The builders of the famous Giza pyramids in Egypt feasted on food from a massive catering-type operation, the remains of which scientists have discovered at a workers' town near the pyramids.
The workers' town is located about 1,300 feet (400 meters) south of the Sphinx, and was used to house workers building the pyramid of pharaoh Menkaure, the third and last pyramid on the Giza plateau. The site is also known by its Arabic name, Heit el-Ghurab, and is sometimes called "the Lost City of the Pyramid Builders."
So far, researchers have discovered a nearby cemetery with bodies of pyramid builders; a corral with possible slaughter areas on the southern edge of workers' town; and piles of animal bones.
Based on animal bone findings, nutritional data, and other discoveries at this workers' town site, the archaeologists estimate that more than 4,000 pounds of meat — from cattle, sheep and goats — were slaughtered every day, on average, to feed the pyramid builders. [See Photos of the Unearthed Giza Pyramid Site]
This meat-rich diet, along with the availability of medical care (the skeletons of some workers show healed bones), would have been an additional lure for ancient Egyptians to work on the pyramids.
"People were taken care of, and they were well fed when they were down there working, so there would have been an attractiveness to that," said Richard Redding, chief research officer at Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), a group that has been excavating and studying the workers' town site for about 25 years.
"They probably got a much better diet than they got in their village," Redding told LiveScience.
Feeding the Giza workforce
At the workers' town, which was likely occupied for 35 years, researchers have discovered a plethora of animal bones. Although the researchers are still unsure of the exact number of bones, Redding estimates he has identified about 25,000 sheep and goats, 8,000 cattle and 1,000 pig bones, he wrote in a paper published in the book "Proceedings of the 10th Meeting of the ICAZ Working Group 'Archaeozoology of southwest Asia and adjacent Areas'" (Peeters Publishing, 2013).
About 10,000 workers helped build the Menkaure pyramid, with a smaller workforce present year-round to cut stones and complete preparation and survey work, the AERA team estimates. This smaller workforce would have ramped up for a few months starting around July of each year. "What they would do is, for about four or five months a year, they would bring in a big workforce to move blocks, and they would do nothing but move blocks," explained Redding, who is also a research scientist at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and a member of the faculty at the University of Michigan. [In Photos: The Beautiful Pyramids of Sudan]
Needless to say, pyramid building is hard work. The workers would need at least 45 to 50 grams of protein a day, Redding said. Half of this protein would likely come from fish, beans, lentils and other non-meat sources, while the other half would come from sheep, goat and cattle, he estimated. Milk and cheese were probably not consumed due to transportation problems and the cattle's low milk yield during that time, Redding said.
Combining these requirements and other protein sources with the ratio of the bones (and the amount of meat and protein one can get from an animal), Redding determined about 11 cattle and 37 sheep or goats were consumed each day.
This would be in addition to supplying workers with grain, beer and other products.
Vast herds ... and herders
In order to maintain this level of slaughter, the ancient Egyptians would have needed a herd of 21,900 cattle and 54,750 sheep and goats just to keep up regular delivery to the Giza workers, Redding estimates.
The animals alone would need about 155 square miles (401 square kilometers) of territory to graze. Add in fallow land, waste land, settlements and agricultural land for the herders, and this number triples to about 465 square miles (1,205 square km) of land — an area about the size of modern-day Los Angeles. Even so, this area would take up just about 5 percent of the present-day Nile Delta.
These animals also needed herders — likely one herder for every six cattle and one herder for every 50 sheep or goats, based on ethnographic observations. This brings the total number of herders to 3,650 overall and, once their families are included, 18,980, just under 2 percent of Egypt's estimated population at the time.
These herds would have been spread out in villages across the Nile Delta, then brought to the workers' town at Giza to be slaughtered and cooked. At the end of their lives, the animals were likely kept in the southern part of the town, in a recently unearthed structure that researchers have dubbed the "OK corral." ("OK" stands for "Old Kingdom," the time period in which the Giza pyramids were built.) The structure, which includes two small enclosures where animals may have been slaughtered and a rounded pen, is partly hidden under a modern-day soccer field. [Image Gallery: Amazing Egyptian Discoveries]
The boss eats the beef
The research revealed interesting details about life in the workers' town. For instance, the overseers — who lived in a structure the archaeologists call the "north street gatehouse" — got to eat the most cattle, and those living in an area called the "galleries," where the everyday workers lived, ate mainly sheep and goats.
Redding said it wasn’t surprising that the overseers preferred to dine on beef, considering it was the most valued meat in ancient Egypt. "Cattle is, of course, the highest-status meat," he said, noting that it appears far more frequently then sheep or goat in tomb scenes, and that pigs never appear in tomb scenes.
The settlement located adjacent to the workers' town, dubbed "eastern town," wasn't as rigidly planned as workers' town, and its residents were eating a considerable number of pigs, the researchers found. Evidence also suggested the people in eastern town were trading with people in workers' town for hippo-tusk fragments.
These finds suggest that the residents of the eastern town were not as directly involved in pyramid building and had a special relationship with the pyramid workers.
"They were not provisioned; they were not given their meat and food every day," like those in the workers' town were, Redding said. "It's more of a typical urban farming settlement, and there was a symbiotic relationship between the two —probably," he said.
Future discoveries at Giza
Research at workers' town suggests that not all the workers lived there and some may have actually camped out near the Giza pyramids.
"What we think now is — and this is something we're going to be coming out with in the next little while — is that, more likely, it was a large portion of the workforce, the more skilled laborers [living at workers' town], and that there were temporary camps up by the pyramids where the temporary workers who came in would be housed," he said.
"They probably (didn’t) need much in the way of housing; they would need more shade than anything else. They wouldn't need any kind of warmth because it wouldn't be winter."
Future studies will look for the remains of the workers' towns of Khufu and Khafre, the two other pharaohs who built pyramids at Giza. A dump area, investigated in the 1950s, may hold them; seal impressions found at the dump have the rulers' names on them.
"What we think was going on was that Menkaure came along, he establishes his reign, he leveled that whole area and he took all the levelling debris, took it to the top of the hill and threw it over the back in a big dump," Redding said.
"That dump on the back side of the ridge may represent a remnant of Khufu and Khafre's construction's town," Redding said, adding that he hopes new excavations will begin on the dump in the next year or two.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.