The Pyramids were not built by slaves

A scene from Cecil DeMille's Ten Commandments - cinematic but not terribly accurate

A scene from Cecil DeMille’s Ten Commandments – cinematic but not terribly accurate

A 2003 article in Harvard Magazine on the life of the Archeaologist Mark Lehner notes that:

Rooted firmly in the popular imagination is the idea that the pyramids were built by slaves serving a merciless pharaoh. This notion of a vast slave class in Egypt originated in Judeo-Christian tradition and has been popularized by Hollywood productions like Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, in which a captive people labor in the scorching sun beneath the whips of pharaoh’s overseers.

This was certainly my image though it owes more to childhood viewings of the Prince of Egypt than anything else. To be fair this idea took root for a good reason: Herodotus stated that the builders of the pyramids were indeed slaves.

However, as the Harvard Magazine article goes on to explain discoveries by Lehner and his colleagues that the workers ate meat and that there were extensive bakeries on the sight cast doubt on this theory.

There were slaves in Egypt, says Lehner, but the discovery that pyramid workers were fed like royalty buttresses other evidence that they were not slaves at all, at least in the modern sense of the word. Harvard’s George Reisner found workers’ graffiti early in the twentieth century that revealed that the pyramid builders were organized into labor units with names like “Friends of Khufu” or “Drunkards of Menkaure.” Within these units were five divisions (their roles still unknown)—the same groupings, according to papyrus scrolls of a later period, that served in the pyramid temples. We do know, Lehner says, that service in these temples was rendered by a special class of people on a rotating basis determined by those five divisions. Many Egyptologists therefore subscribe to the hypothesis that the pyramids were also built by a rotating labor force in a modular, team-based kind of organization.

If not slaves, then who were these workers? Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been excavating a “workers’ cemetery” just above Lehner’s city on the plateau, sees forensic evidence in the remains of those buried there that pyramid building was hazardous business. Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer, says Lehner, lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. “People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice.” Plug that into the pyramid context, says Lehner, “and you have to say, ‘This is a hell of a barn!’”

Lehner currently thinks Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a lord. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy. “But it doesn’t really work as a word for slavery,” he says. “Even the highest officials owed bak.”

This view was confirmed in 2010 when the tombs of the workers were unearthed.

“These tombs were built beside the king’s pyramid, which indicates these people were not by any means slaves,” Zahi Hawass, the chief archaeologist heading the Egyptian excavation team, said in a statement. “If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs beside their king’s.”


Though they were not slaves, the pyramid builders led a life of hard labor, said Adel Okasha, supervisor of the excavation. Their skeletons have signs of arthritis, and their lower vertebrae point to a life passed in difficulty, he said. “Their bones tell us the story of how hard they worked,” Okasha said.

10 thoughts on “The Pyramids were not built by slaves

  1. Pingback: USA: famous Egyptian Egyptologist Hawass treated as ‘terrorist’ | Dear Kitty. Some blog
  2. Presenting a theory as fact is stupid. This is a theory. Many people have different theories. Bottom line. We do not have evidence to support any of the theories fully. So do be so kind as not to present your theories as fact. Because that is wholly unprofessional.

      • He did. He called out your Theory being presented as fact. Graffiti trumps thousands of years of historical record? Is it not possible that both stories are true? That some workers were free men and some were captives? or is your theory that Egypt was the one place in the world ,at that time, that didn’t use slaves? Interesting conjecture but not scientific.

      • is your theory that Egypt was the one place in the world ,at that time, that didn’t use slaves

        Didn’t you read?

        There were slaves in Egypt, says Lehner, but the discovery that pyramid workers were fed like royalty buttresses other evidence that they were not slaves at all

        So the theory isn’t that the Egyptians didn’t use slaves, simply that they didn’t use them to build pyramids. They certainly could have used them as household slaves, or agricultural labour.

        And while it’s easy to come up with conjectures for why this might be true (the pyramids, after all, were houses for dead pharaohs, and another word for ‘dead pharaohs’ was ‘gods’, so perhaps slaves were not worthy to be involved in the building of such divine dwellings) the truth is there’s hardly any evidence either way. To claim that they pyramids were built by slaves is just as baseless as to claim they weren’t: we simply don’t know.

        The idea of vast armies of slaves building pyramids seems to be based on the idea that, hey, if we were building huge buildings and we had slaves, then we’d get the slaves to build the buildings, right? Just like in Dubai with football stadia.

        But the Egyptians are not us, and pyramids are not football grounds. Who knows how cultural practices and attitudes may have differed? Perhaps being involved in building a pyramid was seen as being a great honour, while irrigating a field was just donkey-work, so you’d use your slaves to do the later but send your sons to do the former.

        We just don’t know.

  3. Ye know, all those workers building skyscrapers and hotels in Dubai and all those workers in FOXCONN assembling iphones, do not look like slaves but they actually are.
    Any worker who is denied human rights in some form or the other (incld Intl Labour Laws) is a “slave worker”. BTW Slave Worker and SLAVE is two very different words.

    • Any worker who is denied human rights in some form or the other (incld Intl Labour Laws) is a “slave worker”.

      Oooh, what international labour laws applied in Egypt in 2500BC?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s