“Who built the pyramids?” This is a question that the public still asks me even today. My continuing discoveries at the site of the tombs of the pyramid builders at Giza (first found in 1990) clearly demonstrate that these world famous structures, the last surviving of the Seven Wonders of the World, were built by Egyptian craftsmen and that they were not slaves. If these workmen had been slaves, they would not have been granted the honor of being buried beside their king, in the majestic shadow of their impressive handiwork.
A very important discovery was made in the pyramid builders’ cemetery a few months ago. It made me extremely happy! The tombs that were found, as well as the pottery found inside them, were dated by their architectural style to the 4th Dynasty (c. 2639-2504 BC), the period of time when Khufu, the owner of the Great Pyramid, reigned. These tombs are also located very close to the Great Pyramid, indicating that were probably the first to have been built in this area.
The tombs are unique. One big, rectangular tomb, built of mud brick and covered with plaster, was found surrounded by smaller tombs. The big tomb belonged to an overseer of one of the gangs of workmen, named Idu, who had his name inscribed on a stele. Overseers were responsible for providing food for their gang and for recording their absences. I once found one of these lists of absences in the Valley of the Kings. It was a unique inscribed block with the first letter of a workman’s name on it. The other, smaller tombs at Giza were for the gang of this overseer. These tombs are comprised of shafts, each of which contained a skeleton of a workman and several pottery vessels, which they would have used to drink beer.
We have other evidence of the workmen who built the pyramids, including text. One of my great adventures was to visit the five relieving chambers built stacked one over the other above the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid. It is dangerous work to visit these rooms because to access them I have to climb an unsteady wooden ladder of about five meters, squeeze trough a small opening and then crawl on my chest for another four meters. I then have to climb up again into each of the chambers.
All of these relieving chambers contain the names of 19th century British explorers, but the fifth chamber also contains two pieces of ancient graffiti. Both of these short texts are, additionally, evidence that the Great Pyramid was built for Khufu. One says, ‘Year 17 of Khufu,’ and the other, more interestingly, gives us the name of one of his worker gangs, the ‘Friends of Khufu.’ Both bits of graffiti were written in red pigment, which may be the mysterious mefat substance brought from the western desert.
We know from an inscription in the western desert that Khufu sent an expedition there in Year 27 of his reign to collect mefat. This inscription is further evidence in support of some scholar’s arguments that Khufu reigned for 30-32 years and not for 23 years as recorded in the Turin King List, a papyrus of the much later Ramesside period (c. 1292-1070 BC).