In today’s episode I’ am taking a look at “The Pharaoh who Conquered the Sea” which was broadcast on BBC Four this week. This programme looks into whether Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh, built five ships that crossed the sea to the land known as Punt 3,500 years ago. In order to test the idea the archaeologists in the programme commission a reconstruction of one of these ships based on a carving from where Hatshepsut is buried. I find it strange that other archaeologists were so sceptical that this did, or even could happen. People crossed seas long before then, admittedly not in ships so large, but given that the Egyptians could make river going vessels of this size, it is not a huge stretch to accept that they could do it.
Having found intact wooden boxes bearing the markings “wonderful things of Punt”, along with pieces of timber that look like planks in the carving, on an excavation at Mesa Gawasis on the Red Sea, the archaeologists are convinced of the stories veracity and begin the design process. At this point the narrative of the TV programme demands some extra drama and some non-problems are invented, such as only being able to see one side of the boat in the carving! Generally ships tend to be symmetrical, so that’s not much of a problem; not knowing the width is an issue in reconstruction but this is soon solved by actually looking at ancient Egyptian boats. Who would have thought to look there? They also try to add a bit of drama once the construction gets underway by saying that there is only a month left before they have to sail, but I’m pretty sure they would have waited if things went over schedule. I won’t spoil it but shortly after this there is quite an amusing bit.
All in all, this programme isn’t fantastic, but it does offer some information on ancient seafaring and is quite interesting in general. It also doesn’t have any really bad archaeological faux pas, although some of the narrations metaphors and description of the tasks at hand are just silly, like “summoning forth the skills of their ancestors” as if the ship building skills the shipwrights are using aren’t the same/similar as those they use every day. I also wish that there had been more information about Hatshepsut, for example, whilst they repeatedly mention attempts to erase her from history after her death, they never actually explain why. Also the way the narrator says archaeologist annoyed me. The Pharaoh who Conquered the Sea is available on the iPlayer until very early Tuesday the 16th of July. If you like ancient boats, go watch it.