MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
In Egypt researchers have found what they say are remains of the oldest seafaring ships ever found. Just a few months ago, a team working along the Red Sea Coast in Egypt found the timbers, which are about 4,000 years old, inside a series of man-made caves.
Cheryl Ward is a Professor of Anthropology at Florida State University. She was part of that team.
CHERYL WARD: What we found at Wadi Gawasis is a military style industrial setup of a shipyard where people were reassembling ships that originally had been built on the Nile and then trekked across the desert 90 miles, probably a ten-day trip on foot, to reassemble ships from basically ship kits that seem to have had instructions carved on at least some of the pieces about which went where.
Then they put these ships back together, sailed them off, probably about 1,000 miles away to go down to what place they called God's Land, acquire the most exotic cargos in their world, frankincense, giraffe tails, live apes, things like that, and then they sailed back and once they got back to the site, the ships were disassembled, the pieces were recycled, as they could be, or salvaged as they could be, but many of the pieces were just chopped apart and left behind.
NORRIS: So these were ships with a short shelf life?
WARD: That's a perfect way to describe them, but some of the pieces from them were recycled in ways that preserved them for 4,000 years.
NORRIS: And they were found in these man-made caves. You said that they're much like airport hangars.
WARD: Yes. That's the closest thing that I could think of. What would it look like if you had a small airport and everybody took all their things and went away from it? Well, they'd be a few bits here and there that would let you tell what it was. And in this case, what we have actually are, just in a few weeks' work, the remains of about 40 planks from ships and then thousands of pieces of what we call debitage or little bits of broken pieces of wood that are made from the destruction process, from the ship breaking. And they're just full of holes and tunnels in them with the shells of a marine boring mollusk that had to have been more than two or three months living in those planks.
NORRIS: What was it like for you the first time you stepped inside one of these caves?
WARD: It's a feeling that isn't very common. A lot of times I work under water on archeological sites, but going inside this space in the cave, you can stand up, it was very dark, but all around me were the fingerprints of the people who had last worked there. I could see the rope that had been slung down and left there by the sailors who were probably so glad to get off of those ships coming back from their 2,000-mile round trip to Africa that they were more than likely dancing all the way back across the desert to get home. But it is a dream come true for me. I've been studying ancient Egyptian ships for 20 years and this is what we always hoped we might find one day.
NORRIS: So, are these findings, without a doubt, the world's oldest seafaring ships, or at least the makings of the world's oldest ships?
WARD: Yes. There are watercraft that are older, canoes for instance and, even in Egypt, the world's oldest plank boats are about 1,000 years older, but these are the first that we know went to sea. These are the first that begin to tell us about the voyages that people were making so many centuries ago. We have had a lot of speculation in the past, but now we've got some real hard data to begin asking questions about. It's like a new species.
NORRIS: Professor Ward, thanks so much for talking to us.
WARD: It's been my pleasure, thank you.
NORRIS: Cheryl Ward is a Professor at Florida State University. She spoke with us from Tallahassee.
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