July 1, 2012

Ancient Egyptian Pyramids Part 4 | Problems and Solution

There exists in fact further evidence for the simultaneous construction of more than one pyramid at a time. We have mentioned earlier the quarry and date marks on the casing stones from the Tura quarries. A good deal of confusion has been caused by trying to use these dates in determining the sequence of pyramid building, and the results of these attempts have been baffling. Such difficulties are now removed since we know that at any time more than one pyramid was under construction. The blocks were dated either at the quarries or at the assembly points, and it was decided only later at which of the simultaneously rising pyramids they were to be employed.

Ancient Egyptian Pyramids
Much has been said about procuring the immense labour force required for pyramid building and the cruelty of the Fourth Dynasty kings under whom this work was undertaken. In one of his learned publications Borchardt interrupts his discussion on building ramps with an account of toiling Egyptians dragging up stones on sledges under the lashes of the whips of overseers. He clearly felt that in no other way could such a prodigious achievement be sustained. However, Egypt of the Old Kingdom knew no slaves except some prisoners-of-war. Moreover, the idea that large numbers of workers can be compelled by force makes little sense for an age in which the absence of superior weapons made it impossible to control many by a few. It is quite inconceivable that year after year an unwilling labour force could have been levied from scattered and distant villages. In other words, we have to assume that pyramid building was an essentially voluntary activity.

The most obvious incentive is believed to have been a religious one and based on the self-interest of the individual. We know far too little about the spiritual concepts prevailing 5,000 years ago to say exactly what motivated the average Egyptian farmer to give his time and labour to pyramid construction. However, it is known from African divine kingship that obedience and service to the monarch confers benefit on the tribe as a whole, whose well-being and maintenance depend on him. It is likely that the beliefs originating in Egypt’s Archaic Period included similar demands on the community. In particular, we may assume that the resurrection of the pharaoh, ensured by a suitable burial, was essential also for the afterlife of the common man. Personal sacrifice by each individual for the good of the community has been a generally accepted duty in primitive societies and has been retained by many highly civilised communities throughout the world. We ourselves have, since the Renaissance, tended to idealise individual initiative, but even our own society has submitted to the concept of sacrifice for the common good in patriotic wars.

Although the Egyptian’s concern for his afterlife was of absorbing interest to him, it is probable that other aspects of pyramid construction also played an important part. Man does not live by faith alone, and it is quite possible that even 5,000 years ago the provision of food by a central authority may have given villagers a new and much-needed sense of security. The story in Genesis of Joseph’s prediction of seven fat years to be followed by seven lean ones clearly refers to fluctuations of the Nile inundation which made the setting up of governmental grain stores imperative. In fact, we find in the Giza tombs titles of officials who were responsible for the pharaoh’s granaries. It is clear that the concentration of a large labour force for pyramid building also necessitated the institution of large-scale food storage. These grain stores had to be extensive enough to ensure supplies even in lean years and therefore they acted as an important buffer against the fluctuations of the Nile. Once instituted, this security against famine would certainly not be discontinued and must have acted as a powerful argument for retaining the labour pattern of steady pyramid building.

Another important aspect of the pyramid project is provided by the tally marks on the casing stones delivered from the quarries.

They give the titles of the individual work teams who were to be credited with the supply. These names which have come down to us read : ‘Stepped Pyramid Gang’, ‘Boat Gang’, ‘Craftsmen Crew’, indicating special duties. We also find teams called: ‘How vigorous is Snofru’, or ‘The powerful White Crown of Khufu’, telling us the reign under which they worked. Of particular significance, however, may be such descriptions as : ‘Vigorous Gang’, ‘Enduring Gang’ and ‘Sound Gang’ which seem to refer to expressions of pride and competition. In fact, it looks as if participation in the pyramid project had created a sense of comradeship among the workmates, and that people who before had been strangers to each other had found a new basis for friendship. It is a phenomenon which I have encountered in modern China where huge labour forces are brought together to build a dam or a bridge. There is never any difficulty in obtaining sufficient workers because, in addition to good pay, kudos is attached to being selected for an important and much publicised project. When the men go back to their villages, they are the heroes of the community who, in the evenings, tell the story of how they built the dam.

Altogether one begins to wonder whether esoteric religious concepts were really more important in bringing about the Pyramid Age than such down-to-earth issues as assured food supply and a new dimension in neighbourliness. To answer this question we have to go back to the days of Imhotep and to his design of King Zoser’s funerary monument. After four centuries of fitful attempts at unification and almost constant internal strife, the stage had been reached when the gods Horus and Seth were finally at peace. The new pharaoh was the son of the king of Upper Egypt, Kha- sekhemui, and of the heiress of Lower Egypt, Nemathap, who thus became the first ‘great queen’ of the united kingdom of the Nile. King Zoser not only inherited peace throughout his land but also the opportunity of utilising this new potential provided by the most civilised nation in the world. The stage was set for the next great step in the development of human society, the creation of the state. The pyramid was going to provide the means of achieving it.

It would be unrealistic to think that, with almost fiendish cunning Imhotep devised the method of mass employment to attain this aim. In fact, we can easily prove that this was not the case. When Zoser ascended the throne, there existed the capital of Memphis and a few other fortified towns, all of them probably with a rather limited urban population. The great mass of the Egyptians lived in tribal units, engaged in village agriculture, separated from each other and possibly not always on friendly terms. The idle season of the inundation provided the villagers with a good opportunity to raid neighbourhood communities for cattle and women. This is a tribal custom practised all over the world. Some taxes were evidently gathered, but this activity too was probably somewhat hazardous.


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