Pharaohs’ Tomb Builders Made a Career Out of It : SCIENCE FILE / An exploration of issues and trends affecting science, medicine and the environment


The Sphinx was built by aliens--silver-colored visitors from space, not workers from Nubia.

Ramses’ tomb was built by slave laborers who were killed after it was finished so that its location could not be revealed.

The ancient Egyptians must have had access to high technology that has subsequently been lost, or they couldn’t have moved the mammoths blocks used to construct the pyramids.

These exotic notions have long colored our perception of the wonders to be found on the arid deserts of Egypt, but a series of new discoveries over the last decade have given the lie to all of them.


The actual situation, while not nearly as dramatic, is probably just as intriguing as what Kent Weeks calls “these aging wives’ tales.” Excavations have shown that each of the monumental areas of ancient Egypt had its own village of sophisticated, well-paid and highly respected workers who were responsible for implementing the Pharaoh’s visions.

For the Valley of the Kings, the workmen’s village lies about a mile south at Dair-el-medina. There, a group of skilled workmen lived throughout most of the New Kingdom, which lasted from 1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C., passing down their professions to their sons and digging all of the tombs in the valley. “From this workmen’s village, we can reconstruct many generations of families,” Weeks said. “We know their names, we know who married whom; it can go on for half a dozen generations.”

Two recent books--"Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs” by Morris L. Bierbrier and “Ancient Lives: Daily Life in Egypt of the Pharaohs” by John Romer--provide a remarkably detailed overview of what life must have been like for them.

The tomb builders had a 10-day workweek, digging for 10 days and then taking two off. “We know when they took days off and why they took them--because it was a national holiday, they were going to visit a sick relative, or because their in-laws were coming over for dinner,” Weeks said.

Surprisingly, they had an eight-hour day. When they left for work in the morning, they were given a wick that was known to burn for eight hours. When the wick burned out, it was time to go home.

Inside the tomb, it was extremely hot, extremely dusty-"Not a job I would have enjoyed,” Weeks said. Light for digging was provided by sunlight reflected in through the narrow entrance by polished copper mirrors, and by lamps with a floating wick in which they would place a pinch of salt to hold down smoking.

Workers were divided up into two teams, one for the left side of the tomb, one for the right.

Their tools were simple, made from copper and flint. Rough shaping was accomplished with flint tools, and then surfaces were polished with sandstone or other abrasive stones, before fine detail work was accomplished with copper tools. The copper implements were very soft and would have required constant resharpening.

This reliance on copper tools, in fact, is one of the main reasons Egypt went into a period of decline after the reign of Ramses, Weeks noted. “The rest of the ancient Middle East discovered iron, and Egypt at the time had no iron and thus was at a very serious disadvantage in making weapons of war,” he said.

Despite the poor working conditions and the limited tools, the laborers worked fast. Weeks estimates that the entire tomb of Ramses’ sons was built in less than three years. But they still did a good job. “Ramses II certainly spared no expense in this tomb,” he said. “The quality of the work, the high quality of the decorations, is second to none.”