How Were The Pyramids Built? Inside The World’s First Documented Processes

How were the pyramids builtWe talk a lot about processes here at Process Street and we try to give insight into not only how to make current processes better but also into how processes have evolved over time and why.

We’ve looked at case studies, poor processes, optimized processes, and technical guides to business process management.

But we’re no stranger to going back in time to explore the development of processes and where they came from. In this article, we’re going to follow up on the theme established in our post on surgical processes and look at processes and organizational systems in history.

This is the story of ancient Egypt.

The Great Pyramid is considered one of the wonders of the world. But how did it come to be?

We’ll look at a number of the classic discussions surrounding the construction of the pyramids, but focus on how a society which existed nearly 5000 years ago was able to construct some of the greatest and most iconic monuments known to humankind.

We’ll explore:

  • What was the Great Pyramid and how was it built?
  • Who built the Great Pyramid and what was labor like throughout the period of construction?
  • How were things organized in ancient Egypt?; Or, how to count from one to ten.
  • What do we know about trade in ancient Egypt?
  • Who were the scribes and why were they important?

Ancient Egypt is one of the first civilized societies for which we have an understanding of their perceptions of organization and management.

Spoiler alert: they used checklists!

Let’s dive in!

How was the Great Pyramid built?

how were the pyramids built sphinx

Throughout this article we’ll have a couple of historical methodological issues to deal with. The most obvious being that we cannot be wholly certain that all historical occurrences belong to the same period of time.

The ancient Egyptians have had a civilization existing continuously for thousands of years, and one could even argue continuity to the modern day. The same baking practices, for example, that we find evidence of 3000 years ago still occur in modern Cairo if you look hard enough.

As such, we need to ground our investigation in a certain period of time and accept that some of our findings might span time periods slightly before or slightly after our chosen area.

We’ll focus broadly on the time period encompassing the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza; one of the most studied and revered Egyptian monuments. This puts us firmly into the Pharaonic period, not the Ptolemaic period.

Distinctions are important.

The Great Pyramid is sometimes known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops. It’s classified as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and was believed to have been built around 2500BC as a tomb for the fourth dynasty Pharaoh Khufu – hence the name.

Why was the pyramid at Giza so impressive? And why is it worth us thinking about?

As Dr. Craig Smith points out:

The logistics of construction at the Giza site are staggering when you think that the ancient Egyptians had no pulleys, no wheels, and no iron tools. Yet, the dimensions of the pyramid are extremely accurate and the site was leveled within a fraction of an inch over the entire 13.1-acre base. This is comparable to the accuracy possible with modern construction methods and laser leveling. That’s astounding. With their ‘rudimentary tools,’ the pyramid builders of ancient Egypt were about as accurate as we are today with 20th-century technology.

In short, the Egyptians achieved things architecturally which we would struggle to do without modern technology. This required a level of labor force which dwarfs what modern day construction teams would need for comparable projects. Their organization and management would have needed to have been incredible to simply pull this effort off.

For context, let’s look at a couple of features of the construction process which may or may not have played a role in the creation of the pyramids. Academics are still not fully decided on which options are most probable, but these are some hotly discussed issues:

The Rolling Stones

how were the pyramids built rollers

The stones involved in the building of the pyramids were not little bricks or lightweight breezeblocks. The bricks in the pyramid vary in size but the largest can be found in the King’s chamber. These particular stones differ from the regular limestone blocks and were instead made of granite, weighing between 25 to 80 tonnes.

Some believe the granite slabs were transported from Aswan, a town nearly 500 miles away.

Whether limestone bricks or granite slabs, the Egyptians required a way to transport the materials over land. The leading theory as to how this would have been achieved lies in rolling the stones using a cradle-like machine. This suspended the rocks and allowed them to be rolled by a team of workers.

Experiments done by the Obayashi Corporation, with concrete blocks 0.8 m square by 1.6 m long and weighing 2.5 tons, showed how 18 men could drag the block over a 1-in-4 incline ramp, at a rate of 18 meters per minute.

There is a general consensus that this method may have been effective in transporting 2.5 tonne limestone blocks, but it is difficult to find archeological evidence to suggest it would have been used for the 80 tonne granite slabs.

This theory is elucidated in Dick Parry’s text Engineering the Pyramids, but not everyone is in complete agreement about the effectiveness of this method.

Corinna Rossi, in the Dutch paleontology and egyptology journal PalArch, presents her misgivings with Parry’s argument as presented in his book:

Undoubtedly, Dick Parry’s method works: it is certainly true that rolling a block up a slope is easier than dragging it. Concerning in general ancient Egypt and in particular the pyramids, the problem is that there is no archaeological evidence that may confirm that such a method was ever used.

how were the pyramids built sledges

She continues:

Finally, there is absolutely no pictorial or textual evidence that their function was to roll objects, nor that any object was ever rolled around in ancient Egypt. In fact, one wonders, if such a system was so successfully adopted to build the most famous Old Kingdom pyramids, why was not it widely employed also in the New Kingdom? Apart from symbolic representations that show, for instance, the king erecting obelisks by himself, the few realistic scenes that have survived showing blocks being moved around (e.g. from the tomb of Rekhmira at Thebes, or the scene from Tura mentioned in Parry’s book) depict ramps and sledges.

Gypsum mortar

how were the pyramids built furnace

To bind the rocks together, the Egyptians used mortar much like in modern building processes.

Evidence points to the Egyptians using gypsum mortar – also known as plaster of Paris – in constructing pyramids during the Pharaonic period.

The first Egyptologist to identify this method was Alfred Lucas in 1926. Further studies have confirmed these results and point increasingly to the complex production process required to manufacture this mortar, particularly en masse.

Coppola, Taccia, and Tedeschi outline this process in their 2013 paper Analysis and Conservation of Ancient Egyptian gypsum-based binders and mortars from the temple of Ramesses II in Antinoe. The Ramesses II temple is somewhat later than our Great Pyramid, but we can be confident similar methods were in place.

Preliminary investigations (statistic and typological) on macroscopic characters allowed the identification of 12 different types of mortar: mortars for laying of blocks (5), inner integration plasters (3), outer coating plasters (4).

These different mortars all had slightly different compositions depending on what purpose they were meant to serve. Outer cladding required different strengths to mortars used to bind blocks. Depending on the need, other ground stones may be added to the mixture, or the mortars were treated at different temperatures.

The general process would have looked like this:

The constructive culture of Pharaonic Egypt is characterized by the production of binders obtained from the firing of sulphate rocks. The low-temperature processing is undoubtedly one of the main driving factors. At temperatures as low as 110-160°C calcium sulfate dihydrate (CaSO4·2H2O) loses water and turns into hemihydrate (bassanite, CaSO4·½ H2O) in two forms α and β. Between 170°-300°C, the dehydration is complete and anhydrous gypsum or soluble anhydrite (CaSO4) appears.

The production process would have been vast and complex with huge furnaces all working to different exact specifications aiming to produce industrial quantities of the mortars required.

This wasn’t simply a case of putting blocks on top of one another like legos.

Internal ramp theory

how were the pyramids built internal ramp graphic

So, we have some idea now of how rocks were possibly transported across land and how these structures were held together, but how were they pieced together to create this complex structure without cranes and modern machines?

Multiple theories exist, but two prevalent ones are centred around ramps. We can find the roots of these theories in the earliest remaining writings on Egyptian construction techniques. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus describes the following:

And ’tis said the stone was transported a great distance from Arabia, and that the edifices were raised by means of earthen ramps, since machines for lifting had not yet been invented in those days; and most surprising it is, that although such large structures were raised in an area surrounded by sand, no trace remains of either ramps or the dressing of the stones, so that it seems not the result of the patient labor of men, but rather as if the whole complex were set down entire upon the surrounding sand by some god.

Diodorus Siculus goes on to explain that he believes the workforce built and then dismantled ramps, explaining how they were able to build the pyramid and why we have little evidence of ramps leftover.

However, it is dangerous to put too much faith in ancient historians writing, as we are, thousands of years after the event. After all, another Greek historian Herodotus describes a wholly different technique:

This pyramid was made like stairs, which some call steps and others, tiers. When this, its first form, was completed, the workmen used short wooden logs as levers to raise the rest of the stones; they heaved up the blocks from the ground onto the first tier of steps; when the stone had been raised, it was set on another lever that stood on the first tier, and the lever again used to lift it from this tier to the next.

Some historians posit external ramps around the pyramid allowing for blocks to be dragged upwards on the kinds of sledges Rossi mentioned in her quote above.

how were the pyramids built ramp theory

Others posit an internal ramp which allowed for bricks to be assembled from the inside out. This article from Archeology Magazine discusses Henri Houdin’s theories surrounding an internal ramp and leaves us with this fascinating piece of evidence:

When the French team surveyed the Great Pyramid, they used microgravimetry, a technique that enabled them to measure the density of different sections of the pyramid, thus detecting hidden chambers. The French team concluded that there were no large hidden chambers inside it. If there was a ramp inside the pyramid, shouldn’t the French have detected it? In 2000, Henri Houdin was presenting this theory at a scientific conference where one of the members of the 1986 French team was present. He mentioned to Houdin that their computer analysis of the pyramid did yield one curious image, something they couldn’t interpret and therefore ignored. That image showed exactly what Jean-Pierre Houdin’s theory had predicted–a ramp spiraling up through the pyramid.

how were the pyramids built internal ramp theory evidence

There are different supporters of these different theories, but all have merits. What we can conclusively conclude from the discussion which occurs in trying to expose the true methods behind pyramid construction is that whatever method was used it was not simple.

The construction of these great mausoleums was a gargantuan task which required a city’s worth of labor and skilled craftsmen to boot.

The slave myth

how were the pyramids built corvee

From what we’ve seen so far, we can understand that teams of knowledgeable laborers would have been beneficial to create these structures.

The building sites of ancient Egypt weren’t simply hordes of poorly educated slaves to-ing and fro-ing chunks of rock, but areas where skilled and specialized laborers plied their trade under the supervision of architects and engineers. The following passage presents an accepted perception of workforce makeup:

Evidence suggests that around 5,000 were permanent workers on salaries with the balance working three or four-month shifts in lieu of taxes while receiving subsistence “wages” of ten loaves of bread and a jug of beer per day. Zahi Hawass believes that the majority of workers may have been volunteers. It is estimated that only 4,000 of the total workforce were labourers who quarried the stone, hauled blocks to the pyramid and set the blocks in place.

When we start to picture the Egyptian workforce in the same light as a modern workforce we start to uncover new and different questions. Who organized these workers? Where did they get their materials from? What were management structures like?

Once we stop Othering the Egyptian system and start treating it like any other kind of modern system, we can start to understand it better.

How the workers were organized

how were the pyramids built bureaucrats

Like other large construction projects, bureaucrats played a large role:

The vast majority of the workforce provided support services such as scribes, toolmakers and other backup services.

Moreover, we know how teams were put together and how the pyramid [pun intended] of control was structured:

The tombs of supervisors contain inscriptions regarding the organisation of the workforce. There were two crews of approximately 2,000 workers sub-divided into named gangs of 1,000. The gangs were divided into five phyles of 200 which were in turn split into groups of around 20 workers grouped according to their skills, with each group having their own project leader and a specific task.

This Harvard Magazine article from Jonathan Shaw tells the story of how we found out the builders of the pyramids were not slaves, but workers:

Egyptologist Mark Lehner, an associate of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, is beginning to fashion an answer. He has found the city of the pyramid builders. They were not slaves.

How to support a massive workforce

how were the pyramids built baking

Lehner found the infrastructure which sustained the vast workforce committed to working on the construction of the pyramids. It started with finding a bakery and followed by finding a goat cemetery large enough to feed an army. From these findings he was able to devote the time and effort necessary to uncover the realities of the daily lives of ancient Egyptian laborers.

These sites where regular workers lived hold some of the secrets of the most mythic human rulers in their ruins. Strangely enough, these areas bear many similarities to the modern day:

They have found not one town, but two, side by side. The first is laid out in an organic fashion, as though it grew slowly over time. Lehner speculates that this was the settlement for permanent workers. The other town, laid out in blocks of long galleries separated by streets, on a formal, grid-like system, is bounded to the northwest by the great wall that both Lehner, and Reisner before him, had noted. This “wall of the crow” turned out to be massive indeed, 30 feet high, with a gateway soaring to 21 feet, one of the largest in the ancient world. The main street leading through the complex is hard-packed limestone, paved with mud, with a gravel-lined drain running down the center—engineered, says Lehner, “almost like a modern street.” His team has partially excavated a royal building filled with hundreds of seals dating from the time of Khufu’s son, Khafre, and his grandson, Menkaure. And they have found a royal storehouse with circular grain bins just like those depicted in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments.

These details allow us to place these settlements around the time of Khufu, which in turn explains why they exist. The vast expanses of temporary city serve not to cater to Cairo but to serve a project; a construction project which was one of humankind’s largest achievements up to that point.

All this allows us an insight into the forms of organization which built the pyramids. We see huge numbers of workers supported by an artificially constructed town, who are in turn split over and over into small dedicated teams given specialized tasks. Additionally, given the physical and demanding nature of the work, these teams worked on a few months on few months off – like workers on a modern day oil rig, catering to human demands like family.

Who were the workers?

how were the pyramids built bak

These groups of workers would often, it seems, band together. The modern term union might not be wholly accurate given our current understanding of the word, but it appears workers organized to some extent collectively – though for what ends remains unclear:

Harvard’s George Reisner found workers’ graffiti early in the twentieth century that revealed that the pyramid builders were organized into labor units with names like “Friends of Khufu” or “Drunkards of Menkaure.” Within these units were five divisions (their roles still unknown)—the same groupings, according to papyrus scrolls of a later period, that served in the pyramid temples. We do know, Lehner says, that service in these temples was rendered by a special class of people on a rotating basis determined by those five divisions. Many Egyptologists therefore subscribe to the hypothesis that the pyramids were also built by a rotating labor force in a modular, team-based kind of organization.

The difference, for Lehner, between the highly skilled workers and the lesser skilled workers who received lower pay and had to be there lay not in the difference between worker and slave, but in a cultural understanding of owing to society.

Lehner currently thinks Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a lord. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy. “But it doesn’t really work as a word for slavery,” he says. “Even the highest officials owed bak.”

In his paper, Lehner makes the comparison to an Amish society in America where all members pitch in to raise a barn. They are not necessarily paid to do it, but they have an unspoken social commitment on behalf of the community to put their labor toward a common project.

In our society of formalized give and take with contractual agreements we struggle to conceive of social comparisons so often consider the payment of this bak as akin to slavery. Lehner’s point would be that the labor force of the Giza builders was made up of highly skilled workers and citizens who owed bak – corvée workers not a slave labor force.

Numbering and accounting in Egypt

how were the pyramids built horus

None of these incredible feats of engineering would be possible without the levels of organization and management to support them.

Yet, organization doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

It requires a series of social and cultural advances in order to operate on this scale. A hunter gatherer society would not be able to achieve this level of organization.

The Egyptians had a well documented writing system, a numerical system, and a series of hierarchical structures designed to meter out responsibility as and when it was needed.

In the Ptolemaic period, the economy was centralized with a regulated currency called the drachmae. However, many economic transactions were done on the basis of barter or transactions “in kind”. This informal exchange system complemented the circulation of the currency and, as we saw above, workers on projects were often paid in food and wine rather than in formal currency.

From the Pharaonic period through to the Ptolemaic, there were periods of unity and centralization and also periods of fragmentation, yet it seems fair to assume that the Fourth Dynasty economy of Khufu shared many similarities with later versions. The kinds of barter and in kind exchange dynamics we see in the Ptolemaic period likely provide us with insight into the way transactions operated during the reign of Khufu.

Formal currency, however, would not have been implemented during the reign of Khufu or other dynastic leaders. Joshua J Mark explains that the use of currency as a standardizer for exchange didn’t occur in Egypt until the Persian invasion of 525 BCE. What they had instead during the Pharaonic period was an evaluation metric known as the deben.

The deben could be considered like the dollar or another international currency against which other currencies values are measured. There was no coin to represent a deben, but everyone knew roughly how many debens different items were theoretically worth. This imaginary currency helped regulate and guide the barter economy.

Nonetheless, formal currency or no currency, things need to be counted. To facilitate these ends the Egyptians needed an effective numbering system.

Like we have different symbols for a base 10 counting system, the Egyptians had the same:

how were the pyramids built numbers

In order to make larger numbers, these characters would be represented alongside each other. This approach to mathematics differs from our own yet is quite intuitive and can be understood fairly quickly. In the image below, you’ll see how these smaller characters are transformed into larger numbers:

how were the pyramids built counting

This numbering system allowed for layers of bureaucracy within the Egyptian economy, granting the ability to calculate how much raw material was needed to manufacture mortars, communicating how many animals would be needed to feed a workforce, and enabling Egypt to maintain successful trade relationships with the ancient world to power their construction efforts.

Trade in ancient Egypt

how were the pyramids built trade

Like any successful society, Egypt wasn’t operating in isolation.

In Diodorus Siculus’ description of the building process, the limestone used was quarried and imported from Arabia. The understanding of the term Arabia would have been different than our modern conceptions, but historians see this as describing the area east of the Nile.

Whether limestone was brought in from afar or generated locally, we know that many of the other items the Egyptians used came from areas outside their boundaries.

According to Joshua J Mark, writing for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, trade in ancient Egypt begun in the predynastic period (c. 6000 – c. 3150 BCE). By the time of Khufu, Egypt had a strong trading presence across much of what we now consider to be North Africa and the Middle East.

Trade with the Mesopotamians and Sumerians is considered to have impacted heavily on Egypt’s cultural evolution, with designs and motifs appearing which mirror those of the other civilizations.

Moreover, with the development of strong wooden boats, Egypt was now able to import woods like cedar from where modern day Lebanon and Syria can be found.

Some of these trade relationships were established peacefully, with some being secured through military force. Nubia for example derives its name from the Egyptian word for gold. No prizes for guessing what happened to the Nubians when they wanted to keep their natural resources…

Beyond simply the surrounding area, Egypt expanded its trade even further. To what extent Egypt traded with countries further into Asia, and to what extent they received Asian goods second hand, isn’t clear. Yet, there is evidence of items coming through trade from thousands of miles away.

In a tomb found in Naqada, on the west bank of the Nile, archaeologists discovered an array of interesting finds. The most impressive in relation to trade is likely a small gem which was probably used as an ornament or as jewelry; it appears to be a pendant of some kind.

The Afghan jewel

how were the pyramids built pendant

This small gem was found in a collection from Naqada alongside bead bracelets, ivory, and copper wire. The gem itself was revealed to be a lapis lazuli.

Egyptologists like Payne have studied lapis lazuli finds in Egypt and decided that the stones can be found in the area from periods as far back as 3500 BCE – 1000 years prior to Khufu.

The amazing thing about the lapis lazuli is that it was only being mined in the Sar-i Sang mines of Afghanistan.

From Cairo to modern day Kabul is over 4000km, and the Sar-i Sang mines are east of that further.

This shows us that ancient Egypt had an active and important trade network from an early stage, and its connectedness to the world was greater than typically imagined.

Who was the scribe?

how were the pyramids built papyri

The scribe in ancient Egypt was the modern day bureaucrat.

The scribe recorded the information which would have made the above trade, management, and construction all possible.

The scribe, in a business sense, was how Egypt scaled.

The History Channel have an article, with accompanying video, written by Christopher Klein on Egypt’s oldest papyri. This tells the story of a recent find currently on display in Cairo which consists of early scribe documents outlining a series of tasks which need to be done.

The document came from a larger haul of hundreds of papyri reported and analyzed in the Near Eastern Archeology journal by Pierre Tallet and Gregory Marouard.

These papyri are in hieratic, some of them are very well dated to the end of Khufu’s reign – the date of the year after the 13th cattle count appears on one of the best-preserved examples.

This information makes these documents the oldest inscribed papyri that have ever been discovered in Egypt.

Tallet and Marouard describe in their paper the two kinds of documents present in the find:

First, there are a large number of accounts organized in tables, which correspond to daily or monthly deliveries of food from various areas including the Nile Delta.

These are your planning documents which make up the stock take and accountancy parts of managing the trading port where the documents were discovered.

The second category of documents, however, is the one which excites the Process Street enthusiast:

It is a personal logbook that records every day activities of a team led by a Memphis official, the inspector Merer (sḥḏ Mrr), who was in charge of a team of about 200 men.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the world’s earliest recorded checklist.

Organize like an Egyptian

how were the pyramids built camel

How were the pyramids built?

The pyramids were built by:

  • utilizing disciplined engineering feats…
  • to transform carefully constructed materials
  • into large architecturally-precise structures
  • through a careful and diligent command of skilled labor
  • and documented management processes and hierarchies.

Oh, and with checklists.

The Egyptian principles for building the pyramids share so much in common with our own modern practices.

Written communication allowed for huge numbers of disparate people to cooperate on the same project and achieve incredible results.

If the Egyptians can use effective management techniques and organizational principles to build a pyramid without the internet, machinery, or even iron tools, imagine what you could achieve with the same committed approach!

What other ancient processes do you know of which mirror the working practices of today? Let me know in the comments below so we can investigate further! 

Get our posts & product updates earlier by simply subscribing

Adam Henshall

I manage the content for Process Street and dabble in other projects inc language exchange app Idyoma on the side. Living in Sevilla in the south of Spain, my current hobby is learning Spanish! @adam_h_h on Twitter. Subscribe to my email newsletter here on Substack: Trust The Process. Or come join the conversation on Reddit at r/ProcessManagement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Take control of your workflows today