Who Built the Pyramids?

Giza pyramids
© Photo copyright Larry Orcutt

The Egyptians built the pyramids. The best of the pyramids, erected in the Fourth Dynasty, were built during a small window in history when the means, motive, and opportunity were all present, a situation that would not be repeated for the remainder of Egypt's history. Tombs before this time evolved from archaic-period pit tombs covered by simple mounds to underground tombs with rectangular superstructures, the prototype of the grander "mastaba" tombs. By the Second Dynasty, mastaba tombs had developed into low but massive rectangular structures. At least one of these, mastaba 3038 at Saqqara, has sides made up of eight steps rising at a 49° angle, lending to it a definite pyramid appearance. It was not a great leap in architecture to decide to stack mastabas one atop the other to form a stepped pyramid, and thereafter to smooth the sides into a true pyramid shape.

Most of the common labor force that worked on the pyramids were Egyptian citizens. Because Egypt had a non-monetary economy, taxes had to be paid in kind. If not livestock, produce, or manufactured goods, taxes were extracted by a demand of corvée labor. Most of the brute pyramid workforce was comprised of such laborers, working off their obligation to the king. These "peasant conscripts" were divided into teams and divisions and were provided with the basic necessities of life during their term of duty. Skilled builders and craftsmen were in the permanent employ of pharaoh and lived together in villages near the pyramid site. Slavery was rare in Egypt before the Ptolemaic Period. The class usually referred to as serfs existed throughout Egypt's history of course. These might have variously been born into their common position, captive foreigners, or even prisoners serving their sentence. The serfs served as workers for pharaoh, as helpers in the temples, and as servants for wealthier citizens. True slaves in the classical sense owned nothing at all and were considered chattel to be bought and sold at will. They did not play a part in the building of the pyramids.

Egyptian workmen dressing limestone blocks
(from the tomb of Rekhmira, TT100).

stone workers
© Copyright Percy E. Newberry, The Life of Rekhmara, plate XX

There is ample evidence throughout Egypt's history that the Egyptians themselves designed and built the monuments that still stand today. To ascribe these feats to some other people, Atlanteans or Martians or whomever, is both a denial of an overwhelming body of data and an attempt to rob the ancient Egyptians of what is among their most enduring accomplishments.

Catchpenny Mysteries © copyright 2000 by Larry Orcutt.