On Monday morning on the Giza plateau workers were busy removing sand from the newly discovered tomb of Idu, overseer of the construction of the Great Pyramid. They were surrounded by a media scrum, gathered around admiring their work, taking photos and trying to glimpse what has been uncovered.
During routine excavation and cleaning at the plateau an Egyptian archaeological mission, led by Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), stumbled upon what is believed to be a collection of early Fourth Dynasty tombs belonging to workers who built Khufu and Khafre's pyramids.
"The tombs belong to the late fourth and fifth dynasties (2649-2374 BC)," says Hawass, who argues that they constitute one of the most important discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries, shedding light on the early period of the Fourth Dynasty and contradicting assertions that the Pyramids were built by slaves.
"These tombs were built beside the king's pyramid, which indicates that these people were not slaves. If they had been they would not have been allowed to build their tombs beside their king's," said Hawass.
Hawass believes the builders of the Pyramids came from poor Egyptian families from the north and the south. They were respected for their work and those who died during the construction phase were bestowed the honour of being buried close to the sacred pyramid of their Pharaohs.
The most important tomb belongs to Idu. It is rectangular in structure, with a mud brick outside casing covered with plaster. It has several burial shafts cased with white limestone, as well as niches in front of each shaft.
Adel Okasha, supervisor of the excavation, says the upper part of Idu's tomb is vaulted, symbolising the eternal hill from which human creation began according to the Memphis religious tradition. The shape, similar to that of tombs located beside Snefru's pyramid in Dahshour, is strong evidence that the tomb dates to the early Fourth Dynasty.
On the western side of Idu's tomb the mission uncovered several workmen's tombs and the remains of coffins, while on its southern side another large tomb has been found. It is rectangular, of mud brick and has several burial shafts, each one containing a skeleton. The area in which the tombs were found is the beginning of the one kilometre long necropolis.
Evidence uncovered at the site has revealed that families in the Delta and Upper Egypt sent 21 buffaloes and 23 sheep to the plateau every day to feed the workers. The families that provided the animals, says Hawass, were not paying taxes to the Egyptian government but rather sharing in one of Egypt's national projects. The number of workers did not exceed 10,000, says Hawass, contradicting Herodotus's estimate of 100,000.
The tombs have shown that workers were drawn from families in the Delta and Upper Egypt. Workers rotated every three months, and those who died during the construction process were buried at the site.
There is no basis, says Hawass, to the assertion that pyramid building was a seasonal activity restricted to the three months of the flood. The transport of granite, basalt and limestone blocks used in construction was restricted to the flood season, but the construction work continued throughout the year.
The first tombs of the pyramid builders were discovered in 1990 when a horse stumbled on top of a mud brick structure.
14-20 January 2010