Archaeological excavations undertaken after geophysical survey have clarified the topography of the city of Thonis-Heracleion, which from the eighth century BC was the site of border and customs control, and the emporion through which passed products imported by the Greeks. This port clearly saw intense activity: over 700 anchors and more than sixty shipwrecks, mostly from the sixth to the second century, have been identified. These finds reveal the undeniable importance of the port of Thonis-Heracleion. A systematic identification and mapping of wrecks in the Central Basin has clarified the distribution of the ancient ships and revealed several specific concentrations (East and West of the Central Basin, South of the East Passage, in the"Grand Canal") that raise questions of an archaeological and historical nature. The wooden remains of the boats have had an initial C-14 dating which shows that the majority of wrecks are from the Egyptian Late Period and therefore pre-Ptolemaic. The discovery of the timber has provided both an exceptional resource for the study of naval architecture and the organization of maritime commerce, and an important source of data for the reconstruction of paleo-environments and the interactions between human societies and their environing plant life. Analyzes show that the wood used in the construction of the boats is mostly (80%) acacia wood (Acacia sp.), of the Mimosaceae family, some species of which grow naturally in Egypt.
Although only preliminary, the analysis of the wrecks of Thonis-Heracleion furthers the archaeological study of ancient naval architecture, which in recent years has overcome the shortcomings of traditional documentation, and opened the way for new insights into shipbuilding techniques and their evolution over time. The findings in the Bay of Aboukir offer the opportunity to explore, within a particular historical and geographical context, general questions about innovations in transportation, as well as wider historiographical questions, and the epistemology of the history of technology in general.
Underwater observations have allowed us to get an idea of how certain of the ships discovered in Thonis-Heracleion were constructed. Where possible, the study of the naval architecture, preliminary as it was, revealed that most of the boats were assembled by "mortise and tenon". This assembly technique was well known in the Mediterranean in ancient times. However, evidence gathered during surveys suggests that some vessels were built in a more original way. A fundamental difference appears between the assembly of the planking of the wrecks of Thonis-Heracleion and other known wrecks assembled with mortise and tenon: the sides are held in shape with long and wide tenons that are staggered and engage several planks. Constructed as if they were an internal frame, the tenons almost played the role of regularly alternated floor timber and half timber. Another important finding is that while some planks are relatively long, most are thick and of a much shorter size.
This construction technique corresponds to that described by Herodotus. The Greek historian, who visited Egypt in the fifth century BC, wrote that in the absence of trees providing large planks, the Egyptians used cargo boats - baris - made of acacia wood, one of the few trees that are relatively abundant in the country, which they "cut into planks two cubits long, which they assemble like bricks". To give the ship the desired shape, "they fix these planks with long pegs very closely spaced" (Herodotus, Histories 2.96). In fact a tomb painting from about 2000 BC at Beni Hassan, shows a hull construction of planks of small dimensions. This painting has been corroborated by the discovery in 1893 of several boats built by this method. The 100-105 cm long acacia planking of the wrecks of Thonis-Heracleion (a cubit is 52 cm), assembled with "long pegs very closely spaced" matches this. Apart the description by Herodotus, very little is known about Egyptian shipbuilding in the Third Intermediate Period (1069-525 BC) and the Egyptian Late Period (525-332 BC) Intermediate (1069-525 BC) and Late Periods (525-332 BC…?), as there are few depictions and only the remains of the El-Matariya boat have been studied.
This style of fastening is particularly seen on shipwreck 17, excavated in 2009-2011, dated to the fifth-fourth century BC, has provided specific information about its construction. According to the analyses of A. Belov, this shipwreck has provided further details of this distinctly Egyptian form of naval architecture. The keel of the ship (26 m long), deeper than it is wide, consists of seven complete sections and two partially preserved ones, assembled with a horizontal joggled joint. The absence of stern and stem posts in their usual form is quite characteristic of ancient Egyptian hull construction where the role of these structural elements was played by the curved keel itself. The planking is connected to the keel, which has no rabbet, by long and wide tenons that pass through the mortises in the keel and in the boarding and hold together up to 5 strakes on each board. In addition, the remains of the inner structure(s) of the ship are quite diverse. They include four large frames made of reused planking, some smaller auxiliary frames and deck beams. It seems that the beams were positioned evenly along the hull although the remains of only three of them were discovered. Beam ends are protruding from the shell according to ancient Egyptian boatbuilding tradition. One deck stanchion, found in vertical position in situ, and a hatchway attest to the existence of a deck that was normally removable. The mast is believed to have been situated in the centre of the ship where a rectangular mortise is preserved in the keel.
At the moment, the two seasons of excavation (2011, 2012) undertaken on Shipwreck 43 by the IEASM and The Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology show that the naval architecture is approximately the same than that observed on shipwreck 17.
To date, the majority of the ships of Thonis-Heracleion studied feature a solid, expansive lower hull, from which it is possible to estimate their size. Roughly, the average length of the shipwrecks is around 20-26 m and the width around 7-10 m. The geometry and proportions of the Thonis-Heracleion ships correspond to what we know about antique coasters in general: they had a length/width ratio of 1/3. Certain boats from Thonis-Heracleion also demonstrate a relatively flat lower hull, which is characteristic of the naval architecture of interior waterways, although they were also fitted with a keel and thus would also be adapted to maritime use. The absence of traces of shipworm on the outer side of the planking, the use of local wood and the construction plead in favour of these being river-going (sweet water) rather than sea-going ships. In fact, it would appear to be an optimised form of naval architecture, being perfectly suited to its operational environment.
Preliminaries studies of the wrecks of Thonis-Heracleion have been published: D. Fabre, ‘The shipwrecks of Heracleion-Thonis (Egypt). Preliminary Study and Research Perspectives’, in D. Robinson, A. Wilson (ed.), Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean, The Proceedings of the third OCMA Symposium held in Madrid in 2008, Oxford, 2011, p. 13-32; D. Fabre and A. Belov, ‘The shipwrecks of Heracleion-Thonis (Egypt). An Overview’, in G.A. Belova (ed.), Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, Proceedings of the International Conference held in Moscow on September 29 - October 2, 2009, Russian Academy of Sciences, Center for Egyptological Studies, Moscow, 2012, p. 108-120; D. Fabre and F. Goddio, ‘Thonis-Heracleion, emporion of Egypt, Recent Discoveries and Research Perspectives: the Shipwrecks’, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 5 (1), 2013, p. 68-75.
Several papers are being published: D. Fabre, ‘The shipwrecks of Thonis-Heracléion in context’, in Heracleion in Context: The maritime economy of the Egyptian Late Period, OCMA Symposium, Oxford, 15th-17th March 2013, Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology Monograph, Oxford, forthcoming ; A. Belov, ‘Archaeological evidence for Egyptian baris (Herodotus II. 96)’, in Heracleion in Context: The maritime economy of the Egyptian Late Period, OCMA Symposium, Oxford, 15th-17th March 2013, Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology Monograph, Oxford, forthcoming ; D. Robinson, ‘Ship 43 and the formation of the ship graveyard in the central basin at Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt’, in Heracleion in Context: The maritime economy of the Egyptian Late Period, OCMA Symposium, Oxford, 15th-17th March 2013), Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology Monograph, Oxford, forthcoming.
In addition, Alexander Belov has presented recently a doctoral thesis under the direction of Dr. Robert Vergnieux, director of the Ausonius Institute of the University of Bordeaux, which will include a study of the architecture of wreck 17 and a 3-D reconstruction of the vessel: A. Belov, Études de l’architecture navale égyptienne de la Basse Époque. Nouvelle évidence archéologique et essai de restitution 3D de l’épave 17 d’Héracleion, DPhil. Thesis, University Montaigne - Bordeaux 3, Bordeaux, 2014 (publication forthcoming).