Cedar timbers, rope point to historic Egyptian find

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Molly Murray, The News Journal 11 p.m. EDT November 1, 2014

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DelsaNo one is certain why the Romans abandoned their port city of Berenike along the Red Sea.

It could have been disease, said Steven Sidebotham, a University of Delaware history professor and archaeologist who is studying the site.

"It wasn't sacked or burned or wrecked by an earthquake," he said.

But one thing is clear: where boats use to arrive in port is now high ground.

Sidebotham said that when it rains in the desert, it is a downpour and sand washes across the land. It is likely, he said, that the port simply silted in.

The Romans would have had the technology to dredge it but Sidebotham said it is possible they were losing control over the maritime trade route in the area.

In this hot, dry environment along the Egyptian coast, this once vital city is so well preserved that even cloth woven in the time before and after Jesus' death, survived.

The ancient city is about 500 miles south of the modern Suez Canal. In its heyday, it was a link in an important maritime route between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

"It's clearly a major international port," Sidebotham said. "My interest has always been Roman commerce beyond the empire. What ideas and goods are going back and forth? I'm interested in the global economy 2,000 years ago."

At the site, researchers have signs of trade that stretched from Europe and Africa to Asia. As yet, they have found no sign there was trade with the Chinese, however.

The port was founded by the Egyptians in 275 BC and later taken over by the Romans. It was abandoned by 550 AD, he said.

Sidebotham starting working at the site in 1994 and, over the years, researchers have learned that when the Egyptians founded the port, they imported elephants from farther south.

These animals were then walked west overland, where they were used in the military. Sidebotham likened the role of these elephants to tanks that are used in a modern army.

By the time the Romans arrived, Berenike shifted into a cosmopolitan city, with trade with India, North Africa and Europe, Sidebotham said.

In recent years, the team decided to look at the area where they suspected the old port was centered. There, Sidebotham said, they discovered the timbers from ancient ships and intact ropes.

The beams and ropes are large enough to suggest these were large, ocean-going ships that headed out into the Indian Ocean, he said.

The recovered timbers are cedar. So far, the researchers have found a frame and hull that appear to have been taken apart and stored in a warehouse. They are the first of their kind to be discovered.

Sidebotham said these timbers give historians a look at size and construction techniques used to build ships that sailed the Red Sea in the 1st Century A.D.

And the items found near the ships - frankincense and black pepper – give historians a closer look at the trade that was taking place.

"We weren't really surprised," he said. "But we didn't know the details."

Berenike has already yielded historians with a treasure trove of information about the economics, the politics and the social structure of the time period.

For instance, the researchers have found burial sites for pets – a site that includes the remains of a pet monkey, an animal that would have been imported from someplace else, he said.

And like most ancient sites, the garbage pits yield valuable information on the tools and foods people depended on.

"There is some food that clearly, Roman's wouldn't have eaten," he said. For instance, rice, which was found at the site, would not have been part of the Roman diet.

It may have been brought to Berenike by people from India or Sri Lanka, he sad.

The site is so well preserved that the team has even found records of the people who lived, worked and did business there, he said.

"We found a large number of documents in those trash dumps," he said.

Researchers believe the citizens in the town got fresh drinking water from wells five miles away. Those wells would have been guarded by small forts, Sidebotham said.

"They did grow some of their own food, but most of it was brought in from the Nile Valley," he said.

Even now, the site is remote and all supplies have to be brought in, Sidebotham said.

When Sidebotham and the team visit the site this winter, they hope to uncover additional pieces of ships in their dig of the port area.

"We need more timbers," he said, "to have a better idea of the framing and to reconstruct the size."

Contact Molly Murray at 463-3334 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow her on Twitter @MollyMurraytnj