sepulchral ships

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The names commonly given to ships used in connection with burial rites. The use of such ships is of very ancient origin. The Egyptian sun god Osiris was said to have journeyed to the underworld in a golden bark attended by the Hours, and in emulation, after embalming, Egyptian dead were often carried westward across the lakes and canals towards the setting sun where, it was thought, lay the earthly paradise. Many of the pharaohs of Egypt had a decorated and fully stocked boat burned alongside them for their later journey to the underworld. Others had ships buried alongside them. The oldest vessel known to exist anywhere is the one buried in a trench cut in the rock alongside the tomb of the Pharaoh Cheops (fl. 25th century bc) who built the Great Pyramid at Giza. When the trench was opened in 1954 the dismantled ship was found to be 40.5 metres (133 ft) long with a maximum beam of 8 metres (26 ft), and was constructed from over 600 individual pieces of wood, some up to 23 metres (75 ft) in length. A second boat pit found at the same time was left undisturbed until 1987 when an investigation using special cameras discovered it contained a sister ship. Another important find, which has added enormously to the knowledge of this type of ship, was the discovery of a fleet of at least twelve boats at Abydos, some 11 kilometres (7 mls.) from the River Nile, in 1991. Buried in boat-shaped graves made of mud bricks, and ranging from 19 to 29 metres (62–95 ft) in length, they were discovered by a University of Pennsylvania–Yale University team of archaeologists.

In the Norse legend of Baldur, he was set afloat in his ship Hringhorn on a funeral pyre and, of course, there is ample evidence of the burial of Vikings in longships, many of them having been excavated in recent years. The Arthurian legends also tell of death ships, King Arthur being borne to Avalon in such a vessel. In Brittany, near the Pointe du Raz, there is the Baie de Trépassés where, according to a local legend, boats were summoned to convey the souls of drowned men to the Île au Sein, while in the Aleutian Islands boat-shaped coffins were used, and many of the North American Indian tribes buried their dead in canoes raised up on poles, although the Cherokees and Chinooks sometimes buried them so at sea.

There are similar legends among the Solomon Islanders, the Fijians, and the Maoris, and the Dyaks of Borneo used to place their dead in a canoe, together with some of the deceased's property, and set it adrift. In 1847, on the death of Thieu-tru, Emperor of Cochin China, the boats used in his funeral procession were burned on his pyre.

In England, burial ships are rare. The best-known example is the one found at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, in 1939. It was a clinker-built rowing boat 26 metres (85 ft) long, fully equipped for the afterlife. Artefacts found on the site have led to the supposition that it belonged to the East Anglian king Raedwald (d. 624–5), and among them were objects that came from the Mediterranean and the Near East, proof that trading between the two areas existed. However, in 2004 Yorkshire archaeologists announced that they had almost certainly found a Viking burial ship, the first ever found in England. Artefacts unearthed at the site date it to the 9th century, a time when it was a ritual to bury important personages in their longships.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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