Zahi Hawass

Dig days: The Pyramid builders II

By Zahi Hawass

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.

To be continued ....

BACK to The Plateau Homepage