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Shipwreck on Nile vindicates Greek historians account after 2500 years

Enlarge / The hull of so-called "Ship 17," a wreck discovered in the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion.Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

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.

  • Artistic treatment of Ship 17. Above: the wreck as excavated. Below: mirroring the unexcavated areas gives a full outline of the baris. Christoph Gerigk/Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation
  • An archaeologist examining Ship 17's keel at the site. Christoph Gerigk/Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation
  • Some typical steering arrangements of Nile boats. Alexander Belov/IJNA, 2013

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 westRead More

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Shipwreck on Nile vindicates Greek historians account after 2500 years

Enlarge / The hull of so-called "Ship 17," a wreck discovered in the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion.Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

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.

  • Artistic treatment of Ship 17. Above: the wreck as excavated. Below: mirroring the unexcavated areas gives a full outline of the baris. Christoph Gerigk/Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation
  • An archaeologist examining Ship 17's keel at the site. Christoph Gerigk/Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation
  • Some typical steering arrangements of Nile boats. Alexander Belov/IJNA, 2013

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 westRead More

Related Posts