In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and wrote of unusual river boats on the Nile. Twenty-three lines of his Historia, the ancient world’s first great narrative history, are devoted to the intricate description of the construction of a “baris”.
For centuries, scholars have argued over his account because there was no archaeological evidence that such ships ever existed. Now there is. A “fabulously preserved” wreck in the waters around the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion has revealed just how accurate the historian was.
“It wasn’t until we discovered this wreck that we realised Herodotus was right,” said Dr Damian Robinson, director of Oxford University’s centre for maritime archaeology, which is publishing the excavation’s findings. “What Herodotus described was what we were looking at.”
In 450 BC Herodotus witnessed the construction of a baris. He noted how the builders “cut planks two cubits long [around 100cm] and arrange them like bricks”. He added: “On the strong and long tenons [pieces of wood] they insert two-cubit planks. When they have built their ship in this way, they stretch beams over them… They obturate the seams from within with papyrus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the keel. The mast is of acacia and the sails of papyrus...”
Robinson said that previous scholars had “made some mistakes” in struggling to interpret the text without archaeological evidence. “It’s one of those enigmatic pieces. Scholars have argued exactly what it means for as long as we’ve been thinking of boats in this scholarly way,” he said.
But the excavation of what has been called Ship 17 has 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.
Originally measuring up to 28 metres long, it is one of the first large-scale ancient Egyptian trading boats ever to have been discovered.
Robinson added: “Herodotus describes the boats as having long internal ribs. Nobody really knew what that meant… That structure’s never been seen archaeologically before. Then we discovered this form of construction on this particular boat and it absolutely is what Herodotus has been saying.”
About 70% of the hull has survived, well-preserved in the Nile silts. Acacia planks were held together with long tenon-ribs – some almost 2m long – and fastened with pegs, creating lines of ‘internal ribs’ within the hull. It was steered using an axial rudder with two circular openings for the steering oar and a step for a mast towards the centre of the vessel.
Robinson said: “Where planks are joined together to form the hull, they are usually joined by mortice and tenon joints which fasten one plank to the next. Here we have a completely unique form of construction, which is not seen anywhere else.”
Alexander Belov, whose book on the wreck, Ship 17: a Baris from Thonis-Heracleion, is published this month, suggests that the wreck’s nautical architecture is so close to Herodotus’s description, it could have been made in the very shipyard that he visited. Word-by-word analysis of his text demonstrates that almost every detail corresponds “exactly to the evidence”.
Herodotus 2.96 wrote:Τὰ δὲ δὴ πλοῖά σφι τοῖσι φορτηγέουσι ἐστὶ ἐκ τῆς ἀκάνθης (1)
ποιεύμενα, τῆς ἡ μορφὴ μέν ἐστι ὁμοιοτάτη τῷ Κυρηναίῳ
λωτῷ, τὸ δὲ δάκρυον κόμμι ἐστί· ἐκ ταύτης ὦν τῆς ἀκάνθης
κοψάμενοι ξύλα ὅσον τε διπήχεα πλινθηδὸν συντιθεῖσι,
ναυπηγεύμενοι τρόπον τοιόνδε· (2) περὶ γόμφους πυκνοὺς (5)
καὶ μακροὺς περιείρουσι τὰ διπήχεα ξύλα· ἐπεὰν δὲ τῷ
τρόπῳ τούτῳ ναυπηγήσωνται, ζυγὰ ἐπιπολῆς τείνουσι
αὐτῶν. νομεῦσι δὲ οὐδὲν χρέωνται· ἔσωθεν δὲ τὰς ἁρμονίας ἐν
ὦν ἐπάκτωσαν τῇ βύβλῳ. (3) πηδάλιον δὲ ἓν ποιεῦνται, καὶ @1
τοῦτο διὰ τῆς τρόπιος διαβύνεται. ἱστῷ δὲ ἀκανθίνῳ χρέων- (10)
ται, ἱστίοισι δὲ βυβλίνοισι. ταῦτα τὰ πλοῖα ἀνὰ μὲν τὸν
ποταμὸν οὐ δύναται πλέειν, ἢν μὴ λαμπρὸς ἄνεμος ἐπέχῃ, ἐκ
γῆς δὲ παρέλκεται, κατὰ ῥόον δὲ κομίζεται ὧδε· (4) ἔστι ἐκ
μυρίκης πεποιημένη θύρη, κατεστρωμένη ῥιπὶ καλάμων,
καὶ λίθος τετρημένος διτάλαντος μάλιστά κῃ σταθμόν. (15)
τούτων τὴν μὲν θύρην δεδεμένην κάλῳ ἔμπροσθε τοῦ πλοίου
ἀπίει ἐπιφέρεσθαι, τὸν δὲ λίθον ἄλλῳ κάλῳ ὄπισθε. (5) ἡ μὲν
δὴ θύρη τοῦ ῥόου ἐμπίπτοντος χωρέει ταχέως καὶ ἕλκει τὴν
βᾶριν (τοῦτο γὰρ δὴ οὔνομά ἐστι τοῖσι πλοίοισι τούτοισι), ὁ δὲ
λίθος ὄπισθε ἐπελκόμενος καὶ ἐὼν ἐν βυσσῷ κατιθύνει τὸν (20)
πλόον. ἔστι δέ σφι τὰ πλοῖα ταῦτα πλήθεϊ πολλὰ καὶ ἄγει ἔνια
πολλὰς χιλιάδας ταλάντων.
Loeb Translation wrote:The boats in which they carry cargo are made of the acacia, which is in form most like to the lotus of Cyrene, and its sap is gum. Of this tree they cut logs of two cubits length and lay them like courses of bricks, and build the boat by making these two-cubit logs fast to long and close-set stakes; and having so built they set crossbeams athwart and on the logs. They use no ribs. They caulk the seams within with byblus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the boat’s keel. The mast is of acacia-wood and the sails of byblus. These boats cannot move upstream unless a brisk breeze continue; they are towed from the bank; but downstream they are thus managed: they have a raft made of tamarisk wood, fastened together with matting of reeds, and a pierced stone of about two talents’ weight; the raft is let go to float down ahead of the boat, made fast to it by a rope, and the stone is made fast also by a rope to the after part of the boat. So, driven by the current, the raft floats swiftly and tows the “baris” (which is the name of these boats,) and the stone dragging behind on the river bottom keeps the boat’s course straight. There are many of these boats; some are of many thousand talents’ burden.
 The “Mimosa Nilotica,” still used for boat-building in Egypt.