The Labors of Pyramid Building

About Egyptian Pyramids

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston


The Great Pyramids of Giza



When many of us were young, we were taught that the great pyramids required immense human resources to build, which of course, they did. We were told that as many as 100,000 slaves worked as forced labor for decades to build the Great Pyramid at Giza. Regrettably, it would seem that our teachers needed something to say about this ancient Egyptian civilization, and as is not unusual, memorizing some sort of data outweighed the importance of having correct information. Hence, we committed to memory the fantastic estimates of ancient historians who were mystified by the large volumes of material required to build these great stone edifices. However, we must give them credit, for at least they did not degrade the accomplishments of the early Egyptians by proposing the builders of these great structures to be space aliens or Atlantians.


To many, the sheer size of the pyramids made such overestimation seem reasonable. Wieslaw Kozinski, a Polish architect, believed that an average of 25 men were required to transport a block weighing one and one-half tons. Therefore, at a time when Egypt's population was probably no more than one and a half million people, including women and children, he estimated a workforce of 60,000 men outside the construction site and as many as 300,000 inside. Of course, Kozinski believed that the population of Egypt during the early pyramid age to be five to ten million people. Yet modern research has demonstrated that as few as eight to twelve men could have actually pulled a 2.5 ton block over an even, lubricated (by water) surface, and twenty men could have drug such a block up a lubricated gradient from the quarries to the Great Pyramid in as little as 30 minutes.


Even Petrie, one of the first great modern Egyptologists, thought that the huge labor force the Greek historian Herodotus reported (100,000 men) to have been used for the construction of the Great Pyramid was plausible. In his view, which continues to have considerable acceptance by today's Egyptologists, the labor force was drawn mostly from the rural Egyptian population who would work on the monuments during flood season, when they could not work in their fields. It is probably not unreasonable to believe that a few slaves were also involved in this construction work, though to what extent we do not know.


It seems that the more knowledge we gain about the pyramids and other elements surrounding their construction, the lower the estimates for the work force. Kurk Mendelssohn, an American mathematician and physicist believed there were as many as 50,000 men involved with the Great Pyramid's construction based on calculations needed to move a given mass over a given distance. Ludwig Borchardt and Louis Croon, in their investigations, estimated that the Meidum pyramid would have required some 10,000 men to complete. Applying these calculations to the larger Great Pyramid, they estimated that a work force of some 36,000 men would have been required for that project. However, even this smaller workforce seemed too high to them, given the limited area of the construction site and the difficulties connected to logistics support.


More recent evidence suggests that the ancient Egyptians may have been somewhat more astute builders. In the mid 1980s a French/Egyptian team investigated the Great Pyramid using ultrasound technology. Their efforts revealed that large cavities within the structure had been filled with pure sand. This is referred to as the "chamber method", and could have considerably increased the pace of work. In addition, we also know that the Great Pyramid utilized a rock outcropping as part of its core. These discoveries, as Miroslav Verner notes, made all the careful calculations and estimates concerning how many millions of stone blocks make up the Great Pyramid, and the associated speculations, useless.


Today, while the question of exactly how many men it would have taken to build the Great Pyramid at Giza remains unanswered, we can speculate on certain elements of the workforce. The ancient Egyptians became great labor organizers. Part of the labor force working on the pyramids would have been organized as a crew, perhaps consisting of 2,000 men. This crew was divided into two gangs of 1,000 workers, which in turn was divided into five zaa (in each gang), a term that was translated by the ancient Greeks as "phyloi" or phyle, meaning tribe, group or brotherhood. Each Phyle consisted of about 200 mean.


The structure of the labor force working on pyramids


These phyle were named for the different parts of a boat, including the Great (or Starboard), the Asiatic (or Port), the Green (or Prow), the Little (or Stern), and the Last (or Good) Phyle. The name of the fifth phyle is uncertain, but may have referred to the helmsmen's position. It should be noted that even the priesthood was arranged in a similar fashion. These phyle were then divided into four, or later, two smaller groups that also had names , usually related to their geographical origin, or sometimes related to the required skills or virtues of the workers.



An ancient Egyptian boat


According to Verner, there were apparently, at any one time, no more than three phyle comprising six hundred men, working on the Great Pyramid. However, Lehner seems to believe that an entire crew of 2,000 men would have been employed. While we know of the organization of this work force, we know less about what they actually did. Most Egyptologists believe they were involved with transportation and various other logistical supply work.


Verner also tells us that a second type of team system was employed. These workers were divided up according to the cardinal compass points, north, south and west. There was probably a forth team that was not referred to as the eastern team, because east, like left, was considered by ancient Egyptians to be a sinister direction. These four teams made up a "troop", and included the craftsmen and specialized workers on the pyramid construction sites. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence of the number of men making up the troop or the various teams.


It is possible, or even probable that these two types of construction teams may have been largely made up of a relatively skilled, permanent royal work force. However, it is clear, given the volume of work required to construct the Great Pyramid, that more workers were needed. These workers were probably helpers, and if slaves were used at all, they would have probably been included in this larger workforce. However, many of these helpers were probably unskilled agricultural workers employed on a seasonal basis during the Nile inundation.


The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza


We do know much more about the work activities, particularly at Giza, then ever before. Archaeologists have carefully studied the worker's villages, the craft shops, the bakeries and other related structures, which of course give us some idea of the workforce. So how many people did it take to build the Great Pyramid at Giza? Verner tells us that the current consensus among Egyptologists sets the figure at a little more than 30,000. Lehner, who has worked at Giza for many years and conducted experiments on building pyramids, is considered one of the leading authorities on these structures. He claims a somewhat lower estimate, including carpenters to make tools and sledges, metal workers to make and sharpen cutting tools, potters to make pots for food preparation and hauling water for mortar and other purposes, bakers, brewers and others, consisting of between 20,000 and 25,000 workers at any one time. In fact, as the pyramid grew, fewer and fewer men were probably required, for work at the top required much less stone and the construction space became more limited. This number of men, which was probably drastically reduced during the agricultural seasons, probably finished the Great Pyramid of Khufu in less than 23 years.


This discussion has mostly focused on the Great Pyramid of Khufu which, simply because it was the largest pyramid we know of that the Egyptians built, seems to pose the greatest problems. Of course, we also know much more about it than many other pyramids. However, it should be noted that some of the earlier and many of the later pyramids would have required much less labor. Most, of course, were smaller, and at least a few built prior to the Great Pyramid used a more gentle slope, hence requiring less material. A number of pyramids, like that of Khufu, used rock outcroppings in their construction, and most, including Khufu's pyramid, had some "fill" material. Later pyramid's employed the use of mudbrick in their cores, so the labor required to build these pyramids was considerably reduced.


All of this discussion is not to say that the early Egyptians did not commit considerable resources to these building projects. It is estimated that during the century and a half composing the 4th Dynasty, some nine million cubic meters of masonry was utilized in royal construction projects. Essentially, the Egyptians became the world's best construction managers, and these skills served them well for some 2,500 years.


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Reference Number

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Pyramids, The (The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments)

Verner, Miroslav


Grove Press

ISBN 0-8021-1703-1






Last Updated: November 14th, 2011