An army of pyramid builders
A large royal storehouse and
administrative building unearthed last season to the south-east of the
Great Sphinx at Giza has once again focused attention on the Age of the
Pyramid Builders. Nevine El-Aref visits the site and learns details
of the remarkable discovery
excavations on the Giza Plateau by the Chicago Harvard University Giza
Mapping Project have unearthed a vast royal complex dating from the reigns
of Khafre and Menkaure, builders of the second and third pyramids.
It has proved to be the oldest administrative settlement
ever found and was clearly used for supervising a vast army of part-time
workers recruited to build the pyramid of Khafre.
"It is an incredible discovery," Minister of Culture Farouk
Hosni said. "It completes our vision of the life of the construction
workers during the Fourth Dynasty, 4,500 years ago."
"The site is 450 metres south of the Sphinx, below the
worker's cemetery discovered by Zahi Hawass," said mission director Mark
Lehner, who went on to explain that the royal administrative building was
an important central feature of the layout of the Giza Plateau which
includes the Wall of the Crow, the Gallery System, the bakeries, and the
Eastern Town. "So far the team has excavated about 1,125 square metres,"
Lehner said. "The royal building itself measures 48 metres east to west,
and although only 25 metres of the back of the building have been exposed
it is clear that this was the royal structure for storage and
administration, part of a vast complex that included dormitories where
itinerant labourers might have slept, bakeries and meat processing
facilities for feeding them, and a great grain storehouse that supplied
The building has yielded evidence of the activities that
were carried out there in the form of seals, copper and stone (alabaster)
work, and weaving; the latter in the form of pottery loom shuttles and
loom weights of mud. Long colonnaded galleries may have been dormitories
that could accommodate between 40 and 50 people. "Possibly these were
teams that were supervised by an overseer who lived in a large house on
the banks of the Nile at the southern end of the galleries," Lehner said.
"Altogether the dormitories could shelter up to 2,000
workers, while an estimated 20,000 labourers could have worked in shifts
at Giza following the Egyptian pattern whereby noblemen sent teams from
their provinces all over the country, including Upper Egypt and the Delta,
to share in the great national project of pyramid building," said Zahi
Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
"The dormitories would probably have been used by the itinerant, rotating
The gallery or dormitory system is flanked to the east, west
and south by bakeries, and the evidence of meat processing and salt fish
production attest to a healthy diet. Also found were small mud "tokens"
that probably represent the special kind of bread eaten by the Egyptians,
similar to pita, which appear to have been used for accounting and
The focus of the royal administrative building is a
storehouse with large mud brick silos arranged around a rectangular court.
These are 1.80 metres below ground level and probably contained grain to
supply the numerous bakeries surrounding the dormitory complex. "The rest
of storehouses, still unexcavated, mostly lie buried beneath the modern
soccer field of the Sphinx Sports Club football field built in 1948,"
"This Old Kingdom administrative building is a clear
indication of the strict system imposed by the ancient Egyptians to
control construction of the grand pyramid complexes at Giza," Hawass
Hawass said a collection of 250 seals carrying the names of
the kings Khafre and Menkaure have been unearthed. "The absence of seals
bearing the names of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid, may be
because the overseer of the administration building of Khafre's pyramid
removed all constructions that dated back to his father's reign to the
Western side of the Sphinx," he said.
The American team has excavated what is believed to be
Egypt's oldest known hypostyle hall, the function of which may have been
to serve as a communal dining facility. "We found fish bones near low
troughs and benches that run the length of the floor of the hall, which
appear to be droppings from meals," Lehner said. "Fragments of pottery
bowls, lids and stands for vessels point to food consumption rather than
This extremely complex, historically important, and
revealing site flanks part of the town of the Pyramid Age extending
further east of the excavation site and continuing under the modern town
of Nazlet Al-Simman. Even though the latter is less planned than the
dormitory system, it may have housed the more permanent work force --
perhaps the skilled craftsmen, artisans, experienced stone masons,
quarrymen, overseer and officials employed on various aspects of pyramid
"Like today's cities, the town was crowded," Hawass said.
"There are traces of streets and alleyways between the houses, and
household granaries, bins, and grinding stones for processing grain into
Scores of these small granaries and baking areas were found
all over the town, and last year the team came upon a centralised storage
facility -- a huge storehouse in the royal administrative building. This
indicates that there were domestic granaries around the town for permanent
residents, and an extensive central storage facility for the mass of