The wooden hull of ship 17.
The wooden hull of ship 17. Christoph Gerigk@Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Herodotus is known as the father of history, but some of his writings have created more questions than answers. In his account of a fifth-century B.C. trip to Egypt, included in his most important work The Histories, the ancient Greek historian describes seeing unusual boats called baris sailing down the Nile. However, no physical evidence was discovered of the ships until now.

A team from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology recently discovered more than 70 sunken vessels in the sunken ancient port-city of Thonis-Heracleion, near the branch of the Nile delta known as the Canopic or Herakleotic branch. As The Guardian reports, one of those ships, ship 17, bears a striking resemblance in design to the boats Herodotus described in The Histories.

In his text, Herodotus describes the cargo vessels in great detail across 23 lines. He writes, “Their boats with which they carry cargoes are made of the acacia of which the form is very like that of the Kyrenian lotus, and its sap is gum.” He continues, describing how the wood is adjoined and cut: “They cut planks two cubits long and arrange them like bricks, building their ships in the following way: on the strong and long tenons they insert two-cubit planks.”

When the researchers discovered ship 17, around 70 percent of its hull was intact and made from planks of acacia, as Herodotus had described. Damian Robinson, director of Oxford University’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology, told The Guardian that the technique used to join the planks was unique and has not been seen elsewhere, except in the pages written by Herodotus.

A new book, entitled Ship 17: a Baris from Thonis-Heracleion, by the archaeologist Alexander Belov, from the Centre for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, further examines the sunken ship and its place among the shipbuilding traditions of the Nile. It also compares, in greater depth, ship 17’s design to the designs described by Herodotus, bolstering his historical record.