Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner, "The Red Sea Scrolls: How Ancient Papyri Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids" (2021)

Despite the awful title, this is a book about a major archaeological discovery by two real archaeologists. Unfortunately, the title is not even close to being the worst thing about the book, so I am going to spare you the trouble of reading it by telling you what it says.

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. 

Old Kingdom Stela Near the Copper Mines of Sinai

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.

All of this has been known for more than a century. A few intrepid 19th-century explorers had even found what they thought were ancient settlements along the western shore of the Gulf, which they thought might be associated with this trade. In 1956 two Frenchmen proposed to make a real study of one of these ports, but then the Suez Crisis erupted and they were expelled from the country. So there things rested until the 1990s, when archaeologists began exploring two sites called Ayn Sukhna and Wadi al-Jarf.

Plan of the Rock-Cut Galleries at Wadi al-Jarf

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. 

Jetty at Wadi al-Jarf, 4600 years old

Since, remember, it hardly ever rains here, the galleries contained wonderfully preserved artifacts of wood, fiber, and papyrus.

Artifacts from Wadi al-Jarf

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.

Inscription from the reign of Khufu (2589-2566 BC) at Wadi al-Jarf

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. 

Anyway, these discoveries at the Old Kingdom temporary ports were exciting in themselves, revealing a lot about Egypt and providing many fascinating artifacts like these water pots photographed in one of the galleries at Wadi al-Jarf. (The closest spring to Wadi al-Jarf is 6 miles away)

But among the papyrus fragments lodged between two stones at the front of one gallery was a whole bundle of pages covered with similar columns of text. These turned out to be the logs of a work gang from the reign of Khufu, detailing their activities over about seven months, during which they helped to build the Great Pyramid. It's quite astonishing, really, that such a thing should survive. I mean, if you had been at a party with a bunch of historians and they started talking about what lost document they most wanted to recover, and somebody said, "I want the working logs from the building of the Great Pyramid," you would have laughed loud and long at that hubris. But here it is.

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.

The gang was made up of four crews. The records are of two sorts, general accounts for the whole aper and records kept by Merer, who was the foreman of the crew known as Great. It is Merer's accounts that are particularly wonderful, since they lay out, day by day, what his men were doing for most of that seven month period. They spent much of it transporting limestone from quarries at a place called Tula to the building site of Khufu's Great Pyramid; the pyramid was once coated with bright white limestone, which was almost all removed in later years. They also spent a month in the Nile Delta working on some kind of maritime construction project, perhaps a jetty or a levee. They spent one day at the royal palace participating in a religious festival, providing some of the cheering crowds needed for great royal events. Then they were sent across the desert to the Gulf of Suez, where they transported supplies to miners. And then, somehow, the log book was lost, ending up trapped between two stones when they were used to seal up one of the rock-cut galleries.

Plan of the artificial harbors and canals at the pyramid building site

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.

Old Kingdom carving of an Egyptian ship

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.


David said...

Absolutely fascinating. Those figures for the Old Kingdom's capacity for social mobilization are astonishing. It would seem that the Old Kingdom was far stronger in its ability to gain information and compliant mobilization from its people than any state which has occupied the same ground since. Indeed, even if one revises the figures downward, they suggest levels of mobilization comparable to (even in excess of) those achieved during the Second World War (including civilian workers, etc.), and over a much longer period. Arguably the closest modern equivalent would be the way modern states can send significant portions of their populations to school for years at a time--but these are children, the results are often questionable, and Covid has revealed that the state has powerful allies in parents, who need somewhere to stow their kids. How that was achieved in that very early period must be an extraordinary story.

Coincidentally, I'm reading an essay collection on ancient and medieval states whose unifying theme is the weakness of these states. Perhaps significantly, there is no essay on Egypt.

John said...

I think the weirdness of ancient Egyptians working so hard on the pyramids is one of the spurs that led Julian Jaynes to posit his theory of divine voices; he claims in "The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" that they did this work because they heard the voice of their god-king in their heads, telling them to labor.

Anonymous said...

https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4778 Brian Dunning has a nice two part episode on who built the pyramids.