Modern humans are often amazed at the artistic, architectural and technological achievements of the ancients. Lacking 20th century knowledge, how were such magnificent monuments as the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, or the statues of Easter Island built? The general answer is simple. Our predecessors were not stupid and were adept at the clever and efficient use of relatively simple tools coupled with incredible energy and motivation. As far as 20th century knowledge is concerned, we are still not sure exactly how, and perhaps why, the above-mentioned monuments were constructed, and if our modern power source goes out, so does this web-site and computer.

In Egypt, many of the end-results of ancient technology have been well-studied, yet what about the technology itself? In cooperation primarily with Dr. David Hansen of the Department of Biology of Pacific Lutheran University, I have conducted interdisciplinary investigations into some of the most basic components of Egyptian material culture. Such studies have included descriptive and materials analyses of ancient Egyptian ropes and baskets. After all, one would find it difficult to pull giant stone blocks or statues or rig a sailing ship without ropes, and clearing and moving dirt poses quite a problem without baskets. We also investigate ancient art and texts as related to our investigation as well as observing modern village practitioners and experimenting with materials. We are especially interested in the oft-neglected precise identification of ancient artifact materials. Other research has involved a study of the many uses of the papyrus plant, wood used in coffins, and physical assessments of funerary cones. (See the Ancient Languages and Scripts page for the latter).


  • The beautiful inflorescence of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus.
  • A microscopic cross-section of an ancient rope fiber from Egypt used in materials identification.
    (In this case, the material is anatomically identified as Desmostachya bipinnata or "halfa grass".)
  • A contemporary Egyptian rope-maker expertly maintains ancient technological traditions.
  • Donald Ryan and David Hansen deeply fathoming the nuances of "old rope" in the lab.

    Publications by Donald P. Ryan:

    2001   "Basketry, matting and cordage." In, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt 1:164-166.
    1996   "Ancient Egyptian Basketry."  Macmillan Dictionary of Art, Macmillan, London.
    1993   "Who cares about old [Egyptian] rope?"  KMT: A Modern Journal of Egyptology 4(2):72-80.
    1989   "Belzoni's rope from the tomb of Sethos I."  Studien zur Altaegyptische Kultur,
            Beihefte 2:137-142.
    1988   "Cyperus papyrus." Biblical Archaeologist 51 (Sept.):132-140.
    1988    Book Review of: R. Hall (1986), "Egyptian textiles."  Varia Aegyptiaca 4:261.
    1987   "A study of Ancient Egyptian cordage from the British Museum." (with David H.
            Hansen)   Occasional Papers of the British Museum 62.
    1987 Book Review of: Y. Gourlay (1981), "Les sparteries de Deir el-Medineh." Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 22:215-216. 1985 "The misidentification of ancient Egyptian plant fibers." Varia Aegyptiaca 1(3):143-149.

    Technology Links:

    Stone Tools:
  • Lithics-Net
  • Bibliography of Projective Point Literature (Michael A. Pfeiffer)
  • Projectile Point Identification
  • NativeTech: Stone and Tools
  • (Flint) Knappers Anonymous
  • The Knappers Corner
  • International Association for Obsidian Studies
  • Megalithic Stone Pages

    Fiber and Plant Materials:
  • The Cordage Institute
  • Native Tech: Weaving and Cordage
  • Native Basketry
  • NativeTech:Native American Technology and Art
  • The Fiber Resources Page
  • Gourd Artist's Guild

  • Native Watercraft in Canada
  • The Coracle: an ancient Welsh boat
  • The Making of Hawai'iloa, a Hawaiian voyaging canoe

    Misc. Technology:
  • History and Primitive Technology Page

    Back to Donald P. Ryan Home Page