How did Egypt build the pyramids? It is a question that has excited the imagination of scholars and visitors for millennia. Now papyri documenting work on the Great Pyramid are revealing fresh insights into construction work. Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner told Matthew Symonds how combining text and archaeology can expose the secrets of an extraordinary building project.
MARCH 24, 2022
We know it as the Great Pyramid. To the Ancient Egyptians it was the Akhet Khufu or Horizon of Khufu, named after the 4th Dynasty king who reigned from roughly 2633 BC to 2605 BC. By any measure, the pyramid that served as his tomb was a staggering accomplishment. Its four sides were each approximately 230m long, while the edifice incorporated some 2.3 million blocks and originally stood almost 150m high. Within lay an intricate network of chambers and passages, which showcase the skill of Egyptian masons. Despite the monument's impressive statistics, though, there is one thing it is notably short of: text. Unlike some later pyramids, and the famous tombs crowding the Valley of the Kings, the interior of the Great Pyramid is not lavishly adorned with hieroglyphics. Instead, just a few graffiti naming work gangs were daubed in suitably discreet spots. Until recently, these sparse words provided the only contemporary textual glimpse of construction operations.
A decade ago, hoping to secure an eye-witness account of work on the Great Pyramid would have seemed like archaeological wishful thinking of the highest order. But then, in 2013, fragments of the earliest papyri documents ever found were recovered by an archaeological team led by Pierre Tallet, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. It speaks volumes about the scale of Khufu's grand design that these texts, which were compiled by individuals involved with construction operations, were not found within the pyramid or even at Giza. Instead, they were recovered more than 130km away, in Egypt's Eastern Desert near the Red Sea shore. The papyri comprise logbooks and other bureaucratic records that detail the activities of teams engaged on Khufu's mortuary complex. Some of these accounts overlap in a remarkable fashion with the results of archaeological work led by Mark Lehner, President of AERA (Ancient Egypt Research Associates), at Giza. Now these two archaeologists have collaborated on a book shedding new light on one of the most renowned archaeological monuments in the world (see 'Further reading').
Red Sea Harbours
Pierre Tallet started searching the Red Sea coastline in 2001. He was seeking traces of pharaonic harbours created to support maritime expeditions either east into Sinai or south towards Ethiopia and the Land of Punt. An early success at Ayn Sukhna allowed the excavation of port facilities dating back to the reign of Khufu's son Khafre (c.2597-2573 BC), but there was another site that also intrigued Pierre. Since 1823, a handful of explorers and visitors had noted the existence of rock-cut galleries in the desert, and speculated about their purpose. As such cavities could be used to store boats, they were one of the signature features of the pharaonic harbours Pierre was seeking. Unfortunately, no one had recorded exactly where these galleries lay. Eventually, after combining clues in visitor accounts with a trawl of images on Google Earth, the galleries were relocated in 2008 at Wadi el-Jarf. The satellite photographs pointed to the existence of additional harbour infrastructure, with subsequent excavations confirming the discovery of a major site.
'Including Wadi el-Jarf and Ayn Sukhna, we now know the location of three harbours on the Red Sea,' says Pierre, 'and Wadi el-Jarf is the earliest of them. From what we have seen so far, we think it was created in the reign of Sneferu (c.2675-2633 BC), the king at the beginning of the 4th Dynasty. At the time he was probably constructing a pyramid of his own. This was an era when things were built on a grand scale, with 31 storage galleries created at Wadi el-Jarf, whereas our two later harbours don't have more than ten. Even more important is that a big jetty was installed at Wadi el-Jarf, which probably makes it the oldest artificial open-sea harbour in the world. In total, this jetty is about 200m long from east to west and from north to south, enclosing an area of around 6-7ha. Again, this sets it apart from our other two sites, where natural features on the coastline were used to shelter boats.'
'All of the Red Sea harbours would have been used for expeditions to Sinai, where the Egyptians could find large deposits of copper. This was something they needed for their building projects. When you are working on limestone, for example, you can use copper implements to cut the stone. So it is reasonable to suspect that, at a time when stone monuments were being built to an unprecedented scale, the Egyptians would have needed far greater quantities of copper tools. The smaller deposits available in the Eastern Desert would no longer have been enough. The southern part of Sinai, though, contained the best copper mines the Egyptians could exploit themselves. Interest in that region didn't start with the 4th Dynasty – while surveying south Sinai I found inscriptions dating back to Dynasty 0 in 3200 BC – but I think there was a major intensification of expeditions under Sneferu and Khufu. After all, when you have a team of workers in south Sinai, the problem is not so much to get them there, it is to feed them in an area where so little food was available. If you send several thousand people for several months, then you are going to need constant supply shipments. So creating Red Sea harbours is probably part of the logistical preparations for connecting large-scale expeditions in Sinai to the resources in the Nile valley.'
If resources in Sinai were a problem, many key materials were also far from abundant on the Red Sea coast. Perhaps the most pressing shortage when seeking to establish a fleet was timber. Because of this, boats were built in the Nile valley before being transported in pieces across the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea shore. The vessels could then be reassembled for the duration of an expedition. Once it was over, the boat elements were too valuable to leave lying around and too cumbersome to keep transporting to and from the Nile valley. This is where the galleries came into play. There, the dismantled vessels and other kit could be safely stored near the harbour until they were needed once more. At Wadi el-Jarf, not only were a few wooden ship parts found still stowed in the galleries, but there were also huge stone blocks used to shut and secure these cavities while the harbour was mothballed. It was in a pit between two of these great blocking stones that someone had stashed part of a papyrus archive dating to Khufu's reign.
What Inspector Merer saw
'It was a surprise to find papyri', says Pierre, 'which do not survive at all at Giza. We were lucky for two reasons. The first is that these records should not have stayed at the site, they were probably supposed to be taken to a central administration archive in the Memphis-Giza area, where no documents from this era have survived. We were also lucky that the pit containing the papyri was disturbed at a later date, which perhaps sounds paradoxical. But it seems water could pool at the bottom of the pit, and all of the papyri that remained at its base were completely decayed when we found them. It was only fragments that had been moved higher up when someone dug into the pit that were well preserved.'
'The papyri run to over 30 rolls and are the archive of a 160-strong work-gang known as 'The Escort Team of "The Uraeus of Khufu is its prow"'. It seems that the last part of this name refers to a ship and that the men were essentially sailors. There are two different types of documents, with less than half of them comprising logbooks detailing the activities of some of these men. I am still working on the other records, but they are mostly accounting documents registering food, tools, and everything that was issued to the team. The material is very informative about how people worked for the monarchy at this time, and forces us to reject the old idea that slaves built the pyramids. Instead, the team was well fed and well treated – these were specialists working for most of the year on pyramid-related projects, not a group assembled to labour on it during the annual Nile flood when farmers didn't need to tend to their fields.'
'One individual named in the papyri is Dedi, who was a scribe and most likely a member of the royal administration. Although his documents aren't well preserved, Dedi seems to have overseen the entire escort team, which was split into four smaller sections or phyles. At least three documents also name an Inspector Merer, who was probably the leader of one phyle consisting of about 40 people, based on the amount of food being issued to them. This section is the only one that we have detailed records for, but it was known as the 'Great' phyle and so was probably the most important. Merer's logbooks allow us to follow the different missions allocated to this phyle over the course of a little more than a year. For some of it, they were working on the Akhet Khufu – the Great Pyramid – and at another time they were apparently making a harbour on the Mediterranean coast in the Nile delta, while the final recorded assignment seems to have been in Sinai, which makes sense given where the papyri were found.'
Merer's daily log entries are as succinct as they are extraordinary. A number of them deal with journeys from limestone quarries at Tura, east of the Nile, to the Great Pyramid, west of the Nile. In general, the Great phyle seems to have managed about three round-trips in ten days. Here is an extract from the log of one such journey:
…Inspector Merer casts off with his phyle from Tura, loaded with stone, for Akhet Khufu; spends the night at She Khufu; Day 27: sets sail from She Khufu, sails towards Akhet Khufu, loaded with stone, spends the night at Akhet Khufu…
As well as firing the imagination about what Merer would have seen while over-nighting at the Great Pyramid, his account is crucial for demonstrating that people could arrive by boat. This brings us to the work undertaken at Giza by Mark Lehner.
Giza by Boat
Despite a natural tendency to focus on the pyramids when thinking about Giza, these were only the most prominent element of larger funerary complexes. The royal tombs were approached via two pyramid temples known as the valley temple and upper temple, while the tombs of royal wives, favoured relatives, and high officials could also lie in the shadow of the king's pyramid. For over three decades, Mark has investigated a range of sites associated with Giza (see CWA 44 and 86), including an extraordinary settlement known as Heit el-Ghurab – the Wall of the Crow – and also a series of artificial waterways. Although Giza lies well to the west of the Nile, this ingenious network of basins could have filled with water and become navigable during the annual flood, which peaked in mid August. Examining both the waterways and Heit el-Ghurab reveals a striking overlap with the contents of the Red Sea Scrolls.
'Using evidence that has emerged over the past 30 years, I worked out a best model for the water transport infrastructure at Giza', says Mark. 'For example, about 70m of a colossal stone wall of black basalt on a limestone foundation turned up during construction work in 1993, 500m east of the Khufu valley temple. Building with black basalt on limestone is the same style used in both of Khufu's pyramid temples. Two other segments of similar wall were also found to the north and the south. So, if you take the remains of the Khufu valley temple, these three sections of wall, and connect the dots, you get a rectangle with sides of 400m and 450m. There are also 77 core samples from the area that were drilled as part of a waste-water management project undertaken by a company called AMBRIC in the 1980s. Within the confines of our rectangle, they found dark clay and silt going to very deep levels that were just 3-4m above sea level. To put that in perspective, the floodplain in Khufu's time can be estimated to lie 12-12.5m above sea level. So the inference is that this rectangle was a harbour or port, which silted up once it fell into disuse. I also did something similar to reconstruct a central canal basin, which leads towards the area where the Sphinx was carved, probably by Khufu's son, Khafre. Elsewhere, we also excavated the corner of a basin, complete with ramps, terraces, and a stairway. So there are footholds like that: finds that provide benchmarks and boundaries.'
'Today, the sections of wall that allow us to draw our rectangle are 15m above sea level, while the remains of the Khufu valley temple are also at that height. On the strength of the AMBRIC core samples, our flagship site at Heit el-Ghurab lay on a peninsula extending out into the floodplain. Its name – Wall of the Crow – comes from another colossal wall that extends from the desert out to the east, and its base is 15.4m above sea level. So, using all of this allowed me to create a model of not only the outlines of the waterways, but also the absolute elevations. The natural depth of the earliest silts deposited by the Nile in the area seems to be about 7m above sea level, so that drop down to just 3 or 4m directly east of the pyramids astounded the AMBRIC engineers. An inference, then, is that the Egyptians intervened to dig deep-water basins. Now, the depth of the Nile water on the floodplain during the inundation was only about a metre or so, but by creating a deeper artificial channel it could be used by ships.'
'I was working on all this while Pierre was finding the papyri, which provide the names of basins at Giza. The Ancient Egyptian word is she – it's basically the hieroglyph of a basin – so the She Khufu is the lake of Khufu. Merer also records his team undertaking "works related to the dyke of Ro-She Khufu", which seems to have involved opening some kind of dam or bulwark to release the water. The biggest unknown with my model is whether there was a major western Nile channel at the time, as modern authorities are split on this question. But, regardless of whether the channel was major or minor, what the Wadi el-Jarf papyri are showing is that work teams were getting to the pyramid on boats laden with stone. There's really no doubt about that now. It's a remarkable discovery. What the papyri also do is bring the pyramid into a human context, by naming some individuals involved – individuals who were doing ancient Excel spreadsheets!'
Thinking of the countless people who must have worked on the project raises the question of what sort of facilities were available for them at Giza. The results of the excavations at Heit el-Ghurab raise some tantalising possibilities. This remarkable settlement lay on a tongue of land projecting to the south of the reconstructed central canal basin and contained a range of structures including a 'Western Town' of high-status houses, a granary, bakeries, and a set of barrack-style structures known as the Gallery Complex (not to be confused with the rock-cut galleries for boats and stores near the Red Sea). After excavating one of the Heit el-Ghurab galleries in 2002, team members found that lying down in it established the structure could accommodate about 40-50 people. This is a good fit with the calculated size of Merer's phyle, while a reference to a granary in the papyri also overlaps with the presence of one at Heit el-Ghurab. Even so, the fully excavated structures could not be the ones seen by Merer, as they date to later in the 4th Dynasty, during the reigns of Khufu's son Khafre and the later king Menkaure. At the same time, though, undated earlier phases do lie underneath.
'Over the escarpment from Heit el-Ghurab, Karl Kromer excavated a colossal ancient municipal rubbish dump in the 1970s and found sealings of Khufu and Khafre', says Mark. 'Karl recognised two phases of activity, with the earliest containing painted plaster and other upscale chic material that looked like it was from a palace. Something we have from houses in the Western Town are sealings of high-ranking officials. One house yielded the most numerous corpus of sealings from Egypt, except for some 5th Dynasty temples. The sealings from the house were studied by John Nolan, who realised they included titles associated with the Vizier. John felt that sealings were being made on the site – indicating those officials were present – and also noticed that one of the seals matched fragments found by Kromer in the early phase of the dump, which can be linked to Khufu's reign. We also know that there was earlier activity at Heit el-Ghurab. Investigation of this has been limited, but we've found an earlier gallery complex. So our hypothesis is that the site began with Khufu. Maybe – who knows? – one of the earlier gallery complexes even accommodated Merer and his men.'
'An amazing thing about one of the Wadi el-Jarf papyri is that it mentions a khenu palace of Khufu. There are five terms for a palace, and khenu tends to be the one where the king stays and lives. Back in the '90s, I wondered if there could be a palace south of the Wall of the Crow, which is 10m high and has a gate 7m high, so it provided access to something important. But when we found the Gallery Complex it didn't look like the right signature for a palace – where are the columned halls or audience chamber? But then John's work on the sealings also led him to suspect a palace. And among the sealings we found in the Kromer dump was one giving the oldest attestation of another of the five terms for palace: setep-sa, which literally means 'the chosen phyle'. It can refer to the royal guard force, which again raises the question of who the barrack-like galleries were for. What I really think is going on at Giza as a whole – stretching from the Khufu valley temple all the way to the Heit el-Ghurab complex – is that it was one royal city, with different aspects of the royal presence within it. But we have plenty still to do, and at the moment preparations are under way to examine a new part of the Heit el-Ghurab site.'
Discovering and piecing together the Red Sea Scrolls has, then, added a new dimension to our understanding of how the Great Pyramid was built. While it is little short of astonishing that these portions of papyrus survived at all, their existence draws attention to the mass of documentation that did not.
If other phyles were led by figures documenting their work and supplies as diligently as Merer, then hundreds of thousands of papyrus records must have been generated as Khufu's tomb rose from the Giza plateau. Just imagining this paperwork provides a striking illustration of the sophistication of the royal bureaucracy that had developed by the time of Khufu's reign. The discovery of the papyri so far from Giza also emphasises how the very act of building the pyramids helped to shape Egypt itself. After all, such a sophisticated administrative apparatus was only needed because Sneferu and then Khufu embarked on extraordinary construction projects that consumed massive quantities of material sourced from both near and far. Seen this way, it was the need for pyramids that created the need for a state.
© 2004-2026 Bill McNulty All Rights Reserved