The shores of the earth's oceans are mostly rich in life, including human life; most of the non-frozen seas are lined with cities and towns. But not the Red Sea. Until the modern era of canals and steam ships, there were no towns on the Red Sea at all, and hardly anyone lived there. It almost never rained anywhere along its shores; a glance at a map will show you that not a single river flows into the sea. The wind either blew from the north or not at all, making sailing difficult. The Romans found it easier to sail down the Nile for 300 miles and caravan across 200 miles of desert to Berenike rather than try to sail the northern reaches of the Red Sea.
But the ancient Egyptians needed and wanted things not found in their own land. Two of the most important to them were copper, from which they made tools, and turquoise, with which they adorned their leaders and honored the gods. Both could be found in large quantities in the southern Sinai peninsula, 150 miles across a bitter desert and then 10 more miles across a bitter sea. Since nobody but a few desert nomads could live on either shore of the Gulf of Suez, no ports or mining settlement grew up. Instead the Egyptians mounted occasional expeditions into that desolation. These were made up of hundreds to a few thousand men. The men were sent across to Suez at the least unpleasant season of the year, there to mine and smelt for a few months until they ran out of food and water. Then they came back, laden with treasure. After, for the benefit of future generations, raising stelae like the one above in which the expedition's leader boasted (always) that his expedition had mined more copper and turquoise than any before him.
What they found in those sites has been extraordinary from the beginning. The sites both date to the Old Kingdom, between 2700 and 2200 BC. They consisted of stone building foundations, landscape modifications like terracing and roads, "galleries" carved into the rocks, and, at Wadi al-Jarf, a stone jetty that makes this the oldest artificial harbor yet discovered.
Since, remember, it hardly ever rains here, the galleries contained wonderfully preserved artifacts of wood, fiber, and papyrus.
It seems that when an expedition was launched to the Sinai, the whole crew marched to one of these harbors. There they unsealed the galleries, which had been blocked with huge stones, and withdrew the material cached there. This included whole, disassembled boats and various other gear needed for sailing to Sinai. When they were done, they disassembled the boats, put everything back in the galleries, blocked them with with stone again, and marched back to the Nile.
One interesting point is that Old Kingdom Egypt needed tons and tons of copper. Sinai copper was naturally alloyed with a little arsenic, which made it harder than pure copper, but still not as hard or durable as bronze. The chisels Egyptians made from Sinai copper were the size of a finger, and experiments show that they were worn half away in just a few hours of work on stone. It boggles the mind to ponder how many chisels were used up building one of the great pyramids – in fact I have not even found an attempt at a calculation.
These work gangs were a regular feature of Egyptian life; their word was aper. We know about them because they regularly signed their stonework in places where it wouldn't show; dozens of separate gangs have been identified at Old Kingdom pyramids. The crew whose log was found went by the name of "The Escort Team of The Uraeus of Khufu is its Prow." (An Uraeus was a sort of divine snake symbol; it is entirely typical of The Red Sea Scrolls that the authors use the word about ten times before finally defining it on page 185.) The most likely interpretation of the name is that Uraeus of Khufu is its Prow was the name of a ship, and this gang was attached to it.
From there our attention moves to the building of the Great Pyramid. It seems clear from evidence already found that the building was done by work crews just Merer's. One interesting point is that the dozens of barracks buildings that have been unearthed around the site are divided into sections that seem about the right size for 40 men, so perhaps this was a typical size for work crews.
As for the building of the pyramids, what can one say that hasn't already been said? Calculations done for the quarrying and erecting of all that stone come to around 200 million man-days, at a time when Egypt had about a million inhabitants. And that's just for the pyramid itself; to that you have to add the building of all the associated sub-tombs, temples, processional ways, etc., besides the vast harbor and canal complex (see map above) that was excavated 8m deep, the expeditions to obtain copper for tools, and all the barracks for the workers, the bakeries, the breweries, etc., etc. That might double the total. Khufu reigned for 23 years, or about 8,400 days. Which means that on every day of his reign, about 47,000 Egyptians were working on their king's tomb. If we assume that a million Egytians included 250,000 adult men, it looks like building Khufu's tomb consumed about one fifth of all the male labor available in his kingdom. Remember, also, that this far from exhausts the demands of the Egyptian state; after all Merer's men spent a month on an unrelated project in the Delta, and the pharaohs also conscripted men to fight whenever they needed an army or navy.
An internet fight has broken out lately over the status of the people who worked on the pyramids. Our old stories say slaves, but Afrocentrists have correctly noted that this is wrong. Most of the labor was provided by regular Egyptians who had been drafted to do this work by the state. When I explained to one of my sons that in less cash-dominated societies governments often extracted labor from their people rather than money, he said, "so instead of taxation as theft, it's taxation as slavery." Yes, pretty much.
The whole internet argument about pyramid labor rests on dubious foundations, especially a clear division between "slave" and "free." The model many Americans have, based on North America in the 19th century, is that some people are slaves with no rights, while others are free people who have many rights and indeed a privileged status. That does not apply at all to ancient Egypt, or indeed to almost anywhere else besides North America and the Caribbean between 1700 and 1865. Egyptians were free to work the land their parents had worked, free to hand over much of their harvests to various nobles and officials who lorded over them, and free to spend years of their lives hauling stone for the Pharaoh's tomb. If they objected, they were killed. The hieroglyph for a work crew (aper) was a cow that had been hobbled so it couldn't wander away.
The discovery of Merer's work logs is astonishing, and I love the story of ancient Egyptians mounting expeditions across to Sinai to mine copper. The building of the Great Pyramid is one of history's grandest and weirdest events, and how wonderful to have found a new source showing how the work crews were organized, and even a few of their names. Maybe some day somebody will write a good book about it.