The pyramids of ancient Egypt were built using slave labour.
According to popular belief, the Egyptian pyramids were built using slave labour. This idea has ancient roots (cf. Herodotus 1.124). According to the Old Testament, the Isrealites had once been enslaved by the Egyptians. Deuteronomy 15:5, for example, reads: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you.”
Movies such as the animated feature The Prince of Egypt (1998) take the Bible at its word. We are shown how the Isrealites are mistreated by evil Egyptians, who use whips to enforce their will. By the sweat of their brows, these slaves haul huge stones in order to build massive temples, and they strain to erect the gigantic statues that seem so characteristic of ancient Egypt.
Did the ancient Egyptians use slave labour in their building projects, including the pyramids? The short answer is no. The workforce consisted of a nucleus of specialized and skilled builders and craftsmen, permanently employed by the king, while the rest consisted of conscripted peasants. Many of them lived in villages that sprung up in the shadow of these massive structures. The village inhabitants consisted of the workers and their families and dependents.
Archaeologists have found such workers’ villages, including at Giza, where some of Egypt’s most famous pyramids can be found. Another famous workers’ village was unearthed at Deir el-Medina, where people lived who worked on the much simpler tombs near Luxor during the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1077 BC). Excavations have revealed a great deal about the everyday life of these labourers. Other sources of information include papyri – such as the Abusir Papyri, which date from the Old Kingdom – and, for the New Kingdom, ostraca (pieces of pottery used to take notes).
The conscripted labour forces who worked on the pyramids were paid for their efforts. The labourers worked on a pyramid in three-month shifts. A shift consisted of 25,000 men in total, which included not only the people quarrying, hauling, and setting the stones, but also metal-workers and other tool-makers, as well as potters, brewers, bakers, and water-carriers, who handled all possible necessities of the workmen’s lives.
The pyramids were built during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (ca. 2600-2100 BC) and Middle Kingdom (ca. 1975 to 1640 BC), which are phases of what we refer to as the Bronze Age (roughly 3000-1000 BC). While Bronze Age societies did make use of slaves, they were not used on the same scale as they would be much later in Classical Greece and Rome (ca. 500 BC to AD 500). The latter featured what can be called slave economies, in which slavery was widespread and an integral part of their economic systems.
As a result, we rate the claim that the Egyptian pyramids were built by slaves as false.
- Barbara G. Aston, James A. Harrell, and Ian Shaw, “Stone”, in: Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw (eds), Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (2000), pp. 5-77.
- Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (1997).
- Alan B. Lloyd (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Egypt (two volumes, 2010).
- Richard G. Olson, Technology and Science in Ancient Civilizations (2010).
- Michael Rice, Egypt’s Making. The Origins of Ancient Egypt, 5000-2000 BC (second edition, 2003).
- Denys A. Stocks, Stoneworking Technology in Ancient Egypt (2003).