History has not been kind to some of us. We typically refer, for instance, to the Great Pyramid of Giza, built by the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu during the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2575–2465 B.C.). But King Khufu did not build his pyramid; rather, he hired or conscripted others to do the work, a crew that must have numbered in the thousands. What do we know about them?
The answer, until now, has been “very little.” The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 B.C.) reported that during a visit to Egypt his guides had told him that 100,000 workers had labored 20 years to build Khufu’s pyramid. This is one of the rare ancient texts—perhaps the only one—that even mentions the actual pyramid builders.
Archaeology has recovered a smattering of additional evidence. From masons’ marks left on pyramid buildings, we know something about how the construction took place. Work crews were organized into 1,000-man gangs, with each gang divided into five phyles (the Greek word for “tribe”) of 200 men each. The phyles were further divided into smaller groups of 10 to 20 workers. The hieroglyphic marks also give us the names of some of the gangs. One was called the “Friends of Khufu,” another the “Drunkards of Menkaura” (the Fourth Dynasty king who commissioned the third pyramid at Giza).