Bringing the Past to Life
Kathryn Bard: Finding Pharaohs' Ships
Mention archaeology and people imagine pith-helmeted scholars unearthing artifacts from the sands of time in faraway deserts. Minus the pith helmet, this more or less describes archaeologist Kathryn Bard. At the site of Wadi Gawasis on the Red Sea coast in Egypt, Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich, her co-director from the Oriental Institute in Naples, have uncovered timbers from the world’s oldest-known seagoing ships. These are all that remain of epic journeys that Egyptian pharaohs organized to the ancient kingdom of Punt (modern Eritrea and Sudan) almost 4,000 years ago.
Punt was the luxury department store of ancient Egypt, the source of high-status items such as gold, frankincense, and the giraffe tails that adorned the belts of the pharaohs. But procuring these items was no easy trip to the mall. It was a complex and minutely orchestrated journey. A lack of fresh water prevented the shipbuilders from living along the shore during the months it took to construct the ships, so they built them inland in the town of Qina. Traders obtained cedar from the mountains of Lebanon and shipped it to the Nile delta, then upriver to Qina. After the ships were built they were dismantled and carried, along with all necessary supplies, on a 10-day trek across the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea. According to a stone stele found at Wadi Gawasis, one of these expeditions involved 3,000 workers and 500 sailors. On the coast they reassembled the ships and the sailors set sail for Punt.
Over the last two years Bard and her team have uncovered more than 40 ship timbers, some longer than 12 feet, as well as dozens of stone anchors. They also discovered a series of six caves used for storage, and where the work crews may have slept as well. One cave still contained more than 20 bundles of rope used on the ships.
Although inscriptions in the Nile Valley tombs of several pharaohs mention these sea voyages, until Bard’s discoveries, archaeologists knew little about how these expeditions were organized, where they sailed from, or how the Egyptians, not known as accomplished sailors, managed such a long, dangerous voyage.
For more information, see www.bu.edu/archaeology/faculty/bard.htm.
— by Trina Arpin