Kathryn Bard: On Discovering an Ancient Egyptian Ship
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, 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. She 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, Bard 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.
She 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.”
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