What is important to me is that I have the great good fortune to spend my days doing something I love, and being given the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

— Zahi Hawass

The Cemetery of the Pyramid Builders
April 15, 1990 (All day)

Many people have claimed that the pyramids were built by slaves, or even by aliens. In the past, it was difficult to convince the public that it was actually ordinary Egyptians who constructed these great monuments. With the discovery of the Cemetery of the Pyramid Builders, however, I was finally able to reveal the truth to people around the world.  

Searching for the Pyramid Builders

In my 1987 doctoral dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania, I predicted that we should look for the tombs of the workmen who built the pyramids in the area to the south of an ancient stone wall known as the Wall of the Crow (Heit El-Ghurob). This wall lies to the south of the Great Sphinx, and I theorized that it had been built to separate the area where the workmen lived and were buried from the royal necropolis that they had labored to construct. Earlier excavations south of the wall had found traces of the activities of workmen. Egyptian archeaologist Selim Hassan found architectural remains, along with a few potsherds and 4th Dynasty seal impressions, in the 1930's when he was helping the local villagers to find an alternative site for their cemetery. In the late 1980's my friend Mark Lehner and I excavated to the southeast of the wall. We found the remains of what we thought might be granaries, although we did not see any sign of tombs. We left the area without exploring further to concentrate on other things. Although we were beginning to see signs of the daily lives of the pyramid builders, the location of their tombs was still a mystery. 


The Great Discovery

In April of 1990, I was sitting in my office at Giza when a guard came to tell me that an American tourist had been thrown from her horse when the animal stumbled over the remains of a mud-brick wall. The guard took me and my assistant Mansour Boraik to the site - south of the Wall of the Crow, in an undeveloped area of desert only about thirty feet from where Mark and I had been digging a few years earlier. As soon as I saw the place, I knew that we had found the tombs, just as I had predicted! This was truly an important discovery, which in many ways had even deeper implications for Egypt and Egyptology than the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. With the discovery of the Cemetery of the Pyramid Builders, the world could finally know the names and faces of the ordinary Egyptians who made the monuments of Giza a reality. Even their settlements, isolated traces of which had emerged years earlier, could not shed as much light as their tombs on their identities and their daily lives. Finally, archaeology could answer people who alleged that the ancient Egyptians were not capable of such achievements in engineering with evidence of the real men and women who built the pyramids.  


The Tombs

The Cemetery of the Pyramid Builders is divided into two parts: an Upper Cemetery for high-status artisans and overseers, and a Lower Cemetery for the everyday workers. It was the Lower Cemetery that we discovered first. The wall that the horse stumbled over in 1990 belonged to the tomb chapel of a man named Ptah-shepsesu. Crude hieroglyphs scrawled on the false doors identified the tomb owner and his wife. At the back of the chamber were three burial shafts for the man, his wife, and, probably, their son. In front of the tomb was a square courtyard with low walls of broken limestone. While not in the style of the great stone mastaba tombs of nobles beside the pyramids, Ptah-shepsesu's tomb and courtyard are grand in comparison to others that we have uncovered around it. Pieces of granite, basalt, and diorite, stones used in the pyramid temples, had been incorporated into the walls. Such material suggests that the workers made use of stone left over from the construction of the pyramids, temples, and tombs of Giza. Attached to Ptah-shepsesu's tomb were small shaft burials of people who probably worked under him.  

As we excavated the lower cemetery, we came upon a ramp that ran up the slope to the west to an upper level of burials. These upper tombs are larger and more elaborate than those of the lower part of the cemetery. Many are completely rock-cut or have a stone facade in front of a low cliff face. Others are built of limestone and mud brick in the mastaba style. We found higher quality artifacts and statuary in these tombs, and the painted and inscribed false doors are also superior to the scrawled texts from the lower tombs. The skeletal remains, as in the lower cemetery, were found in shafts two to three feet underground, most in a fetal position, and many in wooden coffins.

Titles such as "overseer of the side of the pyramid," "director of the draftsmen," "overseer of masonry," "director of workers," and "inspector of the craftsmen" are another indication that those buried in the upper part of the cemetery were of higher status than the people buried below. Perhaps the most important title we found was the "director of the king's work." I believe some of these are the tombs of the artisans who designed and decorated the Giza pyramid complexes and the administrators who oversaw their construction.

The ramp from the lower cemetery led to a small rectangular court with wails of broken limestone. A shorter second ramp, its floor paved with mud and stone rubble and its side walls made of limestone and granite pieces, extended from the west wall of the court. Pottery from this ramp and court dates to the end of Dynasty 4 and the beginning of Dynasty 5. A mud seal impression found in the bed of the ramp can be read as Djed-khau (Enduring of Diadems), one of the official names of Djedkare Isesi, a pharaoh of Dynasty 5. This is a chronological indicator suggesting that much of this cemetery dates a few generations after the kings who built the Giza pyramids.

At the end of the second ramp were two children's graves with no offerings, and a mastaba tomb. Built of limestone and similar in style to those of Dynasty 4, the tomb had six burial shafts sunk through it and two false doors carved on its eastern face. The ramp from the lower cemetery reminded us of the causeways that led from the Nile Valley to the pyramids on the high plateau. The court could be compared to the pyramid valley temple, while the mastaba took the place of a pyramid. Attached to the mastaba tomb, but separate from it, was a room cut into the bedrock. Inside was an intact burial with pottery. A niche carved into the west side of the chamber was sealed, except for a small hole, with limestone, mud bricks, and mud mortar. We peered inside and were astonished to see the eyes of a statue staring back at us. We were even more surprised when we removed the mud bricks and limestone blocks and found not one but four statues: a large one in the middle flanked by two smaller ones to the right and one to the left. There had two on the left, but one, made of wood, had disintegrated into a heap of powder. All four surviving statues are inscribed, "the overseer of the boat of the goddess Neith, the king's acquaintance, Inty-shedu," it seems that Inty-shedu was a carpenter who made boats for the king or the goddess Neith. The middle statue shows Inty-shedu at the time of his death. The standing statue to the right and the surviving statue to the left depict him in his youth. The seated statue to the right depicts him at an older age. The artist carved each face to indicate a stage of life and sculpted muscles and shoulders to show corresponding strength. This group of five statues recalls the five statues of the pharaohs placed in most pyramid temples from the time of Khafre to the end of the Old Kingdom.

One of the more interesting artisans' tombs is that of Nefer-theith and his wife Nefer-hetepes. Though simple, it is inscribed with beautiful hieroglyphic writing. It contains three limestone false doors and stelae with the name of the deceased, his two wives, and his 18 children. The false doors of his tomb are unique for their scenes of grain grinding, and bread and beer making. Was Nefer-theith the supervisor for the bakery recently found in the plain below? There is also a list of feast days and offerings for the deceased including bread, beer, birds, and oxen. On the false door of Nefer-hetepes, his primary wife, is a list that records offerings of natron (a combination of baking soda and salt used in mummification), sacred water, oil, incense, kohl (black eye paint), 14 types of bread, cakes, onions, beef, grain, figs and other fruits, beer, and wine. Nefer-hetepes held the title "one known by the king, weaver." On the third false door, two stelae represent Nefer-theith standing while below him a man makes beer and another person pours it into four jars.

The tomb of a man named Petety has a unique form with three open courts. In contrast to Nefer-theith and his wives, Petety and his wife Nesy-Sokar are depicted separately. A priestess of the goddess Hathor, Nesy-Sokar is also described as beloved of the goddess, Neith. She is shown standing on the doorjamb of the chapel in the traditional pose: one arm raised on her breast and the other behind her back. She wears a tight dress that leaves the breasts bare, a collar, and a broad necklace. Her hair is divided in front and behind her shoulders. The artist has portrayed her with her head tilted slightly up and forward, perhaps a realistic touch caused by wearing the wide, tight collar. This gives her face a bold and confident expression enhanced by the darkly outlined eye.

On either side of the entrance to the tomb we found examples of hieroglyphic curses to protect it. Petety's curse reads:

Listen all of you! The priest of Hathor will beat twice any one of you who enters this tomb or does harm to it.
The gods will confront him because I am honored by his Lord.
The gods will not allow anything to happen to me.
Anyone who does anything bad to my tomb, then (the) crocodile, (the) hippopotamus, and the lion will eat him.

Based on the pottery, names, and titles found in association with the tombs, the cemetery was begun as early as the reign of Khufu in Dynasty 4 and continued through the end of Dynasty 5, from ca. 2551 to 2323 B.C. The cemetery probably extends across the escarpment above the low desert plain where we have found production and storage facilities. It seems to be an Old Kingdom version of the New Kingdom (ca.1500-1163 B.C.) cemetery at Deir el-Medineh, where workers who excavated and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were buried. We believe that so far we have found only 20 percent of the tombs buried under the sand along this slope.

None of the workers was mummified, a prerogative of royalty and nobility, but many tombs in this cemetery contained skeletal remains that tell us much about the lives of these people. Study of the remains by Azza Sarry el-Din and Fawziya Hussein of Egypt's National Research Center reveals that males and females were equally represented, mostly buried in fetal positions, with face to the east and head to the north. Many of the men died between age 30 and 35. Below the age of 30 a higher mortality was found in females than in males, a statistic undoubtedly reflecting the hazards of childbirth. Degenerative arthritis occurred in the vertebral column, particularly in the lumbar region, and in the knees. It was frequent and more severe than in the skeletons from the mastaba cemetery. Skeletons of both men and women, particularly those from the lower burials, show such signs of heavy labor. Simple and multiple limb fractures were found in skeletons from both the lower and upper burials. The most frequent were fractures of the ulna and radius, the bones of the upper arm, and of the fibula, the more delicate of the two lower leg bones. Most of the fractures had healed completely, with good realignment of the bone, indicating that the fractures had been set with a splint. We found two cases, both male, that suggested amputation - of a left leg and a right arm respectively. The healed ends of the bones indicate that the amputations were successful. Few other cases of amputation have been recorded in Egyptian archaeology. Depressed fractures of the frontal or parietal skull bones were found in skulls of both males and females. The parietal lesions tended to be left-sided, which may indicate that the injuries resulted from face to face assault by right-handed attackers.

We should contrast the evidence of the tombs and of medical treatment with the notion that pharaohs used slave labor to build the giant pyramids, an idea as old as Herodotus. The scenario of whip-drive slaves received support from the biblical account of Moses and the Exodus and the first-century A.D. historian Josephus. In our era, Cecil B. de Mille's galvanizing screen images reinforced this popular misconception. The pyramid builders were not slaves but peasants conscripted on a rotating part-time basis, working under the supervision of skilled artisans and craftsmen who not only built the pyramid complexes for the kings and nobility, but also designed and constructed their own, more modest tombs.

I hope that people who believe that the pyramids belong to lost civilization can read the story of this discovery and understand that until now, everything we have found at Giza dates the pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx to the 4th Dynasty, about 4600 years ago. 


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