Ancient Mariners: Caves harbor view of early Egyptian sailors

On Christmas Day last year, Kathryn Bard got an unusual gift.

SAILORS’ VIEW. Ancient Egyptian sailors stored their gear in this hand-dug cave discovered near the Red Sea. Boston Univ./UNO ArchaeoL. Exped. at Wadi Gawasis

Working with her colleagues to remove sand from a hillside along Egypt’s Red Sea coast, the Boston University archaeologist poked through a small opening that had appeared and felt . . . nothing. She had reached into the entrance to a human-made cave in which sailors stored their gear as many as 4,000 years ago.

Two days later, Bard’s team found a larger cave nearby. The same ancient seafarers used this one, she and her colleagues surmised, as a temple or shrine.

These and other discoveries at what was once a port known as Mersa Gawasis offer an unprecedented look at the earliest known sea expeditions conducted for pharaohs. Egyptian archaeologist Abdel Monem Sayed first explored this site 30 years ago, but he didn’t report any signs of chambers.

“We know of no other Egyptian ports from this time,” Bard says. “Finding these mariners’ caves was a big surprise.”

Bard and her team’s coleader, Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples in Italy, described their finds last week at the annual meeting, held in Cambridge, Mass., of the Cairo-based American Research Center in Egypt.

The larger cave began as a natural cavity that ancient excavators expanded, Bard says. The cave entrance was reinforced with stone ship-anchors, stone blocks, cedar beams from a sea vessel, and mud bricks.

A rope bag, a grinding stone and grinder, and a wooden bowl rested just inside the cave. Beyond them lay two wooden steering oars from a ship, the first complete parts of an ancient Egyptian ship ever recovered. The oars may have been used on 70-foot-long ships that, according to previously discovered inscriptions, Queen Hatshepsut dispatched to the southern Red Sea port of Punt about 3,500 years ago.

Pottery found near the steering oars dates to that time. Ropes strewn near the oars may have been used for ship riggings.

Evidence that the cave had been used as a shrine includes five limestone tablets, four of which were in niches carved into the chamber’s walls. One tablet contains hieroglyphic writing that refers to King Amenemhat III, who ruled Egypt around 3,800 years ago. The tablet describes several sea expeditions to Punt and to a previously unknown site, Bia-Punt. Until now, most researchers had considered Queen Hatshepsut’s Punt expedition to be the first of its kind.

Artifacts in the smaller, living room-size cave included wooden planks from boats and grinding stones.

Along the seashore below the caves, Bard and her collaborators have completed the excavation of an oval platform that had been partially uncovered in the 1970s by Sayed. Bard suggests that sailors performed ceremonies at the stone-and-coral structure, which was covered with nearly 700 conch shells.

These new finds indicate that beginning around 4,000 years ago, Mersa Gawasis emerged as a “vibrant trading port,” remarks Eugene Cruz-Uribe of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Bard’s team will use remote-sensing equipment next year to search for other caves at Mersa Gawasis.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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