A papyrus reveals how the Great Pyramid was built

A newly discovered papyrus contains an eye-witness account of the gathering of materials for the Great Pyramid.

Great Pyramid
(PAWEESIT)


The Great Pyramid in Egypt is the last of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. The tomb for Pharaoh Khufu — “Cheops” in Greek — sits on the Giza plateau about 3 kilometers southwest of Egypt’s capitol Cairo, and it’s huge: nearly 147 meters high and 230.4 meters on each side (it’s now slightly smaller due to erosion). Built of roughly 2.3 million limestone and rose granite stones from hundreds of kilometers away, it’s long posed a couple of vexing and fascinating mysteries: How did the ancient Egyptians manage to get all of these stones to Giza, and how did they build such a monumental object? All sorts of exotic ideas have been floated, including assistance from aliens visiting earth. Now, as the result of an amazing find in a cave 606 kilometers away, we have an answer in the form of 4,600-year-old, bound papyrus scrolls, the oldest papyri ever found. They’re the journal of one of the managers who helped build the great pyramid. It’s the only eye-witness account of building the Great Pyramid that’s ever been found.

It was written by a man named Merer, who reported to “the noble Ankh-haf,” Khufu’s half-brother. It describes, among other things, a stop of his 200-man crew in the Tura, or Maaasara, limestone quarries on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Suez, and filling up their boat for the 13-17 km trip back up the river to Giza. Since this type of limestone was used for the pyramid’s outer casing, the journal is believed to document work on the tomb during the final year of Khufu’s life, around 2560 BCE.

Khufu

In 1823, British explorer John Gardner Wilkinson first described the caves in Wadi al-Jarf on the eastern coast of the Red Sea: “Near the ruins is a small knoll containing eighteen excavated chambers, beside, perhaps, many others, the entrance of which are no longer visible.” He described them as being “well cut and vary from about 80 to 24 feet, by 5; their height may be from 6 to 8 feet.” Two French pilots also noted presence of the 30 caves in the mid-1950s, but it wasn’t until Pierre Tallet interviewed one of the pilots that he was able to pinpoint the caves’ location during a 2011 dig. Two years later, the papyri were discovered. Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass called it “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.” 

Prior to the work of Tallet and others, the ancient Egyptians weren’t thought to be seafarers, but abandoned ports unearthed along the Gulf of Suez and the Read Sea tell a different story.

In the Egyptian resort town Ayn Soukhna, along the west coast of the Suez, Egyptian heirogplyhs were first found on cliff walls in 1997. “I love rock inscriptions,” Tallet told Smithsonian, “they give you a page of history without excavating.” He read one to the Smithsonian: “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.”

(GOOGLE EARTH)

That would be the Sinai desert across the Red Sea, and Wadi al-Jarf is only 56 km away from two of a group of ports. Tallet has uncovered the remains of an 182-meter, L-shaped jetty there, along with 130 anchors. He believes it, like Ayn Soukhna, were part of a series of ports, supply hubs, bringing needed materials into Egypt. The caves were apparently built for boat storage, as they have been elsewhere around the edges of ancient Egypt. It appears Wadi al-Jarf was only in use a short while, during the building of the pyramid — it likely supplied the project with Sinai copper, the hardest metal of is time, for cutting stones. 

The second part of the Great Pyramid mystery — who built it? — may have been solved in the 1980s by Mark Lehner, who uncovered a residential area capable of housing some 20,000 people just meters from the pyramids. Prior to that find, there was scant evidence of the massive population of workers that would have been required for building the tomb. Studying the “cattle-to-pig” ratio revealed the diversity of the population that lived there,: Beef was the food of the elite; pigs of the working person, and Lerhner discovered “the ratio of cattle to pig for the entire site stands at 6:1, and for certain areas 16:1,” a plausible distribution for the construction team.

Lehner visited Wadi al-Jarf and concurs with Tallet about its meaning: “The power and purity of the site is so Khufu,” he told Smithsonian. “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.” He believes the pyramid stones were transported by boat from ports like Wadi al-Jarf and Ayn Soukhna via canals to the construction site in Giza, the ancient Egyptians having been master builders of such waterways for the purposes of irrigation.

COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
  • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
  • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
Keep reading Show less

Who is the highest selling artist from your state?

What’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota?

Eminem may be 'from' Detroit, but he was born in Missouri
Culture & Religion

This is a mysterious map. Obviously about music, or more precisely musicians. But what’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota? None of these musicians are from those states! Everyone knows that! Is this map that stupid, or just looking for a fight? Let’s pause a moment and consider our attention spans, shrinking faster than polar ice caps.

Keep reading Show less

Skyborne whales: The rise (and fall) of the airship

Can passenger airships make a triumphantly 'green' comeback?

R. Humphrey/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

Large airships were too sensitive to wind gusts and too sluggish to win against aeroplanes. But today, they have a chance to make a spectacular return.

Keep reading Show less

Vegans are more likely to suffer broken bones, study finds

Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.

Credit: Jukov studi via Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
  • Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
  • It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast