Jason Colavito recently posted a picture worth a thousand of von Daniken’s words over at his blog. A good illustration of some photographic sleight of hand that draws in the gullible when it comes to ancient astronauts. Check it out at “Are Inca Walls Too Big for Humans to Build?“
I’m a bit behind the curve here. The latest issue is already three weeks old, but obviously still very valuable. For PaleoBabble readers, I’d recommend (again) the latest installment of the series on Egyptian religion, the review of a book on Egyptian quarries and quarrying, and the article on solar eclipses in Egyptian material.
PaleoBabble readers know that ancient astronaut theorists suffer from a fixation on megalithic construction. The “impossibility” of moving stones of great size and tremendous weight appears to them as proof of alien assistance. This argument of course is simply reduced to “since I can’t figure out how it was done, it must have been aliens.” Rather than focus on the absurdity of this logic, I’ve tried to introduce readers to peer-reviewed scholarship on ancient construction and engineering. Egypt’s pyramids have received a lot of attention here in that regard. I want to turn now to Baalbek, specifically the famous trilithon (the three stones at the base of the Roman temple at the site).
There isn’t much written on this that’s available to the non-specialist, and most of what is available isn’t in English. At the risk of directing readers to a source that won’t be much use since it’s in French, I still think it’s useful to demonstrate that scholars have put serious thought into the trilithon, and have come up with workable solutions that have been successful in analogous situations (in this case, something even bigger than the trilithon – yes, ancient alien enthusiasts, the trilithon is NOT the largest object moved without modern machines; keep reading). A very good (and lengthy) scholarly journal article in French about moving the trilithon by ancient mechanical means is available on the web: Jean-Pierre Adam, “A propos du trilithon de Baalbek. Le transport et la mise en oeuvre des megaliths,” Syria 54:1-2 (1977): 31-63 (English translation: “Concerning the trilithon of Baalbek: Transportation and the Implementation of the Megaliths”). Two caveats on the article: (1) It’s very technical. It’s filled with mathematical discussion since its author is quite familiar with analyzing such problems via applied physics; (2) my French stinks. As such, I converted the article to text and used Google Translate, then went through and smoothed things out. I did not do this for the full article (I have better things to do). However, I have given readers important excerpts of this 32 page article. If you read French, then you can check on the translation and send me updates.
On pages 34-37 the author discusses ancient writers who described construction techniques for moving large stone objects. He writes:
“The advantage of this unique publication is exacerbated by the fact that, although written during the reign of Augustus, the treaty made a broad appeal to the art of building Greeks whose author cites the lost works of theorists and the most famous architects. In the context of this brief study, our interest is in the tenth book of Vitruvius, where we find a detailed description of the process and machinery used on construction sites of Greece and Rome and the author mentions at the same time the efficient and widespread job. The transport of megaliths is not forgotten . . .
Vitruvius cites two anecdotes relating to the construction . . . He sank both ends of “column each iron bolts made of Swallow-tailed and are sealed” with lead, having taken the precaution to put in the pieces of wood cross-sectional “dirty iron rings, in which bolts came in as “hubs. In addition, he strengthens his machine by attaching the two “pieces of oak ties, so that when the horse pulling the” bolts turned so easily into the rings, all the “shafts of the columns rolled easily on land to their destination.”
The second transport means for the megaliths described by Vitruvius . . . consisted of wheels twelve feet (approx. 3.60 m) and “locked both ends of the architraves in the middle of the wheels. He put “as bolts and iron rings, so that when the horse” pulling the machine, put the bolts in the iron rings were “turning the wheels. Thus, the architraves, which were in the wheels “as axles, were dragged and taken on the spot.”
He provides the following drawing to illustrate these techniques (Fig 2). Note how the absence of a round shape was no obstacle to moving something like a whole large pillar or obelisk — you simply gave it roundness at the ends to roll it. Very clever.
On page 42 the author introduces what will become for him an analogous point of reference for his proposed solution to moving the trilithon of Baalbek:
“. . . 1,250,000 kilograms . . . is the weight of the great block of granite the Empress Catherine II of Russia (1762-1796) . . . carried to St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) to serve as a colossal base to the equestrian statue of Peter the Great. This is likely the largest stone ever moved by man, one and a half times the weight trilithon blocks [at Baalbek.]”
Hope you caught that — an object 1.5 times the weight of the trilithon was successfully moved in the 18th century — no modern cranes. They did it with manpower, not alien know-how. He mentions other large objects successfully moved by human engineers, but this one gets special attention because it was a larger problem than the trilithon.
The rest of the article is devoted to Baalbek’s trilithon. Throughout pages 52-63, the author discusses the physics and engineering problems and solutions. Some excerpts:
“To appreciate the magnitude of the work, and justify the solution adapted to it, it is necessary to give the figures for to the heavier blocks, namely those of trilithon As its name suggests this set consists of three stones measuring respectively, 19.60 m, 19.30 m and 19.10 m long, 4.34 m high, 3.65 m deep. Their average weight is nearly 800 tons. . . . every stone has nearly 10 m in length for an average weight of 350 tonnes . . . After recalling the experiences of St. Petersburg, Luxor, and Carrara, we can obtain a more lucidly clean solution for this megalithic structure and more particularly to the construction of the trilithon.”
The author discusses using ox power to move the stones, a solution he will reject because of the lack of space on the site for the oxen:
“To solve the problem of Baalbek in the most comprehensive, we will consider the establishment of one of the heaviest blocks, that is to say one of the stones of 800,000 kg constituting the trilithon; the interventions for elements lighter in the deduction will be logical.
So either one of these stones completely detached from the rock and relaxing on logs. The floor beams receiving the convoy has a rolling flat surface to reduce the weight hauled to 66,600 kg. Knowing that an ox can provide a work of 80 kgm per second, continuously for one hour, we deduce there should be 825 of these animals to transport one of trilithon stones on a horizontal floor. Traditionally, it is estimated that an ox can pull a load 1.000 kg placed on a chariot. If we consider the block of 800,000 kg of the trilithon, it follows that 800 oxen are needed to move it.”
The author notes some logistical problems with using oxen before moving to a human solution:
“Certainly the yoke was known to mate the oxen, and in the case normal load, the pole was attached directly to the yoke between two animals, but when it came to transport heavy, each torque cattle was connected to the load by a cable or pole. . . . Xenophon gives us a confirmation on the use of this type coupling in the description he gives us the means employed by Cyrus to ensure the movement of heavy battle rounds . . . Each turn with wheels, was equipped with 8 drawbars which were harnessed eight pairs of oxen pulling front.
Despite the apparent simplicity of this energy source, we prefer to look to the human powered, with which the weakness in muscle is compensated by the extreme technical elaboration of the device multiplier used. In the event of a traction provided by the duration of the capstans, movement is a bit longer, since it multiplies the distance traveled by the load, in favor of the force and must ensure the in place and anchor machinery. The advantage of this method lies in the extremely small number of workers needed and the greater accuracy of the progression, allowing rigorous implementation of blocks the one above and beside the other. . . . Each capstan bar with four men using it would make 24 in total. . . . The force exerted directly by the capstan 24 men and six bar is at 20 kg per man of 480 kg. Taking center force application to 1.70 m from the center of rotation and a radius of drum of 10 cm, this force becomes (by a form winch) 8160 kg. Four cables of hemp, each providing four tons of traction, wind around the drum and by acting on the load through a hoist with two pulleys, generate a power of 16,320 kg of the machine; 13,056 kg reduced power by the coefficient of friction. Six of these machines, involving 144 men and providing traction power of 78,336 kg must allow, with a margin of excess power always useful, the transportation of each block of trilithon.”
Since the above is hard to conceptualize, the author includes a drawing of the simple, yet effective solution to moving the trilithon.
Simple, workable, and human. Once again, the ancient alien theorist’s low view of human intelligence and practical engineering prowess is demonstrated.
Yeah … scholars are so overwhelmed by the building projects of the ancients that they just have no idea how it was done. They’re so frightened by the clarity of the ancient alien visitation idea that they remain silent. There’s just no way to explain the precise placement of large blocks.
What a pile of crap.
The truth is that the ancient alien theorists (a) have never looked at the history of scholarship on these issues and (b) they don’t want to look. They are the ones afraid to subject their views to peer review, not the other way around.
Here’s a recent article I came across and thought readers would be interested (at least those who have not surrendered their synapses to the ancient alien idea):
Coulton, “Lifting in Early Greek Architecture,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 94 (1974), pp. 1-19
The article discussions various *known* techniques for lifting and precisely placing large blocks in construction. Some of the methods are known back to Assyrian times.
The alien-minded reader will naturally ask, “What about larger blocks, like the ones at Baalbek?” No aliens needed there, either. But that’s the next post (news flash to ancient astronaut theorists: scholars of ancient engineering really *have* thought carefully about Baalbek).
I just discovered the Archaeological Fantasies blog, a site that warmed my PaleoBabbling heart. The author has a short series entitled, “The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts” in which many of you will be interested. Two caught my eye right away:
1. The so-called Saqqara plane
I’ve posted about this and other mis-identified objects elsewhere on my homepage, but it’s worth a re-do here, especially since the blog’s author also posted this picture of the Egyptian Opet procession, which features the “plane” (it’s a bird, not a plane) on the masts of sailing ships:
Here’s a close-up of one of the masts:
2. The Baghdad battery
Clever, but not evidence of alien technology.
I’m nearly finished with the book by David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. I don’t ever want to hear any such nonsensical statement again about how the Great Pyramid is beyond modern reach. Ever. To not laugh when I hear it would be to suffer a fool, and that wasn’t my strong suit before I read the book.
Just one statistic will suffice for this post. It has been estimated that, if the Great Pyramid were built today it would require 3 million cubic yards of concrete. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? A drop in the bucket compared to the Panama Canal.
In just the American phase of the construction (1903-1914) a total of 238,845,587 cubic yards were excavated. In 1907, men were moving 1,000,000 cubic yards every month. Three million cubic yards pales in comparison. It would have been a vacation for the tens of thousands of men working in Panama. And the cubic yardage doesn’t even begin to describe the engineering logistics and obstacles, not to mention this was all done through waves of malaria and yellow fever.It’s truly a colossal feat of engineering.
But, Mike, you say, it’s not a fair comparison. The people building the canal had machines like steam shovels and trains. Uh … that’s my point. We *could* build the Great Pyramid today and it wouldn’t require aliens, just like it didn’t back in ancient Egypt. As impressive as the Great Pyramid is, its engineering problems are known and solvable. Sure, a couple of dim-witted scientists in a NOVA television special weren’t up to the task — which only shows they weren’t up to the task. Engineers like Jean Pierre Houdin have articulated in great (and coherent) detail how the pyramid could have been built without modern machinery. Other engineers (namely Davidovits and Barsoum) have proposed that the pyramid blocks were fabricated ancient concrete. Scholars of Egyptian engineering are well informed in Egyptian construction methods, including the pyramids.
And isn’t it odd how ancient astronaut theorists never seem to talk about the failed pyramid projects, like the pyramid of Huni (the Meidum collapsed pyramid), built during the reign of Sneferu, the father of Khufu? Maybe the aliens were on vacation for that one. And also the Bent Pyramid . . . and the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which was built in stages after altering the non-pyramid burial mastaba style. These are all examples of human engineering — the Egyptians learned how to build pyramids gradually, trying new techniques and learning from failures. Pyramid engineering evolved through various transitions. The pyramids themselves demonstrate this quite clearly. To say they needed alien help is just insulting.
Here’s an excerpt of the summary:
Egyptian astronomers used what they learnt to make predictions about the future. They drew these up in the form of calendars showing lucky and unlucky days.
The predictions were amazingly precise. Each day was divided into three or more segments, each of which was given a rating lying somewhere in the range from very favourable to highly adverse.
One of the best preserved of these papyrus documents is called the Cairo Calendar. Although the papyrus is badly damaged in places, scholars have been able to extract a complete list of ratings for days throughout an entire year somewhere around 1200 BC.
An interesting question is how the scribes arrived at their ratings. So various groups have studied the patterns that crop up in the predictions. Today, Lauri Jetsu and buddies at the University of Helsinki in Finland reveal the results of their detailed statistical analysis of the Cairo Calendar. Their conclusion is extraordinary.
These guys arranged the data as a time series and crunched it with various statistical tools designed to reveal cycles within it. They found two significant periodicities. The first is 29.6 days–that’s almost exactly the length of a lunar month, which modern astronomers put at 29.53059 days.
The second cycle is 2.85 days and this is much harder to explain. However, Jetsu and co make a convincing argument that this corresponds to the variability of Algol, a star visible to the naked eye in the constellation of Perseus.
So, why post this on PaleoBabble? Basically, because of this post from the Daily Graal suggesting that this discovery will dredge up talk of the “mystery” of the Dogon’s knowledge of Sirius.
As readers know, I think there is zero evidence in support of ancient astronaut visitation of the Dogon, primarily because recent research has demonstrated that the theory is based on the word of one Dogon, whose story and mythology is unknown and unconfirmed by other Dogon elders (for starters).
But should I reconsider ancient astronauts in light of this discovery?
Uh … no. Did you read the excerpt above? Read it again. The Egyptians did what they did using two very human techniques: (1) naked eye astronomy (“the variability of Algol, a star visible to the naked eye in the constellation of Perseus“) and (2) a little thing we earthlings call math.
Sorry. No aliens needed for this either. But it’s pretty cool — and shows once again how much we underestimate the ancients.
Thanks go to Charles Jones at Ancient World Online for posting this “pre-print” article, “The Cosmos in the Antikythera Mechanism” (due to the size, it is best to right-click and “Save File As”; you will also have to re-size the file in Adobe Reader, since the images do not scale with the font size). It is far and away the most detailed report on the Antikythera Mechanism I’ve seen. It is basically a full analysis of the mechanism, and ancient celestial calculator, that I’ve seen. It has many X-Ray photos and graphical reconstruction images. If you’re interested in this amazing piece of ancient HUMAN technology, this is a must-read.
Since the link for the article is not permanent, I have converted the page to PDF. But be advised, all the images in it make the file large (30 MB), so give it time to download. The permanent URL for online access to this paper is not active yet, but will be: http://dlib.nyu.edu/awdl/isaw/isaw-papers/4
And for those who will insist the mechanism is another example of alien technology, either given to humans or “reverse engineered” by the ancient Greeks, think again. As amazing as the mechanism is, it didn’t work that well. From section 3.10 of the report:
We compare the positions of Mars, as reconstructed by NASA with the Mechanism’s predictions over the middle seven retrogrades of Mars in the 1st Century BC—a period of about 13 years.(86) Serious error spikes can be seen, amounting to nearly 38°—more than a zodiac sign—at the retrogrades. The deferent and epicycle theories, on which the mechanisms depended, might be regarded as an adequate first-order approximation but were completely inadequate for accurate prediction at the retrogrades, particularly for Mars. More accuracy would have to wait for more sophisticated theories such as those employed by Ptolemy in the second century AD. Added to these inherent theoretical errors were significant mechanical inaccuracies because of the way that the rotations were transmitted through the gear trains.(87)
In short, the Antikythera Mechanism was a machine designed to predict celestial phenomena according to the sophisticated astronomical theories current in its day, the the sole witness to a lost history of brilliant engineering, a conception of pure genius, one of the great wonders of the ancient world—but it didn’t really work very well!
Just a heads up for those of you who enjoy reading and researching in archaeology. The American Journal of Archaeology has set up a student web page that leads to layers of very useful links (e.g., check out the “archaeological blogs” link).
Readers should check out this (very) lengthy entry recently posted on the quite useful Em Hotep blog. Readers may recall that Em Hotep has actually produced a series on pyramid construction and architecture that is very readable and worth bookmarking (check out the “Featured Series” on the front page). This post brings us up-to-date with Gantenbrink’s Upuaut pyramid rover.