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Who Built the Pyramids in Egypt?

By Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira, Universidade de São Paulo.

“Who built Thebes of the seven gates? In the books you will find the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?” In this 1935 poem, the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht imagined the questions of a reading worker who noticed the absence of workers in the history books. "Who built the pyramids of Egypt?" was not one of those questions, but what the worker in the poem said about Thebes would also fit that question. The three great pyramids of Giza, built in the middle of the third millennium BCE, are still known by the names of the pharaohs for whom they were built: Cheops, Chephren and Mikerinos. But what can we know about the workers who built these gigantic monuments?

For a long time, Egyptologists and archaeologists devoted little interest to knowing where and how Egyptian workers lived. Egyptology was formed from the study of monumental inscriptions and the first excavations in Egypt were only aimed at discovering the fabulous treasures buried in tombs such as those of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Proper archaeology, with stratigraphic study of every type of settlement, and the broader interest in the study of the common Egyptians only developed much later. In the case of the Giza plateau, it was not until 1988 that a mapping project of the region carried out by the Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) and directed by Mark Lehner, from the University of Chicago, was dedicated to identifying and excavating the settlement of the workers employed in the construction of the pyramids.

Lehner began by observing the geology of the plateau and hypothesized that the settlement would be located south-southeast of the pyramids, close to the mouth of the wadi (temporary stream) that crossed the region. There, his first excavations revealed a series of bakeries, suggesting large-scale production, but only by the multiplication of domestic units. Starting in 1999, with greater resources, an international team of 30 archaeologists excavated 5 hectares and mapped the entire area of ​​the “workers’ city”. In fact, archaeologists have found not one but two "cities". The first, to the east, was a settlement with organic and unplanned development, which Lehner identified as the settlement of permanent workers. It was in this "city", with a typical appearance of a village, that the bakeries feeding the other workers were found. The other one, to the west, with streets in an orthogonal plan, planned and surrounded by an already known wall, called in Arabic “Wall of the Crow” (Heit el-Ghurab), had very different characteristics. It was here, for example, that the biggest houses and stamps that suggest the presence of administrators were found.

The excavations brought some surprises and new questions. First, the total number of identified dwellings seemed too small for the hypothetical number of workers employed in building the pyramids. Herodotus, in antiquity, said that 100,000 workers were employed, while modern calculations suggest a much smaller figure, around 10,000 to 20,000 men. However, there were not enough houses in the Giza settlement to house even the lowest figure. At the same time, the study of buildings that appeared to have an institutional function revealed a second surprise: immense amounts of bones from cattle, sheep and goats that would be enough to feed a few tens of thousands of workers, even if they ate meat every day.

From these discoveries, the first conclusion that Lehner and his colleagues came to is that the workers employed in building the pyramids were not the legions of slaves depicted in films like Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments (1956). The frequent consumption of meat, a luxury that the poor and slaves were deprived of, suggests, on the contrary, that they were skilled and, to some extent, privileged workers. Their work might be compulsory, as it would throughout the history of pharaonic Egypt, but it was probably motivated by obligations of reciprocity or religious loyalty. This is what the graffiti left on the monuments of Giza, discovered by the Harvard archaeologist George Reisner in the first half of the 20th century, suggest. The graffiti refer to the “Friends of Khufu” (Pharaoh Cheops) or to the “Drunkards of Menkaure” (Pharaoh Miquerinos). Expressions like these seem to suggest a certain pride of workers for the collective effort undertaken.

The existence of these teams of specialized workers, working probably on a rotating basis for a fixed period, would also explain the nature of many of the constructions identified in the Western City. At first, excavators hoped to find conventional domestic architecture. However, the identification in the orthogonal city of galleries 170 meters long, modern in appearance, but with typical elements of Egyptian houses, led Lehner to raise the hypothesis that these buildings were actually accommodations capable of housing a force of rotating work from 1600 to 2000 workers (or even 4000, if we consider that the buildings had, as is likely, two floors).

In recent years, our understanding of the pyramid building process has continued to advance. Recently, at the archaeological site of Hatnub, an ancient quarry in Egypt's eastern desert, archaeologists from the French Institute of Eastern Archeology and the University of Liverpool discovered a system of ramps used to transport alabaster blocks. With stake holes and ladders on both sides, these ramps are now the most concrete evidence of the process that allowed Egyptian workers to move heavy blocks of stone up and down the steep slopes of the quarry. Inscriptions associated with these ramps have allowed archaeologists to date them to the time of Pharaoh Cheops (or Khufu, 2589-2566 BCE), who commissioned the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Despite this constant research effort, pseudoscientific theories, which attribute the construction of the pyramids to the “aliens of the past”, continue to be successful on TV and on the Internet. There are reasons for this. As Sarah Bond observed, behind all theories of extraterrestrial intervention there was always a racist and ethnocentric assumption: the idea that it would be impossible for non-European (and even more, African) people to build great engineering works without the influence of more advanced civilizations. Added to this is the tendency of “post-truth” world to refuse knowledge based on evidences, which has fueled all sorts of denialisms.

The Egyptian workers who built the pyramids were subjected to a double silencing: as workers and as Egyptians. In the times we live in, recovering evidence of their living and working conditions is not just a way of rescuing them from what E. P. Thompson called the “enormous condescension of posterity”. It is also a way of reaffirming the importance of the long, painful, but rewarding work of building knowledge based on methods and evidence – the surest way to preserve our own freedom.

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