A Job Well Done

A far cry from ‘cowboy builders’ found today.

The Egyptian Pyramids are known by all. Many too know of the great Pharaohs who were once laid to rest within them, such as Djoser, Khafre, and Khufu. Indeed, the reported ‘inventor’ of the pyramids, Imhotep, was almost deified by subsequent generations in ancient Egypt. However, one question that is far less clear cut is who actually built them – the answers given have ranged from aliens to slaves, but current evidence supports a rather different identity. Analysis of bones found in graves from the workers’ town, located near to the Gaza Plateau, suggests that some of the greatest builders of all time were in fact free Egyptian citizens. Indeed, a popular theory is that the pyramids were built by men conscripted for ‘corvée-duty’, which required that men constructed public works for a specified number of days per year. This probably happened during the three months that the Nile flooded, freeing up all the farmers in the region. However, rather unsurprisingly, the wealthy may have paid their way out, causing the workforce to comprise primarily of the lower classes. Even then, it seems that strikes, just as today, were not uncommon in the New Kingdom, with a major strike occurring around 1158 BC. The strikes mainly occurred from a delay in pay, in the form of food rations, which were produced in estates commissioned by the Pharaoh along the Nile. However, unlike today, most of these seem to have been sorted with minimal trouble.

Nevertheless this does not mean that people were unwilling to work on what could be described as an overgrown tombstone. An army could not have forced the workers to build the pyramids as there were too many people to control and there was no unrest elsewhere, which would be expected if the army was otherwise occupied. Therefore, the only conclusion is, that people saw a genuine reward for themselves through working on the pyramids.

Indeed, people rarely undertake such strenuous work without personal gain (certainly the idea of ‘optional essays’ have taught me that much). Thus the fact that there is a lack of rebellion or uprising at this time suggests that the people of Egypt must have had some incentive that encouraged them to work. Perhaps it may have even been an honour to go and work on the pyramids. Indeed, studies in modern-day China, suggest that when large construction projects take shape, many of the workers volunteer for the role, attracted by the pay, comradeship, and respect they gain on return to their villages; and the situation may have been similar in ancient Egypt.

Yet the pyramids required funding beyond food, and donations from the rich. Indeed, they would have required the majority of resources that Egypt had to offer, and beyond. For example the boats, found buried in the mortuary complexes, were made with cedar wood imported from Lebanon – at the result of huge expense. The workers behind the pyramids were not just the builders, but the trade merchants, and the forgers of political alliances, as well as architects, supervisors, stone masons, artists, pay distributers and tax collectors. Much like large scale projects today, therefore, they were a complex operation, with most of the personnel formed of forgotten, behind-the-scenes people. Yet despite this, the later Egyptian pyramids were so well built that it is said that you cannot fit a postcard between the blocks. Today we have far superior technology – we have computers and lasers, and yet we struggle to maintain this level of accuracy in our buildings. The workers behind the pyramids must have had pride in their work, and as such, the pyramids have stood the test of time more than any other superstructure – something I fear that the Sydney Opera house and Statue of Liberty may struggle to replicate.

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