Shipwreck on Nile vindicates Greek historian’s account after 2500 years

By Jennifer Ouellette

The hull of so-called "Ship 17," a wreck discovered in the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion.
Enlarge / The hull of so-called "Ship 17," a wreck discovered in the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion.

Nearly 2500 years ago, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described an unusual type of river boat he saw along the Nile while visiting Egypt. Many archaeologists doubted his account, because there wasn't any evidence it ever existed.  But Herodotus is getting some posthumous revenge. The discovery of just such a ship has vindicated his account. The details appear in a new published monograph, Ship 17: a Baris from Thonis-Heracleion, by archaeologist and shipwreck specialist Alexander Belov.

Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian, often called the "father of history" because his nine-volume work, Histories, essentially founded the field. Around 450 BCE, he traveled to Egypt and wrote about seeing construction of a type of cargo boat called a baris. The passage is a fragment, just 23 lines long, and talks of shipbuilders cutting planks and arranging them like bricks using long internal ribs called tenons—a form of construction not known before. There was a mast made of acacia, sails of papyrus, a crescent-shaped hull, and a rudder for steering that passed through a hole in the keel.  But archaeologists had never found such a boat as he described, with many concluding that the historian may have embellished his account.

Why wouldn't they believe the father of history? Well, even though Herodotus is required reading among classicists, he has a reputation for being a bit of a fabulist. Plutarch wrote an entire treatise entitled On the Malice of Herodotus, noting that one could fill several tomes with the "lies and fictions" of the Greek historian. The accounts of his travels through Egypt, Africa, and Asia Minor in particular have been dismissed as more fiction than fact. Granted, some of this might be due to errors in translation. For instance, he claimed to witness fox-sized "ants" in Persia, who spread gold dust as they dug their mounds. There is actually a Himalayan marmot that does this, and the Persian words for "mountain ant" and "marmot" are quite similar.

Then, in 2000, an expedition led by maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio discovered the sunken ruins of an ancient port city called Thonis-Heracleion, at the western mouth of the Nile in Egypt (the site of present-day Abu Qir Bay). In its heyday, it likely resembled the modern port city of Venice, including an extensive network of canals. A series of natural disasters essentially turned the hard clay soil of the city's central island to liquid, so quickly that the buildings collapsed into the water. Eventually the entire city was submerged, and forgotten.

In addition to statues, gold coins, and the ruins of a temple, Goddio's team excavated around 70 sunken ships dating between the eighth to the second century BCE, one of which, dubbed Ship 17, is remarkably similar to the ship Herodotus described. Belov was a member of Goddio's team, and published a paper in 2013 detailing his initial study of the wreck, focusing on the unique steering system: a rudder that passed through the hull of the boat, just like Herodotus described. Also matching the Greek historian's account: long internal ribs used to construct a crescent-shaped hull.

"It wasn't until we discovered this wreck that we realized Herodotus was right," Damian Robinson, director of Oxford University's Centre for Maritime Archaeology, told the Guardian. "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. Here we have a completely unique form of construction, which is not seen anywhere else.”

DOI: International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 2013. 10.1111/1095-9270.12030  (About DOIs).