Herodotus at the Pyramids

Herodotus had plenty to say about the Great Pyramid at Giza (very big, very old), but like any more recent tourist in Egypt, he was led by his dragoman:

On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I rightly remember that which the interpreter said in reading to me this inscription, a sum of one thousand six hundred talents of silver was spent.  (Histories II 125.)

Can we really let him get away with poor research practice like this?  The ever-fabulous George Ade (In Pastures New, 1906) thinks not:

Herodotus discovered some large hieroglyphics on the face of the Pyramid and asked the guide for a translation. It is now supposed that the guide could not read. Anyone with education or social standing wouldn’t have been a guide, even in that remote period. But this guide wanted to appear to be earning his salary and be justified in demanding a tip, so he said that the inscription told how much garlic and onions the labourers had consumed while at work on the job, and just how much these had cost. Herodotus put it all down in his notebook without batting an eye.

“How much did they spend for onions and garlic?” he asked, poising his pencil.

The guide waited for a moment, so that his imagination could get a running start, and then he replied, “They cost 1600 talents of silver.”

Herodotus told his story and got away with it. … Marco Polo, Mark Twain, and all the other great travellers of history love to tell tall tales once in a while, but the garlic story by Herodotus will doubtless be regarded as a record performance for a long time to come.

Ade Herodotus

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