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Giza Secret Revealed: How 10,000 Pyramid Builders Got Fed

World  (tags: curiosities, Egypt, Pyramids )

- 1885 days ago -
The pyramid of Menkaure, with three queens' pyramids in front. Behind are the pyramids of Khafre and Khufu. The workers' town that archaeologists have been exploring was used to house laborers building Menkaure's pyramid.

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Kit B (276)
Thursday April 25, 2013, 12:56 pm
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Ricardo Liberato, CC Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The builders of the famous Giza pyramids in Egypt feasted on food from a massive catering-type operation, the remains of which scientists have discovered at a workers' town near the pyramids.

The workers' town is located about 1,300 feet (400 meters) south of the Sphinx, and was used to house workers building the pyramid of pharaoh Menkaure, the third and last pyramid on the Giza plateau. The site is also known by its Arabic name, Heit el-Ghurab, and is sometimes called "the Lost City of the Pyramid Builders."

So far, researchers have discovered a nearby cemetery with bodies of pyramid builders; a corral with possible slaughter areas on the southern edge of workers' town; and piles of animal bones.

Based on animal bone findings, nutritional data, and other discoveries at this workers' town site, the archaeologists estimate that more than 4,000 pounds of meat — from cattle, sheep and goats — were slaughtered every day, on average, to feed the pyramid builders. [See Photos of the Unearthed Giza Pyramid Site]

This meat-rich diet, along with the availability of medical care (the skeletons of some workers show healed bones), would have been an additional lure for ancient Egyptians to work on the pyramids.

"People were taken care of, and they were well fed when they were down there working, so there would have been an attractiveness to that," said Richard Redding, chief research officer at Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), a group that has been excavating and studying the workers' town site for about 25 years.

"They probably got a much better diet than they got in their village," Redding told LiveScience.

Feeding the Giza workforce

At the workers' town, which was likely occupied for 35 years, researchers have discovered a plethora of animal bones. Although the researchers are still unsure of the exact number of bones, Redding estimates he has identified about 25,000 sheep and goats, 8,000 cattle and 1,000 pig bones, he wrote in a paper published in the book "Proceedings of the 10th Meeting of the ICAZ Working Group 'Archaeozoology of southwest Asia and adjacent Areas'" (Peeters Publishing, 2013).

About 10,000 workers helped build the Menkaure pyramid, with a smaller workforce present year-round to cut stones and complete preparation and survey work, the AERA team estimates. This smaller workforce would have ramped up for a few months starting around July of each year. "What they would do is, for about four or five months a year, they would bring in a big workforce to move blocks, and they would do nothing but move blocks," explained Redding, who is also a research scientist at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and a member of the faculty at the University of Michigan. [In Photos: The Beautiful Pyramids of Sudan]

Needless to say, pyramid building is hard work. The workers would need at least 45 to 50 grams of protein a day, Redding said. Half of this protein would likely come from fish, beans, lentils and other non-meat sources, while the other half would come from sheep, goat and cattle, he estimated. Milk and cheese were probably not consumed due to transportation problems and the cattle's low milk yield during that time, Redding said.

Combining these requirements and other protein sources with the ratio of the bones (and the amount of meat and protein one can get from an animal), Redding determined about 11 cattle and 37 sheep or goats were consumed each day.

This would be in addition to supplying workers with grain, beer and other products.

Vast herds ... and herders

In order to maintain this level of slaughter, the ancient Egyptians would have needed a herd of 21,900 cattle and 54,750 sheep and goats just to keep up regular delivery to the Giza workers, Redding estimates.

The animals alone would need about 155 square miles (401 square kilometers) of territory to graze. Add in fallow land, waste land, settlements and agricultural land for the herders, and this number triples to about 465 square miles (1,205 square km) of land — an area about the size of modern-day Los Angeles. Even so, this area would take up just about 5 percent of the present-day Nile Delta.

These animals also needed herders — likely one herder for every six cattle and one herder for every 50 sheep or goats, based on ethnographic observations. This brings the total number of herders to 3,650 overall and, once their families are included, 18,980, just under 2 percent of Egypt's estimated population at the time.

These herds would have been spread out in villages across the Nile Delta, then brought to the workers' town at Giza to be slaughtered and cooked. At the end of their lives, the animals were likely kept in the southern part of the town, in a recently unearthed structure that researchers have dubbed the "OK corral." ("OK" stands for "Old Kingdom," the time period in which the Giza pyramids were built.) The structure, which includes two small enclosures where animals may have been slaughtered and a rounded pen, is partly hidden under a modern-day soccer field. [Photo at VISIT SITE]

The boss eats the beef

The research revealed interesting details about life in the workers' town. For instance, the overseers — who lived in a structure the archaeologists call the "north street gatehouse" — got to eat the most cattle, and those living in an area called the "galleries," where the everyday workers lived, ate mainly sheep and goats.

Redding said it wasn’t surprising that the overseers preferred to dine on beef, considering it was the most valued meat in ancient Egypt. "Cattle is, of course, the highest-status meat," he said, noting that it appears far more frequently then sheep or goat in tomb scenes, and that pigs never appear in tomb scenes.

The settlement located adjacent to the workers' town, dubbed "eastern town," wasn't as rigidly planned as workers' town, and its residents were eating a considerable number of pigs, the researchers found. Evidence also suggested the people in eastern town were trading with people in workers' town for hippo-tusk fragments.

These finds suggest that the residents of the eastern town were not as directly involved in pyramid building and had a special relationship with the pyramid workers.

"They were not provisioned; they were not given their meat and food every day," like those in the workers' town were, Redding said. "It's more of a typical urban farming settlement, and there was a symbiotic relationship between the two —probably," he said.

Future discoveries at Giza

Research at workers' town suggests that not all the workers lived there and some may have actually camped out near the Giza pyramids.

"What we think now is — and this is something we're going to be coming out with in the next little while — is that, more likely, it was a large portion of the workforce, the more skilled laborers [living at workers' town], and that there were temporary camps up by the pyramids where the temporary workers who came in would be housed," he said.

"They probably (didn’t) need much in the way of housing; they would need more shade than anything else. They wouldn't need any kind of warmth because it wouldn't be winter."

Future studies will look for the remains of the workers' towns of Khufu and Khafre, the two other pharaohs who built pyramids at Giza. A dump area, investigated in the 1950s, may hold them; seal impressions found at the dump have the rulers' names on them.

"What we think was going on was that Menkaure came along, he establishes his reign, he leveled that whole area and he took all the levelling debris, took it to the top of the hill and threw it over the back in a big dump," Redding said.

"That dump on the back side of the ridge may represent a remnant of Khufu and Khafre's construction's town," Redding said, adding that he hopes new excavations will begin on the dump in the next year or two.

By: Owen Jarus, Contributor | Live Science magazine |


Yvonne White (229)
Thursday April 25, 2013, 12:56 pm
Interesting!:) Ya know I love Archaeology!

JL A (281)
Thursday April 25, 2013, 4:32 pm
Fascinating! Wonder whether evidence pointing to slave labor will also emerge given how rich this find seems to be...

John De Avalon (36)
Friday April 26, 2013, 8:30 am
The magical pyramids...

Nancy M (169)
Friday April 26, 2013, 8:32 am
Very interesting Kit. Thanks!

P A (117)
Friday April 26, 2013, 9:19 am
Nice topic - but how small were their animals if 4,000 lbs of protein came from 11 cattle and 37 sheep etc (if I read it correctly!). The excavation of the village near the Valley of the Kings was similarly interesting - they even think they have found the house of one of the higher up workers there - who had his own tomb excavated about a century ago, I think his name may have been Dede, and his tomb was amazingly fancy!

pam w (139)
Friday April 26, 2013, 11:03 am
Don't forget that much of this labor force was convinced they were working directly for Pharaoh....who was a living god! You got religious "points" (in a way) in addition to a good diet and employment when the Nile was in flood.

I've always been amused at movies showing old ladies, children and cripples being whipped to get them moving on pyramid construction gangs.

Egyptians were brilliant architects....they wouldn't have had children and old ladies working to move these giant blocks! MEN DID IT...and they weren't all slaves, either. They were farmers, peasants and others who needed seasonal work.

Robert O (12)
Friday April 26, 2013, 11:25 am
Fascinating. Thank you Kit.

lee e (114)
Friday April 26, 2013, 12:11 pm
Thanks for this amazing bit of information! Let's hear it for carnivores!

S S (0)
Friday April 26, 2013, 12:34 pm
Thank you.

Dan(iel) M (25)
Friday April 26, 2013, 1:32 pm

Birgit W (160)
Friday April 26, 2013, 2:21 pm
Interesting, thanks

Angelika R (143)
Friday April 26, 2013, 4:46 pm
Very fascinating indeed,- what a maths! It sort of reminds me -translated into modern days- of engineers and workforce wanted and attracted by the corporations in, say Big Oil business or fracking or even major constructions as well . People travel from far to get these seasonal jobs for the promise of good payd, comfortable housing, and everything they need for a living,-only these promises are not always kept by today's pharaohs...
Thx Kit, nice read!

Brad Kraus (6)
Friday April 26, 2013, 4:57 pm
Fascinating. I'm sure there was a lot going on in the eastern town, including entertainment.

Kit B (276)
Friday April 26, 2013, 5:03 pm

For the entertainment side of their life, we have bits and pieces of old stone graffiti. The very early Pharaohs might have used some slaves, after that we see a more structured form of a working class and workers well trained for their tasks, and highly trained artisans. This is one early civilization that still holds secrets from us.

Kathryn Niell (112)
Friday April 26, 2013, 7:33 pm
Fascinating and insightful as to the logistics of provisioning pyramid workers. Thanks!

Craig Pittman (52)
Friday April 26, 2013, 7:37 pm
Really fascinating thanks Kit.
Come to think of it, their workers no doubt had much better working conditions than the 'out-sourced' workers who provide our inexpensive clothing and goods.
Ok rant aside this is an amazing glimpse into this enigmatic time and place.

Abdessalam Diab (145)
Friday April 26, 2013, 11:55 pm
Thanks Kit for this valuable post.I was about to post the story but discovered that it has been already posted.While you are here to read the story don't forget to have this amazing tour over the pyramids.Enjoy.

Abdessalam Diab (145)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 1:07 am
Saturday February 25, 2012, 5:50 am
Egyptian archaeologists have unearthed a number of tombs of workers who helped to construct the country's largest pyramid.

Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass led the team that "uncovered a new group of tombs dating back to the period of the fourth dynasty (2694-2513 BC), which belonged to workers who helped to build the great pyramid," The first of these tombs was discovered in 1990.

Dr.Hawass said the new discovery at the Cheops pyramid was particularly important as it "belies all that was said about the construction of the pyramids by bound workers... and contradicts the idea that they were constructed by slaves".

He cited as evidence the fact that "the tombs are located in the direct vicinity of the pyramid and even overlook it. If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs in this area".

He also mentioned "evidence" indicating that the wealthy families of Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta provided the workers with 11 calves and 23 sheep daily in return for tax exemption.

He believes the number of workers who built the Cheops pyramid did not exceed 10,000.

Meanwhile, the new tombs found in Giza support the view that the Great Pyramids were built by free workers and not slaves, as widely believed, according to Egypt's chief archaeologist.

Films and media have long depicted slaves toiling away in the desert to build the mammoth pyramids only to meet a miserable death at the end of their efforts.

"These tombs were built beside the king's pyramid, which indicates that these people were not by any means slaves," Mr Hawass, said in a statement.

"If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs beside their king's."

Sherri G (128)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 1:44 am
Maybe the boss could afford beef and the workers had a Chain CPI COLA so they couldn't afford beef. Seriously, good article Kit and very interesting comment and tour Abdessalam. Thank you both.

Kerrie G (116)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 5:09 am
Very interesting, thanks for posting. Noted. :)

Frances Darcy (133)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 5:50 am
Very, very interesting, and I agree with Craig Pittman

. (0)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 8:20 am
Wonderful article. Thanks for sharing.

Robert K (31)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 8:51 am
It would be nice if our present were as adveance as ancient Egypt. And, apparently, as humane.

Angelika R (143)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 9:18 am
Interesting comments here by Sherri and Robert K ! Yep, I read just yesterday (on the PCRM site) what exactly your food stamps can buy you -a shame!

And thanks to Abdessalam for giving us that video link for the pyramid view tour once again, I had not bookmarked it last time a year ago or so.

Kit B (276)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 9:38 am

I am glued to each new book and discovery in ancient Egypt. I find their society fascinating. From the structure of laws to the provisions for medical care, the early Egyptians were a society well worth study in our time.

Elizabeth Pugliese (8)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 10:22 am
This is just awesome to find out. Every day lives being brought to light after so long hidden.

Kit B (276)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 11:10 am

True enough we often learn about the lives of the Kings, not so often the daily lives of the people.

Aletta Kraan (146)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 4:26 pm
Interesting !!!

Patsy Olive (0)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 6:06 pm
I always wanted to go to the holy land and it was a thrill to get to read about some of it. Thnks kit.

Mary Donnelly (47)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 6:24 pm
Thanks again Kit for a great post.

reft h (66)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 10:22 pm
love to read these stories thanks

P A (117)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 3:08 am
Green star to kit and others - but I can't give Abdessalam another star yet - sorry. I respect and admire Dr Zahi Hawass immensely for his unending love of his country (past and present) which always builds people up and never down; he has pointed out several times that in ancient Egypt women had more rights than they had anywhere else in the world at that time - and sadly more rights than they have there now. Any good Pharoah respected Ma'at - justice and fairness and compassion all combined - obviously some didn't as people vary anywhere, but most did and even allowing for viewing the past through slightly rose-tinted glasses it seemed a very good place to live. (Infinitely better than the Hittite empire which made Star Treks Klingons sound mild and kind!).

Oh yes, and the first known industrial action occurred in Egypt with the royal tomb builders and decorators - at one point they were not getting enough food supplies and kohl for their eyes - so they went on strike till their just demands were met!


Michela M (3964)
Monday April 29, 2013, 9:45 am

I LOVE old Egyptian History!! Thanks!!

Klaus Peters (14)
Sunday May 5, 2013, 11:06 pm
Great article , well worth researching for more information.

Frans Badenhorst (582)
Monday May 20, 2013, 5:19 am
great post, thanks Kit...I still would like to think that humans did NOT build it...:).......

Debbie Crowe (87)
Wednesday June 12, 2013, 11:24 pm
The pyramids always did fascinate me! Thanks Kit.
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