On Christmas Day last year, Kathryn Bard got an unusual gift.
Working with her colleagues to remove sand from a hillside along Egypt's Red Sea coast, the Boston University archaeologist poked through a small opening that had appeared and felt ... nothing. She had reached into the entrance to a human-made cave in which sailors stored their gear as many as 4,000 years ago.
Two days later, Bard's team found a larger cave nearby. The same ancient seafarers used this one, she and her colleagues surmised, as a temple or shrine.
These and other discoveries at what was once a port known as Mersa Gawasis offer an unprecedented look at the earliest known sea expeditions conducted for pharaohs. Egyptian archaeologist Abdel Monem Sayed first explored this site 30 years ago, but he didn't report any signs of chambers.
"We know of no other Egyptian ports from this time," Bard says. "Finding these mariners' caves was a big surprise."
Bard and her team's coleader, Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples in Italy, described their finds last week at the annual meeting, held in Cambridge, Mass., of the Cairo-based American Research Center in Egypt.
The larger cave began as a natural cavity that ancient excavators expanded, Bard says. The cave entrance was reinforced with stone ship-anchors, stone blocks, cedar beams from a sea vessel, and mud bricks.
A rope bag, a grinding stone and grinder, and a wooden bowl rested just inside the cave. Beyond them lay two wooden steering oars from a ship, the first complete parts of an ancient Egyptian ship ever recovered. …