In films and lore is the prevalent idea that the pyramids in Egypt were built by slaves serving a ruthless pharaoh. But the truth is far removed from that image.
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When you think of pyramids, you perhaps think of the Pyramids of Giza, relics of Egypt’s Old Kingdom era that were constructed over 4,500 years ago. Pharaoh Khufu started the first Giza pyramid project in around 2550 BC – his is the largest of the pyramids in Giza, towering 481 feet above the ground. An estimated 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing between 2.5 to 15 tons, were used to make his pyramid alone, according to a National Geographic report from January 2017.
Then, Khufu’s son, the pharaoh Khafre, built the second pyramid in 2520 BC – his project was even more impressive, with the addition of the Sphinx, a limestone monument with the body of a lion and the head of a pharaoh. And the third, far smaller pyramid was built by the pharaoh Menkaure circa 2490 BC – his featured a complex mortuary temple that didn’t exist in the previous pyramids.
Giza’s pyramids are such impressive feats of ancient engineering that even today, scientists are unsure how they were built. But they have discovered who might have built them.
According to a July 2003 report by US-based Harvard Magazine, archaeologists found evidence of skilled, well-fed Egyptian workers who lived in a temporary city close to Giza. And they were not slaves. Digs in the area revealed the existence of a highly organised community of workers, living in a sort of housing complex that was considered to be ‘downtown Egypt’ at the time, with each house comprising a pillared public area, a domicile, and a rear cooking area. Excavators estimate that the barracks-style housing likely would have been for a rotating labour force, as large as 1,600 to 2,000 workers at any given time.
But how did archaeologists know they were well fed? Excavators literally found ancient Egyptian food waste. They uncovered buildings with fish gills and other fish parts on the floor, buildings that served as bakeries, and enormous quantities of cattle, sheep and goat bone. They found evidence of workers feasting on prime beef – the best meat available at the time.
The implications of their discovery deal a blow to the typical Hollywood representation of pharaohs as merciless slave drivers who built a fiefdom upon the backs of starving workers. The idea that they may have been running a nation, instead, with advanced social organisations and technology, shatters previously held assumptions. Could the realm of ancient Egyptians – one of humanity’s earliest civilisations – be greater than we ever supposed?