August 29, 2005
Egyptologist tells story of commoner pyramid builders
BY eric rangus
While they understandably receive the most publicity, not every excavation of ancient Egyptian historical sites is of a royal nature. Often the best stories come from the most common people.
Such a story was told
in the Carlos Museum reception hall, Tuesday night,
Aug. 23, by Mansour Boraik, chief inspector for Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who delivered an hour-long presentation, illustrated by more than a hundred slides.
The cemetery of the pyramid builders in Giza, just outside of Cairo, was uncovered in 1990. “We were allowed to excavate for one month,” Boraik said. “That month turned into 13 years—now 15 years.”
About 40 percent of the cemetery, which lies in the shadow of the pyramids—the only remaining wonder of the ancient world—has been excavated and 65 main tombs and 900 individual graves of common people (the workers who built the pyramids and the overseers who led the project) have been uncovered.
The discovery has provided a wealth of information about the men and women who built the pyramids. While some have theorized the laborers were slaves or unskilled, Boraik said this is not the case.
More than 5,000 workers constructed the Pyramids at Giza, he said. They worked in shifts of perhaps three or four hours at a time. Judging from the remains, the workers were between 30–35 years old (officials were between 50 and 60) and all the workers—male and female—had indications of stress on the lower spine (a telltale sign of heavy lifting).
The common images of Egyptian burial sites are of mummies encased in sarcophagi. This is not what Boraik found at Giza. Workers were buried in the fetal position in small graves. Only the overseers were buried in tombs—frequently of their own design.
The golden riches of Egyptian kings and queens was absent, but because so many of the workers were skilled artisans, the sculpture and relief decoration of the tombs was often particularly beautiful. Several examples elicited gasps from the audience when they flashed up on the screen at the front of the reception hall.
Boraik told compelling stories about individual finds. There was the skeleton of a woman with dwarfism; she was pregnant and the remains of a fetus were found with her. Boraik said he believed she died due to the pregnancy because people of that time would not have known how to deliver the baby of a mother with dwarfism.
Boraik also discussed a more recent project in Egypt’s western desert about 235 miles from Cairo. Started in 1998, the ancient cemetery in Bahariya has been marked by creative acquisition of land. Boraik and his team purchased 10 houses in downtown Bahariya, just so they could tear them down to get access to the graves below. But even after those houses were demolished, things didn’t get much easier.
“People used the tombs as septic tanks,” Boraik said. “To find a tomb, you had to go to the toilet.”
Complications aside, the project has been fruitful. The Bahariya area was under Roman rule for a time, which was reflected in the antiquities Boriak discussed and displayed.
The mummies here were laid out straight (unlike those in fetal positions in Giza), and while they were primarily common folk and middle class, some of the discoveries have been prominent, important citizens. One mummy was that of Bahariya’s governor. He was a man of some means, Boraik said, because of the type of limestone used to build his sarcophagus. It was a type found more than 100 miles away and must have been transported the entire way to Bahariya.
Following his address, Boraik answered several questions, then took time to sign books and shake hands with some of the more than 150 people in attendance.