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Workers’ Paradise in Ancient Egypt: Eternity with the Boss

October 10, 1990

GIZA PLATEAU, Egypt (AP) _ Even death couldn’t free some workers from their bosses, archaeologists are finding in a newly discovered cemetery near the pyramids.

It’s the first burial ground ever found for the Egyptian working man of 45 centuries ago.

Five other cemeteries with 4,000 tombs flank the pyramids, on the horizon above. But all 4,000 were reserved for royalty, their families and officials, said Zahi Hawass, director-general of antiquities for the pyramids area and the new dig’s excavation chief.

″What we haven’t found until now is the working class,″ said Hawass. ″We were shocked when we looked at inscriptions of who was buried in the new tombs. Overseers holding their sticks. And behind, skeletons of workers.″

He said it appears the workers were members of the foremen’s crews.

The first eight tombs, three miles south of the Sphinx, lie at the base of sand hills stretching endlessly into the desert. Hawass said the cemetery undoubtedly extends deep into the dunes.

Tombs date from the fourth dynasty - 4,600 years ago when the Giza pyramids were built - until the sixth, 300 years later. It’s a mysterious period when legend says workers grew tired of almighty pharaohs and of building pyramids for them.

Because no middle-class burials had been discovered on sacred Giza plateau, some Egyptologists have theorized that the afterlife was perceived as off- limits to the working man. But the new cemetery proves that pharaonic blue- collar workers prepared for eternity as their betters did, being buried with amulets, limestone tablets, offering tables, pottery vessels and more.

The largest tomb, built for a fifth-dynasty overseer named Ptah-Shepses, is 20 feet by 6 1/2 feet with an arched ceiling.

To the rear of the tomb, in a honeycomb of compartments, excavators found six skeletons buried in the fetal position. Hawass said they were members of one work crew.

Ancient Egyptians didn’t practice human sacrifice, so the workers were not killed and buried at the same time as their bosses. And Hawass said there’s no indication so far how a foreman chose the workers to be buried near him.

″Perhaps they were his favorites. Or perhaps we’ll find others when we keep digging,″ Hawass said. ″We have no idea how many people an overseer would have had on his staff.″

Foremen handled day-to-day administration of the pharaohs’ estates, with responsibilities comparable to farm managers or assembly-line supervisors in today’s world. ″They dressed better, ate better and wanted better tombs than the men who worked for them,″ Hawass said.

″They looked at the pyramids and the fancy tombs of the officials. They knew they couldn’t afford such luxury. Still they wanted a nice place to spend eternity.″

More information about the ancient blue-collar workers will come from medical tests Egyptian doctors are performing on the skeletons. Data is expected to indicate the workers’ general appearance, their height and weight, what they ate, what diseases bothered them, even what killed them.

In 1987, Hawass and Egyptologist Mark Lehner of Yale University began a search for homes of workers who built the three Giza pyramids. At a site some distance from the monuments, they uncovered ruins of a business center and other artifacts.

They stopped excavating in early 1988. The recently discovered tombs lay undetected only a few feet away.

But early last summer, a tourist hired a saddle horse for a ride around the pyramids. During the tour her horse fell through the sand, ending on top of what proved to be the roof of the first tomb.

Nobody got the tourist’s name, and chances are she still doesn’t know her outing made history.

For years, riders heading for the most spectacular view of the pyramids have passed in front of the Sphinx and through an ancient stone gate into the desert.

No records existed to explain the gate.

But ″once we found the cemetery we understood,″ Hawass said. ″The gate divided the world of the pharaohs from the world of the average man.″

He explained that the foremen and their crews lived and were buried in their own world behind the gate. By day they passed through the gate into their pharaoh’s sacred world, then returned at sunset to work on their own tombs.

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