The Discovery of the Tombs of the Pyramid Builders at Giza:
Dr. Zahi Hawass / Undersecretary of the State for the Giza Monuments

Photo by Andrew Bayuk, Copyright 1997, All Rights ReservedIt was my dream to discover the tombs of the workmen who built the pyramids at Giza. In my research, I thought that the tombs and the workmen camp should be located southeast of the Sphinx. The workmen and the farmers represent about 80% of the population of Ancient Egypt and we know a lot about kings, Queens and Nobles but we know nothing about the common people.

For centuries adventurers, scholars and tourists have drawn to the wonders of Giza-the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, the Sphinx and tombs of Old Kingdom noble artisans who built these great monuments.

When the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C., he was told by his guides that 100,000 workers had labored for 20 years to build Khufu's pyramid.

Even 20,000 workers, a number closer to recent estimates, is comparable to the populations of large cities in the Near East during the third millennium B.C.

An enormous support system must have existed at Giza for at least 67 years, the combined minimum lengths of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure's reigns. such support would have included production facilities for food, ceramics and building materials (gypsum mortar, stone, wood and metal tools); storage facilities for food, fuel and other supplies, housing for workmen, their families and priests responsible for services in pyramid temples that remained in use long after the main building phase was completed, and a cemetery for workers who died in the employ of the royal necropolis.

Photo by Andrew Bayuk, Copyright 1997, All Rights ReservedFrom 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 a labor force organized into competing gangs with names such as "friends of Khufu" and" Drunkards of Menkaure". Each gang was divided into groups, Egyptologists call phyles (the Greek word for tribe). There were five phyles, whose names, always the same in each gang, bear same resemblance to ancient Egyptian neuitical terms such as "great "or starboard and green or prow. Each phyle was divided into groups of ten to 20 men, each named with single hieroglyphs some times representing ideas such as "life"," endurance" and "perfection".

The pyramid projects must have been a tremendous socializing force in the early Egyptian kingdom-young conscripts from hamlets and villages far and wide departing for Giza where they entered their respective gangs, phyles and divisions in scenes reminiscent of the most dramatic cinema spectacles of Cecil B. de Mille.

For years the support facilities, residential areas, and cemeteries of the workers who created and maintained the pyramids remained among of the least explored areas of ancient Egypt. But 20,000 people or three generations of pyramid builders, can not have disappeared without leaving a trace.

Where to look?

Photo by Andrew Bayuk, Copyright 1997, All Rights ReservedDuring the construction of the sewage system of the village of Nazlet-el Samman and other villages located down the foot of the great pyramid, we found a large Old Kingdom settlement about 3 km square.

We recorded a continuous layer of mud-brick buildings starting about 165 feet south of the valley Temple of Khufu and extending about 1 mile to the south. Among the artifacts are thousands of fragments of every day pottery and bread molds, cooking pots, beer jars and trays for sifting grain and flour. Medium to large pieces of charcoal suggest that trees once grew here. Also domesticated animal bones, such as beef, pork and sheep with butchers marks on them. The workmen camp should be located on this site.

I believe that there were two types of settlement, one for the workmen who moved the stones, and the other camp for the artisans.

On the west of the village of Nazlet-el-Samman we found the tombs of the workmen who built the pyramids.

The Great Discovery:

On April 14, 1990, the chief of the pyramid guards, Mohammed Abdel Razek, reported to me that an American tourist was thrown from her horse when the animal stumbled on a previously unknown mud-brick wall. Located to the south of the wall of the crow.

The mud-brick wall turned out to be a tomb, with a long vaulted chamber and two false doors through which the dead could commune with the living and receive offerings.

Crude hieroglyphs scrawled on the false doors identified the tomb owners as Ptah-shepsesu and his wife. At the back of the chamber were three burial shafts for the man, his wife, and, probably, their son. In front of the tomb was a square courtyard with low walls of broken limestone. While not in the style of the great stone mastaba tombs of nobles beside the pyramids, Ptah-shepsesu's tomb and courtyard are grand in comparison to others that we have uncovered around it. Pieces of granite, basalt, and diorite, stones used in the pyramid temples, had been incorporated into the walls. Such material suggests that some tombs in the cemetery may belong to the pyramid builders or succeeding generations of workers who made use of stone left over from the construction of the pyramids, temples, and tombs. Attached to Ptah-shepsesu's tomb were small shaft burials of people who probably worked under him.

Photo by Andrew Bayuk, Copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved

The lower part of the cemetery contains about 600 such graves for workmen and 30 larger tombs, perhaps for overseers. The tombs come in a variety of forms: stepped domes, beehives, and gabled roofs. Two to six feet high, the domes covered simple rectangular grave pits, following the configuration of the pyramids in an extremely simplified form. One small tomb featured a miniature ramp leading up and around its dome. Could the builder have intended it to represent the construction ramp of a royal pyramid? Other tombs resemble miniature mastabas with tiny courtyards and stone false doors with the names and titles of the deceased inscribed on them.

We dubbed one remarkable grave the "egg-dome" tomb.  An outer dome, formed of mud brick plastered smooth with tafia, enclosed an egg-shaped corbelled vault built over a rectangular burial pit. What was the meaning of the double dome? Egyptologists believe that mounds left inside large Dynasty I (ca. 2920-2770 B.C.) tombs and rock protrusions in the pyramids themselves represented a primeval mound of creation that magically ensured resurrection. The same idea may have been in the minds of those who built this tomb.

 

We have found many false doors and some stelae attached to these tombs. Inscribed in crude hieroglyphs, they record the names of the people whose skeletons lay below: on one stela a man named Khemenu is depicted sitting at an offering table in front of his wife, Tep-em nefret; a false door is inscribed with a woman's name, Hetep-repyt (Offering to Presiding Goddess, or Hathor); another belongs to Hy, priestess of the goddess Hathor, Lady of (the) Sycamore Tree, and her son Khuwy. These women, the wives of the pyramid builders, served as priestesses of Hathor, goddess of love, music, dance, and the necropolis, and a counterpart to Horus, god of kingship. Photo by Andrew Bayuk, Copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved

Small stone figurines in a rectangular niche attached to a little mud-brick mastaba represent a household of these workers. One of the statuettes depicts a woman seated on a backless chair with her hands on her knees. An inscription on the chair identifies her as Hepeny-kawes. She wears a black wig with hair parted in the middle and reaching to her shoulders. She has large eyes typical of Old Kingdom depictions. Her body is well modeled under a white robe that covers all but her feet. A second statuette, badly damaged by salt, depicts her husband, Kaihep. A third statuette is of a kneeling woman, possibly a servant, grinding grain. She wears a beaded collar and a short black wig with carefully rendered locks held in place by a band of white cloth tied around her forehead.

Her arms and shoulders suggest the strength needed for her work, and she wears a red bracelet on her right wrist. The oval grinding stone has traces of red paint, probably to represent granite, and is painted white in the middle to indicate flour, which is being collected into a sack held between her legs. The statues represent a simple household: man, wife, and servant. Alternatively, the woman grinding grain could be the wife doing her own chores. Similar sets of statues representing larger households include potters, butchers, brewers, and bakers.

Women in the lower cemetery were either buried with their husbands or in tombs next to them. Two women however, were found in their own tombs. One is identified as Repyet-Hathor, a priestess of Hathor, by an inscription on a small offering basin placed in front of her false door. The tomb of the second, named Nubi, was considerably grander than Repyet-Hathor's. She was a priestess of Neith, goddess of Sais, an important cult center in the Nile Delta. Two especially interesting burials were those of dwarf women, little more than three feet tall, one of whom who had apparently died in childbirth - we found the skeleton of an infant within her remains.

As we excavated the lower cemetery, we came upon a ramp that ran up the slope to the west to an upper level of burials. These upper tombs, so far numbering 43, are larger and more elaborate than those of the lower part of the cemetery. Many are completely rock-cut or have a stone facade in front of a low cliff face. Others are built of limestone and mud brick in the mastaba style. We found higher quality artifacts and statuary in these tombs, and the painted and inscribed false doors are also superior to the scrawled texts from the lower tombs. The skeletal remains, as in the lower cemetery, were found in shafts two to three feet underground, most in a fetal position, and many in wooden coffins.

Titles such as" overseer of the side of the pyramid,"" director of the draftsmen," "overseer of masonry," "director of workers," and "inspector of the craftsmen" are another indication that those buried in the upper part of the cemetery were of higher status than the people buried below. Perhaps the most important title we found was the "director for the king's work." I believe some of these are the tombs of the artisans who designed and decorated the Giza pyramid complexes and the administrators who oversaw their construction. We need, however, to analyze the names, pottery, and decoration of the tombs further to be sure they date to the time when the Giza pyramids were being built.

The ramp from the lower cemetery led to a small rectangular court with wails of broken limestone. A shorter second ramp, its floor paved with mud and stone rubble and its side walls made of limestone and granite pieces, extended from the west wall of the court. Pottery from this ramp and court dates to the end of Dynasty 4 and the beginning of Dynasty 5. A mud seal impression found in the bed of the ramp can be read as Djed-khau (Enduring of Diadems), one of the official names of Djedkare Isesi, a pharaoh of Dynasty 5. This is another chronological indicator suggesting that much of this cemetery dates a few generations after the kings who built the Giza pyramids.

At the end of the second ramp were two children's graves with no offerings, and a mastaba tomb. Built of limestone and similar in style to those of Dynasty 4, the tomb had six burial shafts sunk through it and two false doors carved on its eastern face. The ramp from the lower cemetery reminded us of the causeways that led from the Nile Valley to the pyramids on the high plateau. The court could be compared to the pyramid valley temple, while the mastaba took the place of a pyramid.

Inty-shedu statues Attached to the mastaba tomb, but separate from it, was a room cut into the bedrock. Inside was an intact burial with pottery. A niche carved into the west side of the chamber was sealed, except for a small hole, with limestone, mud bricks, and mud mortar. We peered inside and were astonished to see the eyes of a statue staring back at us. We were even more surprised when we removed the mud bricks and limestone blocks and found not one but four statues: a large one in the middle flanked by two smaller ones to the right and one to the left. There had two on the left, but one, made of wood, had disintegrated into a heap of powder. All four surviving statues are inscribed, "the overseer of the boat of the goddess Neith, the king's acquaintance, Inty-shedu," it seems that Inty-shedu was a carpenter who made boats for the king or the goddess Neith. The middle statue shows Inty-shedu at the time of his death. The standing statue to the right and the surviving statue to the left depict him in his youth. The sealed statue to the right depicts him at an older age. The artist carved each face to indicate a stage of life and sculpted muscles and shoulders to show corresponding strength. This group of five statues recalls the five statues of the pharaohs placed in most pyramid temples from the time of Khafre to the end of the Old Kingdom.

Photo by Andrew Bayuk, Copyright 1997, All Rights ReservedOne of the more interesting artisans' tombs is that of Nefer-theith and his wife Nefer-hetepes. Though simple, it is inscribed with beautiful hieroglyphic writing. It contains three limestone false doors and stelae with the name of the deceased, his two wives, and his 18 children. The false doors of his tomb are unique for their scenes of grain grinding, and bread and beer making. Was Nefer-theith the supervisor for the bakery recently found in the plain below? There is also a list of feast days and offerings for the deceased including bread, beer, birds, and oxen. On the false door of Nefer-hetepes, his primary wife, is a list that records offerings of natron (a combination of baking soda and salt used in mummification), sacred water, oil, incense, kohl (black eye paint), 14 types of bread, cakes, onions, beef, grain, figs and other fruits, beer, and wine. Nefer-hetepes held the title "one known by the king, weaver." On the third false door, two stelae represent Nefer-theith standing while below him a man makes beer and another person pours it into four jars.

The tomb of a man named Petety has a unique form with three open courts. In contrast to Nefer-theith and his wives, Petety and his wife Nesy-Sokar are depicted separately. A priestess of the goddess Hathor, Nesy-Sokar is also described as beloved of the goddess, Neith. She is shown standing on the doorjamb of the chapel in the traditional pose: one arm raised on her breast and the other behind her back. She wears a tight dress that leaves the breasts bare, a collar, and a broad necklace. Her hair is divided in front and behind her shoulders. The artist has portrayed her with her head tilted slightly up and forward, perhaps a realistic touch caused by wearing the wide, tight collar. This gives her face a bold and confident expression enhanced by the darkly outlined eye.

On either side of the entrance to the tomb we found examples of hieroglyphic curses to protect it. Petety's curse reads:

Listen all of you! The priest of Hathor will beat twice any one of you who enters this tomb or does harm to it.
The gods will confront him because I am honored by his Lord.
The gods will not allow anything to happen to me.
Anyone who does anything bad to my tomb, then (the) crocodile, (the) hippopotamus, and the lion will eat him.

Photo by Andrew Bayuk, Copyright 1997, All Rights ReservedBased on the pottery, names, and titles found in association with the tombs, the cemetery was begun as early as the reign of Khufu in Dynasty 4 and continued through the end of Dynasty 5, from ca. 2551 to 2323 B.C. The cemetery probably extends across the escarpment above the low desert plain where we have found production and storage facilities. It seems to be an Old Kingdom version of the New Kingdom (ca.1500-1163 B.C.) cemetery at Deir el-Medineh, where workers who excavated and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were buried. We believe that so far we have found only 20 percent of the tombs buried under the sand along this slope.

None of the workers was mummified, a prerogative of royalty and nobility, but many tombs in this cemetery contained skeletal remains that tell us much about the lives of these people. Study of the remains by Azza Sarry el-Din and Fawziya Hussein of Egypt's National Research Center reveals that males and females were equally represented, mostly buried in fetal positions, with face to the east and head to the north. Many of the men died between age 30 and 35. Below the age of 30 a higher mortality was found in females than in males, a statistic undoubtedly reflecting the hazards of childbirth.

Skeletons from the great mastaba cemetery west of the Khufu pyramid, in which members of the upper class were buried, reflect a healthier population whose women lived five to ten years longer than those of the artisan and worker community.

Degenerative arthritis occurred in the vertebral column, particularly in the lumbar region, and in the knees. It was frequent and more severe than in the skeletons from the mastaba cemetery. Skeletons of both men and women, particularly those from the lower burials, show such signs of heavy labor.

Simple and multiple limb fractures were found in skeletons from both the lower and upper burials. The most frequent were fractures of the ulna and radius, the bones of the upper arm, and of the fibula, the more delicate of the two lower leg bones. Most of the fractures had healed completely, with good realignment of the bone, indicating that the fractures had been set with a splint. We found two cases, both male, that suggested amputation, of a left leg and a right arm. The healed ends of the bones indicate that the amputations were successful. Few other cases of amputation have been recorded in Egyptian archaeology. Depressed fractures of the frontal or parietal skull bones were found in skulls of both males and females. The parietal lesions tended to be left-sided, which may indicate that the injuries resulted from face to face assault by right-handed attackers.

We should contrast the evidence of the tombs and of medical treatment with the notion that pharaohs used slave labor to build the giant pyramids, an idea as old as Herodotus. The scenario of whip-drive slaves received support from the biblical account of Moses and the Exodus and the first-century A.D. historian Josephus. In our era, Cecil B. de Mille's galvanizing screen images reinforced this popular misconception.

The pyramid builders were not slaves but peasants conscripted on a rotating part-time basis, working under the supervision of skilled artisans and craftsmen who not only built the pyramid complexes for the kings and nobility, but also designed and constructed their own, more modest tombs.

I hope that people who believe that the pyramids belong to lost civilization can read the story of this discovery and understand that until now, everything we have found at Giza dates the pyramid and the sphinx to Dynasty 4, about 4600 years ago.

Photo by Charlie Rigano, Copyright (c) 2001, All Rights Reserved

 

Dr. Zahi Hawass

Copyright 1997 Dr. Zahi Hawass
All Rights Reserved

 

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