Florida State University anthropology professor Cheryl Ward has determined that wooden planks found in the manmade caves are about 4,000 years old - making them the world's most ancient ship timbers. Shipworms that had tunneled into the planks indicated the ships had weathered a long voyage of a few months, likely to the fabled southern Red Sea trading center of Punt, a place referenced in hieroglyphics on empty cargo boxes found in the caves, Ward said.
"The archaeological site is like a mothballed military base, and the artifacts there tell a story of some of the best organized administrators the world has ever seen," she said. "It's a site that has kept its secrets for 40 centuries."
Ward, an expert on ancient shipbuilding who previously was a member of famed Titanic explorer Robert Ballard's Black Sea project team, joined archaeologists Kathryn Bard of Boston University and Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples l'Orientale as the chief maritime archaeologist at the site, a sand-covered bluff along the Red Sea called Wadi Gawasis, in December. The project, which Ward will detail in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, was conducted with the support of Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Scholars have long known that Egyptians traveled to Punt but they have debated its exact location and whether the Egyptians reached Punt by land or by sea. Some had thought the ancient Egyptians did not have the naval technology to travel long distances by sea, but the findings at the Wadi Gawasis confirm that Egyptians sailed a 2,000-mile round trip voyage to Punt, putting it in what is today Ethiopia or Yemen, Ward said.
The Wadi Gawasis site, located about 13 miles south of the modern city of Port Safaga, was an industrial shipyard of sorts with six rock-cut caves that the ancient Egyptians used as work and storage rooms to protect their equipment from the harsh desert conditions, Ward said. Along with timber and cargo boxes, the archaeologists found large stone anchors, shards of storage jars and more than 80 perfectly preserved coils of rope in the caves that had been sealed off until the next expedition - one that obviously never came.
The team also found a stela, or limestone tablet, of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, who ruled between 1844-1797 B.C., inscribed with all five of his royal names. The plaque provided further evidence that discoveries found at the site date to Egypt's Middle Kingdom period. A period of civil unrest and political instability likely put a halt to further exploration, Ward said, and the Wadi Gawasis site was long forgotten.
While in use, though, the ancient shipyard was central to a sophisticated government operation for the expeditions to Punt that Ward likened to NASA's space program. She theorized that ships were originally built at a Nile shipyard, then disassembled and carried across 90 miles of desert to the Red Sea, where they were put back together and launched on the voyage.
Upon the fleet's return several months later, the crews unloaded the cargo and began breaking down the ship piece by piece. Shipwrights inspected the vessels and marked unsatisfactory pieces with red paint. Others were cleaned, rid of shipworm and recycled. As many as 3,700 men may have taken part in the expeditions.
"The scale of the organization astounds me," Ward said. "They had men carry kits with pieces 10 feet long and 8 to 12 inches thick across the desert to reassemble into ships on the edge of a sea that is still difficult to sail today. To have the manpower and supply line to equip the shipyard there and sail five or so ships on the Red Sea, and to have the knowledge to use the currents and winds to return safely, would be tough today, and they achieved it without GPS, cell phones or computers, not to mention the combustion engine."
Ward will return to the Wadi Gawasis site next year to continue to excavate and record ship timbers and the ship assembly and break-up process and to reconstruct the vessels as they were originally configured.
By Jill Elish
For digital images of artifacts found at Wadi Gawasis, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.