Constructing the Great Pyramid at Giza was a massive task, requiring a labour force of perhaps 100,000 workers. Now archaeologists are unearthing the lost city in which they lived, complete with streets, barracks and bakeries.

There is no longer a question of who built the pyramids. Ever since a Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) mission discovered a burial ground at Giza back in the 1990s, we have had indisputable evidence that the workmen involved were Egyptian. The question being asked now is how the whole enterprise of pyramid-building was planned and controlled. An answer to that, too, is forthcoming.

A general view of the site of the ‘lost city’ where pyramid-building workers are believed to have lived.

An international team under the direction of American Egyptologist Mark Lehner is searching for the human hand in pyramid construction, which, he says, began with a question. Where were the tens of thousands of workmen who built the monumental structures housed?

‘If we are to believe Herodotus’, Lehner says, ‘it took a hundred thousand people twenty years to build the Great Pyramid, and even given today’s more modest estimate of some twenty to thirty thousand workmen, that would still be a colossal city’. Lehner looked wide, and his attention was drawn to a huge wall known as the ‘Wall of the Crow’ and made out of blocks of stone as large as some of those used in the pyramids and temples on the plateau. There his team began excavating, based on his hypothesis that this might be where the workmen’s infrastructure could be because it lay beyond the stone quarry; beyond the possible delivery area; and beyond the work-yard.

A vast army of part-time workmen was recruited and every aspect was taken into account, from the numbers needed, the accommodation required, a healthy diet, and even a shady area in which to rest.

‘It was no easy task’, Lehner says. ‘The gate itself was more than two and a half metres wide and about seven metres high, and the wall was more than ten metres thick. It is one of the largest gateways of its kind in the world, and the roadway passing through it was carefully paved and sloped down several metres under the sand. I suspected it might lead to a buried harbour’.

Dr Mark Lehner, leading the excavations.

The excavation made it certain that the Egyptians who built the pyramids during the Fourth Dynasty — between 2613 and 2494 BCE — constructed both the wall and the gateway, the purpose of which was to control the flow of people and materials entering from a harbour into what, on further excavation, proved to be a pre-planned settlement area for seasonal workers. Lehner’s team excavated a street that linked the workmen’s town to the pyramid complex with what was labelled the ‘eastern town’ where there was a huge building for storage and administration.

From an early stage in the work, it seemed certain that this was all part of a vast ancient settlement site with streets, galleries, bakeries and industrial areas; it included barracks that could shelter and feed up to 2,000 rotating labourers. They worked in shifts, following the well-established Egyptian pattern whereby local town and village leaders from all over the country sent teams of workmen to share in great national projects.

Epigraphy training; copying the relief decoration in a mastaba.

When the enormity of the discovery and its importance was realised, Lehner set about acquiring funding for an ongoing excavation. This was no easy matter. Money is not difficult to come by after the discovery of objects of art, or even inscribed stone that might suggest a tomb or temple below ground. This part of the Giza plateau, however, yielded little in the way of art objects or inscriptions. What it did offer was abundant evidence in the form of copper and alabaster work, weaving, pottery, loom shuttles and mud loom weights, as well as a tiny copper fishhook and a fishnet weight. Although not a very inspiring collection for a fundraising mission, Lehner nevertheless set off on tour in the United States to announce his intention to salvage and map this newly-discovered City of the Pyramids.

In the past, there has tended to be a delay between excavation and publication in order that questions can be resolved and conclusions arrived at before going public. In today’s archaeological procedure, however, evidence is presented as it comes to light, and pertinent questions can be posed without delay. Take, for example, the long colonnaded galleries that were unearthed. What were they? Might they have been massive barracks for workmen? They were certainly large enough to accommodate between forty and fifty individuals, and at first it seemed entirely possible that they were used by a rotating labour force. Perhaps the large house in one block of the barracks, at the eastern end of the galleries, was for the overseer who supervised the teams of workmen.

Workmen and crew demonstrate how the gallery might have accommodated sleepers. The galleries could hold 40-50 people.

Then there arose the question of how they were fed. When the vast modern layers of sand and debris were stripped away, evidence of meat processing and feseekh (salted fish) production were found to the east, west and south of the galleries. A large royal storage and administrative complex was unearthed. Seven large mud-brick silos, obviously for the storage of grain, were found in a sunken courtyard nineteen metres in width.

‘Settlement excavation is the most difficult and most subtle’, Lehner says. ‘For instance, the small mud “tokens” — which may represent the special flat and conical bread eaten by the Egyptians — appear to have been used for accounting and administrative purposes. They certainly relate to Fourth-Dynasty social order and the organization of work. Like today’s cities, the eastern town was crowded’, he went on. ‘There are traces of alleyways between the houses; household granaries and bins; and grinding stones for processing grain into flour. No fewer than 5,000 mud seals were unearthed, some bearing the names of the kings Khafre and Menkaure, the builders of the second and third pyramids’.

Survey and architectural recording of a mastaba in the Western Cemetery.

Lehner, together with Egyptian archaeologists, hypothesised on the workings of a pyramid city — how it was controlled; whether or not permanent workmen and their families lived in the eastern town; whether other storehouses lie beneath the modern football field of the Sphinx Sports Club built in 1984; and would trial pits beyond it reveal another vast archaeological site? As it happened, it did. Giza provides evidence that pyramid building was planned like a long-term military campaign. A vast army of part-time workmen was recruited and every aspect was taken into account, from the numbers needed, the accommodation required, a healthy diet, and even a shady area in which to rest.

Lehner realised that an excavation of the size and importance of that of Giza offered him an opportunity to give back to Egypt something in return for all the years he had enjoyed excavating here. He proceeded to run a rigorous training programme for Egyptians. His aim was twofold. It was to enable their active participation in the project, and to guide trainees in the basics of standard archaeological practice around the world. His objective harmonised with that of the Egyptian government, which was to train Egyptian inspectors in advanced techniques of field archaeology, and make prior training at a professional field school a condition for appointment to join foreign missions.

Thus, in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities and with the support of a USAID grant through the American Research Center of Egypt and the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Science, Lehner recruited Mohsen Kamel and Ana Tavares to organise a hands-on training course known as the Giza Field School. The chosen students hail from all over the country, from the Delta to Upper Egypt, as well as Sinai. They are professionally guided by a team of fifty-five archaeologists, specialists, and field instructors, and are trained in basic skills and techniques , as well as in the use of digital equipment and practices far more advanced than the conventional stratigraphical excavations and recording carried out elsewhere.

In the past, Egyptian inspectors who accompanied foreign archaeological missions did little more than act as facilitators who bought supplies and expedited permits. Most were ignorant of the mechanics of scientific excavation, but today things have changed. Inspectors now know that unless you know how to identify strata, interpret and deal with material as it comes to light, and know how to record it, the historical record is destroyed.

The Giza Plateau Mapping Project (GPMP) can be measured not only in the size of the exposed ancient settlement but also in the growing number of students in training. ‘One of our goals is to integrate the field school into the overall excavation so that we do not have isolated “practice” squares’, Lehner says. ‘Each team works in a square adjacent to a main excavation area, so apart from learning practical skills in mapping and documentation, they write weekly reports, prepare general reports, and attend lectures given by instructors on specific topics. They also give lectures and PowerPoint presentations themselves, so that all members of the team know what is happening in each area of the excavation’.

At the foot of the pyramid plateau at Giza, parts of the large and complex archaeological jigsaw puzzle are being joined together. And as professionals and apprentices join hands, evidence is fast coming to light that will revolutionise current views of the Pyramid Age, and answer some of the longest standard questions of all time: Who built the pyramids of Giza, and how.

All photographs are courtesy of the AERA (Ancient Egypt Research Associates)

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 1, 2010

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