What was the purpose of the Pyramids?
Having talked about searching for dinosaur bones and our ancient human relatives burying each other, Chris Smith asked Egypotologist, Meghan Strong, about the ancient Egyptian burial process.
Chris - And Meghan, it wasn’t just dinosaurs that got mixed up together, the Egyptians were pretty good at burying people, that’s what the pyramids were all about. Isn’t it, or wasn’t it.?
Megan - Yeah, absolutely. And I have to add in that we have just the same amount of problems in Egypt of putting together complete mummies and skeletons as well because the tombs have been lived in more recently, and even in ancient times they were reused many, many times over. So you frequently have people who do not go together and bits and pieces of mummies that you can’t quite figure out how many skeletons you have in one tomb.
Thankfully, with pyramids, they were intended to serve for one individual, particularly the king, sometimes queens. They were primarily restricted to kings and queens of the old kingdom as well so this is a very early period in ancient Egyptian history, so about 2600 to 2100 BC we’re talking about and they were intended to be the burial structure. This was their final resting place.
Chris - But they didn’t just put themselves in there, did they? Because is it not the case that very often the other servants or other people who would have worked on the structure itself ended up being buried there too?
Meghan - Not within the pyramid itself, no. For example, at Giza, there are the main three pyramids: those were the ones designated for kings. There are smaller pyramids: those were for the queens. And then there’s an entire separate cemetary for people who actually worked on building the pyramids themselves, that they had their own separate cemetery, their own graves. Some of them more elaborate burials as well. But no, they weren’t actually mixed in together in the same idea and the same place.
Chris - But were they voluntarily intered or were they involuntarily intered? So having worked on the structures was it regarded as a real privilege for them to die alongside the person they were building the pyramid for?
Meghan - It’s not the same idea as servant sacrifice. These workers yes, they had an incredibly hard, backbreaking labour that they needed to be part of an order to build these structures. However, it was something that was well-compensated, so you had living quarters while you were there, you were fed well. There’s a fair amount of evidence that they had an incredible amount of meat that was brought into the site. Bread to beer, which was their staple drink for the time. And there’s even evidence that people who broke bones or even had traumatic brain injury for example, they had surgeons on site to heal them.
Chris - Were they any good at brain surgery?
Meghan - Well, they did actually live on a bit afterwards. There is some skeletal regrowth there, some cranium regrowth so yeah, they did live for a bit.
Chris - I think, was it Imhotep, was someone who documented one of the first linkages between what the brain does and the movement of the body? But I remember reading a text where I think it says if you put your finger through the hole in someone’s head and stimulate the brain underneath and the person shudders. And it’s sort of linking the fact that the brain makes you move because people didn’t really know what the brain did historically.
Meghan - The Egyptians didn’t have very high regard for the brain. They discarded it when you were mummifying somebody…
Chris - Through your nose?
Meghan - Exactly. Yank that out.
Chris - Scoop it out?
Meghan - Yeah. You were dead when that happened so that’s good.
Chris - You certainly where whether…
Meghan - whether you wanted to be or not. By that point you were definitely dead. Imhotep, he was actually quite a high regarded physician/priest and is actually deified by the time you get to later periods because of his knowledge. So yes, he was quite a famous person for his day.
Chris - So working on the pyramids was quite a privilege then.