Sunday, February 19, 2006


Sailing to Punt


16 - 22 February 2006
Issue No. 782

Well-preserved wrecks of Pharaonic seafaring vessels unearthed last week on the Red Sea coast reveal that the Ancient Egyptians enjoyed advanced maritime technology, Nevine El-Aref reports.

The long-held belief that the Ancient Egyptians did not tend to travel long distances by sea because of poor naval technology proved fallacious last week when timbers, rigging and cedar planks were unearthed in the ancient Red Sea port of Marsa Gawasis, 23 kilometres south of Port Safaga.

The remains of seafaring vessels were found in four large, hand-hewn caves which were probably used as storage or boat houses from the Middle Kingdom to the early New Kingdom periods. Early examination revealed that each cave measured 60 square metres and had an entrance constructed of reused anchors, limestone blocks and wooden beams. Other stone anchors were located outside the entrances.

One of these caves contains more than 80 perfectly preserved coils of different sized ropes which were once used on ships. The Italian mission director, Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples " l'Orientale ", says: "Today, we have access to the rear of the cave and we can see that most of its walls are concealed with these coils of lines, each about a metre long and 60cms wide. Each bundle of ropes represents from at least 20 to 30 metres of line."

Fattovich said that in the second cave the rope bundles were easily visible from the entrance; they had horizontal wraps of 18 turns around one-metre vertical loops. "It is really spectacular," he said.

Egyptologist Mohamed Mustafa, a specialist in maritime archaeology, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the amount of rigging discovered in Marsa Gawasis was the largest ever found.

The pieces of rigging are very fragile, but consolidation work will be carried out before restoration to facilitate their transportation to the on-site restoration laboratory. Mustafa said that rigging was considered highly important and was very costly. According to Old Kingdom inscriptions, a 1000-metre length of riggings was worth 40 head of cattle, and during the New Kingdom it cost the price of a bull.

"This is a very important discovery and sheds light on Ancient Egyptian naval technology and the elaborate ancient Red Sea trade network," Mustafa told the Weekly. He said that people tend to assume that the Egyptians did not do many long-distance trips because very few remains of these sites have been found. Based on this belief, they also thought that Punt was located in southern Sinai and not in southern Sudan or the Eritrean region of Ethiopia.

Large, well-preserved ships' planks and their fastenings were also unearthed, and the presence of extensive damage to the planks by marine worms or borers provides irrefutable evidence of seafaring. Most of the timbers were in a context that indicated their reuse in ramps and walkways, but many were significantly reworked.

Analyses made by Rainer Gerisch of the Free University, Berlin, on the different types of wood used in boat construction revealed that it was imported from far and wide: from Syria and Palestine to the Nile Valley and Red Sea mountains.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), is enthusiastic about the find. "It is very exciting," he says. "It reveals the world's oldest remains of seafaring ships." Hawass says a deposit of 21 plastered wooden boxes of ships' cargo was found buried in sand outside the caves. One of these boxes bears a painted inscription saying: "the wonderful products of Punt", indicating that the boxes once contained cargo imported from Punt. The boxes also bear a partially preserved cartouche of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, who ruled about 1,800 B.C. "This inscriptions was very carefully recorded on site but could not be preserved as the state of preservation of the wood was very bad," Hawass says.

Fragments of pottery marked with the 12th- Dynasty seal imprint were scattered near the boxes, and a stela with the five names of Amenemhat III was installed in a niche. Archaeologists also discovered two ostraca, of which one seems to be an administrative board recording food provisions. Both ostraca are now under comprehensive study by El-Sayed Mahfouz from Assiut University. That these ostraca should have been preserved with little damage for so long is unusual. Indeed the preservation of organic material in the caves is truly remarkable.

"This discovery is shedding light on other aspects of the Red Sea trade," Hawass says. Inside the small cave the team found fragments of pottery that the Italian archaeologists believe originated in Yemen, which suggests that Egyptians either sailed further than had been previously thought or were part of a more complex trade network.

A geophysical survey with a magnetometre was conducted on site, revealing some interesting anomalies at the base of the western and southern slopes of Marsa Gawasis's fossilised-coral terrace. Geo-physicist Glen Dash said that a test excavation in correspondence to a long anomaly at the southern slope suggested that this could be an ancient shoreline. Shells found here contain a great quantity of marine organisms, which means that the bay was much deeper in the past. Close to this shore line, a large conglomerate anchor and Middle Kingdom potsherds were found. Meanwhile, geo-archaeological investigations carried out support the hypothesis that the mouth of Marsa Gawasis was originally a lagoon.

Sailing to Punt required a tremendous investment of manpower. Egyptian shipbuilders harvested cedarwood 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.

Based on texts discovered more than a century ago, researchers have known that Egyptians mounted naval expeditions to Punt as far back as the Old Kingdom to obtain gold, ebony, ivory, leopard skins and the frankincense necessary for religious rituals. The hides of giraffe, panther and cheetah, which were worn by temple priests, were imported along with live exotic animals -- either for the priests' own menageries or as religious sacrifices -- including the sacred cynocephalus or dog-faced baboon. Little wonder, then, that Punt became known as the "Land of the Gods", and as the personal pleasure garden of the great god Amun.

Trade between Egypt and Punt appears to have been suspended after the 12th Dynasty and not resumed until early in the 18th, when the most famous expedition to Punt, that of Queen Hatshepsut, came as an outcome of a consultation with the oracle of the god Amun in which she was instructed to send a fleet of ships there. The expedition is featured in relief in Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir Al-Bahari. It portrays a total of 10 ships, five entering harbour and five loading and setting sail. It is assumed that the ships were prefabricated on the Nile at Coptos, a point where it most closely approaches the Red Sea, and were then stripped down and the components transported through Wadi Hammamat by donkey caravan to Quseir, where they were reassembled. On completion of the mission to Punt, an often dangerous journey, and the equally dangerous return journey to the Egyptian port, the ships had to be stripped down again and their parts carried back through the desert valley along with their rich cargoes to the Nile, where they would be reassembled, reloaded, and set sail to Thebes.

What triggered Fattovich and his colleague Kathryn A Bard from Boston University to work at the Marsa Gawasis site for five consecutive archaeological seasons was their quest to solve the enigma of an African civilisation. During the 1990s, both archaeologists had conducted a 10- year excavation near Aksum, Ethiopia, where they found evidence of a previously unknown period in African history. However when war broke out along the Eritrean border in 1998, they decided to relocate to the Egyptian coast. The team first went to Marsa Gawasis in 2001 to investigate, as they describe it, "the other end of the Red Sea trade."

Fattovich selected the site because Egyptian archaeologist Abdel-Moneim Sayed from Alexandria University had identified it in the 1970s as the likely location of the ancient seaport of Saaw, known from texts as the departure point for expeditions to Punt. The team limits its excavation to the six weeks between semesters each winter, avoiding the extreme heat and humidity during the summer.

Thrilled by the recent cave discoveries, Mustafa notes that they have only begun to learn the secrets of Marsa Gawasis. "I'm sure there are more caves we haven't excavated yet," he says. "It was the find of a lifetime and there's much more to discover there."


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