2,500 Years Ago, Herodotus Described a Weird Ship. Now, Archaeologists Have Found it.
Herodotus may be considered the father of history, but he is not specifically proven to be accurate. Still, Dalya Alberge reports for the Guardian, the discovery of an ancient vessel that matches one described in the chronicler’s Histories adds weight to a fragment of his lengthy account.
Archaeologists chanced upon the boat in question—officially dubbed ship 17—while excavating the sunken Egyptian port city of Thonis-Heracleion. First unearthed in 2000, Live Science’s Laura Geggel writes, the site has since yielded more than 70 vessels dating from the 8th to 2nd century B.C.
“It wasn’t until we discovered this wreck that we realized Herodotus was right,” Damian Robinson, director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, which published a recent monograph detailing the find, tells Alberge. “What Herodotus described was what we were looking at.”
Herodotus dedicates 23 lines of his Histories to the construction of a Nile cargo boat known by locals as a baris. This fragment, penned around 450 B.C., stems from the historian’s travels to Egypt and, according to Science Alert’s Michelle Starr, tells of a papyrus-sailed ship crafted in the style of brickwork with a rudder running through a hole in its keel.
In his account, Herodotus documents the creation of “thorny acacia” boats that “cannot sail up the river unless there be a very fresh wind blowing, but are towed from the shore.”
He continues, “They have a door-shaped crate made of tamarisk wood and reed mats sewn together, and also a stone of about two talents weight bored with a hole.” As the crate floats in front of the boat, the stone grounds it from behind; together, these opposing forces keep the vessel moving swiftly on a straight course.
Writing in a 2013 study, Alexander Belov, an archaeologist at the Center for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and author of the new Ship 17: A Baris From Thonis-Heracleion monograph, notes that the acacia planks evident in ship 17 “are staggered in a way that gives it the appearance of ‘courses of bricks,’ as described by Herodotus.”
The Guardian’s Alberge adds that the crescent-shaped hull’s pattern of thick planks connected with pegs and tenons, or smaller adjoining pieces of wood, aligns closely with the historian’s description of the baris’ “internal ribs.”
Prior to ship 17’s discovery, contemporary archaeologists had never encountered this architectural style. But upon examining the hull’s well-preserved remains, which constitute some 70 percent of the original structure, researchers found a singular feat of design.
At the peak of its maritime career, ship 17 likely measured up to 92 feet—significantly longer than the baris described by Herodotus, as Science Alert’s Starr points out, making it differ slightly from the one detailed in Histories: Whereas Herodotus’ vessel had shorter tenons and no reinforcing frames, the recovered boat has longer tenons and several reinforcing frames.
Although ship 17 is believed to have sunk during the first half of the 5th century B.C., Robinson tells Live Science’s Geggel that it probably dates to the 6th century B.C. and was “reused as a … floating jetty at the end of its working life as a ship.”
Archaeologists believe the Thonis-Heracleion baris were used to move goods to and from emporiums along the Nile River. In addition to transporting imports from the Greek and Persian worlds to cities across the Nile valley, the ship and others like it would have brought Egyptian goods including grain and salt to the harbor for export.