CAIRO — Egyptian archaeologists discovered a new set of tombs belonging to workers who built the great pyramids, shedding light on how the laborers lived and ate more than 4,000 years ago, the antiquities department said Sunday.
The thousands of men who built the last remaining wonder of the ancient world ate meat regularly, worked in three-month shifts and were given the honor of being buried in mud brick tombs within the shadow of the sacred pyramids they worked on.
The tombs date to Egypt's 4th Dynasty (2575 B.C. to 2467 B.C.) when the great pyramids were built, according to the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass.
Graves of the pyramid builders were first discovered in the area in 1990, he said, and discoveries such as these show the workers were paid laborers, rather than the slaves of popular imagination.
"These tombs were built beside the king's pyramid, which indicates that these people were not by any means slaves," Hawass said. "If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs beside their king's."
Evidence from the site, Hawass said, indicates that the approximately 10,000 laborers working on the pyramids ate 21 cattle and 23 sheep that were sent daily from farms in northern and southern Egypt.
He added that the workers were rotated every three months and the burial sites were for those who died during the construction.
Discoveries like these reveal other aspects of ancient Egyptian society besides just the stone monuments and temples frequented by priests, rulers and nobles, Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, said.
"It is important to find tombs that belong to lower class people that are not made out of stone that tell you about the social organization and the relative wealth of a range of people," she said.
Workers' tombs from the 4th Dynasty were typically made of mud bricks and shaped like cones and covered in white plaster, probably echoing the nearby limestone-clad pyramids of the kings.
The most important new tomb discovered, according to Hawass, belonged to a man named Idu. It was described as rectangular in structure, with a plaster covered mud brick outside casing.
The tomb also featured burial shafts encased in white limestone.