The Billion-Dollar Pyramid

150817PyramidWe all know that the pyramids of Egypt were tombs for the pharaohs. (Yes, yes, and landing pads for Goa’uld spaceships; you can put your hands down now.) Thinking about what it took to build them, though, gives us an idea of what else they were.

The construction of the pyramids is a perpetual favorite subject of cranks and crackpots (Lost technologies of Atlantis! Sound waves!). Even among the more reality-bound, there is no end of theories ranging from the mundane (ramps and sledges) to the reasonably plausible (pulleys and levers) to the unlikely but not impossible (poured concrete). No matter what technique we imagine, however, one thing was definitely required: massive amounts of labor.

What most armchair pyramidologists miss about the problem of megalithic construction is that the physics of moving large stones are very simple. Apply enough force to a mass and it will move. Some things can make the application of force easier: ramps, pulleys, rollers, whatever you’ve got, but in the end it’s just a matter of force versus inertia. No matter how you go about building a pyramid, what you need in the end is the same: muscle power and time. With enough muscle power and time you can build pretty much anything, but labor is expensive. The real problem that would-be pyramid builders have to solve isn’t technological, it’s economic. The real question isn’t “How did they build the pyramids?” but “How did they afford the pyramids?”

Getting an idea of what the pyramids cost isn’t straightforward. Ancient economies did not work the same way modern ones do. Egypt in the pyramid-building age didn’t use money as we know it. The pyramid workers were instead paid with food, clothing, housing, medical care, and other goods and services. (The familiar image of slaves hauling pyramid blocks under the lash is an invention of Hollywood.) Even without money, though, things still have a cost. Every bushel of wheat set aside for pyramid workers was a bushel of wheat not feeding a soldier or stored against famine or traded overseas for goods that Egypt lacked.

So how do we figure out what it cost to build a pyramid? Labor is a good place to start. Modern experiments give us a range of possible figures, but let’s lowball this and try to set a floor on how much a pyramid costs to build. At the conservative end of modern experiments, a team of twelve workers would be able to cut a two-ton limestone block in a little over an hour, provided that other workers were on hand to frequently resharpen the relatively soft copper chisels used by the ancient Egyptians. Let’s say that comes to 15 worker-hours per block for quarrying.

A team of twelve can haul a two-ton stone on a sledge at a reasonable speed. How long it takes to get the block from the quarry to the construction site depends entirely on how far apart they are, but let’s be conservative again and say ten hours, so that’s 120 worker-hours per block for hauling.

Fitting the stone into place takes less raw effort and more precision. Four workers with crowbars and levers can inch a large stone into position. Let’s suppose it only takes an hour. That’s 4 worker-hours for positioning.

Altogether, that’s 139 worker-hours to get one block quarried, hauled to the site, and fitted. The pyramid of Khufu, also known as the Great Pyramid, is one of the largest pyramids and best studied of the Egyptian pyramids. It contains an estimated 2.2 million stone blocks. That makes 305.8 million worker-hours just to do the most basic building work. (Never mind that many of the blocks in the pyramid are a lot bigger than 2 tons and would take even more work; like I said, we’re lowballing here.)

Then there’s all the other work that needed to get done. The outer casing stones of the pyramid had to be dressed smooth. Mortuary temples and other buildings needed to be built. All those workers had to be fed, housed, and taken care of, which meant bakeries, housing, medical care, plus the delivery of food and supplies. Tools had to be made and repaired. Modern experience suggests that the support work probably took up a lot more time and effort than the basic construction, but let’s keep things simple and just suppose they were about the same. Doubling the work of construction gives us an estimate of 611.6 million worker-hours.

To try to put that into modern terms, if all those workers were paid at a US minimum wage of $7.25, building a pyramid would cost at a minimum about 4.5 billion dollars. That’s for one pyramid, which one person would get to use when he was dead and couldn’t enjoy it. Whatever else the pyramids may have been, they were a colossal waste of money.

Now, remember what I said above about ancient economies being different from modern ones. We can’t lean too hard on that 4.5 billion number. At best it gives us a sense of the order of magnitude we’re talking about. Still, even for an ancient economy, that kind of outlay of resources for something that had no practical benefit was enormous. And keep in mind that it wasn’t just one pyramid. More than 100 pyramids were built in ancient Egypt, most in the roughly 500 years of the Old Kingdom period.

Keeping up that kind of expense for such a long time must have been a substantial drain on the kingdom’s resources, which tells us something else about the pyramids. No state can sustain such an enormous squandering of resources over the long term. Go ahead, make your jokes about thousand-dollar toilet seats – get them all out of your system. While there’s always some amount of waste, modern government spending mostly serves some practical purpose. (Whether you like that purpose or not is an entirely different question.) The Egyptian pyramids served none. Egyptian religious beliefs demanded that the dead be buried with appropriate provision for the afterlife, which can be accomplished with a modest brick or rock-cut tomb, as most pharaohs before and after the pyramid-builders had; no pyramid required. For the Egyptians to be able to afford unnecessary pyramid after unnecessary pyramid, the pyramids must not have actually been that unnecessary. The pyramids must have served some purpose in addition to being royal tombs.

Now, I’m not talking about stellar observatories or giant water pumps or signals to space aliens any of the other loopy ideas out there. There are two completely practical, earth-bound things that the Egyptian pyramids did.

First, they were public statements of the pharaoh’s power. The pyramids were visible symbols of strength that anyone traveling on the Nile could see. To any potential rivals or troublemakers, the pyramids send a message: This is what I can do. This is the scale on which I can marshal resources and manpower. If you go up against me, this is the kind of power you’re facing. The pyramids were the pharaohs’ equivalent of a military parade through Red Square.

The second thing was accomplished not by the finished pyramid but by the process of building. The kingdom of Egypt was a union of many previously independent communities, both in Upper Egypt along the banks of the Nile and in Lower Egypt in the marshy delta. The pyramid-building age came early in Egypt’s history when these lands were newly united and there was still tension between different communities. Massive building projects brought laborers from all over Egypt to work, live, eat, and relax together. People who had never left their home village before found themselves living and working next to people from other parts of Egypt. Anyone who’s ever worked on a big and difficult project knows what a bonding experience it can be. The building of the pyramids helped to create a sense of Egyptian identity and unity that hadn’t existed before.

In a real sense, the workers who built the pyramids were at the same time building the nation of Egypt, and that was well worth the price.

Thoughts for writers

The case of the pyramids is a nice illustration of an important historiographical point: function is not the same as purpose. Function is a “what?” Purpose is “why?” The function of the pyramids was as tombs. That is what they were for. Their purpose was to bind together a fragile new nation and solidify the power of its kings. That is why they were built.

One of the most common mistakes we make in talking about history is to stop with function and leave out purpose. As long as we only think about the Egyptian pyramids as tombs for pharaohs, we can dismiss them as the weird relics of an incomprehensible lost culture. We reduce the ancient Egyptians to a caricature: those strange people who had funny beliefs and built useless stone monuments in the desert for us to marvel at. When we understand the political and social significance of the pyramids, we see the ancient Egyptians in their full humanity. Their lives were as complex as ours are. They were as bounded by economic and social realities as we are. The monuments they built were not useless; they served a purpose that is still relevant to us today, we just go about it differently.

As writers of SFF, it is our job to convince our audience to care about a world that doesn’t work the same way our world does. One way of doing that is to help them see the familiar purpose in unfamiliar functions. Everything in the lives of our characters has as much purpose as the things in our lives do.

Image: Pyramid of Khufu, detail of photograph by Alex Ibh via Wikimedia (Giza, Egypt; c. 2560 BCE)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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