Herodotus right about river boats

Sunday, March 17th, 2019

Herodotus visited Egypt and wrote about the unusual river boats on the Nile:

Twenty-three lines of his Historia, the ancient world’s first great narrative history, are devoted to the intricate description of the construction of a “baris”.

For centuries, scholars have argued over his account because there was no archaeological evidence that such ships ever existed. Now there is. A “fabulously preserved” wreck in the waters around the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion has revealed just how accurate the historian was.

“It wasn’t until we discovered this wreck that we realised Herodotus was right,” said Dr Damian Robinson, director of Oxford University’s centre for maritime archaeology, which is publishing the excavation’s findings. “What Herodotus described was what we were looking at.”

In 450 BC Herodotus witnessed the construction of a baris. He noted how the builders “cut planks two cubits long [around 100cm] and arrange them like bricks”. He added: “On the strong and long tenons [pieces of wood] they insert two-cubit planks. When they have built their ship in this way, they stretch beams over them… They obturate the seams from within with papyrus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the keel. The mast is of acacia and the sails of papyrus…”


Alexander Belov, whose book on the wreck, Ship 17: a Baris from Thonis-Heracleion, is published this month, suggests that the wreck’s nautical architecture is so close to Herodotus’s description, it could have been made in the very shipyard that he visited. Word-by-word analysis of his text demonstrates that almost every detail corresponds “exactly to the evidence”.


  1. Graham says:

    Well, Herodotus comes in for some [periodically justifiable] smack talk, so I appreciate when he is proved right down to the smallest detail of something really specialist like this. Dude was paying attention.

  2. Kirk says:

    One of the maddening things about Herodotus is the amount of fiction and fantasy he interwove with fact… And, that he was taken for a serious historian, when what he really ought to have been considered is the ancient equivalent of the guy who put together Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers

    Of course, Herodotus himself did not claim to be a “serious historian”, so maybe we ought to blame the people who took him seriously?

    It is interesting to speculate what from our era will be taken as “serious history, from serious sources”. I had a bit of a laugh, once, thinking about that. Suppose that one of the few things left in future years for our remote descendants to contemplate about our history here on this planet is… Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the rest of his oeuvre. There’s enough detail in there, and enough room for interpretation that someone might take that for serious history, and go looking for Middle Earth. And, all the bloody rest of it. After all, how much of the Bible started out as tall tales told around the campfires of Jewish refugees in Babylon? And, how much true history is there, braided in with all the “borrowed” stuff like the Great Flood, Noah, and Gilgamesh?

    Humorous to contemplate. The things that actual time travelers coming from the future would be looking for might shock and dismay us. It’s entirely possible that they came back already, didn’t find what they were looking for because it’s been mis-remembered in their time, and because what they found in the here-and-now didn’t match what they were looking for, at all. Maybe they gave up on it as a bad job. It’d be a harsh shock to have built a bunch of your civilization on a “history” that turned out to be actually the imaginings of a really OCD linguistics professor from Cambridge, now wouldn’t it?

    “We’re here to help you fight Sauron. Where is the sonuvabitch?’


    Which raises the question of “How much of what we think happened…didn’t?”.

  3. Kirk says:

    LOL… Speaking of screwing things up… Tolkien was actually an Oxford don, not a Cambridge guy.

  4. Graham says:

    I can’t always decide whether I think our ancestors were fools to take so many such stories literally, were just doing the best they can with limited means of transmission often limited to oral culture, had for their needs sufficient means of distinguishing hard from soft information, or were painfully stupid literalists. Or all of the above, varying by time, place, circumstance, and specific body of information.

    There are so many areas in which we have much better information AND interpretive and transmission techniques, but periodically fall short by being painfully literal minded ourselves. If I come up with a good example I’ll try to remember to add it. Just a constant back of the mind feeling. In the meantime, here’s a silly example.

    Ever watch sitcom The Big Bang Theory? I watched consistently and gave up the last couple of seasons, though mainly because I have never been at home when it airs first-run and haven’t been bothered to reacquire for years even the most primitive recording or data storage methods for TV. Though when I see more recent episodes in which Sheldon goes on one of his rants, or Leonard’s mother [angry atheist psychiatrist] takes on Sheldon’s mother [strange mix of flexible and strict Biblical type] it strikes me that scientists with mild spectrum traits and angry temperaments could use an injection of metaphor serum or nuance juice. Or TV writers with the same traits, all the more so. At least real scientists are doing potentially useful work.

    And then there’s Bill Nye, qualified engineer and apparently all-science universal guru, who seems just to lack a sense of irony.

  5. Graham says:

    All that said, Herodotus poses several big problems.

    1. He includes a fair amount of “here be dragons” type stuff at face value.

    2. He includes more plausible stuff at face value that was hearsay at 2nd or more hands distance and turns out to be wrong.

    I don’t think it can be helped. He was a pioneer in even separating the idea of recording history from the idea of myth, legend, or conscious fiction. Just as Thucydides [IIRC was critical of Herodotus] pioneered the idea of history as the tool and subject of analysis, thus pioneering professional history, historiography, political science and so on. There will always be flaws.

    As long as we are aware of the biases of our own time, we can use their work too.

    Just think, as we saw recently, I have started using Fukuyama’s End of History as almost my own concept, with a meaning only partly drawn from his, and largely expressing revulsion. Pity no one will ever know. Though I did twit him [heh] about it once on Twitter.

  6. Graham says:

    Tolkien is a bit too religious, mystical, and ultimately teleological for me. Though I do love his world on many levels.

    I was always kind of hoping that Robert E. Howard’s prehistory would turn out to have been true. Not that it wouldn’t have been hellish to live there. But probably no more than in any pre-technological world. I’m really quite fragile.

    But it would add all sorts of interesting background material to the arguments of today.

  7. CVLR says:

    Next we’ll be discovering that Atlantis really did slip beneath the waves 9,000 years before the time of Solon.

  8. Kirk says:

    Wouldn’t necessarily surprise me, were we to find something that matched up with at least some of the markers.

    I’m of the opinion that the Flood of Noah and a bunch of other stuff are actually folk-memories of things that really happened, re-interpreted so as to make sense for the people who came after the actual events. For example, Noah’s experience may be echoing what actual communities experienced when the Black Sea was filled by the breach at the Bosphorus. That had to have been an awe-inspiring experience, and it is no wonder that the stories echoed down the generations.

    Likewise, the memories of Santorini may be the source for the legends of Atlantis. The Greeks had to have known of that, because the Minoans that survived must have fled the destruction and settled all around the surrounding areas–So, the folk-memories of something like Atlantis should have been there, and likely would have resonated for Plato’s audience.

  9. Lu An Li says:

    Egypt few trees and yet the ancients were excellent boat builders.

  10. CVLR says:


    Principle of Least Technological Spontaneity:

    * Sudden appearances of technology probably came from outside.
    * If the older stuff is better than the newer stuff, sextuply so.
    * If the same invention apparently pops up all over the world simultaneously, think invasion.
    * If there are pyramids all over the world dating back to the Last Glacial Maximum, think the unthinkable and ask the unaskable.

    Kirk: no doubt.

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