Few landmarks – natural or manmade – around the world garner as much interest as the Great Pyramids of Giza.  The massive structures are a testament to the engineering that seems to go well beyond the technology and ability of an ancient civilization, and historians and archaeologists dating back to Ancient Greece have struggled to decode the pyramids and the lost civilization they represent.  So who built the pyramids?

No.

Slaves at the hands of a merciless pharaoh?  Also wrong.

Until relatively recently (the 1990s), Hollywood and popular belief credited the construction of the Pyramids to slave labor.  According to Katarina Kratovac, the myth stems from the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus and persists today in most circles outside Egyptology.  However, the myth was debunked shortly after a tourist on horseback tripped over a wall near the pyramids that ended up being a previously undiscovered tomb.

The tomb turned out to be one of a series of nine-foot deep graves that were built specially for the pyramid builders, complete with jars of bread and beer for the afterlife.  As slaves wouldn’t have been given this level of respect in death, it was determined that the laborers were not slaves after all, but skilled workers who earned wages.  Not only were they paid but they were widely respected for their work, as evidenced by their tombs’ proximity to the pyramids. 

At the foot of the large statue, a man pours water on the sand to help reduce friction. Courtesy of phys.org

According to Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, a single pyramid would take 10,000 workers over 30 years to complete – much smaller numbers than Herodotus theorized.  The laborers were given meat regularly and worked in three month shifts, far from slave labor.  Despite their status in Egypt, the workers’ lives were definitely not easy.  The skeletons discovered in the tombs had evidence of arthritis and lower back problems.  Not surprising, given the scale of their work and the technology – or lack thereof – available to them at the time.

On that note, physicists at the University of Amsterdam recently  determined that the Egyptian pyramid builders moved the massive stone blocks across the desert by pouring water on the sand to decrease friction, then pulling the blocks on giant sleds.  The method by which they built the pyramids was previously unknown, or at least only theories existed.  However, a wall painting in a tomb dating to 1900 BC shows 172 men dragging a statue on a sled, with one person standing on the front of the sled pouring water onto the sand.  The physicists replicated the method and found it works far better than any other method previously theorized.  Now you know.