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How the Ancient Egyptians (Should Have) Built the Pyramids 202

Posted by samzenpus
from the build-it-better dept.
KentuckyFC writes The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt is constructed from 2.4 million limestone blocks, most about 2.5 tonnes but some weighing in at up to 80 tonnes, mostly sourced from local limestone quarries. That raises a famous question. How did the ancient Egyptians move these huge blocks into place? There is no shortage of theories but now a team of physicists has come up with another that is remarkably simple--convert the square cross section of the blocks into dodecadrons making them easy to roll. The team has tested the idea on a 30 kg scaled block the shape of a square prism. They modified the square cross-section by strapping three wooden rods to each long face, creating a dodecahedral profile. Finally, they attached a rope to the top of the block and measured the force necessary to set it rolling. The team say a full-sized block could be modified with poles the size of ships masts and that a work crew of around 50 men could move a block with a mass of 2.5 tonnes at the speed of 0.5 metres per second. The result suggests that this kind of block modification is a serious contender for the method the Egyptians actually used to construct the pyramids, say the researchers.
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How the Ancient Egyptians (Should Have) Built the Pyramids

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  • by SydShamino (547793) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:27PM (#47759529)

    While the science may not be settled, the "drag on sled while someone wets the sand" method is corroborated with available records:
    http://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-... [kinja-img.com]

    http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014... [gizmodo.com.au]

    • I think it's just that people love to go "If I didn't have modern tools, I could do that. Here's how:"

      • by Joce640k (829181)

        Why use rods?

        If you're going to strap something to the stones why not use something a bit more rounded that turns them into actual circles?

        PS: We know how they did it from paintings on the walls:

        https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-oaq... [blogspot.com]

        • That picture is of moving a statue, which I would assume couldn't be moved by most of the other methods mentioned. They could very well have used different techniques for transporting different objects. Personally, I'd like to think they planted pyramid seeds and grew them in the rich Nile soil.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:37PM (#47759629)

      Everyone knows aliens built the pyramids.

    • by flyingfsck (986395) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @03:33PM (#47760089)
      Anyone that actually lived in the middle east knows that sand is everywhere. They simply stacked the blocks while building up a sand pile around it, then eventually dug the sand away again, while dressing the stone from the top down to the bottom. There are actually some unfinished spots in Egypt where the tools of the trade and the gravel heaps surrounding the still partially dressed stone remained. There is no mystery about it in reality - only on TV.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I don't see what the big deal is. You can store up to 64 blocks of any kind of stone in each inventory slot. It is trivially easy for one person to carry lots of these around. And to stack them.

      • by stjobe (78285) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @03:55PM (#47760265) Homepage

        simply stacked the blocks

        I think this is the part you mistakenly think is easy.

        There's roughly 2.4 million stones in the Great Pyramid of Giza [wikipedia.org], some of which weigh up to 80 tons. "Simply stacking" them is anything but.

        • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @04:30PM (#47760581)

          some of which weigh up to 80 tons.

          The average core stone weighs something like two tons. That's the majority of them. The humongous ones are a few granite pieces.

    • by F34nor (321515)

      Nope! They are poured concrete, and now we use the same method to make landing strips in Saudi for the first Gulf War. You can land a c130 on them 48 hrs later. Nova had him cast 5 blocks in place in 1 day with 5 men. With copper tools it takes like 6 months just to cut one block. Who cares how they moved them, how did they machine them? Geopolymer answers all those questions and more.

      The Pharos were also they only ones on the planet that knew how to make beer. The labor was paid for in BEER! They had two t

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Doesn't mean they were formed in place.
        Of course, a new valid theory about them seems to co out every decade, with little followup.

      • Egyptian and Nubuian mummy's bones are stained black because of the tetracycline in their beer.

        "We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine," Armelagos says. "But it's becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents. I have no doubt that they knew what they were doing." Ancient brew masters tapped antibiotic secrets [sciencedaily.com]

        I rather doubt the Pharaohs were the only one who knew how to brew beer, more likely it was a pries

    • by Livius (318358) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @04:18PM (#47760465)

      Basic fact that any hypothesis needs to allow for:

      Dragging things across sand is easy.

      Rolling things on sand is hard.

      • There's another fact that this theory ignores: Moving the blocks this way takes wood. Lots and lots of wood. Egypt has never had large quantities of wood, and had to import most of what it used. Doing it this way would have been far, far more expensive than dragging them across the sand.
    • by meerling (1487879)
      And don't forget this article.
      http://phys.org/news/2014-04-ancient-egyptians-pyramid-stones-sand.html
    • Certainly not, because "hieroglyphic" is not a noun. Perhaps you meant "hieroglyphs"?
    • Depends which pyramid we are talking about. Actual evidence like yours shows that they used different techniques at different locations during different times in history.
  • This is very interesting, and maybe that's good enough. But isn't there some evidence of what method they might have used? Wood fragments? Tracks? Tools?

    I'm asking this as a completely naive onlooker. I'm sure there is research on this spanning hundreds of years; anyone want to provide a quick summary?

    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:32PM (#47759589) Homepage

      Well, this method comes from physicists. So one can assume that whatever they used, it was perfectly spherical.

      Problem solved.

      • by iggymanz (596061)

        Assume a pyramid worker is cow with a perfectly spherical body.....

        • by TheCarp (96830)

          That is absolutely preposterous. However, if you model the stone blocks as frictionless point masses.....

      • String Theorists (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Roger W Moore (538166) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @03:40PM (#47760139) Journal

        Well, this method comes from physicists.

        Clearly string theorists since, according to the summary, it creates a "dodecadron" cross-section. So having a cross-section somewhere between a 2D dodecagon and a 3D dodecahedron it clearly relies on converting the block into some multi-dimensional object with a strangely dimensioned cross-section.

    • by poetmatt (793785)

      No, it's not really interesting. It's settled science that wetting the sand and dragging the sled is how it was done. This is in the OP. It's not a question.

    • by Gorobei (127755) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:54PM (#47759795)

      For most blocks, they just strapped four quarter-circle cradles around the stone and rolled them up earthen ramps using ropes. The remains of the ramps still exist around some pyramids, and some original cradles are on display in the Cairo museum. Pretty much considered solved by the archeologists; it's just armchair physicists who want to invent problems and propose new solutions.

    • Yup, as I posted above, there are places in Egypt where buildings were left unfinished and it is clear that they simply dragged the stones over sand. Basically they buried the building site in sand and later dug it out again, while dressing the stone from the top down. It is easy to do if you have enough people and time on your hands and they had those aplenty.
    • by careysub (976506)

      This is very interesting, and maybe that's good enough. But isn't there some evidence of what method they might have used? Wood fragments? Tracks? Tools?

      I'm asking this as a completely naive onlooker. I'm sure there is research on this spanning hundreds of years; anyone want to provide a quick summary?

      How about the edges of the stone blocks that would have rotated about 500 times on their way to the pyramid? There should be systematic chipping on the edges of all of the blocks if this was used. Also, this method of movement looks suspiciously like a wheel, which Egypt did not get until many centuries after the great pyramids were constructed. In a pre-wheel culture this mode of transport might not be at all evident.

      • by Oligonicella (659917) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @07:39PM (#47761675)

        Earliest Egyptian pyramid 2630 BCE. Earliest verified vehicular use of wheel is Mesopotamia around 3200 BCE and Egypt developed the spoked wheel around 2000 BCE. These are just records, it's rather obvious the wheel goes back much further. So yes, the Egyptians had the wheel when the pyramids were built. Did they use them for that? Probably not, due to weight. We *know* they used sledges, so why come up with more complicated methods based solely on supposition?

  • by myowntrueself (607117) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:29PM (#47759553)

    http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~jas... [upenn.edu]

    using wooden 'cradles' shaped like circle segments, 'wrapped' around each end of the block making them a lot easier to roll than the proposition in this article.

    • I came up with a similar theory. Except I think they then rolled them up the side [youtube.com] of the partially completed pyramid (since it was covered with a white limestone fascade).
    • by Artifakt (700173)

      Cradles have actually been found in archaological excavations, as the original article mentions. However, it also says the cradles as found don't have holes for ropes to tie them around the blocks, so we could be looking at a not very efficient design, for example one where the 'cradels" were really rockers which lay loose on the ground, and the workers have to keep building chains of rockers ahead of the blocks, piching up the trail or frockers as the block is moved, etc., or there's something we are missi

    • by careysub (976506) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @04:04PM (#47760329)

      Did you read this article you linked to? It refutes this theory:

      "However, even though this method is feasible and workable, it is unlikely that the GP's builders used it. The segments used by Bush had holes drilled into them to accommodate ropes which held the segments onto the block, yet none of the ancient segments found have such holes in them. How these alternative proposals fail is most clearly seen by considering the extreme case. Neither theory accounts for the movement of the fifty-ton granite slabs used in constructing the internal chambers of the GP. Considering the immense size of these monoliths, the flexible pole method would be rendered even more awkward. Forward motion would be extremely tedious--assuming that these monoliths could even be lifted by this method. Bush's idea would also be problematic. The dimensions of these slabs are not uniform, so each slab would have needed specialized circle segments. The largest monolith is about 27' x 4' x 8' at its ends.

      The key failing of the cradle and the (actually extremely similar) pole theory is that it does not explain how they moved the far larger slabs that were not square blocks.

      Also we have actual evidence of their methods - dragging on sledges. We have sledges, sledge tracks, and pictures of giant statues being dragged on sledges. They took the time to draw us a diagram, and people still look for other answers.

      • by Dins (2538550)

        It's also more or less refuted in TFA:

        Another theory is that the Egyptians attached quarter circle rockers to the flat surfaces of the blocks effectively turning them into cylinders and allowing them to be rolled. Experiments have shown that this method allows the blocks to be moved relatively quickly with just a few men.

        But this method also has a disadvantage— these cylinders would exert huge pressure on the ground causing considerable damage to roads. Modern estimates of the rate at which the pyramid was built suggest that workers put in place some 40 blocks per day. In that case, even well-engineered roads would have required considerable maintenance.

  • by oneiros27 (46144) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:30PM (#47759559) Homepage

    Their 'rolling' method is going to damage the corners of the blocks, and the surface of the path it rolls on.

    Now, it's possible that the blocks were finished on site, and so they could use this trick to move the blocks from the quary to the worksite ... but it shouldn't be used to move finished blocks into their final location.

    (and then you've got to roll all of the logs back to the quary ... assuming they're strong enough to survive this process ... which probably isn't as much work as what's needed for moving the stones, but it cuts into your energy savings ... as does transporting larger stones so you can finish them once they're at the worksite)

  • by fermion (181285) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:31PM (#47759577) Homepage Journal
    Nice Explaination: Lots of beer and bread

    Not so Nice:Whips and violence

    Some of the confusion seems to come from an unwillingness to accept that humans can be very self absorbed and mean. While some form of simple machinery must have been used, the basic resource for the pyramids was an expendable supply of labor. People tend to accept harder or more dangerous work if that is the life they know. We saw that recently in coal mining disaster where many people died because the owners did not have a practice of clearing the mine between shift changes. It increases profits and make coal cheaper, but is a huge risk to the workers. Raising the pyramids was probably not different.

    • by i kan reed (749298) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:38PM (#47759645) Homepage Journal

      Oh, no, we have more than enough historical evidence to know that Khufu was an absolute asshole to his people. At least a couple different almost contemporary historians wrote about it. That Khufu was a vile tyrant isn't something that has a lot of denial.

    • Watch out, the "ends justify the means" crowd will be here shortly talking about how magnificent the pyramids are and how long they have lasted.

      The graveyards of bodies [hawaii.edu] are a small price to pay for such greatness!

    • by Livius (318358) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @04:21PM (#47760491)

      The labour was not expendable. When the River Nile floods and your whole population is 1) homeless and 2) unemployed, and public works projects in the desert start to sound like very good ideas, but you needed that labour in good condition to return to the farms once the annual flood ended.

  • Stupid theory... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by internet-redstar (552612) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:32PM (#47759591) Homepage
    They where moved by irrigation.
    the flats around the pyramids are perfectly flat. And where flooded with water when the Nile was at a yearly peak.
    The water was trapped inside. The fence to keep the water inside is still standing
    A corridor in the middle towards the pyramid was build and had dams to move the ships upward
    The signs of the dam plates are still there in the corridors
    The pyramid itself was a water basin, with the outside walls keeping the water inside
    That's why they are all perfectly level
    The ships moved the bricks in and lowered them to fill the pyramid. as a result the water rises.
    However, water evaporates, and the movement of the ships upwards needs a water displacement at least equal to the mass moved up
    So the ancient egyptians left clues everywhere to explain how they did it: everywhere, in the tombs in the pyramids, and even in New Kingdom in the Valley of the Kings, they drew how they accomplished it: by carrying buckets of water on their head.
    That's how they build the pyramids; by putting water in the top of the pyramid, till all the ships with the stones where there.
    Now, was that so hard to figure out? Stupid archeologists!
    • I can't tell if this is a troll or real...
      • It's exactly what he says it is, a stupid theory, and he knows it!
        I don't know HOW he got a +5 interesting moderation on it!

        At most a +3 funny.

        I mean, can you IMAGINE the dam structure you'd need to create a pool of water deep enough to float a block of stone to the top of the pyramid? Hint, it'd dwarf the pyramid!

        Now, for getting the BASE of the pyramid really flat, yeah, a big shallow pool of water might have helped a lot with that, but anything above it? Not so much!

        --PM

        • by ultranova (717540)

          I mean, can you IMAGINE the dam structure you'd need to create a pool of water deep enough to float a block of stone to the top of the pyramid? Hint, it'd dwarf the pyramid!

          Not really. Remember, the pyramid gets less wide towards the top. So your dam walls only need to be higher than one layer of stones: after a layer of is finished, move the walls on top of its outer edge and refill. Sure, you need a system of levees to get the ships to the lake at the top of the growing pyramid, but that's okay: it can j

      • I imagine some archeologists can't either. They just don't understand physics... yet the method of construction seems clear to me.
    • by F34nor (321515)
    • by evilviper (135110)

      Time-cube meets ancient Egypt...

  • +12 stonemasonry?
    • Obviously, they had their slaves roll for initiative. The ones who didn't have good initiative were stationed in FRONT of the giant stone dice.

  • Not all the blocks (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Lorens (597774) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:34PM (#47759603) Journal

    Saw a television documentary where they showed some blocks that seemed to have been poured like concrete, complete with marks of wooden crating. See http://www.visual--media.com/w... [visual--media.com] and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E... [wikipedia.org]

    • Yep. Saw this too and it passes the KISS test. Not sure why everyone thinks they were hauling giant boulders around.
      • by geekoid (135745)

        Well, it passed the KISS test, I guess that settles it. Lets totally forget other methods that pass the KISS test, and we will also forget the myriad of other thing that where done more difficult because of social reason and they didn't have the advantage of hind site.

        They still need to move them after they were made.

    • We should be using that on our roads instead of whatever stuff we are using now.

      • by taustin (171655)

        Roman concrete is still around. Not as many thousands of years, but modern concrete is not made to last as long as possible. Some ancient concrete was.

  • Wrong (Score:4, Funny)

    by lucm (889690) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:34PM (#47759605)

    The Egyptians did not move those blocks into place. They did like those companies we know and admire, they made plans and outsourced the backbreaking work to unscrupulous partners in countries where labor is cheap and workers safety is not a priority. And then pretended they were not aware of the abysmal work conditions in the pyramid factories.

    I'm pretty sure that if someone was to raise the pyramid there would be a Made in China label at the bottom.

    • I know that was a joke, but at the time the cheap labor and no worker safety was right there. Why outsource when slaves will do anything you tell them to do? (Or else!) As for worker safety? Who cares if a few dozen slaves get worked to death? They're cheap enough to replace.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Evidence at this time indicates it wasn't done by slaves.

        • When you have an absolute monarch, the entire population is slaves for practical purposes, even if they're not formally slaves in the sense we mean the word today.

  • by physicsphairy (720718) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:39PM (#47759653) Homepage

    Surely the physicists should have just made their grad students move them?

    • by i kan reed (749298) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:49PM (#47759759) Homepage Journal

      Regarding slave labor:

      "Slave" is a hard term to use. It evokes American chattel slavery, where on person owns another, and we're more likely talking about agricultural workers(peasants) who didn't have work to do during the floods of the nile.

      In ancient Egypt, the food reserves were controlled by the temples and thus by priests and other upper class members of society.

      So there was a socially powerless labor class, and a means to control them. Certainly they also had force, but it wasn't the "main" means of control. The line between "peasant" and "slave" in ancient societies is a vague one.

      • Sounds a lot like the meaning of "wage slave."

        We're not so honest with our labels these days.

      • by jedidiah (1196)

        Slave is a pretty accurate term for that arrangement. It also works for midieval European peasants too.

      • by careysub (976506)

        ...The line between "peasant" and "slave" in ancient societies is a vague one.

        I would put it this way - the concept of a "free man" did not exist.

      • by Artifakt (700173)

        Working on a crew may have been an option the workers got to choose (here's why):
        1. When a government taxes peasants, it's sometimes awkward to use the revenues. Imagine you are the guy who has to actually process the payments from a lot of really poor farmer types. Peasants may only be able to pay you with a share of their harvest. If they can't hand you gold coins, or anything easily stored and lasting, you end up having to sell their wheat or whatever to get the taxes into a form you can use.You have lim

      • by hendrips (2722525)

        Careful though - what you say is pretty much correct as far as I know for Old Kingdom Egypt, but it's not universally true of ancient cultures.

        In Rome, for instance, the distinction between slave and citizen-peasant was a Really Big Deal, with a whole host of legally enforced distinctions.

        Sometimes it even varied within a single civilization - in the Byzantine Empire, the Anatolian lower classes did indeed form a single amorphous serf-like peasantry of the type you describe, while the European portion of th

  • by ebno-10db (1459097) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @02:42PM (#47759685)

    Isn't this suggestion for a design modification just a little late?

  • by rabtech (223758) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @03:08PM (#47759903) Homepage

    Anyone remember that guy who was moving Stonehenge size concrete blocks around his back yard and erecting them in place, single-handedly? To stand them upright he would fill the pit with loose sand and slope one side of the pit, then he kept dumping water in. The mud was soft enough to be compressed and ejected from the pit as the stone slowly sank into place.

    If you counter-balance the blocks you can move them fairly easily with just a few people. Or put them on a sled and use logs to roll them. Or flood the basin using Nile flood water and float them into place.

    It doesn't take super-geniuses or fancy technology, it just takes dedication and some manpower.

    These dumb "How did the Egyptians do it?!?!?!" stories are highly annoying. They did it first and foremost by deciding they were going to do it, trying and failing several times, then perfecting their techniques. Same damn way we got to the moon. The hardest part is step 1.

    • by evilviper (135110)

      It doesn't take super-geniuses or fancy technology, it just takes dedication and some manpower.

      More technology can dramatically reduces the time and manpower needed. With the technology they had, it's hard to figure out how they made the huge structures they did, with the numbers of people they had, in the time-frame they had to do it.

      The Egyptian pyramids are a much harder problem than something small like stone-henge. It's the difference between someone building a wagon in their garage, and an assembly

      • I think its a completely different thing. In stonehenge, there was no mega-river which flooded the entire area. While making things difficult in some way, the flooding allowed the Egyptians to move heavy stuff easily because of the Archimedes principle.
        They had boats and knew everything about locks and irrigation.
        Stonehenge? I think that's a different matter.
    • by F34nor (321515)

      I said it above somewhere but moving them is only one small problem with the quarried limestone theory. It takes 6 months with copper tools to cut each block.

  • by tomhath (637240) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @03:12PM (#47759935)
    It seems to me that if they used a bigger log in the center the profile would have more sides, making it easier to roll. I still wouldn't want to be the guy who pushes it up the side of the pyramid though.
  • That raises a famous question.

    No it bloody doesn't, it raises a...

    Oh, wait. Carry on.

  • I see two possible flaws in this theory.

    First, if the attached rods are wood, wouldn't there be a limit to how much the block could weigh before crushing the rods?

    If the resulting dodecagon utilizes the block's original four edges among its vertices, wouldn't they suffer some damage while being rolled? If those edges are capped in some way to protect them, we inevitably return to #1 regarding the edge caps.

  • by ebcdic (39948) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @03:39PM (#47760135)

    They are not "dodecadrons", nor are they dodecahedral. They have a cross-section which is a dodecagon.

  • by Zamphatta (1760346) on Tuesday August 26, 2014 @03:46PM (#47760179) Homepage

    Rolling the stones as huge cylinders would've been cool but they used water to wet the sand, which reduced friction. There's even some hieroglyphs that show it being done. Was big news back in the spring. See:

  • Interesting intellectual execise for these folks, but Occam's Razor suggests the sled/water bucket/rows of slaves on ropes behind whips is far more likely.

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