Back in January 2010, I posted a link to an article on MSNBC which claimed that a new archaeological findings revealed the work was performed by skilled laborers who had the perks of a labor union.

Mark Shiffman, an assistant professor of Humanities at Villanova University wrote in yesterday to dispute the claim. With his permission I’ve reposted his reply below:


Ancient sources unanimously claim that the pyramids and Egypt’s grand construction projects were carried out by slave labor. The Greek historian Herodotus ( Histories 2.124) was told by Egyptian officials that 100,000 Egyptians (probably a number exaggerated to impress him) were forced by Cheops or Khufu to build his great pyramid in Giza. The Book of Exodus shows the Hebrews as slaves making bricks (though does not mention pyramids), and the ancient Jewish historian Josephus ( Antiquities , 2.9) makes the explicit claim that they did work as pyramid builders. These were all written over 1000 years after the fact.

In the 1990’s, archaeologists began to excavate the cemeteries around this pyramid. They found hundreds of tombs, many of high political and religious officials, but also many of construction overseers and artisans. They also began examining the remains of the fields and estimating from animal bones how much meat the workers ate.

Based on this evidence they concluded that the workers were well fed, and that the head workers and the skilled artisans were Egyptians with status. Graffiti also indicate that there were various work crews with different colorful names and rivalries with one another.

Now the hype enters in . The main spin doctor for the interpretation of this information is Dr. Zahi Hawass, serving at the time the story hit the press (January 2010) as Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. He has a PhD from Penn, which has one of the best archaeology programs in the world. He is also a political appointee with a flair for PR who has continually demonstrated his interest in boosting Egypt’s image. He worked for the recently ousted Mubarak, an autocratic ruler trying to project a democratic image. (He also had the misfortune to accept a higher cabinet position just before the recent protests, and now many of his critics are starting to speak out against him: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/is-the-face-of-egyptian-culture-the-next-to-topple/article1913442/ )

Hawass has an interest in pumping up the view that the ancient Egyptians loved their Pharaohs and were proud to work on their monuments: “And 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 to participate, and really it was love. They are not really pushed to do it. When the king takes the throne, the people have to be ready in participating in building the pyramid. And then when they finish it, they celebrate.”

In the same interview, the main American archaeologist on the excavation project (Dr. Mark Lehner, University of Chicago and Harvard) is more restrained:

“There’s some evidence to suggest that people were rotated in and out of the raw labor force. So that 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 . . . .

“Anyway, we think that that was the experience of the raw recruits. 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. And 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 . . . .”

In other words, the few at the top of the process, who have tombs near the pyramid (how many?) were skilled and recognized officials, and the rest (to bring the total up to anywhere from 5000 to 40,000) included conscripted Egyptian peasants and may or may not have included domestic or foreign slaves.

An Egyptian tourist site (apparently managed by an American company) proudly displays this interpretation in a fairly balanced, though ambiguously worded, version:

“Slaves there may have been. But the pyramids were built by Egyptians, by stonemasons, artisans, artists and craftsmen. While skilled craftsmen and management staff worked year round, farmers would come from the provinces during the inundation period to do the heavy work.”

Now comes in the sloppy reporting of these results .

MSNBC simply gives the world the interpretation of Hawass : We found tombs of the workers, and they were not slaves or foreigners, but respected Egyptians. No analysis, no questions raised.

Likewise the Times Discover and the Guardian do likewise, though they at least take the trouble of consulting other Egyptology experts (and the Guardian implies proper caution by putting “proof” in scare quotes).

Then the First Things site picks up the MSNBC report and gives it the headline:  Egyptian Pyramids Built by Union Workers, Not Slave Labor

In the article, however, we find the more modest claim: “the work was performed by skilled laborers who had the perks of a labor union: work only ninety days a year, eat steak and lamb every day, luxury burial benefits, etc.”

In other words, the workers (or at least some of them) were well fed and not worked to death and got respectable tombs. The suggestion of union organization in the headline is not in any of the evidence.

So a certain proportion (maybe 25%?) of the workers were Egyptians of high status, a large number of Egyptian peasants were ordered to come do the hard labor, and we don’t know how many slaves may have been employed in the work. Given the prevalence of slavery in the powerful nations of the ancient world, it would be surprising if there were not a significant number, and none of the evidence rules this out. On the other hand, there seems so far to be no direct archaeological evidence for the presence of slaves; but since they are not often honored with tombs, they can be hard to trace.

Two things are worth noting in assessing the “no slaves” claim and the evidence. One is that no one bothers to tell us in the broadcast sources how many tombs specifically belonging to workers have been found and what proportion of the workforce they might represent. One would have to ask that direct question of a knowledgeable scholar or consult the Egyptology technical literature. The other is that Dr. Hawass controls access to archaeological sites in Egypt, so that it is against the interest of any Egyptologist who wants to dig there in the foreseeable future to criticize his version of the conclusions too directly.

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