Pyramid Scheme

Ditch the history book, new news is in: slaves didn’t build Egypt’s pyramids.

When words find a home in textbooks, we often think they're infallible. It’s easy to lose sight that history is open for interpretation, and those words in that book are merely one group's interpretation of events past. Before long, if unquestioned, a viewpoint gathers support and it becomes fact.

It’s long been "fact" that slaves, under the strict oversight of a pharaoh, built Egypt’s Wonder-of-the-World pyramids. Logic goes: How could such a massive undertaking, with only basic technology available, have been successful? Surely it required a tens-of-thousands strong, unpaid workforce working around the clock in brutal conditions.

But experts like Mark Lehner have made it their life’s work to debunk conventional knowledge. Lehner and colleagues (like Zahi Hawass) make the case that the living and post-living conditions of the laborers suggest a far more comfortable lifestyle than would have been experienced by slaves.

Slaves were definitely a part of Egyptian society—and they suffered a brutal existence. But conditions found where the pyramid laborers lived, worked, and were buried suggest a different existence altogether.

Lehner points to remains of a nearby city, where he has led an excavation. In his view, the unearthed city contains riches, comforts, and sophistications well beyond the reach of an Egyptian slave.

Hawass then builds the case, in part, on a nearby cemetery he excavated. Hawass' cemetery reveals laborers who were buried in coffins and with various wares for the afterlife—luxuries slaves couldn’t afford.

Lehner also points to the fraternal order and pride laborers seemed to enjoy. Organized into teams, laborers left behind various team name inscriptions. 

One discovered in the highest chamber of the Great Pyramid—“Friends of Khufu”—seem to indicate some level of camaraderie. Lehner reasons this inscription and others like it implies an identity, and reflects something other than a slave mentality.

But conditions were challenging and work was hard. So, if it wasn’t slaves who built the pyramids, why would any paid laborer sign up for such an existence? Lehner believes the answers lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world:

People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice.

So, while laborers may not have been slaves, they may also not have had a choice.

Irrespective of the evidence Lehner and other like minds amass or the case they build, the slave-paid laborer debate will no doubt rage. And even though no one will ever know for certain, that doesn’t mean history can’t be rewritten.

All images via Flickr Commons.

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