Dr. Zahi Hawass, renown Egyptologist and Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, says “linking building the Great Pyramids to slavery is a comical thing to say.” In retrospect, the idea that slaves built the pyramids likely originated in ancient Greek historian Herodotus. But Herodotus lived thousands of years after Pyramid construction and would not have firsthand knowledge about its workers. Egyptologists say the Herodotus claim influenced Hollywood films, in particular Cecil B. DeMille’s two Ten Commandments films (1923 and another in 1956), and more recently Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) which influenced people views of Egyptian construction labor. In 1977, even former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin claimed Jewish slaves built the pyramids. This is disputed by Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology professor Amihai Mazar, who says, “No Jews built the pyramids because Jews didn’t exist at the period when the pyramids were built.”
Egypt’s Jewish Slaves Were Later than the Pyramids
There were Jewish slaves in Egypt, but much later than the Giza Pyramid’s construction. Dr. Mazar of the Institute of Archaeology states, “If the Hebrews built anything, then it was the city of Ramses as mentioned in Exodus.” Dr. Hawass says the Wadi al-Jarf papyrus detailing forty workers and their chief indicates that there weren’t slaves in Egypt during the time of the Pyramid’s construction; the last known pyramid, the Pyramid of Ahmose, was constructed in the 18th century, hundreds of years before there is evidence of Israeli people in Egypt. As Dieter Wildung, former Egyptian Museum in Berlin says, “The world simply could not believe the pyramids were built without oppression and forced labor, but out of loyalty to the pharaohs.”
With so many workers on the Pyramid projects, it would be inefficient to have them commute from their homes. The 39-acre community for pyramid builders was built to the southwest of the pyramid project to house the workers during their three-month shift, to feed them and provide for their needs. The cities were protected by Heit al-Ghurob, the “Wall of the Crow.” The limestone wall stood 30 to 33 feet high with a 21 foot gate. The wall encircled the city, creating a barrier between the area of the living from the area of the dead, including the Pyramid. The gateway features heavy limestone lintels. The wall provided its residents protection from invaders, but also a way to monitor who was coming in and out of the city, what their business was, and similar administrative and safety functions.
The Lehner excavation revealed two cities created for the Pyramid builders constructed right next to one another. One features an organic plan, where narrow streets wind and curve and end without any sort of scientifically planned layout. The other city uses a grid plan, where straight streets run one direction, intersected with straight streets running another direction to create square blocks. In Egyptian grids, blocks cut through with alleyways and smaller access points, but the main thoroughfares are along straight streets. The main street running through each city paved its streets with packed limestone and dried mud. There was a sewage drain running down the middle of the street to keep it reasonably dry.
The low number of houses archaeologists found during excavations of the pyramid city surprised them. They have found only 40 houses, but hundreds of people worked on the pyramids during a shift. That wasn’t nearly enough to house all the workers, given the animal bones they found, enough to feed thousands of workers on a daily basis. But Egyptologists may have an answer for this riddle’ First, villages were like downtowns. Second, houses popped up away from the central village. Third, seasonal workers used transitory housing such as barracks or camps, but most workers did not live permanently in the city. They likely lived in the outer realm, near the other dwellings.
Permanent housing was rare in the ancient Egyptian pyramid builder’s cities. Laborers on the Pyramid project lived in dorms or barracks, and some have been uncovered at a dig site called Heit el-Ghurab. The Lehner excavation found blocks of up to 170 meters long, large galleries that also had some touches of Egyptian homes. These barracks could hold groups of 1,600 to 2,000 workers at a time. Space for workers could be rotated; there were the seasonal laborers who would work on the project during the off season and return home. As one shift left, another could take their bunks. In addition to the seasonal crew, there was a skeleton crew that stayed the whole year, and a handful of who made their permanent home in the pyramid city.
Like any college town, most of the residents in the pyramid cities were transitory. They would put in their time, then move on. Although some of the workers were full time, permanent staff and those who worked in the temples. They lived in the city, establishing homes and raising families within the Wall of the Crow. The houses for these residents used permanent, stable materials to build their homes. Archaeological evidence shows mud brick was used to build the permanent housing, Old Kingdom mud brick buildings were uncovered at the Giza site by George Reisner in the early 1900s. Among the workers dwellings were homes of year-round support staff. There were bakeries, butchers, produce shops, workshops, supply shops, clothing shops, storage facilities, all the things a city needs to function.
Large numbers of workers on the Pyramid project, and they needed to eat. Even so, the food for the pyramid builders was quite good. Every day of the Great Pyramid project, farmers sent 21 cattle and 23 sheep to the workers village to feed the laborers. They got the best cuts of meat, demonstrated by animal bones archaeologists uncovered in the worker’s village. The bones show a diet that included fish, beef, goat, duck, sheep, and the (much more rare) pig. Pigs were not commonly part of the Egyptian diet because they were a one-trick animal. They were used for food, but there was nothing much more the Egyptians would do with the byproducts, thereby wasting the animal. They also ate fruit, dates, honey, cakes, copious amounts of beer, and fresh baked bread rounded out the meal.
Discovery of an ancient bakery offers insights into the food eaten by Pyramid laborers. The discovery, made by George Washington University Egyptologist Dr. Mark Lehner and his team, revealed bread pots matching the pots depicted in hieroglyphics on the wall of a Fifth Dynasty tomb. A fellow Harvard researcher, Wilma Wetterstrom, analyzed some plant matter at the site, finding barley and emmer wheat, which would make a rather dense bread, so dense and course that the commoner would wear down the teeth from eating it. At the time of the pyramids, workshops, bakeries, and stores were mainly replicating methods used by Egyptian home cooks. Bakers baked the bread in a long, conical pot called a bedja. Archaeologists have been amazed at the amount of wood ash they’ve found at the bakeries. The amount of ash indicates that wood was a vital import at the time.
Once housed and fed, workers were ready to work on the pyramids. Archaeologists found writing on worker’s tombs from later in the construction period detailing the division of labor. Temple Labor units were divided into five divisions, called ‘phyles.‘ Phyles of around 200 workers labored under a project leader’s direction, and these phyles further split into two divisions. Some teams, such as boat-crews and tomb decorators were split further into ‘left-side’ and ‘right side’ crews. This evidence indicates there was a “rotating labor force in a modular, team-based kind of organization” that allowed reasonable oversight of specific elements of the project.
The phyles all had specific tasks they were in charge on. Tomb inscriptions provide insight into what each division actually did. Their leaders are described on their tombs as “Director of Craftsmen,” “Decorator of Tombs,” “official in charge of one side of the pyramid,” and “overseer of stone movers.” There was an Inspector of Royal Tombs, a Building Director, and women serving as Priestess of Hathor. They’re a “Supervisor of Masons,” Head of Stonecutters,” and “Director of works of the king.” And let’s not forget the support jobs necessary to keep the workers on the Pyramid project alive and thriving, such as the “supervisor of granaries,” and “director of the bakery of workers.”
Stone masons marked the blocks used to build the pyramids. This indicate who cut the stone or otherwise worked on it so administrators could pay the stoneworkers. But pyramid laborers left their own marks in graffiti in the Great Pyramid, near Khufu’s burial chamber. They would mark their work with the name of their phyles or divisions. This means the Pyramids have been tagged with phyle names like “The Friends of Khufu Gang,” “Vigorous Gang, “Those Who Know Unas,” or the “Drunkards of Menkaure.” Some graffiti included the names of home towns or mascot animals, leaving a personal record of the builders.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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