Habitat for Eternity: Building pyramids might have been a public service project

Public project: Growing evidence in the Giza monument area of Egypt is showing that the work crews that built the pryamids were motivated by community or spiritual pride, erasing any lingering impressions that the work was done by slave labor.
Public project: Growing evidence in the Giza monument area of Egypt is showing that the work crews that built the pryamids were motivated by community or spiritual pride, erasing any lingering impressions that the work was done by slave labor.Courtesy en:User:Hajor
You know all about Habitat for Humanity, right? A huge group of people come together and under the guidance of a few experts, erect a house in just a few days for a needy family.

A variation on that same concept was very likely in play in building the great pyramids of the Giza Plateau. On going research at the archaeological site near Cairo, Egypt, is showing that a very organized process was at play in building those pyramids.

The clues are coming from the remains of a buried city south of the monuments. Archaeologists/Egyptologists Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass are overseeing the projects that are digging up this lost city and the adjoining graveyard.

They estimate that the city could have handled between 20,000 and 30,000 people. That population was made up a smaller group of permanent residents -– masons and artisans—who had the expertise in building and decorating the pyramids along with a crew of volunteer manual laborers who rotated into the workforce from their regular duties in the surrounding Egyptian countryside. Rounding out the population was a support crew that baked bread, processed food and handled other chores to keep a hard-working labor force fed and happy.

The latest evidence puts to rest any of the old “Hollywood” notions that the pyramids were built with slave labor toiling miserably under the hot sun.

So what are these new clues?

Hawass has found inscriptions inside of the pyramids that indicate that there were specific work crews on the job who were proud of their work. Graffiti found in out-of-the-way locations inside the pyramids bears that out.

“The workmen who were involved in building the Great Pyramid were divided into four groups, each group had a name, and each group had an overseer,” Hawass said in a recent interview. “They wrote the names of the gangs. You have the names of the gangs of Khufu as 'Friends of Khufu.' Because they were the friends of Khufu proves that building the pyramid was not really something that the Egyptians would push.”

Lehner adds that public production work has been a rallying point in other civilizations, including the Incas and Mesopotamians.

“I wonder if that wasn't the case with the Great Pyramid of Khufu. You know, it's almost like an Amish barnraising,” he says. “But you know, the Great Pyramid of Khufu is one hell of a barn.” And it took 20 years to complete instead of a few days.

He goes on to explain that Egyptian society likely was organized in a feudal system, where all members of the society owed some degree of service to their superiors. The concept, in Egyptian, is called bak. "But it doesn't really work as a word for slavery," Lehner says. "Even the highest officials owed bak."

Large-scale baking and meat-processing facilities have also been found in the buried town. Based on the large number of young animal bones and fish scales found on the site, workers ate well on the projects. The foundations of barracks, often as long as city blocks, show that there was a lot of temporary housing in the city.

Hawass’s work in the neighboring graveyards has also revealed some important clues. Regular workers were buried in simple graves near the town. Closer to the pyramids was a second graveyard where the high-skilled workers were buried. Their graves often contained markers that noted what special expertise they provided to the project.

Medical analysis of bones found in the cemetery show injuries that are consistent with working on a large-scale construction project. Says Hawass: “We found 600 skeletons. Number one, we know that they were Egyptians, the same like you see in every cemetery in Egypt. Number two, we found evidence that these people had emergency treatment. They had accidents during building the pyramids. We found 12 skeletons that had accidents with their hands. On another one, a stone fell down on his leg, and they made a kind of operation, and they cut his leg and he lived 14 years after that.”

In a day and age 5,000 years ago when most people’s lives were pretty simple, being part of building a pyramid could have served as a rallying point to bring people together. And with the prospect of building a great structure for the king who would become a god after he died, there was likely good motivation to curry favor in the afterlife in being part of such a project as well.

Harvard Magazine

National Geographic

PBS Nova

And here's a link to a seperate research project being done on graves of ordinary Egyptians further south of Giza.

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