Who built the pyramids?
The Giza Plateau Mapping Project is searching for the human hand in the construction of these powerful symbols of remote antiquity which have intrigued and fascinated people for generations, says Jill Kamil
We may soon have an answer to the age- old question of who were the Pyramid builders and how the whole enterprise of pyramid-building was planned and controlled.
When the Millennium Project was launched at Giza its aim was two-fold: to find out as much information as possible about the ancient settlement site at the foot of the pyramids for science and posterity, and to protect it from infringement by the expanding community of Nezlet Al-Siman. What has emerged seven years down the line is a huge and wide-ranging operation in which American, British, Dutch, Egyptian, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Polish, Swedish and Turkish scholars are working in their specialised fields of expertise while, at the same time, supervising a field school -- four teams of students in total -- each led by an experienced excavator together with an qualified SCA inspector.
In archaeology, times have changed. Where at one time professionals in the discipline were primarily philologists, historians, artists and epigraphers who, in their search for material remains of the ancient Egyptian civilisation, dug and destroyed layers of archaeology, things are different today. The search is for information rather than museum-worthy objects. Multiple layers of complex stratigraphy are being scientifically excavated and analysed -- everything from pottery shards to sealings of mud, from a fish-hook to human to animal remains. Such evidence, in addition to the discovery of long galleries which might have been barracks for a rotating labour force from the countryside, and a village-like town that possibly housed permanent workers and their families, paints a picture of the pyramid-builders which boggles the imagination.
It all started with a question: Where were the tens of thousands of workers who built the monumental structures at Giza housed? A massive ancient gateway, which came to be known by early travellers as the Wall of the Crow, drew the attention of two figures instrumental in research on the Giza plateau. These were Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and former director of the Giza Plateau who, in 1989-90, discovered the cemetery of the pyramid-builders, and Mark Lehner, director of the Giza Plateau Mapping Project (GPMP), who in 1991 had found ancient bakeries due south of the Sphinx. Few had previously questioned the purpose of this enigmatic structure, the Wall of the Crow, which has been visible for thousands of years and through which horse-riders from Neslet Al-Siman regularly passed. Whether it was a causeway, a bridge or a tunnel was not clear. However it did pose another question: a gateway to what? It seemed certain that something really big lay to the south, and in 2001 Lehner set workmen to clear a deep layer of sand and debris to the north side of the structure.
It was no easy task. Sand bags were used to hold back the rubble that had accumulated along the sides of the wall, and only when cleared was it realised what an impressive structure it really was. The gate was more than 2.5 metres wide and about seven metres high, and the wall itself was more than 10 metres thick. It is one of the largest gateways of its kind in the world. The roadway passing through it was carefully paved with what appeared to be abraded ceramic fragments, well trampled and worn. It sloped down several metres under the sand to what Lehner suspected might be a buried harbour to the north.
It seemed certain that the fourth-dynasty Egyptians who built the pyramids between 2613 and 2494BC constructed both the wall and the gateway, and that the purpose was to control the flow of people and material from a harbour into what, on further excavation, proved to be a pre- planned settlement area for seasonal workers. The Wall of the Crow was, in fact, an integral part of a production facility. It might also have served a secondary purpose: to protect the site from periodic flash floods. Lehner speculated that the design of the massive wall might have incorporated a symbolic function -- to demarcate the sacred pyramid-temple precinct from the production zone.
It was thus that a major discovery was made during routine excavations at Giza. The Chicago Oriental Institute, Harvard University, and the GPMP unearthed evidence that has revolutionalised our views about how the pyramids were built.
Lehner's team excavated a street that linked the workers' town to the pyramid complex and what was labelled the "eastern town with a huge royal building for storage and administration. From an early stage in the work, it seemed certain that it was all part of a vast ancient settlement site with streets, galleries, bakeries and industrial areas, and that it included barracks which could shelter and feed up to 2,000 rotating labourers who worked in shifts following the well-established Egyptian pattern whereby local town and village leaders sent teams from their provinces all over the country to share in great national projects. Bearing in mind that the Old Kingdom settlement continues under Nezlet Al-Siman, and, considered alongside other parts of the settlement not yet excavated, the whole area might have contained as many as 20,000 labourers (an Egyptologist's estimate), many of whom would have been in support industries like pottery and cloth manufacture.
Zahi Hawass had discovered the graves of the pyramid-builders, which laid to rest many legends about who built them. Now he and Lehner were providing the answer to how the royal house organised its pyramid-building infrastructure.
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 when objects of art are discovered, or even inscribed stone that might suggest a tomb or temple below ground. But this part of Giza had yielded little in the way of beautiful art objects or inscriptions. However, the ancient settlement did offer abundant evidence in the form of copper and alabaster work, weaving, pottery loom shuttles and mud loom weights, a tiny copper fish-hook and a fish-net weight. Although not a very inspiring collection for a fund-raising mission, Lehner -- whose affable manner disguises resolve and great strength of character -- nevertheless went on tour in the United States and announced his intention of salvaging and mapping this newly discovered City of the Pyramids. He said he aimed to retrieve information about the lives of the pyramid builders embedded in its ruins, and to throw light on the Great Pyramid Age.
Lehner set up the Ancient Egyptian Research Associates (AERA) and published its newsletter "AERAGRAM", designed to provide up- to-date information. The response was heartening, and with generous grants coming from the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation, philanthropist David Koch, Peter Norton and others, the Millennium Project 2001 was launched. The newsletter is now being published regularly, in English and Arabic, and describes the progressive clearing, mapping and excavation of the three areas of the town in order to study and analyze material as it comes to light.
In the past there was a delay between excavation and publication in order that questions could be resolved, and conclusions arrived at, before discoveries were made public. In today's archaeological methodology evidence is presented as it comes to light, and thus questions are posed that still need to be answered. Take, for example, the long colonnaded galleries that were unearthed. What were they? Might they have been massive barracks for workers? They were certainly large enough to accommodate between 40 and 50 individuals, and at first it seemed entirely possible that they were used by a rotating labour force. And 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 workers?
When the vast modern layers of sand and debris had been stripped away, evidence of meat processing and feseekh (salted fish) production were found to the east, west and south of the galleries. Then 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 19 metres across. Sure enough, scores of bakeries were found nearby. Perhaps they were part of a whole series that may lie under the modern soccer field of the Sphinx Sports Club football field which was built in 1984.
"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 might relate to fourth-dynasty social order and the organization of work."
Like today's cities, the extremely complex and historically important "eastern town" was crowded; there are traces of alleyways between the houses; of household granaries and bins; and of grinding stones for processing grain into flour. No fewer than 5,000 mud sealings were unearthed, some bearing the names of the kings Khafre and Menkaure, the builders of the Second and Third Pyramids, confirming the Old Kingdom date of the settlement.
Egypt's oldest known hypostyle hall was also found. "Its location suggests that it may originally have functioned as a communal dining facility," Lehner says. "Animal and fish bones that were found near low troughs and benches that run the length of the floor of the hall may have been droppings from meals. Fragments of pottery bowls, lids and stands for vessels point to food consumption rather than preparation."
Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner together hypothesised on the workings of a pyramid city and how it was controlled; its housing, food and administration; whether or not the permanent workers and their families lived in the "eastern town", and whether there might indeed be other storehouses lying beneath the modern soccer field. Would trial pits beyond it reveal another vast archaeological site? In fact it did.
Giza has also provided evidence that pyramid building was planned like a long- term military campaign. A vast army of part-time workers was recruited, and every aspect was taken into account, from what numbers of labourers were required to where and how they were accommodated and how much sustenance they needed. Even their comfort was considered: a shady area was provided where they could comfortably eat their food.
Will there soon be an answer to one of the longest-running questions of all time?