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The Pyramid builders at Giza

By Zahi Hawass
We have been excavating the tombs of the "Pyramid builders" at Giza since 1990. They have provided us with important information about the workmen who constructed the Pyramids. Through this discovery we have learnt about their lives, diet and their daily work schedule. For the first time archaeologists learnt important facts about the men and women who dedicated their lives to building the magnificent Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. I have decided to share this information with you in a series of articles for Al-Ahram Weekly prior to publication in a special volume. In this, and the forthcoming articles, I will take you into the Great Pyramid Age.

One of the biggest falsehoods about the Great Pyramid of Khufu is that it was built by slaves. The discovery of the tombs of the Pyramid builders on the Giza Plateau has finally and conclusively put this theory to rest. We now know with certainty that the Pyramids were built by Egyptian men and women -- not slaves! Slavery, while it existed in Ancient Egypt, was not an important part of the economy, especially in the Old Kingdom, and, moreover, it is important to examine the meaning of the word "slavery". We think of slavery as the ownership of a person. In my opinion, in Ancient Egypt the word "slavery" meant a person who worked for another, like the modern term "servant".

The construction of Pyramids was a national project. The massive monument symbolised the might and power of the royal house. In Ancient Egypt, it was essential for the Pharaoh to build a tomb to ensure his rebirth as a god in the afterlife and thus magically maintain the right order of the universe. Every household from Upper to Lower Egypt participated in the construction of the Pharaoh's tomb (pyramid). Every family helped by sending food, materials and manpower. From hieroglyphic inscriptions and graffiti we infer that skilled builders and craftsmen probably worked year-round at the Pyramid construction site. Peasant farmers from the surrounding villages and provinces rotated in and out of the labour force.

The Pyramid project must have been a tremendous socialising force in the early Egyptian kingdom. Young conscripts from villages far and wide took leave of their families and travelled to Giza, then returned full of ideas and fashions from the royal capital. The workforce would have swelled to its largest size during the Akhet, the season of the flood, when the fields stayed under water and the farmers could not tend to their crops. Careful census records would have been kept of every household in the land and their contribution to the project would have been noted.

A similar system is still in place in the Egyptian villages today. When a member of the community builds a new house, the other families give money to help him. The owner of the new house records every donation in a book, then when it is someone else's turn to build a house he must offer the same or more money in return. At lunchtime, every family in the village is expected to send a tray of food to feed the workmen building the houses. Some households even send workmen to participate in the project. When a villager is married, a collection is organised along similar lines. This is called nuqta, meaning payment or loan, and is collected and given to the groom.

Scholars have long known that for 80 years an enormous support system must have existed at Giza. This is the combined minimum lengths of the reigns of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. Such support would have included production facilities for food, ceramics, and building materials (gypsum, mortar and stone, wood and metal). Storage areas for food, fuel and other supplies, and housing for the workmen and their owners, were all on the site. Until recently there was no archaeological evidence for this workforce. Three generations of Pyramid builders seemed to have disappeared without a trace.

Since 1990, however, we have been excavating one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made: the remains of the town where the permanent work force of Pyramid artisans and supervisors lived, the royal section where the temporary workmen were housed and fed, and the vast cemetery in which the Pyramid builders were buried. These new discoveries have added to our understanding of how the Pyramids were built. It has been an exciting time and we are making new discoveries every day....

The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun on 22 November 1922 gave an idea about the wealth and artistic achievements of the New Kingdom. The discovery of the tombs of the Pyramid builders, on the other hand, has provided us with vital information about the workmen who actually constructed the great Pyramids of Giza and has enabled us to reconstruct the age in which they lived.

A Pyramid was not only a tomb but also a religious institution. It depended only on the support of the households from Upper and Lower Egypt which sent a labour contingent but also on the waqf or estate that served their needs. In an estate the Egyptians raised livestock (cattle and goats) to feed the workforce, which is estimated to be 10,000 persons. It was interesting to learn from my friend Mark Lehner, the American Egyptologist, that evidence has been found that the Egyptians used to slaughter 11 cows and 33 goats each day. We now know that the people engaged in moving stones to the base of the Pyramid used to eat meat every day, not only garlic, onion and bread as once thought. Also, the estate production of seed and grain was given to them as payment.

It was once thought that work on the Pyramids was carried out only during the flood season, known as the Akhet. Now it is certain that there were workers throughout the three seasons of the agricultural year, including summer (Pert) and the harvest (Shemu). The workforce included farmers and peasants, and they came from villages and worked on a rotation system, changing every few months. They lived in a camp to the east of the Pyramids, in huts similar to those built by the workers in the Valley of the Kings. We do not have a plan of the huts but evidence has come to light of dormitories that housed up to 55 workers, with a supervisor's house behind each dormitory.

Huts of workmen can be seen near the quarry locations, such as Tura for limestone and Aswan for granite. The workmen at Giza who were accommodated in the dormitories, sleeping close together, numbered as many as 2,000 and they ate in a pillared hall the remains of which were found by Mark Lehner to the east of the galleries.

To the north of the workmen's camp is an artisan village where the technicians were housed with their families. The discovery of this village at Giza shows that each artisan, draftsman, craftsman or sculptor lived in a house that consisted of one room in which to store his material and a court to do his work in daylight. Attached to this area were sleeping quarters, a reception area and cooking quarters. They also had storage rooms for grain and other supplies.

Workmen wore a loincloth and they may have covered their heads with cloth as well. They woke up before sunrise to the sound of an overseer banging a drum. One can imagine how the overseer of each gang would check the names of the workmen and report if one was sick or absent. We can picture life in these ancient times. Maybe some of the workers grumbled at having to rise at such an early hour. One might whisper in the ear of his friend, "I am not getting up to work for this king!" Others might pretend to be sick. They were ordinary human beings like us and therefore it is easy to close our eyes and dream of what life was actually like in the age of the Pyramid builders.


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