A 4,500-year-old boat has been discovered beneath the tomb of an individual of high social status in Egypt. The purpose of Egyptian boat burials is not fully understood, but it is believed that they were intended to they serve the dead in the afterlife, possibly as symbolic barques used by the owner to sail through the underworld.

Old Kingdom kings often had several boats buried with them within their pyramid complexes. However, remains of these boats has been largely lacking: most have been emptied of any timber with just the shape of the boats remaining. Two of king Khufu's boats were found and reconstructed, but evidence of such practices in a non-royal context has never been found, researchers from the Czech Institute of Egyptology said.

ancient egypt burial boat
The excavation site Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology/V Dulíková

This is why the latest find is so important. The 18m-long boat discovered last year was dated to the end of the Third or beginning of the Fourth Dynasty – around 2550 BC. Because it was not found near a royal tomb, the owner was probably not a member of a royal family. However, the size of the tomb and the presence of the boat suggest that the owner had strong links to the reigning pharaoh.

Miroslav Bárta, director of the mission, said: "This is a highly unusual discovery since boats of such a size and construction were, during this period, reserved solely for top members of the society, who usually belonged to the royal family. This suggests the potential for additional discoveries during the next spring season."

The owner of the boat is believed to have been buried in the main, but as of yet unlocated, shaft. Because of the bad state of preservation of the cruciform offering chapel, details about him or her are not known.

ancient egypt burial boat
A view from the tomb site Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology/V Dulíková

"It is by all means a remarkable discovery. The careful excavation and recording of the Abusir boat will make a considerable contribution to our understanding of ancient Egyptian watercraft and their place in funerary cult. And where there is one boat, there very well may be more." Bárta said.

While the archaeologists continue to study the site, they said the boat has provided an insight into ship building in ancient Egypt. The planks were joined by wooden pegs and ropes bound the boat together. Later this year, researchers plan to launch a project to study the techniques used in the construction of the hull.