Graffiti in the Giza Pyramids

I had remembered reading something about strange markings a robot discovered while exploring the tunnels in the Great Pyramid of Giza a while ago and talking about pyramids in class recently made me curious to see what had become of them. I came across two articles, which I’ll link below. One of them, from CNN examines hidden graffiti that has recently been examined at the Great Pyramid, and the second is a NOVA interview with Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner about who built the pyramids.

The robot, named Djedi after the magician Khufu consulted when building the Great Pyramid, captured images of a number of hieroglyphics written in red. A Harvard professor remarked that the marking were similar to ones found across Egypt, and that they usually marked the work gang that built the room. These graffiti marking often show up in places that were never meant to be found like the foundations exposed when archaeologists dig below floor level. These marking give us a picture into the organization of the workers who built Egypt’s large monuments, the Great Pyramid in particular. Any particular gang of workmen was divided into two crews which were then divided into five phyles, the Greek word for “tribe”. The phyles are divided into divisions with each division identified by a single hieroglyph. This knowledge comes from the burial chambers within the pyramids where these marking are found. Archaeologists find a cartouche of a king with some red markings beside it, this represents the group of workers who were working there. In the Old Kingdom, gangs of workers were named after kings, and then the divisions differentiated by what they called themselves. One well preserved marking, in the King’s Burial Chamber of the Great Pyramid, reads “The Friends of Khufu Gang”. Now this really interested me because many traditional, older theories for the construction of the pyramids involved large slave forces. But workers calling themselves “The Friends of Khufu” doesn’t sound a whole lot like slavery. On some monuments, archaeologists have found the sign of one gang on one side of the monument, and the sign of another gang on the other side, making it seem like groups of workers were competing with each other to see who could get the most done.

Reading about how workers in ancient Egypt were tagging their works makes me think that these workers were proud of what they were doing. They weren’t coerced into manual labor by oppression, and they certainly weren’t treated like slaves. These workers saw the grandeur and magnificence of what they were undertaking and they were proud to do the work.

Here are the articles:

3 thoughts on “Graffiti in the Giza Pyramids

  1. Elaina Wilson

    Before reading this post, this was not something that I had been aware of. Personally, I think it is absolutely fascinating to think that the people who worked on the pyramids left graffiti on them. When studying the people of Egypt, and really any ancient state, it is sometimes hard to imagine that these people are in fact people and probably think and act in the same ways and for similar reasons that we might today.
    I can definitely see the merit in what you discuss at the end of your post, the idea that the workers took great pride in contributing the these truly monumental projects. It seems only fitting, especially when you consider the religious importance inherent in the burial practices, especially for the Pharaohs. Contributing to these massive structures must certainly have been a point of pride, and like any artist they seem to have marked their work, even if the marks were not intended to be seen.
    This topic actually reminded me of reading about the graffiti found in the city of Pompeii here:

    Beyond things like builder’s mark, Pompeii was covered with all manner oif things that we would see on the bathroom walls. Most of them are actually kind of funny and they represent an interesting picture of life, frozen by the disaster that struck that area.

  2. Allison Apland

    It doesn’t surprise me based on the lecture in class earlier this week that workers in the pyramids were proud of what they did. If the skilled laborers were living together in a special town near the pyramids, I imagine there would be a lot of comradery among the people working together and living together. For the unskilled laborers, if they were farmers for most of the year, it might not be so bad to work on the pyramids when there is no agricultural work to be done. They would be used to the hard labor, and it makes sense that they would be proud of the great achievement they were taking part in. Also, if farmers were coming from all across Egypt to work on these projects together, they would have the opportunity to meet all kinds of new people form outside their usual acquaintances back home. To me, this sounds like a story they could tell their grandkids, even though that sounds cheesy.

    I understand why it would be easy to assume that slavery was involved because of the sheer number of people that would need to be involved in such a large project and the general unpleasantness of the unskilled work. However, I think that the evidence we have including this newfound graffiti paints a more complex picture. In a later town of artisans in the New Kingdom, it is clear that the people took their work very seriously and many were also invested in the state ideology because of their work in the tombs. It would have been honorable to help give your pharaoh a marvelous send-off to the afterlife.

  3. Alison Alessi

    Workers weren’t always proud of their work. Sometimes they could be highly critical of the pharaoh, in a very crude way. There is an unfinished tomb with graffiti left behind by some of the workers that depicts a sexual act between a hermaphrodite and a male. The theory is that the hermaphrodite is Queen Hatshepsut and one of her stewards, Senenmut. Perhaps this indicates a dislike of of a cross-dressing female pharaoh by her subjects. Perhaps work conditions weren’t very good at this time. Maybe they ran out of money during the project and couldn’t pay the workers. Whatever the case, it cam be assumed that if the artist was caught, the penalty would be severe. So, Pompeii isn’t the only place we can find ancient graffiti that rivals a modern day bathroom stall. This graffiti, though extremely crude in nature, must have been very important for someone to risk so much to draw it. Either the artist really disagreed with politics at the time, or he was stupid enough to risk his life over a doodle. In any case, it’s still funny that people were doing this stuff even back then. On Royal tombs no less.
    My guess is that working conditions at the Great Pyramid were good. People must have been getting fed and paid. Also, the great pyramid is a bigger monument than what was being built in Hatshepsut’s time. Makes sense that they would be more proud to work on such a large and impressive structure.

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