ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: Rope making, uses of rope, materials, techniques
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Rope making

Vessel     The invention of cordage was one of the more ingenious ideas ancient mankind had: taking weak, short pieces of fibrous material and turning them into strong extended lengths of rope which had numerous uses.

Until the industrial revolution with its inventions of the steam engine and the steel hull ships were utterly dependent on cordage.

Without rope sea-faring would have been impossible and even the use of the Nile would have been restricted to paddling up- and down-river in dug-outs; tying things, animals, but also people, kept them in the place you wanted them to be; and concerted efforts of large numbers of people such as transporting or lifting heavy loads were possible only thanks to ropes. A rope may not be much to look at, but it was at the base of human culture.

Uses for cordage

    Below is a very incomplete list of the different kinds of use Egyptians made of ropes [13]:
  • shipping: tying together bundles of reeds to form a raft or the planking of the hull of wooden ships, the rigging involved in sailing such as halyards, mooring lines, hawsers running from stem to bow , rope used as fulcrum for oars and rudders, tow lines, anchor chains [12]
  • administration of justice, war: fettering captives, tying prisoners to the pillory
  • hunting: lassoes
  • fishing and fowling: nets
  • farming: tying the hoeblade to its handle, fastening the plough to the horns of cows, halters for animals, leashes (interestingly, many animals such as antelopes, cows etc. had the rope tied to a hind leg rather than around the neck), casting cows (tie a rope to a front fetlock, pull it over the animal's back and tip it over [1].)
  • dragging loads on sleds
  • lifting (stone grooves, pulleys were known since the 4th dynasty, simple rope pulleys since the Middle Kingdom [2])
  • building: raising pillars and obelisks.
  • surveying of fields, the Stretching the Rope ceremony prior to building temples etc.
  • magic: netting or lassoing spirits [3]
  • erecting tents [4]
  • fastening things: timber tied to a post for sawing, statues tied to sleds during transportation
  • basketry
  • rope ladders:
    He (Atem) ties a rope-ladder for him (i.e. the king), he makes firm the wooden ladder for this king
    Faulkner 2004, p.297

Materials

    Plant fibres were early on discovered to be useful for tying things. Earliest reed ropes found date from the Badarian, the second half of the fifth millennium BCE [7], and cordage was made of fibres from papyrus, wild reeds, rushes, and grasses like esparto and halfa grass. After drying the plant stems were split, any pith removed and turned into rope [5]. Flax, which, when reaped as a young plant, provided fibres for the finest threads imaginable, was only fit to be used for making cordage once it had reached maturity [6]. Flax was thus not often turned into rope, but at times old linen was recycled and made into cordage [8]. Other ancient cultures made extensive use of hemp but no examples of hemp ropes have been found in Egypt.
    Animal fibres were only very rarely used: A two strand rope made of camel hair dating from the Old Kingdom is known [7]. Leather too was occasionally pleated into cords.

Rope making in the marshes Three rope-makers working in the marshes making a two strand rope.
Above the labourers are depicted the tools of their trade, a bundle of raw material, and four finished coils of rope.
The same three-men technique was still in use in the 20th century CE.

    The most commonly used material for making ropes was date palm fibre, which according to Lucas, is a naturally-reticulated fabric-like material which at first envelops the leaf and is found at the crown of the trunk of the date palm, surrounding the base of the branches. [7] Palm fibre ropes are listed a number of times in the Harris Papyrus. Thus, according to one list, the temple of Amen was given
Palm-fibre: ropes ........... 180
Palm-fibre: loads ........... 50
Palm-fibre: [///] ........... 77
Palm-fibre: cords ........... 2
                            J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 235

Techniques

    The fibres, be they grasses or palm leaves, were first dried for varying lengths of time. Before being turned into rope they were wetted.[14]

Fragment of papyrus rope, Late Period, length: 42 cm, diameter: 9 cm
Source: Petrie Museum website

    Cordage was occasionally made by braiding three strands of material together, but the main manufacturing technique consisted in twisting two or more yarns of the same thickness individually in the same direction and then combining the strands by twisting them together in the opposite direction. The resulting cord could be twisted together with similar chords to form a rope of even greater girth. The ends of twisted rope were tied up to keep them from unravelling. The finished rope was beaten with a wooden implement or brushed [9], coiled up while paying attention that no kinking occurred and stored as a coil.

Rope makers, tomb of Ti
Tomb of Ti
Quibell 1896, Pl.32

    The twisting process required two workers at least standing at opposite ends of the cordage, one imparting a twist on the strands by first fastening short pieces of chord (Emily Teeter) or short wooden dowels (John Nelson [10]) with weights attached at their ends to each strand, and then spinning them around; the other in charge of combining the strands by twisting them together in the opposite direction.

Rope making At times a worker would tie the rope around his waist using the weight of his body to keep the rope taught, freeing his hands for manipulating it.
Source: Maude 1862, p.375

The length of the finished rope was generally limited by the length of the constituent strands, but at times an additional worker would be adding to these strands while his co-workers were busy twisting the rope.
    Most ropes would be constituted of two or three strands, which are easier to manipulate than greater numbers of strands, but a five strand rope survived in the boat pit of Khufu where most of the ropes were made of halfa grass. At Deir el Bahri a rope with a diameter of 6.8 cm dating from the New Kingdom was found. Graeco-Roman ropes were discovered in caves at Tura which had a diameter of almost 6½ cm and were made of three strands of papyrus fibre. But even thicker ropes were probably in use. According to Arnold's estimate the raising of a major obelisk would have required about forty palm fibre ropes with diameters of 18.4 cm [11].
 
    Rope-makers are rarely mentioned in the sources. A letter contains a list of tradesmen belonging to a temple, among them
...of workers of reeds who are in the papyrus thickets cutting mats, of rope-makers(?) (na.y) /////
Brief des Pa-nehesi an Hori
I. Hafemann ed.: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe anderer Herkunft => oGardiner 86

 


Bibliography:
Dieter Arnold, Building in Egypt; Pharaonic Stone Masonry, New York and Oxford 1991
Dieter Arnold The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, 2002 I.B.Tauris
Katheryn A. Bard, Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, 1999 Routledge
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, Chicago 1906
Ann Rosalie David, The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh's Workforce, 1996 Routledge
Raymond Oliver Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 2004 Kessinger Publishing
R.J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, 1966 Brill Academic Publishers
Andrew Hunt Gordon, Calvin W. Schwabe, The Quick And The Dead: Biomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt, 2004 Brill Academic Publishers
A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 1962
Mary Fawler Maude, Scripture manners and customs, London 1862
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, 1995 University of Texas Press
W. M. Flinders Petrie, Illahun, Kahun and Gurob, London 1891
W. M. Flinders Petrie, Kahun, Gurob and Hawara, London 1890
J. E. Quibell et al. 2nd Memoire of the Egyptian Research Account: The Ramesseum - The Tomb of Ptahhotep, 1896
André Veldmeijer, "Cordage Production" in Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles, March 2009, accessed at http://repositories.cdlib.org/nelc/uee/1059, May 2009
 
Footnotes:
[1] Gordon 2004, p.102
[2] Arnold 2002, p.195
[3] Pinch 1995, p.84
[4] Petrie 1891, p.11
[5] David 1996, p.242
[6] David 1996, p.231
[7] Lucas 1962, p.135
[8] Bard 1999, p.336
[9] Forbes 1966, p.62
[11] Arnold 1991
[12] Petrie was full of praise for the ancient workmen: Rope was made of flax, of rush, and of palm fibre, and the skill with which it was worked in joints is not exceeded by the modern sailor. (Petrie 1890, p.35)
[13] Petrie described some of the ropes he encountered and their uses:
Of coarser fabrics rope of flax, palm fibre, and rush was made. It is usually of two strands ; but sometimes it was thrice doubled, giving eight strands. Wide network was made of this rope to enclose jars ; a ring passed round the lower end of the jar, the net covered the sides, and joined into a handle of rope at the top. Rings of rush rope are found, probably for carrying jars on the head. Small, flat, square baskets of rope were made, about 6 or 7 inches in height and width. And a band, probably for going round the back of a man in palm climbing, is formed of 14 fine ropes parallel, interwoven with strips of linen cloth, and ending in two thick loops for attaching the rope. Baskets were also made of palm leaf; both of the modern round type with palm rope handles, and of the flat, square form ; the latter is most thoughtfully designed, with a wooden bottom bar, woven rope corners, six fine ropes up the sides to distribute the pressure, retained in place by a cross rope, and ending in a twisted rope handle, the top edge having a fine rope binding,
Petrie 1890, p.28
[14] Veldmeijer 2009

 

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- [10] The History of Rope Making by John Roper (web.archive.org)
- Ropewalk: A Cordage Engineer's Journey Through History

 

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© April 2007
Changes:
May 2009

 

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