35 Who Made a Difference: Mark Lehner

He took the blue-collar approach to the great monuments of Egypt

Mark Lehner
Wikimedia Commons

Mark Lehner has probably done more than anybody to advance our understanding of the ordinary Egyptians who built the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. That he has never been a conventional Egyptologist may be the reason why.

When I caught up with him recently, he was moving out of his office at Harvard's Semitic Museum and into rented offices near the Massachusetts Turnpike. "No one gives up an office in a university," he said as he hauled his own photocopier into his new digs. Ten years ago, he gave up a tenure-track position at the University of Chicago to excavate at Giza, near Cairo, with private funds. "People thought I was crazy to leave Chicago," says Lehner, 55. But he wanted to work at the dig full time, not just between semesters. When Harvard offered him space at its museum with no teaching responsibilities, he gratefully accepted. Now his project has outgrown even Harvard's largesse, requiring new quarters. "If our funding dries up and we run out of money, we can always sublet them," he says.

Lehner was first drawn to Giza some 30 years ago as an acolyte of Edgar Cayce, the leader of a proto-New Age cult that believes Egypt's ancient monuments were built by the people of Atlantis, the mythical island that supposedly slipped beneath the sea. Lehner hoped to find the Great Hall of Records that Cayce insisted the Atlanteans had buried near Giza's Sphinx. But the longer Lehner stayed, the more he realized that ancient Egyptians, not Atlanteans, had lived there. And while he never abandoned a sense of being on a quest—of searching for larger meanings—he shifted his focus to one of the most astonishing developments in human history: the creation of centralized states in the third millennium b.c., of which the pyramids and the Sphinx are the most dramatic manifestation. In 1986, after 13 years in Egypt, Lehner returned to the United States to get a PhD in Egyptology at Yale. But he came back to Giza during breaks in his academic schedule to work with the Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass on a documentary film (narrated by the actor Omar Sharif) about the Giza plateau. Although Lehner calls it a "schlockumentary," the film helped attract private funding to join Hawass in a shared dream: a full stratigraphic dig for the lost city of the pyramid makers.

After completing his PhD in 1990, Lehner shuttled between teaching responsibilities at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and the Giza dig. And in 1991, he found the remains of two ancient bakeries—the oldest intact bakeries in Egypt at that time. The bakeries, Lehner says, "turned out to be the tail of a huge archaeological beast," and they opened a window onto the daily lives of the people who built the pyramids. When his not-for-profit research institute got to the point where it could support him and one other employee in 1995, Lehner gave up teaching and dedicated himself wholly to the dig. Since 1989, it has grown from about a dozen people to some 175 and has mapped about 17 acres of the ancient city, the largest exposure of settlement from the third millennium b.c. in Egypt.

One idea the probe has helped to debunk is that the pyramids were built by "an army of slaves." (The Greek historian Herodotus, writing centuries after the fact, refers obliquely to some 100,000 slaves.) The people who built the pyramids were more likely a few thousand highly skilled and well-compensated full-time craftsmen and a cast of manual laborers. And all of them were well-fed.

"People were eating lots of meat," Lehner says. "Our faunal specialist has estimated that there were enough cattle, goat and sheep to feed 6,000 to 7,000 people if they ate meat every day." It is more likely that then, as now, Egyptians tended to eat meat on special occasions, so the population may have been larger.

The workers appear to have been organized in teams of about 40, each living in one of a series of long gallery-like barracks. Each may have had, like the one completely excavated example, its own bakery and dining area and porches with rows of sleeping platforms. "The whole site shouts 'control,'" Lehner says.

He and others see the construction of the pyramids as a crucial step in state-building—the vastness of the project required creating a national system of administration. "I think of the site as something like a gigantic computer circuit," Lehner says, reflecting the organization and structure of the early Egyptian state. "It's like the state left its huge footprint there and then walked off."

This ancient city, he notes, was probably inhabited for only a few generations—perhaps just long enough for the pyramids to be completed. But Lehner himself has no intention of moving on. There are, he estimates, another seven or more acres to excavate, and there are signs that beneath his current excavation lies an even earlier layer. "We think it might be [from the time of] Khufu," he said—the Pharaoh who began it all with the building of the Great Pyramid some 2,600 years before Christ.

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