July 1, 2012

Ancient Egyptian Pyramids Part 2 | Problems and Solution

First of all, we must take a closer look at the technological and economic implications of the construction of large pyramids. A great deal has, in fact, been written about methods of pyramid construction  in particular about the type of ramps and the way in which the blocks were quarried, transported and placed. Much of this has, of necessity, been mere conjecture, and almost nothing hr ; been concluded from these discussions as to the size of the working force employed. Here the estimates have varied from a few thousands to a third of a million. The only historical figure is that given to Herodotus by his Egyptian informants 2,000 years after the Pyramid Age. Herodotus mentions a labour force of 100,000, working in shifts of three months. His own wording on this point is ambiguous but it is generally assumed that the labourers worked for three months each year during the time of the annual inundation of the Nile when no agricultural work could be done. As will be shown, the labour force required for building the pyramids was very large and it seems unlikely that all these men could have been spared from the food production process by employing them continuously.

Ancient Egyptian Pyramids
Only two serious attempts have been made to estimate the size of the labour force during the Fourth Dynasty. One, by Croon, was made at Borchardt’s suggestion and assumed the use of ramps with a 20° inclination. It dealt with the Meidum pyramid only, but the assumptions made are reasonably well founded. The other, by Kozinsky, discusses the work on the Khufu pyramid but, unfortunately, the assumptions made in this study are not realistic enough to be of much value. It is clearly quite useless to try and arrive at the strength of the labour force employed through detailed models of the work process that was involved. About this process we know nothing beyond the fact that it succeeded and that it must have been extremely well organised in order to do so. In view of the superb planning shown by the Egyptians, we may assume that they made use of the most economic methods at their disposal. They may, for instance, have employed long approach ramps for the lower levels of a pyramid, only to switch to spiral embankments for the upper reaches; it does not really matter.

While, with the paucity of our knowledge, speculations on the exact methods of pyramid construction must remain idle, it is, by simple technological reasoning, relatively easy to arrive at an estimate of the total working force which should be correct within an order of magnitude. We know that in the space of about one century roughly 25 million tons of material, mostly limestone, but also mortar and brick, were piled up at the desert plateau above Meidum, Dahshur and Giza. Since the force exerted by one man in dragging up, together with others, a laden sledge amounts to 10 or 15 kilograms, we can calculate the average number of workers in the Pyramid Age, provided we can put in a figure for the speed of the operation. Assuming, as seems not unreasonable, that the time needed for one crew to bring building material from the quarry to the pyramid and putting it into place there varied between one to three days, we end up with a work force of about 50,0 men. Naturally, this time depended on the height to which the block had to be raised, but we have already accounted for this by making the time for the journey variable.

Our calculation includes the workers who had to build and dismantle the approach ramps but not the effort in quarrying and dressing the stone. A similar order of magnitude estimate yields about 10,000 or 20,000 men, counting all the auxiliary workers who had to keep the transport lines under repair, supplying lubrication water for the sledges, bringing food and water for the workers, etc. These 70,000 or so men were all seasonal workers who would be fully employed during the whole century under the assumption of steady work for three months. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that such an order of magnitude calculation can never give an accurate figure, but we are unlikely to have gone wrong by more than a factor or two, one way or the other.

In addition to the seasonal, and essentially unskilled, labour force there had to be employed skilled and semi-skilled masons who would cut, fit and smooth the casing stones. These, incidentally, are practically the only stones which bear quarry marks and, in some cases, dates. All the casing stones came from the underground quarries at Tura in the Mokattam hills on the east bank of the Nile and had to be transported, not only across the river but also a considerable distance overland. It is likely that these skilled masons were not seasonally employed but were working at Tura and on the pyramid site all the year round. Petrie found workmen’s huts near the Khafre pyramid which he estimated as providing sufficient accommodation for 4,000 people. A rough calculation of the labour involved in providing the casings and also the sculptured causeways would lead us to a somewhat higher estimate for the permanently employed artisans, which may have numbered close to 10,000. However, this force was not critical in the effort as a whole.

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