Most Ancient Port, Hieroglyphic Papyri Found

An 4,500-year-old harbor is discovered, along with ancient diaries and artifacts, on the Red Sea Coast.

An ancient Egyptian harbor has emerged on the Red Sea coast, dating back about 4,500 years.

"Evidence unearthed at the site shows that it predates by more than 1,000 years any other port structure known in the world," Pierre Tallet, Egyptologist at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and director of the archaeological mission, told Discovery News.

Built at the time of the fourth dynasty of King Cheops, the owner of the Great Pyramid in the Giza Plateau, the port was discovered at Wadi el-Jarf, nearly 110 miles south the coastal city of Suez by a team of Franco-Egyptian archaeologists.

The site was first explored in 1823 by British pioneer Egyptologist Sir John Garner Wilkinson, who found a system of galleries cut into the bedrock a few miles from the coast. He believed them to be catacombs.

"The place was then described by French pilots working on the Suez Gulf during the 1950s, but no one realized that it concealed the remains of an ancient pharaonic harbor," Tallet said.

Tallet has been excavating the area since 2011 with archaeologist Gregory Marouard, of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, topographer Damien Laisney of the French National Center for Scientific Research, and doctoral students Aurore Ciavatti and Serena Esposito from the Sorbonne University. The team first focused on the most visible part of the site: the galleries described by Wilkinson.

The excavation revealed 30 of these galleries, measuring on average 65 feet long, 10 feet wide and 7 feet high.

Used to store dismantled boats after the expeditions that were regularly led to transfer copper and stones from Sinai to the Nile valley, the galleries featured an elaborate closure system which made use of large and heavy limestone blocks inscribed with the name of Cheops (about 2650 BC).

Inside the galleries Tallet and his team found several fragments of boats, ropes and pottery dating to the early fourth dynasty. Three galleries contained a stock of storage jars, which probably served as water containers for boats.

Underwater exploration at the foot of the jetty revealed 25 pharaonic anchors -- and pottery similar to that uncovered in the galleries -- all dating from the fourth dynasty.

About 200 meters from the sea side, the archaeologists also found the remains of an Old Kingdom building where 99 pharaonic anchors had been stored (visible at the center of the photo).

"Some of them were inscribed with hieroglyphic signs, probably with the names of the boats," Tallet said.

Most interestingly, the storage galleries also contained hundreds of papyrus fragments.

Among them, 10 were very well preserved.

"They are the oldest papyri ever found," Tallet said Many of the papyri describe how the central administration, under the reign of Cheops, sent food -- mainly bread and beer -- to the workers involved in the Egyptian expeditions departing from the port.

But one papyrus is much more intriguing: it's the diary of Merrer, an Old Kingdom official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

From four different sheets and many fragments, the researchers were able to follow his daily activity for more that three months.

"He mainly reported about his many trips to the Turah limestone quarry to fetch block for the building of the pyramid," Tallet said.

"Although we will not learn anything new about the construction of Cheops monument, this diary provides for the first time an insight on this matter," Tallet said.