Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Ancient Egyptians Were Seafaring

Archaeologists from Italy, the United States, and Egypt excavating a dried-up lagoon known as Mersa Gawasis have unearthed traces of an ancient harbor that once launched early voyages like Hatshepsut’s onto the open ocean. Some of the site’s most evocative evidence for the ancient Egyptians’ seafaring prowess is concealed behind a modern steel door set into a cliff just 700 feet or so from the Red Sea shore. Inside is a man-made cave about 70 feet deep. Lightbulbs powered by a gas generator thrumming just outside illuminate pockets of work: Here, an excavator carefully brushes sand and debris away from a 3,800-year-old reed mat; there, conservation experts photograph wood planks, chemically preserve them, and wrap them for storage.

4000 year Egyptian ship plank
Toward the back, a padlocked plywood door seals off an adjacent cave. As soon as the door is unlocked, a sweet, heavy, grassy smell like that of old hay wafts out, filling the area with the scent of thousands of years of decay. In the thin beam of a headlamp, one can make out stacked coils of rope the color of dark chocolate receding into the darkness of the long, narrow cave. Some of the bundles are as thick as a man’s chest, and the largest may hold up to 100 feet of rope.

4000 year Egyptian rope coils

The rope is woven from papyrus, a clue that it may have come from the Nile Valley, where the paperlike material was common. Archaeologists found it neatly, professionally coiled and stacked, presumably by ancient mariners just before they left the shelter of the cave for the last time.

Boston University archaeologist Kathryn Bard and an international team have uncovered six other caves at Mersa Gawasis. The evidence they have found, including the remains of the oldest seagoing ships ever discovered, offers hard proof of the Egyptians’ nautical roots and important clues to the location of Punt. “These new finds remove all doubt that you reach Punt by sea,” Baines says. “The Egyptians must have had considerable seagoing experience.”

1400 B.C. Egyptian merchant ship
The Egyptian ships were also unique in that they were held together with mortise-and-tenon joints, tab-and-slot fittings that needed no metal fasteners and could be taken apart and put back together again. For added strength, the individual timbers were carved with curves that nested into adjacent parts, a little like puzzle pieces. “From the very beginning, the Egyptians were building boats that could be disassembled, and that makes them different from anyone else,” Ward says. “They were using the shapes of the planks to lock each of the pieces into place.”

Read the full article here.

Related reading: Ancient Egyptian Sea Power and the Origin of Maritime Forces; 4500 Year Harbor at Wadi al-Jarf

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