History Stories

Around 450 B.C., the Greek writer Herodotus traveled to Egypt. His later account of the trip, included in his famous work The Histories, focused on a distinctive river barge known as a “baris,” which he said the Egyptians used to ferry goods up and down the Nile River.

Herodotus described the vessel as having a single rudder that passed through a hole in the keel, a mast of acacia wood and papyrus sails. But for centuries, scholars had been unable to find evidence that such a vessel existed—until now.

A team of researchers investigating the sunken ruins of the ancient port city of Thonis-Heracleion, located off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, have discovered more than 70 shipwrecks. One of those wrecks, archaeologists say, is a well-preserved vessel that almost exactly matches Herodotus’ description of the baris.

The wooden hull of ship 17.

The wooden hull of ship 17.

Called Ship 17, it originally measured up to 28 meters long, with a crescent-shaped hull (70 percent of which has survived) and thick planks of acacia wood, held together with long wooden ribs, or tenons.

“Herodotus describes the boats as having long internal ribs. Nobody really knew what that meant,” Damian Robinson, director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, told The Guardian. “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.”

Before Alexandria was founded in 331 B.C., Thonis-Heracleion (the combined Greek-Egyptian name for the city) was one of the world’s great port cities, welcoming all ships coming to Egypt from the Greek world. Built around a massive temple to to the god Amun-Gereb, the city resembled Venice, Italy, with its intricate network of canals.

Herodotus

But the effects of a series of natural disasters caused the city’s central island to liquify near the end of the second century A.D., and by the end of the eighth century, the last remnants of Thonis-Heracleion had sunk completely into the Mediterranean.

In 2000, a team from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, directed by French archaeologist Franck Goddio, discovered the ruins in Abu Qir Bay, some 6.5 kilometers off the coast of Alexandria. In addition to the shipwrecks, the underwater excavations have yielded gold coins, statues and the remains of the city’s great temple.

Archaeologist and shipwreck specialist Alexander Belov, who worked with Goddio on the excavations, recently published a book outlining the team’s findings. In Ship 17: a Baris from Thonis-Heracleion, Belov places the vessel within ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean boat-building traditions, and traces the many similarities between the wreck’s nautical architecture and Herodotus’ description of the baris’ construction.

Celebrated by many as the “Father of History,” Herodotus has also had his fair share of critics, many of whom accuse him of writing more fiction than fact. Some of his tallest tales, his detractors claim, involve the various things he said he saw during his wide-ranging travels in Egypt, Africa and Asia Minor. 

To take one famous example, Herodotus claimed that in Persia he saw giant “ants” the size of foxes, which spread gold dust when they dug their mounds. After being dismissed for centuries, his story was vindicated in the 1990s, when the French explorer Michel Peissel discovered a fox-sized marmot in the Himalayas that did spread gold dust while digging, and had done so since ancient times. The Persian words for “mountain ant” and “marmot” were quite similar, it turns out, leading Peissel to conclude Herodotus had probably fallen victim to a simple error in translation. 

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