This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids

Aimee Heidelberg - February 27, 2023

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Mummy label in Demotic script. captmondo (2014).

Hieroglyphics – But More Efficient

Organizing labor requires administration. There needs to be someone who keeps track of where the work stands. Administrators recorded the project status. They needed to know who worked in which phyle, and who was in charge. Staff kept payroll data, and managed supply orders. It is like a modern office. Complex, detailed hieroglyphics used by ancient Egyptians would be far too cumbersome to use for every day, ordinary paperwork. Fortunately, in addition to pyramids, the 4th Dynasty also gave the world hieratic script. This was a simplified hieroglyphic that made writing faster and more efficient. The form used for everyday documents is called demotic script, used by the general population for things like accounting, writing letters, and non-religious writing.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Ancient Egyptian bronze axes in Cairo Egyptian Museum. Dr. Gary Todd, PhD. (2001).

The Tools Pyramid Builders Used

Cutting the stone to build the pyramids was no easy task. Limestone had to be quarried, transported to the site, and laid in a very precise manner. Copper tools were vital to this process. Picks and saws made out of copper cut the stone out of the earth. Saws and copper chisels cut it down to useable size. Copper saws cut the stone, with an estimated “inch of metal was lost from blades for every one to four inches cut.” It became a major import for Egypt during the Old Kingdom. Copper was strong and durable, the best metal at the time for such a heavy workload.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Wall Fragment from the Tomb of Satbahetep and Neferkhau, Limestone, 2100-1940 B.C., Egypt. manuel m. (2018).

The Laborer’s Work Was Physically Demanding

Laborers ate well, but it was one of their few creature comforts. The work was physically difficult and took a toll on their health. Physical remains found in the Great Pyramids worker’s tombs show a lot of muscle strain, bent spines, and death from injuries they received on the job. Their skeletons show arthritis and damage to their lower vertebrae. Dieter Wildung of the Berlin Egyptian Museum says, “But let’s not exaggerate here, they lived a short life and tomography skeletal studies show they suffered from bad health, very much likely because of how hard their work was.” Pyramid building for the Pharaoh was a community project. For some it was a social obligation for some, for others, a way to honor the gods. While not actual slavery, pyramid work may have been a sort of expected labor, a social and national obligation for some of the workers.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids

Medical Care

As difficult as the labor was, the laborers had access to medical care. Archaeologists found broken bones that had been well set. Remains of an amputee show a skilled doctor did their surgery. The patient lived about 20 years after the operation. They showed evidence of degenerative arthritis in the vertebrae and knees and anemia. Skeletal remains show the earliest evidence of brain surgery to remove a brain tumor, according to Dr. Hawass. Another showed the earliest known case of syphilis. Other workers had bones set. Women showed evidence of assistance with birth complications. Slaves didn’t get this level of care, according to Dr. Hawass. Nevertheless, the life span, even with decent medical attention, wasn’t long. Skeletal remains indicate the average worker buried in the Pyramid cities was about 30-35 years old when they died.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Metal Working, Tomb of Rekhmire. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Work Hours on the Pyramids

Laborers on the Pyramid project worked in three month shifts, according to Dr. Hawass. They would work three or four hour shifts, but those short (by modern standards) shifts were full of heavy lifting and hard labor. Archaeologists estimate that one stone could be put into place every one to two minutes depending on how large the shift was at the time. But this depended on the job. Stone haulers and setters may have had the three to four hour shifts. But their supervisors may have worked longer hours due to less physical exertion. Water haulers may have worked similar or slightly longer shifts, keeping the stone layers hydrated. Bakers may have had earlier and longer hours, temple workers may have had longer hours but more white-collar work. Hours worked was inconsistent, but the work came with reward.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Egyptian kitchen. Andreas Praefcke (2006).

Pay for a Pyramid Worker

Worker’s pay was typically in the form of rations. Records indicate rations of this era for a laborer would be ten loaves and a ration of beer. Workers received their beer payment three times a day. The higher the status and skill of the worker, the more rations they would receive. Workers may have also received credits or other goods. Administrators recieved the payroll rations anddistributed it to workers based on detailed records. The pyramid cities developed their own economy and trade center. Workers could trade their surplus rations with others living and visiting the city.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Egyptian beer Making. E. Michael Smith (2007)

Beer as a Refreshment and Payment

Ancient Egyptians were not all work all the time. They worked hard, but they also played hard. Because of this, at the end of a hard day’s work, they kicked back with a beer. Beer was part of their payment for their work on the pyramid project. Workers recieved their beer ration, about four to five liters (or sometimes wine) three times a day. There were five different beer types, and four different wines being produced to handle the rations. Egyptians were famous for their beer brewing skills; they took the thick, almost pasty brew created by Sumerians and refined it into something closer to what we would recognize as beer today. Unlike the Sumerian beer, Egyptians didn’t need a straw to drink their brew!

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
A game of Senet, game board inscribed with name of Amunhotep III. Keith Schengli – Roberts, Brooklyn Museum (2007).

Personal Time

Egyptians loved to play. They challenged friends to board games while pounding back their beer. Boards and pieces for games like Senet (a game much like modern checkers), Mehen, Hounds and Jackals have been found in royal tombs and common graves. Board games were popular at every level of society, from peasant to royalty. They played sports for friendly competition. Popular sports included throwing javelin, wrestling, rowing, lifting weights, tug-of-war (played using a hoop), and a version of field hockey. They held running races, play handball, have high-jump contests, and handball. Archery and chariot racing was popular, but more of a game for nobility and royalty. Egyptians liked to put on pageants to depict stories and religious tales. They held mock battles showing glorious victories, typically depicting battles between gods. Some were artists, danced, sang, played music, or told stories. Egyptian pastimes are quite like today’s leisure time activities.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Carpenters in Old Kingdom work wear depicted on Tomb of Rekhmire (c. 1504-1425 BCE). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pyramid Builder Fashion

Egypt is hot. The climate could be very uncomfortable for people laboring in unshaded sun to build the pyramids. The fabrics and styles of Egyptian clothes kept people reasonably cool. Old Kingdom men wore flax-based linen loincloths that went from waist to knee, held up with a belt. The fashion-forward of the workers would sport thin mustaches and keep them well groomed. Women wore linen sheaths secured with a shoulder strap. The wealthy Egyptians would wear jewelry; decorated collars, earrings, rings, headdresses, and necklaces, as much as they could afford. Children wore nothing at all until they reached adolescence. Additionally, most Egyptians did not wear shoes unless there was a reason to, like working in hazardous areas or for special occasions. Wealthy people would wear leather sandals, and the poor would fashion sandals from papyrus or palm.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Common ancient Egyptian grave or cist grave. Gary Todd, 2016.

Death in the Pyramid City

Laborers would, occasionally, die during their shift at the Pyramids. There is a cemetery near the Pyramids for workers and the residents of the Pyramid cities. Workers needed their tools to practice their craft in the afterlife; their tombs included tools and equipment. Workers who lived in the permanent homes had nicer graves; unlike the temporary workers, they had a lifetime to prepare their graves. The cemeteries included bodies of women and children, meaning families lived at the worksites, permanently settling the pyramid city. The tombs were decked out in mid-level Egyptian finery; the walls had inscriptions, personal possessions were placed carefully by sarcophagus. These tombs have been key for modern researchers to learn about their lives.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
History of Europe Ancient and Medieval by J. H. Breasted and J. H. Robinson (1920). Public Domain

The Great Pyramid of Khufu is complete

Smoothly polished white limestone covered the base stone layer, creating a gleaming, polished coat. The massive tomb stood 481 feet tall, with each of the four sides measuring 755 feet. In the end, around 91 million cubic feet of stone was quarried and used in the pyramid. A pyramidion capstone sat at the peak of the pyramid, connecting it to the sky – and to immortality. The Pyramid’s ancient name was Akhet Khufu, or Horizon of Khufu. Khufu died in 2465 BCE. His body was mummified and laid to rest in the richly decorated tomb. Khufu was ready to take his place among the gods, and the work of his laborers would help the Ancient Egyptian culture achieve its own level of immortality. But pyramids and temple work continued on structures for Khufu’s sons. The work continued for decades.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Pyramids of Khufu, Kahfre, and Menkaure, Giza, Egypt. Moh hakem, (2016).

Pyramids of Giza

The Giza site would include a second pyramid built around 2530 BCE by Pharaoh Khafre, Khufu’s son. Some Egyptologists claim Khafre was also responsible for building the Great Sphinx. Pharaoh Menkaure, Khafre’s son, built a third pyramid at the Giza site around 2490 BCE. The Great Pyramid site of Giza ended up with three pyramids. Additionally, these were accompanied by adjacent funerary temples, smaller tombs and mastabas for queens and high nobility, rock-cut tombs, and boat pits. Cemeteries flank the east and west side of Khufu’s pyramid. But aside from the pyramids, the most notable feature of the pyramid complex is the Great Sphinx, which guards the eastern edge of the complex, near the Valley Temple of Khafre.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Great Sphinx guards the Giza Pyramids. Mavila2, Public Domain.

The Sphinx has more mysteries than answers

The Great Sphinx, a mythological creature with a human head and lion body, stands at the edge of the Great Pyramid complex. The Sphinx is said to resemble Khafre, but there is no concrete evidence as to which Pharaoh had the Sphinx built. Dr. Lehner believes it took about one hundred workers around three years to carve the body of the Sphinx out of a single piece of limestone. However, Sphinx builders made the paws from separate blocks of limestone. The structural limestone was coated with brightly colored paint, reds, yellows, blues to give it some visual appeal. Oddly, there were uncut stones, abandoned tool kits and even lunches left near the Sphinx, as if the project suddenly stopped and the workers left in a hurry. While the Pyramids reveal some of its secrets through the tomb inscriptions, the Sphinx isn’t a tomb, and those lips aren’t talking.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
Queen Hatshepsut’s rock-cut tomb. Dennis Jarvis (as archer10), 2004.

Pyramids go out of style

The Giza pyramids were the height of tomb fashion during Egypt’s Old Kingdom. But the nation transitioned into the Middle Kingdom, and pyramids fell out of fashion. Despite its underground chambers, unbelievably complex system of corridors and rooms, they were vulnerable to tomb raiders and thieves. Later, by Ramses and Cleopatra’s time, pyramids were ancient history. Fashionable Pharaohs built mostly hidden, rock-cut tombs. These were less conspicuous and harder (but not impossible) for theives to find. After a while, theives still found many of them. Nevertheless, the age of the Pyramids was over. Therefore, the purpose-built city of Giza Pyramid workers no longer had its purpose. Archaeology on the Pyramid City revels ruins that only stand about ankle to waist deep. The Lehner excavation thinks the city was demolished after the pyramid complex was completed, and the ruins have eroded over time.

This is What Life Was Like for an Egyptian Worker Building the Pyramids
The Giza Pyramids. Bruno Girin (2005).

The Legacy of the Great Pyramid Laborers

The efforts of the laborers and skilled workers of Khufu’s pyramid were vital to creating the Great Pyramids of Giza, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The builders of the Great Pyramid of Giza used literal blood, sweat, and tears. Even so, they had to go back to their day jobs on farms and other roles in Egyptian society. The skilled craftspeople did top-notch work to ensure the Pharaoh was presentable in the afterlife. The administrators kept everything organized, provided for workers, ensured everyone was fed, housed, paid, and happy. Despite the broken bones and compressed spines, that is. The Pyramids were a long, laborious project that required the construction of a whole city, and literally broke the backs of workers. Their work has endured 4,500 years, with no signs of losing its “World Wonder” status.


Where did we find this stuff? Resources and Additional Reading

Ancient Egyptian Sport (n.a.) State Information Service: your Gateway to Egypt. (n.d.)

Great Pyramids tombs unearth ‘proof’ workers were not slaves. Associated Press in Cairo,, 11 January 2010.

Hawass: ‘The Great Pyramids were not built by slaves.’ Mustafa Marie, Egypt Today, 9 June 2020.

Journey of the Pyramid Builders. Daniel Weiss, Archaeology: A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America. July/August 2022.

Pyramid builders had Happy Hours, too. Associated Press. Los Angeles Times, 31 May 1993.

Pyramid builders had medical care. Tarek El-Tablawy, AP News, 27 July 1998.

Pyramids at Giza. Brian Handwerk, National Geographic (n.d.)

Standing tall: Egypt’s Great Pyramids. Jose Miguel Parra, National Geographic, January/February 2017.

Were the Egyptian pyramids built by slaves? Laura Price, BBC Science Focus, (n.d)

Who built the Egyptian Pyramids? Not slaves. Eric Betz, Discover Magazine, 1 February 2021.

Who built the Pyramids? Jonathan Shaw. Harvard Magazine, July-August 2003.