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Since the Egyptians had not yet developed keels or strong framing systems in their hulls, they had to devise ways to strengthen their hulls for sailing on the open sea. To prevent their hulls from hogging--that is, from sagging at either end when the crest of a high wave passed under the center of the hull--the Egyptians developed what is known as thehogging truss . In this system, cable girdles were attached around both the bow end and the stern end of the hull. A long cable running the length of the hull along the deck was then attached at either end to the girdles. This cable was raised well above deck level by a series of forked stanchions. A stick was thrust between the cable strands near the center of the cable's length and twisted until the cable had achieved the desired degree of tension.

Hogging, above. Below: Hogging truss supported by stanchions.

Hogging Truss

A 2nd device developed to strengthen the hull was what is known as a truss girdle. This device seems to have consisted of an upper rope woven in and out through holes along the hull sides at deck level and a lower rope running around the entire circumference of the hull which was drawn up toward the upper rope by a 3rd rope running in a zig-zag fashion between them. This strengthened the vessel significantly.

Truss Girdle
Notice the truss girdle encircling the ship.

Since the hull sides flared out, the lower rope became drawn more tightly against the sides of the hull as it was drawn upward. Here the details of the hogging truss and truss girlde can be seen:

Truss Girdle

The ship's mast is shown lowered into a mast crutch.

Bipod Mast

But here we see one of these ships with mast and sail up. Notice that the mast is set far forward toward the bow and consists of two legs constructed into a kind of A-frame. Such a mast is called a bipod mast. Also notice that the sail is noticeably oblong in the vertical direction.

All old kingdom sailing craft before the 6th dynasty had their masts set well forward near the bow and thus could sail only with the wind coming from behind the vessel. On the Nile, however, having the mast set well forward was usually quite satisfactory, since the prevailing wind blows upstream so that sailing craft could simply sail upstream before thwind and drift downstream with the current. Since Egyptian wooden hulls in those times had no keel and at best only a weak framing system, the masts on large old kingdom sailing craft were bipod masts, because with 2 legs the strain of the mast on the hull could be distributed over a larger area.


Since the ocean-going ships of Sahure with their vertically oblong sails and bipod masts set far forward could only sail with the wind coming directly from behind, they had to rely much of the time for propulsion on oars--there were 7 oars mounted on either side of the hull. Until around the 5th dynasty, the ancient Egyptians had used paddles to propel their water craft. Then, in around the 5th dynasty, oars began to replace paddles, at first on large craft where oars were definitely more efficient than paddles. Note also the 3 steering oars mounted on either quarter on the Sahure ships.

From the later 5th dynasty on, however, tillers, socketed into the loom of steering oars, were used. The tiller with its greater mechanical advantage made it much easier for the helmsman to rotate the loom of the steering oar or oars and steer his boat.

The old kingdom period came to an end when the political unity of Egypt collapsed in the wake of economic decline, civil wars and infiltration of foreign peoples. This period is known as the 1st intermediate period. It lasted froaround 2270 bc. to around 2040 bc.

We know very little about Egyptian ocean-going ships during the middle kingdom period (2040 - 1780 BC), but it would be worth-while to look just briefly at some funerary boats of that period that have survived. 6 such boatswhich were used to transport the dead to cemeteries along the Nile were discovered in 1893 in boat pits located near the pyramid of the pharaoh Sesostris III of the 12th dynasty at a place called Dahshur. Prior to the discovery of the Cheops ship, they were the oldest extant water craft in the world.

Dashur-esque Model

2 of the vessels are on display in the archaeological museum in Cairo, Egypt, and 1 is on display in the field museum of natural history in Chicago. The Chicago hull was recently the subject of the m.a. thesis of one of our graduate students, Cheri Haldane. During her research, she discovered that one of the other Dahshur boats was in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh but had been totally forgotten. Partly with the help of Ms Haldane, their Dahshur boat is now the center piece of their Egyptian collection. The present whereabouts of the other 2 Dahshur boats is unknown. The Chicago hull is 32 ft. Long, has a beam of 8 ft., and is 4 ft. High at amidships. The other Dahshur boats are of a similar size.

Dashur Boat

The hulls are built up of short sections of planking--something like oblong bricks. Wood is not wasted--thus the outlines of the various planking sections are often quite irregular. Here again there is no keel, nor is there any frames --just as in Herodotus' description. We should remember, however, that the Dahshur boats are quite small. We know that larger vessels did have some framing, but if the Cheops ship is a reliable indicator, this framing was relatively light and widely spaced.

The Dashur vessel used mortise and tenon edge joined shell first construction. However, unlike the Cheops vessel, the Dahshur boats have wooden dovetail clamps that bridge the planking seams on the inside of the hull--here we see some of them in the Chicago hull.

Dashur Boat

Dashur Boat

It is thought that these held the planking permanently in place, as did rope lashings in the hull of the Cheops ship. However, Dr. Cheryl Ward has pointed out that these dovetail clamps were not made as carefully as were other features in the hulls and has concluded that they may have been later or even modern additions. In any case, they probably were not really necessary due to the small size of the hulls and the presence of the through beams - shown below.

Through Beams

Dashur Boat