The claim: Paid, skilled workers built the pyramids without the use of slave labor.

Relevant links: Hawass: ‘The Great Pyramids were not built by slaves’

“Linking building the Great Pyramids to slavery is a comical thing to say,” replied Zahi Hawass to some English newspaper commentary.

Hawass asserted that if the pyramids were built by forced labor, their tombs would not be built next to the pyramids.

Hawass further indicated that forced labor can build huge buildings, but they cannot be creative, and building pyramids is creative. Slaves cannot perform this engineering and scientific miracle.

Egypt: New Find Shows Slaves Didn't Build Pyramids

More Evidence Slaves Didn't Build Pyramids

From Wikipedia, Slavery in Ancient Egypt:

There were three types of enslavement in Ancient Egypt: chattel slavery, bonded labor, and forced labor. But even these types of slavery are susceptible to individual interpretation based on evidence and research. Egypt's labor culture is represented by many men and women, and it is difficult to claim their social status into one category. [...] Forms of forced labor and servitude are seen throughout all of ancient Egypt even though it wasn’t specifically declared as the well known term we have today, slavery.

Personally, I’m skeptical about the idea that these recent discoveries provide enough evidence to suggest that slaves were not involved at all or didn’t account for a significant portion of the labor. Does evidence of paid workers indicate evidence that slaves weren’t used? Does Egypt have an incentive to promote the idea that slave labor was not involved at all and potentially exaggerate the significance of this evidence?

What I’m curious about:

  • How conclusive is the evidence we have in demonstrating that a large majority of workers involved were not slaves?

  • How conclusive is it in demonstrating that no slaves were involved in its construction?

  • In the (hypothetical) absence of more evidence suggesting many workers involved in other aspects of the pyramids’ construction (quarrying and transporting the stone, for instance) were paid laborers, does it make sense in the historical context of slavery in Egypt that no slaves would have been involved?

  • Also, this seems to be asking to show a negative. – Larian LeQuella Jul 20 at 12:51
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    @LarianLeQuella an answer could show that A). There is evidence of slavery involved, or B). There is no known evidence of slavery involved (but not necessarily guaranteeing that there wasn't). While answering definitively "No" would be proving a negative, I think a reasonable argument would be to show the research done into it and that there is no known evidence of such, and answering "Yes" would just require showing evidence that slavery was involved. Not totally disagreeing with you, but it should be answerable in a reasonable manner. – fyrepenguin Jul 20 at 20:11
  • It already is at History.SE: What kind of labor was used to build the Egyptian pyramids? – Rebecca J. Stones Jul 21 at 2:55
  • @RebeccaJ.Stones - That question at History.SE is nine years old, making the answers there preclude recent evidence. – David Hammen Jul 21 at 6:53
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    Regarding the "negative evidence" problem, it would, at least in theory, be possible to show evidence for a sufficient paid workforce that slaves would have been unnecessary. As an extreme example, imagine we had a detailed payroll, broken down by job description, and it included all the roles you would expect to be necessary to build the pyramids. While not technically proof that there weren't slaves helping them, it would be strong evidence that they were not a major part of the workforce. – IMSoP Jul 22 at 20:36

Overall, I would say that we still don't know for sure, but the general consensus of the experts seems to be that the labor force that built the pyramids were not free wage workers in the modern sense, but there is no evidence to suggest they were chattel slaves to any significant extent.

Here is a nice short article, "Who built the pyramids" from Harvard Magazine, highlighting the work of Egyptologist Mark Lehner who excavated the facilities where pyramid-building laborers lived.

It describes various bits of evidence that workers were probably not slaves, such as the fact that they seemed to have been eating large quantities of meat. But I think the most significant point might be this:

Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been excavating a “workers’ cemetery” just above Lehner’s city on the plateau, sees forensic evidence in the remains of those buried there that pyramid building was hazardous business. Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer, says Lehner, lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. “People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice.” Plug that into the pyramid context, says Lehner, “and you have to say, ‘This is a hell of a barn!’”

Lehner currently thinks Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a lord. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy. “But it doesn’t really work as a word for slavery,” he says. “Even the highest officials owed bak.”

The article concludes with the disclaimer that this hypothesis is still subject to peer review and further research. That said, I can find no solid reason to doubt the following, reported in US News and World Report:

Dieter Wildung, a former director of Berlin's Egyptian Museum, said it is "common knowledge in serious Egyptology" that the pyramid builders were not slaves and that the construction of the pyramids and the story of the Israelites in Egypt were separated by hundreds of years.

"The myth of the slaves building pyramids is only the stuff of tabloids and Hollywood," Wildung told The Associated Press by telephone. "The world simply could not believe the pyramids were build without oppression and forced labor, but out of loyalty to the pharaohs."

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  • Excellent answer. I like the parsing of "slavery" and servitude in general. In the final quote, that is unfortunately lacking. "Oppression" and "forced labor" are indeed possible under feudal/religious contexts, though maybe not of the whipping-starving-beating variety. The final quote presents the same false dichotomy in the question: That they were either beaten and starved slaves or well-treated and paid laborers. More likely, neither is the case. – fredsbend Jul 23 at 20:12
  • @frеdsbend I don't see the Wildung quote as reflecting that dichtomy at all. Saying that people were motivated by loyalty doesn't imply that they were well-treated and paid. The evidence does show that many were well "paid" (in kind) but that also doesn't imply they were "free" in the modern sense. – Brian Z Jul 23 at 20:20
  • The USNews article claims they were paid, although it doesn't say what that assumption is based on. Wikipedia says Evidence suggests that around 5,000 were permanent workers on salaries with the balance working three- or four-month shifts in lieu of taxes while receiving subsistence "wages"... (which can probably be followed to a more authoritative source... I was lazy). – Tgr Jul 25 at 15:52
  • @Tgr The evidence about wages is discussed in the Harvard article. – Brian Z Jul 26 at 22:29

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