In this inaugural post of our new series ‘Scribal Spotlight’, the Nile Scribes will take a closer look at Egypt’s Great Pyramid: the New Evidence, a new documentary that aired on UK’s Channel 4 on September 24th, and present its wider relevance to our readers.
What is the documentary about?
While there have been many documentaries dealing with the building of the pyramid (see a list below), this new documentary takes a closer look at the latest discoveries at understanding the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Two main elements are highlighted in the 45+ min. documentary: (1) the finding of a new papyrus from the site of Wadi al-Jarf and (2) reconstructions of the ancient landscape around Giza. The documentary also highlighted successful experiments to quarry limestone using ancient techniques from Tura, and reconstruct an Old Kingdom (c. 2543–2120 BC) cargo boat to transport the limestone down the Nile to Giza (although similar experimental archaeology has been featured in documentaries before).
What do I need to know?
The process of constructing the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza has bewildered scholars and enthusiasts for centuries. This documentary promises new insights into the feasibility and means of its construction but instead it explored the most recent discoveries concerning the infrastructure behind such an enormous construction project.
(1) The Wadi al-Jarf papyrus
Recently discovered (2013) at the ancient harbour of Wadi-al Jarf, this papyrus is the oldest surviving papyrus ever found and provides the main support for many of the theories discussed in the documentary. The papyrus is an administrative document that contains the logbook of an official named Merer, who oversaw the transportation of limestone blocks to Giza for the construction of Khufu’s pyramid. The publication of the papyrus this year (2017) along with this documentary brings to life the individuals who were tasked with procuring the limestone blocks for the pyramid’s construction in a way that has never been done before. The recent work of French archaeologist Pierre Tallet and his team at the site of Wadi al-Jarf on the Egyptian Red Sea coast and their findings (including a man-made harbour, rope, anchors, and copper tool fragments), is clearly the “new evidence”, on which the documentary hinges.
(2) Reconstructing an Egyptian transport ship
Some time ago, archaeologists discovered ‘boat pits’ next to the Great Pyramid, which contained the pieces of two disassembled ships, which one theory suggests the king could have used symbolically to join the sun-god in the journey across the sky in the afterlife. The wood from these ships is so well preserved that scholars have been able to 3D scan these and then assemble the boat together convincingly on computers, in addition to one ship that has been entirely reconstructed and is currently on display at Giza. This work enabled the Egyptian researcher Mohamed Abd el-Maguid to reconstruct one such boat for this documentary. Depictions of boats in the Old Kingdom tomb of Ti also show in detail parts of boat building, which el-Maguid relied on for his reconstruction. While the team used modern tools for their reconstruction, their use of ancient techniques was nevertheless successful – the boat stayed afloat even with the heavy load of a freshly-quarried limestone block!
(3) Giza and its ancient landscape
Mark Lehner has been excavating for several decades at Giza and his work has touched upon every aspect of the site. Lehner and his team have also undertaken auger core borings to get a closer look at the stratigraphy of the area and use this new data to reconstruct the ancient landscape. With the flow of the Nile shifting eastward over the last millennia, the river was much closer to the base of the pyramid in the times of the Fourth Dynasty than it is now. With these cores, Lehner found compacted Nile silt deep below the modern sandy surface and was able to show that Egyptians must have built artificial waterways to enable closer ship-access to the pyramid near where the Sphinx stands today.
With the insights gained in the digging of canals by Merer in the above-mentioned papyrus, the documentary digitally recreated the ancient landscape and showed convincingly how an Egyptian cargo ship must have gained easy access to the Giza plateau from the Nile.
The Scribes’ Take on the Documentary
We were amazed by the various angles the documentary took in exploring the infrastructure surrounding the pyramid construction. They used elaborate digital reconstructions to not only bring the ancient texts alive, but also showed some of the technological innovations currently being employed by Egyptologists (such as 3D scanning). While no entirely new insights have been put forth, the documentary cohesively compiled the latest findings in an accessible one-hour long episode, and its claim to fame is a first look at the fascinating Wadi al-Jarf papyrus only being published this year.
- Épron, L., and F. Daumas. 1939. Le Tombeau de Ti. Fascicule I. Les Approches de la Chapelle. Cairo: Imprimerie de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale – pl. XXIII.
The unlabelled photos in the entry are screenshots from the documentary.
- Tallet, P. 2012. “Ayn Sukhna and Wadi El-Jarf: Two Newly Discovered Pharaonic Harbours on the Suez Gulf”. British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 18: 147–68.
- LiveScience: “Ancient Logbook Documenting Great Pyramid’s Construction Unveiled”
Other Documentaries on the Giza Pyramids:
- NOVA – Pyramids: The Inside Story (2006)
- The History Channel – Engineering an Empire: Egypt (2006)
- The History Channel – Digging for the Truth: Who Built Egypt’s Pyramids (2005)
- BBC – Building the Great Pyramid (2002)
- NOVA – This Old Pyramid (1997)