Because I once made the mistake of dabbling in Egyptology, some ‘friend’ will schwack me every other week with a meme, cartoon or article about people who still believe the pyramids were built by aliens. I have longed for a handy single volume to present to these loons, full of unarguable evidence putting this business past dispute – and Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner have provided it.
In 2013 excavators in Egypt’s Eastern Desert on the Gulf of Suez uncovered the world’s most ancient harbour installation at Wadi el-Jarf. Here they unearthed a cache containing the oldest extant inscribed papyri (c.2607-5 BCE). And in that they found ‘unique and unprecedented testimony relating to one of the world’s most famous monuments’ which has inspired and perplexed visitors for almost five millennia: the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Little green men or Atlantean speculation is both a failure and an overuse of the imagination. But the pyramids, of course, are mind-boggling. For the Great Pyramid, King Khufu’s quarrymen hand-sculpted more than six hectares of rock to level the plateau and form a basic foundation, to legendary degrees 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 a fifth 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 an artificial inland port to take hydraulic advantage of the Nile flood.
In this book, 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 the captain of ‘Team Great’, an elite, adaptable outfit that transported the ‘grunt’ labour force and maintained the waterways around Giza, ferried limestone blocks up and down the Nile, provisioned and managed stores at the plateau and undertook expeditions to Sinai and Punt – lands, if not of milk and honey, of 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, Tallet and Lehner argue that Merer and his men represented 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 – also performing royal guard duties and religious rituals – and were part-paid in 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 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 been the focal point of Egyptology. Yet there’s always more to learn about them. A collaboration by two extremely senior Egyptologists, The Red Sea Scrolls is as rigorously detailed as a general market hardback can afford to be. Tallet and Lehner describe 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). But even they do not claim to know how 2.3 million vast blocks were put one on top of another, so it’s a pity they should play to the pyramidiots with talk of ‘secrets’.
Merer’s logbooks aren’t literature, and the authors acknowledge that administrative documents ‘may not make for fascinating reading at first glance’. Some will find the chapters on the challenges of preservation dry work. Others will need to do little more than skim the sections on the early pyramids for the latest reasoning. But for diehard nerds there’s plenty of mapping, reconstruction and transliteration to keep them busy – and a bibliography that would take a year to get through even if the German bits were skipped. The text is so abundantly illustrated that no thinking person could gainsay the faintest aspect of either method or conclusions.
Nine years on, restorers are still readying the Wadi el-Jarf scrolls for display. Meanwhile, £30 is a bargain if it means you never again have to converse with those who believe the pyramids cannot be rationally explained. Take this book everywhere you fear you might run into them. And if all else fails, I guess you can hit them with it.