6 Misconceptions About Ancient Egypt

We know a lot about Ancient Egypt, but some things (like hieroglyphs) aren't as clear as you might have thought.
We know a lot about Ancient Egypt, but some things (like hieroglyphs) aren't as clear as you might have thought. / Leemage/GettyImages

Though we know a good deal about life in Ancient Egypt, there are still plenty of things people get wrong, including who really built the pyramids, what happened to the Sphinx’s nose, and how King Tut actually met his maker. Below, we’re clearing up some of the most common myths about Ancient Egypt, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: The pyramids were built with forced labor.

This myth has long been perpetuated by depictions of Egyptian slave work in popular culture. It actually dates back to Greek historian Herodotus, sometimes called the father of history, but it may actually be based on a misreading of his work. Herodotus talks about 100,000 Egyptians being compelled into work, but he only explicitly mentions these workers building a road, not the pyramids, per se. Even if he meant for his audience to infer that those same workers were forced into labor on the pyramids themselves, contemporary experts disagree. In 2003, Egyptologist Mark Lehner spoke about his decades of research in Giza and how most archaeological clues point to there being a working class of Egyptians who tackled the pyramids much like a construction crew works under the watch of a foreman. The pyramid builders had their own living quarters and were fed well. Lehner uncovered a large quantity of cattle bones from young animals, indicating a diet rich in what we’d basically call prime beef today.

There also appeared to be a sense of camaraderie among the workers. In the early 20th century, Harvard researcher George Reisner found Egyptian graffiti that labeled teams, like Friends of Khufu or Drunkards of Menkaure, who presumably knew how to unwind after a long day. When these builders died, they were buried with their belongings close to the pyramids occupied by the pharaohs—a kind of hallowed ground that an enslaved person probably wouldn’t have been allowed to occupy.

Still, it was grueling work, and tens of thousands of pyramid workers got their hands dirty. So if it wasn’t slavery, what was it? Dr. Lehner suggests that ancient Egyptians subscribed to a strong sense of civic duty, not unlike the Amish of today. Just as the Amish might collectively raise a barn because of its benefits for the community, Egyptians of the era might have volunteered to work on the pyramids out of a sense that it was contributing to the greater good. Some Egyptians may have also been working off debt, known as bak, to a higher-ranking Egyptian. Again, not quite slavery, since even lords themselves owed bak to other lords.

As for how they did it? Historians still aren’t totally sure. But the stone was likely mined from nearby quarries and transported across sand that was dampened for easier sliding. One theory says that once the stones were at the construction site, it’s possible that ramps and a rope-and-pulley system were used to maneuver them into place.

2. Misconception: Napoleon shot the Sphinx’s nose off.

Giza is also home to the Sphinx, possibly the single most recognizable piece of Egyptian iconography in the world. At 240 feet long and 66 feet high, it’s a monument to the ingenuity of the Egyptians and also to Pharaoh Khafre, who’s thought to have ordered the construction of the Sphinx near his father Pharaoh Khufu’s Great Pyramid. Unlike the pyramids, the Sphinx isn’t made of numerous stone blocks—it’s one gargantuan piece of carved limestone. And it’s notable not only for its beauty, but because of the fact the Sphinx’s nose is missing.

As the legend goes, Napoleon Bonaparte did the deed during the French campaign in Egypt in 1798. He ordered his soldiers to fire a cannon at the Sphinx and knocked its honker clean off. It’s a great story, but it’s not true at all.

A painting by Danish explorer Frederic Louis Norden in 1737 shows the Sphinx with its nose already missing—over 60 years before Napoleon came to town. Instead, it’s more likely that a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr broke the nose off in the 14th century. He was protesting the Egyptian practice of idolatry after feeling disgusted watching Egyptian peasants making offerings to the Sphinx in order to ward off floods. He might have been executed for the monumental nose job, though the historical record is murky about that.

Another misconception about the Sphinx is that its body has always been visible. Not so. The body was actually covered in sand for an indeterminate period of time—likely thousands of years—until the 1800s. Despite attempts, it wasn’t until archeologist Selim Hassan dug it out in the 1930s that it was fully visible in modern times.

And no, we don’t know what the Sphinx looked like before it lost its nose. The Egyptians didn’t keep a record of that.

3. Misconception: King Tut was murdered.

Howard Carter, English Egyptologist, near golden sarcophagus of King Tut in Egypt in 1923.
Howard Carter, English Egyptologist, near golden sarcophagus of King Tut in Egypt in 1923. / Apic/Getty Images

King Tut ruled the roost around the 14th century BCE after the death of his father, King Akhenaten, when Tutankhamun was just 9 years old. What does a kid know about ruling Egypt? Not much. But he had advisers, so it largely worked out.

Then, at the tender age of 19, he died, was mummified, and placed in a sarcophagus. Tut’s tomb was discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, which led to decades of investigation (and rumors of a supposed curse). In 1968, researchers conducted an X-ray exam and were puzzled by the fact that his skull had bone fragments in it, pointing to a possible blow to the head. Some thought King Tut may have died while on a chariot, or maybe a political rival disenchanted with the kid king had decided to dethrone him. One theory held that it was his trusted adviser, Aye, who coveted his throne and feared losing control once King Tut became a man.

As the widely accepted theory goes, King Tut died and his widow, Queen Ankhesenamun, wrote to the enemy Hittites and begged them to send along a prince to fill the void. She wrote:

“My husband died. A son I have not…If thou wouldst give me one son of thine, he would become my husband. Never shall I pick out a servant of mine and make him my husband!...I am afraid!”

The Hittites sent a prince, but he was murdered along the way. While that might seem to lend some credibility to the foul play theory, science has proven otherwise.

During a scan of his body in 2005, scientists determined the damage to King Tut’s skull had been suffered not in life but in death. Either Carter had simply mishandled the mummy, or the Egyptians drilled a hole in Tut’s skull to extract his brain, as one does. Later research revealed King Tut had a host of health problems, including malaria and a femur fracture from a fall. That thigh injury led to a leg infection that later turned gangrenous. It was the infection that likely spelled his doom, not an assassination, although scholars aren’t in universal agreement on that. They’d like to study Tut more, but images from the 2005 scan are held by Egyptian antiquities authorities who aren’t eager to share them.

4. Misconception: Only rich Egyptians got mummified.

Mummification is one of the most intriguing aspects of ancient Egypt. Scores of rich Pharaohs were laid to rest in elaborate gold coffins after being mummified using treated linens, their brains delicately and respectfully removed from their skulls via their nose or another newly created hole. Their dried bodies were preserved for what the Egyptians hoped would be a fruitful afterlife, where the soul could live on.

Commoners, on the other hand, had their organs liquified by chemicals and were probably buried in shallow graves, their families grieving over mounds of dirt. Right? Wrong.

Turns out the practice of mummification was available to just about anyone. In fact, by the time of King Tut’s reign, there was a kind of mortician gold rush in ancient Egypt, with mummy artisans vying for business. Mummification was affordable, and its practice by experts wasn’t just reserved for the elites.

The whole process took about 70 days, from removing organs and placing them in jars to using natron, a kind of salt, to remove fluids. The preparation process took about 35 days, with the wrapping taking up the other 35. The linens were then soaked in a plant-based embalming solution.

So what benefits did Pharaohs and other upper-class Egyptians enjoy post-mortem? Mainly careful attention to the heart. Egyptians believed the heart was a must-have organ for afterlife activities and it wasn’t unusual to remove the heart from a departed commoner so the privileged could enjoy a peasant-free eternity. Retaining the heart was actually a trade secret kept among morticians.

Other than that, mummification came down to the personal preferences of the person doing the wrapping. Some stuffed the skull with linen or resin, the golden hue of which represented the divine power of the sun. Sometimes animals were mummified, like sacred bulls and even cats.

5. Misconception: Egyptian tombs were booby-trapped.

A painting of a subterranean chamber near the Pyramids at Giza by artist Thomas Milton.
A painting of a subterranean chamber near the Pyramids at Giza by artist Thomas Milton. / Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and video games like Tomb Raider have made a cottage industry of adventurers who stumble across a long-abandoned Egyptian pyramid or tomb to obtain a priceless artifact. The smart grave robber will send someone else ahead of them to make sure any falling boulder or giant buzzsaw is triggered before they make their way in.

Sadly, very few archaeologists have fallen into a pit of woe. In fact, except for the possibility of some rare and debatable exceptions, Egyptians never booby-trapped their tombs at all. This misconception likely stems from the fact that they did go to great lengths to protect the deceased from being disturbed by using giant, nearly immovable stones that slid into place and blocked the entrances to the tombs.

If anyone did rob a tomb, it was usually one of the builders, since they knew the layout and were able to navigate it without too much trouble. And few builders are going to build an elaborate trap knowing they’ll be relieving a corpse of its precious belongings in short order. If anyone has been crushed by a giant rock inside of one, it was a grave-robbing related mishap, not a booby trap.

6. Misconception: Hieroglyphs are ancient emojis.

We see a lot of references to emojis being the modern-day version of hieroglyphs, or sacred carvings, wherein pictures were used as a form of communication. See a hieroglyph of a house and you’ll think the writer means house. They can be this literal, but it can also signify the sound “pr” in English. Egyptians used hieroglyphs not only as logograms, which represent entire words, but also as phonograms, which represent sounds, and determinatives that can clarify a word’s meaning. In other words, hieroglyphs aren’t necessarily an image-for-word translation.

Early Greek and Roman scholars believed hieroglyphs were symbolic in nature. A hawk, for example, might indicate swiftness. It wasn’t until shortly after Napoleon swooped in on Egypt in 1799 that the Rosetta Stone was discovered. This rock was basically a key for deciphering the hieroglyphs into Greek script. The Egyptians also used demotic, a form of cursive writing that was a little cruder but faster than carving pictures into walls. And there were no vowels, which made everything a little bit trickier.

This story has been updated from its original version.