Digging Away at a Mystery
Archaeologist’s major Egyptian find was topic of 2011 University Lecture| From BU Today | By Amy Sutherland
Archaeologist Kathryn Bard’s discovery proved that ancient Egyptians were seagoing and would go to extremes to reach the faraway land of Punt, with its coveted ebony, ivory, and frankincense. Photo by Cydney Scott
After spending their entire careers picking at the ground, many archaeologists have no big find to show for it. Not Kathryn Bard, who in 2004 poked her hand into a dusty hole in Egypt and felt only empty space. The College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of archaeology had plunged her arm into an ancient unknown cave. Eventually Bard and her team discovered eight such caves at the site at Wadi Gawasis, each stashed with nautical supplies, among them coiled ropes, ship timbers, and limestone anchors, from roughly 4,000 years ago.
That might not seem like sexy stuff compared to mummies and pharaonic riches, but the cache of maritime wares proved that ancient Egyptians were seagoing and would go to extremes to reach the faraway land of Punt, with its coveted ebony, ivory, and frankincense. (Among the caves’ contents were two cargo boxes bearing the inscription “The wonders of Punt.”) The discovery also proved that Bard was an archaeologist to be reckoned with. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010.
Bard recently delivered this year’s University Lecture, titled The Wonderful Things of Punt: Excavations at a Pharaonic Harbor on the Red Sea, at the Tsai Performance Center. Established in 1950 to honor faculty engaged in outstanding research, the University Lecture is one of BU’s top honors.
Bard says that despite the trove of artifacts found at Wadi Gawasis, archaeologists have been unable to answer a question that has dogged them for over a century: where was Punt? The BU archaeologist is far from giving up the hunt despite threats of collapsing caves, vipers, and shifting political sands.
Bostonia: Why does it matter whether Punt is found?
Bard: Because people keep asking about it. People like looking for mysteries. The chances of finding it are probably not good, because the places I think Punt was located, Eritrea and Sudan, are too dangerous or too difficult to work in.
Have Ethiopia and Egypt been hard to work in?
When I worked in Ethiopia, I was always flea-bitten. We’d have to hike up the side of a mountain and haul all our equipment up there every day. This is a region that is 14 degrees north of the equator and about 2,300 feet above sea level. It’s hot. Sometimes there were water shortages.
In Egypt, I have to admit, we stay in a divers’ resort on the Red Sea. We have running water and two meals a day. The resort looks over a beach. I earned it after working all those years in Ethiopia!
Will the political changes in Egypt affect your work there?
I don’t know if I’m going back at Christmas. We are waiting to hear if we will get an excavation permit and what kind we will get. And the security issues at our site are a concern.
We are close to finished there, but I’d like one more field season. We want to get into caves six and seven. We really don’t know the size and shape of them because they are too dangerous to go in. They could collapse. An Egyptian geologist who studied the caves was so nervous that he wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. Not a good sign. And there are snake issues. If you are bitten by a horned viper, you are dead in less then five minutes. Snakes live in recesses like the caves, though in the winter they are in hibernation.
Last season, an inventor came with a robot with optical equipment so we could see in those caves, but it didn’t work very well. He’s revised the robot design, so we’d like to try again.
What’s been the most exciting discovery for you at this site?
The caves themselves. This is what changed everyone’s opinion about this site and made it interesting to the world press.
My first day of the 2004 field season I was with a former BU student and he asked me where we should start excavating. I looked at the ground and saw a concentration of pottery. That pottery had to have fallen from somewhere, so we went up slope from there. The workmen began shoveling sand, and less than an hour later the hole appeared. This was Christmas morning. It was a great present.
Did this site change your idea of what ancient Egyptians were like?
Yes. They were incredibly well organized. The big cedar ship timbers came from Lebanon and were brought in ships down the Mediterranean, then brought up the Nile to Coptos. They built the ships there, disassembled them, and took them across the desert to the coast. They were reassembled and sailed 900 miles south on the Red Sea, which is risky to sail.
Where will you go next in your search for Punt?
We’re talking about going to Eritrea. A colleague in Italy is looking at satellite images for what might have been good harbor areas. Everyone’s liked working at the Egyptian site because it’s such a lovely place. I know some people will not work with me in Eritrea because it’s dangerous.
But this might be the last step to finding Punt?