An ancient harbor on the Red Sea proves ancient Egyptians mastered oceangoing technology and launched a series of ambitious expeditions to far-off lands.
The scenes carved into a wall of the ancient Egyptian temple at Deir el-Bahri tell of a remarkable sea voyage. A fleet of cargo ships bearing exotic plants, animals, and precious incense navigates through high-crested waves on a journey from a mysterious land known as Punt or “the Land of God.” The carvings were commissioned by Hatshepsut, ancient Egypt’s greatest female pharaoh, who controlled Egypt for more than two decades in the 15th century B.C. She ruled some 2 million people and oversaw one of most powerful empires of the ancient world.
The exact meaning of the detailed carvings has divided Egyptologists ever since they were discovered in the mid-19th century. “Some people have argued that Punt was inland and not on the sea, or a fictitious place altogether,” Oxford Egyptologist John Baines says. Recently, however, a series of remarkable discoveries on a desolate stretch of the Red Sea coast has settled the debate, proving once and for all that the masterful building skills of the ancient Egyptians applied to oceangoing ships as well as to pyramids.
While the windfall of Mersa Gawasis artifacts has answered some questions, it has raised others. For instance, how did the expeditions to Punt actually work, and how did the Egyptians construct vessels that could make a round-trip voyage of up to 2,000 miles?
"From the very beginning, the Egyptians were building boats that could be disassembled, and that makes them different from anyone else. They were using the shapes of the planks to lock each of the pieces into place."
Squatting in the humid heat of one of the Mersa Gawasis caves, Cheryl Ward unwraps a huge chunk of cedar as thick as a cinder block. Salt crystals on the wood glitter in the light of her headlamp. Ward turns the block in her hands and explains that it was once part of a plank from a ship’s hull. From its width and curvature, she estimates the original ship would have been almost 100 feet long. “The size and magnitude of this piece are larger than anything we have for any [other] Egyptian ship, anywhere,” she says.
Ward, a maritime archaeologist at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, spent three years building a full-scale reconstruction of a ship that would have docked in the lagoon of Mersa Gawasis. Ward has determined that unlike modern vessels, which are built around a strong internal frame, the Egyptian ship was essentially one giant hull. The curious construction meant that the craft required much larger timbers for strength. The wood was also cut thicker, with enough extra width to compensate for damage by shipworms. Some of the ship parts preserved in the Mersa Gawasis caves are more than a foot thick. “One of the features of Egyptian architecture is overbuilding,” Ward says. “You can see similar safety features in the construction of these ships.” Ward’s archaeological experiment needed 60 tons of Douglas fir as a stand-in for the Lebanese cedar used by the ancient Egyptians.
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.”
Mr David Lambert is an expert in rock art and in 2001 was the Rock Art Conservator of the Cultural Heritage Division of the NPWS. In 1983 he visited the site and saw the engravings freshly cut into the rock. The inside of each carving consisted of clean white sandstone with no evidence of organic or surface lichen growth, indicating the carvings were less than 12 months old. Pictures taken in 1983/1984 by the NPWS show the fresh cut rock and the spalling around the edges of the engravings indicating very recent carving. By contrast, the many genuine Aboriginal carvings in the area are much more rounded and smooth. Most of the Aboriginal carvings in this area have been dated to between 200 and 250 years old.
Photographs of the hieroglyphs taken in 1983 were sent to Prof. Nageeb Kanawati, head of the Department of Egyptology at Macquarie University, Sydney. Part of his reply to the NPWS reads: "I examined [the photographs] and think that the engravings are the work of someone who perhaps visited Egypt or saw some postcards of Egyptian monuments and wished to have some graffiti of what he saw. It is true that most of the signs are Egyptian, and two names of kings may be recognized, but the whole thing does not make sense at all. Simply a decorative graffiti using Egyptian signs."
In 1969 and 1970, Heyerdahl built two boats from papyrus and attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco in Africa. Based on drawings and models from ancient Egypt, the first boat, named Ra (after the Egyptian Sun god), was constructed by boat builders from Lake Chad using papyrus reed obtained from Lake Tana in Ethiopia and launched into the Atlantic Ocean from the coast of Morocco. After a number of weeks, Ra took on water after its crew made modifications to the vessel that caused it to sag and break apart. The ship was abandoned and the following year, another similar vessel, Ra II, was built of totora by Demetrio, Juan and Jose Limachi from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and likewise set sail across the Atlantic from Morocco, this time with great success. The boat reached Barbados, thus demonstrating that mariners could have dealt with trans-Atlantic voyages by sailing with the Canary Current.
The book The Ra Expeditions and the film documentary Ra (1972) were made about the voyages. Apart from the primary aspects of the expedition, Heyerdahl deliberately selected a crew representing a great diversity in race, nationality, religion and political viewpoint in order to demonstrate that at least on their own little floating island, people could cooperate and live peacefully. Additionally, the expedition took samples of marine pollution and presented their report to the United Nations.
Egyptian coca and tobacco
]Traces of coca and nicotine found in some Egyptian mummies have led some to speculate that Ancient Egyptians may have traveled to the New World. The initial discovery was made by a German toxicologist, Svetlana Balabanova, after examining the mummy of a female priestess called Henut Taui. Follow-up tests of the hair shaft, performed to rule out contamination, gave the same results. The significance of these finds lies in the fact that both coca and tobacco plants are indigenous to the Americas and thought not to have existed in Africa until sometime after the voyages of Columbus. Subsequent examination of numerous Sudanese mummies undertaken by Balabanova mirrored what was found in the mummy of Henut Taui. Balabanova suggested that the tobacco may be accounted for since it may have also been known in China and Europe, as indicated by analysis run on human remains from those respective regions. Balabanova proposed that such plants native to the general area may have developed independently, but have since gone extinct. Other explanations include fraud, though curator Alfred Grimm of the Egyptian Museum in Munich disputes this. Skeptical of Balabanova's findings, Rosalie David, Keeper of Egyptology at the Manchester Museum, had similar tests performed on samples taken from the Manchester mummy collection and reported that two of the tissue samples and one hair sample did test positive for nicotine. Sources of nicotine other than tobacco and sources of coc aine in the Old World are discussed by the British biologist Duncan Edlin. Mainstream scholars remain skeptical, and do not see this as proof of ancient contact between Africa and the Americas, especially as there may be possible Old World sources. Two attempts to replicate Balbanova's finds of coc aine failed, suggesting "that either Balabanova and her associates are misinterpreting their results or that the samples of mummies tested by them have been mysteriously exposed to coc aine." A re-examination in the 1970s of the mummy of Ramesses II revealed the presence of fragments of tobacco leaves in its abdomen. This became a popular topic in fringe literature and the media and was seen as proof of contact between Ancient Egypt and the New World. The investigator, Maurice Bucaille, noted that when the mummy was unwrapped in 1886 the abdomen was left open and that "it was no longer possible to attach any importance to the presence inside the abdominal cavity of whatever material was found there, since the material could have come from the surrounding environment." Following the renewed discussion of tobacco sparked by Balabnova's research and its mention in a 2000 publication by Rosalie David, a study in the journal Antiquity suggested that reports on both tobacco and coc aine in mummies "ignored their post-excavation histories" and pointed out that the mummy of Ramesses II had been moved five times between 1883 and 1975.
Originally posted by Kandinsky
The article guys read like Punt's a mystery and we never knew about Egyptian boat-building.
I enjoyed seeing the image in your OP - that's a new one to me.
but ya know what they say it was just contamination.