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Slide Show

1995 Sadana Island Excavation Season
By Cheryl Haldane Ward, Ph.D.
From El Bahri volume 2

Returning to the sandy beach opposite Sadana Island brought memories of our brief visit there in 1994 on INA-Egypt's Red Sea shipwreck survey, with a small and hardy team. The strong contrast with the scene before me reinforced the realization of INA-Egypt's accomplish- ments since 1993--an international team moved over the naturally formed bowl in the fossil reef, setting up tents and dive compressors, scooping up beach shells to use as flooring, and doing a hundred small yet vital tasks in creating a camp that would be our home for the next 10 weeks as we excavated more than 100 feet beneath the ever-changing surface of the Red Sea.

Our first task, after arranging for fresh water to be delivered, required tremendous effort, but promised great rewards: setting up a two-ton steel diving platform that would allow us to enter and exit safely over a vicious reef edge. Although we had planned to be setting this up during the lowest tidal period of the month, delays in acquiring permits meant that we were working during the highest monthly tides, without heavy equipment, to bolt together our "erector set" at a reef edge that dropped a meter in depth for every meter away from its edge. The entire team worked for hours at a time whenever the tide turned, and after five days, an 8-meter-long bridge spanned the reef's edge.

By late August, we logged nearly 1,000 dives on the Sadana Island Shipwreck, the first excavation project of INA - Egypt and the Supreme Council of Antiquities for Egypt. About 300 years ago, a massive ship slammed into the coral fringe reef connecting the low island to the shore before plunging more than 100 feet beneath the sea. Today, the reef's extraordinary beauty and biological diversity shelters a fascinating archaeological site.

The Sadana Island Shipwreck provides us with a glimpse of a time of change in the Red Sea. The Ottoman Empire, based in the ancient city of Istanbul, had controlled shipping in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean for centuries, but the presence of Europeans in search of the same luxury wares from the Far East created a volatile situation, and the Ottomans withdrew from the Indian Ocean in the late 17th century. But the products of China and other ports remained highly esteemed by the wealthy upper classes of Egypt and other parts of the Ottoman Empire as shown by customs house records.

Archaeologists working at Sadana Island this season raised more than 600 objects, over half of them Chinese porcelain, as we documented the 1250-m2-site. We had four primary tasks: to recover all visible porcelain objects (the site has been subject to looting for at least 10 years), to test and evaluate mapping procedures, to prepare the site for future work by clearing large shipping jars from its center, and to examine hull structure in test trenches excavated in different parts of the site. Despite a limited time on site, we accomplished all these goals.

The Sadana Island Shipwreck rests along the reef's base, where pile of four-armed grapnel anchors marks the bow and a concentration of water vessels (kullal, in Arabic), the stern. The port side is buried in sand at the base of the reef, and frames along or near the centerline of the ship show how the starboard side broke away and fell onto the steep sandy slope below 35 m. The reef has grown over frames in the aft port quarter of the ship, and can be traced along the entire length of the hull. Few artifacts remain in the port side, and, with the exception of the kullal and zilla, most finds originate downslope of the keel and associated timbers.

Organic materials on the site are beautifully preserved, and finds from the 1995 season include several coconut husks from low in the hull, more than a kilogram of aromatic resin from one of the test trenches in the forward port quarter, coffee beans trapped in an kulla, peppercorns preserved in copper corrosion products inside a cooking pot, coriander and other seeds from a variety of sample locations, and an abundance of dunnage and rope. Worked objects include a small plug for a bottle, a 28-cm-diameter wooden lid, and a wooden stopper 13 cm in diameter, all found in the midships area. Studying these and other organic artifacts will help us to tell the story of the ship's last voyage.

On site, one team moved more than 30 meter-high zilla (large storage jars) spilled across the central wreck upslope to the reef's base. None of the zilla were sealed although two wooden lids were recovered. Sport divers trying to protect the objects from theft by other sport divers had hidden artifacts inside some zilla: copper objects, glazed jars, a spouted clay jug, an earthenware pipe, a small porcelain cup, and glass bottle fragments. A heavy coral lump in one jar actually consisted of 13 porcelain bowls so completely encrusted that only a small part of a single rim was visible; another jar stored the most complete example of a glass case bottle found on the site, and others in the shallower portion of the site held kullal. Although we learn far more by excavating artifacts in context, we are glad they were not lost.

Another team plotted and raised nearly 140 kullal from disturbed areas in the stern. We noted nearly 20 different types of bottles, but most are made of a gray/brown fabric and decorated with incised and punctate geometric designs. Clay jars like have highly porous walls. As water evaporates through the walls, the water that remains is cooled. Many Middle Eastern and Egyptian homes still rely on these jars to provide cool drinks.

Porcelain objects in the forward third of the hull originally served as ballast, and we recovered several stacks of large dishes from their original positions in the ship. Teams dealt with objects clearly in context, usually locked to other site features by coral growth or marine encrustation, and recently broken porcelain dumped in mixed piles by looters. Many porcelain objects displayed recent breaks, chips and shattering from illicit divers using hammers and chisels to free porcelain from encrustation. On land, Netia Piercy and Doug Haldane led efforts to recover five shattered cups whose pieces were scattered in the sand. The broken sherds probably represent looters' failed attempts at cleaning porcelain.

Copperwares were loaded or dispersed along most of the vessel's length downslope of the keel area and include ceramic-lined braziers on three legs, ewers, cooking pots, a kettle and even a coffee pot. We also excavated a pulley sheave made of cupreous metal and a decorated box, possibly a lantern. No weapons were recorded on the site.

The hull
The test trenches we opened in 1995 provided more questions than answers about the hulls constructions. Iron fasteners are present in several sizes, holding planks, frames and longitudinal timbers together, but we have not been able to get a clear picture of the construction technology. The 1996 team will uncover much of the hull, and we anticipate studying it then.

The Supreme Council of Antiquities and its Chairman Dr. Abdel Halim Nur el Din provided crucial support to the project, including the participation of archaeologists Sameh Ramses, Mohammed el Sayed, Mohammed Mustafa and Inspector Abd el Regal abu Bakr. We also thank the Egyptian Navy for assigning Lt. Tarek Abu el Elaa to join us for the entire season. Our crew of INA-Egypt staff and volunteers also are due our thanks: Douglas Haldane, Emad Khalil, Netia Piercy, Kendra Burnett, Lara Piercy, American University in Cairo student Marston Morgan, and TAMU students Elizabeth Greene, Alan Flanigan, Layne Hedrick, Peter Hitchcock, and Chris Stephens.

The 1995 Sadana Island Excavation was supported by the generous gifts of Billings Ruddock, The Amoco Foundation, CitiBank-Egypt, The John and Donnie Brock Foundation, CIB, Pepsi, Arab Contractors, British Gas - Egypt, Kodak ,DHL, Orascom, Bilkent University, Pfizer, Scuba Doo, Sea-U-Underwater, Fran and Chip Vincent, and Richard and Bari Bienia, and INA-Egypt members.