Who were the pyramid builders?
After comparing DNA samples taken from the workers’ bones with samples taken from modern Egyptians, Dr Moamina Kamal of Cairo University Medical School has suggested that Khufu’s pyramid was a truly nationwide project, with workers drawn to Giza from all over Egypt. She has discovered no trace of any alien race; human or intergalactic, as suggested in some of the more imaginative ‘pyramid theories’.
Effectively, it seems, the pyramid served both as a gigantic training project and – deliberately or not – as a source of ‘Egyptianisation’. The workers who left their communities of maybe 50 or 100 people, to live in a town of 15,000 or more strangers, returned to the provinces with new skills, a wider outlook and a renewed sense of national unity that balanced the loss of loyalty to local traditions. The use of shifts of workers spread the burden and brought about a thorough redistribution of pharaoh’s wealth in the form of rations.
Almost every family in Egypt was either directly or indirectly involved in pyramid building. The pyramid labourers were clearly not slaves. They may well have been the unwilling victims of the corvée or compulsory labour system, the system that allowed the pharaoh to compel his people to work for three or four month shifts on state projects. If this is the case, we may imagine that they were selected at random from local registers.
But, in a complete reversal of the story of oppression told by Herodotus, Lehner and Hawass have suggested that the labourers may have been volunteers. Zahi Hawass believes that the symbolism of the pyramid was already strong enough to encourage people to volunteer for the supreme national project. Mark Lehner has gone further, comparing pyramid building to American Amish barn raising, which is done on a volunteer basis. He might equally well have compared it to the staffing of archaeological digs, which tend to be manned by enthusiastic, unpaid volunteers supervised by a few paid professionals.
The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh’s Workforce by AR David (Boston and Henley, London, 1986)
I’d be a lot happier if I could see the DNA results from the source.