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  • Writer's pictureBrian Davidson, PMP, CSM

Ancient Origins of Project Management: A Glimpse into the Engineering Feats of Ancient Egypt

As we journey through the annals of human civilization, we often marvel at the majestic architectural marvels that sprouted from the fertile soil of the Nile Valley. The remarkable pyramids, temples, and obelisks of Ancient Egypt are not merely reflections of their unprecedented grandeur, but also represent the dawn of structured project management. This article dives into the intriguing world of ancient project management and explores how Egyptians used hieroglyphics to document their intricate project plans.

Part 1: The Dawn of Project Management

Modern-day project management is built upon the foundation of meticulous planning, comprehensive resource allocation, and execution within a set time frame. These principles echo within the architectural and engineering feats of Ancient Egypt, suggesting that the genesis of project management stretches back to these early civilizations.

The construction of grand structures such as the temples and pyramids of Egypt required immense levels of organization, foresight, and coordination, often taking decades or even centuries to complete. A high degree of specificity was needed to execute these massive projects, pointing towards a level of management that closely aligns with the concepts we understand today as project management.

One such exemplary evidence comes from the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2686–2181 BC) with the construction of the Pyramid of Djoser, which is considered the earliest colossal stone building and earliest large-scale cut-stone construction. The figure prominently associated with this construction is Imhotep, considered by many as one of the earliest known project managers in recorded history.

Imhotep, a high-ranking official of Pharaoh Djoser, was a physician, high priest, and scribe, but most importantly, he was the chief architect responsible for this complex pyramid construction. His impeccable planning, resource allocation, and management strategies laid the foundation for the project's successful execution.

Part 2: Hieroglyphics – Ancient Documentations of Project Planning

Hieroglyphics, a sophisticated system of pictorial writing, was an essential tool for the ancient Egyptians in communicating and documenting their activities, rituals, and, importantly, their engineering plans.

Egyptian hieroglyphics used a combination of logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic elements. This comprehensive script was often used to detail the plan, progress, and resources involved in a project. Intricate diagrams and a range of symbols would signify the task distribution, resources, labor management, and timeline of a project.

Archaeologists have discovered numerous examples of hieroglyphic texts describing building processes. One such instance is the famous "Papyrus of Turin," a document dated back to the reign of Ramses II in the New Kingdom (c. 1292–1069 BC). This papyrus, among other things, details the work schedules of the artisans, serving as a primitive form of Gantt chart. It showcased the sophisticated project scheduling techniques used during that era, including tasks, timelines, and resources.

Part 3: Case Study: Building a Temple in Ancient Egypt

To fully appreciate the complexity and effectiveness of ancient Egyptian project management, we can look into the construction of a typical Egyptian temple. Temples were complex structures with a multitude of sections, each with its specific purpose and symbolism. To construct such a structure required thorough planning and management.

Project planning in this case would start with a detailed representation of the proposed structure in hieroglyphic scripts on a papyrus roll. The construction was not merely about erecting the structure; it involved making the divine home for a particular god, which meant the process had religious, astronomical, and geographical considerations.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions were often used to specify the allocation of human resources. Workers in Ancient Egypt were divided into specialized teams. We see depictions of these teams in various tomb paintings and inscriptions, suggesting that tasks were distributed based on skill sets, a practice that continues to resonate with modern project management.

Hieroglyphs also captured project timelines, representing the stages of construction, expected completion time, and sequences of activities. For example, the order would typically involve site preparation, laying the foundations, building the walls and pillars, and finally, the extensive decoration process.

Archaeological findings suggest that Egyptians were also keen on monitoring and control. Hieroglyphs often included notations for any changes in the original plan and how those changes were addressed, which is reminiscent of today's project risk management and change control procedures.

Part 4: Lessons from the Ancients

Looking back at the Ancient Egyptians' masterful project management, it's awe-inspiring how their principles have endured over millennia and still underpin modern practices. They were pioneers in the art of planning, resource allocation, and risk management, and their utilization of hieroglyphics as a method of documentation demonstrated an early understanding of the importance of clear and effective communication in project execution.

Today's project managers, armed with advanced digital tools, software, and AI, are standing on the shoulders of these ancient project management giants. The principles of planning, resource allocation, and risk management are as valid today as they were thousands of years ago in the valley of the Nile. Understanding the foundations of our profession in such ancient practices grounds us in the fundamental principles that guide us and allows us to appreciate the timeless nature of organizing to get things done.

As we move forward into the future of project management, with even more complexities and advanced technologies, it's beneficial to remember our origins. The methods may change, but the principles remain the same. And that perhaps is the enduring legacy of the world's first project managers from the Nile Valley.

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