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Digging Away at a Mystery

Archaeologist’s major Egyptian find topic of 2011 University Lecture


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.

Tonight Bard will describe what has been found at the site and what these artifacts tell us about the ancient Egyptians when she delivers 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 at 7 p.m. 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.

BU Today: 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?


Kathryn Bard will deliver the 2011 University Lecture, titled The Wonderful Things of Punt: Excavations at a Pharaonic Harbor on the Red Sea, tonight, Wednesday, October 12, at 7 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the public.

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.


6 Comments on Digging Away at a Mystery

  • Nathan on 10.12.2011 at 10:17 am

    Nova did a good documentary on the reconstructed ship. Text site is here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/punt-ship.html

  • Mussie T on 10.12.2011 at 11:21 am

    Why do you say Eritrea is dangerous? It is not! Is in fact the safest place, starting from the cities to towns to the villages. Go there and find out! Don’t just repeat what you hear or read.!

  • David Imhotep Ph.D. on 10.12.2011 at 11:45 am

    Hi Ms. Bard,
    If the Egyptians dragged their ships across the desert from the Nile to the Red Sea as you say, why would they also go to all the trouble of digging a canal connecting these two bodies of water:

    “According to tradition, the Egyptians dug a canal to link the eastern part of the Nile Delta with the Red Sea as early as the 1900s B.C… Later the canal–was restored by Ramses II (1290-1223 BCE) and again by Persia, after Egypt was conquered by Persia (1223 BCE). (3:151) Barentszoon’s Portolano map of 1595 [CE] also clearly shows a canal there …” (Covey, as cited in Van Sertima, 1992, pp.123-124).

    The above quote is from my dissertation. Evidence concerning “accurate history” can be found if you look hard enough. Case in point, see the book, “The First Americans Were Africans: Documented Evidence.” It will be out in November and you may fine it on my website: HistoricTruth.Info

    David Imhotep Ph.D.

    • Nathan on 10.12.2011 at 5:00 pm

      Dr Imhotep,

      A quick google search shows many links to your book and website, with a few entries for afro-centric sounding journals and “Atlantis Rising.”

      Do you have any links to your entries in peer reviewed journals?

  • Mike on 10.12.2011 at 11:56 am

    Yes, it’s perfectly safe! No problems at all*


    “A number of Eritrean-U.S. dual citizens have been arrested without apparent cause. Once arrested, detainees may be held for extended periods without being told the purpose of their incarceration. Conditions are harsh – those incarcerated may be held in very small quarters without access to restrooms, bedding, food, or clean water. The Eritrean government does not inform the U.S. Embassy when U.S. citizens, including those who are not dual nationals, have been arrested or detained. ”

    But aside from those pesky detentions, everything is perfectly fine!

  • laura guadiana on 10.13.2011 at 11:41 am

    I have lived in and out of Eritrea for the last 10 years (Mexican). It is a difficult environment because of human rights issues as is well documented. However, IF you are not involved in any political matters, I agree it is the safest place in the world. There is in fact, so much undercover activity going on that there is constant surveillance all around you. The Eritrean people are wonderful, hospitable, incredibly welcoming people. As a woman traveling on my own, I have never had any fear, and felt perfectly safe to walk the streets alone, at night at 10 or 11 pm, whatsoever.
    Just need to stay away from any politics and you are safer than many other places on the planet, particularly in major cities where the odds of something happening are much higher.

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