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The Diet of Pyramid Builders

July 22, 2013 | by Katie Vloet

Who built them—slaves, or well-compensated workers? How were they built? What are they made of? What do they symbolize?

Nearly everything about the Egyptian pyramids raises questions and inspires scientific investigation; they are the classic riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside geometric walls of limestone.

One of the greatest mysteries: What did the pyramid builders eat?

It had to be enough to sustain the workers through grueling days, weeks, years. Research led by Richard Redding, a research scientist at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, has helped shed light on the answer to this question. In short, the builders ate meat. Lots and lots of meat. Often with a side of meat.

“They probably had better diets than [people] did in the village. They definitely had more meat,” said Redding, (’71, Ph.D. ’81), also chief research officer and archaeozoologist at Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), a nongovernmental organization that runs a field school at the Giza pyramids.

Photo (top): Richard Redding (right) in the lab with a colleague.

Bringing Up the Bones

Redding’s team made the discovery of the meat-heavy diet based on 175,000 animal bones and bone fragments found at the Giza pyramid settlement—mostly cattle, sheep, and goats, with a smaller number of pig bones. He and other archaeologists from AERA, along with other U-M archaeology students who worked at the site through the years, studied the bones to estimate the large amount of meat that would have gone to the workers. They also looked for an explanation of where the animals were raised and slaughtered.

They made the assumption, based on their findings, that the Giza settlement was run by a central authority or administration. “The administrators would have organized drives of sheep, goats, and cattle from the Nile Delta, along the edge of the high desert, to move the required animals to Giza,” Redding said. The workers’ town was located about 1,300 feet south of the Sphinx, and was used to house workers building the pyramid of the pharaoh Menkaure. The process of taking the meat directly to the workers inspired a news headline about Redding’s research that read, “Ancient Burger Vans.”

While Redding and his AERA team are looking at animal bones, their main goal isn’t to learn more about the animals but rather the people who built the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence.

“We’re trying to humanize the pyramids, to put people there, by finding out where the workers lived and how they lived,” said Redding, who began working on Old Kingdom sites in Egypt since 1983 after leaving a politically turbulent Iran.

Math, Maps, and Herds

Unearthing the details about the workers’ lives is a long, often tedious process of, for instance, sorting the tens of thousands of animal bones, while also applying Redding’s rich knowledge of animal behavior to figure out how the raising and transport of such huge numbers of animals was possible in ancient times.

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Ancient Egypt Research Associates, the organization of which LSA research scientist Richard Redding is part, runs a field school at the Giza pyramids. Students work alongside experts to learn a variety of archaeological skills and techniques. 

For example, with about 12 hours of daylight each day, one could walk the animals for no more than two hours, let them feed for eight, then return for two. The distance the animals could travel in two hours was about five kilometers, so, Redding says, “you can draw a circle of five kilometers around each village, and you can estimate the villages that reared animals for the pyramid builders would be about 10 kilometers apart. Villages tend to be located near rivers. Also, if you put a village on a levee, you’ll stay dry during a flood.

“So there should be another village 10 kilometers away, on the levee.” And that’s just one element of the intricate choreography of math, geography, and science central to understanding the lives of the pyramid builders.

Laboratory in the Sand

Redding is a thoughtful academic, accustomed to explaining things thoroughly and evenly. But ask him how the pyramids have held his interest throughout much of his professional life, and he’ll lean forward, talking excitedly. He remains fascinated by the ways that society developed around the building of the pyramids, where people slept (in platform beds with pillow-shaped pieces of stone), how they made bread (in conical molds), and what they used for refrigeration (working hypothesis: a space that opened toward the west wind). He also appreciates that he and his team can feel confident about their hypotheses because the area they are studying near the pyramids was so short-lived and well preserved.

“One of the beautiful things about this site where we’ve been working is that we know it was occupied for about 30 years. We can dig into relationships between people very deeply. When you find objects from one place in another place, you know it was deposited from the first place. How did it get there? That’s something we can find the answer to.

“It’s really the perfect laboratory.”

The pyramid digs are a vital part of the education of many students, including Kelly Wilcox (’07), who traveled twice with Redding to Egypt. “Most other archaeologists I speak to are envious that my field school training was in Giza. Richard was a fantastic mentor, and the experience I gained working abroad, conducting research, and being immersed in a different culture was both educational and humbling,” says Wilcox, now an anthropology Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. “Even though I work primarily in India now, I still get a little jealous when I know the team is getting together to kick off a new season in Egypt.”

 

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