The Archaeology Fund

Egypt and Punt




South Arabia

Myths and Legends

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 Stories/Myths originating about lands to the south of Egypt along the Red Sea most likely began by late Predynastic times (ca. 3500 B.C.) since we have excavated Red Sea goods (coral, shell, obsidian, incense, and lapis lazuli) in Upper Egyptian Pre-Dynastic tombs. Predynastic ship depictions along traditional Upper Egyptian Eastern Desert routes from the Nile to the Red Sea support such an idea. The actual hieroglyphic mention of Punt/Pwenet also known as “God’s Land” however begins in the Fifth Dynasty (ca. 2250 B.C. Sahure) and remains a popular concept throughout Pharaonic Egypt. Scholars have long debated the location of “Punt” and most authorities now suggest a southern Red Horn of Africa location. Goods however which were traded/sold through Red Sea emporia must have not only come from both sides of the Red Sea but even further afield as was the case in Classical period accounts of Red Sea trade.

 Zatshepsut’s funerary monument in Upper Egypt at Deir el Bahri records her expedition to Punt and the large number of scenes depict her ships arriving, being received by local dignitaries, goods being loaded on shipboard and departure. Note the artists’ rendition of Red Sea life including fish, rays, lobsters, cuttlefish etc. The local people are shown living in round houses set on stilts. Its possible that a seaport such as Adulis was being depicted. Thutmosis III account of gifts such as incense being received mentions Red Sea middlemen (GNBTYW) facilitating the trade. This term hase been interpreted as an early form of the Classical Qatabanians from southern Arabia. A M.K. inscription from Wadi Hammamat itself called the Henu inscription describes preparations for sailing south. More recently, actual remains of M.K. preparations for sailing to Punt were found just south of Safaga. These included textual fragments and a number of anchors inscribed with dedications from returning voyagers

 The most popular account of Red Sea trade belongs to a Middle Kingdom story called “The Shipwrecked Sailor”. Our tale begins with 120 men on a 200ft. vessel. A huge storm arises and all but one of the men drown. Our hero is shipwrecked on a desert island rich in food when suddenly a 50 foot serpent appears. The magnificent creature with a beard and lapis lazuli eyebrows tells our hero that he will spend four months on the island. The snake, ruler of Punt, recounts all manner of incense, oils, and exotic goods coming from the region. Once the Egyptian ship arrives the snake on loads oils, perfumes, spices, ivory, giraffe tails, frankincense, myrrh, indigo?, dogs and apes. Our hero departs for home on a two month journey. ((see Erman, A. ZAS 43 (l906) 1-26; Blackmn, 1932 MK stiroes, Gardiner, ZAS 45 (l908). Miriam accunt recent. This tale mirrors the archaeological, inscriptional, and artistic evidence outlined above. Where was the sailor shipwrecked? Virtually no islands in the Red Sea have been investigated archaeologically. Our work on the Farasan Islands documented Bronze Age middens perhaps as part of the larger Subr-Sihi complex now known from the Southern Red Sea. The adjoining Dahlac islands have also been cursorily examined but little is known of Bronze Age materials.

Several different styles of Pre-Dynastic ships are shown in the eastern desert drawings. Some have high prows and others are more "sickle-shaped". The old names attached to these various ship types as styles or different peoples can now be rejected in favor of the idea that various Bronze Age peoples of the Red Sea conducted a lively trade with Egypt and her neighbors.

The location of Punt is a popular topic for scholars and lay people alike. Here, K.A. Kitchen suggests that Punt lay primarily in Sudan.

The large scene of the Punt expedition illustrates the goods being brought to the ships, the ships being loaded and being readied for departure. (see the details above).

Mariette in 1876 was the first to locate and publish the Punt Expedition reliefs. While many of the details are sketchy, the over-all depiction from this first exposure is excellent.

A series of dedicatory anchors were excavated at this Middle kingdom seaport near Safaga upon the safe return of the expedition to Punt.

The Bronze Age culture of the southern Red Sea can now be labeled the Subr/Sabir culture after the largest and most complex such site discovered to date just north of Aden. The latest sites discovered to date link the Tihama north of Sihi to Aden. Subr materials are also known from the Farasan and Dahlac Island? groups. Deep soundings at Adulis may contain related materials. Future research which may reveal the full extent of the Subr culture now sheds light on the land the Egyptians called Punt.

The ceramic corpus from Subr known already from the earlier surveys of Gus van Beek, can be matched with finds from Al Midaman and Sihi. Note the comb decoration, various lug attachments, and bases, all characteristic of the Bronze Age.