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Who Built the Pyramids?

Source. WGBH and PBS 1997

The question of who built the pyramids, and how, has long been debated by Egyptologists and historians. Standing at the base of the pyramids at Giza it is hard to believe that any of these enormous monuments could have been built in one pharaoh's lifetime. Herodotus, the Greek historian who wrote in the 5th century B.C., 500 years before Christ, is the earliest known chronicler and historian of the Egyptian Pyramid Age.

By his accounts, the labor force that built Khufu totalled more than 100,000 people. But Herodotus visited the pyramids 2,700 years after they were built and his impressive figure was an educated guess, based on hearsay. Modern Egyptologists believe the real number is closer to 20,000.

Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass have been trying to solve the puzzle of where the 20,000 - 30,000 laborers who built the pyramids lived. Once they find the workers' living area, they can learn more about the workforce, their daily lives, and perhaps where they came from. Mark has been excavating the bakeries that presumably fed this army of workers, and Zahi has been excavating the cemetery for this grand labor force.

It is believed that Giza housed a skeleton crew of workers who labored on the pyramids year round. But during the late summer and early autumn months, during the annual flooding of the fields with water from the annual innundation of the Nile flooded the fields, a large labor force would appear at Giza to put in time on the pyramids.

These farmers and local villagers gathered at Giza to work for their god kings, to build their monuments to the hereafter. This would ensure their own afterlife and would also benefit the future and prosperity of Egypt as a whole. They may well have been willing workers, a labor force working for ample rations, for the benefit of man, king, and country.

The following interviews with Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass address the controversial question of who actually built the pyramids at Giza:

MARK LEHNER, Archaeologist, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and Harvard Semitic Museum

NOVA: In your extensive work and research at Giza have you ever once questioned whether humans built the pyramids?

LEHNER: No. But have I ever questioned whether they had divine or super intelligent inspiration? I first went to Egypt in 1972 and ended up living there 13 years. I was imbued with ideas of Atlantis and Edgar Cayce and so on. So I went over, starting from that point of view, but everything I saw told me, day by day, year by year, that they were very human and the marks of humanity are everywhere on them.

And you see there's this curious reversal where sometimes New Age theorists say that Egyptologists and archaeologists are denigrating the ancient culture. They sometimes put up a scarecrow argument that we say they were primitive. And the New Agers sometimes want to say these were very sophisticated, technologically sophisticated people who built these things, they were not primitive.

Well, actually there's a certain irony here, because they say they were very sophisticated technological civilizations and societies that built the pyramids and the Sphinx, and yet they weren't the ones that we find. So to me, it's these suggestions that are really denigrating the people whose names, bodies, family relationships, tools, bakeries that we actually find.

Everything that I have found convinces me more and more that indeed it is this society that built the Sphinx and the pyramids. Everytime I go back to Giza my respect increases for those people and that society, that they could do it. You see, to me it's even more fascinating that they did this. And that by doing this they contributed something to the human career and its overall development actually. Rather than just saying, you know copping out and saying, there's no way they could have done this. I think that denigrates the people whose evidence we actually find.

NOVA: Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote that 100,000 workers built the pyramids and modern Egyptologists come up with a figure more like 20,000 workers. Can you explain that for us?

LEHNER: Yeah, well, first of all Herodotus just claims he was told that. He said, 100,000 men working in three shifts, which raises some doubt, I guess if you read it in the original Greek as to whether it's three shifts of 100,000 men each or whether you subdivide, you know, the 100,000 men. But my own approach to this stems to some extent from "This Old Pyramid."

You know, the popular film that was done by NOVA [where we attempted to build a small pyramid at Giza]. And certainly we didn't replicate ancient technology 100 percent because there's no way we could replicate the entire ancient society that surrounded this technology. So our stones were delivered by a flatbed truck as opposed to barges. You know, we didn't reconstruct the barges that brought the 60-ton granite blocks from Aswan.

So basically what we were doing is, as we say in the film and in the accompanying book, that we're setting up the ability to test particular tools, techniques and operations, without testing the entire building project.

One of the things that most impressed me, though, was the fact that in 21 days, 12 men in bare feet, living out in the eastern desert, opened a new quarry in about the time we needed stone for our NOVA Pyramid, and in 21 days they quarried 186 stones. Now they did it with an iron winch, you know, an iron cable and a winch that pulled the stone away from the quarry wall, and all their tools were iron.

But other than that they did it by hand. So I said, taking just a raw figure, if 12 men in bare feet -- they lived in a lean-to shelter, day and night out there -- if they can quarry 186 stones in 21 days, let's do the simple math and see, just in a very raw simplistic calculation, how many men were required to deliver 340 stones a day, which is what you would have to deliver to the Khufu Pyramid to build it in 20 years. And it comes out somewhere between -- I've got this all written down -- but it comes out in the hundreds of men.

Now I was bothered by the iron tools, like 400 men, 4 to 500 men. I was bothered by the iron tools, especially the iron winch that pulled the stone away from the quarry walls, so I said, let's put in a team of men, of about say 20 men, so that 12 men become 32. And now let's run the equation. Well, it turns out that even if you give great leeway for the iron tools, all 340 stones could have been quarried in a day by something like 1,200 men. And that's quarried locally at Giza. You see most of the stone is local stone.

So then because of our mapping and because of our approach where we looked at, what is the shape of the ground here, where's the quarry, where is the pyramid, let's see, where would the ramp have run, we could come up with a figure of how many men it would take to schlep the stones up to the pyramid. Now it's often said that the stones were delivered at a rate of one every two minutes or so.

And New Agers sometimes point that out as an impossibility for the Egyptians of Khufu's day. But the stones didn't go in one after another, you see. And you can actually work out the coefficient of friction or glide on a slick surface, how much an average stone weighed, how many men it would take to pull that. And in a NOVA experiment we found that 12 men could pull a 1.5 ton block over a slick surface with great ease.

And then you could come up with very conservative estimates as to the number of men it would take to pull an average size block the distance from the quarry, which we know, to the pyramid. And you could even factor in different configurations of the ramp which would give you a different length.

Well, working in such ways, and I challenge anybody to join in the challenge, it comes out that you can actually get the delivery that you need. You need 340 stones delivered you see, every day, and that's 34 stones every hour in a ten hour day, right. Thirty-four stones can get delivered by x number of gangs of 20 men, and it comes out to something like 2,000, somewhere in that area.

We can go over the exact figures. So now we've got 1200 men in the quarry which is a very generous estimate, 2,000 men delivering. And so that's 3,200. OK, how about men cutting the stones and setting them? Well, it's different between the core stones which were set with great slop factor, and the casing stones which were custom cut and set, one to another, with so much accuracy that you can't get a knife blade in between the joints, so there's a difference there. But let's gloss over that for a moment.

One of the things the NOVA experiment showed me that no book could, is just what is it like to have a 2 or 3-ton block -- how many men can get their hands on it? Well, you can't have 50 men working on one block, you see. And you can only get about four or five, six guys at most working on a block, say two on levers, you know, cutters and so on.

And you know, you put pivots under it and as few as two or three guys can pivot it around if you put a hard cobble under it. There are all these tricks they know. But it's just impossible to get too many men on a block. But you figure out how many stones have to be set to keep up with this rate, to get in with 20 years. And it actually comes up 5,000 or less men, including the stone setters.

Now the stone setting gets a bit complicated because of the casing, and you have one team working from each corner, and another team working in the middle of each face for the casing and then the core. And I'm going to gloss over that.

But the challenge is out there: 5,000 men to actually do the building and the quarrying and the schlepping from the local quarry. This doesn't count the men cutting the granite and shipping it from Aswan or the men over in Tura. OK, so that increases the numbers somewhat....And that's what things like the ancient technologies series done by NOVA really bring home, I think. No, we're not recreating ancient society, and ancient pyramid building 100 percent. And probably not even 60 percent. But we are showing some nuts and bolts that are very useful and insightful, far more than all the armchair theorizing.

Now just recently I was contacted by the construction firm DMJM -- the initials stand for Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall -- it's one of the largest construction firms, they're working right now on the Pentagon. And one of the senior vice presidents decided to take on for a formal address for fellow engineers, a program management study of the Great Pyramid.

So these are not guys lifting boilers in Manhattan, these are senior civil engineers with one of the largest construction corporations in the United States. And I'm sure they'd be happy to go on record with their study which looked at what they call critical path analysis. What do you need to get the job done? What tools did they have? And they contacted me and other Egyptologists and we gave them some references.

Here's what we know about their tools, the inclined plane, the lever and so on. And without any secret sophistication or hidden technology, just basically what archaeologists say, this is what these folks had. DIM JIM came up with 5,000, 4 to 5,000 men could build the Great Pyramid within a 20 to 40 year period. And they have very specific calculations on every single aspect, from the gravel, for the ramps, to baking the bread.

So I throw that out there, not because that's gospel truth, but because reasoned construction engineers, who plan great projects like bridges and buildings today and earthworks and so on, look at the Great Pyramid and don't opt out for lost civilizations, extraterrestrials, or hidden technologies. No, they say it's a very impressive job, extraordinary for the people who lived then and there, but it could be done. They are human monuments.

NOVA: You've made reference to inscriptions at Giza that indicate who built the pyramids. What do the inscriptions say?

LEHNER: One of the most compelling pieces of evidence we have is graffiti on ancient stone monuments in places that they didn't mean to be shown. Like on foundations when we dig down below the floor level, up in the relieving chambers above the King's chamber, and in many monuments of the Old Kingdom, temples, the Sun temples, other pyramids. Well, the graffiti gives us a picture of organization where crews, where a gang of workmen was organized into two crews.

And the crews were subdivided into five phyles. The word phyles is spelled p-h-y-l-e-s. It's the Greek word for tribe. The Egyptian word is za. They were divided into five za's. In later times when the Greeks came and in bilingual inscriptions, when somebody was translating za into Greek they used the word phyles, the word for tribe, which is extremely interesting actually.

Were these militaristic kinds of conscripts? Certainly they weren't slaves. Could they actually have been natural communities of the Nile Valley kind of contributing like the way the Inca build their bridges and so on? .....So the phyles then are subdivided into divisions.

And the divisions are identified by single hieroglyphs with names that mean things like endurance, perfection, strong. OK, so how do we know this -- you come to a block of stone in the relieving chambers above the Great Pyramid. And first of all you see this cartouche of a King and then some scrawls all in red paint after it.

That's the gang name. And in the Old Kingdom in the time of the Pyramids of Giza, the gangs were named after kings. So for example, we have a name, compounded with the name of Menkaure, and it seems to translate 'the drunks or the drunkards of Menkaure.'

There's one that's well attested, actually in the relieving chambers above the Great Pyramid, the Friends of Khufu gang, the Drunks of Menkaura gang, and then you have the green phyles and then the powerful ones. None of this sounds like slavery, does it?

And in fact it gets more intriguing. Because in certain monuments you find the name of one gang on one side of the monument and another gang, we assume competing on the other side of the monument. You find that to some extent in the temple, the Pyramid temple of Menkaure. It's as though these gangs are competing. So from this evidence we deduce that there was a labor force that was assigned to respective crew gang phyles and divisions.

NOVA: Where did the gangs come from? Were they local people or did they travel from afar?

LEHNER: There's some evidence to suggest that people were rotated in and out of the raw labor force. So that you could be a young man in a village say in middle Egypt, and you had never seen more than a few hundred people in your village, maybe at market day or something. And the King's men come and it may not have been entirely coercion, but it seems that everybody owed a labor tax.

We don't know if it was entirely coercive, or if in fact, part of it was a natural community donation as in the Incan Empire for example, to building projects where they had a great party and so on. But anyway they started keeping track of people and their time on the royal labor project. And if you were brought from a distance you were brought by boat.

So can you imagine floating down the Nile and say you're working on Khafre's Pyramid, and you float past the great pyramid of Meidum and the Pyramids of Dashur, and my God, you've never seen anything like this. These are the hugest things. We're talking about a society where they didn't have cameras, you didn't see yourself age. You didn't see great images.

And so here are these stupendous, gigantic things thrusted up to the sky, polished white limestone, blazing in the sunshine. And then they go on down to Giza and they come around this corner, actually the corner of the Wall of the Crow right into the harbor, and there's Khufu, the biggest thing on the planet actually in the way of a building until the turn of the century -- our century.

And you see, for the first time in your life, not a few hundred, but thousands, probably, of workers and people and industries of all kinds. And you're rotated into this experience and you serve in your respective crew, gang, phyles and division, and then you're rotated out and you go back because you have your own large household to whom you are assigned on a kind of an estate organized society.

You have your own village, maybe you even have your own land that you're responsible for. So you're rotated back but you're not the same. You have seen the central principle of the first nation state in our planet's history, the pyramids, the centralization, this organization. And so they must have been powerful socializing forces.

Anyway, we think that that was the experience of the raw recruits. But there must have been a cadre of very seasoned laborers who really knew how to cut stone so fine that you could join them without getting a razor blade in between.

And perhaps they were the stone cutters and setters, and the experienced quarry men at the quarry wall. And the people who rotated in and out were those doing all the different raw labor, not only the schlepping of the stone but preparing gypsum and we don't know to what extent the other industries were also organized in the phyles system. But it's quite an amazing picture.

And one of the things that really is motivating me now is the question of what vision of society is suggested by a pyramid like Khufu's? Was it in fact coercive? Was it a militaristic kind of state WPA project? Or is it possible that we could find evidence that would bring Egypt into line with what we know of other traditional ancient societies. Like when the Inca build a bridge, and every household winds its twine together, and the twine of all the households in the village are wound into the villages' contribution to the rope.

And the rope on the great day of bridge building is wound into a great cable. And all the villages' cables are wound into this virtual bridge. Or in Mesopotamia we know that they built city walls, great mud brick city walls, by the clans turning out and giving their contribution, a kind of organic, natural community involvement in the building project. I wonder if that wasn't the case with the Great Pyramid of Khufu. You know, it's almost like an Amish barnraising. But you know, the Great Pyramid of Khufu is one hell of a barn.

NOVA: Some of the theories of who built the pyramids suggest that the builders may not have been from Egypt. Can you respond to that?

And perhaps they were the stone cutters and setters, and the experienced quarry men at the quarry wall. And the people who rotated in and out were those doing all the different raw labor, not only the schlepping of the stone but preparing gypsum and we don't know to what extent the other industries were also organized in the phyles system. But it's quite an amazing picture.

And one of the things that really is motivating me now is the question of what vision of society is suggested by a pyramid like Khufu's? Was it in fact coercive? Was it a militaristic kind of state WPA project? Or is it possible that we could find evidence that would bring Egypt into line with what we know of other traditional ancient societies. Like when the Inca build a bridge, and every household winds its twine together, and the twine of all the households in the village are wound into the villages' contribution to the rope.

And the rope on the great day of bridge building is wound into a great cable. And all the villages' cables are wound into this virtual bridge. Or in Mesopotamia we know that they built city walls, great mud brick city walls, by the clans turning out and giving their contribution, a kind of organic, natural community involvement in the building project. I wonder if that wasn't the case with the Great Pyramid of Khufu. You know, it's almost like an Amish barnraising. But you know, the Great Pyramid of Khufu is one hell of a barn.

NOVA: Some of the theories of who built the pyramids suggest that the builders may not have been from Egypt. Can you respond to that?

LEHNER: One thing that strikes me when I read about these ideas -- that it couldn't have been the Egyptians who built the pyramids, it couldn't have been the Egyptians who built the Sphinx, of the 4th Dynasty, it had to have been an older civilization. And I think about those claims and then I look at the marvelous statue of Khafre with the Horus falcon at the back of his head.

I look at the sublime ship of Khufu that was found buried south of the pyramid. And we know that these objects date from the time of Khafre and Khufu, and I think, my God, this was a great civilization. This was as great as it comes in terms of art and sculpture and building ships from any place in the planet, in the whole repertoire of ancient cultures. Why is there such a need to look for yet another culture, to say 'No, it wasn't these people, it was some civilization that's lost, even older.'

And to some extent I think we feel the need to look for a lost civilization on time's other horizon because we feel lost in our civilization and somehow we don't want to face the little man behind the curtain as you had in "The Wizard of Oz." We want the great and powerful wizard with all the sound and fury. You know, go get me the broomstick of the wicked witch of the west. We want that sound and fury. We always want more out of the past than it really is.

ZAHI HAWASS, Director General of Giza

NOVA: Let's address the question of who built the pyramids.

HAWASS: We are lucky because we found this whole evidence of the workmen who built the pyramids and we found the artisans and Mark found the bakery and we found this settlement of the camp, and all the evidence, the hieroglyphical inscriptions of the overseer of the site of the Pyramid, the overseer of the west side of the Pyramid, the craftsman we found, the man who makes the statue of the overseer of the craftsman, the inspector of building tombs, director of building tombs -- I'm telling you all the titles.

We found 25 unique new titles connected with these people. Then who built the pyramids? It was the Egyptians who built the pyramids. The Great Pyramid is dated with all the evidence, I'm telling you now to 4,600 years, the reign of Khufu. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is one of 104 pyramids in Egypt with superstructure.

And there are 54 pyramids with substructure. There is support (that) the builders of the pyramids were Egyptians. They are not the Jews as has been said, they are not people from a lost civilization. They are not out of space. They are Egyptian and their skeletons are here, and were examined by scholars, doctors and the race of all the people we found are completely supporting that they are Egyptians.

NOVA: The Greek historian Herodotus claimed in 500 B.C. that 100,000 people built the pyramids, and yet modern Egyptologists believe the figure to be more like 20,000 to 30,000.

HAWASS: Herodotus, when he came here, met guides who tell stories and things like that. But I really personally believe that based on the size of the settlement and the whole work of an area that we found, I believe that permanent and temporary workmen who worked at building the pyramid were 36,000.

NOVA: And how do you come to that number?

HAWASS: I came to that number based on the size of the pyramid project, a government project, the size of the tombs, the cemetery. We know we can excavate the cemetery for hundreds of years -- generations after generation can work in the cemetery -- and the second is the settlement area. I really believe there were permanent workmen who were working for the king.

They were paid by the king and these are the technicians who cut the stones, and there are workmen who move the stones and they come and work in rotation. You have this group and another group. In the same time there are the people who live around the pyramids that don't need to live in the pyramids. They come by early in the morning and they work fourteen hours from sunrise to sunset.

NOVA: From your excavations of the workers' cemetery you say you found skeletons. Did you analyze the bones, and if so, what did you learn about the workmen?

HAWASS: We found 600 skeletons. And we found that those people, number one, they were Egyptians, the same like you see in every cemetery in Egypt. Number two, we found evidence that those people had emergency treatment. They had accidents during building the pyramids. And we found 12 skeletons who had accidents with their hands. And they supported the two sides of the hand with wood. And we have another one, a stone fell down on his leg, and they made a kind of operation, and they cut his leg and he lived 14 years after that.

NOVA: How do you know that?

HAWASS: Because we have a team here from the National Research Center who are doctors and they use the x-ray and they can find all the evidence about age. They found that the age of death for those workmen were from 30 to 35.

Those are the people who really built the pyramids, the poor Egyptians. It's very important to prove how the pyramid was built. The pyramid you know, has magic, it has mystery. It's a structure that was built, you know, 4,600 years ago. There is no accurate book until now that really explained all of that. All the theorists, in other books they say that the stones were taken from Tura, about five miles to the east of the pyramid. This is not true.

All the stones have been taken from the plateau, except the casing stones that came from Tura, and the granite in the burial chamber that came from Aswan. But the magic of the pyramid makes people think about it. An amateur comes by and looks at this structure and doesn't know the mechanics. The cult of the Egyptians, the religion, the pyramid, is a part of a whole civilization.

NOVA: There is an inscription above Khufu's burial chamber that identifies the pyramid as that of Khufu. Some people claim that is a fake inscription. Can you comment on that?

HAWASS: They say that the inscriptions inside the five relieving chambers are fake. Fine. I went last week and we lighted all of them. It has been never lighted before. We did beautiful lighting. Then we can read each single inscription.

NOVA: And what do they say?

HAWASS: The workmen who were involved in building the Great Pyramid were divided into gangs, groups, four groups, and each group had a name, and each group had an overseer. They wrote the names of the gangs. And you have the names of the gangs of Khufu as 'Friends of Khufu.' Because they were the friends of Khufu proves that building the pyramid was not really something that the Egyptians would push.

You know, it's like today. If you go to any village you will understand the system of ancient Egyptians. When you build, I mean a dam, or you build a big house, people would come to help you. They would work free for you, the households will send food to feed the workmen. And when they build the houses you will do the same for them. And that's why the pyramid was the national project of Egypt because everyone had to participate in building this pyramid.

By food, by workmen, this way the building of the pyramid was something that everyone felt to participate, and really it was love. They are not really pushed to do it. When the king takes the throne, the people have to be ready in participating in building the pyramid. And then when they finish it, they celebrate. That's why even now in modern Egypt we still really do celebrations when we finish any project because that's exactly what happened in ancient Egypt.

NOVA: But what about the incriptions in the relieving chambers in Khufu and the claim that they were not written in the time of Khufu?

HAWASS: They say that these inscriptions have been written by people who entered inside. And if you go and see them they are typical graffiti that can be seen around every pyramid in Egypt, because the workmen around the pyramid left this. I would like those people who talked about this to come with me. And I will take them personally to the rooms. First of all they say that only inscribed is the second room -- it's not true. All the five relieving chambers are inscribed.

Number two, there are some inscriptions there that cannot be written by anyone except the workmen who put them there. You cannot go and reach there. It has to be the man who put the block above the other one to do that. I think that maybe the only few Egyptologists, the only two Egyptologists in the world that will really have an open mind, it's me and Mark Lehner, because we believe the public has the right for us to tell them the truth. We are really working excavating around the pyramids to tell the world the truth.

Photos: (1, 2) Aaron Strong; (3-5) From "This Old Pyramid"

(6) Aaron Strong; (7) Mark Lehner