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Pyramid schemes

The Red Sea Scrolls: How Ancient Papyri Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids
Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner
Thames & Hudson £30 319pp (1.216kg)

Because I once made the mistake of dabbling a bit in Egyptology, no less than every other week – in the year 2022 – some friend (‘…’) will schwack me with a meme, cartoon or article about people who still believe the pyramids were built by aliens.

FFS (I hear you cry). If only there were a handy single-volume book one could present to these loons, full of unarguable evidence putting this feeble business past all disputation.

Cry. no. longer.

In the final weeks of the 2013 season, excavators on the Gulf of Suez, in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, uncovered the world’s most ancient harbour installation at Wadi el-Jarf. In it, they unearthed a cache containing the world’s oldest extant inscribed papyrus (c. 2607-2605 BCE). And in that, they found a ‘unique and unprecedented testimony relating to one of the world’s most famous monuments’ – the Great Pyramid at Giza: inspiring and perplexing visitors, now, for almost five millennia.

The little-green-men/Atlantean/whatever stuff is simultaneously a failure and an over-use of the imagination. But the pyramids, of course, are fairly mind-boggling.

King Khufu’s quarrymen hand-sculpted over 6 hectares of rock to level the plateau and form a basic foundation, to legendary levels of accuracy with regard to both the earth and heavens. The block-hauling ramps alone are thought to have contained as much as 400,000 cubic metres of sand and rock… and perhaps only reached 1/5 of the way up the edifice. The masons dressed precisely ‘67,127 square metres of the outer surface of [the] pyramid casing with copper chisels the width of an index finger.’ The outer surface!

A ‘human disturbance on a geological scale’, the funerary complex of the Great Pyramid was so large that it incorporated other pyramids.

The building site also contained an entire administrative city – ‘a kind of Old Kingdom Egyptian equivalent of Versailles’ – complete with artificial inland port to take hydraulic advantage of the Nile flood.

Here, handwritten scribal records – the ‘oldest known explicitly dated Egyptian documents’ – pick up the story of the middle-ranking inspector Merer and his 40-man naval gang.

Merer was literally the captain of ‘Team Great’, an elite and adaptable outfit who transported the ‘grunt’ labour force and maintained the waterways round Giza, ferried limestone blocks up and down the Nile, provisioned and managed stores at the plateau, and undertook expeditions to Sinai and to Punt – lands of, if not quite milk and honey, then turquoise, myrrh, and much-needed copper for stone-working tools. ‘The builders of the gigantic pyramids of the 4th Dynasty must have amassed more copper… than was being accumulated anywhere else in the world.’

Interestingly, Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehrer argue that Merer and his men represent not vast slave-labour exploited by a biblical despot, but ‘the employment of a highly skilled, well-rewarded workforce.’ Team Great worked in proximity to power – including royal guard duties and religious rituals – and were part-paid in the quasi-currency of luxury cloth.

But it is also estimated that four teams like Merer’s might have spent 20 years transporting just the facing stone for the Great Pyramid.

This daily diary, then, reflects not only these ‘individuals in history’, but also an early, centralised ‘territorial national state’, which subjugated and resettled provincial peoples, ‘absorbed all the wealth and agricultural surplus of the country’, and kept excellent paperwork – ‘the earliest expression of the bureaucratic mindset’ that enabled such colossal building projects, and which subsequently (soon, in fact) outgrew that purpose and came to embody the whole pharaonic state.

From Herodotus to the History Channel, the Giza pyramids have always been the focal point of Egyptology. And yet, somehow, there’s always more to learn about them.

A collaboration by two extremely senior hands-on Egyptologists, The Red Sea Scrolls is as rigorously detailed as a general-market hardback could afford to be. It also contains several once-in-a-lifetime archaeological discoveries (the loss of documentary record from the Old Kingdom is almost total: by extrapolation, there should be tens of thousands of these scrolls, just for the Great Pyramid), so it’s a shame the book, which does not even claim to know how 2.3 million huge blocks were put one on top of t’other, plays to the pyramidiots with talk of ‘secrets’.

Merer’s logbooks aren’t literature, either, and the authors acknowledge that administrative documents ‘may not make for fascinating reading at first glance…’ Some readers will find the chapters on the challenges of preservation to be dry work. Others will need do little more than skim the sections on the early pyramids for latest reasoning. But for the die-hard nerds there’s plenty of mapping, reconstructions and transliteration/translation to keep you busy – and a bibliography that would take a year to get through even if you skipped out all the German bits. The text is so abundantly illustrated that no thinking man or woman could conceivably gainsay the faintest aspect of either method or conclusions.

Nine years on, restorers are still readying the Wadi el-Jarf scrolls to be displayed. For everybody else, meanwhile, £30 is a bargain if it means you never again have to converse at length with someone who believes the pyramids cannot be rationally explained. Take this book everywhere you fear you might run into same. If all else fails, well, I guess you can always hit them with it.

For The Spectator

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