For decades, archaeologists have puzzled over the greatest mystery of the Great Pyramid of Giza. How were the enormous stone blocks that were used to construct this marvel – the largest of Giza’s pyramids – transported to the site in the first place? Now, however, a series of discoveries by a French archaeologist may have gone a long way to solving this conundrum.
The Great Pyramid is located at Giza, about a 20-minute drive from the center of the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Built by the pharaoh Khufu some 4,500 years ago, the massive construction remains a source of wonder to this day. And experts have meanwhile argued for years about how the huge building blocks were brought to the area.
On completion, the Great Pyramid was around 480 feet tall, although this height has diminished somewhat following centuries of desert erosion. Even so, it was the tallest edifice anywhere in the world for some 3,800 years. That was until about 1300, when the 520-foot-tall spire of Lincoln Cathedral was finished. However, that spire only lasted until a storm blew it down in 1549. It’s an interesting contrast with the Great Pyramid, which still stands firm today.
It’s little wonder, mind you, that the question of how the Great Pyramid’s construction materials were brought in has remained so contentious. Just look at the raw statistics of the structure. Some 2.3 million blocks of stone were used to build it, with the largest weighing up to 80 tons each. An estimated six million tons of limestone and nine million tons of granite were needed. And the granite had to be brought in from Aswan, some 420 miles away.
Now the man who has brought us closer to understanding the construction methods of the ancient Egyptians is Pierre Tallet. He’s a French archaeologist who studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Tallet’s links with Egypt started when he worked as a teacher in the country. But his scholarship isn’t exclusive to the Great Pyramid itself. In his work, he has in fact specialized in studying less well known ancient Egyptian sites.
Tallet’s first breakthrough came when he found a series of horizontal underground passages at a location beside the Red Sea. The passages had long ago been sealed up. What the archaeologist established, though, is that these chambers had actually been used by the ancient Egyptians as places in which to store boats.
That discovery was at Ayn Soukhna, and Tallet dated his find to the same period that saw the construction of Pharaoh Khufu’s Great Pyramid. The scholar’s convincing theory was that he’d come across a sophisticated harbor complex. What’s more, he reckoned that this facility had been directly involved in the transportation of materials to the site of the Great Pyramid itself.
Ayn Soukhna – which these days is a popular tourist resort – is on the west bank of the Red Sea, about 70 miles east of Giza. Despite its location, though, the site was not even accepted as one of archaeological significance until the discovery of some ancient hieroglyphs found carved into a cliff in 1997.
The cliffside carvings include the seal of a pharaoh, Mentuhotep IV, who ruled some 4,000 years ago. And in an article on Smithsonian.com, Tallet translated some of the hieroglyphics that accompany this royal seal. The lines read, “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.” The words thus confirm the importance of Ayn Soukhna as a port.
Tallet’s second major find was another harbor site, Wadi al-Jarf, on the Red Sea. An English Egyptologist, Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, had in fact visited the area in 1823. However, Wilkinson misinterpreted what he saw there, believing the chambers cut into the rock face at the site were catacombs.
For Tallet, meanwhile, finding this relatively unknown site had taken some painstaking detective work. The archaeologist knew that a pair of French pilots stationed in Egypt during the 1950s had visited the area, so he set about finding them. Happily, he managed to locate one of the two airmen, who was still alive, and went through the man’s notes. And these notes, combined with evidence from Wilkinson’s visit and modern-day GPS, subsequently led Tallet to the site.
When Tallet finally saw the chambers cut into the rock at Wadi al-Jarf, he was able to correctly identify them. He realized that, just like the facilities at Ayn Soukhna, these were places that had been used by the ancient Egyptians to store their boats.
On top of the difficulty in finding the place, getting inside the chambers required quite a bit of manual labor. The mouths of the galleries had been sealed up with massive stones, and Tallet and his team needed to remove these to gain entrance. But locating and correctly identifying the true purpose of Wadi al-Jarf wasn’t even the most exciting part of Tallet’s explorations. The best was yet to come.
What the archaeologists found when they got into the chambers astonished them. Lying on the floor of one of the spaces, apparently carelessly tossed aside, was a large bundle of papyrus scrolls. Tallet told Smithsonian.com that the ancient Egyptians “threw all the papyri inside – some of them were still tied with a rope – probably as they were closing the site.”
Then later, when Tallet was able to examine the scrolls in detail, he found that they included a diary written by an official named Merer. This man, hitherto unheard of, was the leader of 200-strong team whose job was to transport goods around Egypt. What’s more, Merer was working – and keeping his journal – 4,500 years ago. That’s the same time at which Pharaoh Khufu was building his Great Pyramid.
Further revelations were to follow. You see, Merer’s dairy mentions a journey to Tura, a town on the River Nile where limestone for the construction of the Great Pyramid was quarried. This stone was then transported by boat to the monumental building site at Giza. Now, at last, there was definite evidence as to how the huge blocks of stone had been transported from one part of Egypt to another.
Merer’s fascinating journal also revealed further previously unknown information about the building of the Great Pyramid. One entry refers to the man whom Merer was accountable to in his work of transporting material to the Giza site: “the noble Ankh-haf.” Ankh-haf is portrayed in the bust seen here, which is now housed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
What’s more, Ankh-haf, it transpires, was the half-brother of Pharaoh Khufu. This mention of Ankh-haf in Merer’s journal therefore offers thrilling evidence that he was one of the men responsible for the building of the Great Pyramid. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s a find that has generated no small amount of excitement. A former Egyptian minister of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, told Smithsonian.com that these papyrus scrolls are “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.”
Building on all of this, another eminent Egyptologist, American Mark Lehner, has an interesting theory. He thinks that Merer would have been able to transport his cargo of massive stone slabs to Giza via a system of canals leading from the Nile. Yes, although the river is some miles from Giza, Lehner believes the ancient Egyptians would have been capable of such a feat.
So, through painstaking research, Pierre Tallet has achieved something amazing. He’s greatly increased our knowledge about how the incredible engineering and logistical feats of constructing the Great Pyramid were achieved. And he’s done it by deliberately avoiding the exploration of the most famous sites, such as Giza and the Valley of the Kings. Not that the man himself sounds particularly surprised. “Most new evidence is found in the periphery,” he told Smithsonian.com.