Thursday, March 16, 2006

 

FSU professor uncovering ancient seafarer secrets

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Daytona Beach News Journal
By Mark Harper
March 12, 2006


Four thousand years ago, Egyptian seafarers didn't have global positioning satellites, cell phones or even a compass to guide them.

Florida State University anthropology professor Cheryl Ward -- who is involved in an ongoing dig to learn more about Egypt's ancient ships -- theorizes the sailors stayed relatively close to the coast of the Red Sea as they made their way south. They sailed to Punt, the land they believed was their heritage, a region of riches, the place they referred to as "God's land."

They used ships that were 60 to 70 feet long, made of massive cedar planks they probably collected in Lebanon or Syria, carried to Egypt in smaller boats, then hauled across 90 miles of desert using people and probably donkeys, Ward said in a telephone interview. There, what would have been a "military-royal-industrial shipyard," the pieces were assembled and the ships set sail for 1,000 miles or more.

John Baines, an Egyptologist at Oxford University, told the Boston University Bridge newspaper the discovery is "exciting" and could help debunk assumptions that the Egyptians didn't do a lot of long-distance travel.

Ward and other researchers, including Boston University archaeologist Kathryn Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples l'Orientale. examined ship timbers during "excavation season" in December and January. A graduate student working with Bard in December 2005 originally discovered the timbers and a series of caves in the sand about 13 miles south of Port Safaga, a city on the Red Sea that is known for its diving holidays and fish restaurants. It is along the Red Sea Road, in desert and half a mile from the sea.

To put the discovery in context, the next oldest evidence of a ship -- a watercraft of a certain size that's comfortable for sailors to spend the night on the sea -- was from a shipwreck off Turkey about 700 years later.

Ward says the Egypt find is "exponentially greater, in terms of trying to understand how people went to sea."

The timbers resemble railroad ties, are 10 feet long and thick. They are "robust," she said, and the desert protects them from decay from most insects. Shipworms found in the planks indicated the ships had weathered a long voyage, probably to Punt.

While no one knows Punt's location, most experts believe it is somewhere along the coast of East Africa on the Red Sea, perhaps in Somalia, Ethiopia or Senegal. The engineering and ability of ancient Egyptians to travel was by far the most advanced in the world at the time, Ward believes.

"To me, the closest parallel is Sputnik," she said. "Going to the end of their world is what they were doing."

The sailors would buy or trade for symbols and materials that were scarce and exotic -- perhaps frankincense, gold, ivory, giraffe tails and baboons. "You know how some people just need the latest cell-phone technology? If you could say, I just got this from Punt, you were at the top of the heap," Ward said.

"And this is what keeps me interested in archaeology, how much human behavior is human behavior, no matter what part of history we're talking about," she said.

Ward and the other researchers plan to return next December.

"There's more timbers there, a lot more to be discovered," she said. "We've only begun to evaluate one of the caves."

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