by chelsea schuyler
The White Person’s Reprieve
If you’re white, like I know I am, there’s a lot to feel guilty for. Top of the list? Slavery.
So when I’m taking a white privileged break from the guilt of my ancestry and the inevitable, if unintentional, consequences of my own racism in my American society, I think about fun things like the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Except I’m stymied there too, cuz I can’t really remember what any of them are, except for the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. But wait, that was built by slaves. Man! Now every 6.5 million tons of stone is riddled with the sadness of drudgery and torture. Way to ruin it, slaves.
But allow me to deliver the (non-Bible related) good news. They weren’t actually slaves! I just assumed they were. Why? Because I’m so white that I can’t imagine something so grandiose not being built by slaves? Well, maybe, but to be fair, I was misled.
Alternative Facts Misled Us
The Pyramid of Giza was built in 2560 BCE. Greek historian Herodotus visited the pyramids in 450 BCE and wrote about it, estimating that about 100,000 slaves must have built it.
Then, in 1977, then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin visited, then went to the Museum in Cairo and said “We built the pyramids”, meaning the Jews.
Ignoring the tiny detail that Jews didn’t exist yet, but whoever said the Israelites knew anything about Jews? YNetNews.com reported that historians and archeologists were quite offended, “the Egyptian press was full of protest articles.”
Ha! This is why the world should be ruled by scientists. There wouldn’t be any wars, just the renowned fury of swift letters to the editor!!
Archeology Says ‘Duh’
Anyway, so how do we know now that these builders weren’t slaves? There certainly were slaves at the time, so it’s not a totally crazy notion. However, Harvard Magazine says that the following evidence helped:
- geological history
- analysis of living arrangements
- bread-making technology
- animal remains
Bread-making technology. Technology. Of bread-making. Yeah, okay. As long as we can say that these workers not being slaves is the best thing since (primitive-technology-chronologically-excluding:) sliced bread.
Basically, here’s what points to well-fed, respected workers:
- A ‘pyramid city’ found deep in the sand nearby, which could have housed the rotating teams of about 10,000 workers, each working in 3 month stints for 30 years (per pyramid – the successor pharaohs wanted pyramids too).
- This city included ancient bakeries – which they recognized from the conical bread pot remnants that match tomb hieroglyphics of the bread-making process. Keep in mind that large scale production of anything was not a thing in ancient times, so this is epic.
- Evidence of nearby clover fields (used to feed cattle) but no cattle bones to be found.
Scads of bones at the pyramid city, to the point where it is estimated that workers ate 21 cattle and 23 sheep a day, the best meat available at the time.
- Tombs specifically for workers were very recently found near to the pyramids. No treasure, and no mummification (just regular corpses), suggesting that the people weren’t THAT revered as to be royalty or anything, but important and respected enough to be buried near the Great Pyramid, with tubs of beer and bread for the afterlife. The lack of treasure made these of no interest to looters, leaving them pristine (cool!!).
Let’s Not Go Crazy
Now, this doesn’t mean these workers were just so idyllic that they happily skipped along in the heat hauling rocks like tanned Smurfs singing and carving JOY in their diaries each day.
Their bodily remains show all the signs of a very hard-working and painful (arthritis, etc) life. Some of the single blocks of the pyramids weigh nine tons. You can steak me all you want, that’s still a rough job.
But yes, they were indeed loyal to the pharaoh, and also, at that time manual labor was just a part of the culture (of the lower classes anyway), intertwined with religion, status, purpose, and yes, a lack of ample, independent choice. For a peasant of Egypt the promise of meat, bread, beer, and relative glory in the afterlife would have looked pretty Smurfin’ good.
Our Bad, We Got Distracted
So why did it take so long to discover this? Well, if you found three gargantuan, ancient tombs filled with treasure and symbols and mummies and royalty and myth, are you really gonna go digging in the sand miles away just to see if there’s anything there?
Keep in mind there was also hieroglyphics to decode, which was only figured out in 1822. Not to mention that the pyramids aren’t empty – they’ve got hallways and chambers and all kinds of cool stuff.
But, after all that Tomb Raider fodder died down, some Egyptologists went looking a little further.
Suck It Heston
Well, sweet – now I can appreciate the pyramidal amazitude without a dark cloud of human cruelty hanging over me. Granted, this kinda dampers the Hollywood mood set for decades.
Heston fans who remember the ‘Let my people go’ scene can now imagine all those people going “screw off, I ain’t givin up my daily meat to starve in some desert!”
Oh – and why is the pyramid the only wonder I can remember? Because it’s the only one still standing. Just goes to show that healthy, free workers ensure long-lasting, quality achievements without need for whipping and various horrors.*
*21 and 23 daily cattle and sheep beg to differ, but..one step at a time.
Images in the public domain except:
- pyramid city: photo by keely
- pyramids from air: photo by Raimond Spekking, CC BY-SA 4.0
- inner diagram: photo by Jeff Dahl, CC BY SA 4.0
- Egyptian museum: photo by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0
- Conical break: photo by