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

Review by Aidan Dodson.

In 2013, a remarkable discovery was made at the site of Wadi el-Jarf on the Egyptian Red Sea coast. It comprised a group of papyri, which not only proved to be the oldest inscribed examples of their kind yet found, but also shed wholly new light on the way in which the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza was managed and materials delivered. As such, it ranks among the most important archaeological finds ever made in Egypt.

The papyri, dating to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, were the remains of logbooks belonging to Merer, a man in charge of a work gang who undertook a range of logistic activities in more than one part of Egypt. Some of their work was in the far eastern part of the country, but some was in the Nile Valley itself – including the transport of stone for the casing of the Great Pyramid of King Khufu from quarries on the east bank to the Giza plateau on the edge of the Western Desert. As such, they illuminate hitherto-unknown aspects of the logistics of pyramid-building, including a riverine infrastructure that allowed cargo-boats to get right up to the desert edge to deliver their raw materials direct to the building site.

The book under review seeks to integrate the data derived from the papyri, discovered and studied by Pierre Tallet, with the results of long-term excavations carried out by Mark Lehner on the Giza plateau, in particular at its workmen’s settlement. To tell this multi-faceted story, the volume in divided into six sections, embracing a total of 15 chapters and an epilogue.

The first section considers the background to the Red Sea port at which the papyri were found, the second the importance of the Sinai Peninsula in providing copper for tools employed in building pyramids, and the architectural development of the pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty. Part III covers the discovery, translation, and interpretation of the papyri, feeding into Part IV, which discusses how Merer and his team worked, and outlines a year in their activities. The next part concentrates on the evidence from Giza regarding the topography of the crucial area of the desert edge, how this port-complex might have been managed, how workmen were supplied with their necessities, and how the actual pyramid construction may have been carried out. The final part of the book considers the societal impact of the massive project of pyramid-building, bringing together as it did people and material from all over Egypt, and requiring the creation and evolution of a bureaucracy capable of managing the myriad ramifications of the processes involved.

An ample set of colour images support the text, together with a chronology, and an extensive bibliography arranged by topic. There are no end-/footnotes, which is a pity, as on occasion the text is rather dogmatic, and it would have been useful to highlight this and direct a reader to alternative interpretations. There are also a few minor errors of fact, but nothing that detracts from the overall result.

This is a book that provides, for the first time, a fully holistic treatment of pyramid-building during the Fourth Dynasty. Its ability to go beyond what has gone before is grounded on the papyri, which provide a unique first-hand account of one of the activities that contributed to the success of the work, and, in doing so, gives important hints regarding broader issues of infrastructure and organisation. It is a must-read for anyone interested in ancient Egypt in general and the pyramids in particular, and – by revealing the words of an Egyptian eye-witness to, and participant in, the building of the Great Pyramid – it should be made compulsory reading for alien/Atlantean-loving ‘pyramidologists’! Tallet and Lehner are to be congratulated for putting together a very fine volume.