About Egyptian Pyramids
By Marie Parsons
When one thinks of Egypt, one's mind is generally drawn to the vision of the three monumental Pyramids and accompanying Sphinx that stand on the Giza plateau near modern Cairo. If one travels to Giza, one will probably learn that there were subsidiary pyramids for the great wives, and remnants of the temples connected to the pyramids.
One might wonder how these wonders were built, visions of the various Hollywood versions of the constructions, with thousands of foreign slaves huddled under the whips of cruel overseers, dancing through one's brain.
Such was never the case. There were slaves to be sure, throughout the Near East. Slaves acquired as prisoners of war, slaves made due to debt. But the pyramids were monuments of the Kings, monuments to their connection with the gods, to their ascent into the afterlife with the gods. The pyramids and their temples were part of the royal cult, and required the dedication and devotion of craftsmen and laborers who believed in their King and their gods. Slaves there may have been. But the pyramids were built by Egyptians, by stonemasons, artisans, artists and craftsmen. While skilled craftsmen and management staff worked year round, farmers would come from the provinces during the inundation period to do the heavy work.
The closest thing to a capital city in Old Kingdom Egypt was the residence of the king and his court. A royal residence may have been the heart of a pyramid town during construction. If the royal house moved to Giza, then its butchers, officials, bakers, and others would have moved with it.
Archaeologists and experts are uncovering the very village in which these people lived. Excavations at Giza have taken place less than 1000 feet south of the Great Sphinx, just south of the gigantic stone Heit el-Ghurob, Wall of the Crow. The Wall of the Crow is a large stone wall built to separate activities of the mortuary cult from everyday activities. It may have served as the ancient gateway into the necropolis. The wall was 33 feet high and more than 40 feet thick at its base. The gateway alone is 23 feet high and capped with three large limestone lintels.
To the south of the Giza pyramids lies a tract of land about 39 acres, as yet untouched by the suburbs of modern Cairo. The major part of the settlement spreads out along the eastern base of the plateau, now under Cairo itself. The industrial area is west of that, in the low desert south of the Great Sphinx. The cemetery area is just west of the industrial area and higher on the slope. 300 tombs have been found, many, small-scale copies of the royal pyramids and great stone mastabas of the nobles. In the South Field, from 1971 to 195 were found bone, ash, potsherds, flint, stone bowls and mudbrick seals of Khufu and Khafre.
The first discovery was a rectangular building with a series of pedestals along each wall. Then mud sealings turned up mentioning the wbt or embalming place of Menkaure, the builder of the third pyramid.
Behind Khafre's pyramid runs a series of long galleries. Flinders Petrie surveyed the Giza Plateau in 1880-1882, and believed these to be the remains of barracks housing the pyramid workers. But he could not carry out any detailed excavation, and recent efforts have turned up none of the usual debris associated with living quarters. It is now thought that the galleries were more likely to have been workshops or storerooms associated with the royal mortuary cult.
In the early 20th century George Reisner excavated a series or rather run-down Old Kingdom mud-brick houses in the area around Menkaure's valley temple. These turned out to be the homes of those who served the royal cult after the building had ended. Houses in the ancient town excavated by George Reisner were built of mudbrick and some had wooden roofs.
To build and maintain the pyramids an enormous support system must have existed. Production, facilities for food, pottery, building materials, and supplies, storage depots, and housing for the workmen and those responsible for servicing the pyramid temples were necessary. Evidence of a sewage system was uncovered. The oldest known paved street, with drainage facilities, and the oldest known hypostyle hall have been found here.
Since the reign of Sneferu, an entire town was associated with each pyramid, full of people employed to maintain the king's afterlife. New villages and agricultural estates were founded, specifically to supply the pyramid cult and those who worked for it. This flow of resources from the peripheries to the pyramids and thus to the very center of the state was responsible for making Egypt into the most powerful centralized nation of its time.
Years later when work resumed, a huge trench was dug out to the east of the wbt building. Wbt refers to embalming workshop and all institutions connected with supplying funerary goods.
Thousands of potsherds dating from the time of the pyramids were removed, but also, two intact bakeries were found. Large bell-shaped pots in which the bread was baked still littered the floor. Vats and molds, and areas for sorting salted fish and metalworking, were also found. Many of the goods used were probably imported from the vast estates owned by the complex. Sneferu's 35 estates, listed in the valley temple of his Bent Pyramid, were sited in Middle Egypt.
A chamber for working copper was found, evidenced by copper slag, small furnaces and much ash and charcoal. 65 feet away, a small structure that resembled a simplified version of workers' houses from other sites and periods was also found.
The bakery was attached to a larger building. Low benches and troughs lined with clean desert clay filled the room. Carefully scraping back the deposits on the floor, the detritus was found to be the gills, fins, cranial parts and vertebrae of fish. The building had been a cat-fish processing center, perhaps the institution called per shena ('commissariat'?) in hieroglyphics texts and tomb scenes.
One of the very curious findings in all the workshops is the vast quantities of wood ash being uncovered, in the bakery, in the copper workshops, and in the fishery. One wonders how large the importation of wood into Egypt was at this time.
From hieroglyphics, inscriptions and graffiti, it is being learned that skilled builders and craftsmen probably worked year round at the site. They built their tombs near the pyramids, and placed statues and other objects inside in preparation for the afterlife. The mud-brick tombs had a variety of shapes: mini-pyramids, step pyramids, mastabas and beehives. The tombs of the pyramid builders have also been found, when a tourist's horse stumbled and punctured what turned out to be the intact vaulted roof of a tomb.
Hieroglyphs scrawled on the false door identified it as belonging to Ptah-shepsesu and his wife. The tombs of those who worked under Ptah-shepsesu are arranged all around his tomb, beneath miniature mastabas of their own. An additional 600 more graves have been found grouped around the thirty larger graves of their superiors.
The Upper Cemetery has unique tombs of limestone and mudbrick, larger and more elaborate than the ones in the lower part. Two tombs were fronted by a long causeway, built of stone rubble, with an offering basin at the end. Titles found included "inspector of building tombs" and "overseer of the craftsmen."
In the slope immediately above, tombs of dressed stone belong to the wealthier class. The owners bore titles such as Director of the Draughtsmen, Inspector of the Craftsmen, and Overseer of the Masonry. One man named Nefer-thieth had a beautiful chapel carved on one wall with scenes of the owner and his family. He had two wives and eighteen offspring. His chief wife, who had borne eleven of the children, was a weaver. A large number of scenes depicted the making of bread and beer, so Nefer-thieth may have supervised a bakery. His wife's funerary offering menu depicts fourteen different types of bread and cakes.
Behind and to the west of a large tomb that belonged to an "Overseer of Tomb Builders," family burial shafts, painted false doors and the meager graves of the workmen who labored under the overseer were excavated. Titles such as "Inspector of Royal Tombs, " and "Buidling Director" were found inscribed on these tombs. Women buried in this cemetery bore titles such as "Priestess of Hathor."
Larger and finer tombs built of limestone have been found higher up the slope. To the north of one of these tombs is a serdab or statue chamber, which contained four well-preserved statues.
Many tombs, most less than a few feet square, were made of mud, rubble and leftover stones from the pyramid construction. Some have miniature false doors, and in some, statues were found. But most are anonymous and without grave goods, and the bodies were not mummified. The bones speak of arthritis and degenerative joint disease, particularly in the back.
Analysis of skeletal remains shows the average age at death was between 30 and 35 years. Bones of both men and women show evidence of heavy labor. Degenerative arthritis occurred in the vertebral column, particularly in the lumbar region, and in the knees.
The level of medical care was high. Evidence of brain surgery was found in one man, others had broken hands treated by binding. One workman had his leg amputated and lived 14 years more thereafter. Syphilis was found in yet another skeleton.
Work progresses in the village. Traces of a palace may have been found, proving that the royal residence may have stood here. As more remains are uncovered, an entire new picture of the life in the Old Kingdom will appear.
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.