Special Topics
Slide Show

Archaeology in the Red Sea, the 1994 Red Sea Survery Report
By Cheryl Haldane Ward, Ph.D.
From an article published in Topoi 6 (1996).

In 1969, a group of Israeli archaeologists spent a summer excavating the remains of an immense ship that had burned and sunk at anchor in the port of Sharm el Sheikh, now the Egyptian military harbor there. They found more than 1,000 thin, earthenware water vessels, some pipes, and pieces of broken porcelain on a well preserved ship of the early 18th century (Raban, 1971). Other sites in the Sinai also received attention; they include a mercury-carrier of the late medieval period and several scatter wrecks that include anchors. With the increasing popularity of sport diving in the Red Sea, other shipwreck sites were discovered, but most have been seriously looted.

Since 1994, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology - Egypt (INA-Egypt), in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities for Egypt (SCA), has documented archaeological sites in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean through shipwreck surveys and the excavation of an Ottoman-period vessel. In the Red Sea, few remains dating before the 14th century AD have been identified, although one site seems to be of the Roman period. Along the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria, 17 sites dating from the 4th century BC through the 7th century AD have been located, but most are poorly preserved or isolated finds. Each year, we plan to continue the exploration of Egypt's coast through surveys while continuing an excavation program designed to study wrecks from important periods of Egyptian history. All finds from INA-Egypt work are currently stored and undergoing conservation in the Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities, located in the Maritime Museum. The lab itself is another joint project of the SCA and INA-Egypt.

The 1994 Red Sea Shipwreck Survey
For five weeks in 1994, a small international team investigated reported wreck sites and anchorages in an area between Quseir and Hurgada as well as in the Sinai (Haldane 1994). Seventeen of the sites we visited produced archaeological material, and we learned of several additional wrecks from local sports divers. None of the artifacts we recorded was retained due to restrictions placed on us by the SCA. The most significant of these sites date to the Ottoman period.

In the modern harbor of Quseir, surface survey of the sandy bottom provided a collection of late 17th and early 18th century clay pipes, cups, and jars. Much of the harbor is less than 5 m deep, and recovering 300-year-old objects from the surface of the seabed there was surprising to us, as we had expected sand deposition to have hidden both recent and historical traces. Historical material was mixed with modern sheep bones; local residents told us that a ferry carrying sheep had sunk at the harbor a few years earlier.

At Quseir al Qadim, 12 km north of the modern city, we recorded an 18th-century iron anchor on the south side of the harbor. A later visit to this site included a dive on a deep, poorly preserved Roman period wreck. Excavators of the Roman/Mamluk settlement associated with the harbor have convincingly suggested that the sea formerly reached nearly a kilometer further inland (Whitcomb and Johnson 1982), so the infilled area may be a better place to search for wrecks.

Despite the possibility of finding pharaonic remains at Mersa Gawasis, the site of several Middle Kingdom shrines excavated by Dr. Abdel Monem al Sayed (1978), we found only a transport jar fragment of indeterminate date and two iron anchors in the anchorage. As at Quseir al Qadim and other inlets along this coast, sand is created and deposited at a rapid rate through erosion and the life cycles of reef inhabitants. Remote sensing is likely to be more productive than visual survey.

Near Hurgada, sports divers showed us a medieval keg amphora concreted to the seabed, but it seems to be an isolated artifact. Also in the area are two large porcelain wrecks of late 17th/early 18th century date and several historical wrecks under intense pressure from sports divers. Porcelain from a site in Hurgada is comparable to objects from the Sadana Island shipwreck further south and from the Sharm el Sheikh ship excavated by A. Raban (1971); earthenware jars resemble objects from those two sites as well as harbor deposits at Sharm el Sheikh and on a wreck site we visited near Tiran Island. The survey concluded with visits to previously documented sites (Raban 1973, 1990), a much disturbed wreck probably of the 18th century, and examination of medieval sherd scatters in the many small anchorages of the Sharm el Sheikh area.


C. Haldane, 1994, INA-Egypt's Red Sea survey. INA Quarterly 21.3: 4-9.

A. Raban, 1971, The shipwreck off Sharm-el-Sheikh. Archaeology 24.2: 146-55.

A. Raban, 1973, The mercury carrier from the Red Sea. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 2: 179-83.

A. Raban, 1990, Medieval anchors from the Red Sea. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 19: 299-306.

A.M. A.H. Sayed, 1978, The recently discovered port on the Red Sea shore. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 64: 69-71.

D. Whitcomb and J.H. Johnson, 1982, Quseir al Qadim 1980: Preliminary report (American Research Center in Egypt Reports 7).