Shortly after ascending the throne in 2589BC, Pharaoh Khufu commanded his overseer of works to prepare a burial place in keeping with his status as a god-king, a pyramid tomb far grander than anything that had been built before or since. A site was chosen on the Giza plateau west of the Nile across from his capital at Memphis. The site was surveyed and levelled to provide a foundation for Khufu's Great Pyramid.
As the slaves cut the first stones for the pyramid from nearby quarries, thousands more began building the causeway, erecting storehouses and digging a canal to link the foot of the plateau to the Nile. Meanwhile scribes, the Pharaoh's project managers, dispatched orders for more supplies.
A town was built for the crafts people where they were provided with houses, food, clothing and even medical care. Less comfortable accommodation in the form of barracks was provided for the slaves.
Through Khufu's reign, the construction site teemed with workers of all kinds hard pressed to complete the monument before the king's death. Khufu and his architects did not make it easy for them. The royal planners decided to enlarge the structure several times and relocate the burial chamber from beneath the structure to its inner reaches. Day after day, year after year, the quarries rang with the sound of hammer and chisel on stone. Through the dust the dusky bodies of naked quarry slaves stand darkly against the yellow stone. After the stone blocks are hacked out of the quarry face they are lowered onto sledges. A note of each load is taken down by a scribe.
From dawn to dusk, naked slaves dragged sledges loaded with stones each weighing about 2.5 tons each to staging areas at the base of the pyramid. Here the skilled masons chiselled the blocks to prescribed dimensions, smoothed the sides and squared the corners. Slaves then reloaded the sledge and began hauling them slowly up the ramp that spiralled around the emerging structure. The noise here was one of chanting slaves and the rumble of heavy sledges. Water is poured under the blades of the sledges to ease their passage.
When the sledges reached the working level teams of slaves called setters shifted the blocks from the sledges into their designated positions. Toiling below were the tool makers, cooks, porters and guards under the watchful eyes of the scribes.
Other slaves were employed in maintaining and extending the ramps as the pyramid grew. Rows of slave labourers are seen breaking up waste material from the quarries, mixing them with the desert tafla clay and loading the finished mixture into baskets. Individual baskets are loaded onto the shoulders of slaves for delivery to the ramp builders on the pyramid.
Barges made from papyrus reeds deliver fine limestone from Tura just across the river and granite from Aswan over 400 miles upriver. Some of the granite stones from Aswan weighed up to 70 tons. Copper chisels were using for quarrying limestone but harder stones such as granite required stronger materials. Balls of dolerite, a hard, black igneous rock, were used in the quarries of Aswan to extract hard granite.
These dolerite "pounders" were used to pulverize the stone
around the edge of the granite block that needed to be extracted.
Teams of 60 to 70 slaves would pound out the stone. At the bottom,
they rammed wooden pegs into slots they had cut, and filled the
slots with water. The pegs would expand, splitting the rock. Slaves
would then slide the blocks onto the barges.
Shortly after coming to the throne the Pharaoh would command his overseer of public works and architects to prepare a burial place in keeping with his status as a god-king. The chosen site was usually one on the edge of the cultivated land in an already established pyramid field. The royal survey team set to work marking out the site. Great care was taken in orientating the site to the four points of the compass and in levelling the site to provide a foundation for the pyramid. When the slaves had cleared away the sand and rubble highly skilled masons were called in to level the foundations. This was done by cutting a grid of channels and filling them with water. The rock was then cut back to the water level to make it perfectly flat. Finally the water was drained away and the channels filled with rubble. Some of them were free men doing particular tasks such as masons, tool makers, carpenters, scribes and supervisors. Many of course were unskilled slave labourers. The slaves could expect to be fed and watered but little else. They are all naked too low in status to wear clothes. Through the Pharaoh's reign, the construction site teemed with workers of all kinds toiling in the hot sun to complete the monument before the king's death. Day after day, year after year, the quarries rang with the sound of hammer and chisel on stone. After they had cut deep enough to define a block, they packed the riven rock with pieces of porous wood. A slave boy pours water on the wood in the hole. The wood expands so fast that the block splits out with a crack. After the stone blocks are extracted from the quarry face they are lowered onto sledges. A mark is made on the stone by a scribe. This aided them to place the blocks in the pyramid just as they came out of the quarry ensuring a better fit than random blocks without further finishing. From dawn to dusk, slave gangs drag the sledges loaded with stones each weighing about two tons to staging areas at the base of the pyramid. Most of the stone blocks proceed up the ramp without future handling. Only a fraction of the stone blocks needed to be cut to precise dimensions by the masons. The slaves begin hauling the loaded sledges slowly up the clay and rubble ramp. Whether it was a single long or spiralling ramp depends on the size of pyramid. The noise on the ramp was one of chanting slaves, the rumble of heavy sledges and the swish of the overseer's lash. Years of experience ensured that the overseer never missed his mark, as its thong wrapped around its unfortunate victim's naked body. Boys pour water under the runners of the sledges to reduce friction to ease their passage up the ramp. When the sledges reached the working level teams of slaves called setters shifted the blocks from the sledges into their designated positions using simple levers, brute force and experience gained from years of hard labour. Once the stones had been delivered the hauling gang would make their weary way down the ramp carrying their sledge, in order to make the same back breaking journey up as they would several times a day. Other slaves are employed in maintaining and extending the ramps as the pyramid grew. These ramps are made of rubble, bound together with desert tafla (a type of clay) and laid with planks to ease the passage of the sledges. Rows of slaves are seen breaking up waste material from the quarries, mixing them with the desert tafla clay and loading the finished mixture into baskets. Individual baskets are loaded onto the shoulders of slaves for delivery to the ramp builders on the pyramid. Granite came from Aswan located 400 miles to the south. Granite was used for the lining of the burial chamber and the internal passage leading to it or in some instances the lower courses of the pyramid. These blocks were the largest in size used on the structure, for example, some of the granite stones used on the Great Pyramid at Giza weighs up to 70 tons. Copper chisels used for quarrying limestone could not be used, a harder material was required. Balls of dolerite, a hard, black igneous rock, were used in the quarries of Aswan to extract the hard granite. This is a place of great heat, dust and noise a hellish place to be sent to work. These dolerite "pounders" were used to pulverize the stone around the edge of the granite block that needed to be extracted. Teams of slaves pound away for weeks in order to expose enough stone for the block to be extracted from the quarry. At the bottom, they ram wooden pegs into slots they have cut, and fill the slots with water. The pegs will expand and split the rock with a resounding crack much more impressive than anything heard with the softer limestone. Long lines of slaves, their bare bodies covered in the dust of the quarry and gleaming with sweat, drag the loaded sledges along a causeway to the river. Here the great stones hewn with so much effort and suffering will be loaded onto barges and floated down the river. At any one time as many as 30,000 workers may have been involved on this massive project. Some of them were professional craftsmen most however were slaves.