The Red Sea Scrolls: How Ancient Papyri Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids

Review by Miroslav Bárta.

The Old Kingdom papyri count among the rarest of finds. For several decades, the Abusir papyri archives from the pyramid complexes of the Fifth Dynasty kings Neferirkare and Nyuserre and queen-mother Khentkaus were among the earliest inscribed papyri known from the 3rd millennium BC. They detail the daily routines, offerings, deliveries and payments, rosters of duties, and celebrations of religious feasts in these two mortuary complexes. Moreover, dozens of historical personalities, their names, and titles come down to us as unique testimonies of their lives and achievements. Many of them are also known as owners of mastabas and tombs in Abusir, Saqqara, or Giza.

In 2013, however, a set of earlier papyri were discovered in Wadi al-Jarf, an ancient harbour on the Red Sea coast. This small port was used by Egyptian maritime expeditions to import copper from the Sinai. Copper ore was of strategic importance for the Old Kingdom state, as the tools required for working stones for the pyramids were largely fashioned out of this metal.

This new publication, written by two prominent scholars, explores how these papyri have significantly expanded our knowledge about various aspects linked to the construction of the pyramid complex of Khufu. Pierre Tallet is the discoverer of the papyri, which date to the reign of Khufu, and represent the world’s oldest inscribed documents. He is joined by Mark Lehner, who for decades has spearheaded a large multidisciplinary project on settlement archaeology of the Giza plateau. They provide an excellent interpretation of the papyri, which contain incredible details of events such as the transportation of heavy loads from Tura to the construction site of Khufu, seaborne travel, the construction of coastal ship facilities, and the overseeing of installations of Khufu’s funerary complex.

Inspector Merer, the middle-ranking official responsible for the transportation of stones who features prominently in the texts, describes in detail, for instance, the daily routine of his ship’s crew travelling between the quarries on the eastern side of the Nile – Tura North and Tura South – and the construction site in Giza during the inundation period, which lasted for four months from July to October. His logbooks record that within ten days – which was the working week of the ancient Egyptians – Merer and his ship managed to make three trips between the quarries and the harbour of Khufu. Based on parallels, his ship could hypothetically carry some 30 limestone blocks, each weighing about 2.5 tonnes. That would be 750 stones during a season. We also know that the latest date given in the papyri is the year following the 13th cattle count, which corresponds with the year 26 or 27 of Khufu’s reign. It has been estimated that the casing of Khufu’s pyramid was built of some 67,000 blocks. Therefore, four gangs of workmen (attested in the papyri) could accomplish this task within 28 years, which is the currently estimated length of Khufu’s reign. Merer details the transportation itself, but also how his men were paid in kind.

Image: Jorge Láscar.

Thanks to these papyri – it has been estimated that about 30 different scrolls of papyrus were deposited in the stone galleries of Wadi al-Jarf originally – we know now much more not only about the construction of the Great Pyramid itself but also about the landscape, society, and economy of Giza of the day. The names and titles of some real officials of the period provide invaluable evidence for the analysis of a society that created one of the seven wonders of the world.

The authors of the publication should be congratulated for an incredible trove of data on various aspects outlined above, and for producing a vivid, richly illustrated account of the documented story of the reign of Khufu and the men who stood behind the construction of his pyramid complex. I believe that one day the tomb of Merer will be brought to light and round up this fascinating and still unfolding story.

The Red Sea Scrolls: How Ancient Papyri Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids, P Tallet and M Lehner, Thames and Hudson, £30, ISBN 978-0500052112.