis to Giza for burial in his pyramid. Still other scholars believe the ship was used during the kings’ life as a pilgrimage boat to visit Egypt’s sacred places (Jenkins, 14).
There is archaeological evidence suggesting that the Khufu ship was meant to be reassembled at some point, perhaps in the afterlife. During the ships’ excavation, the pieces appeared to be arranged in a neat specific manner. Additionally, a large majority of the timbers and wooden pieces of the ship were marked with hieratic signs indicating the part of the ship that they were supposed to go to (Jenkins, 86-87). This evidence may fit with the theory that the vessel was intended to be a solar barque,...