In the last 4,500 years, the pyramids have been a source of great intrigue, from the ancient legends they hold to New-Age claims of healing “pyramid power.” Whatever myths or legends exist, it’s undeniable that feats of engineering accomplished by decades of labor have left even the soberest observers in awe.
The question of who labored the pyramids and why has been the source of immense speculation. Most of us have heard the story of slaves constructing the pyramids for a merciless pharaoh—a story made popular by Judeo-Christian tradition. But graffiti from inside the Giza monuments tell a very different story.
Until recently, the art and treasures inside of the pyramids have overshadowed the efforts of scientific archaeologists to truly understand the human forces that constructed the pyramids. Scientists have had to piece together clues as to how the monuments were constructed. Fortunately, over the past two decades, a series of new discoveries have allowed them to paint a clearer picture.
The largest pyramid at Giza was built by the pharaoh Khufu, whose reign started around 2551 B.C. His pyramid is known as the “Great Pyramid.” The pyramid of Khafre, whose reign began around 2520 B.C. was only slightly smaller. Many believe Sphinx monument was also built by Khafre, and that the face of the Sphinx was actually modeled after him. The third pharaoh to build a pyramid at Giza was Menkaure, who opted for a much smaller pyramid, standing 215 feet high.
In the last 20 years, researchers have made a number of significant discoveries about these constructions, including a town built near the pyramid of Menkaure and a study showing how water can make blocks easier to move. The new finds give us knowledge about pyramid-building techniques, which were developed over a period of centuries.
Pyramids likely originated from the “mastaba” tombs that were constructed in Egypt over 5,000 years ago. A major advance occurred during the reign of the pharaoh Djoser in around 2630 B.C. His mastaba tomb was developed into a six-layered step pyramid with underground tunnels and chambers.
In 2010, a team of archaeologists discovered papyri dating back to the reign of Khufu at the site of Wadi al-Jar on the Red Sea. Text on the papyri stated that in the 27th year of Khufu’s reign, his half-brother Ankhaf was the vizier and “chief of all the works of the king.” Researchers also believe the vizier Hemiunu was in charge of pyramid building during the earlier part of Khufu’s reign.
Researchers are still working to understand the planning that would have been involved in pyramid building—requiring not just the construction of the pyramids, but also temples, boat pits, and cemeteries located near enormous structures. Over the past few years, archaeologists have been excavating a port at Giza that was likely used to bring in supplies, food, and people.
The town had sizable homes for high officials, a barracks complex for trumps, and simple dwellings near the pyramid site for ordinary workers. Estimates given by various archaeologist for the size of the workforce at Giza tend to hover at around 10,000 people for all three pyramids.
Contrary to myths, these people were quite well-fed. Enough cattle, sheep, and goats were slaughtered every day to produce 4,000 pounds of meat on average to feed the builders. Researchers also discovered that animals were brought in from sites in the Nile Delta and kept in a corral until they were eventually fed to the workers. They probably enjoyed a better diet than they got in their village.