Ayn Soukhna Archaeological Mission - 2019-ongoing

Dr Claire Somaglino


View of one of the 2019 excavation area, where Middle Kingdom and Old Kingdom layers were excavated. Most of the buildings are leaned against the cliff.

Since its identification in 1999, and the beginning of the excavation in 2001, the site of Ayn Soukhna (northern Gulf of Suez), has proven to be a Pharaonic harbour and logistic platform for the Egyptian expeditions to South Sinai mining area (copper and turquoise) and Punt (southern Red Sea). It was a key feature of the Egyptian network in the Red Sea during Pharaonic times. The site was sporadically but regularly occupied throughout a very long period, from the reign of Khafre during the 4th dynasty (ca. 2470 BC) to the reign of Amenhotep III at the end of the 18th dynasty (1353 BC), the two main peaks of its occupation being the Old Kingdom (ca. 2370-2153 BC) and the early Middle Kingdom (ca. 1950-1910 BC). It displays the now well-known features of Pharaonic Red Sea intermittent harbours: a series of 10 galleries excavated in the mountain to store equipment between two expeditions, as well as a living and operation area, between the galleries and the sea.

The site had a lot of assets, which explains its prolonged use: it is close to Memphis capital city (120 km as the crows fly), established on a site with a spring and a small oasis, in a bay that proved to be a somewhat sheltered anchorage, dominated by mountains that constitute a landmark for the sailors. The foothills of the mountains, where the galleries are dug, are conveniently close to the seashore (about 400m). The discovery of two dismantled charred boats from the early Middle Kingdom in two of the galleries has been, besides all the features mentioned above, one of the significant discoveries on the site. They are amongst the oldest seagoing vessels found in the world.

The excavation is now focused on the settlement in order to gain a better understanding of the logistics of the expeditions, as well as their day-to-day life. Between the foothills of the North-Galala mountains and the Red Sea seashore, it encompasses workshops, dwellings and storehouses, cooking areas and baking facilities, but also the harbour itself (on approximately 300 m E-W for 100 m north-south). The building of a hotel and a road along the coast before the excavation has deprived us of the connection between the site and the sea. Nevertheless, we discovered structures linked to the harbour activities, the most striking being a 17,5m long pit dug in the bedrock, which has the exact shape of the “boat pits” observed near the pyramids in the Memphite region. This is the first time that such a structure has been found in its original setting. Another feature, also of the Old Kingdom, has been excavated more recently (2014-2017) and may be related to harbour activities: two smaller pits, also dug into the bedrock, paralleled by a kind of water pipe (used to reshape the wooden planks before reassembling the boats?). In 2019, we also found an Old Kingdom stele with an expedition account that confirms the key-role played by boats in supplying commodities to the mining teams in South-Sinai during the expedition.

See below for updates from each fieldwork season….

You can also watch a webinar by Dr Somaglino as part of the NAS Under The Water Webinar Series here, or find out more on the project website here.

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