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SHOW 304: Tombs of Pyramid Builders

About three years ago, a tourist horseback-riding near the Giza Plateau stumbled upon a remarkable find: the graveyards of the workers who built the pyramids. The tombs, silent for almost 4,500 years, will tell archaeologists more about life in ancient Egypt. The activities below give you ideas for conducting your own dig and ask you to speculate on an imaginary archaeological find of the future.

Activity 1: Set Up a Dig
Activity 2: Imaginary Time Travel



Archaeologists use a simple method of grid location to map and remove their finds at dig sites. Strings are used to form a grid of one-meter squares. Soil or sand is carefully removed in small layers from each square. Each time an object is found, it's recorded on a map of the square indicating its location and depth. Layer after layer is slowly removed and mapped. Assembled, the meter-square maps result in a 3-D map of the entire dig site. The process can take weeks or years, depending on the hardness of the material surrounding the artifacts, shards and remains.

  • You can make your own dig site if you have a vacant lot near your school or in a nearby excavation site. Choose a site on which a single building or group of buildings were once located. (Avoid cemeteries.) Obtain permission and supervision from parents, teachers and the landowner before attempting this kind of project. Consult with a construction engineer to learn safety measures to observe while digging (especially trench safety!). Work in teams. Be sure all building materials have been removed from the area.

  • This is a long-term project, so the more weeks you can work on it, the better. You will need string, stakes, garden shovels, paint brushes (large and small), squeeze-type water bottles, dental picks, a utility map (a must), storage boxes and newspaper. Generate a list of other tools you will need as required by the chosen site. Do not work in an area that is heavily underlaid by utility lines (electric, sewer/water, gas or steam pipes).

  • Survey the work area and lay a grid over site. Work carefully, slowly and always under adult supervision. Keep accurate records, written and photographic. Be careful with all artifacts, shards and remains. Identify each item you find and save it.

  • Write a history of the area based on the found objects. Compare your ideas with the actual history as written in old local newspapers and journals. Interview people who have lived in the area for a long time and refine your ideas. Write a newspaper article about your discoveries, and submit it to a local paper.


It is 4993 A.D. You are an archaeologist of the future, digging under the sands that buried the civilizations of North America, much of which were destroyed when an asteroid collided with earth in 2001. What artifacts do you find buried under the layers? What do they tell you about life in those times?
  • It might be fun to interpret the story told by these found objects as if you do not know what they are. Consider how some of today's common items -- such as compact disks, remote-control devices, sneakers and electronics equipment -- might appear to someone in the distant future.

  • Imagine that you are fortunate enough to find several houses buried in entirety. You notice something similar about each; there appears to have been a sacred room where remains of people are found encircling what seems to be a large box. What interpretation(s) do you give for the find?

  • In another section of the city, you find what appears to be a double-arch formation; tests indicate the arches were a bright yellow color. Were these temples? Public office buildings? Schools? Homes?


Some of the most famous finds in archaeology (and paleontology) have been accidents:
  • Rosetta Stone, 1799
  • First dinosaur bones, c. 1840
  • King Tut's tomb, 1922
  • Dead Sea Scrolls, 1948
  • "Iceman" (believed now to date from 3300 B.C.), 1991

  • The Great Pyramid is believed to be constructed of 2,300,000 blocks, each of which weighs 2 1/2 tons.

  • Sources: Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin, l979); The Practical Archaeologist by Jane McIntosh (Facts on File Publications, l986)


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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