This blog is Part Three of a series: Engineering the Egyptian Pyramids. Tune in for a look into the impressive engineering behind the Egyptian pyramids and the modern tech we’re using to uncover their mysteries.
In 2013, archaeologist Pierre Tallet and his team were excavating a 4,600-year-old port in the barren, desert landscape of Wadi el-Jarf, Egypt, a spot over 150 miles Southeast of Giza bordering the Red Sea. Ancient Egyptians once used the port to transport metal to make tools for building pyramids. While examining the once-lost port, they discovered something unprecedented.
Beneath the endless sand, rock, and ancient remnants of life were small shreds of papyri. These small scraps of paper may seem worthless to the untrained eye, but to archaeologists, they can answer questions we’ve had for thousands of years.
The papers are essentially an ancient Excel spreadsheet for pyramid-building, and not just any pyramid. They detail the logistics of one of the most revered monuments of all time: the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Great Pyramid is famous not just for its physical prowess, but for its mystery, and these papyri give details on a less televised but widely debated topic: the Great Pyramid’s infrastructure.
After the excavation of these papers, what do we now know of the Great Pyramid’s infrastructure? How did the ancient Egyptians coordinate a 30-year project that included the equivalent of 10 million modern American workers, and transportation and materials spanning hundreds of miles, with no modern tech or even wheels?
Who Built the Pyramids?
Let’s get one thing clear: Evidence shows that slaves did NOT build the pyramids. Pyramid-building was a community effort that required skilled workers, and entire cities grew around the construction sites.
How Were the Pyramid Blocks Moved?
Since builders constructed every section of the Great Pyramid simultaneously, all stone (which came from across Egypt) had to arrive on-site at the same time. Experts estimate that builders would have to quarry an Olympic swimming pool of stone every eight days, which would have required about 1,200-1,500 workers. How could they deliver the stone blocks, which weighed about two tons each, from each quarry to each port, and eventually to the construction site, all on time?
They didn’t have wheels to move the heavy stones, but they had sleds, and wetting the sand underneath those sleds could make them go even faster. As for navigating the water, that took even more ingenuity.
The Great Pyramid is mostly made of limestone, some of which came from a quarry about 10 miles south and 100 feet down from the Pyramid. Archaeologist Mark Lehner believes that the Egyptians created artificial basins between the Great Pyramid and the Nile River, which experts have found under modern Cairo. During the Nile’s annual flood, these basins could have turned into artificial lakes, creating a path from the Nile to the construction site. Lehner compares it to a hydraulic lift.
How Were the Boats Constructed?
Builders couldn’t put these “hydraulic lifts” everywhere. At some point in their 100+ mile journey across the desert, they would need to cross land to reach the next body of water.
From modern examinations of wood pieces from ancient Egyptian boats, experts believe that the Egyptians assembled their boats with rope. This lets them easily disassemble the boats once they reached land, and reassemble again after reaching the water.
How Do We Know So Much About the Great Pyramid?
Archaeologists can learn a lot from a few stones and remnants of paper and wood, but they can’t learn everything. That’s why we know surprisingly little about the Egyptian pyramids. However, with modern technology and the help of computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, experts have uncovered new clues. Learn more in our next blog…
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