Lost City

Has an American archaeologist finally found the home of the 20,000 workers who built the great pyramids of Giza?

By Tom Tavee and Jack McClintock
Oct 1, 2001 5:00 AMJul 19, 2023 6:19 PM


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The hat is in the hole. Crouched on one knee under the searing sun a few hundred yards south of the Sphinx, his signature green felt hat on his head and a trowel sticking out of his hip pocket, Mark Lehner sweeps dust with a paintbrush from the remains of an ancient wall. His keen blue eyes and long, sun-reddened nose zero in as he takes measurements with fervent exactitude— and, today, ill-concealed excitement. He adds another tiny mark to his precise drawing. Since he unearthed this wall just a week ago, he has hardly stopped thinking about it. Could it be the royal palace he's been seeking— home of those who ruled the workers who built the pyramids?

The mysterious Wall of the Crow separates Egyptologist Mark Lehner's dig from the pyramids at Giza.

For nearly 30 years, Lehner, a respected authority on ancient Egypt's Sphinx and pyramids, has labored to answer a perplexing question: Where did the more than 20,000 people who built these mysterious monuments live? He is convinced the people lived right here on the Giza plateau, in a lost city that is among the world's oldest, dating from roughly 2500 B.C. So far, he's found plenty of evidence of their work— but thousands of houses, if they exist, still lie invisible beneath the sand.

"We're finding the everyday structures that supported the pyramid-building," says Lehner, squinting against the sun, his hat providing the only shade. "We know from tomb scenes that the people who lived here baked bread, and now we've found the real thing— real bakeries. We've found real streets, real galleries, a great production complex organized in long streets and corridors. We've found Egypt's oldest hypostyle hall, oldest paved street, oldest faience works. It's the largest exposure of an Old-Kingdom [2575-2130 B.C.] settlement, where Egyptians actually carried out work, as opposed to just building tombs and monuments." He pauses. "But why did we find enough bones to have fed 6,000 people a day if they ate meat daily— which they probably didn't— but no houses? Where were all the people? It's very strange, and very cool that we don't know— because that means we're onto something."

Just this week, after decades of digging and measuring, Lehner thinks he may have found a royal residence, home of the ruler whom the laborers served. But in an e-mail dispatch sent home to financial supporters, he doesn't permit himself to use the word palace. So far it's just a "double-walled, buttressed building." He has exposed only a corner of it. He knows that Egyptian royal residences tended to be oriented cleanly from north to south, as this building is, while the rest of the complex is skewed significantly clockwise. If this structure does turn out to be a palace, it will clinch Lehner's notion that there was a workers' city at Giza— no palace could exist without people living nearby to sustain it. And this building is big. Very big. Lehner's hat-shaded face shows surprise, hope, and excitement. "I'm very intrigued by this," he says carefully. "It's possibly fairly significant. It's very suggestive. I can't say, but it looks like a big deal."

Intellectual rigor and caution came slowly to Lehner. In the mixed-up 1960s and early 1970s, he was a rebellious drifter— college dropout and follower of the self-proclaimed psychic Edgar Cayce, who believed that denizens of Atlantis helped build the pyramids in 10,500 B.C., stashed their ancient wisdom in a "Hall of Records" beneath the Sphinx's forepaws, and vanished without a trace. Boomeranging aimlessly around the United States, Lehner landed at Cayce headquarters in Virginia Beach, where the powers decided, he says, "I was destined for Egypt, to find the Hall of Records." The Cayce organization gave him financial support so that he could study anthropology at the American University in Cairo. Soon after he arrived, in 1973, he hopped the bus to Giza.

Mark Lehner stands on the windy knoll where he believes an ancient Egyptian architect once envisioned the pyramid of Khufu (Cheops)

At first he was disappointed. "It was hot and dusty and not very majestic," he recalls. Before long, he was spending all his spare time on the Giza plateau, watching the sun rise and set over the pyramids and the Sphinx. He became obsessed by the place and began to shed the Cayce fantasies. "I became very familiar with Giza physically, making notes on my three-by-five cards and taking pictures with my old Leica," he says. "There were thousands of tombs of real people, statues of real people with real names, and none of them figured in the Cayce stories. I was finding survey holes in the stone, pottery shards, and charcoal from cooking fires in the mortar between the stones in the pyramids. When the Cayce people came to visit, I was increasingly irritated to be with them. The bedrock reality just didn't match up with their worldview."

As Lehner points out, we've known for generations who built the pyramids. "The Egyptians built them— the pharaohs— Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure, real people with real names and real lives. Why are people looking for an alternative, for some advanced civilization? It doesn't get any better than this. This is an advanced civilization."

That profound shift in his thinking, a vital step down the road to becoming a scientist, didn't happen easily. It meant letting go of a belief system he had relied upon, and the loss was wrenching. Over time Lehner learned to put his trust in the scientific method. Today he calls himself "a hard-assed skeptic" but remains friendly with former Cayce comrades. He isn't a man to abandon old friends.

In 1979 the American Research Center in Egypt agreed to sponsor his first major project: mapping the Sphinx. "Although it's the most prominent of Middle Eastern monuments, it had never been carefully studied until Mark went at it," says Peter Lacovara, curator of ancient art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta. Lehner spent five years clambering across the 66-foot colossus, measuring every stone with a folding rule and a tape measure, dropping his plumb bob from every conceivable height. He carefully triangulated nearly 100 separate points on the face alone. "I was a good mapper, a good artistic hand," he says, "and I really fell in love with it." He produced a detailed scale drawing six feet long, and as he unrolls it today on the dining room floor of the villa he rents in Giza, he smiles. "I tell people, 'Pick a block, check it out, keep me honest.'" He says no one has yet found an error. When the Sphinx was restored, starting in the late 1980s, Lehner's map was invaluable.

Over the years Lehner came to know the Giza plateau intimately. He learned its geology, its history, its archaeology, and used them all to understand how the plateau had evolved. Originally it formed as a shell embankment beneath the sea. When the waters receded 50 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch, the plateau became dry land. Today it consists of a limestone plate called the Mokattam Formation: a high, fossil-packed embankment to the northwest, on which the pyramids were built, and a slope of alternating layers of hard and soft limestone to the southeast, where the Sphinx lies.

On the advice of a friend, Lehner began approaching the plateau from the south, rather than from the north and east as most tourists do. He spent many afternoons on top of a windy knoll, contemplating the layered, pitted landscape geologists had described. Eventually he had read so much, talked to so many scholars, and lain awake so many nights thinking how the monuments might have been built that a picture began forming in his head— "my epiphany in the desert," he calls it. In his mind, he saw kilt-clad workers toiling in the quarries, cutting through the softer layers of limestone blocks with copper chisels and stone pickaxes. He saw granite-laden boats sailing down the Nile from Aswan and into a canal-fed harbor. He imagined other boats bringing finer limestone from Tura, just across the Nile, to encase the pyramids in gleaming white. Lehner came to understand how thousands of years ago someone else, Khufu's architect, might have envisioned this place: where to place the quarries, the canals, the workshops— the city.

An exposed corner of the "double-walled, buttressed building" that may have been a palace.

Lehner knew that he would need further academic training and credentials to continue his search, so he returned to the United States in 1985 to study for a Ph.D. in archaeology at Yale. In 1990 he took a job teaching Egyptian archaeology at the University of Chicago, but Giza fever was in his blood. The Cayce people had been right about Lehner— he was "destined for Egypt."

While he was teaching, his friend, archaeologist Zahi Hawass, now Director of the Pyramids, began digging at Giza, less than a half mile south of the pyramids. Over time, Hawass has discovered the graves of 600 skilled tomb builders and 82 larger tombs of overseers and artisans. Skeletal remains inside told of men who had worked hard and died in their thirties. Some had healed fractures, others had endured successful amputations, suggesting sophisticated medical treatment. Hawass and Lehner say this quality of care argues that they weren't slaves. "Why do we think first of slavery and coercion?" Lehner says rhetorically. "I think we think slaves because of our inherited biblical and classical traditions. It is hard for us— used to such individual liberty and wage labor— to conceive of life in a more traditional society. We cannot assume they reacted, acted, thought, and felt the way we do about obligations to the greater community." More likely, he says, based on contemporaneous graffiti and roll-call records from later periods, they were peasant laborers who rotated into and out of work parties. Graffiti carved by workers in places that were never meant to be seen show that they proudly named themselves "Friends of Khufu" and "Drunkards of Menkaure." They had built the mighty leaders' monuments— and miniature versions for themselves.

Lehner grew increasingly restless in Chicago as Hawass's work revealed a story much like the one he'd written in his imagination years earlier. Knowing that workers had been buried next to the monuments they'd built, he grew more certain that they must also have lived nearby. Although Lehner had spent some time in Giza each year, digging a few 161/2-foot-square "windows in the sand," as he calls them, it was not enough. In 1995 he packed his trowel, put on his green felt hat, and headed for Egypt.

Back in Giza, Lehner threw himself into digging in the southeast corner of the plateau, just south of the Sphinx and downhill from the workers' cemetery. The site was one of the last unexcavated areas around the base of the plateau, a spot where local residents tossed trash and stable litter. Lehner's team collected, recorded, and studied everything: plant remains, animal bones, ceramics, stones, charcoal, and pressed-mud sealings, labels of quick-drying mud stamped with hieroglyphics. "They're a real asset because generally there aren't many texts here, and they provide names of kings, officials, institutions," he says. Sealings collected here suggest that the site dates as far back as Khufu, builder of the first pyramid. Unlike earlier explorers, who just plunged into the sand with shovels or even tried to blow holes in the pyramids with dynamite, Lehner is doing this dig by the book, preserving every tiny piece of evidence. "We're getting a total information package on the plateau— environment, climate, migratory paths of birds," he says. "We've had specialists in hearths, in animal bone, in ceramics, in lithics. We've salvaged 300,000 fragments of charcoal, 18,000 bits of labeled stone chips, 650 paleobotanical samples, 100,000 pottery shards." A thrilling moment for Lehner was finding where the bread was made that fed the multitudes: "We found the bakeries, the tail of the tiger— this huge archaeological animal." After he identified the bakeries— small rooms where huge loaves were baked in heavy, bell-shaped clay pots— "we started chasing the walls," Lehner says.

Workers dig painstakingly with paintbrushes and trowels.

In another square, Lehner found a copper works with a small clay furnace, then a few small chambers similar to workers' houses found at other sites in Egypt. He found the hypostyle hall— so called because of its column-supported roof— lined with low benches separated by troughs. Everywhere they dug, workers found the butchered bones of cattle, sheep, and goats.In 1998, Lehner cleared a 66-foot-square area and found a series of galleries: long, narrow, corridorlike enclosures that were complex structures with plastered walls. By this point Lehner's vision had grown. "It's been a hypothesis of mine that all this is connected to a palace," he says. "You don't just have production facilities by themselves. They're always connected to a lord."

Despite all the discoveries, Lehner grew frustrated. His windows in the sand provided only tantalizing glimpses. He knew there was more to his quest than mud huts and palaces. Old-Kingdom Egypt had been poised at a crucial cultural threshold, "moving from an informal, small-scale village society to a complex bureaucratic state." Anything he could learn about this transformation would shed light on the evolution of one of the world's earliest nation-states.To fund a large-scale dig— uncovering an area the size of eight football fields— Lehner had to raise a lot of money, never an easy task, even for a project this promising. When philanthropist Ann Lurie paid a visit to the site in 1999, she offered an impressive grant if Lehner could match it elsewhere. He succeeded through the generosity of David Koch, Peter Norton, and many other contributors. "Science is not cheap," says Bruce Ludwig, a Los Angeles real estate investor who has supported Lehner's work since the 1970s. "Mark is one of the few scientists who has the ability to communicate to the layman and get us excited about what's in his science."

Excavation began in the fall of 1999. By last summer, using a diesel-powered front loader, hand trowels, and paintbrushes, Lehner's team had cleared and staked a hectare, the equivalent of 400 of his 161/2-foot squares. As the team continued to dig, Lehner's little snapshots in the sand widened into a panorama— more than a dozen bakeries, a pigment-grinding shop, the copper works, and lots of bones. He found more galleries and realized there were workrooms tucked in the back of living spaces. He found an avenue and three main streets, one of them among the oldest paved roads in the world. At either end, he uncovered two larger structures, dubbed the Manor House and the Gatehouse, checkpoints from which anyone entering or leaving the workrooms could have been seen. It was a two-year marathon, Lehner says.

On the left, the pharaoh Khafre's monument to himself; on the right, Menkaure's.

Sometimes, when the others are at lunch, Lehner can be seen pacing alone in the sun, his arms folded across his chest and his head down, just thinking. He has begun to visualize the stirrings of a nation-state. If the site reveals how the Egyptians built the pyramids, Lehner believes, it also tells a little about how the pyramids built Egypt. Only a grand project like this one could have united a widely scattered agrarian people and cemented them into a larger society.

But where are the houses? More than likely, Lehner says, they lie buried beneath the soccer field on the edge of his authorized site or beneath a densely populated town to the east. After all, he says, this dig has uncovered only a corner of the lost city. Like the city, his enigmatic, double-walled buttressed building— a palace?— appears to reach well beyond the site's boundaries. How far does it go? What, exactly, is it? What will it tell us about Egyptian history? Lehner is uncertain. But, he says, smiling and removing his hat— his thinning hair white, a surprise above his youthful, suntanned face— "I came here in search of a lost civilization, and I did find a civilization, a major part of which is lost. Truly, there is a lost city of the pyramids."

It may be a perfect irony that the man sent here to find Atlantis's Hall of Records has actually spent two decades making Cayce's mythology more difficult to believe. No one is more aware of it than Lehner himself. He understands the human need for belief, having once felt that need deeply. We invent other, more perfect civilizations, he says, because "we feel lost in our own civilization." The civilization to which he has devoted his life is advanced enough. He is content to spend his days studying ancient Egypt, the real Egypt, where people ate bread, drank beer, worked 10 hours a day in the broiling sun, broke their bones, looked after one another, and created magnificent monuments to the kings who thought they were gods. "I could devote the rest of my career to this," Lehner says, and puts his hat back on.

Life in Ancient Giza

For generations, archaeologists have dug up the tombs and treasures of the pharaohs all over Egypt. Mark Lehner has focused, instead, on where and how the thousands of laborers who actually built the pyramids lived, struggling to decipher the complex economic system that sustained them over the 80 or so years they labored on this monumental task. Based on Lehner's findings, Don Foley's conception depicts the basic structures of everyday life in ancient Giza. More than 20,000 people may have lived in a city centered on a royal palace near this workers' complex of streets, corridors, and rooms. "We have a lot of tombs, but actual Old-Kingdom living areas are rare, and this could be the largest," says Lehner.

In the background stand the pyramids of the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, along with their temples, causeways, and walled enclosures. Just south of the pyramids lies the man-made harbor where materials, quarried as far away as Aswan, were unloaded after their boat trip down the Nile.

Inside the production complex, workers toiled to produce the food and tools needed to carry out their huge task. One can imagine a little of their lives, Lehner says: "From tomb scenes, we infer they wore wool or linen kilts for most of the year. They used copper and stone tools. They ate emmer-wheat bread, lentils, honey, fish, sheep, pig, and goat, and drank beer." Lehner's team has uncovered many bakeries and even replicated "an archaic and unique way of making bread" by baking loaves in clay jars in ashpits. His excavators have also found a clay hearth for smelting copper, with ash and charcoal still inside and a copper needle and fishhook nearby. The most elaborate structure exposed so far is the hypostyle hall. Embedded in its clay benches are flat stones on which columns, likely painted red, were set, probably in order to support a partial roof. It may have been used as a place to prepare food or as a dining area.

Slashing from east to west, below the harbor, is the Wall of the Crow, with its massive, 33-foot-high gate through which, presumably, workers entered the pyramid zone as they left the production complex. The narrower "enclosure wall" extends to the left and then curves toward the bottom, paralleling the streets and ending abruptly at the partially uncovered building that Lehner believes may have been a royal palace.— J.M.

1) Wall of the Crow

2) Wall of the Crow gate

3) Enclosure wall

4) West gate

5) Manor House

6) Gatehouses

7) Hypostyle hall

8) Buttress building

9) North Street

10) Main Street

11) South Street

12) Wall Street

13) Western compound

14) Bakeries

15) Copper works

16) Possible man-made harbor

17) Menkaure's pyramid

18) Khufu's pyramid

19) Khafre's pyramid

20) Causeways

21) Mortuary temples

22) Valley temples

23) Sphinx

24) Sphinx temple

Illustration by Don Foley, www.foleymedia.com; reference material and consultation provided by Mark Lehner and Ancient Egypt Research Associates Inc.

Read a history of Lehner's work at the Giza Plateau, including articles, annual reports, computer models, and Lehner's 1992 paper, at the the Giza Plateau Mapping Project Web site: www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/PROJ/GIZ/Giza.html.

For more photographs and a firsthand account of Lehner's work, see his article "City of the Pyramid Builders" in Egypt Revealed Magazine online at www.egyptrevealed.com/ 041501- cityopyramid_ builders.htm.

To learn more about excavations at Giza, see the Ancient Egypt Research Associates homepage at www.fas.harvard.edu/~aera/Introduce_AERA.html.

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