Archaeologists discover ancient ships in Egypt


By Tim Stoddard

Kathryn Bard, a CAS associate professor of archaeology, recently discovered the first ancient remains of Egyptian seafaring ships. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Kathryn Bard, a CAS associate professor of archaeology, recently discovered the first ancient remains of Egyptian seafaring ships. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

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.”