Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ancient Navigators: Report on Wadi Gawasis Ship

NOVA hosts a special on "Pharaoh's Ship" (about Wadi Gawasis) tonight on PBS - hopefully it will run again. Sailing into antiquity BU archeologist unearths clues about ancient Egypt’s sea trade By Colin Nickerson Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2010 The archeological digs at Egypt’s Wadi Gawasis have yielded neither mummies nor grand monuments. But Boston University archeologist Kathryn Bard and her colleagues are uncovering the oldest remnants of seagoing ships and other relics linked to exotic trade with a mysterious Red Sea realm called Punt. “They were the space launches of their time,’’ Bard said of the epic missions to procure wondrous wares. Although Nile River craft are well-known, the ability of ancient Egyptian mariners to ply hundreds of miles of open seas in cargo craft was not so fully documented. Then the team led by Bard and an Italian archeologist, Rodolfo Fattovich, started uncovering maritime storerooms in 2004, putting hard timber and rugged rigging to the notion of pharaonic deepwater prowess. In the most recent discovery, on Dec. 29, they located the eighth in a series of lost chambers at Wadi Gawasis after shoveling through cubic meters of rock rubble and wind-blown sand. Only a few days earlier, Bard had been grading term papers in chilly Boston; now, with flashlight and trowel, she was probing a musty manmade cavern, one that might date back more than 4,000 years. “When the last layer of sand was removed, stale, fetid air rushed from a crack,’’ Bard said by mobile phone from the dig site, a dried-out water course beside the Red Sea. The reconnaissance of the room and its relics will take time and caution. The chamber’s most likely contents include ship parts, jugs, trenchers, and workaday linens, as well as hieroglyphic records. “It’s a storeroom, not a royal tomb,’’ Bard stressed. However prosaic they seem, the finds at Wadi Gawasis - including the ancestor of the modern package label - really speak of the glitter, gold, and glory of a long-ago civilization that bewitches us still. The remote desert site at the sea’s edge was established solely to satisfy the cravings of Egypt’s rulers for the luxury goods of faraway Punt: ebony, ivory, obsidian, frankincense, precious metals, slaves, and strange beasts, such as dog-faced baboons and giraffes. Starting in the middle of the last decade, the Bard-Fattovich team grabbed the attention of nautical archeologists with the unearthing of ship timbers, limestone anchors, steering oars, and hanks of marine rope. The precisely beveled deck beams, hull planks, and copper fittings belong to the oldest deep sea vessels ever found, dating back at least 3,800 years. The craft appear to have been up to 70 feet long, powered by rowers and sail and capable of navigating deep seas. “This is exciting stuff, important,’’ said Shelley Wachsmann, a top authority on Bronze Age ships at Texas A&M University’s Institute of Nautical Archaeology. He is not directly involved with Bard’s research. “She’s found the first fragments of an ancient Egyptian seagoing vessel - a ship that actually sailed in pharaonic times,’’ Wachsmann said. Now the privately funded work at Wadi Gawasis - and at the nearby port ruins, known as Mersa - is winning wider attention. This month, Cairo’s Egyptian Museum will open a special exhibition, “Mersa/Wadi Gawasis: A Pharaonic Harbor on the Red Sea,’’ featuring, among other things, cargo seals, voyage accounts, and a shipping crate marked in hieroglyphic text: “Wonderful Things of Punt.’’ Said Rosanna Pirelli, curator of the exhibition: “This is an important scientific event, since the [discoveries] show a more advanced maritime technology’’ in ancient Egypt. Meanwhile, the PBS science series NOVA tomorrow will broadcast “Building Pharaoh’s Ship,’’ a documentary detailing the reconstruction of a Wadi Gawasis vessel by archeologist Cheryl Ward of Coastal Carolina University. The film airs in Boston on WGBH (Channel 2) at 8 p.m. The journeys upon the “Great Green’’ - as one hieroglyph-inscribed tablet found at Wadi Gawasis refers to the sea - involved fantastical feats of organization, navigational skill, and daring. Overland trade between Egypt and Punt dates to the third millennium BC. But by 1950 BC, the rival Kingdom of Kush had cut off traditional desert routes, forcing Egypt to find a new passage. Egypt’s eastern coast - then as now - was too parched to sustain a full-time port and shipbuilding center. So, using timber hewn from the mountains of Lebanon, Egyptian shipwrights built big vessels on the banks of the Nile, near modern Qift, according to archaeology-based theory. “These were then disassembled and transported, with all other supplies, over the desert by donkey, a journey of 10 days’’ to reach Wadi Gawasis, Bard said. The site adjoined a lagoon, in which a port was built. The ship parts were marked and rebuilt by number or color code. The lagoon has long since been swallowed by sand, but satellite images hint at the remains of a slipway or dock. Sea voyages to Punt would have been so costly and required such a massive logistical effort - probably involving thousands of workers, scribes, quartermasters, sailors, and pack animals - that they probably were launched only a few times per century. Punt’s whereabouts remain a mystery. Scholars can’t even pin the realm to a continent. Bard places it on the Horn of Africa, in the region of present-day Eritrea and parts of Sudan and Somalia. Other researchers put it on the Red Sea’s Asian shore, in today’s Yemen. Voyages from the port appear to have been suspended for two or three centuries because of political instability. There is evidence that Queen Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh, dispatched a last sea mission to Punt around 1480 BC, partly to obtain “mortuary incense.’’ Wadi Gawasis held its secrets for millennia. Then, on Christmas Day 2004 - Bard’s second season of exploring the site - she thrust her hand into an odd hole in a cliff’s wall. She was thrilled to feel nothing: the indication of a larger space beyond. Removal of rock rubble revealed a room containing a mud brick, some beads, and a grinding stone. Antiquities, sure, but Egypt’s sands are littered with such millennia-old shards and scraps. Instinct, however, told the professor from Boston that the sun-scorched slopes concealed more than broken pots and earthenware adornments. “It just felt like we were on to something,’’ Bard said. Within days, the team had uncovered another human-hewn cavern - this one connecting to a series of underground storage rooms. Here were ships’ timbers. Here were sea anchors. Here were bundles of intact nautical rope. Here was a tantalizing tale of ancient seafaring. “The rope was neatly stored, coiled, and knotted, exactly as some sailor left it,’’ Bard said. “It was a moment perfectly frozen in time for 3,800 years.’’ © Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this...!!

All the ancient Egyptian religious texts show deep foreshadowing of this discovery. Their view is somewhat thaumaturgic - but those mystical ideas could not exist without the hard goods required to relate them to Punt and similar expeditions of an interior kind. The ship and sailing metaphor repeats often enough in chess to assume a powerful Egyptian connection - although it is claimed that indian and Persian seafaring were also very advanced during ancient times. If the Chinese had not burned so many books, we might find another means of approach... and Dilmun was a nice destination for one and all...

Jan said...

Thanks for your post Anon 1/13/10 at 12:437 p.m.

I have been fascinated by ancient navigators for over 30 years. I'm not sure if this is synchronicity, but today I'm once again shoving the bookshelves around in the family room, trying to achieve a satisfactory balance between what I consider comfortable and what real estate agents consider "uncluttered." Impossible to do with the amount of books I have but I'm trying, anyway :) I just finished touching up the faux marble or tortoise shell finish (depending upon your point of view) on those old cheapo bookshelves and while I'm waiting for the paint to dry I'm once again dusting my beloved books. Each one is special in its own way because at one time I spent money to buy each and every one! I'm now picking out my favorite titles - books I remember even after 30 years - and they will all go on a couple of reserved shelves along with all of the Goddess books and history books (chess books are upstairs in the den). One of those special books is "The Navigator" by Morris West. Does anyone remember Morris West? He was a best selling author specializing in historical fiction - he wrote "The Shoes of the Fisherman" about St. Peter which was made into a movie with, I believe, Michael Rennie starring as Peter himself.

I wrote my name and a date "1/3/77" on the front inside face sheet of "The Navigator." The book was copyrighted in 1976. I've been on this twisting, winding never-ending road (and I didn't even know when I started that I was on a road!) for a long, long time.

I don't know if it's hard-wired into the human genome, but we sure are fascinated by stories of adventure and exploring - the rivers, the oceans, new continents, then - the continents themselves (Africa, Australia, the islands in the Pacific, Antartica, the Arctic, South and North America, the North Pole, the South Pole), or finding new worlds to explore in outer-space or the bottom of the oceans, or journeys to the "center of the earth."

You are absolutely correct in noting the use of ship/sailing metaphors in chess, even down to the ship/boat noted by H.J.R. Murray in a version of chess which I assume is from northwest India. I have certainly noted the importance of water in many ancient and not-so-ancient board games - one of these days I'll get around to finishing that article and publishing it at Goddesschess.

Contact - and trade - were the glue that held the earliest peoples together. They needed each other in so many ways. Wish we could realize today that we still all need each other, despite our differences. Gavin Menzies, who wrote "1421 - the Year China Discovered America" and the hero in West's "The Navigator" have a lot in common, methinks.

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