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Most people believe the pyramids were built with slave labor (or at least it seems that way). This notion is perpetuated by movies; the building of the pyramids often evokes images of ancient Egyptians whipping slaves as they move boulders.

But how much of this is true? I remember seeing somewhere that the pyramids were most likely built with skilled labor, and that they were well paid and fed. Can't remember the source though.

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Egypt has a very seasonal agriculture, it may be so that people were recruited (or required) to work at the pyramids when not needed in the farms. However, that theory has no actual historical evidence to support it and is just one possibility. – Lennart Regebro Oct 27 '11 at 12:13
The line between a "slave" and a "free worker" is quite a blurred line. During WW2 it was illegal for an able bodied person not to work, even if they were rich, and men and women were assigned jobs to do by the government. Did that make Americans "slaves"? – Tyler Durden Jan 21 '15 at 22:02
Great question. Sadly if it had been asked today, the response would have been 'define slave!' 'define pyramid!' 'define built!', and then down-and-close-votes to death. – Ne Mo Apr 12 at 17:47
up vote 15 down vote accepted

Maybe your source was National Geographics. However, it completely fails at explaining where this theory comes from and which facts speak in its favor (it prefers to present it as a fact). This BBC article does only a marginally better job, it lists some evidence but one is bound to ask whether a different interpretation of the same evidence wouldn't have been possible as well. Harvard Magazine manages to do it better (the interesting stuff doesn't come before page 5). To sum up:

  • The way pyramids are built shows high skill. I wouldn't consider this evidence by itself - the existence of skilled workers doesn't mean that there were no unskilled slaves doing the hard work.
  • The animal bones found in the "workers camp" indicate that they got lots good meat. This is more convincing even though it isn't given that Egyptians treated their slaves badly - the Greeks and Romans usually treated slaves pretty well actually. After all, good food is important if the worker is to work well.
  • There appears to be evidence of worker force rotation which contradicts the assumption that slaves were sent to build the pyramids until they die.

Still, even after reading this long article one has to ask himself whether the presented interpretation is the only one possible. I don't think that we have much information about the social status of slaves in Ancient Egypt, at least not to reliably distinguish slaves and free people with a social obligation to serve the pharaoh. Even the Harvard Magazine article doesn't seem to fully dismiss the idea that slaves were working on the pyramids - it merely states that at least some workers weren't slaves. Which is what you get if archeology is your only source of information, there will always be much uncertainty.

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Great answer! And well done for taking the time to add citations. As far as I know, this agrees with historical consensus. – Noldorin Oct 28 '11 at 16:42

Few years ago I read article in popular slovak scientific magazine about one of these theories. The article was very interesting and what's important based on rational evidence rather than fabulous stories. The main point of this theory was that pyramid blocks were casted instead of carved. In another words the pyramid blocks are artificial stones casted directly on construction place. This would be more practical if you take in mind that nearest stone-pit is few tenths of kilometers from Great pyramids in Giza. It is simpler to transport loose material than solid material. The estimated number of people doing on great pyramids were only 1500 which is quite reasonable.

The fact that some of pyramid blocks were prepared on the building place can be discerned under the microscope. There are some people doing research in this area. One of them is Joseph Davidovits. He shows how the Pyramids were built by using re-agglomerated stone (a natural limestone treated like a concrete), and not with huge carved blocks, hauled on fragile ramps.

A new scientific analysis demonstrates the artificial nature of Egyptian Pyramid stone. The article titled: “Were the casing stones of Senefru’s Bent Pyramid in Dahshour cast or carved? Multinuclear NMR evidence” was published in Materials Letters 65 (2011) 350–352, by an international team of scientists involving Kenneth J.D. MacKenzie (MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand), Mark E. Smith, Alan Wong, John V. Hanna (Department of Physics, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7Al, UK), Bernard Barry (Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, Lower Hutt, New Zealand) and Michel W. Barsoum (Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA).

The abstract reads: “A comparison was made of the solid-state 29Si, 27Al and 43Ca MAS NMR spectra of the outer casing stone from Snefru’s Bent Pyramid in Dahshour, Egypt, with two quarry limestones from the area. The NMR results suggest that the casing stones consist of limestone grains from the Tura quarry, cemented with an amorphous calcium-silicate gel formed by human intervention, by the addition of extra silica, possibly diatomaceous earth, from the Fayium area.

More information can be found on this site: http://www.geopolymer.org/category/archaeology/pyramids

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Please add a big note that Joseph Davidovits' hypothesis isn't accepted by the international community and there is quite a bit of evidence against it. See for example this scientific publication that concludes: "There is no textural or microstructural evidence of a “reconstituted” limestone in the examined pyramid casing stones." Anyway, what does your answer have to do with the question? – Wladimir Palant Oct 28 '11 at 8:18
1500 people is entirely different number than hundreds of thousands which is the number you can find in most official historic education materials. If this is true than we can speculate that these people were not slaves but regularly paid workers. I don't know which theory is correct, but I emphasize that official picture of pyramide building is nothing more than myth. We are missing written evidence. – truthseeker Mar 4 '12 at 13:01
@WladimirPalant: If (and that's a big if) the casting theory is correct, then conceivably a much lesser workforce would be needed for the construction. I think that it is the relevance of truthseeker's answer. – Felix Goldberg Dec 25 '12 at 22:54
You can't cast stone like you cast iron. Unless you are a volcano. – Oldcat Mar 21 '14 at 0:28

There is no way to know since we do not know exactly how they were built. It is probably safe to assume that most of the labor was by slaves.

Slavery was common in ancient Egypt and slaves were widespread. One researcher, Rosalie David, in her book "The Ancient Egyptians (Beliefs & Practices)" Sussex Academic Press, estimated that up to 80% of the Egyptian population was composed of slaves and serfs. If this was true at the time the pyramids were built, then it would be inevitable that slaves were the majority of workers.

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The pyramids were built by farmers who either chose to or were made to by the order of the pharaoh. The people were not technically slaves because they were paid and it was in a good time of the year when the Nile flooded all the fields.

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Downvote: This is just conjecture - other conjectures are possible. Evidence needs to be adduced for an answer. – Felix Goldberg Dec 25 '12 at 22:55

The source was probably National Geographic and no, the workers were farmers forced or at their own will were chosen to work to build the Pharaoh's pyramid. The flooding of the Nile river prevented the farmers from farming and setting up the field.The workers were not slaves because they were paid, fed and had access to medical help. The workers were whipped because as a possible punishment.

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