Discovering eye-witness accounts of a legendary construction project
How did Egypt build the pyramids? It is a question that has excited the imagination of scholars and visitors for millennia. Now papyri documenting work on the Great Pyramid are revealing fresh insights into construction work. Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner told Matthew Symonds how combining text and archaeology can expose the secrets of an extraordinary building project.
We know it as the Great Pyramid. To the Ancient Egyptians it was the Akhet Khufu or Horizon of Khufu, named after the 4th Dynasty king who reigned from roughly 2633 BC to 2605 BC. By any measure, the pyramid that served as his tomb was a staggering accomplishment. Its four sides were each approximately 230m long, while the edifice incorporated some 2.3 million blocks and originally stood almost 150m high. Within lay an intricate network of chambers and passages, which showcase the skill of Egyptian masons. Despite the monument’s impressive statistics, though, there is one thing it is notably short of: text. Unlike some later pyramids, and the famous tombs crowding the Valley of the Kings, the interior of the Great Pyramid is not lavishly adorned with hieroglyphics. Instead, just a few graffiti naming work gangs were daubed in suitably discreet spots. Until recently, these sparse words provided the only contemporary textual glimpse of construction operations.
A decade ago, hoping to secure an eye-witness account of work on the Great Pyramid would have seemed like archaeological wishful thinking of the highest order. But then, in 2013, fragments of the earliest papyri documents ever found were recovered by an archaeological team led by Pierre Tallet, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. It speaks volumes about the scale of Khufu’s grand design that these texts, which were compiled by individuals involved with construction operations, were not found within the pyramid or even at Giza. Instead, they were recovered more than 130km away, in Egypt’s Eastern Desert near the Red Sea shore. The papyri comprise logbooks and other bureaucratic records that detail the activities of teams engaged on Khufu’s mortuary complex. Some of these accounts overlap in a remarkable fashion with the results of archaeological work led by Mark Lehner, President of AERA (Ancient Egypt Research Associates), at Giza. Now these two archaeologists have collaborated on a book shedding new light on one of the most renowned archaeological monuments in the world (see ‘Further reading’ box).
Red Sea harbours
Pierre Tallet started searching the Red Sea coastline in 2001. He was seeking traces of pharaonic harbours created to support maritime expeditions either east into Sinai or south towards Ethiopia and the Land of Punt. An early success at Ayn Sukhna allowed the excavation of port facilities dating back to the reign of Khufu’s son Khafre (c.2597-2573 BC), but there was another site that also intrigued Pierre. Since 1823, a handful of explorers and visitors had noted the existence of rock-cut galleries in the desert, and speculated about their purpose. As such cavities could be used to store boats, they were one of the signature features of the pharaonic harbours Pierre was seeking. Unfortunately, no one had recorded exactly where these galleries lay. Eventually, after combining clues in visitor accounts with a trawl of images on Google Earth, the galleries were relocated in 2008 at Wadi el-Jarf. The satellite photographs pointed to the existence of additional harbour infrastructure, with subsequent excavations confirming the discovery of a major site.
‘Including Wadi el-Jarf and Ayn Sukhna, we now know the location of three harbours on the Red Sea,’ says Pierre, ‘and Wadi el-Jarf is the earliest of them. From what we have seen so far, we think it was created in the reign of Sneferu (c.2675- 2633 BC), the king at the beginning of the 4th Dynasty. At the time he was probably constructing a pyramid of his own. This was an era when things were built on a grand scale, with 31 storage galleries created at Wadi el-Jarf, whereas our two later harbours don’t have more than ten. Even more important is that a big jetty was installed at Wadi el-Jarf, which probably makes it the oldest artificial open-sea harbour in the world. In total, this jetty is about 200m long from east to west and from north to south, enclosing an area of around 6-7ha. Again, this sets it apart from our other two sites, where natural features on the coastline were used to shelter boats.’
‘All of the Red Sea harbours would have been used for expeditions to Sinai, where the Egyptians could find large deposits of copper. This was something they needed for their building projects. When you are working on limestone, for example, you can use copper implements to cut the stone. So it is reasonable to suspect that, at a time when stone monuments were being built to an unprecedented scale, the Egyptians would have needed far greater quantities of copper tools. The smaller deposits available in the Eastern Desert would no longer have been enough. The southern part of Sinai, though, contained the best copper mines the Egyptians could exploit themselves. Interest in that region didn’t start with the 4th Dynasty – while surveying south Sinai I found inscriptions dating back to Dynasty 0 in 3200 BC – but I think there was a major intensification of expeditions under Sneferu and Khufu. After all, when you have a team of workers in south Sinai, the problem is not so much to get them there, it is to feed them in an area where so little food was available. If you send several thousand people for several months, then you are going to need constant supply shipments. So creating Red Sea harbours is probably part of the logistical preparations for connecting large-scale expeditions in Sinai to the resources in the Nile valley.’
If resources in Sinai were a problem, many key materials were also far from abundant on the Red Sea coast. Perhaps the most pressing shortage when seeking to establish a fleet was timber. Because of this, boats were built in the Nile valley before being transported in pieces across the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea shore. The vessels could then be reassembled for the duration of an expedition. Once it was over, the boat elements were too valuable to leave lying around and too cumbersome to keep transporting to and from the Nile valley. This is where the galleries came into play. There, the dismantled vessels and other kit could be safely stored near the harbour until they were needed once more. At Wadi el-Jarf, not only were a few wooden ship parts found still stowed in the galleries, but there were also huge stone blocks used to shut and secure these cavities while the harbour was mothballed. It was in a pit between two of these great blocking stones that someone had stashed part of a papyrus archive dating to Khufu’s reign.
What Inspector Merer saw
‘It was a surprise to find papyri’, says Pierre, ‘which do not survive at all at Giza. We were lucky for two reasons. The first is that these records should not have stayed at the site, they were probably supposed to be taken to a central administration archive in the Memphis-Giza area, where no documents from this era have survived. We were also lucky that the pit containing the papyri was disturbed at a later date, which perhaps sounds paradoxical. But it seems water could pool at the bottom of the pit, and all of the papyri that remained at its base were completely decayed when we found them. It was only fragments that had been moved higher up when someone dug into the pit that were well preserved.’
‘The papyri run to over 30 rolls and are the archive of a 160-strong work-gang known as ‘The Escort Team of “The Uraeus of Khufu is its prow”’. It seems that the last part of this name refers to a ship and that the men were essentially sailors. There are two different types of documents, with less than half of them comprising logbooks detailing the activities of some of these men. I am still working on the other records, but they are mostly accounting documents registering food, tools, and everything that was issued to the team. The material is very informative about how people worked for the monarchy at this time, and forces us to reject the old idea that slaves built the pyramids. Instead, the team was well fed and well treated – these were specialists working for most of the year on pyramid-related projects, not a group assembled to labour on it during the annual Nile flood when farmers didn’t need to tend to their fields.’
‘One individual named in the papyri is Dedi, who was a scribe and most likely a member of the royal administration. Although his documents aren’t well preserved, Dedi seems to have overseen the entire escort team, which was split into four smaller sections or phyles. At least three documents also name an Inspector Merer, who was probably the leader of one phyle consisting of about 40 people, based on the amount of food being issued to them. This section is the only one that we have detailed records for, but it was known as the ‘Great’ phyle and so was probably the most important. Merer’s logbooks allow us to follow the different missions allocated to this phyle over the course of a little more than a year. For some of it, they were working on the Akhet Khufu – the Great Pyramid – and at another time they were apparently making a harbour on the Mediterranean coast in the Nile delta, while the final recorded assignment seems to have been in Sinai, which makes sense given where the papyri were found.’ Merer’s daily log entries are as succinct as they are extraordinary. A number of them deal with journeys from limestone quarries at Tura, east of the Nile, to the Great Pyramid, west of the Nile. In general, the Great phyle seems to have managed about three round-trips in ten days. Here is an extract from the log of one such journey:
…Inspector Merer casts off with his phyle from Tura, loaded with stone, for Akhet Khufu; spends the night at She Khufu; Day 27: sets sail from She Khufu, sails towards Akhet Khufu, loaded with stone, spends the night at Akhet Khufu…
As well as firing the imagination about what Merer would have seen while over-nighting at the Great Pyramid, his account is crucial for demonstrating that people could arrive by boat. This brings us to the work undertaken at Giza by Mark Lehner.
This fascinating book is essential reading for anyone interested in the pyramids or Egypt: Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner (2021) The Red Sea Scrolls: how ancient papyri reveal the secret of the pyramids (Thames & Hudson, ISBN 978-0500052112, £30).
CWA is grateful to Pierre Tallet, Mark Lehner, and Caitlin Kirkman.
This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 112. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.