Associated Press, GIZA PLATEAU, Egypt -- Nov. 20, 1992
Life was hard for the Pharaoh's workers. Backaches and tooth-aches were constant companions, good food was rare and death came early.
Not a pretty picture, said Azza Sarry ei-Din, an Egyptian anthropologist who has studied 162 skeletons of the haves and havenots of ancient Egypt.
Each week, in a small laboratory overlooking the pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, she studies skulls, backbones, bits of finger and toe bones excavated from nearby cemeteries.
Skeletons give scientists a chance to "look under the microscope" at life in ancient times, el-Din said.
Mummification was still being developed under the Old Kingdom Pharaohs, whose 441 year rule ended in 2134 B.C. and many of the skeletons protected only by sand are in poor condition. Nonetheless, el-Din said, the bones are rich lodes of knowledge.
Skeletons of workers tell her the "ancient workers were malnourished, disease- ridden and overworked." Bones of the upper classes show that privilege brought "better food, fewer diseases, longer life."
Old Kingdom workers spent their lifetimes quarrying rocks, pushing and pulling huge stones -- the wheel had not been invented -- and building pyramids, tombs and temples for the Pharaoh, his family and the well-to-do.
Forty-one skeletons from a workers' cemetery show the harsh reality of life, el-Din said. For most, pain was a companion on and off the job.
"There spines were bent from carrying heavy loads," she said. "There's bone inflammation, causing discomfort."
Similar stress is visible in the bones of workers' wives and children, but is absent from skeletons of officials and their families, whose duties would have been in the Pharaoh's court or administering royal estates.
Workers died at ages 18 to 40, but most officials lived to 50 and some into their 70's.
While the upper classes died from the infirmities of old age, workmen succumbed to infectious diseases. One man el-Din examined died of brain cancer, and arthritis was common.
Modern medicine would have saved the dozen children el-Din examined. "Most just had a scratch or a simple break, but infection set in and there were no antibiotics."
Toothaches must have been common. None paid much attention to dental hygiene. "their teeth all are bad," el-Din said. "Their gums show signs of decay, even when they're young.