Excavating a "Solar Boat"
Photograph by Khalil Hamra, AP
Below are hundreds of delicate wooden "puzzle pieces," protected by the climate-controlled tent built over the site in 2008.
Once the months-long process of extracting the pieces is finished, researchers expect to spend several years restoring the ship before placing it on display in Giza's Solar Boat Museum near the Pyramids. A similar ship found nearby has already been reconstructed and is on display in the museum. At about 140 feet (43 meters) long, the restored ship is thought to be a bit bigger than its still fragmented sister.
Solar boats played an important role in story of the afterlife in ancient Egyptian mythology. Each night the sun god Ra—in the form of the evening sun, Ra-Atum—was thought to sail through the afterlife in one boat to battle gods and beasts until he rose as the morning sun, Ra-Horakhty, and sailed his day boat across the sky.
Buried near the Great Pyramid, the buried sister boats were likely intended to assist Pharaoh Khufu on similar journeys during the afterlife.
Photograph by Amr Nabil, AP
At Egypt's Solar Boat Museum in 2008, tourists surround the reassembled boat long ago excavated from the sands near the Great Pyramid. The second solar boat, whose excavation began Thursday, will eventually take the place of the first, which is to be moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum being built at Giza.(Related: "Underwater Museum Planned for Egypt's Alexandria.")
For years the second solar boat had been considered too fragile uncover. But now the time is right, experts say.
"What really changed is that, if it's fragile, we have to save it now," Hawass said.
A series of tests over the last few years showed that the 2008 installation of equipment to maintain the temperature and humidity of its burial pit would protect the Lebanese cedar beams and planks enough to excavate them safely.
Egyptian and Japanese archaeologists are now examining the wood, but the head of the Japanese team declined to explain the process.
"This is very secret," said project leader Sakuji Yoshimura of Japan's Waseda University. "It's never been touched, so it must be examined scientifically."
Sailing with the Sun
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic
Etchings on a temple wall in Abydos, Egypt, depict a mythical solar boat borne aloft at dawn (file picture). Depictions such as these likely inspired the designs of the ships found buried by the Great Pyramid at Giza.
The oars on the life-size boats probably represented a weapon Ra used, according to Hawass, also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.
Though some have speculated that the entombed Giza boats were used in Pharaoh Khufu's Nile River funeral procession, Hawass said the boat never would have touched the water, since it lacks sails.
No Stone Unturned
Photograph courtesy Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities
A limestone slab is lifted from the underground chamber containing the second known solar boat at the foot of Egypt's Great Pyramid on Thursday.
Like the boat under excavation, the first excavated solar boat was buried disassembled in more than a dozen layers in a roughly hundred-foot-long (30-meter-long) pit. The second boat seems to be identical to its companion, which was reconstructed over the course of 20 years about a century ago, experts say.
Photograph by Claude E. Petrone, National Geographic
In a rare view captured by a National Geographic team's tiny camera in 1987, the second solar boat—its disassembled pieces tightly packed—rests in its underground chamber near the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt.
Researchers led by Youshimura performed a similar operation in 2008, to examine the wood. Between that operation and Thursday's excavation, the pit was completely sealed, out of fear that air or insects could damage the beams of the ancient boat.