"There were slaves in Egypt, says Lehner, but the discovery that pyramid workers were fed like royalty buttresses other evidence that they were not slaves at all, at least in the modern sense of the word. 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.
"If not slaves, then who were these workers? Lehner's friend Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been excavating a "workers' cemetery" just above Lehner's city on the plateau, sees forensic evidence in the remains of those buried there that pyramid building was hazardous business. Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer, says Lehner, lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. "People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice." Plug that into the pyramid context, says Lehner, "and you have to say, 'This is a hell of a barn!'""
Weirdly, we do have first-hand written records from the construction of Khufu's pyramid.
"Though the diary does not specify where the stones were to be used or for what purpose, given the diary may date to what is widely considered the very end of Khufu's reign, Tallet believes they were most likely for cladding the outside of the Great Pyramid. About every ten days, two or three round trips were done, shipping perhaps 30 blocks of 2-3 tonnes each, amounting to 200 blocks per month. About 40 boatmen worked under him."
Awesome sources! That diary looks fascinating.
"The surprises were just beginning. Faunal analyst Richard Redding, of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, identified tremendous quantities of cattle, sheep, and goat bone, "enough to feed several thousand people, even if they ate meat every day," Lehner adds. Redding, who has worked at archaeological sites all over the Middle East, "was astounded by the amount of cattle bone he was finding," says Lehner. He could identify much of it as "young, under two years of age, and it tended to be male." Here was evidence of many people—presumably not slaves or common laborers, but skilled workers—feasting on prime beef, the best meat available."