Kahun, Middle Kingdom Workers

About Egyptian Pyramids

By Marie Parsons


Flinders Petrie, the father of modern Egyptology


The pyramid now called el-Lahun stands north of the modern town of that name and was built by Senusret II, c. 1895 BCE, during the period known as the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt. Flinders Petrie, who discovered and excavated the pyramid and its ancient temples and town, gave the name Kahun, since they stood in the vicinity of the modern town of el-Lahun, close to the Faiyum. Papyri found in the town give the ancient name as Hetep-Senwosret, or, "King Senusret is at peace, or is satisfied."


Kahun overlooks the lakeside region to which the kings of the 12th dynasty devoted much attention. The Faiyum, or She-resy in ancient Egyptian, meaning "the Southern Lake", is a large fertile depression, connected with the Nile by a river arm known as the Bahr Yusuf. The 12th dynasty kings, including Senusret II, had moved their capital to el-Lisht, and constructed dams to irrigate the area.


Petrie discovered the town of Kahun in the desert adjoining the north side of the pyramid temple. Kahun is larger than the other known pyramid towns (though since there are not that many discovered to date, this comparison may be meaningless.) He saw traces of brick walls, houses and pottery, indicating that herein lived the workmen building the pyramid and its temple and their houses and storehouses The town also housed the priests and lay personnel responsible for the king's mortuary cult.



Tools of the builders of the pyramids


Beside the town lay a temple, the Valley Temple to the pyramid of King Senusret II to the west. Foundation deposits in this more distant valley temple included four sets of seven bronze tools, chisels, knives and hatchet, strings of beads, couple of pieces of copper ore, a piece of galena and pottery vessels and baskets. Beautiful Middle Kingdom period jewelry was found south of the pyramid, in the tomb of Princess Sithathor-iunet. Mastabas and graves dating from the Middle Kingdom through to Roman times lie in the neighborhood of this pyramid.



Layout of the workers village at the pyramid at Kahun


Petrie found that the town's general outline was in a square, walled on the east, north, and west sides, open on the south to the Nile plain. The town wall extended along the north, west, and partly along the east sides. Though today the south side is open to the Nile Valley, Petrie had discovered the remains of a gateway at the east wall, so he concluded that the wall in this portion was missing.


Buildings adjoined the wall on each side. The town was roughly square, measuring 384 meters on the north and 335 meters on the west. The ground slopes gradually, the highest point on the northwest being the "acropolis."


At least three town districts, separated by walls, can be distinguished. The first, is the acropolis, perhaps intended for the king himself, the second, the east quarter, with large mansions centered around a court, and consisting of as many as 70 or 80 rooms, the west quarter of smaller uniform dwellings each with 4 to 12 rooms.


The larger houses each had a court with columns around the middle, and in the center stood a small stone tank. The roofs were of beams overlaid with straw bundles and plastered with mud, but some were of brickwork. The doors too were arched in brick.


Immediately south of the "acropolis" may have stood a temple. Many references in the papyri indicate that the town did possess its own temple, to the falcon star-god Sopdu, Lord of the East, and possessed its own priesthood.



Early construction drawings


The town possessed a haty'a, or mayor, an office of the vizier, where legal proceedings took place, an office for an administrative official called the wehemu.


Pottery and tools were often found in the houses. In one house, a basket with a lid was found containing hatchets, chisels and a bowl made of copper. Discoveries of goods were also made under the houses. For example, a statuette of a dancer and a pair of ivory "castanets," as well as babies buried in wooden boxes, often accompanied by necklaces and other items. Cylinders containing the king's name were on these necklaces.


Beside the pottery were found balls of thread, linen cloth, knives and tools of copper and flint, a copper mirror, fishing nets, wooden hoes, rakes, brick-mold, plasterers' floats, mallets, copper chisels with wooden handles. Games were also found, such as dolls, a woven sling, draught-boards. Pieces of furniture also, such as a finely-made slender char of dark wood inlaid with ivory pegs. Blue glazed pottery was not unusual.


Papyri were also discovered, some carefully sealed up, such as the wills of Uah and Antefmeri. A hymn of praise to Senusret III, some pages of a medical work, a veterinary papyrus, mathematical works, and parts of legal letters, accounts and memoranda were also found.



The pyramid at Kahun


One group of papyri derives from the temple of the royal cult and is concerned with temple organization and temple personnel, the other covers the life and business of the community involved with many other aspects. A few documents actually deal with work outside Kahun, on a construction project for King Amenemhet III, possibly his own pyramid complex. Projects such as the dragging of stone by gangs of workmen, farming and measuring of land belonging to the temple estates, are subjects of some of these papyri.


Some of the legal documents included the amt-pr, a deed which recorded the transfer of property from one individual to another. One such will by a man named Mery transferred his priestly office and title of his property, house and contents, to his son, who would take on his office.


Other wills refer to members of one family. For example, the will of Sahu, an architect, leaves all his property and his slaves to his brother Uah, also an architect and priest of Sopdu, the falcon-god. Uah in turn left a will, mentioned above, which transfers this property to his wife, giving her the freedom to pass it on to any of their children.


The next documents were the aput, official lists of a man's household, giving the names of the family members, and their slaves.


The third group of documents is the am rem.f lists. These were accounts which referred to the superintendents and workmen. Some were lists kept by the scribes for themselves, others formed part of an official journal which recorded the rations of the workmen, their attendance at the site, and some division of land and property.


The journal is of course interesting for its records, but it also highlights another aspect of the workmen's activities. It contains abstracts of a communication and reply centering round the apparent temporary withdrawal of manpower. Some people were remaining at home instead of attending their work. The vizier or secretary suggested ascertaining what orders had actually been given, and to stop the people coming to the palace to air their grievances. Considering there is a record of a strike out at Deir el-Medina several centuries later on, this incident in the12th dynasty might foreshadow it. The workers may have realized their potential power, and had gotten into the habit of staying away from the construction sites until their grievances were resolved.


In the 19th Dynasty the temple was cannibalized by Ramesses II for his own temple at Heracleopolis. By Petrie's time, it was little more than a ruin. But soundings and other archaeological work and study continue, and perhaps this first of the pyramid towns to be discovered will yield more secrets.


Return to Pyramid Construction Index



  • Ten Years' Digging in Egypt by Flinders Petrie
  • Ancient Egypt, Anatomy of a Civilization by Barry J. Kemp
  • The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David
  • The Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Malek