Wadi el Jarf Archaeological Mission - ongoing
Prof Pierre Tallet
The Wadi el-Jarf project aims to study the various aspects of an Ancient Egyptian harbour on the Red Sea shore (Suez Gulf), built during the reign of Khufu, around 2600 BCE. The site is divided over several locations – a storage area, consisting of galleries cut in the mountain about 6 km to the west of the seashore, several camps and dwelling places, and a large L –shaped pier (200 x 200 m), oriented to the north, that was built directly on the sea, and which probably represents the oldest artificial sea harbour so far known in the world. The project started in 2011, and we excavated both the caves area and different installations on the seashore including a camp about 200 m away from the sea, where 100 stone anchors from the Old kingdom were found in 2013. For the 2019 season, we continued the excavation of the caves system and the study of a big square building (57 x 33 m) which is most probably an administrative building linked to the harbor – during the 2018 campaigns, levels dated to the reign of Snefru, predecessor of Khufu, were found there, showing that the occupation of the site is slightly older that previously thought. We will make some additional excavations on the camps where the anchors have been found in 2013, to have a more precise datation of its occupation (to try to identify material predating the reign of Khufu). In the meantime, a team of divers from the Ministry of Antiquities of Egypt will work in the harbour basin for the third season, if the authorization to work is given to them (last year, this operation had to be cancelled for security reasons at the last moment). The knowledge of all the components of this site – and of the connection that exist between them, will help define more precisely the main features of a harbour at the beginning of the pharaonic era.
Objectives for 2020 – 2022
- Over the next three years, the Wadi el-Jarf site excavations will focus on the following:
The excavation of the galleries which contain abundant material, will be continued. A first system of caves was thoroughly excavated. The excavation of a second group of caves was undertaken in 2018-2019 and is expected to continue over the next three years. These caves were used to store boats – some of whose remains are regularly uncovered during the excavations – but also abundant material including fabrics, stone tools, copper tools, ceramics, tissues and other objects of everyday life. It is still possible to find papyri in this area over the next few years.
- The study of the quarry area which is near the galleries, identified in 2017, will also be conducted in the coming years. This is the area from which large blocks of limestone were extracted to close the galleries. Their fine analysis will allow us to identify the processes used by the Egyptians during this period to cut the stone, detach the blocks and transport them over several hundred meters, according to processes similar to those involved in the construction of the pyramids.
- The excavations of the various camps of the site will also be continued, allowing the study of the daily life of the members of the teams who were present on the site during the IVth dynasty. Those well-stratified excavations also allow for a more detailed dating of the various levels of occupation of the site, and in particular to identify its oldest period under the reign of Snefru, the founder of the IVth Dynasty. Organic material from the site will also be used for C14 dating, under the responsibility of Anita Quiles, from the French Institute of Archaeology, Cairo. Preliminary results already point out that the chronology of the IVth dynasty is probably much earlier than it was thought before.
- Finally, the study of the maritime installations of the harbour will continue, with the collaboration of a team of divers of the Ministry of Antiquities of Egypt, who have already worked three times in the framework of our mission (2016, 2017, 2019), and who studied the underwater vestiges near the L-shaped jetty.
Ojectives for 2023-2025
For the period 2023-2025, we started to work following three axes :
- The work on the sea shore will focuse on the continuation of the underwater archaeology, in cooperation with a team of divers from the Ministry of Antiquities in Alexandria, to prepare the most detailed map of the jetty and the bottom of the harbour.
- We would like to gather all the available informations about the ancients boats that were used on the harbor, by studying the large amount of material that is coming up mostly from the caves system were they were originally stored (pieces of woods, tissues, ropes) and to produce a synthesis devoted to those ships, associating the informations that we can get from the boat remains to the huge epigraphical material (controle marks, inscribed tools, inscribed anchors and pieces of boats, papyri) that we also have on the site.
- The continuation of the study of the cave system : 3 caves are still to be excavated, and at least two more campaigns (in 2023 and 2024) are still needed to study them. At the same time, we will start the excavation of the last part of the site, a big settlement about 500 m from the caves system.
The ninth campaign of the archaeological mission to Wadi el-Jarf ran from 10 March to 5 May 2019. Work was conducted simultaneously on three separate sites. One part of the team continued studying the site’s complex of storage galleries, while another continued the excavation, for the fourth consecutive year, of the large rectangular building located midway between the coastal zone and the mountain zone (Intermediary Building, Zone 5). Some additional work was also conducted on excavations of the seashore installations, near the jetty. In addition, a team from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities working in partnership with the mission undertook a third excavation campaign in the port basin from 20 April to 5 May. The examination of the transport and positioning techniques applied to the limestone blocks that sealed the system of storage galleries, which had begun last year under the supervision of Emmanuel Laroze and Franck Burgos, was also continued during this campaign.
Our knowledge of the Wadi el-Jarf site has improved considerably over this last campaign. One of the most spectacular advances is due to the study conducted this year by Claire Newton on the paleobotanical remains collected over several years from the different parts of the site. This analysis has provided important details regarding the foodstuffs allocated to the teams who populated the port of Wadi el-Jarf, and this data complements and confirms information drawn from accounts found on papyri on site. At the same time, analyses of the wood remains have provided surprises. While the identification of cedar and pine was expected, these species having been known in Egyptian nautical construction for a long time, the identification of chestnut wood in this context is evidence in this period of more complicated exchanges that are not limited to contacts with the Levantine coast. Even more important in the study of the site, the presence of ebony, sometimes unworked, is the first indication of the use of Wadi el-Jarf port as a departure point for southern regions of the Red Sea from whence such species could be imported. The ongoing analyses of resinous products discovered in large quantities in the galleries might also provide important information on this point.
A detailed analysis of the final closure and abandonment of the galleries has led to a more precise understanding of the conditions of temporary closing and reopening of these storage spaces, while confirming the existence of at least two distinct phases of use. The latest observations of the two ensembles of galleries during excavation have proved promising since they seem to show that, in contrast to what we have long thought, the galleries were not systematically emptied by the Egyptians when the site was definitively abandoned, and that at least some of them remained closed with their original contents, even if this material was ultimately disturbed and damaged by erosion of the tunnels, infiltration of water, and occasional looting. And lastly, the continued examination of the different installations located between the modern road and the coastline is providing new data on the workings of the port itself (potential identification of an assembly and launching point of the craft) and a better understanding of the original installation period on the site of Wadi el-Jarf. Examination of the first occupation level in Zone 5 has meant that we can now clearly attribute this to the reign of Sneferu.