A recent find at a long-neglected site reveals it was used there more than 2,000 years before first appearing in China
By Lydia Wilson
When we entered one of the galleries, it was like the workmen had just put down their tools and left yesterday.” This is what Egyptologist Pierre Tallet told me about the archaeological site Wadi el-Jarf, when we were travelling together in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, years ago. He described a boat propped up on wooden supports, tools leaning against the wall — there was even some rope used to lift the boat, untouched since it was dropped on the floor some 4,600 years ago.
Ever since Tallet described this scene to me, I had been desperate to visit and experience archaeology for myself, eager to relive such moments where time collapses, with a connection to the distant past through objects last held thousands of years ago. And these finds were by no means the last of the treasures that Wadi el-Jarf yielded.
This ancient harbor site, with its nearby storage galleries cut into the rock, has up until recently been neglected by archaeologists, despite hiding in plain sight for millennia, its walls visible to all. This is partly because of its remote location, far from any settlement or even a source of water, and partly because it lacks the more glamorous funerary objects and art of Egyptian tombs. Yet this peripheral site has produced more insights into human history than many of its glitzier archaeological cousins, the Pharaonic temples and pyramids. From the oldest papyri ever found to materials previously thought of as invented far later, this forgotten site in the desert has revealed evidence that upends long-held historical ideas. Paper, for example, once thought to have been invented in the early centuries of the Common Era in China, seems to have made an appearance much earlier, here in Egypt. And the papyri discovered at this remote place in the desert have given new insights into how the enigmatic pyramids were built.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was three years after first hearing about Wadi el-Jarf that I arrived in Egypt on a warm day in April 2022 to be greeted by Tallet and colleagues at the airport. After two hours on the smooth new highway, heading south from Cairo alongside the Red Sea, we pulled off and plunged into the desert on a track I struggled to pick out in the sand. Our pickup truck curved and bumped, swerving around a corner invisible to me, but not to the driver. He drove this route multiple times a day, and the way was as clear to him as a paved street. As we swung around the corner, we came upon the camp, rows of pitched bell tents, starkly white in the harsh, midday sun.
Tallet showed me around the site and, as the sun descended, more colors emerged from the initially bleached, neutral sand and rocky scrub; shades of rust red blending through to pale gold. The ground was pebbly, as I discovered rather painfully one morning when I tried to do yoga. There were piles and piles of pottery shards all around the site, in both terracotta and duck-egg blue hues, comprising one of the biggest jigsaw puzzles in the world with numerous missing pieces and no box to guide the assembly.
At the top of a plateau, above the almost-excavated storage galleries, Tallet gestured over the sea to a dim sight of further sandy-colored hills. “It’s like Fata Morgana, isn’t it?” he said, as the colors shimmered in the heat. “But over there is Serabit el-Khadim,” he said, pointing to the place we visited together in the Sinai, one of the sites of turquoise and copper mines that the ancient Egyptians targeted when they set off from the harbor at Wadi el-Jarf. Tallet spent many years surveying such mines but, when the local authorities stopped granting him permission (because of security concerns), he turned his attention to the other side of the coast. It makes sense that a harbor would be at the shortest possible crossing place, but even guided by that logic, plus clues from two previous descriptions of the area, this was not an easy place to find. Like so many other discoveries in archaeology, expertise, technology and serendipity all played a role in the search for Wadi el-Jarf.
The first known account of the galleries comes from a trip made in 1823 by the British Egyptologist Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, though he misidentified them as Greco-Roman catacombs. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Wadi el-Jarf was once again scrutinized, this time by two boat pilots, François Bissey and René Chabot-Morisseau, working for the Suez Canal Company. These amateur archaeologists dated the galleries more accurately, identifying them as Old Kingdom (though, as it turned out, they got the wrong dynasty), and applied to excavate the site properly, but the Suez crisis in 1956 put an end to all such plans and the site fell back into obscurity.
By the time that Tallet and his colleagues went searching, they had already excavated another harbor on the same coast, Ayn Sukhna, so they had additional knowledge that earlier explorers lacked. In particular — and as described by both 19th- and 20th-century explorations — they had a clue that the system of tunnels carved out of rock could signify the existence of a harbor nearby.
A much-needed breakthrough came from far away in 2008. “I spent a lot of time during my Ph.D. on Google Earth,” Yale archaeologist Gregory Marouard explained to me during a break in the dig. It was how he found many such promising sites to excavate all over Egypt. He did so by scouring the satellite images off the coast of the Red Sea and matching the description of the galleries to the written records. But he noticed something else. “I spotted this installation,” he gestured with his hand to the excavation site before us, the living quarters of workers from 4,500 years ago. “For some reason it was not mentioned in any of the reports, even of the French in the 1950s,” Marouard said, “although it is the largest building on the Red Sea shore.” Not only that, but the tops of the walls were still visible (the rest buried in sand) from land, sea and space alike. Space-age technology, freely available on all our phones, is a valuable tool for archaeologists.
Despite the clear importance of the site, it took three more years for excavations to begin while the team raised the funds they needed for the operation. Patience paid off, and then came an unforeseeable piece of luck. On the very first expedition in 2011, after setting up camp near the galleries, the team visited the coast to start work on the harbor. “The jetty itself had not been discovered,” Tallet told me later, but thanks to a unique combination of the time of year and the phases of the moon (there was a full moon eclipse on the very same day of the summer solstice), the Red Sea tide was abnormally low. “We arrived there and could see everything, the jetty and tens of anchors, just lying there, exposed. We’ve never seen it so clearly again,” Marouard told me.
They had without a doubt found the harbor, but much work remained to be done at both the shore and in the nearby mountains with the galleries. Although the value of the find was clear from first sight, a major discovery awaited still, to be uncovered in 2013.
“It was an extraordinary archaeological event, and I knew I would be unlikely ever to experience anything like it again,” Tallet later wrote in his book on the subject, “The Red Sea Scrolls.” It was a big claim, given his long career in Egyptology, and unusually enthusiastic language for any academic to use. But it was indeed an astonishing find: an enormous hoard of papyri sealed inside a pit that was made by the blocks wedged in front of the entrance to one of the galleries, seemingly thrown away and left undisturbed for millennia.
It appears the site was in use for perhaps only 50 years, and 100 years at most. There are advantages to the location, such as its proximity both to the mines on the other side of the Red Sea and to the mountains inland, which offered a perfect place for storage of cargo while still being near the shore. “But it’s a 20-kilometer [12-mile] round trip between [drinking] water, sea and the caves, which is a logistical difficulty even for us,” Tallet explained to me. It served the ancient Egyptians while they were building early pyramids at Meidum, but soon they built other, more convenient harbors both north and south of Wadi el-Jarf. Despite the huge effort involved in carving out over 30 galleries from rock and building the harbor along with all the required living quarters, the Egyptians then sealed up the galleries and left.
And it seems they abandoned the site abruptly, which explains why the boats and tools were still stored away despite their high value. The boats were made of wood imported at great expense from the Levant, and there were tools made of the copper that was so hard-won from the Sinai mines. This swift departure also explains the specific find that made Wadi el-Jarf famous; the once-in-a-career moment for Tallet. The hoard of papyri included logbooks and other logistical records but, rather than being taken to the administrative center to be archived, as would have been the norm for this bureaucratic society, they were stuffed in a pit in front of a gallery and sealed up. There they lay, undisturbed, until Tallet’s team removed the block that had protected the find from damaging wind, sand and bugs — thanks to the desert climate and the exceptional preservation skills of ancient Egyptians.
“Astonishingly, for the first time, we had the direct written testimony of a contemporary eyewitness who had participated in the construction of the pyramid complex of Khufu,” Tallet told me, referring to the Great Pyramid of Giza. The papyri were mostly logbooks, written by a site inspector called Merer, who recorded the logistics and names of workers involved in the mining operation, which included quarrying and transporting materials for building the pyramids. “Until now [Khufu’s pyramid complex] had stood silent and enigmatic on the Giza Plateau, with no known contemporary documentary references to it at the time it was built,” wrote Tallet. Here, so many thousands of years later, historians have been given a key to understanding how one of the world’s wonders was built. He later told me: “In the whole of the last century, no one has found anything else in Giza.” It is indeed often on the edges, in remote and forgotten places, that the best clues are found.
Unlike the carefully crafted and finished monuments of Egyptian temples and tombs, Wadi el-Jarf was built for practicalities, complete with living quarters for the workers and storage galleries. I walked around the galleries with Emmanuel Laroze, an architect with a special interest in historical structural engineering. He pointed out remnants that the ancient workers left behind, like chisel marks on the huge blocks that they used to seal the entrances to the galleries. “You can see from the direction of these marks that this block is now upside-down,” he explained, teaching me what to look for. He also pointed out clear channels around corners of blocks, where the ropes had cut into the rock while dragging them into position. There were spots of copper showing the material of the tools, and scraps of writing that labeled the blocks, possibly scribbled in the quarry to keep track of what was needed.
“All of this detail you can see here — you can’t see in Giza,” Laroze said. “All these blocks are still rough from the quarry, whereas for the pyramids, most of the time they polish them to smooth the face.” It is, in other words, precisely the rough finish of the building work that holds clues to how the Egyptians managed their engineering feats. Evidence from both blocks and papyri helped the team re-create how ancient Egyptians transported the building material, after re-
creating the equipment found at the site. They found that a smaller number of people can shift the massive blocks, but the 20 men that the logbooks describe could do the work quickly and with ease.
The lack of tombs or temples and, correspondingly, the lack of precious jewelry, artifacts and art means that sites like Wadi el-Jarf were never of interest to thieves and opportunists. They were also overlooked by earlier waves of archaeologists who focused on the admittedly more striking sites that are ubiquitous in Egypt. In contrast to the centurieslong attention lavished on the pyramids and temples of the pharaohs by tomb raiders and scholars alike, Wadi el-Jarf has lain undisturbed, bar the brief forays by Wilkinson, then Bissey and Chabot-Morisseau.
Wilkinson left behind sundry items like Ottoman pipes, empty ink bottles (helpfully labeled “ink” in English, making their provenance undeniable), fragments of teacups made in England and balls from muskets — all obviously 19th-century objects. There was also a note, apparently in Wilkinson’s handwriting, with a description of how to reach the site from nearby St. Anthony’s monastery. Yet, apart from this scattered evidence of a visit, there were no signs of activity in the area — at least not until you dig back to 2600 BCE.
“Just to emphasize that what you have is early 19th-century, then it switches directly to Khafre, the fourth ruler of the fourth dynasty. There is nothing in between,” Marouard said. He acknowledged that the local monks from nearby St. Paul’s monastery might have visited, “but we didn’t find any traces of that.” The tunnels carved in the rock could have been used as ready-made retreat cells. Indeed, monks did use the storage galleries near the harbor at Ayn Sukhna, north of Wadi el-Jarf, so it would not have been surprising to find evidence of them here, too. But, just as for the original users, the site probably posed too many logistical challenges, not least the lack of water. “It was great luck for us that the site was never reoccupied during medieval Christian times,” said Tallet. “Later occupations tend to destroy the more ancient evidence.”
Tallet took me to the offices to look at some of this evidence. First, he brought out a double-sided frame with a scrap held safely between the two glass sheets. “Look carefully,” he told me. “Can you tell me what you think it is?” It was off-white, at first looking like a scrap of linen or cotton the size of a postage stamp, with clear vertical marks. But, as I scrutinized it, I saw why Tallet was so excited. This wasn’t woven papyrus. Could it be? Really? I thought, then searched his face for an answer. “Yes, we think it’s paper,” he said. My face must have betrayed the incredulity I was feeling. It has long been believed that paper was invented in China, 2,500 years or so after ancient Egyptians worked in Wadi el-Jarf. There is no other evidence of which I or my colleagues are aware that suggests Egyptians used anything but papyrus — endemic along the Nile — or stone, wood and other durable materials.
“Paper is generally held to be made by textile fibers under press and then coated with some substance to make a smooth surface,” Tallet explained. “And that seems to be the case here.”
Pressed on the significance of this find, the academic in him emerged. “Really, we cannot conclude anything,” Tallet said, despite the thousands of years separating the fragment in my hands and the next known appearance of the material across the globe, in China. I asked how he felt when he first found it, wanting to prompt in him the excitement that I was feeling, but he laughed. “To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Too bad it wasn’t more papyri!’” The paper was too small to give any textual information. There were simply vertical lines, which could mean any number of things, whereas the papyri had troves of evidence about life in the Old Kingdom. One more fragment might have given crucial information about the whole.
Eventually, Tallet conceded the importance. “The fact is that we have a fragment that we can call paper,” he said, speaking as precisely as ever. The combination of the pressed fiber and the surface coating makes it similar to early paper in China, or indeed throughout most of history, until wood pulp became a more common material for making paper in the 19th century. “We can identify this as a first way, a sort of test, of making paper,” he concluded. As to why no more was found, Tallet shrugged. “We can see that this used to be bigger,” he said, pointing to the marks cut off by the edge of the piece. “And this is the archaeological record we’re talking about. We have to piece together the smallest clues.” He was reluctant to answer when I asked him to speculate on why it was not more common, but he suggested that, perhaps, the abundance and therefore cheapness of papyrus meant that paper never really caught on.
While I was still astonished by the thought of such ancient paper in my hands, Tallet handed me the next find, a more robust item, though I quickly gave it back upon hearing its value. It was a heavy nodule that could be mistaken for a chunk of rock, if not for the chips in places showing the rich, ruby-red material glinting underneath. “Glass,” Tallet confirmed. It was found on the harbor jetty and, handily enough, there was a specialist in ancient metallic tools on the team to
Although the item was definitely glass, a fragment from a bigger ingot that was molded in some kind of crucible, what remains unclear from this enigmatic clue is whether it was made in Egypt or imported, as many other materials were, including the wood used to build boats. Either way, it was yet another significant find. “We knew that ancient Egypt had glass,” Tallet explained, “but all that is mostly from the New Kingdom. This is probably the first time we have glass in a clear Old Kingdom context,” that is, predating the next known example of the material by around a millennium. “There is no other evidence of glass in the whole of ancient Egypt at this time,” Tallet said.
In the same office, I observed Séverine Marchi at work on the most complicated jigsaw puzzle the world could present, painstakingly gluing two shards of terracotta pottery together before standing the finished larger piece carefully in a tub of sand, which held them together gently while the glue dried. Outside was evidence of her patience: a few, almost-intact, large water jars complete with their rims.
We then went next door, where textiles, wood and rope fragments were being examined by Déjla Garmi. The quality of preservation of everything was astonishing: To my untrained eye, the rope seemed modern. (The knots had been examined by sailors and pronounced as seaworthy.) I saw part of a boat, and Tallet pointed out evidence of caulking, also a rare find, as this technology is associated with the Roman period in Egypt 2,600 or so years after the site was in use. “I think it’s linked to the way they were constantly dismantling and reassembling the boats on the shore — maybe these operations made gaps between the planks, so they had to be more careful,” Tallet speculated. Different stages of the process were visible on-site: textiles soaked in some resinous substance, perhaps bitumen or resin (the lab analysis is yet to be done), some showing an imprint of wood, and fragments of such textiles caught on planks of boats. Both were common enough throughout the galleries to show that they were regularly using this technique.
In the third office sat archaeobotanist Claire Newton, sifting through the evidence of plants on the site. “Much of it is to be expected in terms of plant foods, fuel and materials,” she said, looking up from her microscope, “except for the clear use of chestnut wood, which is not indigenous — it’s probably from mountains in present-day Lebanon or Syria, or from the Aegean — somewhere around there.” This is much the same as where other timbers identified on the site, such as pine and cedar, originated. “The originality here is not so much the provenance of the wood,” Newton explained, “but the specific type of wood for that period.” Samples were being prepared to be sent off for further analysis.
The following day, I went to the harbor, where the team had almost finished their work, save for a few cells that needed excavating down to their original levels, to the very floors on which workers rested some 4,600 years ago. Marouard lent me the tools (and a much-needed baseball cap; even at 7 a.m. the weather was already warm) and gave me a quick refresher course on how to use them. I was to work my way across the floor with Julie Villaeys, Tallet’s doctoral student, who proved to be as patient with my endless questions as she was with the removal of mud and sand.
Our trowels first scraped off the top layer of mud, left by one of the flash floods that have been passing through this wadi for many thousands of years, right up until last year. One of the older floods proved helpful to the archaeologists, as it left a layer of thick, yellow clay over the remains of the first occupation of the site in the time of King Snefru, thus sealing the layer through the passage of time. The next building on the site, a decade or so later, was clearly built on top of that layer of clay. As Marouard put it, “This little helping hand from nature helps us to clearly separate two phases and emphasizes a long break between them.”
We brushed the mud into a dustpan (ingeniously fashioned from a water bottle) then discarded it into a primitive leather bucket called a “maktaf.” Next came the sand of the desert, which, again, we scraped, brushed and threw into the maktaf, and members of the team took it away to sift for fragments. Occasionally the trowel would strike a stone or, perhaps, a piece of broken pottery, the latter pried from the compacted sand and placed into a different maktaf, ready to be bagged, labeled and taken away to be pieced together. When we reached the second mud layer — the 2600 BCE floor of this dwelling space — we stopped scraping and started clearing as much sand as possible. (On my first day, I became so absorbed in the minutiae that I kept digging right through this floor — a sin instantly forgiven as my generous colleagues explained it was an essential learning experience that archaeologists go through.)
Brushing away sand in the desert is a Herculean task. There is no end to the tiny grains that make up the barren landscape. The constant wind chips away at the piles of dust and sand, blowing both back to where they had been brushed from before we could even get it in the dustpan to be taken away. And, it turned out, the maktaf leaked sand from its corners and sprinkled the floor with it while we carried it to be emptied into the wheelbarrow where, again, the wind blew it in all
directions. But we carried on, mesmerized with the past that we were unearthing, thrilled at the prospect of what it might mean to the history of humanity. We took brief breaks only to eat.
Then I hit a fireplace, recognizable by a darker layer of ash, surrounded by a ring of deeper red, the sand marked by the heat of the fires. I had already caught the excitement that came with handling fragments of the pottery that we were discovering. But those looked like they belonged in a museum, perhaps with a plaque explaining their age and function — the historic context that situates them in their rightful place. The glistening charcoal that I held in my hand felt different, invoking an almost visceral reaction as I imagined it in a fire that served humans who so long ago stood where I did.
My face, fingernails and the pores of my uncovered skin showed evidence of the ash layer, so it was a huge relief when we piled into our van and drove the mile or so to the shore to have a swim. The team showed me the jetty, just about visible, but we didn’t find any anchors this time, though we tried; slowly wading through the water while staring down at our feet, like a fleet of criminologists in search of evidence of a sea crime. Our foray was brief, as the military is in charge of this stretch of the coast. They knew the team and knew we liked to swim but, still, we knew not to overstay the grudging welcome.
The days got hotter, and I spent time in the cool of an empty gallery, writing and observing the clockwork nature of the site. Gamal, the head of the team, or “rais,” stood high on the plateau overlooking the constant, if stately, processions of younger men wheeling loads of detritus to the end of the ridge. “Look at his stick,” Tallet said to me, “They always have a stick in the ancient portrayals. It’s how you can tell their role.” He told one visitor that the new inspector Merer is on-site — and it’s Gamal.
It was not the only time that the boundaries blurred between the past and present. Our team was indeed doing a similar job, day to day, as our counterparts millennia ago when they dug out the galleries. Admittedly, today the task is slightly easier, given that it was mostly sand and mud we dug out, rather than solid rock. “But they are doing it with very simple means,” Tallet pointed out, using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, not so dissimilar from tools found throughout human history.
“If they moved any slower, they’d fall over,” observed one member of the team. But the very slow speed is exactly the pace needed to take away the amount being produced by the workers at the rock face, and it’s maintained over a full day. They walk in threes, and Laroze shows me the evidence in the floor of the caves for three men working alongside each other all the way down each gallery.
Musings of this kind do not go down well with all the team. “Where is your evidence for all this?” asked Marouard over aperitifs. I say I have no evidence for my feelings of collapsed time and the similarities spanning millennia. He suggests I don’t publish such unscientific speculation. Tallet is the conciliatory voice, pointing out that “the organization of work is not so different sometimes;” there are common challenges for both sets of expeditions, not least the need for water. But Marouard is a rigorous academic, unconvinced by the value of writing about more experiential aspects of my trip, such as the echoes of teams of three Egyptians working slowly and steadily alongside each other, separated by 4,600 years.
Proof is hard to come by in archaeology; many tons of sand and rock have to be shifted to uncover the occasional object, and finding troves of papyri really is a once-in-a-career moment — if you’re lucky. The richness of Wadi el-Jarf was unexpected but, as Tallet pointed out, “In archaeology, what gives us the most information is not necessarily the most spectacular.” After more than a decade, the excavation is still incomplete, and lab work to examine the material continues. Yet the documents and objects found have already upended many established historical narratives: that paper was invented in China, that glass only reached Egypt in the New Kingdom and that the Romans brought caulking technology for boats. This long-neglected site on the periphery has challenged these conventions. Who knows what else still lies in the desert, dormant and secretive, waiting to be found?
Culled from newlinesmag.com