Oldest papyri from oldest port go on display

Dating to around 2600 B.C., the harbor at Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea in Egypt is the oldest port complex ever discovered in the world. It was built during the reign of the Pharaoh Snefru (ca. 2620–2580 B.C.), the founder of the 4th Dynasty, and was primarily used for boat travel to the Egypt’s main copper and turquoise mines on the Sinai Peninsula. An L-shaped pier extended east from the shore into the water for 160 meters (525 feet) before turning southeast for 120 meters (394 feet). Its remains are still clearly visible at low tide. The pier created a breakwater and large sheltered area where ships could be moored. This was confirmed when a group of at least 22 limestone ship anchors were found south of the east branch of the pier.

Carved into limestone hills next to a water spring, archaeologists found a warehouse system of 30 storage galleries, the largest of which are more than 100 feet long. They average about 10 feet wide and eight feet high. The galleries were used to store boat parts, shipping materials and food and water supplies for the seafaring voyages. They were also used to make repairs on ships. There are pottery kilns nearby and large quantities of pottery believed to have been used as a water containers have been found in the galleries.

In 2013, archaeologists discovered hundreds of papyrus fragments, some of them more than two feet long. The papyri had been deposited in front of galleries G1 and G2 where large blocking stones were placed to close off the entrance to the galleries. Written in hieratic (simplified hieroglyphics used by priests and scribes), several of the papyri were dated to the end of the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (ca. 2580–2550 B.C.). One of the documents was very specific, noting it was written the year after the 13th cattle count of Khufu’s reign. The cattle count was done every other year, so the year after the 13th cattle count was the 27th year, which according to our current best information was the last year of his reign. The precise dating identifies this papyrus as the oldest ever discovered in Egypt.

There are two types of documents in the papyrus group: accounts organized in tables anyone who has ever worked in Excel will immediately recognize, and the logbook of a Memphis official named Merer. The accounting tables record deliveries of food from areas elsewhere in Egypt including the Nile Delta. Revenue is recorded in red; outlay in black. Merer’s archive recorded the daily activities of his team of around 200 men, and as archaeological luck would have it, most of the surviving papyri don’t cover the minutiae of their operations at Wadi al-Jarf, but rather their work relating to the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. There are descriptions of quarrying the limestone, the transportation over the Nile and canals of massive blocks of stone from the quarries of Tura to the “Horizon of Khufu,” meaning the Giza construction site. These limestone blocks were probably used for the outer layer of the Great Pyramid, now lost, but which would have glowed white in the Egyptian sun.

Merer’s logbook was found in the same archaeological context as the 13th cattle count document. It confirms that in Khufu’s last regnal year, the pyramid was in the final stage of construction. It also identifies the role of a major player, the pharaoh’s half-brother Ankh-haf who as “chief for all the works of the king” was in charge of this last phase of the Great Pyramid’s construction.

A selection of the papyri, including the 13th cattle count document, the largest pieces of Merer’s journal and the accounting spreadsheets have gone on display for the first time at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. It will be a lightning quick exhibition, unfortunately, so unless you’re in Egypt right now or plan to be there in the next week or so, you’ll miss it. It opened on July 14th and closes on July 29th.

11 thoughts on “Oldest papyri from oldest port go on display

  1. “30 storage galleries, the largest of which are more than 100 feet long”

    Egyptian “feet” or imperial ones ? As far as the “storage galleries” are concerned, the difference in legth is close to a full “cubit”, which could mean that our Pharaonic Logistics might be in serious difficulties. However, in this context, the cubit is buffer storage, so we are probably safe, and the feet appear to be indeed imperial ones.

    Contrastingly, without harbor logistics, “cattle accounting” and first of all “cattle”, you cannot build a Pyramid. Moreover, in current projects it sometimes turns out there is not enough cattle, there is something wrong with the harbor or the accounting is rogue.

    324 mm = 1 Doric order pous
    323 mm = 1 Luwian pous
    308 mm = 1 Attic pous
    304 mm = 1 Minoan pous
    300 mm = 1 Egyptian bd
    296 mm = 1 Ionian Order pous
    296 mm = 1 Roman pes
    315 mm = 1 Athenian pous
    300 mm = 1 Phoenician pous

    The surviving Egyptian “cubit rods” range from 523.5 to 529.2 mm in length, and are divided into seven palms; each palm is divided into four fingers and the fingers are further subdivided.

  2. Interesting that the waterline is in about the same place it was in 2600 BCE – a lot of other ancient harbors are currently some distance inland or offshore.

  3. In the case of the old Greek harbor cities on the Turkish coast, research has it that soil erosion from deforestation is what caused their silting up and ending up being abandoned and inland. This would probably not have been so big an issue over in Egypt’s armpit.

    (This touches on a question that has puzzled me for a long time. Much of the Near East and Northern Africa is desert; but how much of it was always a desert, and how much was turned into desert in prehistory and antiquity through deforestation?)

  4. The claims of great damage by deforestation, as applied to Italy and Greece, are apparently untrue – just a literary meme that’s survived a couple of thousand years.
    Grove, A.T.; Rackham, Oliver (2003). The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History (Second printing with corrections ed.). New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10055-8.

    For the other side of the Med: dunno – I plead ignorance.

  5. Just a “literary meme” ? – There are fire clearings and in general a more arid climate, but I could not say if the damage by deforestation, “as applied to Italy and Greece”, is necessarily “untrue”. For obvious reasons it took centuries and most of it was probably done from the 16th century AD onwards. The woods as described in the ‘Odysseia’, however, appear ‘woody’, where now there is mainly sand.

    In Northern Africa the Sahara deserted, which more or less let Egypt settle along the Nile in the first place, and as far as the East is concerned, it reads in the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ (ca. 2100 BC):


    Enkidu opened his mouth to speak, saying unto Gilgamesh: “You have felled the guardian of the forest by thy strength alone. Nothing can bring dishonor unto thee. Therefore, flatten the Forest of Cedar! Find for me a tall cedar whose tip touches the sky. I shall fashion from it a door as broad as the length of a reed, which shall have no pivot but instead shall sit within the door jam. Its thickness shall be a cubit; its breadth the length of the reed. May no stranger approach a door meant only for the love of the gods. The Euphrates shall carry the door to the Temple of Enlil in Nippur, where the people and the god himself might rejoice in it.”

  6. Read Rackham: otherwise you are just accepting oft-repeated tales without reading a critical inspection of them.

  7. Considering that there is not a shred of proof that the Giza pyramids were built by the Pharaohic Egyptians, one would think the assertion the “the horizon of Khufu” referred to the Giza Pyramids would be supported by some evidence!

    Sadly, the pyramids that we do know were built by the “Ancient Egyptians” are all engineering failures. Orthodox Egyptology would have us believe that they suddenly and miraculously lost the ability to build pyramids?

    As there is rather a lot of “stone” in the Giza pyramids one would think the Egyptologists would have found the large quarry it must all have come from? Or is it a kind of concrete?

    The orthodox were so busy fitting the evidence into their pre-concieved pigeon holes they seem to have missed the water erosion on the body of the Sphinx and the fact that the last time such precipitation occurred in that area was over 8000 years ago.

    I see our sensitive author passes over the fact that the Arabs stripped the limestone covering off the Giza pyramids in the 16th Century to build parts of Cairo. A pity as the ancient Greek and Roman travel writers such as Herodotus, mentioned how the glacis stones were covered in an unknown script and showed a “high water mark” about three quarters of the way up the largest pyramid. If the script had been hieroglyphics, it seems likely they would have mentioned the fact.

    The mirroring of Sirius in the Giza Pyramids was also completely missed by the Egyptologists, not to mention the alignment of the Sphinx with Leo at certain dates etc. etc.

  8. As for the deforestation question, it seems rather obvious that the Phoenicians, Greeks, Turks and Romans built their large wooden ships by the thousand out of, well WOOD! As there are few forests in the area now, a Ph.D may be required to discern that there were MORE TREES in antiquity. Even an undergraduate knows that there was little reforestation in antiquity and not much conservation either. Let’s use our wee brains: the Med is quite warm and North Africa was the bread basket of the Roman Empire before various tribes of ignoramuses, ending with the Moslem invaders, allowed the irrigation systems to fail and the desert to invade. Based on our own farmed out North American heartland, we can also assume that soil exhaustion, humus loss and resulting wind erosion, perhaps exacerbated by drought were also factors. We know that that elephants, lions and many other typical “African” game animals were found throughout the Middle East and North Africa in antiquity. Does anyone suppose they lived on sand?

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