Propaganda of the pyramids

You would have thought that massive monuments would be built by states at the apogee of their pomp and glory. Not so, according to an argument in which it is states on the up that need to impress.

It seems obvious that huge ancient monuments, such as the three Great Pyramids at Giza in Egypt, should be taken as testimony to a powerful ancient state behind them. As Joyce Marcus argues1 in a contribution to a newly published book, that conclusion is indeed what the builders wanted us to draw — but it's the opposite of the truth. Often, the biggest monuments were built early in a state's history, before it reached its peak power. They were built for propaganda, precisely to conceal the state's lack of real clout.

For example, among those three pyramids at Giza, Khufu's was the largest ever erected in Egypt, with a base area of 5 hectares, a height of 146 metres, and a mass of 6 million tonnes. It may be the bulkiest single building erected in human history, and until recently it was the tallest. That is certainly not because Khufu commanded more resources than did any subsequent leader in history. Many governments today exercise far more power, but none would waste its resources on building a big pyramid just for display and lacking office space, auditoriums and theme restaurants. Khufu's dynasty came early in the Egyptian sequence; it was only the fourth of about 31 dynasties. Even Khufu's two successors didn't try to match him: Khafra's pyramid at Giza is slightly smaller, and Menkaura's is less than half of Khufu's in height. Later Egyptian dynasties drastically reduced the scale of their pyramids.

Yet those later dynasties were much more powerful than Khufu's. They chose to invest their power in other ways: launching long-distance trading expeditions and military campaigns of conquest, maintaining big garrisons, and building big fortresses, irrigation works and ship channels. All of those things were beyond Khufu's capabilities. As head of an early state, he couldn't dominate Egypt's neighbours. The Great Pyramid is a bluff, a proclamation of power as empty as that by Shelley's Ozymandias:

'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Investment in architecture followed much the same course in the ancient New World's two main centres of power, Mexico and Peru. Marcus points out that one of the earliest powerful states in the Valley of Mexico arose at Teotihuacan, which built its largest structure, the Pyramid of the Sun, early in its history. Its base area of 5 ha matched that of Khufu's pyramid, although it was 'only' half as high. Teotihuacan continued to grow in population and in geographical extent of power, and the valley's later Aztec Empire was even more powerful, but neither again invested in such a large building. Instead, they poured resources into long-distance trade, outlying colonies, military conquests in the case of the Aztecs, garrisons, intensive agriculture and crafts production — much as had Khufu's successors in Egypt.

The story is similar for Peru's earliest state, that of the Moche, who in the centuries after ad 100 built Peru's largest pyramid, the Huaca del Sol, with a base area of the usual 5 ha but a height only one-fifth that of Khufu's pyramid. (Is there any reason why the largest pyramids of Egypt, Mexico and Peru all arrived at that same magic number for their base areas?) Peru's more powerful successor states of the Chimu and Incas, enjoying unquestioned actual control, evidently saw no need for ostentation. Instead, the Incas constructed a vast road system, storehouses and irrigation canals, sent armies far afield to conquer, and resettled subject peoples. Unable to do such things, the Moche made do with big but useless pyramids.

Tests of a good hypothesis are whether it can interpret cases other than those initially adduced as supporting evidence, and whether it can be broadened to encompass apparent exceptions. Since reading Marcus's article, I've kept asking myself about its relevance to sites that I visit as a tourist during overseas travels. I've come up with one more supportive example, and two cases of understandable exceptions.

When I visited Japan, I read that the emerging Japanese state had built huge keyhole-shaped earthwork mounds called kofun, and I asked my hosts to show me one. They took me to the largest of all kofun, that of the Emperor Nintoku near Osaka. At 32 ha, it covers much more ground than Khufu's pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun or the Huaca del Sol, but it would have been easier to build because it consists just of earth rather than of stone, brick or adobe. Sure enough, I learned that Nintoku's and the other largest kofun were built early in the kofun era, when Japan's first state (the Yamato state) was just arising. It could only impress rather than conquer its neighbours, and hadn't yet succeeded in expanding beyond its homeland in the Kinai region.

I then visited Easter Island, famous for its giant stone statues. There I learned that later statues are bigger than early ones, and that the tallest ever erected (the one named Paro, 9.8 m tall) was the last — in apparent disagreement with Marcus. But Easter Island, unlike Egypt or the Valley of Mexico or Peru, never became tightly unified and remained divided into rival clans that continued to compete visibly with each other. Hence Easter Island might violate the letter but supports the spirit of Marcus's hypothesis.

Finally, the Maya city-states in Central America are famous for their own pyramids and temples. As on Easter Island, later Maya rulers built bigger temples, but again the Maya states were never unified but stayed locked in fierce competition and warfare. In addition, Marcus herself points out that some big late Maya buildings, such as Pacal's tomb at Palenque and Hasaw Chan K'awil's tomb at Tikal, were erected by usurpers or else by kings weaker than their predecessors, and thus with a special need to indulge in flashy displays of power.

Archaeologists studying other ancient monuments will find it challenging to test or expand Marcus's arguments. As she concludes, “We should be as skeptical of ancient propaganda as we are when dealing with modern politicians”.


  1. 1

    Marcus, J. in Theory and Practice in Mediterranean Archaeology: Old World and New World Perspectives (eds Papadopoulos, J. K. & Leventhal, R. M.) 115–134 (Cotsen Inst., Los Angeles, 2003).

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Diamond, J. Propaganda of the pyramids. Nature 424, 891–893 (2003).

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