Archaeologists In Egypt May Have Found A Ship That Herodotus Claimed To See In The 5th Century B.C.

Image: Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation via The Guardian

In 2000 the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology found the remains of an ancient city in Egypt, which had remained buried underwater for over 1,000 years. Since then, divers have excavated a host of ancient artifacts at the site, including shipwrecks. But in March 2019 the world discovered that the organization had found a ship unlike any they had seen before. In fact, the only previous evidence it existed was one man’s description – and until now, many people thought that he was lying.

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It’s astonishing what some of humanity’s most ancient civilizations have been able to accomplish. For example, the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks did not have access to the materials or knowledge that we have today. However, they built incredible structures like the pyramids, developed whole new technologies to improve farming and created ideas which influenced much of philosophical and mathematical thought.

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Meanwhile, when you think of Ancient Egypt, you probably think of the pyramids. Indeed, experts today are still baffled by how they built on such a scale. There are, however, smaller but equally important innovations that came from this highly successful society. For example, sand often got into food there – and this led to the Egyptians inventing toothpaste and toothbrushes.

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Indeed, Egyptian dental practices were advanced compared to other cultures of the time, though they were not as successful as other areas of medicine. Furthermore, though a belief in magic governed many treatments, the Egyptians still displayed excellent knowledge of anatomy. They also used honey in their medicines, which has since been proven to have anti-bacterial properties.

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Meanwhile, the irrigation techniques developed for farming in Ancient Egypt were so successful that they were copied in Greek and Roman society. Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras would also travel to Egypt to learn from priests and scholars there. And Math in the latter country was used in everything from engineering and medicine, to taxation and record-keeping.

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Other Egyptian innovations that spread to Greece and the rest of the world included both the first paper and the first black ink. For its part, paper was made from the papyrus plant, while early inks came from beeswax, soot and vegetable gum. Different minerals were added to make different colors, and pens were made from reeds with a split nib. And naturally, this led to advances in writing and recording.

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Meanwhile, Ancient Egypt and Greece were closely related. And when Alexander the Great expanded his empire into the former, he built the city of Alexandria. It would become the Egyptian capital, but its language and culture would remain Greek. This is true of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the last independent rulers of Egypt, who stayed in the capital. They were Greek first, remaining isolated even while living in and ruling Egypt.

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Trade between Egypt and Greece first opened up between 685 and 525 B.C., and the Greeks took ideas from the former and expanded upon them. They put aside old supernatural explanations in the belief that they could rationally explain the universe. In Greek thought, everything was subject to the laws of nature.

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In Ancient Greece, observation and the scientific method were highly prized. And as time went on, they began to prioritize deductive reasoning, or that based on thought, over observation. Meanwhile, Greek mathematics developed quickly because it built upon Egyptian work. And as Alexander the Great conquered parts of Asia, Babylonian influence also contributed to Greek astronomy.

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Indeed, astronomy and mathematics were the areas where the Greeks flourished most. Other ideas even included an early theory of evolution, centuries before Charles Darwin. And key figures in ancient Greece included Pythagoras, the man who realized how to calculate the length of one side of a triangle from the lengths of the other two sides.

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Another important figure was the philosopher Aristotle. Indeed, it was he who pioneered the systems of logic and deductive reasoning that would remain prominent for thousands of years. And in a testament to his contribution, it is only relatively recently that his work has been challenged. Furthermore, Plato had a similar lasting influence. But during medieval times, scholars were discouraged from questioning the Greeks.

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Meanwhile, another area pioneered by the Greeks was historical study. And one Greek man did more than many others to develop the concept of the historian. His name was Herodotus, but he has always been a controversial figure. The Roman writer Cicero called Herodotus “The Father of History”, but others have called him “The Father of Lies.”

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Herodotus was born around 484 B.C., and we know little about his early life, though he seems to have come from modern-day Turkey. His family was wealthy enough to give him the highest quality education. And the fact he was able to travel so much suggests he had money of his own as an adult. Furthermore, his first-hand descriptions of various battles suggest he once served in the army as a foot soldier.

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And during his many travels through Europe, Asia and Africa, Herodotus wrote down what he saw. His accounts cover details of everything from everyday life to major historical events such as the Battle of Marathon. He also described the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The problem is, Herodotus sometimes passed off the stories of others as his own and indulged in speculation.

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For example, Herodotus was criticized after exaggerating his description of the walls of Babylon. He said they had 100 gates, but archaeological evidence on top of other ancient descriptions makes it clear there were only eight. So it seems that Herodotus may not have visited the site, despite his claims. Indeed, he may have chosen instead to create an exciting narrative based on what others had said.

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Many believe that Herodotus wanted to make his account of Babylon sound like Homer’s description of Thebes in Egypt. He was a great fan of the poet, and tried to structure his book Histories in a similar way to Homer’s work. He was, however, a critical enough historian to question the veracity of the narrative Homer constructed in The Iliad. And unlike other writers, Herodotus was also unwilling to credit his writings to divine inspiration.

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It may be Herodotus’ love of a good narrative, and his sometimes outspoken personality, that makes his work so popular. Indeed, the thrilling events and characters that pepper his book Histories draw the reader in and keep them engaged. Meanwhile, Herodotus certainly appears to have had a high opinion of himself, and cared little about what others thought. He died between 425 and 413 B.C., possibly in Athens.

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One of Herodotus’ disputed claims was that he had seen ants as big as foxes in Persia. And these ants, according to him, would spread gold dust when they dug mounds in the ground. Other scholars were understandably incredulous about the description. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that French explorer Michel Peissel found evidence that it might not have been such a tall tale after all.

In the Persian language, the word for “mountain ant” happens to be similar to the word for “marmot.” Now, there is a marmot in the Himalayas that is a similar size to a fox that did spread gold dust. So Herodotus may not have been lying, the details could have simply been mistaken during translation.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

Another Herodotus claim that has attracted debate comes from his Histories book. In the account, he describes an encounter with an unusual boat known as a “baris.” He alleges to have seen such vessels on the Nile, in Egypt, in the fifth century B.C. Except, until recently, there has been no evidence that any such ship had sailed there. Indeed, some people thought it was another of his fantastical stories.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

It has been nearly 2,500 years since Herodotus described the baris. That’s how long it has taken to find evidence to support his claims. And in all that time, scholars have continued to debate its existence but have never been able draw a conclusion one way or the other. Now, however, the ancient port city of Thonis-Heracleion may offer the physical proof to provide a definitive answer.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

If asked to describe a famous city that sank to the bottom of the sea, you might think of Atlantis. It has dominated the popular imagination for thousands of years, however, the story of Atlantis was actually made up by Plato. Meanwhile, less famous, but more factual, is the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion. It’s another place once described by Herodotus, but this time by other contemporary figures as well.

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Strabo was a geographer who lived hundreds of years after Herodotus. And like the latter, he saw Thonis-Heracleion, situated at the mouth of the Nile’s Canopic branch in Egypt. Today, this branch of the Nile is almost entirely silt. To the east of that sat the city of Canopus, which was situated on the Nile delta, where the river branches out as it approaches the Mediterranean Sea.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

The ruins of Thonis-Heracleion were first spotted by a British airforce commander flying over the water in 1933. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that the first excavation by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) was launched. But the initiative wasn’t even focused on the ancient city originally, rather, they were on the hunt for sunken French ships that dated back to the late 1700s.

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Then another discovery occurred when divers found a piece from an ancient statue in the early 2000s. It belonged to Hapy, Lord of the River and Egyptian god of fertility. He had once stood on a plinth, guarding the port of Thonis-Heracleion. And when the divers continued to search, they found more statues, as well as jewelry, pottery and other artifacts from the long-lost city.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

Indeed, very little was known about the Egyptian city of Thonis-Heracleion before it was rediscovered. Herodotus, however, did supply some descriptions. He claimed that a temple had been built to mark where the great mythological hero Hercules had first arrived in Egypt. 

Image: Jack Shenker

Thonis-Heracleion predated Alexandria, which was founded in 331 B.C, and was once a key port for ships travelling between Greece and Egypt. Indeed, its name combines Egyptian and Greek words. And like modern day Venice, it was a city threaded through with canals. At its center was the temple to the supreme god Amun-Gereb – where Cleopatra was once crowned Queen of Egypt.

Image: Jack Shenker

But, sadly, Thonis-Heracleion’s fortunes wouldn’t last. And between the second century B.C. and the eighth century A.D., numerous natural disasters hit the city. And earthquakes, tsunamis and subsidence all played a part, causing the whole metropolis to eventually sink to the bottom of the Mediterranean. And it would not be properly seen again until 2000, when French archaeologist Franck Goddio led the IEASM to Abu Qir bay, near the city of Alexandria.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

The excavations took place around 33 feet down, and about four miles from the modern coast. First, the seven-by-nine mile area had to be mapped, and this took several years. Devices like underwater vacuum cleaners were then used to remove sand and silt from the ruins. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities supported the work of Goddio and the team.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

Incredibly, it was Goddio who solved the mystery of the city’s name. Until that point, it was uncertain whether Thonis and Heracleion may have been two different settlements. In fact, they were one place with two names. The first name is Egyptian, the second is Greek, with Hercacleion coming from Hercules.

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For their part, the ships Herodotus described were made of acacia. He says “the form is very like that of the Kyrenian lotus, and its sap is gum.” Acacia is a group of shrubs and trees found mostly in Australia and Africa. They’re known for distinctively shaped leaves, small flowers and multi-use bark. Furthermore, several species produce valuable timber.

Image: Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation via Science Alert

According to Herodotus, the three-feet planks of acacia would be laid “like bricks” when building the ships. The vessels would then be used to carry cargo. And the author describes the baris boats thoroughly, taking 23 lines out of his book to describe them. Indeed, it seems he found it an interesting and noteworthy subject.

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Meanwhile, it was 450 B.C. when Herodotus watched a baris being built and took note. Once the planks were assembled, beams were placed over the top and the seams were lined with papyrus. The mast was made from another piece of acacia, while the sails were papyrus again. And a hole in the keel allowed the rudder to pass through.

Image: YouTube/Vida Loca

For its part, Oxford University’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology has been publishing the IEASM’s discoveries. And the latter has found 70 sunken sea-going vessels built between the eighth and the second century B.C. in the ruins of Thonis-Heracleion. The boat labelled “Ship 17” is made of acacia planks, just like Herodotus claimed. The planks even have the same unique joining technique that previously could only be found in Herodotus’ writing.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

Ship 17 is larger than the type of vessel Herodotus described, though it was built in a similar way. It would have been as much as 92 feet in length and had a massive hull that was crescent-shaped. Furthermore, this boat is one of the first large Ancient Egyptian trading vessels to have been discovered. Today, about 70 percent of Ship 17’s hull remains intact. And the researchers can see the “internal ribs” that Herodotus referenced but that were previously left to the imagination.

Image: YouTube/Vida Loca

The “ribs” are tenons over six feet in length, and they hold the planks together with the help of a series of pegs. Indeed, it is this design which makes it so unique, because other ships used mortice and tenon joints to attach their planks. Ship 17 is, however, almost identical to Herodotus’ description. It may even have been built in the very same shipyard where he once stood to watch baris ships being constructed.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

Meanwhile, the boats featured a door-shaped crate consisting of reed mats sown to tamarisk wood, according to Herodotus. When combined with a stone weighing about 57 pounds placed behind the ship, it would help the ship continue in a straight line. There would also be a hole bored through the center of the stone.

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In its heyday, the baris would have been used for transporting salt, grain and other goods along the Nile. When it reached Thonis-Heracleion, its cargo could have been exported out to the rest of the world. The baris could then have carried imports from Persia and Greece back into Egypt. And when its days as a ship were done, it could have been repurposed as a floating jetty.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

Meanwhile, other ships found at Thonis-Heracleion include a sycamore boat used in an ancient ritual to Osiris, god of resurrection and the underworld. Models of the papyrus vessels that were also used in the ritual were cast in lead and also thrown into the river. And several of these have been found.

Image: Christoph Gerigk via Franck Goddio

For its part, the discovery of Ship 17 is so significant that a whole book has been written about it. It comes from Alexander Belov, an archaeologist from the Centre for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In it, he analyses the ship and how it fits with both Herodotus’ writing and the wider ship-building history of the Nile. The book is called Ship 17: A Baris from Thonis-Heracleion.

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