Tuesday, March 07, 2006

 

Red Sea timbers provide a raft of knowledge

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Times Online
By Norman Hammond
March 06, 2006


THE oldest known remains of seafaring ships have been identified in a series of cave stores on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Built of cedar and acacia wood, the ships had been attacked by marine worms, and the site seems to have been a shipbreaker’s yard dating to the middle of the second millennium BC.

The discovery, at Wadi Gawasis near the modern port of Safaga, also yielded boxes which give vital clues on Egyptian contact with the mysterious kingdom of Punt (The Times, January 31). The ship timbers there suggest that parts of pharaonic seagoing vessels were fabricated in the Nile Valley and transported overland for assembly on the coast, according to Cheryl Ward of Florida State University.

River vessels for use on the Nile have long been known, including the ceremonial boats from the Great Pyramid at Giza, dating to around 2,500BC, and four others of the reign of Senwosret III from Dashur not far to the south.

“The presence of extensive damage to planks and fastenings by the shipworm or marine borer provides irrefutable evidence of seafaring,” Dr Ward said. “Most of the timbers were in contexts that indicate their reuse in ramps and walkways, and many were significantly reworked.”

Some of the timbers were marked in red paint, applied, Ward believes, during “an aggressive careening and rotremoval process” that has yielded thousands of timber fragments. One of the caves also yielded neatly arranged coils of rope, used for rigging and “left for the next expedition, one that never came”, she said.

The rope bundles each contain at least 20m (65ft) of rope and perhaps half as much again. They have not been touched for some 3,500 years and need urgent conservation, Ward said. “The rope, probably made from half grass, looks stable, but thousands of tiny fragments around each bundle show internal decay: the extreme dryness promotes brittleness.”

The timbers include planks from the hull, marked by the presence of gribble (shipworm damage), and mortise-andtenon joints. Some planks had marks which may have been to facilitate assembly, which Ward said is “logical in considering how ships built at a Nile shipyard could be easily reassembled on the Red Sea shore”. The Great Pyramid boats of the Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) had similar shipwrights’ marks.

The blades of two steering oars and a stanchion were also found. Overall, Ward said, “the technology and dimensions of hull components are consistent with what might be expected of seagoing ships in the Middle Kingdom” — similar to the Nile boats, but sturdier.

The primary activity outside the caves was shipbreaking, while inside there is evidence of damaged wood being removed from planks before their reuse. “It is likely that once ships returned from their voyage, they were examined by shipwrights who marked unsatisfactory timbers with red paint. Workers then began to remove planks from the hulls by prying seams apart and sawing or chiselling through the tenons,” Ward said.

The Wadi Gawasis finds add to “our understanding not only of the role of shipbuilding technology, but of the vast administrative and bureaucratic nature of Middle Kingdom contacts with the world beyond Egypt’s borders”.


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