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Ancient WorldsAncient Worlds

Excavating the Lost City

When it comes to ancient Egyptian civilization, our focus is typically on monumental architecture like the Sphinx and Pyramids, or on richly appointed tombs like King Tut's. But for Egyptologist Mark Lehner, the workers who made these wonders happen are far more compelling. For the past 20 years, Lehner—director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates and research associate at the University of Chicago—has led excavations in a 4,500-year-old city a short walk from the Sphinx where thousands of stoneworkers, weavers, bakers, and other commoners lived. Below, hear what Lehner and his multinational team have learned about the daily lives of these ancient folk—the people who built the Pyramids.


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excavation site
For a few decades in the 26th century B.C., when the Pyramids were being built, this now-buried city of workers hummed with activity.
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Courtesy Mark Lehner


NOVA: What led you to first start seeking the Lost City of the Pyramid Builders, as you call it?

Mark Lehner: I first started looking for all the folk who built the Pyramids—as opposed to just the very wealthy leaders of that nation—as a process of becoming more real. Believe it or not, when I first went to Egypt in 1973, I went as a New Ager. I was interested in the ideas of Edgar Cayce, an alleged clairvoyant and psychic, and the legend of Atlantis, and ideas and narratives about how Atlantis sunk 12,000 years ago and they came to Egypt and made a Hall of Records under the Sphinx!

I went over initially as a year-abroad student, and the more I walked around the plateau the more bedrock reality began to have its effect. I had this dialectic going with empirical truth, the physical world, and so my New Age ideas sort of withered in the hot Egyptian sun.

And then what?

Well, I took on a project to map the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx became kind of a key that led, in several ways, to wider understandings of the whole Giza Plateau. And among those understandings was the question: If thousands or tens of thousands of people were here building the Pyramids, where is the evidence for them?

Mark Lehner
Mark Lehner in 2009, with excavation staff and students from the archeological field school his organization operates for young Egyptians
Courtesy Jason Quinlan

Herodotus wrote that it took 100,000 people to build the Great Pyramid. What's the estimate today, after all the scholarship?

Well, Herodotus wrote that estimate in about 450 B.C., so a full 2,000 years after the Pyramids were being built. And I'm sure he was relying on oral tradition as much as anything else. But he might have meant that 100,000 people built the Pyramid in shifts of, say, 20,000 or 25,000. That would make it more amenable to the estimates of modern Egyptologists.

It may be counterintuitive to us, but the more I've worked at Giza, the more I think the Great Pyramid could have been done within a 20- to 30-year range with fewer people than we think. You know, you can only get so many people around a block; you can only get so many people in the quarry. When I've worked the numbers, it comes out to about 10,000 people tops doing the stone quarrying, dragging, setting, and trimming.

"I realized I really had to turn my back on the Pyramids to understand them."

Of course, you need far more people than that. You need people preparing food, carpenters making levers and sledges for dragging stone, boats for hauling the stone from the quarries on the other side of the Nile for casing the Pyramids and for bringing the granite from Aswan 500 miles to the south. And when you add in the large houses of the scribes who are administrating all of this and the smaller houses of people who are grinding the grain, and you add in the butchers, the bakers, the weavers, the sandal makers, and so on—all of which we're finding in our excavations—then you get a de facto city. So it may have added up to 20,000 people at any given time.

That's an extraordinary number for those days, isn't it?

Tens of thousands of people in the third millennium B.C. amounts to a "supercity" for that time. The largest city in the world, as far as archeologists know, numbered in the tens of thousands—sites like Ur and Uruk in southern Mesopotamia and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley. If there were tens of thousands of people here building the Pyramids, where did they live? How were they housed? How were they fed?

By this time I had already spent nearly a decade in Egypt, studying the Sphinx and the Pyramids and becoming very intimate with the physical reality of the site. But it was only then, when I began asking these questions, that I realized I really had to turn my back on the Pyramids to understand them.

Map of the Lost City
Map of the Lost City, showing the Gallery Complex (center) as well as the Eastern and Western towns and the Wall of the Crow
Courtesy Wilma Wetterstrom


So how did you first stumble upon the Lost City?

Well, there was an area to the south of the Sphinx where the model that I was developing of how they organized themselves on this landscape predicted there should be settlements. It is south of a huge stone wall called the Wall of the Crow in Arabic. It's about 200 meters long, 10 meters high, and 10 meters wide at the base—absolutely enormous. (I joke that if it were anywhere in my home state of North Dakota, they would probably build a national park around it.) And to the south of it, there was a broad plain of sand, very thick sand, and people from the local riding stables were digging that sand to put on the floor of their stables.

Well, in one of the big craters that they had left in this clean sand, I noticed they were stopping at a very compact surface of hard mud. I could see evidence of ancient walls, bits of pottery, and compact stone. And Zahi Hawass, who at the time was Chief Inspector of the Pyramids and is now Vice Minister of Culture in charge of the archeology of monuments of Egypt, he and I together started thinking that it must be out here in these neglected areas of the Giza Plateau, 450 meters south of the Sphinx, that we would find evidence of the workers.

So he began excavating up the slope, and I started looking at this compact surface that the sand diggers exposed. I didn't actually trip and fall, but, in a sense, I stumbled onto it.

demo of pyramid builders sleeping
Members of Lehner's team demonstrate how pyramid builders would have slept in the galleries. Between the two rows is a low wall with holes that once held columns, probably made of wood, that would have supported a roof.
Courtesy Mark Lehner


You've now been excavating the site for 20 years. What have you found? How did the typical pyramid-builder live, for instance?

Well, it depends on who you were. The center of our site is taken up by what we call the Gallery Complex. These are very long, narrow, corridor-like rooms, 35 meters long by about five meters wide. In the backs of these long galleries, there are little kitchens or chambers for cooking, roasting, and baking, but most of each gallery is big and long and empty.

We didn't know what they were for until we excavated one in its entirety in 2002. Then we found these bed platforms, and we realized that each of these galleries could sleep 40 to 50 people. We have now found four great blocks of these barracks, enough space to house about 1,600 to 2,000 people. In fact, we think they might have been double-decker, so you can double it to 4,000 people.

"I think we need to think of pyramid building more in terms of a feast."

That explained who was eating all the meat we were identifying through animal bones. We were finding enough meat—prime beef and sheep and goats—to feed thousands of people, if they ate meat every day, which generally people in the Middle East in recent times don't do.

Life in this barracks probably was temporary for people who were brought from villages and towns throughout Egypt. You spent your time here on the royal project, almost like military service though measured in weeks or months per year, and then you rotated out.

Eastern town dwelling
An artist's depiction of a typical dwelling in the Eastern Town, with living quarters in the center. In the upper right, a girl pounds wheat grain in a mortar, while in the front courtyard to the left women weave linen into fabric. In the lower right are the family's pigs.
Courtesy Wilma Wetterstrom

And you've identified two different "towns" within the larger Lost City.

Yes. To the east of the site we have something called the Eastern Town. It looks more like a typical village. One of the telltale signs of this from the animal bone is pig. Pig is a village animal. It doesn't migrate like cattle—you don't have rawhide pig drives! But it's got a lot of calories, and you can feed it slop. So we have a kind of village appended to the Lost City, almost like a village appended to one of our forts in the West. And people were probably living here full time, not rotating in and out, grinding a lot of the grain for all those bakeries that were feeding everybody in the barracks.

To the west we have a true town—very large houses. We also have evidence from the mud sealings they used, like our old wax sealings for letters. They would put these mud sealings on bags, boxes, jars, and doors, and before it dried they would roll a tiny cylinder over it, like a miniature paint roller inscribed with hieroglyphs, sealing the bag, box, jar, or door with the name of an official or institution.

From the sealings and other evidence in the Western Town, we have evidence of high administrators. In fact, from the sealings we have some of the highest scribal titles known from this early period of Egyptian history, such as Royal Scribe, Overseer of the King's Work. Life was probably a lot better for those who did all the accounting in the Western Town than for the bakers and others in the Eastern Town. There were goods coming in and out, workers coming in and out, copper [for tools] being given to workers weighed probably before they went to work, and weighed again when they got back. (Copper was like the gold standard; it was the medium of exchange, so shave a little off....)

It is through the analysis we've done of all this minutiae that we start to get a clear picture of life in the Lost City. It's like a huge jigsaw puzzle: We put all these pieces of evidence together to reconstruct the diet, climate, environment, and what daily life was like for those in the Western Town, the Eastern Town, and the central barracks.

It wasn't a bad life really, was it?

Certainly pyramid building was very hard, but life was not so bad. We have all this cattle being consumed, for one thing.

Old Kingdom mud sealings
Fragments of Old Kingdom mud sealings found in the Western Town
Courtesy Yukinori Kawae


Was the job of helping to build the Pyramids proscribed? Did the state force you to do it?

Yes. The job of building a pyramid is hard for us in America to understand, because we have lost the sense of obligatory labor. But obligatory labor was very widespread in the pre-modern world, and as in all periods of Egyptian history it is likely that in this early-period labor was obligatory. The Egyptian state at this time, by the way, wasn't so much a vast bureaucracy as the royal house—it was basically a family that was in control.

Now, obligatory labor can range from slavery such as we know it from the southern United States in recent centuries to, say, the Amish building a barn. If you are a young Amish man and the community plans to build a barn for one of its families, you probably don't have a choice. But when you go to build a barn it is a feast. And you might meet a fiancé. It's a social occasion.

"I think probably somewhere nearby is a very large, royal center, possibly a palace."

I think we need to think of pyramid building more in terms of a feast. I think a lot of this meat was distributed under the guise of feast and feasting—the new year feast, the half moon feast. They had many feasts in ancient Egypt, and that's when they gave these people in the galleries goats and sheep and cattle. So when you rotated in, it probably wasn't altogether pleasant, but it probably wasn't altogether unpleasant either.

gate in the Wall of the Crow
During construction of the Pyramids, workers would have funneled through this gate in the Wall of the Crow daily between the Lost City and the work site.
Courtesy Mark Lehner

It must have been kind of mind-blowing to the simple villager who arrived from far away.

Yes, it probably was a tremendously socializing experience, because you came from a village of a few hundred people to a city of tens of thousands. It was like a Cecil B. DeMille epic, with this huge structure rising on the horizon in an era when there were no big structures anywhere.

Would drunkenness have been a problem? You said they drank a lot of beer. Or was it simply too weak or too rationed?

Well, beer was a staple, and so drunkenness might have been a problem. In later times there are texts admonishing against too much drinking and drunkenness. But for the Lost City and building the Pyramids, we don't really know.

Didn't one Pyramid work crew call itself the "Drunkards of Menkaure Gang"?

Yes. Work gangs of the time had names compounded with the name of a king, so, for instance, graffiti was found above the king's chamber in the Great Pyramid that, among other names, included "Friends of Khufu Gang." And when Harvard's George Reissner excavated the third pyramid, he found the names of gangs written on the big blocks composing the walls of the Temple, and on one side of the Temple the gangs were all called "Friends of Menkaure Gang" and the other side were all the "Drunkards of Menkaure Gang."

excavator clears a hearth
An excavator clears a hearth used by ancient bakers to pre-heat the bell-shaped bread mold (to his left) for baking.
Courtesy Wilma Wetterstrom


What holes would you most like to fill at this point about the workers' lives? What would you most like to find?

Well, there is one very simple thing that we haven't found yet, and that is the breweries. We have so much evidence of baking—baking bread. In ancient Egypt, baking and brewing always went hand in hand. Back then they put little wooden models in their tombs for the afterlife. They would have a model of a weaving shop and a carpentry shop, for instance. And when they show a bakery, they always show a brewery right next to it. That's because some of the lightly baked bread that goes into the mash for the beer goes back into the bread for the yeast. It is almost like my grandmother circulating her sour dough.

So we have scores of bakeries, and bread molds are our most common type of pot. Our second most common type of pot is the beer jar. But so far the breweries have eluded us.

Anything else?

Well, we have so much evidence in the Lost City of the royal presence directing and organizing this, and yet what still eludes us is something that assuredly is a royal center or administration. We have a building on our site we call the Royal Administrative Building, because when it popped up I thought that is assuredly what it was. We have doubts about that now.

"That is probably the central question of all: How did these pharaohs pull it off?"

I think probably somewhere nearby, possibly right underneath the modern town, is a very large, royal center, possibly a palace. A palace where the kings who built the Pyramids—Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure—lived while the Pyramids were rising on the plateau.

common Lost City pottery
An assortment of the most common pottery found in the Lost City, including, among other items, a large vat for mixing bread dough, two bell-shaped bread molds, and two egg-shaped beer jars at left.
Courtesy Yukinori Kawae


With modern Cairo pressing up so closely to your site, is there any way you or others could ever excavate under the modern city to look for that? Or is it just lost to us?

It's difficult. Excavation can happen in the Lost City that is beneath the modern town only through salvage archeology. That is, when buildings are built and construction crews penetrate into ancient layers, parts of this ancient city, archeologists can go in and rescue evidence before the construction happens.

In fact, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a sewage system was put into the Cairo West Bank, which included the zone immediately below the Pyramid plateau at Giza. A British-American consortium named AMBRIC dug a whole network of trenches. That work showed that there is settlement out there underneath the modern city that covers an area about three kilometers north to south and one or two kilometers east to west. So this is a 300-hectare or larger site. [One hectare equals 10,000 square meters.]

Now, some of the largest cities in the third millennium that we know elsewhere from archeology, such as Ur and Uruk, are 300, 400 hectares. So there's a very big city out there. The Pyramids were not out in the desert as sentinels and mausoleums of these deceased kings; they were the skyscrapers of downtown Egypt for the time.

So what we have at our site is only one part of this Lost City. But because it is protected—there is now a high-security wall around the whole Giza Plateau that takes in our site—we have the luxury of very broad horizontal exposure. So we can see the major pattern of parts of this city, and what we see is extremely interesting.

Why has no royal palace or residence of those three pharaohs who built the Great Pyramids ever been found? Do they lie under the modern city? Do you think they ever will be found?

I think they are out there. I think it is highly probable that the pharaohs had at least one of their residences, one of their palaces, nearby the construction site. Some of the trenches of the sewage project broke through colossal walls of mud brick lined with stone. Some uncovered extensive pavements. More recently, construction 500 meters away from the edge of the plateau found a colossal wall along a street called Zaghloul Street made out of limestone and basalt, a dark, granite-like stone. Big stuff is out there underneath the modern town, what once was a series of villages. At one time you could have dug it, but not now.

Old Kingdom pavement
Old Kingdom pavement uncovered during construction along Zaghloul Street, just off the Giza Plateau. Could this be part of a pharaoh's palace?
Courtesy Mark Lehner


One last question: How did these three pharaohs, Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure—father, son, and grandson—manage to pull this off?

Ha! That is a good question, probably the central question of all: How did these pharaohs pull it off? In an age when it took one to two weeks to get from one end of Egypt to another, when there were no bar codes, no cell phones, no Internet, no electricity, no refrigeration for the meat. How did they know how many people were out there, who had done their rotation and who hadn't, and so on?

"What's really interesting is not how the Egyptians built the Pyramids but how the Pyramids helped build Egypt."

It's the central question for Egyptologists, archeologists, anthropologists. How did these early states—which as I said were basically a single powerful family, a royal house—how did they mobilize their labor?

What do you believe?

Increasingly, I believe it was a kind of bucket brigade. We have a fair estimate of the number of villages that were out there in Egypt. There probably couldn't have been many more than 2,000 or 3,000 villages in all of northern and southern Egypt. That's how many there were in medieval times when people actually did counts. So it's not intractable to keep track of 3,000 villages.

Sphinx with Great Pyramids
It's hard to believe that the three Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and their associated temples and other monuments were all built in a period lasting only a few generations.
© Mark Bussell/Providence Pictures

But they probably didn't do it that way. Probably it was a bucket brigade where they relied on the leaders of the districts, what they called nomes. Those nome leaders, each of whom was also likely mayor of the principal town in a district, went to the heads of the villages. As has always been the case throughout Egyptian history, the heads of the villages, the sheikhs, were responsible for the people within their villages. The sheikh of a village then sent the allotment of workers or grain or whatever was required in the obligatory labor and goods to the nome leader, who then sent it up the line to this huge thing that was happening at the core, at the center.

And all this happened in such a short period of time.

Yes! The irony is that these huge Pyramids that are the classic Pyramids in popular imagination only lasted for about three generations—really, Senefru, Khufu, Khafre, and you can throw Menkaure in there. Thereafter, pyramids became very small and standardized.

And what was happening is that the centripetal force of the entire Egyptian nation feeding the core through this bucket brigade, the core being Giza for three generations—that process, including the socialization of everybody coming and seeing everybody as a nation and then spinning off back to their villages, that started a centrifugal force that allowed the provinces to develop. Suddenly you start to see these sheikhs of the villages and the leaders of the district town building their own big tombs. They become like little pharaohs in their own right.

That's why, in a sense, what's really interesting is not how the Egyptians built the Pyramids but how the Pyramids helped build Egypt.