Newly Discovered Shipwreck Proves Herodotus, the “Father of History,” Correct 2500 Years Later

The truth, they say, is stranger than fic­tion — or at least it is in the work of Herodotus, the ancient Greek writer and trav­el­er often described as “the Father of His­to­ry” (and a favorite writer of none oth­er than Jorge Luis Borges). But go back far enough in his­to­ry itself, and the bound­ary between truth and fic­tion grows much blur­ri­er than it is even today: men­tion Herodotus in mixed com­pa­ny, and some­one will sure­ly bring up the phoenix­es, horned ser­pents, winged snakes, gold-dig­ging giant ants, and every­thing else for whose exis­tence he implau­si­bly vouch­es in The His­to­ries (440 BC). And what of the baris, a boat made of “thorny aca­cia,” in Herodotus’ words, that “can­not sail up the riv­er unless there be a very fresh wind blow­ing, but are towed from the shore?”

Images cour­tesy of Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foun­da­tion

“They have a door-shaped crate made of tamarisk wood and reed mats sewn togeth­er,” Herodotus’ descrip­tion of the baris con­tin­ues, “and also a stone of about two tal­ents weight bored with a hole.” Despite the detail he went into, one trans­la­tion of which you can read here, no archae­o­log­i­cal find­ings ever con­firmed the exis­tence of such a boat — or at least, they did­n’t until very recent­ly.

Accord­ing to the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge, “a ‘fab­u­lous­ly pre­served’ wreck in the waters around the sunken port city of Tho­nis-Her­a­cleion has revealed just how accu­rate the his­to­ri­an was.” The sunken Ship 17, as it has been named, has “a vast cres­cent-shaped hull and a pre­vi­ous­ly undoc­u­ment­ed type of con­struc­tion involv­ing thick planks assem­bled with tenons – just as Herodotus observed, in describ­ing a slight­ly small­er ves­sel.”

“Pri­or to Ship 17’s dis­cov­ery,” writes’s Meilan Sol­ly, “con­tem­po­rary archae­ol­o­gists had nev­er encoun­tered this archi­tec­tur­al style. But upon exam­in­ing the hull’s well-pre­served remains, which con­sti­tute some 70 per­cent of the orig­i­nal struc­ture, researchers found a sin­gu­lar feat of design.” Though Herodotus may have indulged in exag­ger­a­tion now and again, Ship 17 turns out to be more impres­sive than the boat in The His­to­ries: “At the peak of its mar­itime career, Ship 17 like­ly mea­sured up to 92 feet — sig­nif­i­cant­ly longer than the baris described by Herodotus.” You can learn more about Ship 17 and its his­tor­i­cal impli­ca­tions from the Ancient Archi­tects video at the top, as well as from arti­cles at Atlas Obscu­, and Sci­ence Alert. All this makes the engi­neer­ing skills of the ancient Egyp­tians, as well as the record­ing skills of Herodotus, look that much more impres­sive. But it does raise an impor­tant ques­tion: should we now start think­ing about how best to hide our gold from the ants?

The images above come from

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Did the Egyp­tians Make Mum­mies? An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Ancient Art of Mum­mi­fi­ca­tion

Try the Old­est Known Recipe For Tooth­paste: From Ancient Egypt, Cir­ca the 4th Cen­tu­ry BC

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

The Ancient Egyp­tians Wore Fash­ion­able Striped Socks, New Pio­neer­ing Imag­ing Tech­nol­o­gy Imag­ing Reveals

An Ancient Egypt­ian Home­work Assign­ment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Tru­ly Time­less

Jorge Luis Borges Selects 74 Books for Your Per­son­al Library

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Alan Winder says:

    Don’t get too con­cerned with ridi­cul­ing the gold-dig­ging ants. They were as real as the boat.
    It has been fair­ly safe­ly estab­lished that they refer to mar­mots in India, where they do dog up gold, or at least bur­row in gold rich parts of the Indus Val­ley and Sikkim and emerge from their bur­rows spot­ted with gold dust.
    Size, behav­iour, loca­tion and local myth are all iden­ti­cal with his descrip­tion apart from actu­al­ly being ants.
    Sev­er­al oth­er crea­tures were clear­ly myth and leg­end, but prob­a­bly no less ‘fac­tu­al’ than a mod­ern ref­er­ence to the ‘four cor­ners of the earth’ or the North Pole — his read­ers would no more think of a liv­ing Grif­fin than a mod­ern read­er would a flat earth or a big tow­er in the artic. Indeed, with the infor­ma­tion avail­able on you tube pos­si­bly less so!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.