The “boat pits” around the great pyramid of Khufu were first discovered in 1954 by Kamal Al Mallakh. Five pits have now been discovered all in all. However, only two were found to still contain the giant solar barques. One, pictured above, has now been reassembled (they were buried in a dismantled state, fortunately with builders marks and notations indicating how they should be put together) following a lot of work, and is now on display in a dedicated building constructed where it was found. A beautiful and humbling sight indeed.
In 1987 a mission from Waseda University used an electromagnetic wave scan of the western pit and detected that it too, contained a dismantled vessel. In October of the same year National Geographic created an airtight entry and searched the inside of the pit with an endoscopic camera and air sampling equipment. It was discovered that this chamber was not airtight, and that this had allowed insects to penetrate and attack a small part of the wood. However, overall there were indeed substantial wooden remains.
In 1992 Waseda returned to the site and conducted a study to gain further details on conditions inside the pit and of the wood itself. They also managed to cleanse the pit of the insects that had been the cause of great concern. Eventually a decision was reached with the SCA to begin preparations for excavation.
However, all is not so straightforward. The glory of the first barque has been to the detriment of the second. The dryness of the plateau and its that made such perfect conditions for the survival of the first barque have been compromised by it’s display in the new on-site museum building. Water leaking from that building has penetrated the pit and along with the insects has contributed to damage of the wood.
However, despite the complications, at the end of July this year, the Waseda team has managed to rig up a closed circuit television system, allowing visitors to see the boat resting in it’s pit – “Now we can smell the past” as Dr. Zahi Hawass put it, and indeed see it too.
It is hoped that the conserved and reconstructed vessel will eventually have a home in the Grand Egyptian Museum, a gigantic new construction at the edge of the Giza plateau, a few kilometres away, due to open in 2011. However, it will miss the opening ceremony. The International Herald Tribune reports Prof. Yoshimura of the Waseda mission as saying that the process of removing the components will not begin until November this year, and Dr. Hawass as saying that the overall projectwill most likely take a decade.
The introduction of the cameras amidst high publicity has brought some welcome attention to an important long-term project. Although the two solar barques of Khufu are not the only surviving boats from Ancient Egypt (two boats from the reign of Senusret III were found at his Dashur pyramid complex, and are now on display in the Egyptian Museum, and largely ignored) the solar barques are larger, better preserved, and if the current one is anything to go by, more than a little grander.
It is heartening to see progress on the second barque, however I think the problems that have been encountered by Waseda mission should lead to pause for thought. The contamination of the environment of the western pit was due in part to the construction of the museum to contain the original solar barque. Now, a much much larger museum is being built on the Giza plateau. In our rush to learn from the ancient past, we should not forget the lessons of a more recent time.
Photo: The solar barque of Khufu (4th Dyn) – Wikimedia Commons by Alex Lbh (2005)