Building the Pyramids – It’s Not a Mystery

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Ancient Egypt class that I teach at the local university is set to begin on Wednesday.  I devote a full week to pyramids.  The articles below are part of the readings.  Two of these have appeared on this blog before, but the ones by Isler and Lally are new.  I have students read these because I don’t want anyone leaving my classroom thinking aliens were needed for pyramid construction. Absolute paleobabble.

Fitchen, “Building Cheops’ Pyramid” – Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Mar., 1978), pp. 3-12

Isler, “On Pyramid Building” (Part 1) – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 22 (1985), pp. 129-142

Isler, “On Pyramid Building” (Part 2) – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 24 (1987), pp. 95-112

Lally, “Engineering a Pyramid” – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 26 (1989), pp. 207-218

Isler, “Egyptian Methods of Raising Weights” – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 13 (1976), pp. 31-42

Isler, “An Ancient Method of Finding and Extending Direction” – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 26 (1989), pp. 191-206

And when someone asks, “well, how come those guys on NOVA couldn’t build a small one – huh?” the answer is simple: “that’s because they were inept.” These articles are written by people who actually understand ancient engineering, not NOVA scientists who want to be on TV.

32 thoughts on “Building the Pyramids – It’s Not a Mystery

  1. Very good arguments that the pyramids were man made. Even when i was younger, the literature about the pyramids construction were arguing it was man made. The pyramids stand to this day across time surviving Persopolis, destroyed by Alexander and some earthquake.
    Funny no one ever claimed Persepolis was alien built, yet it was a wonder of the world at this time (even as a civilisation), it does help confirm that men of then had the ingeniosity to build the pyramids.

  2. The Great Pyramid was built in 20 years. It is composed of an estimated 2.3 million limestone blocks. That means that 115,000 blocks would have to be moved every year. That’s about 9583 blocks every month or about 319 blocks every day. If you assume that the work was non-stop, that is 13 blocks every hour.

    So, if the workers were working around the clock, they would have to have seated one stone about every four-and-a-half minutes. How much manpower would that have taken? Also, how many master builders/planners would that have involved to make sure that every brick went into its place? Just one mislaid brick and the entire project would have to be stopped, the process reversed, and the stone moved into its original place. Since the stones were of different sizes and uses, who made sure that the appropriate bricks were cut at the appropriate times and placed in the cue in their appropriate locations?

    There are too many questions and logistical issues in play here. Not to mention, how many people would have to have perfect communication over massive distances that are not even linked by line of sight? Can you answer any of these questions?

    When it comes to logistics of a large group of people, I am as close to an expert as you can get. I am an Army Logistics officer who works in the Pentagon. I have to handle the planning and preparation for every little operation that the higher authorities come up with, whether it actually goes forward or not. I have to break down the timeline, how much food, water, ammunition, weapons, fuel, supplies, and other items are necessary for the mission. On days that we have nothing going on, we “wargame” with theories to see what is necessary to do some interesting things.

    The great pyramid has an estimated mass of 5.9 million tons. This means that the stones are approximately 12.8 tons each (even though we know that some of the largest blocks–the granite stones from the King’s Chamber–weighed about 80 tons). So, 12.8 tons evens out to 25600 pounds. The average adult male (modern) can lift approximately their body weight and drag twice their body weight (150 pounds and 300 pounds, respectively). So, that would require a team of approximately 85 men on a single block. Given the differences in physiques, let’s call it 80 men per stone.

    So, that is 80 people to move a single stone. Add to that the necessary 10 water-bearers and food bearers, a crew of approximately 8 foremen to lead each team of ten men, one master foreman to lead the entire group and the necessary planner who knows exactly where the stone goes. That is a team of approximately 100 people on each stone just to move it.

    Dragging speed is approximately half of walking speed, so let’s say 1.5 miles per hour (walking speed being approximately 3 miles per hours or 1 league). The Great Pyramid is 5.2 miles west of the Nile. Without using exhaustion rates, that means it would take approximately 3.5 hours to pull a stone from the ships to the pyramid site. Using the 13 blocks an hour figure, means that you need at least 46 crews moving the stones at all times. Because of exhaustion rates, you would need an equal amount of rest time as strenuous work time, so let’s say 100 crews on the ground at all times. So far, we are up to 100,000 people on site at once.

    Since you could not work a crew for 24 hours, the human body requires at least 8 hours of sleep after strenuous work such as that, you would need at least three shifts working. So, that is 300,000 people at the site of the great pyramid itself.

    The necessary logistics to supply 300,000 people for a full 20 years are so far beyond the normal production capabilities of ancient Eqypt that it is not even funny. Heck, even today that feat would be impossible. Besides the amount of space, the necessary hygiene requirements, and morale difficulties, we are not even covering the food necessary…

    Think of the number of farmers it would require to feed this amount of people for 20 straight years? The amount of cattle and other meat sources that would need to be born and slaughtered? And then you have the quarrying crews, the ship crews, the ships themselves, the rope-makers, the people responsible for maintaining the logs used to roll under the blocks, and the other groups of merchants and suppliers for clothing, medicine, and other necessary amenities…

    With these numbers, you are looking at approximately one million people working on or supporting the build of the pyramid. I am going with the low-ball number, here. One million. The population rates of the day stated that men between the ages of 15 and 45 would have been those working on the project… Since the population of the entire of Egypt was between one and two million during this same period in history, who populated the military, the other economies, or any other roles? Remember, in ancient history, the number of males and females were about equal. Unless all of the population was congregated around the pyramid, then there is a discrepancy.

    So, can you tell me how this logistical nightmare could have happened when it would have been impossible to happen?

    • There’s a reason large pyramids were not built during the New Kingdom: having a large military prohibits one from building projects as labor-intensive as the Khafre, Khufu, and Sneferu pyramids (that, and the fact conspicuous monuments are invitations to looters). 4th Dynasty Egypt had a strong bureaucracy. Most pyramid stones were quarried on-site (see the AERA website), and, thus, only had to be moved a few hundred meters. Besides, there was almost certainly a canal used for transporting the Tura blocks. There needs to be at most a few tens of thousands of people at the pyramid construction site (probably less than thirty thousand). Obviously, we do not have detailed records regarding the structure of the management behind pyramid construction (though I might have forgotten something), so to expect scholars to describe this in detail is silly. Obviously, Egypt was a functional economy; one could say millions of people make the average pencil today. As Khafre did not try to significantly scale down his pyramid, we can assume Khufu’s pyramid was not particularly exhausting to Egypt’s economy.

    • I haven’t scrutinized your analysis in detail but the idea of 3 shifts working is laughable. They’re slaves. You work them to exhaustion and sometimes they die *shrug* (That’s how I imagine an overseer might have thought about it).

      What logical conclusion might we draw from your analysis? To me, the most logical hypothesis is that the Egyptian methodology for building pyramids was more efficient than the methods you describe. Realistically, what other reasonable conclusion can we arrive at? The pyramids didn’t make themselves.

      • My bad, slaves apparently didn’t build the pyramids. I should be careful not to believe everything I see in movies 😀

  3. Anonymous, that was awesome. I was hoping someone would put those closed-minded mainstream scientists in their places. Owned.

  4. I am not one that believes aliens built the pyramids but scientists do a very poor job explaining how this was done leading to the crackpot theories. The excavations beside the pyramids that are supposed to be the town and burial grounds for the workers do not appear to be sufficient to house a work force that would have been necessary.
    Scientists could put a stop to the aliens etc if they would just say hey we don’t know but we are working on it.

    • There’s nothing crackpot about peer-reviewed engineering articles that have been tested with computer models.

  5. Yes, Anonymous, it was a great effort and that’s why it was never repeated. The simplest answer is that Egypt was bigger and more prosperous that modern archaeologist think.

  6. I agree with Anonimous. The more I study Archaeology the more I realized how many lies are written in history books

    • that’s a nice way of saying you’re too lazy to devote serious attention to the wide range of source material. How many history books have you read, really? (And for what it’s worth, I’d say they are a waste of time, too — the academic journals are a hundred times better – textbooks are for one’s first toe-dip into a subject, not for serious analysis).

  7. Right, actually I refered to the history textbook that you read at school (sometime also at the University) which are too subject to “standard opinion” and hide or neglect significant events and topics. I personally appreciate students and teaching staff who try to have new approach of knowledge.

    • undergrad textbooks by their very nature are overviews, and so subject to errors of over-simplification.

  8. Anonymous, nice post. But where did u get the 100,000 figure from? 100 crews, each containing 100 men, is 10,000 men ?

  9. Did aliens build the pyramids? Maybe who knows we were not there. Did aliens help man build the pyramids? Maybe who knows we were not there. Have we had truths and stories hidden and destroyed for thousands of years preventing us from knowing the truths? Yes! It could be as simple as a million people building them but what is weird is that around the same time and in different parts of the world other pyramid type structures were being built as well. So much has been hidden from us that we will never know the truth.

    • No, they didn’t. You really can only build artificial mountains (or “primeval mounds”) one way — they will all turn out to look like triangles. No mystery. They won’t look like trapezoids.

  10. Here is my “two cents” on this topic. I believe that the Hebrews, who had been enslaved in Egypt for about 400 years from the time of Joseph to the exodus with Moses, had been used to assist in building the great pyramids of Egypt. It was the ultimate insult of a polytheistic, sun-god worshipping culture to force a nation of people claiming to know the one true God, the creator of all things, into making their pagan temples of worship.

    As for the reason why there are so many structures like this all over the world, for instance in various parts of the Americas as in the Mayan Ruins and China and so forth, I believe it is because of the age-old conflict of mankind turning away from the one true God and making their own gods in an effort to save themselves and make a name for themselves. Hence we see in the bible, in the Genesis account of the tower of Babel. man was trying to build a structure to reach into the heavens for their own sake, to make a name for themselves, not to give glory to God. The story tells us that God confused the language of the people and they were scattered all over the world. But wherever they went, they took that mindset with them, to worship after the creation instead of the Creator, hence the reason we see so many similar “towers of Babel” (pyramids, ziggurats, temples etc.) all over the world today.

    I marvel at the way in which mankind was awesomely made before the fall. Adam was intelligent and lived almost 1000 years old, according to the geneaologies of Genesis. God provided man with the ability to reason and create amazing structures, which was to glorify Him, however man has taken these gifts and talents and tried to glorify himself instead. Evidence of this is repeated over and over again in history books, the bible, etc.

    • The Israelites had nothing to do with the pyramids. The chronology is off about 1000-1500 years.

  11. Just a quick response I fired off for Anonymous above..

    Average block does not weight 12.8 tones, it weighs about 2 tons, and that is just the well-calibrated stones that made up the support layer behind the facing stones. The majority of the pyramid, the core, is not these nice neat 2-ton blocks, it is filler stone that was packed into place with smaller stones and gypsum mortar, something that did not take a lot of precision. The evidence shows the core was leveled off periodically, around 5-8 levels, to maintain structural integrity.

    As for the exacting nature of cutting and shaping the blocks, the outer casing stones were cut and pre-assembled at Tura, numbered, then shipped to Giza and reassembled like a large puzzle where the pieces happen to be conveniently numbered. Screw-ups were minimalized because they were prefabricated at Tura and shipped in lots. They didn’t just hack them out and ship them, waiting for the individual crews to decide where they fit best.

    The same process for the we-calibrated local limestone that was used for the supporting layer. As for the rest, that did not need to be so precise. There was very little need for extracting and redoing blocks. In fact, there is ample evidence of mishaps being corrected with mortar patches. You can still see these on the remaining facing stones on Khafre’s pyramid.

    The average block, weighing 2 tones, did not require 80 men to move, more like about 10-12 men per team, which fits in with what Mark Lehner has discovered about the division of the work force in his excavations of the pyramid workers village. Including foremen, 100 men to a stone might work with modern military logistics (joke) but was not required at the construction of the Great Pyramid

    The stones were not dragged from the Nile, the actual on-site evidence shows that a canal was built from the Nile to the quay as the base of the plateau. The ancient Egyptians were expert canal builders, there is ample evidence of this. Big desert, one river, you get the picture. The stones could have been dragged up the large ramp that forms the foundation of Khafre’s royal causeway, then a right hand turn onto the next external ramp that would only have needed to reach the 43 meter level—the foundation of the King’s Chamber. Everything else could have gone up an internal ramp as suggested in the theories of Jean-Pierre Houdin.

    The 60 ton megalithic blocks in the King’s Chamber and elsewhere could have been hauled up using a counterweight system operating in the Grand Gallery, some evidence for which exists.

    Due to the nature of a pyramid shape, two thirds of the volume was in the bottom third of the pyramid, allowing a rather large top work space for many teams to be active at once.

    The pyramid also incorporated part of the terrain into the core. Only the perimeter would have needed to be leveled, the higher sloping part of the plateau was absorbed into the construction—some of this is still visible where the casing stones were stripped away.

    As for the logistics of a workforce of 300,000 you are correct, that would be funny. Fortunately, a workforce of considerably less. Between 2,000 – 4,000 workers could be accommodated by the barracks Lehner has excavated so far in the pyramid village, and all of their needs—food, sanitary, even entertainment, are accounted for. The workforce was on a rotational basis, called bak. Bak was like a feudal system where all people of Egypt, from the richest to the poorest, would spend a certan amout of time or resources per year supporting building projects. Farmers sent food as well as their sons for a certain number of weeks per year.

    As for morale, writing from that time, including trash-talk graffiti, suggests they were very competitive with other work teams, many of which were young people they knew from neighboring villages. Think high school football season. The archaeological evidence from the workers village also shows that they ate high protein meals, there were bakeries and brewers strategically placed within the barracks, and by all indications they ate better during their weeks of balk service than at any other time except holidays. In short, it was hard work but they seemed to enjoy it.

    Don’t underestimate a brilliant nationalistic people with a highly motivated and well-rewarded work force. The best evidence that the pyramids were built by ancient Egyptians is:

    A) They are ancient

    B) They are there

    C) There is Egypt.

  12. Don’t you mean….5.9 million tons divided by 2.3 million stones equals 2.56 tons per stone, not 12.8? Not that it matters much, given the extremity of the numbers. If you figure the volume of Giza, times 170 lbs per cubic foot, you get about 3.3 tons per stone, (2.3 million stones).

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    • Good stuff – and the comment about simplicity is especially telling. It shows how different our thinking about technology is compared to the ancients. Technology moves in different directions, applied to specific tasks.

  15. I’m interested in learning whether pyramids were built in different parts of the world at around the same time. The Google page description hints that this site covers this topic. Can anyone provide some insight? Thanks
    Mar 28, 2011 – Very good arguments that the pyramids were man made. …. weird is that around the same time and in different parts of the world other pyramid …

    • Google probably points here because I’ve had a few posts about pyramids elsewhere (see the archives).

  16. So, I’m admittedly a little confused. Why does anyone think that aliens built pyramids? If a species was intelligent enough to develop the technology to arrive here from another solar system, why would they bother making pyramids for us? And why make them out of simple stone blocks? If the pyramids were made 4000 years ago, didn’t the Egyptians have writing by then? I’m pretty sure that if aliens had made the pyramids, someone would have noticed and written something down. I can think of hundreds of activities both beneficial and nefarious that would be more logical for aliens to accomplish than pyramid building.

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