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Tombs Give Glimpse of Life at Pyramids : Archeology: Discoveries tell of lives of artisans and overseers--including how they kicked back for a beer after work.


Egyptian researchers have discovered what they believe may be the final large cemetery associated with the Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau--the tombs of the artisans and overseers who were in charge of the pyramid's construction more than 4,600 years ago.

The newly found tombs provide intriguing glimpses into everyday life during the time of the first pharaohs. The 430 tombs also have a number of features never found before, including inscriptions giving the dead person's title and pictures of the person's occupation.

Combined with other discoveries made at the plateau in the last three years, the tombs also allow researchers to fill in the last remaining pieces of the puzzle of how the pyramids were built, said archeologist Zahi Hawass, director of the Giza Plateau for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization.

Hawass is on sabbatical at UCLA to write a book about the new discoveries and has given The Times an advanced look at the new findings. He will discuss them in lectures at Orange Coast College and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

"This is a major addition to our knowledge of activity at Giza," said archeologist David O'Connor of the University of Pennsylvania. "This is really giving us our first detailed look at the Old Kingdom middle class. . . . There's nothing like it elsewhere."

Under the direction of Hawass, archeologists have been aggressively exploring the entire area around the pyramids for the last three years. That effort has led to the discovery of the tombs of the artisans who sculpted stones and statues, the camp occupied by the workmen who did most of the hard labor at the site, a large bakery and brewery that serviced the workers, and a mammoth wall that separated the tombs of the nobility from those of the workers.

But it is the new work, which led to the discovery of the tombs last summer, that is drawing the most attention from archeologists.

The tombs--which were found adjacent to the previously excavated cemetery of the workmen, separated by a ramp and a limestone gate--had a wide variety of shapes and configurations. "The Pharaoh gave everyone permission to make their tombs anyway they liked," Hawass said. Some tombs were carved into the limestone bluffs. Others were free-standing. One was a 13-foot-tall version of the Great Pyramid constructed of mud brick.

The interior of the tombs held all that the scientists could have hoped for. The inscriptions and pictures give "the first archeological proof that these are the tombs of the builders of the pyramids." Furthermore, the findings cast doubt on the idea that the tombs were built by slaves or forced labor, the scientists said.

Pictures, statues, inscriptions, clothing, possessions and even skeletons provide rich details of everyday life. "They were a happy people enjoying their work," Hawass said. "They worked from sunrise to sunset. But after sunset, they enjoyed life, drank beer and ate bread and garlic. . . . They were happy to be working for the king."

And that hard work was rewarded, he said. Evidence from the tombs clearly shows that the overseers were workers who had been promoted based on merit.

"We found pictures of their jobs for the first time in history," Hawass said. In the tomb of Nefer-Theeth, the supervisor of the bakery, "we see for the first time workers grinding the grain and baking bread." In the tomb of the supervisor of the brewery were scenes showing them making beer and storing it in large jars.

In addition to the pictures of the work, the tombs also included pictures and sculptures of the artisans and their families. Nefer-Theeth's tomb had a drawing of him, his two wives and his 15 children.

The tomb of the overseer of the carpenters had exquisite statues of him, his wife and their two children. These statues were in a niche in the wall of the limestone tomb, hidden by blocks of limestone. In some tombs, the statues were unfinished, suggesting that the artisans died before their completion.

The artwork revealed, among other things, that most of the artisans wore mustaches. Previously discovered renderings of the nobility had shown them all to be clean-shaven, and researchers had assumed that the common men were clean-shaven as well. Now, Hawass believes that most of them had mustaches.

The tombs were also unique in being labeled with the occupations of the deceased. Hawass discovered tombs of the "Overseer of the Craftsmen," "Chief of the Young Men," "Overseer of the Side of the Pyramid" and "Overseer of the Boat of the Goddess Neeth." Some of these tombs also contained the tools of their trades, such as plumb bobs and chisels.

Other inscriptions asked visitors to leave offerings at the door or proudly announced that the tomb had been built, or paid for, by the occupant himself. "One man says he did it 'with his own two hands and two feet,' " said archeologist Henry Fisher of Yale University.

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