Pyramid Builders' Village Found in Egypt

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated September 18, 2002
New evidence uncovered at Giza is adding to our knowledge of who built the great pyramids, and how they accomplished this timeless feat.

The University of Chicago/Harvard University Giza Plateau Mapping Project, sponsored in part this season by National Geographic and led by archaeologist Mark Lehner, has made several new discoveries in an area lying south of the Sphinx near the workers' cemetery.

The area, often called the "workers' village," is the site of a vast community that thrived some 4,500 years ago on the Giza Plateau. It may have housed as many as 20,000 people.

Every discovery in the area is an important piece to a puzzle with no written key. "On the site we really have no texts," Lehner says, "so we interpret from what we find on the ground."

Ancient Beds Suggest Barracks Structures

Among this season's interesting finds are mud ramps approximately one meter wide, believed to be bed platforms. Ancient beds were often designed with the foot a bit lower than the head.

The beds were found within large "galleries," or colonnaded porches half open to the sky, which allowed sunlight to stream in and smoke to float out. Lehner believes the galleries may have served as a dormitory or barracks for temporary workers, providing sleeping quarters for as many as 2,000 people at once. Originally excavated during the 1999 to 2002 field seasons, the galleries appear to be part of a vast complex that also housed activities such as copper-working and cooking.

Chambers in the rear of the sleeping galleries may have been used for cooking, roasting, and baking—suggesting that some of the food production for workers might have been done on site.

The presence of a barracks could help explain the abundance of pottery, ash, and refuse found in the area, especially the tremendous amounts of animal bone. "When we excavate we find enough animal meat bone to feed several thousands of people," Lehner reported. "This would explain why."

The bones in the area suggest that workers enjoyed quite a lot of prime beef. Previous excavations have discovered that they also ate bread and fish, and drank beer.

Analysis of human remains has suggested that workers apparently had access to medical treatment. Evidence has been found of healed broken bones, amputated limbs, and even brain surgeries.

Evidence of a New Workers' Town

This year's research also uncovered evidence of a separate workers' town, dubbed "the Eastern town," complete with courtyards, chambers, and houses. "It looks like a typical settlement, and that's what we had expected," Lehner said. "But we found these curious long galleries and we didn't know what they were."

"If the galleries mean thousands of people, and the Eastern town means substantial numbers of people, they were people who moved in very different ways," Lehner explained. "In the Eastern town, the powers that be are allowing them to organize themselves as they see fit."

Lehner speculates that the Eastern town housed skilled craftsmen, artisans, stone masons, quarrymen, overseers, and officials. The discovery of the town area reinforces the theory that ancient Egyptians utilized both permanent skilled labor, and a temporary workforce to complete the massive construction project.

While such temporary labor was not voluntary, Lehner suggests, neither was it slave labor in the sense most commonly assumed.

Beginnings of Egyptian Unity?

"It's hard for modern Americans and Europeans to understand what obligation was like in a traditional pre-modern society," Lehner said. "Obligation was understood—it was a part of society, which was sometimes nothing more than your clan or your village."

But while labor in the ancient world was obligatory, Lehner believes it did not have to be a totally unpleasant experience.

"The picture of a highly centralized bureaucracy going through the land and conscripting people for labor by force—it's highly doubtful," said Lehner. "Instead, it's the local rulers, heads of villages, large estates, that the royal house goes to when they need labor."

Because the labor pool was a rotating force, contributed by local authorities from all over Egypt, the Pyramids project may have had a tremendous socializing effect.

"It was a coming together of people from throughout the land," said Lehner. "By coming and working in this place, it socialized information and bound all these disparate areas, these provinces, into a whole. It was really the beginnings of Egyptian unity."

"That's why I like to say my interest now is not so much how the Egyptians built the pyramids but how the pyramids helped to build Egypt."

Site Could Yield First Old Kingdom Royal Palace

While the workforce might have been disparate, the royal house was likely the driving force behind the pyramids' construction. As excavations continue, Lehner and his team hope to find further evidence of royal presence on the site.

A group of mud-brick silos surrounding a rectangular court was also found this year, which probably stored huge quantities of grain used for baking bread. They are situated within a royal structure for storage and administration of the complex, first viewed during the 2001 field season, and excavated in 2002.

"It's been my expectation that we wouldn't have a barracks out there by itself in the desert," Lehner said. "Whenever they organized production it was always centered around a household."

On a small-scale project, this might mean an ordinary household. On bigger projects, it was that of a governor or a palace. "When we started finding bakeries some ten years ago, my expectation was that there would be a royal house right there," Lehner said.

Such expectations may yet be realized. The team has uncovered a small part of some tantalizing remains, which lie primarily beneath a soccer field.

"We've begun to clear a very big double-walled and triple-walled building," Lehner enthused, "and inside we find lots of chambers, evidence of weaving, copperwork and a big court where we found the sunken silos. It could be a palace, or some sort of administration building. If this site follows the pattern of other sites, we should have the residence of an important person on the site."

If that person turns out to be one of the ancient Pharaohs, a unique archaeological treasure could lie beneath the playing field—Egypt's first Old Kingdom royal palace.

The new discoveries were featured in a National Geographic Channel global television event on September 16, 2002.

The live two-hour documentary aired in 141 countries.

Viewers of the television event were able to go on a live archaeological expedition deep inside the secret and complex shafts within the queen's chamber in the Great Pyramid, also known as Khufu's Great Pyramid, after the Egyptian pharaoh who is believed to have built it.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Zahi Hawass, who is now head of Egypt's antiquities, along with American archaeologist Mark Lehner, served as the expedition's leaders. During the special, Hawass and Lehner offered answers to two of history's most perplexing mysteries—how the Great Pyramid of Giza was built and who executed the awe-inspiring enterprise.

The special visited the nearby workers' cemetery, where a historic discovery recently was made: The oldest intact Egyptian sarcophagus of its kind ever found by modern archaeologists was unearthed in a tomb inscribed with the grand title "Overseer of the Administrative District." The coffin had been sealed for more than 4,500 years, and viewers watched as archaeologists cracked the lid for the first time and unveiled its ancient contents. They found a perfectly preserved skeleton inside.

The queen's chamber inside Khufu's Great Pyramid contains architecturally complex shafts, whose function and purpose remain unknown to this day. With a custom-built robot equipped with fiber-optic lenses, high-resolution cameras, and the world's smallest ground-penetrating radar antenna, the archaeologist team traveled deep into the mysterious shafts, attempting to peer beyond a blocking stone to look for new clues about Pharoah Khufu and his Great Pyramid.

Read Ancient Pyramid Chambers Opened for a full account, with images, of this expedition.

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