Exhibition: Seafaring Expeditions to Punt

Nevine El-Aref , Monday 24 Jan 2011

A photo exhibition marking ten years of American-Italian excavations at Mersa Gawasis ancient Egyptian harbor opens today

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At the entrance hall of the Supreme Council of Antiquities' (SCA) premises in Zamalek, a dozen of journalists, photographers and TV anchors gathered as well as archeologists and top governmental officials trying to have a glimpse of the “Seafaring Expeditions to Punt” exhibition.

The exhibition displays eighteen posters showing the treasured collection unearthed at Mersa Gawasis ancient Egyptian harbor, 23 kilometers south of Port Safaga, in the last ten years.

There is a collection of ropes of different sizes and cedar wooden beams used in the construction of ships. There are stone anchors, shreds of clay vessels derived from ancient Sudan and seals inscribed with the name of punt and stele.

“It is a very important discovery considered as the direct clear evidence that the ancient Egyptians had seafaring across the Red Sea and travel to punt where they imported ebony, incense, gold, ebony, ivory, leopard skins and the frankincense necessary for religious rituals,” Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples “L'Orientale” told Ahram Online. He explains that such discoveries also abort a long-held belief that the Ancient Egyptians did not tend to travel long distances by sea because of poor naval technology.

Fattovich continued that all these artifacts were found in rock cut caves, which were probably used as storage galleries from the Middle Kingdom to the early New Kingdom eras.

The most significant artifacts that highlighted such a site have been discovered at Mersa Gawasis ancient harbor in 2004, three years following extensive excavations carried out by the Italian American Mission.

What triggered Fattovich and his colleague Kathryn A. Bard from Boston University to work at the Marsa Gawasis site was their quest to solve the enigma of an African civilization. During the 1990s, both archeologists had conducted a 10- year excavation near Aksum, Ethiopia, where they found evidence of a previously unknown period in African history. However when war broke out along the Eritrean border in 1998, they decided to relocate to the Egyptian coast. The team first went to Marsa Gawasis in 2001 to investigate, as they describe it, “the other end of the Red Sea trade.”

Fattovich selected the site because Egyptian archeologist Abdel-Moneim Sayed from Alexandria University had identified it in the 1970s as the likely location of the ancient seaport of Saaw, known from texts as the departure point for expeditions to Punt.

Among the objects also found were a number of well-preserved ships’ planks and their fastenings. “The presence of extensive damage to the planks by marine worms or borers provides irrefutable evidence of seafaring,” said Fattovich. He pointed out that studies carried out on these ships’ timbers indicated that it has been reused in ramps and walkways, but many were significantly reworked.

“The site is completely excavated and I don’t think that it will provide more new information of the ancient Egyptians’ seafaring,” Fattovich told Ahram Online. He confirmed that more excavations will uncover more ropes, riggings, ships’ planks as well as clay vessels. But, he continued, the next mission of the team is to explore the desert in order to uncover the roads used by the ancient Egyptians to travel across the desert from the Nile Valley to reach Mersa Gawasis.

The photo exhibition will be transferred to the Egyptian museum in Tahrir in order to provide tourists with more information about the ancient Egyptians’ seafaring life.

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