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Archaeologist Kathryn Bard’s Amazing Egyptian Digs

Don’t compare her to Indiana Jones, she’s the real deal

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In the slide show above, join Kathryn Bard’s Egyptian archaeological dig.

Five years ago, Kathryn Bard made a remarkable discovery in the Egyptian desert. While digging with an archaeological team along the Red Sea coast, she reached into the opening of a wall — and felt nothing. Further excavation revealed an ancient man-made cave containing a mud brick, a small grinding stone, shell beads, and part of a box.

Days later, the team, led by Bard, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of archaeology, and Italian colleague Rodolfo Fattovich, uncovered the entrance to a second cave. Inside they found a network of larger rooms filled with dozens of nautical artifacts: limestone anchors, 80 coils of knotted rope, pottery fragments, ship timbers, and two curved cedar planks that likely are steering oars from a 70-foot-long ship. According to hieroglyphic inscriptions, the ship was dispatched to the southern Red Sea port of Punt by Queen Hatshepsut during the 15th century B.C.

“It just gave me chills to stumble across such a frozen moment in time,” Bard recalls. “The ropes were perfectly preserved. They looked as if they’d been coiled yesterday.”

The team discovered seven caves at Wadi Gawasis containing relics dating back 4,000 years. The first pieces ever recovered from Egyptian seagoing vessels, they offer a tantalizing glimpse into an elaborate network of Red Sea trade.

Best known for its exports of gold, incense, ebony, elephant ivory, and exotic animals, the exact location of the port city Punt remains a mystery; Bard believes it was in present-day eastern Sudan. Inscriptions discovered more than a century ago indicate that Egyptian pharaohs mounted naval expeditions to Punt as far back as the Old Kingdom (2686 –2125 B.C.), and Bard’s findings give credibility to the legend in the form of stelae, limestone slabs installed in niches outside of the second cave.  

Most of the stelae are indecipherable, worn blank from centuries of wind and sand. But one was in near-perfect condition. “I found it lying facedown in the desert,” Bard says, “and it contained the complete historical text of two expeditions, one to Punt and one to Bia-Punt, as ordered by King Amenemhat III, who ruled at about 1800 B.C.”

In addition to the stelae, the team recovered more than 40 cargo boxes, 2 bearing painted inscriptions reading “The wonders of Punt.”

“It was like a modern-day packaging label,” Bard says. “The preservation was incredible.”

Since the initial discovery, the team has returned to Wadi Gawasis each year and uncovered more artifacts: clay sealings, boxes and bags, cooking tools, fragments of a letter written on a sheet of papyrus. “We even found a piece of pottery that describes how to prepare a meal for 100 men,” she says. “The Egyptians kept records of everything.”  

Bard will make her fifth voyage to Egypt in late December. “We think there’s another cave,” she says. “And through analysis of satellite images, we think we’ve found some sort of walled structure beneath the harbor that may be a ship slipway or a dock.”

The team limits its excavations to six weeks between fall and spring semesters to avoid summer heat and humidity — not to mention the desert’s sizable population of poisonous vipers, which hibernate during the winter.

It all sounds very Raiders of the Last Ark, but don’t compare Bard to Indiana Jones. “He bungles into anything, anywhere,” she says. “There’s no planning, no organization, just lots of adventure. Real archaeology is nothing like the movies.”

Bard has never outrun a Nazi, but she has had a narrow escape, and it led her to Wadi Gawasis. In 1998, she and an excavation team fled war-torn Ethiopia via a mountainous one-lane dirt road as bombs erupted in the distance. The experience, though harrowing, brought her to Egypt.

“We knew we couldn’t go back to Ethiopia,” Bard says, “so we decided to explore the other end of the Red Sea. Little did we know what we’d find.” 

Relics from the discovery at Wadi Gawasis will be showcased at the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo beginning December 6. Bard was a curator for the exhibition.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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