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The Pyramid Builders
By Virginia Morell
On a sand-covered hill outside Cairo near the three great pyramids at Giza, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass picks a path among small tombs built of mud and stone. Some of the graves are shaped like beehives; others are rectangular structures carved into the rocky cliffs or constructed of limestone blocks and adorned with hieroglyphics; and still others are little more than small lumps of earth, their tops and sides studded with broken chunks of granite and limestone. Hawass has brought a team of excavators with him, and the men stop beside one of these humble tombs, designated by them as Grave 53. Several similar graves lie to either side, but Hawass has earmarked 53 as his team's morning labor.
"It's something I wondered about for years," Hawass tells me, taking a seat on a nearby rock, while members of his crew dig carefully into the top of the mastaba, as these tombs are called. "Many times when I looked at the pyramids, I would ask myself about the workers who built them. Where were they buried? Who were the men and women behind this great enterprise? Because of these graves, we have some clues."
Contrary to earlier conjectures—and some modern guidebooks—the pyramids were not built by slaves or foreigners, says the silver-haired Hawass. "That idea of the slaves came from Herodotus," the Greek historian and explorer, Hawass continues. Herodotus visited Egypt around 450 B.C., about 2,000 years after the pyramids were constructed, and was told that 100,000 men had been forced to toil as slaves on the Great Pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu.
But Hawass's 1990 discovery of this cemetery, along with archaeologist Mark Lehner's nearby excavations of what appears to be the ancient laborers' city, confirms what Egyptologists had come to suspect: Herodotus was misinformed. Ordinary Egyptian citizens built the pyramids, some working as conscripts on a rotating basis, others as full-time employees. Hawass and Lehner estimate that the feat—quarrying, transporting, and fashioning the seven million cubic yards (5,351,885 cubic meters) of stone for the three pyramids and adjoining structures—was accomplished with a workforce of only 20,000 to 30,000 men. Each pyramid complex (a grouping of pyramid, temples, and tombs) was started when a pharaoh assumed the throne and stopped when he died. Thus the Giza monuments, which were constructed during the 4th-dynasty reigns of Kings Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure (about 2550 to 2470 B.C.), required some 80 years to build.
From my seat beside Grave 53 I can see the pointed summits of the two largest pyramids the workers built: the tombs of Khufu and his son Khafre. The pyramids always take a visitor's breath away, in part because of their size, shape, and beauty but also because of the mind-numbing amount of work they obviously entailed. They were built of blocks of limestone and granite ranging from less than one to more than 40 tons (36 metric tons), all hewed, moved, and set in place by human hands. The ancient Egyptians relied on neither complex machines nor animals (nor extraterrestrials) for any of this labor. And after they completed the core of a pyramid (which is primarily what we see today), they covered it with stones precisely fitted together and polished until the pyramids gleamed like jewels in the sun.
"They were proud of their work, yes," says Hawass when I comment on the evident care the pyramid builders took in their craft. "It's because they were not just building the tomb of their king. They were building Egypt. It was a national project, and everyone was a participant. People we're finding in these graves were part of that national project," he adds, nodding toward the one at his feet. "Many of them were cutting, moving, and polishing the stones."
By now Hawass's men have removed the mud bricks and rocks covering the grave, and some of them are carefully spading into the sand below. Others stand in a line above the pit with buckets woven from rubber inner tubes. Most wear long robes and turbans. It's a little after eight o'clock in the morning on an Egyptian spring day, but already the sun is high and hot, the sky a white-blue. I try to find a little shade behind a mastaba. For the crewmen, however, the heat, dust, and sweat are nothing new, and one by one they move forward to lower their buckets into the grave, where a workman named Said Saleh is digging. He fills each bucket with sandy soil. And one by one the workers hoist up their buckets, then walk down the slope to dump the sand on a pile, which two archaeologists run through a sieve. There's a steady rhythm to their digging, hoisting, and dumping—a smaller version, I imagine, of the crews who pushed, pulled, and set the stones of the pyramids.
Within minutes the team's efforts reveal the dark, pulverized bits of what had once been a wooden coffin.
"That's rare," says Hawass. "Usually these people were too poor to afford something like this. Maybe he worked in a carpenter's shop or knew someone who did."
Beneath the bits of wood Saleh uncovers the skull and collarbones, stained a yellowish brown color from the decaying coffin, then the rest of the skeleton. It lies bent in the fetal position, as was the custom, with the face pointing east toward the rising sun and the top of the skull aligned to the north, where the pharaoh's spirit ascended each night to join the "imperishable" circumpolar stars.
Saleh uses a brush to gently sweep away the earth from the bones; later a physical anthropologist will collect them for study. Bits of linen still cling to some of the bones, suggesting that this person had been wrapped in a cloth before being placed in the coffin.
"The poorer people often did this as a kind of symbolic mummification," Hawass says. "It was expensive to be mummified, so almost no one could afford it. But you could have the idea of being mummified with a cloth like this."
On one side of the skeleton Saleh unearths a curved knife made from yellow flint and hands this to Hawass.
"Even the poorest people were given something to help them in the afterlife," Hawass says. "Maybe this fellow used a knife like this for cutting his meat."
Many workers were also buried with jars of beer, Hawass adds, picking up one such rough red-clay pot lying on top of a nearby grave. "They made a beer from barley, and that was their daily drink. They didn't want to be without it even in the afterlife, so they often put in one of these jars."
Unlike some of the other mastabas Hawass has excavated, Grave 53 isn't equipped for after-death beer drinking. Instead, the sieving team has found a handful of tiny bone and faience beads. One of the men pours them into Hawass's hand.
"Ah!" says Hawass, giving a broad smile. "Well, our worker this morning is a woman. We'll know for sure after her bones are studied. But I think we have a woman here. You see, as I said, all Egyptians—men and women—helped to build the pyramids."
When archaeologists first began excavating at Giza some 200 years ago, they naturally turned their attention to the pharaohs' and queens' pyramids, associated temples and tombs, and the Great Sphinx. The ancient Egyptians built all these classic monuments during the 4th dynasty of the Old Kingdom, a veritable golden age of art and architecture.
Ironically, despite their huge and elaborate buildings, relatively little is known about the three key 4th-dynasty pharaohs. If Egyptians of this period recorded the activities of the royal households on papyrus rolls, as they would later, the rolls have not survived. Researchers have only the vaguest idea of what Pharaoh Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid, looked like; one small ivory statue with his name inscribed has survived, and this may have been carved a few centuries after his death. Yet scientists know even less about the common people who toiled on the tombs and temples for the ruling elite.
"It was as if they had vanished," says Mark Lehner, who has spent the past decade searching for the pyramid builders' homes and workshops. "But how do you lose 100,000 people, to use Herodotus's estimate—or even 20,000 or 30,000 people?"
There were a few clues about this workforce, and Lehner leads me to one: the limestone quarries immediately below Menkaure's pyramid. "Here's one of the grooves they made to remove a block of stone," he says, bending down next to a channel five inches wide and three inches deep cut into the rock. "They worked with stone picks and copper chisels to free each block, and they carved out sockets for wooden levers so they could pop the whole block—a 20-ton (18 metric ton ) rock—free."
Each block was delineated with red paint before the workers began to remove it. "Some years ago you could still see traces of that red paint," says Lehner, "and a cartouche," the hieroglyphics that encircle someone's name. "It was probably the mark of the team of workers who had to quarry the block."
Similar team-name inscriptions have been found inside the pyramids. On two blocks in the highest chamber of Khufu's Great Pyramid, for example, a gang of workers painted hieroglyphics that read "Friends of Khufu." And in Menkaure's mortuary temple another group displayed its insignia: "Drunkards of Menkaure."
Those team names alone, I note, suggest something other than a slave mentality.
Lehner nods. A slightly built man in his 50s, he carries the tools of his archaeological trade—pens, trowel, tape measure, paintbrush—jutting from the pockets of his shirt and jeans.
"The workers were organized into competing teams," he explains, "which may have helped them psychologically. You know, 'Let's see whose team can do this job faster.'"
After all, he adds, much of the work the teams had to do was not fun. "Imagine working under the hot Egyptian sun with a stone pick or copper chisel to cut these blocks of stone and then pushing and pulling them to make a pyramid. How do we come to grips with making people work so hard? What motivated them? The most we can say, because we have so few papyrus texts from this period, is that they were deeply religious and believed that by building the tomb for their king, they were assuring his rebirth as well as their own and that of Egypt overall."
To build such monumental structures, the Egyptians needed a highly organized workforce. From tomb inscriptions and from laborers' instructions on walls inside Khufu's pyramid and Menkaure's mortuary temple, researchers can now draw something close to a modern personnel chart for the ancient workers. "Every project like a pyramid had a crew of workers," explains Ann Roth, an Egyptologist who has studied the groups of workers in detail. "And each group was responsible for one part of the pyramid complex. There was one group for building the interior granite roofs and separate groups for raising the chamber walls."
Each crew of workers was divided into four or five smaller units, which Egyptologists call phyles (after the Greek for "tribe"). Each phyle carried a name, such as "Great One" or "Green One." The phyles too were broken into forces of 10 to 20 men, and these had names like "Endurance" and "Perfection."
"They had to be very organized," says Lehner, "to build these things as quickly as they did." He notes that some researchers have calculated that in order to construct a pyramid in 20 years' time, the workers had to set a stone in place every two minutes. "It's a phenomenal pace."
To keep that kind of workforce functioning at top speed, a highly developed support force was also needed, notes Lehner. "You have to have a place to feed and house all these workers and the other workers—the bakers, brewers, and butchers—who support them." In other words, you need a city. And Lehner thinks he has found it—or at least the production or industrial part of the city.
On a wide, sandy plain a few hundred yards below Hawass's cemetery, Lehner and his crew have excavated carefully thought-out—and paved—streets and well-designed buildings divided into small chambers and linked by corridors. Along the north side of this site a massive wall of hewn stone, the Heit el-Ghorab (Wall of the Crow), extends for some 600 feet (183 meters). The wall rises nearly 33 feet (10 meters), is 33 feet thick at its base, and has a center gate capped with three massive limestone lintels.
"We still aren't sure who passed through that gate or why it was there," says Lehner. We stand just at its portal, close to the area where members of his team are now excavating what he calls South Street.
"It's our third such street here, and it runs parallel to the other two. It was a gridded city and quite unusual for its time." Prior to its discovery some Egyptologists thought that settlements in Old Kingdom days would have been nothing more than expanded villages, with streets and work areas placed in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. "We helped put the kibosh on that idea," says Lehner.
He knows that several buildings were used as bakeries, others as breweries. But Lehner is still unsure about the industrial area's overall purpose. "Was it here solely to feed the workers?" he asks, leaning down to sweep away the sand from a tiny fish spine. "Or did they use buildings like this one, where we've found so many fish bones, to prepare offerings for the temples?"
Again, there are no papyrus texts or wall inscriptions—not even any ancient graffiti—to give an answer. The only textual clues to the site come from tiny scraps of sealing clay that once secured the mouths of jars of wine and oil or sacks of grain.
In a lab near Lehner's excavation Egyptologist John Nolan hands me a magnifying lens to take a closer look at one such scrap. It's flat and dark brown, and along the surface it bears the tiny imprints of hieroglyphics—as well as the fine lines of someone's fingerprints. On this one the symbol of a falcon with folded wings clearly stands out. "That's a sign that this is the name of a king, in this case Menkaure," says Nolan. "It implies that the person who made this was a high official."
The imprints were made by rolling a carved seal over a piece of wet clay to create a sealing. After someone had filled a jar, say, with wine, the mouth of the jar was covered with a piece of cloth and tied with a cord, and the moist clay sealing was put in place. The sealings, Nolan adds, were like little tags attached to commodities. "Sealed goods were the closest thing to money these people had. The sealings established a chain of responsibility: There was the person who put the sealing on and the person with the authority to break it."
Nolan has thousands of these sealing scraps left to read. Stored in plastic bags, they line his desk like micromystery tales. "There's always the chance that I'll find one with a title we recognize—someone besides the king. Maybe there'll be one that ties our site directly to the workers' cemetery."
Finding such a link would clear up a question about how closely Hawass's cemetery and Lehner's city are connected in time. Lehner's site has been dated to the mid to late 4th dynasty, and Hawass thinks his cemetery runs from the mid-4th dynasty into the 5th. Yet even if the two sites are not intimately connected, the workers' tombs have given archaeologists a better understanding of the organization that lay behind the building of the pyramids.
Although most of the graves are those of poor workers, several mark the resting places of more important—and wealthy—officials. Some of these are built like miniature versions of the temples of the kings and queens. They are rectangular and made of limestone blocks, and they have all the key features a tomb should have: carved false doors for the person's spirit to use to exit the tomb each night, stone offering basins, and hieroglyphic inscriptions giving the owner's name and title as well as the names of his wife and children. Two even have ramps leading up to their doorways, like the long causeways outside the three pyramids.
The owners of these two tombs "wanted them to look as much like those of their pharaohs as possible," says Hawass, walking up one of the ramps. "This one is the tomb of Weser-Petah, overseer of the officials." The ramp leads to a small doorway. I bend down and step inside the carved-rock tomb. It is a simple structure, like a narrow but shortened railroad car. Above the false door and on either side of it are bas-reliefs showing Weser-Petah in the classic Egyptian profile and beside and below them hieroglyphics spelling his name and title. Although not as elaborate as the tomb inscriptions of the ruling elite, these carvings still reveal the care and concern the Egyptians had for assuring a good afterlife.
A few steps to the west takes us to the ramp and tomb of Ni-ankh-Petah, overseer of the king's bakeries and cakes, and uphill from his tomb stands that of Nefer-Theith, overseer of the palace and purifier of the king. Other tombs bear such titles as overseer of the rowers, overseer of the side of the pyramid, inspector of the royal gardens, and master of the harbor. So far, Hawass's team has discovered 26 of these titles.
"The titles are those of mid- to high-level managers," notes Hawass, "and further demonstrate the tight organization of the ancient Egyptian workforce."
"That's what really blossomed in the 4th dynasty," says Egyptologist James Allen. "It wasn't the discovery of how to work large blocks of stone; it was the discovery of how to organize a large labor force."
Many elite women were buried in the tombs of their husbands, and often they too had their names and titles inscribed on the lintels of the false doorways, as did the wife of Petty, inspector of the craftsmen. Her name was Nesy-Sokar, and she was a priestess of Hathor, goddess of love and dance. Two women had their own tombs; one, like Nesy-Sokar, was a priestess of Hathor and the other a priestess of Neith, goddess of war.
Like the pharaohs, these titled officials—men and women—often had various goods placed in their tombs to help them in the afterlife. There might be beer jars as well as miniature offering plates and drinking cups, but these were made of clay and about the size of a child's tea party set. "There was nothing of real value in these tombs," says Hawass, "which is why they were not looted." That did not prevent the tomb owners from worrying about thieves. Below the exquisitely etched portraits of Petty and Nesy-Sokar a row of protective curses was carved, threatening harm to anyone who disturbed their resting place.
"As for any person, male or female, who shall do evil against this tomb and who shall enter therein, the crocodile shall be against him upon water, the hippopotamus shall be against him in the water, and the scorpion shall be against him on land."
Some of the tombs contained small statues of their owners. Most of these, such as the statue of Nefer-ef-Nesu, chief of the sculptors, and his wife Nefer-Menkhes, were carved from limestone, then painted. The statue shows the couple seated side by side on a bench of "pink granite"—the limestone has been painted in trompe l'oeil fashion to resemble that royal rock. She wears a fancy net dress, a beaded necklace, and bracelets, while he is dressed in a simple white kilt. They both face forward, with slight beatific smiles, and she has her right arm around her husband's shoulder. "It is their ideal, how they want to be in the afterlife," says Tarek El-Awady, an archaeologist and assistant to Hawass. "So they want to look their best and wear the best clothes and jewelry."
For most of these fancy tomb owners daily life in Egypt was probably not too difficult. Surrounded by desert and blessed with fertile land and crops, Old Kingdom Egypt was a rare place: a state marked by sufficient peace and stability so that there was ample leisure and wealth to cultivate a culture devoted to the afterlife. But even the Egyptians faced disease, old age, and death, and for the laborers life was surely hard.
"We can see that in their skeletons," says Azza Mohamed Sarry El-Din, a physical anthropologist who is studying the skeletal remains from the cemetery. "I've looked at 175 skeletons so far, about half men, half women, and nearly all of them suffered from arthritis. Their lumbar vertebrae are badly compressed, as you would expect for a manual workforce. I expected to see that—but I was surprised to see this kind of arthritis in the women too." She lays out the neck and lumbar vertebrae of one woman who died in her early 30s and points to the roughened, eroded edges of the bones. "She must have been carrying heavy loads on her head from the time she was a young girl to get this kind of damage," says Sarry El-Din.
Although there are no records or carvings showing women pushing stones or pulling statues on sleds (as there are of men doing this kind of labor), the condition of the women's bones suggests to her that they were. "There is more damage to their bones than you would expect from simply doing household chores"—or from supporting weight on their heads.
Some of the skeletons also suggest that the workers, despite the hard nature of their occupations, were well treated, although they may not have had the best diet—Sarry El-Din's initial analysis suggests that some individuals were anemic and that most of the laborers ate very little meat. (Curiously, Lehner's team has excavated great quantities of bones from butchered cattle, sheep, and goats—more than enough, he says, to feed several thousand workers some meat each day. Were the slaughtered animals intended only as offerings for the temple cults? The discrepancy between bones, diet, and quantities of meat remains a mystery.) But the workers did have access to good medical care. One worker suffered a badly injured arm, which a doctor amputated below the elbow; the operation healed as well as a similar amputation performed on the leg of an official. "Both men recovered and lived for many years after their accidents," says Sarry El-Din. "Someone was taking care of these laborers. Workers who are pushing stones around like this are going to be hurt, and it's heartening to see that their overseers knew this and had a clinic for them."
Despite the availability of medical care the workers' lives were short. On average a man lived 40 to 45 years, a woman 30 to 35. "The women's lives were shorter, probably because of problems in childbirth," says Sarry El-Din. "But very few people were living what we think of as a long life."
Yet they wanted to. They loved life, Egyptologists say, and their elaborate funeral industry was aimed at one thing: assuring that life never ended.
"You could look at this as a fairly miserable existence," Lehner says, standing on a bluff above his site. "There would have been hundreds of fires burning to bake the bread, to make the pottery and copper chisels, and to keep those chisels sharpened. The air was probably thick with smoke, and there were people moving in long lines to pull the blocks to the pyramid site and people grinding grains, butchering cattle, probably unloading goods in a harbor we think was close to the pyramids. It was all hard, hot, sweaty labor."
And what did it get you? "It gave you a job, a way of making a living, and it gave you a national purpose. And, for them at least, it gave them life beyond this world."