The Ropes of Pharaohs: The Source of Cordage from “Rope
Cave” at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis Revisited
Ksenija Borojevic and reBecca Mountain
The ropes found in Cave 5 at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, an ancient Egyptian harbor on the Red Sea,
are associated with the maritime expeditions of the Twelfth Dynasty. Various aspects of the cordage
from Cave 5 were already published in this journal (2008). Here we present microscopic analysis and
reexamination of the source of the plant material used for manufacturing the ropes (cordage). The large
thick ropes in Cave 5 were made of papyrus culms (Cyperus papyrus L.) and the ropes were transported
to the harbor from the Nile valley likely for the expeditions to the land of Punt, ca. 3800 years ago.
The coils of ropes (cordage) discovered in one of the caves (Cave 5) at the site of Mersa/Wadi
Gawasis are some of the most spectacular nds from this ancient Egyptian harbor dating to the Middle
Kingdom. Gawasis is located on the Red Sea, ca. 23 km south of the modern port of Safaga. The site of
Mersa/Wadi Gawasis has been investigated by a joint Italian-American expedition since 2001, under the
direction of Rodolfo Fattovich and Kathryn Bard. 1 Six human-made galleries and two rock-cut cham-
bers (referred to as caves) have been discovered so far in a fossil coral terrace ca. 500–700m inland
of the present-day sea shore. The team has revealed a large number of ship timbers, cordage, wooden
cargo boxes, inscribed limestone stelae, ceramics and clay sealings (several with inscriptions), and lime-
stone anchors associated with the state-organized seafaring expeditions that set out on long voyages to
the land of Punt. The stelae excavated by this expedition have hieroglyphic inscriptions bearing royal
names of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs Senusret II, Senusret III, Amenemhet III (ca. 1877–1786 Bc).
Two wooden cargo boxes left there from an expedition by Amenemhet IV (ca. 1786–1777 Bc) have
hieroglyphic inscriptions describing their contents: “the wonderful things of Punt.” The ndings from
these excavations have been published in a number of venues, including this journal. 2
1 We are grateful to Dr. Kathryn Bard, Boston University, and Dr. Rodolfo Fattovich, University of Naples “L’Orientale” for
providing the opportunity to be a part of the Mersa/Wadi Gawasis project. Funding for our eldwork in Egypt was by a generous
grant from Mrs. Wallace D.Sellers. We are thankful to Dr. Denise Doxey, Curator of the Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near
Eastern Art, for granting us access to the botanical artifacts from the Egyptian Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The
(MFA) Images Department of Intellectual Property granted us the permission to reproduce our images of the selected artifacts.
The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (2010) in Boston University provided the funds for Rebecca Mountain for
the laboratory part of the study at Boston. Melinda Peters and Walter Kittredge of the Harvard Herbaria provided the material
for the reference collection.
2 Kathryn Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich, eds., Harbor of the Pharaohs to the Land of Punt: Archaeological Investigations at Mersa/
Wadi Gawasis, Egypt, 2001–2005 (Naples, 2007); Kathryn A.Bard, Rodolfo Fattovich, and Cheryl Ward, “Sea port to Punt: new
evidence from Marsā Gawāsīs, Red Sea (Egypt),” in Janet Starkey, Paul Starkey, and Tony J.Wilkinson, eds., Natural Resources and
JARCE 47 (2011)132
Cave 5 is one of the rock-cut galleries where a large number of rope coils were preserved and which
was subsequently named the “Rope Cave” (g. 1). Various aspects of the cordage from Cave 5 were
examined by Veldmeijer and Zazzaro with the collaborators and published in the article “The ‘Rope
Cave’ at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis” in this journal in 2008. 3 In their detailed study of the cordage, the
authors focus on the manufacturing of the ropes, particularly on the composition of ropes, their con-
text and function. The large ropes are made of three strands which are in turn made of multiple yarns
twisted from right to left (z); the three strands are plied together from left to right (S) forming a ply. 4
To simplify the manufacturing terminology, the large ropes can be described as being made of three
bundles of bers each twisted clockwise to the right (“S-twist”). These three strands are then combined
Cultural Connections of the Red Sea (Oxford, 2007), 143–48; André J.Veldmeijer and Chiara Zazzaro with contributions by Alan
J.Clapham, Caroline R.Cartwright, and Fredrik Hagen, “The ‘Rope Cave’ at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis,” JARCE 44 (2008), 9–39; Cheryl
Ward and Chiara Zazzaro, “Evidence for Pharaonic Seagoing Ships at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt,” IJNA 39 (2010), 27–43; Ksenija
Borojevic, Warren E.Steiner Jr., Rainer Gerisch, Chiara Zazzaro, and Cheryl Ward, “Pests in an ancient Egyptian harbor,” JAS 37
(2010), 2449–58;. Ksenija Borojevic and Rebecca Mountain, “Microscopic identication and sourcing of ancient Egyptian plant
bres using longitudinal thin sectioning,” Achaeometry (March 2012), doi/10.111/j.1475-4754.2012.00673.x, For further bibliogra-
phy see Bard and Fattovich, “The Middle Kingdom Red Sea Harbor at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis,” JARCE 47 (2011), 107, nn. 10–11.
3 Veldmeijer and Zazzaro, “Rope Cave,” 27–33.
4 See Veldemeijer and Zazzaro, “Rope Cave,” 12.
Fig. 1. Coils of ropes from Cave 5, “Rope Cave,” at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis.
BOROJEVIC AND MOUNTAIN 133
by twisting in the opposite direction (“Z-twist”) to produce a nished rope. In the discussion of the
materials used for making the ropes from Cave 5, the authors suggest “that the most likely candidate
for the rope is the common reed.” The focus of this study is a reexamination of the source of the plant
material used for manufacturing the ropes in Cave 5 at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis.
Identication of the Plant Source Used for Making the Cordage
Identifying the plant source of the Mersa/Wadi Gawasis ropes can be difcult, especially when the
ropes were made of the stems of monocotyledons plants which in general exhibit similar anatomical
features. The determination of the exact plant source becomes more complicated when similar species
from the same family of grasses (Poaceae) or sedges (Cyperaceae) are used for production of similar
artifacts, such as strings or ropes. The identication to the precise species becomes even more compli-
cated when dealing with the ancient material, which has been previously subjected to many processing
steps such as soaking, beating, and twisting. Every stage in this complex manufacturing sequence, from
acquiring the raw material from living plants to the nal product and its abandonment, impacts the
diagnostic anatomical features of the plant material used. Drying processes may also result in the com-
pression or condensing of different plant tissues and features such as the vascular bundles.
In order to identify the plant species used to construct the ancient Egyptian rope from Mersa/Wadi
Gawasis, an extensive reference collection of the sixteen most commonly used brous plants was com-
piled using previously published sources of ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern bers. 5 Most of the
plant bers used in cordage production, including grasses, sedges, rushes, and palms, are from mono-
cotyledon stems or leaves which were macroscopically and microscopically examined.
Multiple samples of the ancient rope from ve different coils from Cave 5 were examined under the
stereo and compound (light) microscopes at the site (g. 2). 6 They were compared to images and thin
sections of the plant specimens from the reference collection and to the cordage found elsewhere at
the site. Additionally, specimens of twelve artifacts made of brous plants from the ancient Egyptian
collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) were examined to validate the accuracy of our
identication method. Two artifacts from the MFA collection were thick ropes which appeared to be
similar to the ropes in Cave 5. One rope was from Deir el-Bahri (g. 3), dating to the New Kingdom,
and the second rope was from Deir el-Bersha (g. 4), dating to the Middle Kingdom. 7
The rope from Cave 5 is very thick, made of three strands, each with multiple interior yarns, indi-
cating it was constructed from plant stems or culms rather than leaves (g. 5). 8 The most prominent
features examined were epidermal ridges, as well as the internal tissues and vascular bundles visible in
5 The main published sources used to determine which plant species to include in the examination of ancient Egyptian plant
bers were Elhamy A. M.Greiss, Anatomical Identication of Some Ancient Egyptian Plant Materials (Cairo, 1957); Emily Teeter,
“Techniques and Terminology of Rope-Making in Ancient Egypt,” JEA 73 (1987), 71–77; Nahed M.Waly, “The selection of plant
bers and wood in the manufacture of organic household items from the El-Gabalein area, Egypt,” in Marjike van der Veen, ed.,
The Exploitation of Plant Resources in Ancient Africa (New York, 1999), 261–72; Willemina Z.Wendrich “Basketry,” in Paul T.Nich-
olson and Ian Shaw, eds., Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (Cambridge, 2000), 254–67; Lucas, Materials.
6 Numerous samples of ropes were collected on several occasions during 2007–2011. The examined specimens include frag-
ments of whole ropes from ve different coils in Cave 5 located close to the natural opening towards Cave 2.
7 The artifacts examined are from the MFA Boston. Two thick ropes: 1) fragment of rope from Deir el-Bahri (Accession
No. 97.882), length ca. 104 cm; width (diameter) 2 cm; 2) fragment of rope (thick) from Deir el-Bersha? (Accession No. Eg Inv
4690), length ca. 66 cm; width (diameter) 4 cm.
8 Many of the plant remains from WG, including ropes, have visible holes left from insect borings. Insects were found in Cave
2 and 3. See Borojevic et al., “Pests in an ancient Egyptian harbor.”
JARCE 47 (2011)134
the cross section. 9 The epidermal ridge patterns most closely resembled those of Cyperus papyrus from
the reference collection (g. 6). The cross-section showed small, evenly spaced sclerenchyma bundles
just below the epidermis and vascular bundles of varying size, resembling Cyperus papyrus from the
reference collection (g. 7). 10
The cellular structure of the rope ber’s epidermis was further examined using longitudinal thin
sections. The razor-cut thin sections were mounted on a glass slide and examined under a compound
microscope. The Cave 5 rope showed two distinct cellular bands: bands (i.e., multiple rows) of three
to six long, narrow, thick-walled cells alternating with bands of short cells containing a single row of
stomata each (g. 8). These cell types, the banding pattern, and single rows of elongated stomata are
characteristic of the cellular pattern of Cyperus papyrus species and resemble most closely the longitu-
dinal thin section of C. papyrus culm from the reference collection (g. 9) and the microscopic image
9 Greiss, Anatomical Identication; Donald P. Ryan with David H.Hansen, A Study of Ancient Egyptian Cordage in the British
Museum (London, 1987).
10 The cross section of ropes from Cave 5 also appeared identical to the microscopic images of the papyrus specimen of a
cordage from Beni Hasan from the BM, analyzed by Ryan and Hansen, Ancient Egyptian Cordage, 32–33, g. 6C.
Fig. 2. Detail of a rope from the “Rope Cave.”
BOROJEVIC AND MOUNTAIN 135
of the ancient specimen published by Greiss. 11 Samples of the two ropes from the MFA also show the
same cellular pattern, characteristic of C. papyrus (g. 10).
The scanning electron micrographs (SEM) taken of a reference sample of C. papyrus 12 (g. 11)
showed the long rows of stomata that are characteristic of the species. The long and short cell types
that accompany the rows of stomata are more visible in the longitudinal thin sections of the reference
material than in the SEM micrographs of the ancient rope specimen from the MFA museum. The ana-
tomical features in the SEM photo of the cross-sections were not distinctive either.
The ropes from Cave 5 showed no evidence of nodes, which are characteristic of reeds (Phragmites
australis or the giant reed Arundo donax). The culm nodes and leaf buds should be visible even in the
11 Greiss, Anatomical Identication, g. 94B.The anatomical terminology is adopted from the above publication by Greiss.
12 This reference specimen of papyrus is from the Harvard Herbaria, Cambridge, MA, collected in Niger, 1857–59.
Fig. 3. Rope from Deir el-Behri © 2011 MFA Boston.
Fig. 5. Detail of one strand of rope from the “Rope Cave”
Fig. 4. Rope from Deir el-Bersha © 2011 MFA Boston.
Fig. 6. Photomicrographs of epidermal ridge patterns of
culms (scale mm): papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) from the ref-
erence collection of the Harvard Herbaria (H.H.), (left);
specimen of rope (Cyperus papyrus) from the “Rope Cave”
(center); reed (Phragmites australis) from the reference col-
lection of H.H. (right).
JARCE 47 (2011)136
Fig. 7. Photomicrographs of the cross-section of culms (mag-
nication 50 x): rope (Cyperus papyrus) from the “Rope
Cave” (top), papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) from the reference
collection (center), reed (Phragmites australis) from the refer-
ence collection (bottom).
Fig. 8. Photomicrographs of longitudinal thin sections of
culm (Cyperus papyrus) of rope from the “Rope Cave.”
Fig. 9. Photomicrographs of longitudinal thin sections of
Cyperus papyrus culm epidermis from the reference collec-
tion specimen from the H.H.
Fig. 10. Photomicrographs of longitudinal thin sections of
culm (Cyperus papyrus) of the rope specimen from Deir el-
Fig. 11. SEM micrograph of the epidermis Cyperus papyrus
from reference collection of the H.H.
BOROJEVIC AND MOUNTAIN 137
ancient desiccated material and artifacts made of reeds. 13 A fragment of an ancient Phragmites australis
culm with a prominent node was found at the site, but it also differed signicantly in cellular morphol-
ogy from the Cave 5 ropes (g. 12).
The cellular pattern in the longitudinal section of the ropes from Cave 5 is different from other
Cyprus species, e.g., C. rotundus, C. schimperianus and C. alopecuroides which were also used in the an-
cient Egypt. The anatomical features of rope specimens from Cave 5 are signicantly different from
the cellular patterns of reeds, e.g., Phragmities australis (gs. 13, 14) or Arundo donax (g. 15). The
longitudinal thin section of the culm of reed species is characterized by uniformed rows of very long,
13 See Tamar Schick, “The plaited mat,” in Tamar Schick et al., eds., The Cave of the Warrior: a fourth millennium burial in the
Judean desert IAA Reports 5 (Jerusalem, 1998) 23–25.
Fig. 13. Photomicrographs of the longitudinal thin sections
of reeds (Phragmites australis) epidermis from Mersa/Wadi
Gawasis (see g. 12).
Fig. 12. A fragment of an ancient reed (Phragmites austra-
lis) culm found outside the caves at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis,
showing visible culm nodes (scale 1 mm).
Fig. 14. Photomicrographs of longitudinal thin sections of
reeds (Phragmites australis) epidermis from the reference col-
lection of the modern specimen from Egypt.
Fig. 15. Photomicrographs of longitudinal thin sections of
reeds (Arundo donax) epidermis from the reference collection
specimen of the H.H.
JARCE 47 (2011)138
narrow, sinuous cells, each bounded by round or crescent-shaped suberized cells or silica cells at either
end. No obvious banding patterns or stomata are visible. The cellular patterns of grasses (D. bipinnata
and Imperata cylndrica) commonly used for production of cordage in ancient Egypt and found at the
site were also microscopically examined. Their cellular patterns differ from those of reeds, papyrus,
and palms. 14
Microscopic examination of the rope samples from Cave 5 and from two ropes from the ancient
Egyptian MFA collection has shown the characteristic anatomical features and cell patterning of papy-
rus (C. papyrus). The ropes in Cave 5 at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis are visibly very similar (gs. 1 and 2) to the
thick rope from Deir el-Bersha (g. 3) and to the thinner rope from Deir el-Bahri (g. 4) in the ancient
Egyptian collection in the MFA.
In the discussion of the materials used for making the ropes in Cave 5, Veldmeijer and Zazzaro
with contributors suggest “that the most likely candidate for the rope is the common reed (Phragmites
communis) .” 15 The contributors to the article write that “the ropes are not made of the most common
material used for making cordage in ancient Egypt (papyrus, halfa grass, or palm leaf),” based on
macroscopic observation. The examination under the microscope conrmed that “the material used is
grass.” 16 The commonly used halfa grasses Desmostachya bipinnata (L.) Stapf or Imperata cylndrica (L.)
Raeusch, are excluded as the stems used for making the ropes appear woodier than those of the halfa
grasses. They conclude: “It is likely that the ropes are made from one of the other species of grass, the
common reed (Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin ex Steud) or the giant reed (Arundo donax L.).” 17
Problems associated with the identication of monocotyledon species using cross-sectional view, we
believe, may have led to the misidentication of the rope in Cave 5 at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis as being
likely made from reeds and not from papyrus, as Borojevic initially suggested. 18 The anatomical fea-
tures visible in cross-section show less variation between grass species, and closely related species can
appear nearly identical. 19 In particular, it is difcult to differentiate among the species if the ancient
samples are not specially prepared and embedded in a suitable media to obtain cross-sections. 20 Mac-
roscopic identication is not sufcient and can often lead to misidentication. 21
14 See Greiss, Anatomical Identication.
15 Veldmeijer and Zazzaro, “Rope Cave,” 26.
16 See Alan J.Clapham, Caroline R.Cartwright in Veldmeijer and Zazzaro, “Rope Cave,” 25.
17 Veldmeijer and Zazzaro, “Rope Cave,” 26. It is possible that the particular specimen from Cave 5 which was microscopically
examined by Veldmeijer and collaborators was from a grass, but it might not have been part of the thick ropes.
18 Borojevic initially identied papyrus as rope material from Cave 5 (personal communication to Chiara Zazzaro and Kathryn
Bard 2007), and it was cited by Chiara Zazzaro, “Cordage,” in Bard and Fattovich, Harbor of the Pharaohs to the Land of Punt, 192, n. 6.
19 Charles R.Metcalfe Anatomy of the Monocotyledons 5: Cyperace 5 (Oxford, 1971), esp. 23–24: “The cross-sectional appearance
of the principal vascular bundles in both the Gramineae and Cyperaceae is often very much alike and indeed they conform to
what was described as the ‘basic type’” in Volume I of this series. For General Morphology of the Grass Plant, see Volume I, 7.
Culms, xxxii: “For this reason, and also because of differences in the appearances of sections taken at various levels in an individual
culm, the author regards sections of culms as being of limited taxonomic value, although no detailed work has been undertaken
to test this view. The epidermis of the culm, in surface view, is undoubtedly of greater taxonomic interest. . . Variations in the
epidermal cells provide useful taxonomic characters, but it must be remembered that the structure of, for example, the silica
bodies, is not always alike in the culm and leaf of the same species.” However, according to the contributors Alan J.Clapham
and Caroline R.Cartwright in Veldmeijer and Zazzaro, “Rope Cave,” 26, n. 77: “It is relatively easy to distinguish between the
two families, Cyperaceae (sedges) and Poaceae (grasses) by examining the vascular bundles found in the leaves and stems. In the
sedges the vascular bundles are composed of two xylem vessels which are capped by the phloem cells, while in the grasses there
are three xylem vessels capped by the phloem cells. The desiccated rope fragment examined here showed the presence of three
xylem vessels in the vascular bundles and therefore is of grass.”
20 N. M. N. El Hadidi and R.Hamdy, “Basketry accessories: footwear, bags, and fans in ancient Egypt,” JAS 38 (2011), 1050–61.
21 D.P.Ryan “The misidentication of ancient Egyptian plant bers,” VA 1 (1985), 143–49.
BOROJEVIC AND MOUNTAIN 139
In previous studies of cordage, papyrus was identied as the material used for manufacturing in a
number of investigated specimens dating from the Old Kingdom to the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods.
Petrie described a quantity or ropes made from papyrus excavated at the Old Kingdom cemetery at
Deshasheh. 22 Greiss identied a number of ropes made of papyrus including those from the site of
Helwan dating to the First and Second Dynasties and from the later periods including the ropes from
the Tura caves. 23 From the total sixteen cordage specimens microscopically examined from the ancient
Egyptian collection of the British Museum (BM), six were made of papyrus. Two of the ropes made of
papyrus in the BM date to the Middle Kingdom. 24
Additional evidence of rope making using papyrus plants comes from a number of tomb paintings,
dating from as early as the Fifth Dynasty and as late as the Eighteenth Dynasty. 25 It is possible that
papyrus was the plant of choice for making large thick ropes, 26 as it is a more pliable material than a
stiff reed such as Phramgites or Arundo, and it is taller than the halfa grasses. Papyrus also grows up to
ve meters tall—even occasionally up to nine meters tall 27—and would have provided very long continu-
ous bers for rope consruction.
Papyrus (C. papyrus) has never been mentioned as growing along the Red Sea. 28 The plant Cyperus
papyrus is a fresh-water plant that grew in the Nile valley in ancient times. The investigated ropes from
sites along the Nile, such as Deir el-Bahri, and Deir el-Bersha were likely made locally. 29 Thus, the papy-
rus ropes or plants from the ancient harbor of Mersa/Wadi Gawasis probably would have been brought
from the Nile valley, more than 150 km away, during the Middle Kingdom. The ropes, rather than
large quantities of raw papyrus, 30 were probably brought together with the dissembled ships and other
supplies for the maritime expeditions. Fragments of the rope and/or yarns made of papyrus were also
found in Cave 3 and elsewhere at the site. 31
Reeds (Phragmites sp.) still grow in the wadis along the Red Sea and near the site of Mersa/Wadi
Gawasis, and must have been much more widely spread and used in pharaonic times, as well as halfa
grasses—Desmostachya bipinnata and Imperata cylindrica. 32 The remains of all these plants were identi-
ed at the site of Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, but none of the cordage from Cave 5 or found elsewhere at the
22 W.M.F.Petrie and F.L. Grifth, Deshasheh, 1897, EEFMemoir 15 (London, 1898), cited in Greiss, Anatomical Identication,
151. Some of the artifacts from Deshasheh excavations are in the Petrie Museum, University College London, but they do not
include ropes; however, there are six rope fragments dating to the Late Period of the ancient Egypt, described and catalogued as
made of papyrus; see on line catalogue of the Petrie Museum at http://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/brief.aspx#45450 (accessed
15 April 2011).
23 For the list of cordage and other artifacts identied by Greiss as made of papyrus, see Greiss, Anatomical Identication, 151.
The ropes from the Tura caves (unknown age) were initially identied as made of papyrus by Greiss. Later they were dated to the
Ptolemaic or Roman Period, and the identication was conrmed by Ryan and Hansen, Ancient Egyptian Cordage, 9.
24 Ryan and Hansen, Ancient Egyptian Cordage, cf. 10–11. One of the cordage samples made of papyrus (EA 41582) is from
Beni Hasan, Tomb 842, dated to Dyn. 12; the second sample is from Asyut, probably dating to the Middle Kingdom.
25 Davies, Ptahhetep and Akhethetep; Dows Dunham, “A ‘Palimpsest’ on an Egyptian mastaba wall,” AJA 39 (1935), 300–309,
g. 1; Ernest Mackay, “Note on a new tomb (No. 260) at Drah Abu’l Naga, Thebes,” JEA 3 (1916), 125–26; Teeter, “Techniques
and Terminology of Rope-Making in Ancient Egypt.”
26 Papyrus is cited as the source for manufacturing thick ropes by Lucas and Harris, Materials, 134–35.
27 R.H.Hughes and J.S.Hughes, A director y of African Wetlands (Cambridge 1992); Bridget Leach and John Tait, “Papyrus,”
in Nicholson and Shaw, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, 229–53.
28 Leach and Tait, “Papyrus”; Vivi Tächolm, Students’ Flora of Egypt (Beirut, 1974); Mahmoud A.Zahran and Arthur J.Willis,
The Vegetation of Egypt (Berlin, 2009); Naphtali Lewis, Papyrus in Classical Antiquity (Oxford, 1974).
29 The rope-making scene is depicted in the papyrus swamp in the Theban tomb of Khaemwaset (TT 261), see Mackay, “Note
on a new tomb (No. 260) at Drah Abu’l Naga, Thebes.”
30 It is possible that smaller quantities of raw material, i.e., partially processed papyrus stems were brought to the site as well.
31 Personal observation, see Borojevic “Pests in ancient Egyptian harbor.”
32 “Ropes made of halfa grasses (Desmostachya bipinnata) were reported to be used in the lashing of pieces of boats. For Khufu’s
boat, see Maslahat al Athar and Mohammad Zakin Nour, The Cheops Boats, Volume 1 (Cairo, 1960), and Dieter Arnold, Building in
Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry (Oxford, 1991), http://hbar.phys.msu.ru/gorm/ahist/arnold/arnold.htm (accessed 25 April 2011);
JARCE 47 (2011)140
site examined so far was made of reeds (Phragmites sp.). The ropes examined from the MFA collection
were not made of reeds, nor were the ropes of the ancient Egyptian cordage examined in the past by
Greiss or Ryan and Hansen. 33 Reed culms have been used for many purposes in ancient and present-
day Egypt and the Near East including shelters, roofs, mats, and baskets, 34 and were found at Mersa/
Wadi Gawasis, but so far were not commonly used for making cordage. 35
It is unlikely that the ancient Egyptians used papyrus and reed culms together for making large thick
strong ropes intended for maritime expeditions, as they have different properties. It is, however, pos-
sible that plants with similar properties, e.g., different halfa grasses, were harvested together and used
for the production of smaller cordage and mats found at the site. Similarly, for making coiled basketry
or sandals, the ancient Egyptians combined different plant materials for coils and for outside sewing
(wrapping strips). 36
The examined coils of ropes from Cave 5 from Mersa/Wadi Gawasis used for maritime expeditions
are made of papyrus (C. papyrus). The microscopic examinations of the surface, the epidermal cellular
patterns in longitudinal thin section, and the cross-sectional features, all indicate that the ropes were
constructed from Cyperus papyrus culms. The identications of the additional samples from Mersa/
Wadi Gawasis and from the ancient Egyptian collection of the MFA, demonstrate the importance of
analyzing the microscopic features of the specimens, in particular the epidermal cell patterns visible
in the longitudinal section. Longitudinal thin sectioning of desiccated material is a simple and inex-
pensive technique and the microscopic examination can be performed on-site. 37 The fact that almost
identical ropes made of papyrus that were found at three distant places (Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Deir
el-Bersha, and Deir el-Bahri) indicates a possible standardization for making large ropes out of papyrus
in ancient Egypt.
The archaeological evidence indicates that in ancient Egypt papyrus was likely the plant of choice
for making large thick ropes. Papyrus is a more pliable material than stiff reeds such as Phramgites or
for the Lisht boat where webbing or straps of brous material were tentatively identied as halfa grass, see Shelley Wachsmann,
Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant (College Station, TX, 2009), 220.
33 Greiss, Anatomical Identication; Ryan and Hansen, Ancient Egyptian Cordage.
34 Greiss, Anatomical Identication, 57. For the examples of use of reeds in the past and present, see online publications by Avi-
noam Danin at http://ora.huji.ac.il/browse.asp?lang=en&action=content&keyword=useful_plants_b2 (accessed 15 March 2011).
35 Veldmeijer and Zazzaro, “Rope Cave,” 26, cite a single rope made from reeds dating to the Predynastic times mentioned by
Guy Brunton, Mostagedda and the Tasian Culture (London, 1937); previously cited by Lucas, Materials, 134, n. 9. In the recent article
by Jacob Bohr and Kasper Olsen, “The ancient art of laying rope,” EPL 93 (2011), online at doi: 10.1209/0295–5075/93/60004
(accessed March 15 2011), the ancient craft of laying rope is explained from the geometrical perspective. They explain why ropes
made from very different materials appear identical. It is the geometrical property of the ropes, i.e., a pitch angle corresponding
to the maximally rotated zero-twist structures, which is ca. 50° for the Mersa/Wadi Gawasis ropes. They determined that triple
stranded rope in the zero-twist structure is 68% the length of its untwisted component strands. Although this twisting angle
stays the same no matter what the rope is made off, the authors do not discuss the inherent pliability of the raw material to be
twisted. According to Veldmeijer, “The strength of the spinning and plying ropes inuences the strength of the cordage and
is itself dependent various factors, among which is the material,” from André Veldmeijer, “Cordage Production,” in Willemina
Z.Wendrich, ed., UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (Los Angeles, 2009), 3, at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1w90v76c (accessed
10 February 2011).
36 Personal observation on a sandal from Mersa/Wadi Gawisis and on artifacts made of plant bers from the MFA collection,
see Borojevic and Mountain, “Microscopic identication and sourcing.” There are numerous references to the use of bers of
several plant species for manufacturing, e.g., sandals and boxes, see Greiss, Anatomical Identication; and more recent by Hadidi
and Hamdy, “Basketry accessories.”
37 The technique of longitudinal thin sectioning of the desiccated plant specimens is simple and requires only light micro-
scope, glass slides with slip covers, and a razor blade. It is very useful because it can be performed on-site, which is especially
important in countries such as Egypt which do not allow the export of samples for study.
BOROJEVIC AND MOUNTAIN 141
Arundo: even if the reeds were harvested still green, papyrus provided longer bers than grasses. Since
papyrus did not grow along the Red Sea coast, it is possible that already made cordage (ropes) were
brought from the Nile valley to the harbor rather than large quantities of the raw material. The pre-
cisely known context of the ropes stored at the ancient Egyptian harbor (Cave 5) allows the inferences
of their possible function. The ropes were most likely used on ships of the state-sponsored maritime
voyages of the Twelve Dynasty. 38 Production of ropes made of papyrus and transportation to the
harbor together with the dissembled ships and other supplies from the Nile valley provide further evi-
dence for the intense preparations and complex organization of the maritime expeditions to the land
of Punt, ca. 3800 years ago.
38 Ward and Zazzaro, “Evidence for Pharaonic Seagoing Ships at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis,” 42. We do not know if the papyrus
rope was a trade item to the Land of Punt. Papyrus still grows in Sudan (see Hughes and Hughes, A directory of African Wetlands,
219–36), and it would have been readily available for making ropes in the southern regions in the past. “Whether or not papyrus
rope was a signicant export earner is an open question, but there was a large market for papyrus rope in Egypt in the shipbuild-
ing trade where enormous quantities were used daily” (personal communication to John J.Gaudet, 2011).