Enough Rope

Xavier Leenders's blog | Created 3 years ago

We've dated the Rope!

A close up section of the Mardi Rope

A close up section of the Maadi Rope
Image copyright WA Museum 

A little while ago, we posted a blog about a section of Egyptian ropeLooking to gather a little more information about how old the rope was, and with the financial help of the Friends of the WA Museum, we sent a small cutting of it off for radiocarbon dating. We now have the results! Yep, that’s right, it’s ancient!

Before we reveal the rope’s age, a little history lesson. In 1976 the Western Australian Museum was given the 28cm long section of rope said to have been found in 1944 near Maadi, Egypt (that’s near Cairo). The story is that it was found by members of the South African Corps of Army Engineers after they had dynamited a scree slope looking for a place to store munitions in WWII.

The rope (then 3.5m long) was found lying across the sides of a large limestone block, sitting on rollers inside a quarried cavern. One section of the rope was given to an Australian man, Hector Walter Rumbold, whose wife and son (Mr Eric Rumbold) donated this specimen to us. It’s possible that other members of the corps kept similar samples, and one even appears to have been exhibited in Johannesburg.

Xavier and Min cut a section of the rope. Min looks worried!

Xavier and Min cut a section of the rope. Min looks worried!
Image copyright WA Museum 

Cutting a section of rope to send to the carbon dating annalists was difficult, a ‘fraying’ experience to say the least. We had to remove a section that was least destructive to the appearance of the specimen and that would have the least chance of being contaminated… which just so happened to be in the centre of the rope section.  After some prying, we managed to get 2.5 grams, which is a reasonable sample size for AMS dating (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry).

Removing a section of rope cut from a center fiber.

Removing a section of rope cut from a center fiber. Risky Business.
Image copyright WA Museum 

So! What was the age you ask? The rope has been officially dated to between 380 to 200 BCE, that’s around 2400 years old! That puts it around the first century of the Ptolemaic period!

The Ptolemaic period in Egypt began after the reign of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE with Ptolemy I Soter, and ended with Cleopatra VII during the Roman conquest in 30 BCE. There has been some debate as to the type of plants that were used in rope making near ancient Red Sea ports, but we think that the rope is most likely made from Cyperus papyrus. Our next task is to obtain images of its cellular structure so that we can be sure of this identification.

If you want to know more about AMS dating, click here. You can also learn more abour rope production, or simmilar sections of rope found at Mersa Wadi Gawasis.

Well now we know! If you liked finding out about the rope as much as we did, make sure to watch this space for future news about what’s going on in the Anthropology & Archaeology Department!


Written By

Moya Smith & Xavier Leenders