How Were The Egyptian Pyramids Built?
How Were The Egyptian Pyramids Built?
ScienceDaily (Mar. 29, 2008)Â— The Aztecs, Mayans and ancient
Egyptians were three very different civilizations with one very large
similarity: pyramids. However, of these three ancient cultures, the
Egyptians set the standard for what most people recognize as classic
pyramid design: massive monuments with a square base and four
smooth-sided triangular sides, rising to a point. The Aztecs and Mayans
built their pyramids with tiered steps and a flat top.
Fossils & Ruins
Ancient Civilizations, Cultures, Fossils, Archaeology, Origin of Life,
Egyptian pyramids, Ancient Egypt, Chichen Itza, Mummy
The ancient Egyptians probably chose that distinctive form for their
pharaohs' tombs because of their solar religion, explained Donald
Redford, professor of Classics and ancient Mediterranean studies at Penn
State. The Egyptian sun god Ra, considered the father of all pharaohs,
was said to have created himself from a pyramid-shaped mound of earth
before creating all other gods. The pyramid's shape is thought to have
symbolized the sun's rays.
According to Redford, "The Egyptians began using the pyramid form
shortly after 2700 B.C., and the great heyday of constructing them for
royalty extended for about a thousand years, until about 1700 B.C." The
first pyramid was built by King Djoser during Egypt's Third Dynasty. His
architect, Imohtep, created a step pyramid by stacking six mastabas,
rectangular buildings of the sort in which earlier kings had been
buried. The largest and most well-known pyramids in Egypt are the
Pyramids at Giza, including the Great Pyramid of Giza designed for
For centuries, people have theorized how the great pyramids were built.
Some have suggested that they must have been constructed by
extraterrestrials, while others believe the Egyptians possessed a
technology that has been lost through the ages.
But the process of building pyramids, while complicated, was not as
colossal an undertaking as many of us believe, Redford says. Estimates
suggest that between 20,000 and 30,000 laborers were needed to build the
Great Pyramid at Giza in less than 23 years. By comparison, Notre Dame
Cathedral in Paris took almost 200 years to complete.
According to Redford, pharaohs traditionally began building their
pyramids as soon as they took the throne. The pharaoh would first
establish a committee composed of an overseer of construction, a chief
engineer and an architect. The pyramids were usually placed on the
western side of the Nile because the pharaoh's soul was meant to join
with the sun disc during its descent before continuing with the sun in
its eternal round. Added Redford, the two deciding factors when choosing
a building site were its orientation to the western horizon where the
sun set and the proximity to Memphis, the central city of ancient Egypt.
The cores of the pyramids were often composed of local limestone, said
Redford. Finer quality limestone composed the outer layer of the
pyramids, giving them a white sheen that could be seen from miles away.
The capstone was usually made of granite, basalt, or another very hard
stone and could be plated with gold, silver or electrum, an alloy of
gold and silver, and would also be highly reflective in the bright sun.
Said Redford, the image most people have of slaves being forced to build
pyramids against their will is incorrect.
"The concept of slavery is a very complicated problem in ancient Egypt,"
he noted, "because the legal aspects of indentured servitude and slavery
were very complicated." The peasants who worked on the pyramids were
given tax breaks and were taken to 'pyramid cities' where they were
given shelter, food and clothing, he noted.
According to Redford, ancient Egyptian quarrying methods -- the
processes for cutting and removing stone -- are still being studied.
Scholars have found evidence that copper chisels were using for
quarrying sandstone and limestone, for example, but harder stones such
as granite and diorite would have required stronger materials, said
Redford. Dolerite, a hard, black igneous rock, was used in the quarries
of Aswan to remove granite.
During excavation, massive dolerite "pounders" were used to pulverize
the stone around the edge of the granite block that needed to be
extracted. According to Redford, 60 to 70 men would pound out the stone.
At the bottom, they rammed wooden pegs into slots they had cut, and
filled the slots with water. The pegs would expand, splitting the stone,
and the block was then slid down onto a waiting boat.
Teams of oxen or manpower were used to drag the stones on a prepared
slipway that was lubricated with oil. Said Redford, a scene from a 19th
century B.C. tomb in Middle Egypt depicts "an alabaster statue 20 feet
high pulled by 173 men on four ropes with a man lubricating the slipway
as the pulling went on."
Once the stones were at the construction site, ramps were built to get
them into place on the pyramid, said Redford. These ramps were made of
mud brick and coated with chips of plaster to harden the surface. "If
they consistently raised the ramp course by course as the teams dragged
their blocks up, they could have gotten them into place fairly easily,"
he noted. At least one such ramp still exists, he said.
When answering to skepticism about how such heavy stones could have been
moved without machinery, Redford says, "I usually show the skeptic a
picture of 20 of my workers at an archaeological dig site pulling up a
two-and-a-half ton granite block." He added, "I know it's possible
because I was on the ropes too."
Adapted from materials provided by Penn State University.
Pyramids at Giza. (Credit: iStockphoto/Karim Hesham)
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