Ancient Egyptians called it "God's Land." During the Old Kingdom (2686–2125 BCE), when pharaohs were constructing massive, towering pyramids on land, they were also sending ships to sea in the hopes of enriching their kingdom. Carved in stone, scenes and texts tell of sailing expeditions sent south on the Red Sea to Punt ("poont") and Bia-Punt (land of Punt) to acquire highly prized raw materials that were unavailable in Egypt: ebony, ivory, and gold; leopards, baboons, and other exotic live animals for the royal zoo; and the coveted aromatics frankincense and myrrh, required for use in temple ceremonies and some mortuary rituals.
Punt was the premier destination for Egypt's sailing ships in the Red Sea trade network in the Middle Kingdom/12th Dynasty (circa 1985–1773 BCE). But, despite chronicles of long-ago expeditions to this bountiful land, and more current scholarly theories about its likely location in a variety of places either in eastern North Africa or Arabia, Punt's whereabouts remains an elusive mystery.
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Photos at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, the site of an ancient Egyptian seaport, courtesy of Kathryn Bard.
Archaeologist Kathryn Bard and her longtime colleagues in African research, Rodolfo Fattovich and Andrea Manzo, professors of archaeology at the University of Naples "l'Orientale" in Italy, have made some extraordinary discoveries that shed light on Egypt's Red Sea trade with Punt. An associate professor of archaeology at Arts & Sciences, Bard has co-directed excavations with Fattovich since 2003 at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, the site of an ancient Egyptian Red Sea port. The "valley (wadi) of the spies," as it translates to English, "probably because contraband came through there in more recent times," Bard says, was the land route to the port from which flotillas set sail to Punt.
On Christmas Day 2004, barely an hour into a dig on a sandy bluff above the port, Bard stuck her hand into a fist-sized hole that appeared in a hillside. She felt only empty space. On further excavation, she was "thrilled" to realize she had discovered a man-made cave. A few days later, Bard and the rest of the research team found an entrance to a second cave, excavated into fossil coral bedrock. On subsequent exploration, the storage caves revealed chambers with a trove of nautical items dating back approximately 3,800 years.
"I've been excavating in Africa for over 30 years, and I've never seen anything like this," says Bard. "Ever! It's just an astonishing site with incredibly well-preserved evidence."
The storage caves revealed chambers with a trove of nautical items dating back approximately 3,800 years
Inside the caves, the archaeologists found stone anchors, ship timbers, and two curved cedar planks that they believe were steering oar blades for a ship that was about 65 feet long. The most surprising find, Bard says, was what she calls "the rope cave," containing an estimated 26 coils of ropes used for rigging that, even though they turned out to be "microscopically bored by tiny insects," she says, "looked to be in great condition, frozen in time," just as they must have appeared when sailors left them on the cave floor nearly four thousand years ago.
In carved niches outside the second cave, the team discovered stelae ("steely"), flat monuments made of limestone slabs, with badly eroded inscriptions. However, Bard found one, face down in the sand, that was "perfectly preserved," she says. On it, hieroglyphic inscriptions recount two royal sailing expeditions, one to Punt and the other to Bia-Punt. The text was the first evidence the team found that King Amenemhet III, who ruled Egypt 1831–1786 BCE, had dispatched such voyages.
Also outside the caves, the researchers found more than 40 cargo boxes, two of which were painted with hieroglyphics describing their former contents, "like packaging labels," says Bard. These two boxes also bear the name of King Amenemhet IV, who reigned circa 1786–1777 BCE, with the inscription "the wonderful things of Punt."
The most surprising find, Bard says, was what she calls "the rope cave," containing an estimated 26 coils of ropes used for rigging that "looked to be in great condition, frozen in time," just as they must have appeared when sailors left them on the cave floor nearly four thousand years ago.
The nautical artifacts Bard's team found at Wadi Gawasis, along with the stelae's hieroglyphic inscriptions, reveal much about the complex nature of Egypt's Red Sea trade network with Punt.
"It was the finding of a lifetime," says Bard. "We have parts of ships that sailed to Punt; inscriptional/textual evidence of these expeditions to Punt and Bia-Punt; products that came from Punt—obsidian and ebony; and we also have pottery from the southern Red Sea region. It's rare that you have so much of different forms of evidence at one site."
Since their initial discovery of the caves and their contents at Wadi Gawasis, Bard and her colleagues have returned five times to excavate the site, where they continue to unearth evidence that expands the story. They've even found a record of meal preparation for 100 men inscribed on a piece of pottery—"The Egyptians were great record keepers," she says. Last winter, they discovered an additional cave, above the harbor, "right where I predicted it would be," says Bard. And for their upcoming trip this December, they will send a "snake robot," an invention of Carnegie Mellon Associate Professor of Engineering Howard Choset, into two unexplored caves.
Bard was born in Boston, but raised in Park Ridge, Illinois (where she was a schoolmate of Hillary Rodham Clinton). On a visit to The Field Museum in Chicago as a child, Bard was drawn to an Egyptian amulet depicting a cat and kittens. Her fascination with Egyptian antiquities stuck. After first earning degrees in art, which she taught for awhile, she returned to her early love and took a PhD in archaeology at the University of Toronto.
This stela mentions two brothers, Nebsu and Amenhotep, who journeyed to Punt and Bia-Punt.
For Bard, fieldwork as a real archaeologist isn't a brush-with-death-a-minute, like it is for film daredevil Indiana Jones, but she does have some hair-raising adventures on the job. In 1998, while conducting research funded by the National Geographic Society in the high mountains near Aksum, Ethiopia, she and Fattovich saw a bomb explode nearby. War had just broken out along the Eritrean border, and the U.S. and Italian embassies ordered them out pronto, resulting in their making a mad 223-mile descent in a hired car with a leaky radiator on a single-lane dirt road that wound through the mountains. Their research on early African civilization in northern Ethiopia won Bard the National Geographic Society's Chairman Award for Exploration.
For Bard, fieldwork as a real archaeologist isn't brush-with-death-a-minute, like it is for film daredevil Indiana Jones, but she does have some hair-raising adventures on the job.
Forced to relocate their efforts when research in Ethiopia became uncertain, in 2001 they turned to Egypt's Red Sea coast. When they discovered the caves at Wadi Gawasis in 2004, excavations there presented different challenges. Lined with faults—"huge cracks in the rock"—the caves could collapse. And during the summer, not only are the caves unbearably hot and humid, they are swarming with deadly vipers. Like Indy, Bard "hates snakes." She and her team conduct their Wadi Gawasis digs for about four weeks starting in late December, when the temperature is cooler and the vipers are safely hibernating.
For her "pathbreaking excavations in Egypt," Bard was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on October 9.
On her next big adventure, Bard aims to prove a theory that could place her in another risky spot. She and Fattovich intend to solve the mystery of where Punt actually was—in Eastern Sudan, she says, but she's keeping mum on the exact location—that will take them into unfriendly territory, but, she says, "We gotta do it." ■
Builders and Sailors
The artifacts that archaeologist Kathryn Bard and her team have found suggest that expeditions to Punt were logistical feats of engineering, travel, and coordination on a gigantic scale, involving thousands of men—"just amazing!" she calls it.
To build the ships, cedar timber was hewn from the hills of Lebanon about 1,000 meters above sea level and brought down to the coast to be transported south on the Mediterranean to the Nile delta. There the timbers were loaded onto boats and transported upriver to a shipbuilding site at Coptos, where they were constructed into seafaring vessels. Ships would then be disassembled and their parts would be trekked by donkey caravan for approximately 10 days across 100 miles of desert, along with food, rope, pottery, and other travel supplies. Once at Wadi Gawasis, the ships would be reconstructed and readied to sail south on the Red Sea to Punt to gather Pharaoh's treasure.
Watch video of the NOVA documentary "Building Pharaoh's Ship," detailing the construction of a replica of a seafaring vessel that sailed from Wadi Gawasis to Punt.
Drawing of two ships from Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt from a relief in her temple at Deir el-Bahri. Illustration courtesy of Kathryn Bard