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Who Built the Pyramids?

Egyptologists and historians have long debated the question of who built the Pyramids, and how. Standing at the base of the Pyramids at Giza it is hard to believe that any of these enormous monuments could have been built in one pharaoh's lifetime. Yet scholars think they were built over mere decades for three pharaohs who were father, son, and grandson (Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure).

3 pyramids
Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass agree wholeheartedly: Egyptians built the Pyramids. But who were they exactly?© Ugurhan Betin/iStockphoto

Egyptologists Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass have been trying to solve the puzzle of where the 20,000 or 30,000 laborers who are thought to have built the Pyramids lived. Ultimately, they hope to learn more about the workforce, their daily lives, and perhaps where they came from. In the meantime, Lehner has been excavating the bakeries that presumably fed this army of workers, while Hawass has been unearthing the cemetery for this grand labor force.

The two scholars believe that Giza housed a skeleton crew of workers who labored on the Pyramids year-round. But during the late summer and early autumn months, when the Nile flooded surrounding fields, a large labor force would appear at Giza to put in time on the Pyramids. These farmers and local villagers gathered at Giza to work for their god-kings, to build their monuments to the hereafter. This would ensure their own afterlife and would also benefit the future and prosperity of Egypt as a whole. They may well have been willing workers, a labor force working for ample rations, for the benefit of man, king, and country.

In the following interviews, Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass address the long-standing question of who actually built the Pyramids at Giza:

Mark on Khufu
"Every time I go back to Giza my respect increases for those people and that society, that they could do it," Mark Lehner, here standing atop the Khufu Pyramid, says of the ancient Egyptians who built the Pyramids.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

INTERVIEW WITH MARK LEHNER, Archeologist, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and Harvard Semitic Museum

People power

NOVA: In your extensive work and research at Giza have you ever once questioned whether humans built the Pyramids?

Mark Lehner: No. But have I ever questioned whether they had divine or super-intelligent inspiration? I first went to Egypt in 1972 and ended up living there 13 years. I was imbued with ideas of Atlantis and Edgar Cayce and so on. So I went over, starting from that point of view, but everything I saw told me, day by day, year by year, that they were very human and the marks of humanity are everywhere on them.

And you see there's this curious reversal where sometimes New Age theorists say that Egyptologists and archeologists are denigrating the ancient culture. They sometimes put up a scarecrow argument that we say they were primitive. And the New Agers sometimes want to say these were very technologically sophisticated people who built these things; they were not primitive. Well, actually there's a certain irony here, because they say they were very sophisticated technological civilizations and societies that built the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and yet they weren't the ones that we find. So to me, it's these suggestions that are really denigrating the people whose names, bodies, family relationships, tools, and bakeries we actually find.

Everything that I have found convinces me more and more that indeed it is this society that built the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Every time I go back to Giza my respect increases for those people and that society, that they could do it. You see, to me it's even more fascinating that they did this. And that by doing this they contributed something to the human career and its overall development. Rather than just copping out and saying, "There's no way they could have done this." I think that denigrates the people whose evidence we actually find.

Who carved the Sphinx? Lehner and others believe it was Khafre, the builder of the second Great Pyramid.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Number theory

Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote that 100,000 workers built the Pyramids, while modern Egyptologists come up with a figure more like 20,000 or 30,000 workers. Can you explain that?

Well, first of all, Herodotus just claims he was told that. He said, 100,000 men working in three shifts, which raises some doubt, I guess, if you read it in the original Greek, as to whether it's three shifts of 100,000 men each or whether you subdivide the 100,000 men. But my own approach to this stems to some extent from "This Old Pyramid." [In this NOVA program, a crew attempts to build a small pyramid at Giza.] Certainly we didn't replicate ancient technology 100 percent, because there's no way we could replicate the entire ancient society that surrounded this technology. Our stones were delivered by a flatbed truck as opposed to barges; we didn't reconstruct the barges that brought the 60-ton granite blocks from Aswan. So basically what we were doing is, as we say in the film and in the accompanying book, that we're setting up the ability to test particular tools, techniques, and operations, without testing the entire building project.

"In a NOVA experiment we found that 12 men could pull a one-and-a-half-ton block over a slick surface with great ease."

One of the things that most impressed me, though, was the fact that in 21 days, 12 men in bare feet, living out in the Eastern Desert, opened a new quarry in about the time we needed stone for our NOVA Pyramid, and in 21 days they quarried 186 stones. Now, they did it with an iron cable and a winch that pulled the stone away from the quarry wall, and all their tools were iron. But other than that they did it by hand.

Man digging
Even today, over 4,500 years since Khufu's time, Egyptian masons use hand tools to chip out narrow trenches in limestone to make blocks.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

So I said, taking just a raw figure, if 12 men in bare feet—they lived in a lean-to shelter, day and night, out there—if they can quarry 186 stones in 21 days, let's do the simple math and see, just in a very raw simplistic calculation, how many men were required to deliver 340 stones a day, which is what you would have to deliver to the Khufu Pyramid to build it in 20 years. And it comes out to between 400 and 500 men. Now, I was bothered by the iron tools, especially the iron winch that pulled the stone away from the quarry walls, so I said, let's put in an additional team of 20 men, so that 12 men become 32, and now let's run the equation. Well, it turns out that even if you give great leeway for the iron tools, all 340 stones could have been quarried in a day by something like 1,200 men. And that's quarried locally at Giza—most of the stone is local stone.

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So, then, because of our mapping and because of our approach where we looked at what is the shape of the ground here, where is the quarry, where is the Pyramid, where would the ramp have run, we could come up with a figure of how many men it would take to schlep the stones up to the Pyramid. Now it's often said that the stones were delivered at a rate of one every two minutes or so. And New Agers sometimes point that out as an impossibility for the Egyptians of Khufu's day. But the stones didn't go in one after another, you see. And you can actually work out the coefficient of friction or glide on a slick surface, how much an average stone weighed, how many men it would take to pull that. And in a NOVA experiment we found that 12 men could pull a one-and-a-half-ton block over a slick surface with great ease. And then you could come up with very conservative estimates as to the number of men it would take to pull an average-sized block the distance from the quarry, which we know, to the Pyramid. And you could even factor in different configurations of the ramp, which would give you a different length.

block on rollers 3
During the making of the NOVA film "This Old Pyramid," Egyptian workers successfully pulled a large limestone block along using wooden rollers. Did the ancients use such a technique?
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Well, working in such ways—and I challenge anybody to join in the challenge—it comes out that you can actually get the delivery that you need. You need 340 stones delivered every day, and that's 34 stones every hour in a ten-hour day, right? Thirty-four stones can get delivered by x number of gangs of 20 men, and it comes out to something like 2,000, somewhere in that area. We can go over the exact figures. So now we've got 1,200 men in the quarry, which is a very generous estimate, 2,000 men delivering. So that's 3,200. Okay, how about men cutting the stones and setting them? Well, it's different between the core stones which were set with great slop factor, and the casing stones which were custom cut and set, one to another, with so much accuracy that you can't get a knife blade in between the joints. So there's a difference there. But let's gloss over that for a moment.

Nuts and bolts

One of the things the NOVA experiment showed me that no book could is just how many men can get their hands a two- or three-ton block. You can't have 50 men working on one block; you can only get about four or five, six guys at most, working on a block—say, two on levers, cutters, and so on. You put pivots under it, and as few as two or three guys can pivot it around if you put a hard cobble under it. There are all these tricks they know. But it's just impossible to get too many men on a block. So then you figure out how many stones have to be set to keep up with this rate, to do it all in 20 years. It actually requires 5,000 or fewer men, including the stone-setters. Now, the stone-setting gets a bit complicated because of the casing, and you have one team working from each corner and another team working in the middle of each face for the casing and then the core. And I'm going to gloss over that.

But the challenge is out there: 5,000 men to actually do the building and the quarrying and the schlepping from the local quarry. This doesn't count the men cutting the granite and shipping it from Aswan or the men over in Tura [ancient Egypt's principal limestone quarry, east of Giza]. That increases the numbers somewhat, and that's what things like NOVA's series on ancient technologies really bring home, I think. No, we're not recreating ancient society and ancient Pyramid-building 100 percent, probably not even 60 percent. But we are showing some nuts and bolts that are very useful and insightful, far more than all the armchair theorizing.

Mark up high
"We are showing some nuts and bolts that are very useful and insightful, far more than all the armchair theorizing," Lehner says of his team's effort to understand the mechanics of pyramid-building. Here, he appears high on the Khafre Pyramid.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Now, just recently I was contacted by the construction firm DMJM. The initials stand for Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, and it's one of the largest construction firms; they're working right now on the Pentagon. One of the senior vice presidents decided to take on for a formal address for fellow engineers a program management study of the Great Pyramid. So these are not guys lifting boilers in Manhattan; these are senior civil engineers with one of the largest construction corporations in the United States. I'm sure they'd be happy to go on record with their study, which looked at what they call "critical path analysis." What do you need to get the job done? What tools did they have?

They contacted me and other Egyptologists, and we gave them some references. Here's what we know about their tools, the inclined plane, the lever, and so on. And without any secret sophistication or hidden technology, just basically what archeologists say, this is what these folks had. DMJM came up with 4,000 to 5,000 men could build the Great Pyramid within a 20- to 40-year period. They have very specific calculations on every single aspect, from the gravel for the ramps to baking the bread.

"The Friends of Khufu Gang.' That doesn't sound like slavery, does it?"

I throw that out there, not because that's gospel truth, but because reasoned construction engineers, who plan great projects like bridges and buildings and earthworks today, look at the Great Pyramid and don't opt out for lost civilizations, extraterrestrials, or hidden technologies. No, they say it's a very impressive job, extraordinary for the people who lived then and there, but it could be done. They are human monuments.

red graffiti
Some of the ancient graffiti found deep inside the Great Pyramid
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Gangs and graffiti

You've made reference to inscriptions at Giza that indicate who built the Pyramids. What do the inscriptions say?

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence we have is graffiti on ancient stone monuments in places that they didn't mean to be shown. Like on foundations when we dig down below the floor level, up in the relieving chambers above the King's chamber in the Great Pyramid, and in many monuments of the Old Kingdom—temples, other pyramids. Well, the graffiti gives us a picture of organization where a gang of workmen was organized into two crews, and the crews were subdivided into five phyles. Phyles is the Greek word for tribe.

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The phyles are subdivided into divisions, and the divisions are identified by single hieroglyphs with names that mean things like endurance, perfection, strong. Okay, so how do we know this? You come to a block of stone in the relieving chambers above the King's chamber. First of all, you see this cartouche of a King and then some scrawls all in red paint after it. That's the gang name. And in the Old Kingdom in the time of the Pyramids of Giza, the gangs were named after kings. So, for example, we have a name, compounded with the name of Menkaure, and it seems to translate "the Drunks (or the Drunkards) of Menkaure." There's one that's well-attested, in the relieving chambers above the King's chamber in the Great Pyramid, "the Friends of Khufu Gang." This doesn't sound like slavery, does it?

In fact, it gets more intriguing, because in certain monuments you find the name of one gang on one side of the monument and another gang, we assume competing, on the other side of the monument. You find that to some extent in the Pyramid temple of Menkaure. It's as though these gangs are competing. So from this evidence we deduce that there was a labor force that was assigned to respective crew, gang, phyles, and divisions.

Meidum Pyramid
The Meidum Pyramid, which villagers brought up the Nile from the south by boat would have seen before arriving in Giza to work on the Pyramids
© WGBH Educational Foundation

A Pyramid-raising

Where did the gangs come from? Were they local people, or did they travel from afar?

There's some evidence to suggest that people were rotated in and out of the raw labor force. So you could be a young man in a village, say, in Middle Egypt, and you had never seen more than a few hundred people in your village, maybe at market day or something. And the King's men come, and it may not have been entirely coercion, but it seems that everybody owed a labor tax. We don't know if it was entirely coercive, or if, in fact, part of it was a natural community donation as in the Incan Empire, for example, to building projects where they had a great party and so on. But, anyway, they started keeping track of people and their time on the royal labor project.

And if you were brought from a distance, you were brought by boat. Can you imagine floating down the Nile and—say you're working on Khafre's Pyramid—and you float past the Great Pyramid of Meidum and the Pyramids of Dashur, and, my God, you've never seen anything like this. These are the hugest things. We're talking about a society where they didn't have cameras, you didn't see yourself age. You didn't see great images. And so here are these stupendous, gigantic things thrust up to the sky, their polished white limestone blazing in the sunshine. And then they go on down to Giza, and they come around this corner, actually the corner of the Wall of the Crow, right into the harbor, and there's the Khufu Pyramid, the biggest thing on the planet actually in the way of a building until the turn of the 20th century.

And you see, for the first time in your life, not a few hundred, but thousands, probably, of workers and people as well as industries of all kinds. You're rotated into this experience, and you serve in your respective crew, gang, phyles, and divisions, and then you're rotated out, and you go back because you have your own large household to whom you are assigned on a kind of an estate-organized society. You have your own village, maybe you even have your own land that you're responsible for. So you're rotated back, but you're not the same. You have seen the central principle of the first nation-state in our planet's history—the Pyramids, the centralization, this organization. They must have been powerful socializing forces. Anyway, we think that that was the experience of the raw recruits.

Pyramid & Cairo
The Great Pyramid of Giza, with ancient tombs at its base and modern Cairo stretching off to the east
© WGBH Educational Foundation

But there must have been a cadre of very seasoned laborers who really knew how to cut stone so fine that you could join them without getting a razor blade in between. Perhaps they were the stone-cutters and -setters, and the experienced quarry men at the quarry wall. And the people who rotated in and out were those doing all the different raw labor, not only the schlepping of the stone but preparing gypsum. We don't know to what extent the other industries were also organized in the phyles system. But it's quite an amazing picture.

And one of the things that is motivating me now is the question of what vision of society is suggested by a pyramid like Khufu's? Was it, in fact, coercive? Was it a militaristic kind of state WPA project? Or is it possible that we could find evidence that would bring Egypt into line with what we know of other traditional ancient societies? Like when the Inca build a bridge, and every household winds its twine together, and the twine of all the households in the village are wound into the villages' contribution to the rope. And the rope on the great day of bridge-building is wound into a great cable, and all the villages' cables are wound into this virtual bridge. Or in Mesopotamia we know that they built great mud-brick city walls by the clans turning out and giving their contribution, a kind of organic, natural community involvement in the building project. I wonder if that wasn't the case with the Great Pyramid of Khufu. You know, it's almost like an Amish barnraising—but, of course, the Great Pyramid of Khufu is one hell of a barn.

Khafre stone statue
Statue of the pharaoh Khafre in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Look no further

Some of the theories of who built the Pyramids suggest that the builders may not have been from Egypt. How do you respond to that?

One thing that strikes me when I read about these ideas—that it couldn't have been the Egyptians of the Fourth Dynasty who built the Pyramids and the Sphinx, it had to have been an older civilization—I think about those claims and then I look at the marvelous statue of Khafre with the Horus falcon at the back of his head [in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo]. I look at the sublime ship of Khufu that was found buried south of the Pyramid. We know that these objects date from the time of Khafre and Khufu. And I think, my God, this was a great civilization. This was as great as it comes in terms of art and sculpture and building ships from any place on the planet, in the whole repertoire of ancient cultures. Why is there such a need to look for yet another culture, to say, "No, it wasn't these people, it was some civilization that's lost, even older."

To some extent I think we feel the need to look for a lost civilization on time's other horizon because we feel lost in our civilization, and somehow we don't want to face the little man behind the curtain as you had in "The Wizard of Oz." We want the great and powerful wizard with all the sound and fury. You know, go get me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. We want that sound and fury. We always want more out of the past than it really is.

Zahi Hawass
"It's very important to prove how the Pyramid was built," says Zahi Hawass, who has been excavating the workers' cemetery for clues to how they lived—and died.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

INTERVIEW WITH ZAHI HAWASS, Director General of Giza

Builders? Egyptians.

Let's address the question of who built the Pyramids.

ZAHI HAWASS: We are lucky because we found this whole evidence of the workmen who built the Pyramids. We found the artisans. Mark found the bakery, and we found this settlement of the camp, and hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Overseer of the Site of the Pyramid, the Overseer of the West Side of the Pyramid. We found the craftsmen, the man who makes the statue of the Overseer of the Craftsmen, the Inspector of Building Tombs, Director of Building Tombs—I'm telling you all the titles. We found 25 unique new titles connected with these people.

Then who built the Pyramids? It was the Egyptians who built the Pyramids. The Great Pyramid is dated with all the evidence, I'm telling you now, to 4,600 years, the reign of Khufu. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is one of 104 Pyramids in Egypt with superstructure, and there are 54 Pyramids with substructure. There is support that the builders of the Pyramids were Egyptians. They are not the Jews as has been said. They are not people from a lost civilization. They are not from outer space. They are Egyptian, and their skeletons are here and were examined by scholars and doctors. The race of all the people we found are completely supporting that they are Egyptians.

The Greek historian Herodotus claimed in 500 B.C. that 100,000 people built the Pyramids, and yet modern Egyptologists believe the figure to be more like 20,000 to 30,000.

Herodotus, when he came here, met guides who told stories and things like that. But I personally believe that, based on the size of the settlement and the whole work of an area that we found, I believe that permanent and temporary workmen who worked at building the Pyramid were 36,000.

Men pulling stone (relief)
Hawass believes that some pyramid-builders worked permanently for the king, while others were rotated in and out on a temporary basis throughout the year.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

How do you come to that number?

I come to that number based on the size of the Pyramid project, a government project, the size of the tombs, the cemetery. We know we can excavate the cemetery for hundreds of years—generations after generations can work in the cemetery—and the second is the settlement area. I really believe there were permanent workmen who were working for the king. They were paid by the king. These are the technicians who cut the stones, and there are workmen who move the stones and they come and work in rotation. At the same time there are the people who live near the Pyramids that don't need to live at the Pyramids. They come by early in the morning and they work 14 hours, from sunrise to sunset.

The working poor

From your excavations of the workers' cemetery you say you found skeletons. Did you analyze the bones, and if so, what did you learn about the workmen?

We found 600 skeletons. And we found that those people, number one, they were Egyptians, the same like you see in every cemetery in Egypt. Number two, we found evidence that those people had emergency treatment. They had accidents while building the Pyramids. We found 12 skeletons who had accidents with their hands, and they supported the two sides of the hand with wood. And we have another one, a stone fell down on his leg, and they did a kind of operation, they cut his leg, and he lived 14 years after that.

Khafre from top of Khufu
"The Pyramid, you know, has magic, it has mystery," says Hawass. Here, Khafre's Pyramid as seen from the top of that of his father, Khufu.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

How do you know that?

Because we have a team here from the National Research Center who are doctors, and they use X-rays to find all the evidence about age. They found that the age of death for those workmen was from 30 to 35. Those are the people who really built the Pyramids, the poor Egyptians.

"Mark Lehner and I are excavating around the Pyramids to tell the world the truth."

It's very important to prove how the Pyramid was built. The Pyramid, you know, has magic, it has mystery. It's a structure that was built 4,600 years ago. There is no accurate book until now that really explained all of that. All the theorists, in other books, say that the stones were taken from Tura about five miles to the east of the Pyramid. This is not true. All the stones have been taken from the plateau, except the casing stones that came from Tura, and the granite in the burial chamber that came from Aswan. But the magic of the Pyramid makes people think about it. An amateur comes by and looks at this structure and doesn't know the mechanics. The cult of the Egyptians, the religion, the Pyramid—it's all part of a whole civilization.

Telling the truth

There is an inscription above Khufu's burial chamber that identifies the Pyramid as that of Khufu. Some people claim that is a fake inscription. Can you comment on that?

They say that the inscriptions inside the five relieving chambers are fake. Fine. I went last week, and we lighted all of them. It has been never lighted before. We did beautiful lighting. Then we can read each single inscription.

block on rollers 1
As far as Zahi Hawass is concerned, these Egyptians are the direct descendants of the people who erected the Pyramids 4,600 years ago.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

And what do they say?

The workmen who were involved in building the Great Pyramid were divided into gangs or groups, and each group had a name and an overseer. They wrote the names of the gangs. And 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. It's like today. If you go to any village you will understand the system of ancient Egyptians. When you build a dam or a big house, people will come to help you. They will work free for you. The households will send food to feed the workmen. And when they build their houses, you will do the same for them.

That's why the Pyramid was the national project of Egypt, because everyone had to participate in building this Pyramid. By food, by workmen, this way the building of the Pyramid was something that everyone felt the need to participate in. Really it was love—they were not really pushed to do it. When the king took the throne, the people had to be ready to participate in building the Pyramid. And when they finished it, they celebrated. That's why even now in modern Egypt we still do celebrations when we finish any project, because that's exactly what happened in ancient Egypt.

But what about the incriptions in the relieving chambers in Khufu and the claim that they were not written in the time of Khufu?

They say that these inscriptions were written by people who entered inside. And if you go and see them they are typical graffiti that can be seen around every pyramid in Egypt, because the workmen around the Pyramid left this. I would like those people who talked about this to come with me. I will take them personally to the rooms. First of all, they say that only the second room is inscribed. It's not true—all the five relieving chambers are inscribed. Number two, there are some inscriptions there that could not be written by anyone except the workmen who put them there. You cannot reach those spots. It had to be the men who put the block there. Mark Lehner and I are excavating around the Pyramids to tell the world the truth, because we believe the public has the right to know the truth.

Editor's Notes

This feature originally appeared on NOVA's Pyramids site.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the NOVA Science Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.