New discoveries made by Polish mission at Berenike on the Red Sea coast

The Berenike Project, run by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology University of Warsaw, co-directed by Prof. Steven E. Sidebotham (University of Delaware) and Iwona Zych (PCMA UW), in the most recent season of fieldwork, which took place from 17 December 2014 to 11 February 2015, uncovered surprising evidence for Pharaonic presence at a harbor site so far linked to a much later time. According to all available information before this season, the port of Berenike was established in the early 3rd century BC, by the Hellenistic king Ptolemy II, who also commissioned expeditions to the regions of eastern coastal Africa in search of African elephants for his war machine. During current work, excavation of two trenches in the courtyard of the Great Temple of Berenike, known as the Serapis temple, although the dedication to the god is not certain (by Dutch team members Martin Hense and Roderick Geerts from the University of Leiden), uncovered among others a collection of broken fragments of figural stelae and inscribed slabs, which appeared to have been collected as a dump of stone debris and architectural rubble in a corner of the courtyard.

Two of the stelae fragments could be attributed, one to the Middle Kingdom [Fig. 1] and the other to the transition from the Second Intermediate Period to the New Kingdom. The former bears a cartouche of the Pharaoh Amenemhat IV, the penultimate king of the 12th Dynasty, whose reign in 1822–1812 BC (according to W. Grajetzky 2013) witnessed a number of expeditions to mine turquoise in Sinai and amethyst in Upper Egypt, as well as to the Land of Punt. In his time, the Egyptian presence in Nubia was maintained. An inscription, discovered by an Italian mission at Marsa Gawasis, a site further up the coast of the Red Sea, between Safaga and Quseir, some 300 km north of Berenike, documents an expedition to Punt in year eight of the rule of this pharaoh, mounted by the royal scribe Djedy. The other fragmentary stela can be assigned on paleographic grounds to the beginnings of the New Kingdom and is thus possibly a few hundred years later. The presence of these two fragments among the Late Roman rubble could be taken as evidence for the existence of some sort of coastal outpost designed to supply maritime expeditions heading for the southern reaches of the Red Sea and beyond.

Excavation in the front of the Serapis temple revealed sections of the facade on either side of the entrance, including wall decoration of the door frame that was identified as incised lotus and papyrus plants and a standing figure of a female deity. More importantly, two complete inscriptions in Greek were discovered standing in their original position, one next to the doorway and another one by the lateral north wall of the presumed courtyard [Fig. 2]. The inscriptions were dedications placed on blocks that had supported statues erected by their founders in Berenike’s main sanctuary. The older one was a dedication to Isis, the Greatest Nurse Goddess, made by a secretary in AD 49; the other one was made also by a secretary, who identified himself as being in charge of an aromatics warehouse, in AD 112/113 (both inscriptions read by R.S. Bagnall). This is the first occurrence of a reference to an aromatics warehouse in Berenike, which was known in the Roman period for its trade in spices and incense.

Continuing excavation of the presumed Hellenistic gate complex uncovered the lower part of a large rectangular shaft cut in bedrock (2.5 m deep without reaching the bottom) furnished with four chambers(?) and a tunnel stretching some 6–7 m to the east as far as could be seen at the present stage of research [Fig. 4]. The complex could have some relation to water-storing strategies and it had surely been used as a storage area. There has certainly been a beam mounted in one of the walls as a lifting device of some sort with a stone counterweight, which was found, to operate it. A large water pool and some installations of evidently hydraulic nature were found in associated contexts on the surface. Three burials of Early Roman date, the first surely dated to this period, were discovered in the ruins of the Hellenistic wall defenses [Fig. 3].

A new site to the east of Berenike proper, discovered thanks to an analysis of Corona satellite imagery, contained the remains of the foundations of a long narrow building with three rectilinear podia [Fig. 5]. The function of this building has not been ascertained, but its date is clearly Augustan.

The project continued fieldwork in the southwestern harbor of Berenike uncovering new data on workshop activities connected with metallurgy. It also returned to the northern part of the city proper, clearing a room with a niche belonging to a large architectural complex, which had been mapped by the magnetic survey of the site completed in this area in the previous season.

© Berenike Project, Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology - University of Warsaw
© Ministry of Antiquities, Press Office
Fig. 1 – Fragment of a stele with the cartouche recording the name of the pharaoh Amenemhat IV (photo K. Braulińska, Berenike Project, PCMA)

Fig. 1 – Fragment of a stele with the cartouche recording the name of the pharaoh Amenemhat IV (photo K. Braulińska, Berenike Project, PCMA)

Fig. 3 – Rectangular shaft cut in bedrock with chambers(?) and tunnel, part of the Hellenistic gate complex; view looking east (photo S. E. Sidebotham, Berenike Project, PCMA)

Fig. 3 – Rectangular shaft cut in bedrock with chambers(?) and tunnel, part of the Hellenistic gate complex; view looking east (photo S. E. Sidebotham, Berenike Project, PCMA)

 

  • Fig. 2 – Inscription dedicated by a secretary in charge of an aromatics warehouse in Berenike to a prominent citizen of the city in AD 112/113; scale = 50 cm (photo S. E. Sidebotham, Berenike Project, PCMA)

 

Comments are closed.