The World's Oldest Papyrus and What It Can Tell Us About the Great Pyramids

Ancient Egyptians leveraged a massive shipping, mining and farming economy to propel their civilization forward
Alexander Stille / Photos David Degner
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Following notes written by an English traveler in the early 19th century and two French pilots in the 1950s, Pierre Tallet made a stunning discovery: a set of 30 caves honeycombed into limestone hills but sealed up and hidden from view in a remote part of the Egyptian desert, a few miles inland from the Red Sea, far from any city, ancient or modern. During his first digging season, in 2011, he established that the caves had served as a kind of boat storage depot during the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, about 4,600 years ago. Then, in 2013, during his third digging season, he came upon something quite unexpected: entire rolls of papyrus, some a few feet long and still relatively intact, written in hieroglyphics as well as hieratic, the cursive script the ancient Egyptians used for everyday communication. Tallet realized that he was dealing with the oldest known papyri in the world

Oct2015 d05 pyramids web resize jpg 600x0 q85 upscalePapyus Tallet found at Wadi al-Jarf – Courtesy of Pierre Tallet
Astonishingly, the papyri were written by men who participated in the building of the Great Pyramid, the tomb of the Pharaoh Khufu, the first and largest of the three colossal pyramids at Giza just outside modern Cairo. Among the papyri was the journal of a previously unknown official named Merer, who led a crew of some 200 men who traveled from one end of Egypt to the other picking up and delivering goods of one kind or another. Merer, who accounted for his time in half-day increments, mentions stopping at Tura, a town along the Nile famous for its limestone quarry, filling his boat with stone and taking it up the Nile River to Giza. In fact, Merer mentions reporting to “the noble Ankh-haf,” who was known to be the half-brother of the Pharaoh Khufu and now, for the  first time, was definitively identified as overseeing some of the construction of the Great Pyramid. And since the pharaohs used the Tura limestone for the pyramids’ outer casing, and Merer’s journal chronicles the last known year of Khufu’s reign, the entries provide a never-before-seen snapshot of the ancients putting finishing touches on the Great Pyramid.

Experts are thrilled by this trove of papyri. Mark Lehner, the head of Ancient Egypt Research Associates, who has worked on the pyramids and the Sphinx for 40 years, has said it may be as close as he is likely to get to time-traveling back to the age of the pyramid builders. Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian archaeologist, and formerly the chief inspector of the pyramid site and minister of antiquities, says that it is “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.” Tallet himself is careful to speak in more measured terms. “The century is at the beginning,” he says at one of his digs along the Red Sea. “One must not enlarge this kind of find.” Was he very emotional when he came upon the cache of papyri? “You know, when you are working like that all the day for one month you cannot realize at once what happens.” Tallet has been toiling quietly on the periphery of the ancient Egyptian Empire—from the Libyan Desert to the Sinai and the Red Sea—for more than 20 years without attracting much notice, until now. He finds it both amusing and mildly annoying that his discoveries are suddenly attracting attention in the scholarly press and popular media. “It’s because the papyri are speaking of the Pyramid of Khufu,” he says.

We are standing in an encampment in a desert valley a couple of hundred yards from the Red Sea near the modern Egyptian resort town called Ayn Soukhna. Tallet and his crew—part French, part Egyptian—sleep in rows of tents set up near the archaeological site. Above the tents is a steep sandstone hillside into which the ancient Egyptians carved deep caves, or galleries, in which they stored their boats. Tallet leads us up the hillside and clambers on a rocky trail along the cliff face. You can see the outlines of a set of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs carved delicately into the stone. There is the royal seal of Mentuhotep IV, a little-known pharaoh who ruled for just two years in about 2,000 B.C. And right below there are three lines of a hieroglyphic inscription proclaiming the achievements of the pharaoh, which Tallet translates: “In year one of the king, they sent a troop of 3,000 men to fetch copper, turquoise and all the good products of the desert.” On a clear day you can see the Sinai Desert about 40 miles away across the Red Sea from where we stand. Before these recent excavations, the ancient Egyptians were not widely known to be notable sea travelers, and were thought to confine themselves to moving up and down the Nile or hugging the Mediterranean coast. The work that Tallet and others have done in the last two decades has shown that the ancient Egyptian Empire was as ambitious in its outward reach as it was in building upward in its colossal monuments at Giza.

Tallet, a short, almost bald man of 49, wears wire-rimmed glasses and, on this day, a tan wool sweater vest. He looks like someone you would be more likely  to encounter in a Paris library or office than in a desert camp. Indeed he is soft-spoken, choosing his words with scholarly scruple and carefully citing the contributions of other scholars, and he likes working in remote locations far from the hubbub at the monumental sites, royal tombs and palaces and necropolises that have generally captured the world’s attention. “What I love are desert places,” he says. “I would not like to excavate places like Giza and Saqqara.” (Saqqara is where early Egyptian pharaohs built some of their tombs before beginning the pyramid complex at Giza.) “I am not so fond of excavating graves. I like natural landscapes.” At the same time, he has professional reasons for preferring remote sites over famous monuments. “Most new evidence is found in the periphery,” he says. Tallet’s taste for the periphery goes back to the beginning of his career. Tallet grew up in Bordeaux, the son of a high-school French teacher (his father) and a professor of English literature (his mother). After studying at Paris’ famous École Normale Supérieure, Tallet went to Egypt to do an alternative military service by teaching in an Egyptian high school; he stayed on to work at the French Institute, where he began his archaeological work. He scoured the edges of the Egyptian world—the Libyan desert on one end, the Sinai Desert on the other—looking for, and finding, previously unknown Egyptian rock inscriptions. “I love rock inscriptions, they give you a page of history without excavating,” he says. In the Sinai he also found abundant evidence that the ancient Egyptians mined turquoise and copper, the latter essential for making weapons as well as tools. This, in turn, fit with his discovery of the harbor at Ayn Soukhna that the Egyptians would have used to reach the Sinai. “You see,” he says, “there is a logic in things.”

Oct2015 d02 pyramids jpg 600x0 q85 upscaleExcavators at Ayn Soukhna

The area was not recognized as an ancient Egyptian site until 1997 when the cliffside hieroglyphs were noted by an Egyptian archaeologist. Ayn Soukhna has gradually become a popular weekend destination, and since the construction of a larger, faster highway about ten years ago, it is now only about a two-hour drive from Cairo. Across the road from Tallet’s site is an older Egyptian hotel closed for renovation, which allows his crew to work in peace, sifting through the area between the boat galleries up in the hillside and the sea. They are finding the remains of ovens for smelting copper and preparing food as well as quotidian objects such as mats and storage pots.

Sixty-two miles south of Ayn Soukhna, along the Red Sea coast, is Tallet’s second archaeological site, at Wadi al-Jarf, and it’s even more obscure. Among the only landmarks in the vicinity is the Monastery of Saint Paul the Anchorite, a Coptic Orthodox outpost founded in the fifth century near the cave, which had been inhabited by their hermitic patron saint. The area is almost the definition of the middle of nowhere, which is probably why it long failed to attract the attention of either archaeologists or looters. The remoteness also helps explain why the papyri left in the desert there survived for thousands of years. Precisely because administrative centers like Memphis and Giza were  occupied and reused for centuries—and then picked over or looted repeatedly in the intervening millennia—the survival rate of fragile papyri from the early dynasties there has been close to zero.

Among the few people to take note of the place before Tallet was the British explorer John Gardner Wilkinson, who passed by in 1823 and described it in his travel notes: “Near the ruins is a small knoll containing eighteen excavated chambers, beside, perhaps, many others, the entrance of which are no longer visible. We went into those where the doors were the least obstructed by the sand or decayed rock, and found them to be catacombs; they are well cut and vary from about 80 to 24 feet, by 5; their height may be from 6 to 8 feet.”

Perhaps associating the area with the monastery, Wilkinson took the gallery complex to be a series of catacombs. But the description of this series of carefully cut chambers carved into the rock sounded to Tallet exactly like the boat storage galleries he was busy excavating at Ayn Soukhna. (They also looked like the galleries at another ancient port, Mersa Gawasis, then being excavated by Kathryn A. Bard of Boston University and Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples L’Orientale.) Moreover, two French pilots who were based in the Suez Gulf in the mid-1950s had noted the site, but didn’t associate it with the harbor. Tallet tracked down one of the pilots and, using his notes, Wilkinson’s description and GPS technology, figured out the location. It was two years later that Tallet and his crew began clearing out a small passageway at the entrance to the boat galleries, between two large stone blocks that had been used to seal the caves. Here they found entire papyrus scrolls, including Merer’s journal. The ancients, Tallet says, “threw all the papyri inside, some of them were still tied with a rope, probably as they were closing the site.”

Wadi al-Jarf lies where the Sinai is a mere 35 miles away, so close you can see the mountains in the Sinai that were the entry to the mining district. The Egyptian site has yielded many revelations along with the trove of papyri. In the harbor, Tallet and his team found an ancient L-shaped stone jetty more than 600 feet long that was built to create a safe harbor for boats. They found some 130 anchors—nearly quadrupling the number of ancient Egyptian anchors located. The 30 gallery-caves carefully dug into the mountainside—ranging from 50 to more than 100 feet in length—were triple the number of boat galleries at Ayn Soukhna. For a harbor constructed 4,600 years ago, this was an enterprise on a truly grand scale.

Yet it was used for a very short time. All the evidence that Tallet and his colleagues have gathered indicates that the harbor was active in the fourth dynasty, concentrated during the reign of one pharaoh, Khufu. What emerges clearly from Tallet’s excavation is that the port was crucial to the pyramid-building project. The Egyptians needed massive amounts of copper—the hardest metal then available—with which to cut the pyramid stones. The principal source of copper was the mines in the Sinai just opposite Wadi al-Jarf. The reason that the ancients abandoned the harbor in favor of Ayn Soukhna would appear to be logistical: Ayn Soukhna is only about 75 miles from the capital of ancient Egypt. Reaching Wadi al-Jarf involved a considerably longer overland trip, even though it was closer to the Sinai mining district. 

After visiting Wadi al-Jarf, Lehner, the American Egyptologist, was bowled over by the connections between Giza and this distant harbor. “The power and purity of the site is so Khufu,” he said. “The scale and ambition and sophistication of it—the size of these galleries cut out of rock like the Amtrak train garages, these huge hammers made out of hard black diorite they found, the scale of the harbor, the clear and orderly writing of the hieroglyphs of the papyri, which are like Excel spreadsheets of the ancient world—all of it has the clarity, power and sophistication of the pyramids, all the characteristics of Khufu and the early fourth dynasty.” Tallet is convinced that harbors such as Wadi al-Jarf and Ayn Soukhna served mainly as supply hubs. Since there were few sources of food in the Sinai, Merer and other managers were responsible for getting food from Egypt’s rich agricultural lands along the Nile to the thousands of men working in the Sinai mine fields, as well as retrieving the copper and turquoise from the Sinai. In all likelihood, they operated the harbor only during the spring and summer when the Red Sea was relatively calm. They then dragged the boats up to the rock face and stored them in the galleries for safekeeping until the next spring.