10/17/2011 03:41 pm ET

Secrets Of An Ancient Harbor

You know, for an archeology major, I've realized that I haven't written much about archeology in my blog yet.

And that's because, while I've been able to indulge my interest in astronomy and space with the Astronomical Society, SEDS, and the AIAA, most of my archeological experience at Boston University so far has been confined to my classes. (Not that I really expected to be going on digs just a month after arriving on campus. I know that's not how it works.)

However, on Wednesday night, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Professor Kathryn Bard about her excavations in Egypt. Like almost anyone with any interest in history at all, I've always found Egyptology fascinating, even before I wanted to be an archeologist at all. (Ever since I first read Zilpha Keatley Snyder's amazing book The Egypt Game in second grade.)

Since 2003, Professor Bard has been excavating at Mersa Gawasis on the Red Sea, the site of an ancient harbor. It was from this site, experts believed, that the pharaohs had launched their trading expeditions to the mysterious land of Punt (POO-nt).

The ancient Egyptians referred to Punt as "God's Land," a source of valuable materials like incense, gold, ivory, and ebony. Rhinoceroses, baboons, and giraffes -- animals that were exotic to the Egyptians -- were also brought back from Punt and displayed in the royal zoo. Egyptologists now think Punt was located in today's Sudan and Eritrea.

Professor Bard's excavations revealed that the harbor at Mersa Gawasis, which the Egyptians called Saww, was never permanently inhabited in ancient times, as there was no nearby source of fresh water. Instead, when an expedition set out, a whole caravan traveled across the desert carrying laborers, sailors, supervising scribes, supplies, and disassembled sailing ships.

At Saww, the ships were rebuilt and launched on ramps of carved stone that Professor Bard's team has discovered. The harbor was then abandoned until the ships were due to come home. Because the area was so inhospitable and the journey to Punt so long, the harbor was probably only used for at most 15 expeditions over the course of 200 years.

Even though Saww wasn't the site of a permanent town or city, the pharaonic laborers did indeed leave signs of their presence -- several artificial caves were dug into the cliff faces along the harbor and used for storage, stelae (monumental tablets) commemorating the expeditions were carved into the rock outside, and religious shrines were constructed where sailors made offerings before the beginning of a voyage. The archeologists even discovered the remains of the food preparation areas, with large clay jars, bread molds, fire pits, and piles of fish bones.

But what I found most fascinating of all were fragments of pottery found at the site that were very clearly not Egyptian. They came from another ancient civilization -- the Minoan culture that existed on the island of Crete at the same time as the expeditions to Punt.

Were they pieces that Egyptian sailors had brought back from voyages to Crete? Or did the Egyptians hire Minoan sailors for the expeditions? What fascinates me the most about archeology is that in the process of answering older questions about the past, we're always finding new mysteries and possibilities to investigate.