Friday, 23 January 2009

Logistics in Ancient Egypt

A few years ago, I went to the inaugural address given by Exeter University's Professor of Archaeology, Professor Val Maxfield. (Her office was on the floor below mine, and I saw her several times a week as a result.) Before her lecture, I had little idea what her speciality in the subject was, and so her topic came as a surprise.

She spoke about excavations in the eastern mountains of Egypt, close to the Red Sea. There, the Romans quarried a stone called porphyry, and this was the only site in the world for this stone. (To find out more about it, go here.) But what fascinated me, as an O.R. person, was the logistics of moving the quarried stone from high in the mountains, to the Nile, and then by sea to Ostia (Rome's port) and overland from there to the city. The enterprise required extensive logistics. Engineers laid out a road that could be used to trundle the stone downhill and across the arid terrain. There were wells dug along the road. There had to be an infrastructure to house and feed the slaves who moved the stones, as well as the quarry-workers. These are skills which have been lost; today, if anyone needed to transport a ten tonne column a few hundred kilometres, then it would be done mechanically, and generally the logistics would have been simple.

I salute the logistics engineer(s) who were in charge of this enterprise.

When I discussed it with Val, she threw in two further aspects to think about. First, because sea travel was unreliable, "there are probably several shiploads of porphyry on the seabed of the Mediterranean". How disappointing for the engineers! Second, as the quarry was lost for centuries after the fall of the (western) Roman Empire, and the stone was prized in Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, many of the monuments of Rome were looted and the stones taken to the capital of the Eastern Empire. Yet more logistics!

Sadly, the second century "Journal of Mining" and its published research paper: "The Logistics of Quarrying at Mons Porpyritis" is not available now.

No comments: