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Temple columns in Karnak, Egypt, where Kathryn Bard ’68 did her first excavation work in graduate school in the early 1970s.
Harbor of Pharaohs
Archaeologist Kathryn Bard ’68 discusses a decade of discoveries in Egypt—and the mystery of Punt.
By Melissa Babcock Johnson
ore than 60 years ago, a child from Park Ridge, Illinois, visited the Egyptian collection in Chicago’s Field Museum. Her eyes landed on a small glazed ceramic amulet of a cat with two kittens. The object filled her with what would become a lifelong wonder about ancient Egypt.
That girl grew up to be Kathryn Bard ’68, an archaeologist who has co-directed two major excavations in Africa spanning about a decade each. In Aksum, Ethiopia, between 1993 and 2002, her team explored a number of sites that revealed artifacts dating to the late first millennium B.C. through the first millennium A.D., including the remains of two palace complexes and elite tombs. One tomb contained fragments of a Roman wine jar that had been imported from a vineyard in southern France.
Later, between 2001 and 2011, Bard and company switched to the other end of the Red Sea, this time excavating in Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt, at the site of a 4,000-year-old harbor, called Saww in ancient times, from where ships set sail for a land called Punt (pronounced “poont”). Bard calls it “the most fascinating project that I’ve ever worked on.”
According to ancient texts—hieroglyphs carved in stone—Punt was a prominent trading partner with Egypt for more than 1,000 years. The excavations by Bard and her team in Mersa/Wadi Gawasis yielded parts of some of the oldest seagoing ships ever found, and clear evidence that the ancient Egyptians had sparked the ongoing evolution of sea travel.
Within and outside of several human-made caves the team discovered, they excavated ancient ship timbers and riggings, well preserved food, expedition equipment, carved artifacts with hieroglyphic inscriptions about the expeditions, and materials and artifacts from Punt. Two cargo boxes were inscribed with “The wonderful things of Punt” and descriptions of their contents.
Bard says the marvels unearthed “just blew my mind. I’ve never seen evidence like we recovered there anywhere. It changed what people know about ancient Egypt.”
Sail Like an Egyptian
Bard’s first excavation in grad school took place at an ancient Egyptian temple site at Karnak.
“They were looking for the foundations of four temples that were built there by a heretical king named Akhenaten,” she recalls. “He was the husband of Nefertiti and father of Tutankhamen. And we found the evidence of these temples, the foundations of these temples, which were dismantled after he died.”
When most people imagine the land of pyramids, Sphinx, Cleopatra and King Tut, they think of the desert, and maybe the Nile River. But Egypt, at the northeast corner of Africa, touches two seas—the Mediterranean and the Red. Beginning in Lake Victoria in Uganda, the White Nile flows north and joins the Blue Nile at Khartoum in Sudan. From Khartoum, the River Nile flows north to the Mediterranean, with a combined length northward of 4,130 miles.
“Most of how people think of ancient Egypt is centered on the Nile, with ships going internally up and down the Nile,” Bard says. “But from 3,000 B.C. onward, the Egyptians were sending ships north in the Mediterranean to what is now Lebanon to get wood—so it’s a fallacy to think of Egypt as being a landlocked country.”
But let’s consider another destination with much more luxurious goods than wood. A land of gold, myrrh, incense, ivory, ebony and more—Punt. Four thousand years later, the question remains: Where was it?
The Palermo Stone is one of seven surviving fragments of a slab known as the Royal Annals that contained a list of Egyptian kings between 3150 B.C. and 2283 B.C., as well as notable events each year they ruled.
This stone also bears the first confirmed record of an expedition to the mysterious land of Punt. The lines of hieroglyphs note that the group brought back 80,000 measures of ntiyw, or high-quality frankincense, and other items during the 13th year of King Sahure’s reign, in 2445 B.C.
“All we know about Punt is from ancient Egyptian inscriptions, but no one has excavated a site in Punt. I have a hypothesis about where it was located, but no real evidence. I think the Egyptians were sailing to eastern Sudan,” Bard says. “Egyptologists have been writing about Punt and debating on where it was located for over 100 years.”
Bard believes there was a harbor or harbors of Punt on the coastline there, while Punt proper was inland and contained a mine or mines in an area called Bia-Punt.
“The materials that the Egyptians were bringing back from Punt—gold, incense, elephant ivory, ebony logs, live baboons—were obtained in inland areas, perhaps as far away from the coast as Kassala,” she says. “The harbor or harbors of Punt had to have been on the Red Sea, probably in eastern Sudan, although others think the harbor could have been in Eritrea.”
Some Egyptologists had believed expeditions to Punt traversed the Nile, but that has been entirely discredited thanks largely to the discoveries of Bard and her team.
“Given the fact that we do have materials from the southern Red Sea region, that also gives a better indication of where Punt was located,” Bard says. “Some Egyptologists place Punt in Sinai, in southern Africa. I think our evidence has helped to more or less locate the general area of Punt.”
Bard recently published her 10th book, Harbor of the Pharaohs to the Land of Punt II: Excavations at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt, 2006-2011. The open-source manuscript, a comprehensive report of the team’s last five seasons of work there, is 752 pages long.
Italian archaeologist and Boston University research fellow Rodolfo Fattovich, a professor at the University of Naples L’Orientale who died in 2018, directed the excavation project with Bard and co-edited the book, along with Italian archaeologist and professor Andrea Manzo. Part one was published in 2007 and chronicles the first five seasons of excavations between 2001 and 2005.
At Conn, Bard majored in fine and studio arts and minored in art history. She earned an MFA in sculpture from Yale University, then another master’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern studies from the University of Michigan. Her Ph.D., from the University of Toronto, is in that same field, with a focus on Egyptian archaeology.
Her first dig took place in the summer of 1966 between her sophomore and junior years at Conn. The group was excavating in the city of Winchester, England, at the site of a 12th-century bishop’s palace. By the end of the summer, they had reached the level of a Roman street.
“I had read about this study abroad fieldwork program in the Conn College newspaper, and another Conn student went with me,” Bard says. “I really enjoyed excavating for the first time, and it certainly influenced my later decision to do graduate studies in archaeology.”
Last June, Bard retired from Boston University as professor emerita of archaeology and classical studies after 34 years. She not only taught a course on the archaeology of ancient Egypt, she wrote the book for it. The first edition of An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt was published in 2008 and the second in 2015.
“It’s used all over the English-speaking world,” she says. “Before this book was written, there wasn’t a good textbook to use.” It has also been translated into Italian, and a Spanish version is forthcoming.
The world has honored Bard throughout her fruitful career. Last year, Spain’s Egyptian Lyceum Museum of León gave her its MLE of Egyptology Award for the work of cultivation, research and dissemination of ancient Egypt. “It was a complete surprise,” Bard says. “I had never even heard of the museum.”
In 2010, Bard was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was founded in 1780 during the American Revolution. The following year, Boston University selected Bard out of several thousand faculty members to deliver its annual lecture, which honors excellence in research.
“I was something like the eighth woman since this began in 1950,” Bard points out.
And back in 1998, the National Geographic Society honored her with its Chairman’s Award for Exploration, citing her with “providing new knowledge of our world.”
‘I Still Have Work to Do’
Bard may be retired, but she is far from dormant. She’s keeping up on what other archaeologists are doing; she’s working on two articles; and she hopes to publish a book about her excavations in Ethiopia, a project she had to cut short in 1998 when the country became a war zone during two years of fighting with Eritrea. The team returned in 2001 and 2002.
“I still have work to do,” she says. “I keep on learning. I’m curious! That doesn’t stop when you retire.”
One of her post-retirement projects is assisting with part of a comprehensive global history databank spanning 10,000 years called Seshat, which is named after an ancient Egyptian goddess and has been in the works for more than a decade. Bard joined last year to help examine worldwide evidence on human sacrifice.
Bard explains that the databank “is being put together to test theories about political and economic development, about social and political organizations, and about how civilizations evolve through time. We are reviewing and making codes of how human sacrifice was or wasn’t practiced in different societies. Eventually, this will all go into a computer database and it will be programmed to look at the patterns that evolved.”
She adds, “I’ve been looking at evidence from societies that I’ve never even heard of before, so it’s a wonderful learning experience for me—an interesting, fascinating project.”
During its 55th Reunion weekend on Friday, June 2, the Class of 1968 invites all alumni to learn about Bard’s studies and excavations in Egypt and Ethiopia. Her one-hour talk, titled “Let’s Dig! An Excavation & Research Presentation,” will take place at 3 p.m. in Blaustein Humanities Center Room 203.