Archaeologists discover ancient ships in Egypt
By Tim Stoddard
Kathryn Bard had “the best Christmas ever” this past December when she discovered the well-preserved timbers and riggings of pharaonic seafaring ships inside two man-made caves on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. They are the first pieces ever recovered from Egyptian seagoing vessels, and along with hieroglyphic inscriptions found near one of the caves, they promise to shed light on an elaborate network of ancient Red Sea trade.
Bard, a CAS associate professor of archaeology, and her former student Chen Sian Lim (CAS’01) had been shoveling sand for scarcely an hour on their first day of excavation on a parched bluff rising from the shore at Wadi Gawasis when a fist-sized hole appeared in the hillside. “I stuck my hand in, and that was the entrance to the first cave,” Bard says. “Things like that don’t happen very often in archaeology.”
Led by Bard and Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples l’Orientale, the team uncovered the rectangular entrance to a second cave, constructed with cedar beams and blocks of limestone that were former ship anchors. Inside they found a network of larger rooms and an assortment of nautical items, among them ropes, a wooden bowl, and a mesh bag. They also found two curved cedar planks that were probably the steering oars on a 70-foot-long ship from Queen Hatshepsut’s famous 15th-century b.c. naval expedition to Punt, a trade destination somewhere in the southern Red Sea region. Buried in sand outside the second cave, the team found a piece of rope still tied in what she believes is a sailor’s knot. “It must have come from a ship,” she says. “It couldn’t have been used for anything else.” Fragments of pottery scattered near the artifacts date to Egypt’s early 18th dynasty, circa 1500 b.c., around the time Hatshepsut reigned.
The archaeologists also discovered several stelae (pronounced steely), limestone slabs about the size of small modern tombstones, installed in niches outside the second cave. Most were blank, but Bard found one, face down in the sand, with the cartouche of King Amenemhat III, who ruled about 1800 b.c. The text recounts two expeditions led by government officials to Punt and Bia-Punt, whose location is uncertain. “That this stela has been preserved with very little damage for that long is really unusual,” she says, “and the preservation of organic material in the caves is truly remarkable. I’ve worked in Egypt since 1976, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Bard’s colleagues share her enthusiasm. “I think it is a very exciting discovery,” says John Baines, an Egyptologist on the faculty of oriental studies at Oxford University. “People have tended to assume that the Egyptians didn’t do a tremendous amount of long-distance travel because very few remains of these sites have been found.” Based on texts discovered over a century ago, reseachers have known that Egyptians mounted naval expeditions to Punt as far back as the Old Kingdom (2686–2125 b.c.). In Punt they acquired gold, ebony, elephant ivory, leopard skins, and exotic animals such as baboons that were kept as pets, along with the frankincense necessary for religious rituals.
The discovery is shedding light on other aspects of the Red Sea trade. “It was not known until we found this stela that King Amenemhat III had sent any expeditions to Punt,” Bard says. “That makes this an important historical text.” The team also found fragments of pottery inside the small cave that the Italian archaeologists believe originated in Yemen, which suggests the Egyptians either sailed further than had been previously thought or were part of a more complex web of trade.
Sailing to Punt required a tremendous investment of manpower. Egyptian shipbuilders harvested cedar from the mountains of Lebanon and transported it up the Nile to a shipbuilding site, where the vessels were first assembled and then disassembled into travel-ready pieces that could be carried on a 10-day journey across about 100 miles of desert to the coast. “The logistics involved were phenomenal,” Bard says. “They’d have to carry fresh water and supplies for travel.”
During the 1990s, Bard and Fattovich had conducted a 10-year excavation near Aksum, Ethiopia, where they found evidence of a previously unknown period in African civilization. But when war broke out along the Eritrean border in 1998, they decided to relocate to the Egyptian coastline. The team went first to Wadi Gawasis in 2001 to investigate “the other end of Red Sea trade,” Bard says.
Fattovich selected Wadi Gawasis because in the 1970s an Egyptian archaeologist had identified it as the likely location of the ancient seaport of Saaw, known from texts as the departure point for expeditions to Punt. The team limits its excavation to the six weeks between semesters each winter, avoiding the extreme heat and humidity during the summer.
While Bard is thrilled by the recent cave discoveries, she notes that they have only begun to discover the secrets of Wadi Gawasis. “I’m sure there’s at least one other cave we haven’t excavated yet,” she says. “There may be many more. And we’ve only just cleared out the entrance to the large cave, and it’s enormous. We have years’ more work to do there.”
When she returns next December, she will be joined by a researcher who will use ground-penetrating radar to determine if there are more caves and to estimate how far back the known caves extend. An engineer will help the team support the partially collapsed ceilings in some of the caves. “It was the find of a lifetime,” Bard says, “and there’s much more to discover there.”