Ayn Sukhna Archaeological Mission - ongoing
Dr Claire Somaglino
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….
The excavation work in Ayn Sukhna since 2012 entirely focused on the lower part of the site, where commodities for dwelling, storage, preparation of food, as well as artisanal activities are found. All the remains are dated to the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. A few features there are also linked to the harbour activities, even if the connection between the site and the seashore, some 200m away, is lost because of the building of a road and a hotel. For instance, there is a 17,5m long pit dug in the bedrock, and whose shape is the same as the “boat pits” observed near the pyramids in the Memphite region. Another Old Kingdom feature has been excavated more recently, and may be related to harbour activities: two smaller pits, also dug into the bedrock, paralleled by a kind of water pipe.
In 2019 we continued the excavation of parts of the lower area. Our goal is to enhance the understanding of the logistics of Egyptian expeditions to South-Sinai and Punt, and of their day-to-day life.We resumed our work in area S6-South and K14-W and were able to find new Old Kingdom layers, mainly artisanal area (an area for food production, especially bread, another for the sealing of jars with clay jar stoppers).
We also made there two very important finds. First a few shards of an imported pottery, particularly a fragment of the rim. They belong to the same pot as the imported shards we found two years ago about 15m away, and may well be from the Southern Red Sea, whose cultures during this period are very poorly known. We also found, reemployed in Middle Kingdom building, an Old Kingdom stele. It is the first document of this type found in the lower part of the site (inscriptions were all found around or in the storage galleries in the upper part). This stele, made in local sandstone, belongs to the scribe Senenidu, who is known otherwise by other rock inscriptions from South-Sinai, and maybe by another fragmentary document in Ayn Sukhna. He was engaged in an expedition during the reign of king Djedkara-Isesi, at the end of the 5th dynasty. As in wadi Maghara, Senenidu is featured here with his wife – whose title and name are given – and his son. On the left part, an expedition account is painted in red. The text confirms the key-role played by boats in supplying commodities to the mining teams in South-Sinai.
We also managed to remove the huge heaps of debris located on the north of Kom 14, near the Old Kingdom « boat pit ». A first test pit was made in this new area that showed the presence of both Old and Middle Kingdom layers. We hope to begin an extensive excavation there during the next season.
At last, we continued the excavation of layers from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, in particular, some copper workshop. This allows us to refine our understanding of the copper « chaîne opératoire ». Ayn Sukhna is also a unique site on this point of view for the Middle Kingdom.
The 2019 expedition allowed us to enhance our knowledge of the older phase of occupation in Ayn Sukhna, as we continued the excavation of several Old Kingdom layers in the lower zone of the site. We discovered more artisanal areas, dedicated chiefly to food production, as well as important artefacts from this period. Notably, a few shards of a ceramic that, we suggest, was imported from the Southern Red Sea, as well as a 5th dynasty stele. This monument belonged to the member of an expedition under the reign of king Djedkara-Isesi. It bears, in fainted hieratic, a rare account of an expedition, which confirms the boat rotation system set to supply the Egyptian miners in South-Sinai.
We also carried on the excavation of Middle Kingdom layers, with the discovery of a new copper workshop and its surroundings. Its analysis allowed our archeometallurgists team to find new details about the chaîne opératoire, in particular, about the exact processing of the product from the redox furnaces. In the same area, we cleaned a rare mud-brick structure (the vast majority of the buildings are made in dry stone). We hope to excavate it next year to discover its function.
At last, a new zone was cleared of debris to launch the next phase of the excavation. The first test pit we made there showed the potential of this area, with layers from both the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. We very much hope to find there new structures linked with the harbour facilities.
The ongoing excavation of the harbour of Ayn Sukhna contribute to the enhancement of our understanding of the logistics of the Egyptian expeditions to South-Sinai mining area mainly, but also to Punt, during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. We discover every year more indications about the organisation of the supply system, the way the food was cooked on-site, the copper metallurgy at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, etc. Moreover, the newly discovered imported pottery gives precious indications to ascertain the links between Ayn Sukhna and the Southern Red Sea during the Old Kingdom. The stele of Senenidu is another exceptional discovery to understand the involvement of the Egyptian missions in the Red Sea during the 5th dynasty and the prestigious reign of Djedkara-Isesi.
We plan to continue the excavation of the lower part of the site, in particular, the areas where we identified both Old and Middle Kingdoms remains, as they enlighten the beginning of the Egyptian settlement in Ayn Sukhna.
We also plan to excavate the vast area cleared of debris in 2019, and which is located to the north of the Old Kingdom “boat pit”. This new phase of the excavation will provide a better understanding of that unique feature, and maybe allows us to find other features linked to the harbour activity.