Positive Progress Through The Benevolent Use Of Knowledge

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Who Built the Pyramids? Not slaves. Archeaologist Mark Lehner, digging deeper, discovers a city of privileged workers.

The pyramids and the Great Sphinx rise inexplicably from the desert at Giza, relics of a vanished culture. They dwarf the approaching sprawl of modern Cairo, a city of 16 million. The largest pyramid, built for the Pharaoh Khufu around 2530 B.C. and intended to last an eternity, was until early in the twentieth century the biggest building on the planet. To raise it, laborers moved into position six and a half million tons of stone—some in blocks as large as nine tons—with nothing but wood and rope. During the last 4,500 years, the pyramids have drawn every kind of admiration and interest, ranging in ancient times from religious worship to grave robbery, and, in the modern era, from New-Age claims for healing “pyramid power” to pseudoscientific searches by “fantastic archaeologists” seeking hidden chambers or signs of alien visitations to Earth. As feats of engineering or testaments to the decades-long labor of tens of thousands, they have awed even the most sober observers.
The question of who labored to build them, and why, has long been part of their fascination. Rooted firmly in the popular imagination is the idea that the pyramids were built by slaves serving a merciless pharaoh. This notion of a vast slave class in Egypt originated in Judeo-Christian tradition and has been popularized by Hollywood productions like Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, in which a captive people labor in the scorching sun beneath the whips of pharaoh’s overseers. But graffiti from inside the Giza monuments themselves have long suggested something very different.
Until recently, however, the fabulous art and gold treasures of pharaohs like Tutankhamen have overshadowed the efforts of scientific archaeologists to understand how human forces—perhaps all levels of Egyptian society—were mobilized to enable the construction of the pyramids. Now, drawing on diverse strands of evidence, from geological history to analysis of living arrangements, bread-making technology, and animal remains, Egyptologist Mark Lehner, an associate of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, is beginning to fashion an answer. He has found the city of the pyramid builders. They were not slaves.

"I first went to Egypt as a year-abroad student in 1973," he says, "...and ended up staying for 13 years." His way was paid by a foundation that believed a hall of records would be found beneath the paws of the Sphinx. Young Lehner, a minister's son from North Dakota, hoped to discover if that was true. But the more time he spent actually studying the Sphinx, the more he became convinced that the quest was misguided, and he exchanged its fantasies for a life grounded in archaeological study of the Giza plateau and its monuments.

Actually, he became, in the words of one employer, an "archaeological bum" who soon found work all over Egypt with German, French, Egyptian, British, and American expeditions. "At the end of these digs, there were lots of maps and drawings left to be done," he adds—steady work once the short dig season was over. Lehner discovered he had a knack for drafting, and got his first lessons in mapping and technical drawing from a German expert. "I fell in love with it," he confesses.
His first big break came in 1977, when the Stanford Research Institute conducted a remote sensing project at the Sphinx and the pyramids— a search for cavities using non-invasive technologies. The Sphinx is carved directly from the sedimentary rock at Giza, and sits below the surface of the surrounding plateau. Lehner was put in charge of a group of men cleaning out the U-shaped, cut-rock ditch that surrounds the monument, so that the sensing equipment could be brought in. In order to plot the locations of any anomalies, the largest existing surface maps of the Sphinx—about the length of an index finger—were enlarged and found to be extremely inaccurate.
By then a seasoned mapper, Lehner asked the director of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE, a consortium of institutions including museums and universities such as Harvard) if they would sponsor his effort to map the Sphinx. But Lehner, despite his experience in the field, didn't have a Ph.D. Running his own "dig" appeared to be out of the question until ARCE assistant director James Allen, an Egyptologist from the University of Chicago, essentially adopted Lehner professionally, took him under the wing of his own Ph.D., and designed a mapping project. The German Archaeological Institute loaned photogrammetric equipment, the sort used by highway departments for taking highly accurate stereoscopic photographs from the air, and Lehner soon produced the first scale drawings of the Sphinx, which are now on display at the Semitic Museum.

[view larger image]
Lehner's front photogrammetric elevation of the Great Sphinx. Below: As seen in a north elevation, weathered limestone and bedrock form the Sphinx's head and upper body. On the lower portions, restoration masonry predominates.
[view larger image]
Photogrammetric elevations by Mark Lehner
During the mapping, Lehner's close scrutiny of the Sphinx's worn and patched surface led him to wonder what archaeological secrets it might divulge. "There are layers of restoration masonry going back all the way to pharaonic times," he says, indicating that even then, "the Sphinx was severely weathered." What Lehner saw, in essence, was an archaeological site, in plain view, that had never been described.
To better understand the differential weathering in the natural layers of rock from which the Sphinx is cut, Lehner initially consulted a geologist with expertise in stone conservation. Then his interest in the geological forces that created the Giza plateau brought him into contact with a young geologist, Thomas Aigner, of the University of Tübingen, who was studying the local cycles of sedimentation. The layers in the lower slope of the plateau, where the Sphinx lies, tend to alternate between soft and hard rock. The softer layers of rock were deposited during geological eras when the area was a backwater lagoon protected by a coastal reef; they are highly vulnerable to erosion. Aigner pointed out to Lehner that the "hard-soft" sequence of layers in this part of the plateau would have made it easy for ancient stonecutters to extract blocks of stone for building. His analysis revealed that the stones used to build the temples in front of the Sphinx had been quarried from the ditch that surrounds it on three sides. Many of these huge blocks, some of them weighing in at hundreds of tons, are so big that they have two or three different geological layers running through them, and they are loaded with forminifera. Detailed logs of the fossils—gastropods, bivalves, sponges, and corals—in each block and layer allowed Lehner and Aigner to actually trace the stones back to the quarry. "We began to unbuild these temples in our minds," Lehner explains, "and realized that the same could be done for the pyramids themselves and for the whole Giza plateau."

No comments: