Zahi HawassDig Days:

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....


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