Great Pyramid of Giza from south showing the Solar boat museum (Wiki Commons)
Great Pyramid of Giza from south showing the Solar boat museum (Wiki Commons)

A find in Egypt may be one of the greatest ancient treasures yet discovered, a 4,500-year-old boat that carried the mummified bodies of the pharaohs.

Scientists are removing the first fragments of wood from a pit in the rocks near the pyramids of Giza where one of the "solar" boats of the pharaoh Cheops, or Khufu, was buried.

Over the next two years, the remainder of the boat will be excavated and digital technology will be used to reconstruct the vessel.

However, there is a race against time as water and insect damage could be eroding the ancient wood.

The first boat was discovered in 1954 on the southern side of the pyramid, the second is on the western side, where they have lain since 2,500BC.

The first boat was reconstructed and put on display in 1987 in a museum next to the Great Pyramid.

Anders Bettum, a postdoctoral fellow at the British Museum and a specialist in Egyptology, told the Sunday Times: "The first boat was in one of the subterranean chambers in the rock, with very stable levels of humidity and temperature. There was no light access and the chamber was pretty much sealed by all the big blocks, so there was not much air that could access it, so it was perfect for preserving the organic material.

"The second boat is a bit more tricky - there has been a leakage, so that is troublesome. I think that is why they are moving so quickly now, trying to save the wood."

Reconstructing the boats will help historians discover the true purpose of the craft. The first vessel, says Bettum, "has a very clear symbolic function relating to the journey of the dead king, where he was believed to travel between the earth and the sky."

A "solar barge", is a ritual vessel to carry the resurrected king with the sun god Ra across the heavens. However, the excavated boat shows some signs of having been used in water, and it is possible that the ship was a funerary "barge" used to carry the king's embalmed body from Memphis to Giza.

Khufu himself might have used it as a "pilgrimage ship" to visit holy places and it was then buried for him to use in the afterlife.

Zahi Hawass, Egyptian minister of antiquities said: "It's exciting. The wood should be in very poor condition but I could see it and it is in excellent condition."

The boat fragments will be photographed with a 3D digitiser camera and the images transferred to computers to build 3D images, enabling scientists to replicate the original vessel.

The first boat was reconstructed from more than 1,200 pieces and is thought to be among the most revealing archaeological discoveries.

"It is a huge ship and so well preserved that it is one of the greatest finds from ancient Egypt," said Bettum.

There are three other boat burial sites by the Great Pyraminds but grave robbers looted them centuries ago, removing all the burial goods.