On Assignment

On Assignment

In Ancient Egypt
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

zoom in

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer’s technical notes.

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>


Map of Egypt

Click to enlarge >>

By Virginia Morell Photographs by Kenneth Garrett

An ancient city and graveyard reveal that throngs of skilled citizens—not slaves—toiled over the pharaohs’ tombs.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

[Egyptologist Zahi] 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 tomb. 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.”

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

In addition to the three large pyramids that are the source of Giza’s fame, there are a number of smaller pyramids at the site as well. Most of them are known as “queens’ pyramids,” and structures like these are part of many ancient Egyptian pyramid complexes. There are three queens’ pyramids in the complex of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. They lie in a row along the east side of the Great Pyramid and are of equal size, each rising to about one-fifth the height of the pharaoh’s huge tomb. Egyptologists aren’t certain of the identity of the women who were buried inside, and all three bodies are gone, but one is believed to have been the tomb of a woman named Hetepheres, who may have been Khufu’s mother. There are also three queens’ pryamids alongside Menkaure’s pyramid, and the body of a young woman was discovered in the burial chamber of one of them. If there are any other queens’ pyramids at Giza, they are still hidden in the sand of the plateau.

—Robin Adler

Pyramids: The Inside Story
Explore the great pyramids at Giza, learn about the excavations of the “royal production center,” where bread, tools, beer, and other necessities were produced for the pyramid builders, and read interviews with archaeologists Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner at this PBS site.

The Plateau: Official Web site of Dr. Zahi Hawass
Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Undersecretary of the State for the Giza Monuments and Director of the Pyramids, is also the National Geographic Society’s newest explorer-in-residence. Read about his many spectacular discoveries at Giza and elsewhere in Egypt.

Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids
Showcasing artifacts that were part of a 1999 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this site includes sections on pyramid complexes, tombs of officials, images of royalty, objects used in daily life, and much more. Pictures and descriptions offer detailed information about exquisite works of art, including tomb reliefs, jars, and jewelry.

The Sphinx and the Pyramids: 100 Years of American Archaeology at Giza
The Harvard Semitic Museum, where Mark Lehner is a research associate, is home to this exploration of American excavations at Giza. The site focuses on fieldwork done by Harvard archaeologist George Reisner in the early 20th century.


Baines, John, and Jaromír Málek. Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Checkmark Books, 2000.

Hawass, Zahi. “Tombs of the Pyramid Builders.” Archaeology (January/February 1997), 39-43.

Hawass, Zahi, and Mark Lehner. “Builders of the Pyramids.” Archaeology (January/February 1997), 30-38.

Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries. Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Shaw, Ian, ed. Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2000.


Fagan, Brian. Egypt of the Pharaohs, National Geographic Books, 2001.

Mysteries of Egypt, National Geographic Videos, 1999.

Hawass, Zahi. “World Wonders,” National Geographic Traveler (October 1999), 248-249.

Harris, Stephen L., and others. The Wonders of the World, National Geographic Books, 1998.

Who Built the Pyramids? National Geographic Videos, 1992.

El-Baz, Farouk. “Finding a Pharaoh’s Funeral Bark,” National Geographic (April 1988), 512-533.

Miller, Peter. “Riddle of the Pyramid Boats,” National Geographic (April 1988), 534-550.

Eigeland, Tor. “Splendors in Stone—Monuments of Ancient Egypt,” National Geographic Traveler (Winter 1984/85), 110-128.

Peck, William H., and others. Ancient Egypt: Discovering its Splendors, National Geographic Books, 1978.

Egypt’s Pyramids: Houses of Eternity, National Geographic Videos, 1978.

Hall, Alice J. “Dazzling Legacy of an Ancient Quest,” National Geographic (March 1977), 292-311.

Caffery, Jefferson. “Fresh Treasures from Egypt’s Ancient Sands: Archeologists Add a Funerary Boat, Step Pyramid, and Temple to the Priceless,” National Geographic (November 1955), 611-650.

Baikie, James. “The Resurrection of Ancient Egypt,” National Geographic (September 1913), 957-1020.


© 2001 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE HOME Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe