Thursday, April 22, 2010

Complete Theories And Facts Of Pyramids

Who Built the Pyramids?

Giza pyramids

The Egyptians built the pyramids. The best of the pyramids, erected in the Fourth Dynasty, were built during a small window in history when the means, motive, and opportunity were all present, a situation that would not be repeated for the remainder of Egypt's history. Tombs before this time evolved from archaic-period pit tombs covered by simple mounds to underground tombs with rectangular superstructures, the prototype of the grander "mastaba" tombs. By the Second Dynasty, mastaba tombs had developed into low but massive rectangular structures. At least one of these, mastaba 3038 at Saqqara, has sides made up of eight steps rising at a 49° angle, lending to it a definite pyramid appearance. It was not a great leap in architecture to decide to stack mastabas one atop the other to form a stepped pyramid, and thereafter to smooth the sides into a true pyramid shape.

Most of the common labor force that worked on the pyramids were Egyptian citizens. Because Egypt had a non-monetary economy, taxes had to be paid in kind. If not livestock, produce, or manufactured goods, taxes were extracted by a demand of corvée labor. Most of the brute pyramid workforce was comprised of such laborers, working off their obligation to the king. These "peasant conscripts" were divided into teams and divisions and were provided with the basic necessities of life during their term of duty. Skilled builders and craftsmen were in the permanent employ of pharaoh and lived together in villages near the pyramid site. Slavery was rare in Egypt before the Ptolemaic Period. The class usually referred to as serfs existed throughout Egypt's history of course. These might have variously been born into their common position, captive foreigners, or even prisoners serving their sentence. The serfs served as workers for pharaoh, as helpers in the temples, and as servants for wealthier citizens. True slaves in the classical sense owned nothing at all and were considered chattel to be bought and sold at will. They did not play a part in the building of the pyramids.

Egyptian workmen dressing limestone blocks
(from the tomb of Rekhmira, TT100).

stone  workers

There is ample evidence throughout Egypt's history that the Egyptians themselves designed and built the monuments that still stand today. To ascribe these feats to some other people, Atlanteans or Martians or whomever, is both a denial of an overwhelming body of data and an attempt to rob the ancient Egyptians of what is among their most enduring accomplishments.

How were the Pyramids built?

Moving a limestone block

The pyramid blocks were hewn from quarries using stone and copper tools. There are examples of each stage of block extraction at existing ancient quarries. Granite was quarried using pounding stones of dolerite, some of which have been found laying about the quarries. The blocks were transported to the pyramid site from remote quarries using barges, and from local quarries using wooden sleds. The Egyptians did not use the wheel during the Pyramid Age, an invention that would have been of limited used on softer ground under heavy loads. The sleds were dragged manually, sometimes with the help of beasts of burden, over smoothed roads. Some of the existing pathways were equipped with transverse wooden beams to lend support to the sled. A lubricant may have been poured upon the road to reduce friction.

Cedar sled from Lisht.
wooden sled

How the massive blocks were raised to the height of the rising pyramid is not understood for certain. Earthen ramps were used at least in the initial stages of construction. Extant ramps have been found at the pyramids of Amenemhat I and Senwosret I at Lisht (see photos below), as well as at several other sites. Traces of disassembled ramps at pyramid sites are even more common. The ramps were made of brick or earth and rubble dressed with brick for strength. They were built up as the pyramid progressed upward, and removed as the pyramid was finished downward.

Inclined brick construction ramps with transverse
timbers at the pyramids of Amenemhat I and Senwosret I.

construction  ramp construction ramp

The ramps likely took the form of an inclined plane at the beginning of work, but the configuration in later stages has long been a matter of conjecture. Some Egyptologists propose a straight, gently sloping, linear ramp, some propose a steep staircase ramp, and others propose a ramp that spiraled up the four sides of the pyramid. In most ramp scenarios, the volume of the ramp exceeds the volume of the pyramid structure itself, raising the possibility that the stones of the upper reaches were placed using levers, or perhaps a modified ramp of some sort. In the case of the Great Pyramid at Giza, the upper half of the total vertical pyramid height represents only 12.5% of the mass of the entire pyramid. The mass of the top quarter of the pyramid's height is a mere .0386% of the whole. Thus the mass of the ramp is in inverse proportion to the mass of building material it is meant to convey. Extending a ramp to the upper reaches of a pyramid to service such a small volume of stone would appear to be inexpedient.

But whatever the configuration of the ramps, the fact remains that the Egyptians successfully completed the most massive building projects in all of history. There is nothing magical or supernatural in the means by which they achieved their goals. By all indications, they retained their knowledge of construction throughout their history, but they were limited after the Fourth Dynasty not by the lack of technology but rather by the lack of the abundant resources that were previously available. More than two thousand years later, the Romans would move huge stones, some weighing nearly 1,000 tons, using similar techniques at Baalbek.

More impressive than the mechanics of moving huge masses of building material are the logistics involved: choreographing teams of foremen, multitudes of workers, and a profusion of supplies, all within the rigid constraints of a blueprint for design and a timetable for completion. It is hard to imagine that such a feat could be possible, but the pyramids themselves provide mute testimony that it was not only possible but actually accomplished. There remains no known written record hinting at how the pyramids were built, nor have any reliefs depicting the procedure been found. Most of what Egyptologists believe to be true of the methods involved is based on tangible archaeological evidence. Some is based on theory and is open for debate. What is known for certain is that the Egyptians used simple but effective tools to quarry the stones, to move them to the pyramid site, and to place them in the desired location.

For a more detailed and technical treatment of pyramid construction techniques, see Bonnie Sampsell's articles on the role of accretion layer in pyramid design and on how the Egyptians managed to control the shape the pyramid while building it.

Moving Large Objects

The heaviest known blocks to be brought from Aswan to Giza were the massive granite stones used for the roof of the King's Chamber in the pyramid of Kufu. Each weighed about 50 tons. 5th and 6th Dynasty pyramids included gabled roofs with blocks weighing up to 90 tons. The mortuary temple of Menkaure included limestone blocks weighing 200 tons. In the 18th Dynasty, two colossal statues of Amenhotep III (the "Colossi of Memnon"), each weighing more than 700 tons, were moved an overland distance of 700 km. Fragments of statues in the Ramesseum (built under Ramesses II) suggest an original weight of 1,000 tons. How was it possible for objects of this size to have been moved?

Hatshepsut's obelisk barge.

Herodotus described moving the 580 ton "Green Naos" under Nectanebo II: "This took three years in the bringing, and two thousand men were assigned to the conveying of it ..." (History, 2.175) Pliny wrote of the transportation of an "eighty cubit" obelisk under Ptolemy II:

According to some authorities, it was carried downstream by the engineer Satyrus on a raft; but according to Callixenus, it was conveyed by Phoenix, who by digging a canal brought the waters of the Nile right up to the place where the obelisk lay. Two very broad ships were loaded with cubes of the same granite as that of the obelisk, each cube measuring one foot, until calculations showed that the total weight of the blocks was double that of the obelisk, since their total cubic capacity was twice as great. In this way, the ships were able to come beneath the obelisk, which was suspended by its ends from both banks of the canal. The blocks were unloaded and the ships, riding high, took the weight of the obelisk. (Natural History, 36.14)

Moving a statue in 12th Dynasty Egypt.
moving a  statue

Moving large stones over land was more involved. Sledges and rollers (the latter being of a more limited value) were available in pharaonic times, and workers were in great supply. Friction was the main obstacle. An 800 ton block measuring 4x4x20 m would create a ground pressure of 1 kg over each square centimeter of its base. A force of at least 400 tons would be required to overcome the friction. Modern engineers working under primitive conditions found that, while moving blocks weighing 6 tons on a sledge, friction could be reduced to nearly zero by wetting the track with a lubricant (in this case, water). In the relief pictured above, from the tomb of Djehutihotep, a man can be seen on the leading end of the sledge pouring a liquid on the ground in front of it. Modern reenactments also demonstrated that a friction "seal" is formed beneath a static load that is broken when the load begins to move. An Assyrian relief (below) shows the use of a lever at the back of the sledge, possibly used to break such a "seal," or perhaps to propel it forward.

Moving a stone in Assyria.
moving a  stone

It has been estimated that a ratio of two men per ton would be required for moving loads over flat surfaces; nine men per ton would be required for moving loads up a 9° slope. Practical experiments moving loads on a sledge over a lubricated track have shown that one man could pull one ton. Thus, the 1,000 ton colossus of Ramesses II could have been moved by 1,000 men (or 200 oxen).

The movement of large stones was not confined to Egypt in ancient times. The Romans moved the so-called Trilithon, weighing 800 tons, from the quarry to the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek (in eastern Lebanon) in the first century AD. Another stone weighing 1,200 tons, the Hajar el Hibla ("Stone of the Pregnant Woman"), was never separated from its base and lays abandoned. Though the Romans left no record of their methods, it is obvious that the Egyptians did not have a monopoly on any "secret" technique of moving large stones.

The "Stone of the Pregnant Woman,"
at the quarry near Baalbek.

Baalbek  stone

It has been claimed by some that moving the largest of the Egyptian blocks would be beyond our modern-day technological capacity, even with the use of cranes and other heavy equipment. Such arguments are false. In 1999 it became necessary to move the 208-foot tall Cape Hatteras lighthouse to a location more than a half-mile away. The lighthouse weighs 4,830 tons and had to be moved in one piece in its upright position. How was this achieved?

Moving the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.
moving a  lighthouse

The use of cranes was impractical, and the actual technique used was very similar to that ascribed to the ancient Egyptians. First, the lighthouse was undercut and shored using timber (see photo below). One hundred hydraulic jacks were installed on rollers to slide along steel track beams placed beneath the lighthouse. A road was made by compacting the natural sands, overlaid with crushed stone, and finished with steel mats. Five hydraulic push jacks slowly shoved the lighthouse along the track beams in five-foot increments. The track was lubricated with soap shavings to reduce friction. The move, from start to finish, took 23 days.

Wood shoring
beneath lighthouse.

wood shoring

With hydraulic machinery to replace human and animal muscle, and hardened steel substituting for wood, it is well within our modern-day ability to perform the mechanics of constructing the Great Pyramid. What we lack today is the motivation to put the plan into effect and the resources to carry it out, both abundant in ancient Egypt during the Pyramid Age.

Pyramid Design and Construction - Part I:
The Accretion Theory

Pyramids are perennially fascinating to Egyptologists and laymen alike. Questions about how they were built continue to stimulate new proposals and provoke debate. Stone pyramids arose as the shape of the royal tomb in Dynasty III, with Djoser’s Step Pyramid being the earliest one known. In Dynasty IV, the first true pyramids were built, and tombs continued to take this form through the rest of the Old Kingdom. During this 450-year period, the substructures composing the burial apartments, as well as the pyramid superstructures underwent a number of changes in design. The reason for these changes is not known in most cases. Certain modifications may have been inspired by changes in the underlying religious beliefs, while others were the result of a king’s greater resources and ambitions. Still others appear to have been the consequences of growing technical capabilities.

Figure 1
Accretion  layer
Accretion layer in the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

The major shift in external pyramid shape -- from step to true pyramid -- was accompanied by a change in the internal structure; namely that the earlier pyramids were built with slanting accretion layers, while the later ones were built with horizontal courses. While researching Old Kingdom architecture, I discovered that a major misunderstanding on this point arose in the 19th Century and has persisted in some literature up to the present time. One objective of this paper is to counter the faulty notion that pyramids continued to be built with accretion layers throughout the Old Kingdom.

In the accretion method of building a pyramid, a solid central core was constructed, then this was expanded outwards on all four sides by the addition of successive accretion layers (or concentric shells) of masonry ranging from five to fifteen feet in thickness. The stones in the accretion layers were small, roughly-rectangular blocks with lengths ranging up to two feet; they were set on a slant tilting inwards. The stones of each layer were similar in size and shape except that the stones at the outer edge of each layer were smoothed to give the layer a flat surface typically with a slope of 74 - 76°. This was the method used in Djoser’s Step Pyramid and Sekhemkhet’s unfinished pyramid, both at Saqqara, and in the ruined Layer Pyramid at Zawyet el-Aryan.

A variation of this approach was to form each accretion layer with two kinds of blocks: an outer face formed of well-squared blocks of larger dimensions that served as both a casing for the layer as well as a retaining wall for an inner portion of roughly-shaped blocks. This is the pattern seen in the stepped nucleus of the Meidum Pyramid. In either type of construction, the final or overall “stepped” outline of the pyramid was achieved by having each accretion layer top-out at a lower height than the one immediately inward of it. It is worth noting that at the Meidum Pyramid, the casing blocks of its accretion layers were much larger than those used at Djoser’s Step Pyramid. Petrie (1892:7) gives the dimensions of the casing blocks of the steps at Meidum as averaging 32 inches wide by 58 inches long x 20 inches high.

Figure 2
Meidum  Pyramid
Cross-section and accretion layers in the Meidum Pyramid.

The idea that the Egyptians continued building pyramids with accretion layers to the end of Dynasty VI can be traced to the 19th Century Egyptologist, Richard Lepsius, who suggested that it provided a way for a king to add to his tomb over the course of a long reign (Edwards 1993:273). If this had been the practice, we would expect that the longest-reigning kings, such as Pepi II who ruled for 94 years, would have built the largest pyramids. But there is no direct relationship between the size of a king’s pyramid and length of his reign.

Figure 3
Sahure's  Pyramid
Cross-section of Sahure's Pyramid according to
Ludwig Borchardt's now discredited accretion theory.

Lepsius's accretion theory was adopted by the archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt who excavated in Egypt in the early 1900's. He reported finding “internal faces” which he interpreted as accretion layers in Dynasty V pyramids at Abusir. Borchardt 1910:29) presents a diagram of the internal construction of Sahure’s pyramid showing accretion layers with sloping internal faces; the pyramid’s casing and core blocks are set horizontally. This is the diagram that is often copied by authors of pyramid books (Figure 3). Borchardt also interpreted the “girdle-stones” in the Ascending Passage of the Great Pyramid at Giza as the faces of successive accretion layers through which the Ascending Passage had been excavated following a change in plans (Borchardt 1932). Based on his 1880-2 studies at Giza, Flinders Petrie presented several strong arguments against Lepsius’s accretion theory (Petrie 1883:163-6). But Borchardt’s hypothesis about the use of accretion layers in all Old Kingdom pyramids continued to appear in many books and articles. Sometimes the authors made an explicit reference to the accretion theory; in other cases they endorsed it indirectly by using one of Borchardt’s diagrams, perhaps unaware of its implications. But we must dispose of this theory once-and-for-all before we can begin to consider possible methods of pyramid construction.

Our current understanding of pyramid superstructure is based on very careful surveys by John Perring and Flinders Petrie during the 19th Century and on additional work of the last half of the 20th Century. In the 1960’s and 70's, Italians Vito Maragioglio and Celeste Rinaldi studied the architecture of many Old Kingdom pyramids in great detail. They paid particular attention to the issue of accretion layers. They found that for the most part the major pyramids at Dahshur and Giza were too well preserved to reveal much about their interior structure, but in every place where they could examine portions of the nucleus of these pyramids they saw only blocks laid horizontally rather than on a slant. In fact, they found no evidence for any internal faces that could be associated with accretion layers in any Dynasty IV or V pyramid.

While Maragioglio and Rinaldi published their results in seven large volumes with detailed drawings, most nonprofessionals are unfamiliar with their work. Unfortunately, the books themselves are extremely rare and their titles obscure the fact that the texts are given in both Italian and English. Here are some excerpts from their reports.

By studying this breach [in the north wall of the burial chamber] we were able to ascertain that the monument [Red Pyramid] was built in horizontal courses varying in thickness from one to another (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1964:132).

Therefore we believe the nucleus [of Great Pyramid] to be a homogeneous structure and not to be made in inclined layers as in Meydum (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1965:16).

... our surveys in Cheops pyramid have led us to definitely reject Borchardt’s theory that its nucleus was made in successive [accretion] layers (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1965:114). Note: core blocks in Great Pyramid can be observed in several places: in the gash on south face, in the area above original entrance on north face, in Al-Mamoun's passage, in tunnel behind niche in Queen's Chamber, in a tunnel leading under the King's Chamber.

A careful examination of the masonry of the nucleus [of Khafre's pyramid], although it was not possible to carry it out thoroughly owing to the state of the monument, has not provided factors in favour of the theory of Lepsius and Borchardt, according to which all pyramids were built in successive sloping layers, and has not even proved the existence of large steps [stages] in the nucleus (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1966:48). In this pyramid they entered the passages made by grave robbers in the north face and also those robbers’ passages that intersected the interior passages.

… from the masonry at the sides of the breach [on north face of Menkaure's pyramid] and the mouth of Vyse's tunnel it is seen that there is an absolute and unmistakable lack of [accretion] layers of the type of those at Meydum, ... in Vyse’s tunnel, which we penetrated for over 15 m. and carefully studied, there is nothing to make one suspect faces of layers (at least two should have been seen) (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1967:34).

Grinsell (Egyptian Pyramids, p 132) states that four internal facings of the nucleus are visible [in Userkaf’s pyramid] and that the nucleus was probably in layers. In spite of the most careful search, both inside the existing cave to the north... and outside it, we could see nothing to corroborate this hypothesis. Although of poor quality, the masonry appears homogeneous, with the blocks laid horizontally (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1970:12).

The pit and the passage left in the body of the [Sahure’s] pyramid are alone quite sufficient to exclude the possibility that the nucleus of the pyramid consisted of a central core against which, proceeding from the inside outward, layers of gradually decreasing height were placed. In representing the nucleus as layered in his section of the pyramid of Sahure, Borchardt was evidently misled by the steps [stages] that were visible and by what he had noted and established at Meydum. The sometime very extensive falls of masonry, which are to be seen, especially on the north, and east faces of the monument, have shown nothing to make one think of a [accretion] layer structure. It should moreover be noted that the courses of the blocks are horizontal and not inclined inwards, as would be normal if Borchard's [sic] hypothesis (already advanced by Lepsius) had any foundation (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1970:86).

Perhaps it is fitting that a final word about accretion layers should come from an excavator at Abusir, since that is where Lepsius and Borchardt made their observations and drew their erroneous conclusions. Miroslav Verner excavated the unfinished pyramid of Dynasty V king, Raneferef [Neferefre]. Verner reported that this pyramid provides absolutely no evidence of building by accretion layers saying: “If the [accretion] theory was valid, should have been possible to find -- as in cross section -- stone masonry arranged on all four sides in parallel layers. It would be as if an onion not circular, but square, had been sliced across horizontally” (Verner 1994:139).

Instead a trench dug into the pyramid's crown revealed a different method of construction as he goes on to explain:

The outer face of the first step of the pyramid core was formed by a frame made up of huge blocks of dark grey limestone up to 5 m long and well bound together. Similarly, there was an inner frame built up of smaller blocks, and making up the walls of the rectangular trench destined for the underground chambers of the tomb. Between the two frames pieces of poor-quality limestone had been packed, sometimes “dry” and sometimes stuck together with clay mortar and sand ... The core was indeed modelled into steps, but these were built in horizontal layers and only the stone blocks making up the outer surface were of high quality and well joined together. The inner part of the core was filled up with only partially joined rough stones of varying size and quality (Verner 1994:139-40).

The reports of Maragioglio, Rinaldi, and Verner, taken in conjunction with personal observations made during several trip to Egypt, make me confident that the Dynasty IV pyramids at both Dahshur and Giza were constructed using the new method of horizontal courses rather than with inclined accretion layers. In this new method the stones of the core were much larger and were more neatly trimmed into rectangular blocks although there was a great range in the actual size and shape of these. These core blocks were set horizontally and ran uniformly through each course. In some Giza pyramids, such as the Queens’ Pyramids and Menkaure’s Pyramid, the core blocks did form a “stepped” nucleus, but this was achieved in a very different manner than described above with accretion layers. I am going to call these Dynasty IV innovations "stages" to avoid confusion, since the word “steps" has been used by so many authors with several different meanings (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Dynasty IV  pyramids
(Left) Dynasty IV pyramid with core (shaded) built in four stages with slanting faces and
setbacks; courses are horizontal. (Right) Pyramid built in horizontal courses without stages.

The stages in certain true pyramids were created by setting the stones at the outer perimeter of each course back slightly from the ones below creating a gently sloping face with an incline of about 75°. In addition, after a certain number of courses, an even larger setback occurred before the next stage began. The object of the stages in this method of construction was to create a core with an outline approximating that of the final pyramid to which the casing and backing blocks could be applied. In some cases, the stages were built of uniformly large blocks throughout their courses, but in other cases, large blocks were used at the perimeter of the course while smaller blocks, even rubble, were used to fill up the center. On eroded pyramids the vertical faces of stages can be mistaken for accretion layers without careful study.

I hope that a greater familiarity with recent observations will finally set the record straight on the important issue of accretion layers. I have been pleased to note that newer publications on pyramids do discount the accretion theory. (Some recent books stating that Dynasty IV pyramids have horizontal courses and no accretion layers: Arnold 1990:159; Lehner 1997:109, 218; Wildung 1997:51.) Unfortunately many of the older books remain in libraries where they may be the only references available on this topic. In addition, some authors continue to use Borchardt’s cross-section of either the Great Pyramid or of Sahure’s Pyramid without realizing the implications of these drawings. Readers new to the subject have no way of knowing that the ideas expressed are outdated.

I am devoting this first paper of the series to this point regarding the pyramid internal structure because this knowledge is ecessary before one can discuss construction methods. I believe that the change in the method of building a pyramid’s nucleus signaled an improvement in ancient technology and materials. By Dynasty IV, the pyramid builders found a way to quarry, move, and set in place really enormous blocks of limestone. It was this capability that changed their entire approach to pyramid construction and not any disasters or problems encountered during the construction of any particular monument. Engineering of true pyramids relies on different principles than used with step pyramids.

Stones employed in building accretion layers were relatively small. This may have been due to the thin strata in the limestone quarries or the desire to keep individual stones to a size similar to mud bricks that could be carried by one or two men, or both. The small stones were set without adhesive mortar, but only with mud mortar to fill gaps. To provide the necessary stability to keep the small stones from collapsing or sliding off one another, the entire layer was tilted to lean on the one behind it. While the stones within a single accretion layer might have some adherence to one another due to mortar or overlap, the layers had no masonry bonding to one another. Their smooth, highly inclined faces actually represented potential slippage planes.

Without getting involved in a separate debate about the Meidum Pyramid, I believe that its unbonded accretion layers contributed to its collapse during an earthquake. Unlike Kurt Mendelssohn who proposed that a collapse occurred while the pyramid was still under construction and that this affected the ancient building methods, I believe, as did pyramid expert

I. E. S. Edwards, that the collapse occurred sometime after Dynasty XVIII. Nor do I believe that the still-unexplained difficulties which resulted in the damage observable today at the Bent Pyramid was the direct stimulus for the abandonment of the accretion method because I think it had already been abandoned.

I believe that the core of the Bent Pyramid was built from the beginning using horizontal courses of large blocks. Unfortunately, it is impossible to confirm this with direct observation. Maragioglio and Rinaldi found evidence that the lower portion of the Bent Pyramid was first built with at slope of 60° with a shorter base (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1964:60,100). For some reason, an additional layer of masonry about 50 feet thick was added around the entire base with a slope of only 54°. There is considerable evidence that this outer layer, which would not have been bonded to the original 60° surface, slid downward over the years. Even if the Bent Pyramid's core blocks were set horizontally, as I believe, it is certainly true that the casing of the bottom part, is set at an angle. Petrie (quoted in Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1964:58) reported that the bedding surface of the casing stones varies from 6° 8' to 13° 27'; while each face, both above and below the bend is convex not flat. It appears that the builders experienced some difficulty in cutting and setting these gigantic blocks; alternatively the variation may be due to the previously-mentioned slippage.

The fact that the Bent Pyramid’s upper portion has casing set almost horizontally might appear to prove that the change of method of construction occurred when that pyramid's slope was changed. But, in fact, blocks had been set horizontally for many years before this. In early stone structures such as temenos walls, mastabas, and internal chapels and chambers, the blocks of limestone or granite have horizontal bedding. In fact, the only place that slanted accretion layers were ever employed was in step pyramids. (Goneim [1956:53] says that the original mastaba beneath Djoser’s Step Pyramid had horizontal courses. He suggests that Imhotep, Djoser’s architect, adopted the slanting layers for the higher steps as a means of ensuring stability for the layers.) Interestingly, the size of blocks employed for these non-pyramidal structures tended to increase in the late Dynasty III to early Dynasty IV period. Goneim reported that the limestone blocks in the “White Wall” surrounding the tomb of Sekhemkhet southwest of Djoser’s tomb at Saqqara were twice as high as those in Djoser’s temenos wall, and he remarked: “It is certain that already in Djoser’s reign there had been a tendency to increase the size of the stone blocks, as the builders ultimately came to learn that an increase in size meant an economy in the work of cutting out the stones, and lent more strength and a greater degree of cohesion to walls” (Goneim 1956:46).

When it became possible to quarry and place large blocks of limestone it was no longer necessary to tilt the blocks; rather, their own weight and the friction between a block and the ones around it provided stability. In fact, the larger the individual blocks are, the greater is their stability, provided they are set horizontal. In this new method of building with large blocks, the use of inclined layers or internal faces would render the superstructure less stable, not more. Was Imhotep also the genius who figured this out?

Pyramid Design and Construction - Part 2:
Control of Pyramid Shape

Bonnie M. Sampsell

(Originally published in The Ostracon, Vol. 12, No. 1, Summer 2001.
The Ostracon is a Journal of the Egyptian Study Society, Denver, CO.
© Copyright: Bonnie M. Sampsell. No part may be reproduced.)

What is it about Egyptian pyramids that fascinates us so? Surely their enormous size and great age command our respect. But most impressive may be their stark simplicity of form and perfect shape. For generations people have wondered how the ancients were able to build such structures with only simple tools.

Skeptics have claimed “with the means at their disposal the ancient Egyptian would have found it impossible to raise a true pyramid from the ground since misalignment of the edges cannot be corrected at a later building stage. A small error of only 2° would lead to a mismatch of 15 metres at the top of one of the Giza pyramids” (Mendelssohn 1974:116). A diagram such as Figure 1 usually accompanies such a statement. But this diagram is nonsense! Mistakes in laying the blocks might lead to a less-than-perfect shape, but it is impossible for the problem shown here to occur. The four faces will certainly meet at a single point in the sky although it may not be the one desired by the ancient architect.

Figure 1
Control  error
Hypothetical pyramid lacking "control."

Modern architects use the word "control" to describe the methods whereby the design of a building is achieved. Few aspects of pyramid building have attracted more attention or produced less of a consensus than this one. I plan to outline the challenges associated with maintaining architectural control, review a few of the solutions previously offered to this problem -- none of which solves it to my satisfaction -- and finally propose a simple solution that was entirely within the capabilities of the ancient Egyptians.

Kurt Mendelssohn (1974), Martin Isler (1987), and others have insisted that the only way that the Egyptians could have built a true pyramid without distortion was first to build a step pyramid to its full height and then place a marker on the top of this core to mark the final apex and to serve as a guide in placing the casing blocks. These authors find evidence for such an approach in the observation by M. A. Martin who climbed the Meidum Pyramid in 1899 in order to place a survey marker at its apex. He found that there already was a hole for such a marker in the top of the pyramid. But this hole is unlikely to have been one used by ancient Egyptians since the point in which it occurs was not the top of the ancient seven-step pyramid but many feet below that. A pole placed on the current peak would have to be an unmanageable 75 feet high to indicate the apex of the true pyramid that was built over the step pyramids.

Other authors, including Michael Lally (1989) and George Johnson (1994), have also proposed that a step-pyramid core was built first and the final pyramidal casing was sited by measuring from the steps of this core. As Johnson (1994:81) said,

All Old Kingdom pyramids appear to have stepped cores. It should be noted that these steps -- or buttress walls or accretion faces -- do not represent a series of mastabas within the structures, but only the continuation of the traditional benchmark-system of construction that had been developed for the building of mastabas. The benchmarks are the true framework of a pyramid. Once they were established, all problems of measurement, layout and alignment were solved within the structure of a pyramid, not at the outside casing faces. [Emphasis added.]

But we now know that from Dynasty IV onwards true pyramids were not built with internal accretion layers, nor did the largest ones such as the Bent and Red at Dahshur or Khufu’s or Khafre’s at Giza have steps or stages in their cores (Sampsell, 2000). In fact, considerable evidence suggests that these gigantic pyramids were built up one horizontal course at a time with both core and casing blocks of each course set before proceeding to the next course. Meidum is the only step pyramid that has been measured, and it departs from perfect symmetry in many ways (Petrie 1892:6-7). Thus its steps could not have served as reference points to place the casing of the true pyramid built over it.

Alexander Badawy proposed another method for maintaining control that draws on an observation made by Flinders Petrie while excavating the huge, mud brick mastaba No. 17 next to the Meidum Pyramid. Petrie found that an L-shaped vertical wall had been built at each corner of the mastaba’s base (Petrie 1892:12). On the inner sides of the wall, lines were drawn at a 75° angle. These lines were presumably used during the laying of the mud bricks in the outer wall of the mastaba to ensure that the mastaba face conformed to the angle drawn on the brick wall. Such a method, however, could not have been applied in the construction of a megalithic stone pyramid because the distance along the pyramid face to the corner was too great for accurate sightings or to stretch a cord. Dieter Arnold (1991:12) said “How the men laying the bricks [at Mastaba No.17] transferred these markings to the walls is not known. Since the mastaba walls are too long to be checked by the human eye (52.5 x 105.0 meters) and too long for stretching a cord (which would sag in the center) ...” If builders could not sight 300 feet along a mastaba wall, a 760-foot pyramid face is clearly much too long for this method.

Somers Clarke and Reginald Engelbach, avid investigators of ancient Egyptian architecture and technology, struggled with the question of control. Because they assumed that the builders would need to have work-face platforms or embankments up to forty feet wide in front of each face that would obscure the face from view, they opted for a control system involving plumb lines (Clarke and Engelbach 1990:125-6). They believed that the casing blocks were laid with their faces still roughly vertical and that the correct slope of the face was drafted onto the blocks by measuring from the plumb line. Final finishing to the face was performed later from the apex of the pyramid downwards as the work-face embankment was removed. Clarke and Engelbach felt that to avoid cumulative errors that would arise if this procedure were applied course by course, the plumb lines would have to be suspended in pits up to 17 feet deep, so that only about 30 shifts of position would be needed during the entire process of raising the Great Pyramid. Several pits would have been needed along each face, however, to provide a reference line for each course.

Figure 2
Pit method
Method proposed by Clarke and Engelbach to achieve "control" during pyramid construction.

Looking at Figure 2, we can see some of the problems that this method would encounter: maintaining a deep well in the work-face platform and making accurate measurements across an increasing horizontal distance. In any case, such an approach still requires that the desired angle of inclination be reproducible at each level. Since this is so, a much simpler method suggests itself, as I will explain shortly.

The problem of architectural control is intimately related to the issue of access ramps, and many people have objected to spiral or other face-hugging ramps (as presumed by Clarke and Engelbach, for example) on the grounds that pyramid faces and edges had to be kept clear during construction so that sightings could be taken along them. Endless debate has raged about the shape of access ramps and whether any were used at all. A new proposal about the shape of access ramps at Giza and a different idea about control of pyramid shape simultaneously resolve many of the old problems.

Mark Lehner has presented convincing arguments that a straight access ramp approached the Great Pyramid from the quarries and harbor to the south and ran up to a height of about 100 feet at the southwest corner; from there it continued as a spiral ramp around the west, north, and east faces (Lehner 1985:109-143; Lehner 1997:215–217). He believes this access ramp rose in height as the pyramid itself was built; in addition, from the beginning a work-face embankment completely encircled the pyramid rising course by course to maintain a surface level with the course under construction. After many years of studying various proposals concerning ramps, I feel that Lehner offers the best solution: the straight section of ramp was short enough not to overshoot the quarries, the spiral ramp used less material than any other configuration, the access ramp blended into the work-face embankments in an economical fashion, the spiral ramp was stable since it rested on the ground and the completed pyramid faces, no retaining walls were needed, and finally the ramp constituents (limestone rubble from quarrying and desert clay) were abundant and could be easily recycled when construction was complete.

But, if as Lehner suggested all surfaces of the rising pyramid were covered with ramps, how did the builders control its shape? I had pondered this question for several years when a new idea occurred to me that would solve all the problems. Then when Lehner’s book, Complete Pyramids, appeared, I discovered that he offered almost the same solution, a fact that gave me great encouragement. My proposal does differ from his in one crucial respect, however. Before explaining these two proposals, I will consider more carefully the potential problems that the pyramid builders faced, since such a study also suggests solutions.

Figure 3 illustrates several potential problems or variations from the ideal pyramid shape one at a time. Each problem has been exaggerated for emphasis. For each example, the plan of a small pyramid is shown at the top with the lines indicating the front edges of successive courses. The cross-section of each pyramid is shown below it. Part A. shows an ideal pyramid: it is square at each level, the corners form right angles (90°), the two diagonals of each course are equal, each face has the uniform slope of 52°, and the apex lies directly over the intersection of the two diagonals.

Figure 3
Shape  variations
True pyramid and those deviating from perfect shape.

In Figure 3, Part B, the corners form right angles and the two diagonals are equal for each course, but the apex drifts off center. Looking at the cross-section below we see that while the east and west faces retain the desired slope of 52o, the north face rises at an angle of 62° while the south has a slope of only 44°.

In Figure 3, Part C, the square of the base becomes more distorted at each course. The corners are either greater than or less than 90°; the diagonals are not equal. By the sixth course, if the courses remain level, the face angle near the northeast corner is nearly 62°.

In Figure 3, Part D, the corners are right angles, the two diagonals are equal, and the intersection of the diagonals remains centered, but each course is twisted or rotated (the twist is greatly exaggerated in the figure) compared to the one beneath it. We can see that this problem arises unless each corner casing block is placed with its ridge in line with that on the block below it.

Any combination of these problems might occur causing the pyramid, as built, to deviate from the ideal form. In actual practice, either errors by the masons in carving the slopes into the blocks or sloppiness by builders in placing them could be the cause of the changes in pyramid shape. In fact, the Giza builders seem to have been quite successful in building to the ideal shape. Piazzi Smyth (1867:165) used a sextant to sight up each face of the Great Pyramid. In spite of the roughness of the faces due to the missing casing, he estimated the slopes as follows: 51° 39' (north), 51° 46' (east), 51° 54' (south), and 51° 42' (west). So we see that the slopes were maintained nearly constant on all four sides. In the case of the Khafre Pyramid, Petrie detected an angular twist of only 1' 40" in a counterclockwise direction (Petrie 1883:97). It should also be mentioned that if small errors of shaping and setting did occur, it is more likely that they would be random and compensating rather than cumulative as in Figure 3. The task of the overseers was to prevent systematic and growing deviations from the plan.

As noted above, and by many authors, measuring the diagonals and keeping them equal would have provided a useful element of control during construction. Unfortunately this was not possible at the base of any of the three large Giza pyramids since bedrock knolls had been left in the middle of their sites when the ground was leveled prior to construction. In the Great Pyramid, the height of this knoll has been estimated to be around 23 feet, or less than 5% of the entire height (Maragioglio and Rinaldi 1965:12). Thus during most of the construction at the upper levels such diagonal measurements could have provided an invaluable check to prevent the kind of distortion illustrated in Part C.

The inspiration for my new idea for control came from the realization -- as I studied this diagram -- that all of these problems could be prevented by the accurate shaping and setting of the casing blocks one course at a time. In this way the slope could be maintained constant, the corners squared, and the sides equal. Lehner calls his similar proposal “designing [the] slope stone by stone” (Lehner 1997:220-1). According to his description and diagrams [see page 220 of Complete Pyramids] the casing blocks, with their horizontal bedding (lower) surface already prepared, were brought to their final location where they were trimmed to match the adjoining casing stone already laid. They were levered into position using a film of gypsum mortar as a lubricant; then they were marked with their correct slope and dressed there in situ.

There is excellent evidence that the vertical front faces of the casing stones were cut to the correct slope at the time they were set into position. For example the granite casing blocks, still in place at the base of Menkaure's Pyramid have vertical edges inclined at about 53°, although the faces retain excess material. And as Dieter Arnold said (1991:169): “Only the surfaces around the entrance and behind the offering chapel had been dressed and ground when the work was abandoned. All the other blocks still have their extra stock, some even with additional handling bosses. In order to facilitate the exact placement, the edges had been chamfered back to the intended sloping surface.” [Emphasis added]

The same thing can be observed on the casing blocks of the steps at the Meidum Pyramid many of which were NOT smoothed subsequent to placement because they were covered by the accretion layer in front of them. These became visible only when a portion of the pyramid collapsed. Note that Arnold implies that the edges of the casing stones were cut to the desired slope before the blocks were placed, not afterwards as Lehner shows in his diagram. Note also the difficulty that Lehner’s builders will face as they attempt to lay the second course of casing with a work-face ramp covering the first course and the reference line. Lehner never discusses the problems associated with retaining access to this reference line throughout the building process.

Perhaps, I should have mentioned before that my use of degrees to measure slopes is not the way that ancient Egyptians would have done it. They represented slopes using a concept called the seked that was defined as the horizontal displacement (sometimes called “run”) for a rise of one cubit. (I was intrigued to learn that carpenters still use the method of rise and run when building roofs or staircases.) Since each cubit was divided into seven palms each of which contained four fingers, a change in the seked of a slope by one finger involved an angle of little over one degree. Thus fairly fine gradations of slope could be specified. The slope of the Great Pyramid, measured at 51° 52’, could be represented by a seked of 5 palms and 2 fingers, while Khafre’s Pyramid with a slope of 53° 10’ has a seked of 5 palms and 1 finger. See Figure 4.

Figure 4
Pyramid  slope
Ancient Egyptian method of determining slopes.
This angle has a seked of 5 palms and 2 fingers.

Once the king chose a slope for his pyramid, this slope could be drawn, copied, reproduced, and checked as many times as necessary using only a cubit rod. The royal architect and overseers of stone masons could also have produced a large number of identical patterns, formed of two pieces of wood joined at the proper angle, for the dozens of stonecutters to use in drafting the correct slopes onto the casing blocks. In addition, by carefully chiseling a trial block with the proper slopes on two adjacent faces, the correct slope of the corner angle could be determined.

My idea for control differs significantly from Lehner’s because I propose that the casing blocks were cut to their final shape (with the exception of excess material left on the face and even here there is some room for doubt) on the ground in a stone yard under the close supervision of a master mason and not on the rising pyramid. Thus I propose that the upper and lower faces were made perfectly parallel, fixing also the final height of the block. The sides of adjacent blocks were cut to perfect matches and the blocks marked for their respective positions. Then the masons cut the vertical edges of the front face to the precise slope of the pyramid's face using the patterns previously described. All four edges of the front of the stone thus corresponded to its final shape. Corner casing blocks were cut with special care so the two adjacent faces met in the correct slope of the ridgeline and also formed a perfect right angle.

The block setters had the critical task of setting each prepared casing stone correctly on the course beneath it by aligning the prepared edges. The corner blocks of a course were set first, and adjacent blocks wedged tight against these continuing across the face on each side (Arnold 1988:54-56). At Meidum, tiny blocks often reveal the last stone set in the middle of a row of casing on the inner steps, but this problem was probably avoided in later pyramids.

What this procedure does is create a new “reference line” at each course of blocks: the front edges of the blocks. Since each block has already been shaped to the correct slope (at least at the edges) no further measurements of angles are necessary. Constructing the casing of each course in this manner maintained the essential shape of the entire pyramid. Core blocks only had to be set within the perimeter defined by the casing.


This process can be better visualized by referring to the childhood experience of many of us who had sets of building blocks. Those who had the forerunners of Lego type building blocks could construct walls of excellent verticality with right-angled corners because the rectangular blocks only locked together in such a fashion. Imagine then a set of toy blocks consisting mostly of uniform cubes, some blocks with one face cut at a 45° angle, and a few blocks with two such sloping faces meeting at 35° corner. Even a careful child could build a perfect pyramid with no measuring or sighting whatsoever. (Note: In this article, I have completely ignored the problem of laying out the pyramid initially on a square base with the desired celestial orientation. I dealt only with the issue of achieving the ideal pyramidal shape given a carefully surveyed base.)


The Great Pyramid's "Air Shafts"

While shafts in the King's Chamber had been described as early as 1610, the shafts in the Queen's Chamber were not discovered until 1872. In that year, Waynman Dixon and his friend Dr. Grant found a crack in the south wall of the Queen's Chamber. After pushing a long wire into the crack, indicating that a void was behind it, Dixon hired a carpenter named Bill Grundy to cut through the wall. A rectangular channel, 8.6 inches wide and 8 inches high, was found leading 7 feet into the pyramid before turning upward at about a 32º angle. With the two similar shafts of the King's Chamber in mind, Dixon measured a like position on the north wall, and Grundy chiseled away and, as expected, found the opening of a similar channel. The men lit fires inside the shafts in an attempt to find where they led. The smoke stagnated in the northern shaft but disappeared into the southern shaft. No smoke was seen to exit the pyramid on the outside. Three artifacts were discovered inside the shafts: a small bronze grapnel hook, a bit of cedar-like wood, and a "grey-granite, or green-stone" ball weighing 8.325 grains thought to be an Egyptian "mina" weight ball.

Shafts and passages
of the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Shafts &  passages

The Shafts of the Queen's Chamber Described

The openings of both shafts are located at the same level in the chamber, at the joint at the top of the second course of granite wall-stone; the ceilings of the shafts are level with the joint.

The northern shaft runs horizontally for just over six feet (76"), then turns upward at a mean angle of 37º 28'. The shaft terminates about 20 feet short of the outside of the pyramid. The total length of the northern shaft is about 240 feet and rises at an angle of 38º for the majority of its length.

The southern shaft also runs horizontally for just over six feet (80"), then turns upward at a mean angle of 38º 28'. The total length of the southern shaft is about 250 feet and, as its northern counterpart, ascends at an angle of 38º for the majority of its length and comes to an end about 20 feet short of the outside of the pyramid.

The Shafts of the King's Chamber Described

The openings of both shafts are located at roughly the same level in the chamber, at the joint at the top of the first course of granite wall-stone. The northern opening is slightly lower, its ceiling being level with the joint, while the floor of the southern opening is roughly level with the joint.

The northern shaft is rectangular, about 7 inches wide by 5 inches high, a shape it maintains throughout its length. The shaft begins on the horizontal for about 6 feet then takes a series of four bends. While maintaining its general upward angle, it shifts first to the north-northwest then back to north, then to north-northeast, and finally back to true north. It has been speculated by some that this unexplained semicircular diversion might have been necessary to avoid some heretofore undiscovered feature of the pyramid. The total length of the northern shaft is about 235 feet and rises at an angle of 31º (with a variation of between 30º 43' and 32º 4') for the majority of its length.

Though the first eight feet of the northern shaft is intact, the next thirty or so feet have been excavated by treasure seekers, presumably following the direction of the shaft in search of treasure. The breach to the shaft was made in the west wall of the short passage leading from the antechamber to the King's Chamber. A modern iron grate today guards the mouth of this breach.

The southern shaft is different in appearance. Its mouth is larger, about 18" wide by 24" high. The dimensions are reduced to about 12" by 18" within a few feet, and then narrows yet more to about 8" by 12". The shape is not rectangular, as is the northern shaft, but has a dome shape where it enters the chamber, with a narrow floor, the angle of the walls being slightly obtuse, and a dome-shaped ceiling. The shaft is horizontal and true south for about 6 feet. At the first bend, its shape changes to an oval, and continues thusly for about 8 feet. Its orientation also changes slightly from true south to south-southwest. At the second bend its shape changes yet again to a rectangle, with a height greater than its width. It retains this shape for the 160 feet to the outside of the pyramid where it emerges at the 101st course of stone. It also changes directions once again at the second bend to a more severe south-southwest diversion. The total length of the southern shaft is about 175 feet and ascends at an angle of 45º (with a variation of between 44º 26' and 45º 30') for the majority of its length.

The Function of the Shafts

When Sandys described the Great Pyramid in 1610, he wrote of the shafts:

In the walls, on each side of the upper room, there are two holes, one opposite to another, their ends not discernable, nor big enough to be crept into -- sooty within, and made, as they say, by a flame of fire which darted through it.
Greaves also wrote of the King's Chamber shafts in 1638. Considering the presence of the lampblack inside, he concluded that the shafts had been intended as receptacles for an "eternal lamp." In 1692, M. Maillet wrote that the shafts served as means of communication for those who were buried alive with the dead king. Not only did the shafts provide air, he reasoned, but they also provides a passage for food which was placed in boxes and pulled through by rope.

By the 20th century, the shafts were presumed to have been designed to provide ventilation. That view has slowly been changing, however. I.E.S. Edwards wrote, "The object of these shafts is not known with certainty; they may have been designed for the ventilation of the chamber or for some religious purpose which is still open to conjecture." (The Pyramids of Egypt, 1961, p. 126.) Ahmed Fakhry wrote, "They are usually referred to as 'air channels,' but most Egyptologists believe that they had a religious significance related to the soul of the king." (The Pyramids, 1969, p. 118.) More recently, Mark Lehner wrote:

A symbolic function should also be attributed to the so-called "air-shafts," which had nothing to do with conducting air. No other pyramid contains chambers and passages so high in the body of masonry as Khufu's and so the builders provided the King's Chamber with small model passages to allow the king's spirit to ascend to the stars. (The Complete Pyramids, 1997, p. 114)

There are many reasons why it is not likely that the shafts were meant for ventilation. The complex angles of the shafts necessitated the piercing of many courses of stone, a daunting logistical challenge during design and construction. Horizontal shafts would have been much easier to build: shafts carved through a single course of stone. One might well wonder why ventilation would be needed at all! No other known pyramid builder made such provisions; even workers in rock-cut tombs managed on the air provided solely by the entrance passage. When the bulk of work on the King's Chamber was being done, ambient air was plentiful as the ceiling had not yet been put in place. The chamber was finished as the superstructure rose.

There are also, however, reasons why it is not likely that the shafts were meant to serve as "launching ramps" for the king's ka. When, in 1964, Alexander Badawy and Virginia Trimble determined that the shafts are "aimed" at certain "imperishable" circumpolar stars and at the constellation of Orion, the function of the shafts as cultic features seemed certain. But the ka did not require a physical means of egress from a tomb -- false doors served this purpose quite nicely both before and after Khufu's reign. The passage that ascends to the entrance of the pyramid is also directed at the circumpolar stars in the manner of previous pyramids. The northern shafts for such a use would have been a needless and bothersome redundancy, although admittedly the Egyptians were not adverse to redundancies.

That fact that no other pyramid in Egypt is known to posses similar shafts as those of the Great Pyramid is problematic. If the shafts were so important for either ventilation or as passages for the king's ka, then why were they omitted in other funerary structures? It is obvious that the builders of Khufu's pyramid went to a jolly lot of trouble to incorporate the shafts into the design of the pyramid, but the true reason why still remains a mystery.

What Lies at the End of the
Queen's Chamber Shafts?

The Shafts

The existence of the so-called "air shafts" in the King's Chamber had been known for a very long time, but the similar shafts of the Queen's Chamber were not discovered until 1872, as they were capped at both ends. Waynman Dixon and his team, investigating a crack in the south wall of the Queen's Chamber, made a cut through the wall that revealed a rectangular channel similar to that found in the King's Chamber. Suspecting a twin shaft on the north wall, another cut was made that confirmed those suspicions. Smoke was released into both shafts, but no exit was indicated.

The explorers: Upuaut 2 (left) and Pyramid Rover (right).
Upuaut 2 Pyramid Rover

In 1993, German engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink sent a robot of his design, Upuaut-2, up the southern shaft. Gantenbrink recorded what the robot found on 22 March:

At 11.05 a.m., at 59 meters, Upuaut-2 approaches a stone slab, which blocks the shaft! In our video inspection of all four shafts so far, a total of about 180 meters, we have seen only blocks made of local limestone. But the final block before the slab is definitely carved from lighter-colored limestone, probably originating from the Mocatam Mountains about 30 km from the Giza Plateau, on the other side of the Nile. This was the material the builders used for the higher-quality casing stones of the pyramid's exterior, and for the chamber systems. The workmanship of the last block in front of the slab is also much higher than anything we have seen in any of the shafts so far.

As we approach the slab, we can see two dark streaks on it, which upon closer inspection turn out to be copper fittings. And there is something else. The face of the inspector sitting next to me at the monitor has become chalk white. He draws my attention to two round, white marks on the copper fittings. "These are seals, these are seals!" he exclaims, visibly shaken. "We must stop work immediately and inform our chairman."

Subsequently it has come to be known, perhaps unfortunately, as "The Door." This popular name of course implies that the slab actually serves the function of a door, leading to – well, who knows what? But until we can peer behind it, or perhaps even open it, we will never know for sure what it really is and what it meant to the builders of Cheops. So for the time being, it might be more appropriate to refer to it simply as the "USO" – the Unidentified Stone Object.

A few days later, Gantenbrink attempted a similar survey of the northern shaft, but the attempt was abandoned. "The temptation is great to send Upuaut around the sharp bend at 18 meters," he wrote. "But, since our short guide rods have suddenly turned up missing, the danger is too great that the robot might get stuck and not be able to return."

The end of the shafts: southern (left) and northern (right).
southern  slab northern slab

In 2002, another robot, the Pyramid Rover designed by iRobot of Boston, was sent to the end of the southern shaft to investigate further. The robot drilled a 3/4-inch hole in the slab and, on 17 September, a miniature fiber-optic camera was inserted to reveal a rough-hewn blocking stone lying 7 inches beyond the original southern shaft slab. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said “There was a space, a void and then what appears to be another ‘door’ which was quite distinct and showed some chisel marks. It looks to me like it is sealing something. It seems that something important is hidden there.”

Beyond the southern slab.
robot probe beyond the slab beyond the slab

On 18 September, the Rover was sent up the northern shaft, this time off-the-air. Navigation was difficult due to four sharp bends. Another "stone partition, or door" at the end of the shaft, again with two copper fittings, was discovered. Zahi Hawass said the south shaft's first slab and the slab just discovered in the northern shaft were the same distance (211 feet) from the Queen's Chamber. The robot did not drill through the slab of the northern shaft in its latest probe, but Hawass said that this was in the planning stage.

That the slabs at the end of both shafts act as doors, either practically or symbolically, is debatable, but one cannot argue against the uniqueness of the copper fittings on the slabs. Are they really meant to be handles? And handles or not, what possible purpose might they serve?

Speculation on the two slabs is still in the early stages. Hawass has theorized that they were to serve the ascending soul of the deceased king. Funerary texts, he said, speak of the pharaoh's soul encountering a series of doors before reaching the rewards of afterlife. The late I.E.S. Edwards quipped that a chamber behind the slab might serve as a serdab from which a statue of Khufu would be found to gaze. In his book The Pyramids, Miroslav Verner wrote:

The films [made by Upuaut 2] revealed that the shaft ended with a small limestone slab in which two heavily corroded pieces of copper had been inserted. This discovery led to a series of hypotheses as to what might be hidden behind the slab. One theory suggested that behind the entrance there might be a chamber with a statue of the king. It is unlikely, however, that any space would be accessible through so narrow a shaft. Moreover, the end of the shaft is only about six meters from the outer surface of the pyramid. [p. 200]

Mark Lehner simply refers to the slab as a "plugging block with two copper pins." Rainer Stadelmann said, "The door is just a blocking stone; it doesn't block the entrance to something. It simply seals off a corridor." Later he added, "These copper fittings are magical instruments which the king can take, or the soul of the king can take, when it ascends. It uses them to open these blocks and pass through the stones to the sky." That the slabs serve as false doors is possible, as these features are common to Egyptian tombs, but none are known to have been fitted with handles. Zahi Hawass said that because some ancient texts speak of the soul navigating a series of doors guarded by snakes, the brass "handles" on the slabs could represent stylized snakes.

Calling the latest discovery "an exciting thing," Dieter Arnold said, "Don't expect that I can tell you what's behind the stone. We're all stunned. We have no parallel." Stadelmann commented that "It might be possible that there is, let's say, a papyrus or something behind these stones, but there's no place for much more." Kate Spence said she thought the slab was likely a structural blockage that was added to plug the shaft when it was abandoned by the pyramid’s architects. “I suspect it’s been put there to stop rubble falling down the shaft,” she said. John Taylor, assistant keeper of the British Museum's Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, said the third "door" may be a dead end, further evidence that the Queen's Chamber was abandoned in favor of the King's Chamber as the actual burial location for Khufu. Dr Aidan Dodson has speculated on what lies beyond the stone behind the slab. He said, "It won't be anything spectacular. My view is that the limestone is damp and cracked and all that is on the other side is the main body of the pyramid."

What lies at the end of the Queen's Chamber shafts? Limestone slabs bearing copper fittings whose purpose remains a mystery. What lies beyond these slabs? Very likely simply the end of the shafts.

Some Alternate Theories
of Pyramid Construction

There are many who feel that the theories of "mainstream" Egyptologists on how the pyramids were built are in error, or perhaps even deceptive. This is usually based on the supposition that it would have been impossible for the ancient Egyptians to have built the pyramids themselves with the primitive means that are generally ascribed to them. Based on this premise, rather than on archaeological or historical evidence, interesting theories on how the pyramids were built have been proposed. Unfortunately, all of these theories are based on assumption and speculation, and have little or no tangible support. Even so, many of these theories have found some degree of popular support.

Workmen pouring blocks.
cement mixers

Perhaps the most prosaic of these theories was described in detail in The Pyramids: An Enigma Solved by Dr. Joseph Davidovits and Margie Morris (Dorset Press, 1988; see also Pyramid Illusions: A Journey to the Truth by Moustafa Gadalla, 1997). Davidovits provides a brief summation:

I will demonstrate that the pyramid blocks are actually exceptionally high-quality limestone concrete -- synthetic stone -- cast directly in place. The blocks consist of about ninety to ninety-five percent limestone rubble and five to ten percent cement. They are imitations of natural limestone, made in the age-old tradition of alchemical stonemaking. No stone cutting or heavy hauling or hoisting was ever required for pyramid construction. [p. 68]

The blocks were not quarried but rather made of a geopolymeric cement. Limestone blocks did not have to be cut, finished, or even moved at all. Instead, buckets of slurry were simply toted up the pyramid by men who poured it into a wooden mold. Davidovits writes:

One of the characteristics of geopolymeric concrete is that there is no appreciable shrinkage, and blocks do not fuse when cast directly against each other. Although it would have been impossible to achieve the close fit (as close as 0.002 inch) of the 115,000 casing stones originally on the Great Pyramid with primitive tools, such joints are easily achieved when casting geopolymeric concrete. Once cast, within hours or even less, depending on the formula (minutes using today's formula), a block hardened. The mold was removed for reuse while a block was still relatively soft. [p. 75]

The theory is very nice and well-described. Unfortunately, it totally ignores a huge body of evidence. Davidovits works hard to explain away the existing quarries, the abundance of tools found during the Third and Fourth Dynasties, and the decrease in pyramid quality after the Fourth Dynasty. He ultimately declares that "This issue, however, is a matter of hard science, which must be confirmed or disputed by qualified scientists. It is not ultimately for Egyptologists, who are specialized historians, to approve or reject." (p. 239) He adds that he finds no support for his thesis among other geologists for two reasons. One, his sampling of pyramid limestone was very small. He used a single specimen of questionable provenance: Jean-Phillipe Lauer told him that it came from the Great Pyramid at Giza. Two, some of Davidovits' information is "highly confidential" thus preventing him from sharing certain of his technical details with others. (These reasons are related on p. 239.) The geological evidence against the geopolymeric concrete theory are too complex for this forum; for details see a series of articles by R.L. Folk and D.H. Campbell, J.A. Harrell and B.E. Penrod, and Margie Morris in Journal of Geological Education, vols. 40 (1992), 41 (1993), and 42 (1994).

There are a few obvious questions that Davidovits and his theory cannot answer. If wooden molds were used and reused, why are the dimensions of the pyramid blocks so varied? Wouldn't they be expected to be of somewhat uniform shape? Where is the evidence of the molds? None have ever been found or depicted on reliefs (save the small molds used for mud brick). The core stones of the pyramids are sloppily and roughly finished, many with well-defined tool marks, as they were meant to be hidden by the casing stones and never seen. They are loosely packed, often with rubble in between them. These stones were obviously not "cast." Why not? Why did the Egyptians bother to quarry and hoist these stones to the height of the pyramid if they could have instead been cast? Wouldn't ramps have had to have been built anyway for these stones? The theory just does not conform to known details.

Ron Wyatt's "machine"
used to raise pyramid blocks.

pyramid-building machine

In about 450 BC, the historian Herodotus wrote of the Great Pyramid:

This is how the pyramid was made: like a set of stairs, which some call battlements and some altar steps. When they had first made this base, they then lifted the remaining stones with levers [lit. machines] made of short timbers, lifting them from the ground to the first tier of steps, and, as soon as the stone was raised upon this, it was placed on another lever, which stood on the first tier, and from there it was dragged up to the second tier and on to another lever. As many as there were the tiers, so many were the levers; or it may have been that they transferred the same lever, if they were easily handleable, to each tier in turn, once they had got the stone out of it. I have offered these two different stories of how they did it, for both ways were told me. [History, 2.125]

The theory that levers were used to lift pyramid stones is perhaps the most tenable of the alternate theories on how the pyramids were built (see Martin Isler, "On Pyramid Building," JARCE 22:129-142, 1985, and "On Pyramid Building II," JARCE 24:95-112, 1987; also Peter Hodges, How the Pyramids Were Built, Element Books, 1989). That the Egyptians used levers would be very difficult to refute. Large stone blocks had recesses, or sometimes projecting bosses (that were later removed) built into them to facilitate the use of levers. Even with the use of construction ramps, blocks would have had to have been levered on and off the sleds. But as a means of raising large numbers of blocks vertically up tiers of stone in as short a time as possible, levers do not appear to be as practical as ramps. Personally, I believe that ramps were used to perhaps ½ or so of the pyramid's total vertical height, after which levers may have been of more use for the smaller volume of material.

Two antennae between which a solitron
field (or "vortex") levitated pyramid stones.

solitron  field

According to the authors of Pyramid Energy: The Philosophy of God, the Science of Man (Delta-K, 1987), the above pictured "Caduceus Coil" was used to levitate the stone blocks that were used to build the pyramids. Pathways were built, flanked by rows of sphinxes, along which a solitron field spiraled, powered by coil generators. Priests used tuned coils (misidentified by Egyptologists as djed pillars), one passive (on the left, above) and one active (on the right, above). The active coil was grounded to a "Sacred Spot" and tapped into the planetary energy grid. The reason present-day scientists cannot duplicate this simple feat is because "they have not studied the power source called the world grid." Hardy & Killick further explain:

The ancient people used the grid to achieve levitation and worldwide communication. This is why pyramids are found all over the world. The Cheops pyramid in Egypt is a coil generator and was built to tap into the grid. The main control panel for this grid was the Ark of the Covenant. [p. 169]

This theory may sound silly but an amazing number of people propose similar explanations. Andrew Collins, author of Gods of Eden: Egypt's lost legacy and the genesis of civilisation (Headline, 1998), cites a 10th-century Arab historian who recorded a folk tale about the origin of the Great Pyramid. According to the story, the builders struck the stone blocks with a special rod, causing them to levitate and float through the air for the distance of "one bowshot." Collins insists that "the ancient Egyptians were able to set up some kind of sustained sound vibration that enabled the building blocks to defy gravity." He adds, "Although simply a legend, there are traditions from all around the world that speak of the movement of stone blocks and the construction of walls and buildings by sonic levitation."

Of course, there is no archaeological or historical evidence that any of this activity occurred at all. Such fancies are based on folk tales and undisciplined speculation.

Map of Atlantis.

If ancient Egyptians couldn't have built the pyramids, why not attribute the feat to some advanced, but vanished, race? When Plato wrote Timaeus and Critias in the fourth century BC, he made used of a literary device called allegory and invented an island nation to illustrate his thesis of social ideals. He called this island "Atlantis." Unfortunately, time has sanctified Plato's fiction in some people's minds, and many read it as Gospel Truth. Had Jonathan Swift been his contemporary, expeditions would be launched searching for Brobdingnag, Luggnagg, and Glubbdubdrib.

Whether or not Plato's idea was inspired by a real event (such as the volcanic catastrophe at Thera) is quite beside the point. Atlantis never existed until it sprang forth from Plato's fertile imagination. This is based on the material remains found in the area in which Atlantis was supposed to have existed. One would expect an advanced civilization to have left quite a noticeable mark, particularly in trade goods. Not a single shard of "Atlantean" pottery has ever been found. There are no ruins of an Atlantean outpost, there is no mention of Atlantis in the historical record, there remains no hint of an Atlantean language. There is no evidence at all of such a civilization until Plato wrote of it. Yet for reasons unknown, there are those who would have had the fictitious inhabitants of a fictitious continent sail to Africa to build towering pyramidal structures of stone that had no contemporary counterpart anywhere else in the world, only to mysteriously abandon them and leave them for a primitive race of indigenous savages to drool in wonder over.

The face on Mars
(Viking 1 Orbiter).


If ancient Egyptians couldn't have built the pyramids, and if there was no vanished, technologically superior human race that could, then why not attribute the feat to Martians or some other interplanetary extraterrestrial beings? There has been a continuing abundance of books that have put forth this very theory: The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (Stein and Day, 1964), Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken (GP Putnam's Sons, 1970), The Stairway to Heaven by Zecharia Sitchin (St. Martin's Press, 1980), Mars Mystery: The Secret Connection Between Earth and the Red Planet by Graham Hancock (Three Rivers Press, 1999), and Gods of the New Millennium: Scientific Proof of Flesh & Blood Gods by Alan F. Alford (Hodder & Stoughton, 1999).

Again, these theories are not based on any scientific evidence or on the known archaeological record, but rather on fantasy firmly grounded on false supposition. Many of the above authors agree with von Däniken when he wrote, "If we meekly accept the neat package of knowledge that the Egyptologists serve up to us, ancient Egypt appears suddenly and without transition with a fantastic ready-made civilization." (Chariots of the Gods?, p. 74.) Obviously, Mr. von Däniken has never studied the prehistory of Egypt, of which much has been written. "There are many problems connected with the technology of the pyramid builders and no genuine solutions," von Däniken added (p. 75), referring to what could only have been the inferior knowledge of the natives of Africa. "With what power, with what 'machines,' with what technical resources was the rocky terrain leveled off at all?" he cried in wonder at the Giza Plateau, awed at the thought of a level surface (p. 77-78). Then, as a coup de grâce to conventional Egyptology, von Däniken proclaimed that "Today, in the twentieth century, no architect could build a copy of the pyramid of Cheops, even if the technical resources of every continent were at his disposal." (p. 78) An absurd comment, of course, but he can smugly rest assured that it can never be put to the test, and he likely hopes that in consequence we will be naive enough to accept his words as axiomatic. Unfortunately for von Däniken and others, most of us are still capable of critical thought.

The face on Mars
(Mars Global Surveyor).


Amazing Pyramid "Facts"

land mass center?

One of the popular oft-repeated claims made about the Great Pyramid was described by Piazzi Smyth in Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1880). He wrote that "proceeding around the globe due north and due south of the Great Pyramid ... there is more earth and less sea in that meridian than in any other meridian all the equator round." (p. 89) Of course, the earth is a globe, not a flat projection. Smyth's meridian (in green below) crosses very little land on the other side of the earth, while a meridian near 70° W (in red below) crosses much more land on its way round the globe. If by "meridian" Smyth means a half-circle, then the claim's accuracy may still be disputed (it is entirely anecdotal and no mathematical proof has been offered). It appears that a meridian a few degrees to the west (in blue below) would cross more land.

land mass center?

Smyth also asserts that "taking the distribution of land and sea in parallels of latitude, there is more land-surface in the Great Pyramid's general parallel of 30°, than in any other degree ..." (p. 89) Again, this is doubtful. A line of latitude several degrees north (in orange above) traverses more land. Smyth further claims that "on carefully summing up the areas of all the dry land habitable by man all the wide world over, the centre of the whole falls within the Great Pyramid's special territory of Lower Egypt." (p. 89) The earth's landmass is distributed over a sphere, not a plane. Thus, determining "center point" of the landmasses -- and there would of necessity be more than one such center point as the lines wrapped around the globe to the other side -- would be a complex affair based on the area of each continent and every little island in the seas. That these points legitimately exist at all is questionable.

In addition to their inaccuracy, Smyth's claims fail to consider why the geographical center of the planet's landmass might have been so compellingly important to the ancient Egyptians. There is nothing in the corpus of what is known about ancient Egyptian culture or religion that would suggest such an obsession. It is implicit in Smyth's contentions that the Egyptians settled in the Nile Valley because of the area's relation to the globe's landmass rather than for any environmental advantage it had to offer. One can only wonder that if Smyth's "magical point" fell instead in, say, southern Indiana, the Egyptians would have settled and built their pyramids there.

Piazzi Smyth wrote, "I have never accused, and do not propose to tax, those profane Egyptians with having had anything to do with the design of the Great pyramid." (p. 90) He held them in contempt, writing of "Egyptian idolaters," their "peculiar and alas! degrading religion," and their "vile hieratic system." (p. 6) Then by whom was the Great Pyramid designed? While many contemporary writers like to attribute its authorship to extraterrestrials or Atlanteans, it was Smyth's contention that it was designed by God Himself "'to be for a sign and for a witness unto the Lord of Hosts in the land of Egypt.'" (p. 596) He quotes here from Isaiah 20:20; indeed, it is frequently stated that Isaiah 19:19 is a Biblical reference to the Great Pyramid:

In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord near its border.

That the Great Pyramid is not at Egypt's border is generally explained away in various manners, but the context of the verse is wholly ignored. For one thing, Isaiah wrote no earlier than the 8th century BC, at which time the Great Pyramid was already ancient; yet he writes of the altar in the future tense. The prophesies contained in verses 16 through 25 all occur "in that day," that is, in the in the coming day of the Lord (cf. 11:10-12). Taken in the context of previous verses and those that follow, it is clear that the events described have not yet taken place, including the erection of the "altar to the Lord" described in 19:19. This could not, then, refer to the Great Pyramid. Despite this rather obvious conclusion, a myriad of books have been written about the Great Pyramid as a medium for Biblical prophesy.

In his book Armageddon: Appointment With Destiny (1988), author Grant Jeffrey writes (Page 233):

The word ark comes from the Hebrew word aron, which means a chest, box, or coffin. Its dimensions are described by the Bible as 2.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits (45 inches by 27 inches by 27 inches). Curiously, this is the exact volume of the stone chest or porphyry coffer in the King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid in Egypt. This coffer was the only object in the King's Chamber, as the Ark was the single sacred object within the Holy of Holies, in the Temple. Also, the laver, or basin, that the priests used to wash their feet had the identical cubit dimensions.

In addition, the cubit dimension of the inner chamber of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, are precisely identical in size to the King's Chamber in the Pyramid and the same volume as the molten sea of water on the Temple Mount as prepared by King Solomon. Since the Pyramid was built and sealed long before the days of Moses, when he built the Ark and the Holy of Holies, and had remained sealed for over twenty-five centuries until the ninth century after Christ, there is no natural explanation for the phenomenon of both structures having identical volume measurements. The coffer in the pyramid contains exact measurements representing tremendous scientific knowledge as does the entire Great Pyramid. A small example of this data is that the height of the pyramid is precisely one billionth the distance of the earth from the sun.

Is this information correct? Most readers of Jeffrey's book lack either the resources or the ambition to check out his data. Many people take such claims on faith, but let's check (the linear dimensions are given in inches and the volume in cubic inches):

Description Width Height Length Volume
The Ark 27.0 27.0 45.0 32,805
Coffer (inner) 26.8 34.4 78.1 72,002
Coffer (outer) 38.5 41.3 89.6 142,468


*Described in I Kings 7:38 (one bath equals 6.073 gallons).

Obviously, the dimensions of the Ark and the coffer differ markedly.

The Coffer in the King's Chamber.

The Holy of Holies in the Temple measured 20 cubits by 20 cubits by 20 cubits (I Kings 6:20). Moses did not build his Holy of Holies in a Temple as Jeffrey implies, but in his Tabernacle (Moses' Holy of Holies measured 10 cubits by 10 cubits by 10 cubits). The molten sea was round and is described in I Kings 7:23-26.

Description Width Height Length Volume
Holy of Holies (Temple) 360 360 360 46,656,000
Holy of Holies (Tabernacle) 180 180 180 5,832,000
King's Chamber 206 229 412 19,435,688
Molten sea 180 90

The dimensions for the Holy of Holies and the King's Chamber are far from being "precisely identical" as Jeffrey asserts.

What about Jeffery's claim that "height of the pyramid is precisely one billionth the distance of the earth from the sun?" The height of the Great Pyramid is 485 feet:

  • Height of the pyramid times one billion = 91,856,061 miles
  • Distance of the earth from the sun = 92,960,000 miles

Okay, so what's a million miles or so? Astronomically, the numbers may be close, but is this similarity meaningful, or even interesting? Following is an excerpt from Umberto Eco's excellent book Foucault's Pendulum, chapter 48 (the discussion concerns Piazzi Smyth's classic pyramid tome, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, published in 1880 and still in print):

"I imagine that your author [Smith] holds that the height of the pyramid of Cheops is equal to the square root of the sum of the areas of all its sides. The measurements must be made in feet, the foot being closer to the Egyptian and Hebrew cubit, and not in meters, for the meter is an abstract length invented in modern times. The Egyptian cubit comes to 1.728 feet. If we do not know the precise height, we can use the pyramidion, which was the small pyramid set atop the Great Pyramid, to form its tip. It was of gold or some other metal that shone in the sun. Take the height of the pyramidion, multiply it by the height of the whole pyramid, multiply the total by ten to the fifth, and we obtain the circumference of the earth. What's more, if you multiply the perimeter of the base by twenty-four to the third divided by two, you get the earth's radius. Further, the area of the base of the pyramid multiplied by ninety-six times ten to the eighth gives us one hundred ninety-six million eight hundred and ten thousand square miles, which is the surface area of the earth. Am I right?"

Belbo liked to convey amazement with an expression he had learned in the cinematheque, from the original-language version of Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney: "I'm flabbergasted!" This is what he said now. Aglie also knew colloquial English, apparently, because he couldn't hide the satisfaction at this tribute to his vanity. "My friends," he said, "when a gentleman, whose name is unknown to me, pens a compilation on the mystery of the pyramids, he can only say what by now even children know. I would have been surprised if he had said anything new."

"So the writer is simply repeating established truths?"

"Truths?" Aglie laughed, and again opened for us the box of his deformed and delicious cigars. "Quid est veritas, as a friend of mine said many years ago. Most of it is nonsense. To begin with, if you divide the base of the pyramid by exactly twice the height, and do not round off, you don't get pi, you get 3.1417254. A small difference, but essential. Further, a disciple of Piazzi Smyth, Flinders Petrie, who also measured Stonehenge, reports that one day he caught the master chipping at a granite wall of the royal antechamber, to make his sums work out ... Gossip, perhaps, but Piazzi Smyth was not a man to inspire trust; you had only to see the way he tied his cravat. Still, amid all the nonsense there are some unimpeachable truths. Gentlemen, would you follow me to the window?"

He threw open the shutters dramatically and pointed. At the corner of the narrow street and the broad avenue, stood a little wooden kiosk, where, presumably, lottery tickets were sold.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I invite you to go and measure that kiosk. You will see that the length of the counter is one hundred and forty-nine centimeters -- in other words, one hundred-billionth of the distance between the earth and the sun. The height at the rear, one hundred and seventy-six centimeters, divided by the width of the window, fifty-six centimeters, is 3.14. The height at the front is nineteen decimeters, equal, in other words, to the number of years of the Greek lunar cycle. The sum of the heights of the two front corners and the two rear corners is one hundred and ninety times two plus one hundred seventy-six times two, which equals seven hundred and thirty-two, the date of the victory at Poitiers. The thickness of the counter is 3.10 centimeters, and the width of the cornice of the window is 8.8 centimeters. Replacing the numbers before the decimals by the corresponding letters of the alphabet, we obtain C for ten and H for eight, or C10H8, which is the formula for naphthalene."

"Fantastic," I said. "You did all these measurements?"

"No," Aglie said. "They were done on another kiosk, by a certain Jean-Pierre Adam. But I would assume that all lottery kiosks have more or less the same dimensions. With numbers you can do anything you like. Suppose I have the sacred number 9 and I want to get the number 1314, date of the execution of Jacques de Molay -- a date dear to anyone who, like me, professes devotion to the Templar tradition of knighthood. What do I do? Multiply nine by one hundred and forty six, the fateful day of the destruction of Carthage. How did I arrive at this? I divided thirteen hundred and fourteen by two, by three, et cetera, until I found a satisfying date. I could also have divided thirteen hundred and fourteen by 6.28, the double of 3.14, and I would have got two hundred and nine. That is the year in which Attalus I, king of Pergamon, joined the anti-Macedonian League. You see?"

The Iron Plate in
the Great Pyramid

iron plate
The Message of the Sphinx, 1996, plate 18.

In 1837, Colonel Howard Vyse, with the assistance of two civil engineers (John Perring and James Mash), investigated the air shafts in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid described by George Sandys more than 200 years earlier. A man in Vyse's team, J.R. Hill, was put in charge of clearing the mouth of the southern shaft. Vyse's methods were not subtle, and the use of explosives was employed resulting in the vertical gash that can still be seen on the south side of the pyramid. On Friday, 26 May 1837, after a few days of blasting and clearing, Hill discovered a flat iron plate about 26 cm (10.2") long, 8.6 cm (3.4") wide, with a thickness ranging from .4 cm (.2") to nearly zero. The plate weighs about 750g. Vyse proclaimed it to be "the oldest piece of wrought iron known." Hill affirmed that his find was legitimate:

This is to certify, that the piece of iron found by me near the mouth of the air-passage, in the southern side of the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, on Friday, May 26th, was taken out by me from an inner joint, after having removed by blasting the two outer tiers of the stones of the present surface of the Pyramid; and that no joint or opening of any sort was connected with the above-mentioned joint, by which the iron could have been placed in it after the original building of the Pyramid. I also shewed the exact point to Mr. Perring, on Saturday, June 24th. (Vyse, Pyramids of Gizeh, I, p. 276)

Perring, along with James Mash, were both "of the opinion that the iron must have been left in the joint during the building of the Pyramid, and that it could not have been inserted afterward." Vyse sent the artifact, along with the certifications of Hill, Perring, and Mash, to the British Museum.

What is one to make of the story? Hill was the only witness to the discovery of the plate (on 26 May) and the second "witness" appeared nearly a month later (on 24 June). Perring was actually not a witness at all, but had only the word of Hill about the details of the find. Thus, despite the "certifications" of the others, Hill is the sole witness. Most modern authorities believe that Hill either falsified his testimony, or, more likely, a bit of modern iron somehow made its way into the rubble, convincing Hill that it had been there all along.

Flinders Petrie wrote of the plate in The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (1883):

That sheet iron was employed, we know, from the fragment found by Howard Vyse in the masonry of the south air channel, and though some doubt has been thrown on the piece, merely from its rarity, yet the vouchers for it are very precise, and it has a cast of a nummulite on the rust of it, proving it to have been buried for ages beside a block of nummulitic limestone, and therefore to be certainly ancient. No reasonable doubt can therefore exist about its being really a genuine piece used by the pyramid masons, and probably such pieces were required to prevent crowbars biting into the stones, and to ease the actions of the rollers. (p. 212-13)

(A nummulite is a large coin-shaped fossil foraminifer widely distributed in limestone formations.) Petrie later recanted the view that the iron was contemporary with the pyramid (Six Temples at Thebes, 1896, p. 19). H.R. Hall wrote of the plate in "Note on the Early Use of Iron in Egypt" (Man 3, 1903):

Now that Professor Petrie has discovered iron in deposits of VIth Dynasty date at Abydos, the contentions of those Egyptologists who have always maintained that iron was known to the Egyptians from the earliest times must be acknowledged to be correct. The fact that iron was known to, and used by, the Egyptians over 2,000 years before it came into use in Europe is very remarkable, and it is hard to square with current theories, but it is a fact. Professor Petrie's find is a lump of worked (?) iron, perhaps a wedge, which is rusted on to a bent piece of copper...

This is the third find of iron which can be attributed to the Old Kingdom. In 1837 a fragment of wrought-iron was discovered in an inner joint of the stone blocks in one of the air-passages which pass upwards from the interior of the Great Pyramid to the outer air [Vyse, Pyramids of Gizeh, I., 276; Beck, Geschichte des Eisens, I., 85]. This is now in the British Museum, Egyptian Department, No. 2433 (3rd Egyptian Room, Case K, 29). In 1882 Professor Maspero found iron in the pyramid of a Vth Dynasty king at Abûsîr. Professor Petrie has now found iron in a VIth Dynasty deposit at Abydos... The presumption now is that the iron fragments from Abûsîr and from the Great Pyramid are of a Vth and IVth Dynasty date respectively. The Gîza fragment will be about 150 years older than the piece from Abydos. (pp. 147-49)

In a later article, "The Early Occurrence of Iron in Egypt" (Man 5, 1905), Hall wrote:

Here are the facts. We find in Egypt a piece of worked iron, to which a date of about 3500 B.C. is assigned on good primâ facie grounds, but because iron did not come into general use in Egypt till about 1300 B.C., and in southern Europe till about 1100 B.C., and because we do not possess another piece of iron of the same date, we admit that this early date must be regarded as still sub judice. We need corroboration. We afterwards find in Egypt a piece of iron, worked or unworked does not matter in the argument, which is assigned on incontestable grounds to a date of about 3200 B.C. Does not the second find corroborate the first, and are we not justified in assuming that we have erred from excess of caution in denying that iron was not only known to, but occasionally worked by, the Egyptians in the fourth millenium B.C.? And as a matter of fact, as I have said, the probabilities are that the VI Dynasty fragment was originally worked, and not a mere meaningless lump. Why should a mere lump be buried with tools? (p. 71)

In his article "Iron in Egypt" (JEA 18, 1932, pp. 3-15) G. A. Wainwright asserted that iron found in Egypt dating to before the New Kingdom was certain to have been of meteoric origin. In "The Coming of Iron" (Antiquity 10, 1936), the same author addressed the iron plate specifically:

In Egypt iron objects are extremely rare until the New Kingdom, and by no means common even then... The serious pieces are those of the Great Pyramid c. 2900 B.C., the Abydos lump c. 2500 B.C. and the Nubian spearhead c. 1800 B.C. Full analyses have not yet been made of the Pyramid and Abydos pieces, but those which have been showed 'traces' of nickel [Rickard in Man, 1927, no. 56]. This looks as if they were meteoric iron. But if the 'traces' should prove to be only a fraction of 1 per cent, as it sounds, the iron might have perhaps been smelted from ore [Though very rare such are known to exist though not near Egypt. Rickard, Man and Metals, II, 846]. If so, this would have proved a difficulty hitherto, but such would now be disposed by he finding in Mesopotamia of the unquestionable piece of smelted iron of approximately the same date. Unless we can know definitely that the Pyramid piece is of meteoric origin, and therefore not modern, the probability of Rickard's suggestion is too attractive. He thinks that it may have been a piece of the tool of one of Vyse's own workmen engaged in the excavation [Man and Metals, II, 833, 834], and one knows only too well how such things may slip down, get jammed, etc. The antiquity of Petrie's lump from Abydos has never been in doubt, but it is urgent that its origin also should be decided. (pp. 8, 9)

The presence of nickel is one of the characteristics of meteoric iron. The content of nickel can vary from 5% to 26%, though usually it is 7-8%. Nickel is rare in terrestrial iron ore, and even then it is found only in very minute traces. In his article "Early Iron in Egypt" (Antiquity 10, 1936), Christopher Hawkes offered a summary of the tests performed on the pyramid and Abydos pieces:

In his article on 'The Coming of Iron' in Antiquity for March 1936 (X, 5-24), Mr G.A. Wainwright draws attention to the pieces of iron from the Great Pyramid (IVth Dynasty) and Abydos (VIth Dynasty). These should date respectively from c.2900 and c.2500 B.C. (pp. 8-9), and form the two major items in the serious evidence for the use of iron in Egypt before the New Kingdom. His question is whether they are of terrestrial or meteoric origin, with the rider that if proved by analysis to be terrestrial their claim to be ancient ought to be most critically regarded. Meteoric origin (p. 7) will be proved by the presence of nickel, probably from 5 to 10 per cent., for this is absent from iron smelted from terrestrial ore.

Both these pieces are in the British Museum. Mr. Wainwright states (p. 9) that 'full analyses have not yet been made' of them, 'but those which have showed "traces" of nickel;' the authority he quotes being a letter written in 1927 to the Editor of Man by Dr. T.A. Rickard. This letter (Man, 1927, 56) stresses the unlikelihood of any but a meteoric origin for early pieces of iron, and urges examination for nickel to prove this: it states that in fact both these pieces 'were tested recently, at my suggestion, for nickel, and traces of nickel were found,' but expresses dissatisfaction with the experiment.

The tests were actually made in the British Museum Laboratory, and since it seems desirable that the matter should be cleared up, Dr. J.H. Plenderleith, who did the work, has kindly allowed me to see his notes and copies of his reports. The Pyramid piece was found to consist 'of a thin film of metallic iron with a more or less thick coating of its oxides.' Samples were examined and 'no nickel could be detected.' This was in November 1926; in April 1932 it was examined again, and the results 'completely bear out the findings of the previous analytical report as regards to the absence of nickel;' separate tests were applied to the exterior scale and to the surface of the metallic iron itself, and nowhere could nickel be detected. As Dr. Plenderleith was advised that 'all known meteoric iron contains some nickel, about 4-30 per cent,' he considered it 'unnecessary to go any further in the matter of chemical investigation.' The account of the result quoted from Man (cf. also Dr. Rickard's Man and Metals 1932, II, 834) seems therefore to have mislead Mr Wainwright. The pyramid piece contains no detectable 'traces' of nickel. (pp. 355-57)

Likewise, no nickel was found in the core of the Abydos piece, "and it is only present in minute traces in the outer rust, among various other impurities, whose presence is evidently due to the porous nature of the material." Hawkes submitted copies of Plenderleith's notes and reports to Cecil H. Desch of the National Physical Laboratory (Desch had some years earlier written a report on the iron plate in Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1928).

He [Desch] has expressed his opinion, in a letter communicated to the writer, that the position is 'very clear, and it does not seem necessary to make further analyses... I have now obtained further specimens of early iron, which is certainly not meteoric, from sites in Mesopotamia and Syria, and it will be very interesting if it should prove that equally early specimens occur in Egypt. As regards to the Pyramid specimen, the statement that it consists of only a thin film of iron with a layer of oxide outside seems to rule out the possibility of its being a modern tool which had fallen into a cavity, and it is very desirable that your note should be published.'

It seems, then, that these pieces may reasonably be taken as evidence for the occasional smelting of terrestrial iron-ores in the Near East as early as the third millennium B.C. (p. 357)

Once the fact had been established that the iron plate was made of wrought terrestrial iron rather than iron of meteoric origin, it was denied to be of an ancient age based solely on its composition. Lucas and Harris, in their landmark reference Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries (1962), expressed such an opinion:

Those who believe that iron tools must have been employed for early Egyptian work in hard stone attach considerable importance to a piece of iron found at the Great Pyramid of Giza, and see this as proof that iron tools were used in its construction, in support of which the reference in Herodotus to iron tools in connexion to the pyramid is quoted [History II:125]. By far the greater part of the stone of the pyramid, however, is not hard and there would be no great difficulty in working it without iron tools, and the specimen of iron found is not a tool and does not appear to be part of a tool of any sort, and it is significant that the earliest iron objects are chiefly weapons and amulets and not tools. (p. 236)

The earliest iron objects known in Egypt, write Lucas and Harris, are nine predynastic tubular beads found by Wainwright at Gerzeh. When found, they were completely oxidized. Analysis showed that the metal was 7.5% nickel and thus of meteoric origin. The authors continue:

The next specimen in date order is that already referred to from the pyramid of Giza which was found in the stonework on the outside. Although the statements of the finder (Mr. J.R. Hill) and others, who examined the spot at the time, are very definite and precise and not lightly to be disregarded, it seems more probable, since the iron has been proved not to be meteoric, that it is of recent date and that it had been lost down a crack in the stone facing of the pyramid when this was being removed for use as building material in modern times, long before Vyse's work. (p. 237)

In 1989, an analysis of the iron plate was made by El Sayed El Gayar and M.P. Jones, published in their article "Metallurgical investigation of an iron plate found in 1837 in the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, Egypt" (Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society, Vol. 23 No. 2, 1989, pp. 75-83). El Gayar and Jones, using a hacksaw, carefully cut off a small corner of the plate for analysis. This fragment was triangular in shape with an area of 1 cm and a weight of 1.7g. After again determining that the iron contained "only a trace of nickel," confirming a terrestrial origin (p. 81), the authors found that

the plate consists of numerous laminates of wrought iron and that these laminates have been inexpertly welded together by hammering. The various layers differ from each other in their grain sizes, carbon contents, the nature of their non-metallic inclusions, and in their thicknesses... None of the iron layers contains siliceous, slaggy inclusions. Furthermore, none of the other phases within the iron laminates shows any metallic copper globules, nor do they show more than small traces of the element copper. These features suggest that the Gizeh iron plate had not been produced as a by-product of copper smelting operations.

The outer layers of the iron have been badly corroded and now exist as complex banded iron oxides. Small, but significant, proportions of gold were found in one of the oxidised layers and it is thought possible that the plate may, originally, have been goldplated. [p. 75]

It is interesting to note that the gold would have been of small value in comparison to that of the iron. Numerous non-siliceous inclusions were found in the iron laminates, rich in sodium and potassium: probably ash formed by burning charcoal during smelting. The authors continue,

Furthermore, the presence of abundant inclusions of un-reduced (or incompletely reduced) fragments of iron oxides in the metal laminations shows that the "smelting" operations had been inexpertly carried out at low temperatures (probably between 1000º and 1100ºC and that the iron had been produced by the "direct reduction" method - in which no molten iron is normally produced...

The quality of the forging operations used to weld the iron fragments together is often exceedingly poor and it is possible that the plate was produced by a very primitive and, in consequence, a very inefficient or inexperienced, ironsmith...

It is concluded, on the basis of the present investigation, that the iron plate is very ancient. Furthermore, the metallurgical evidence supports the archaeological evidence which suggests that the plate was incorporated within the Pyramid at the time that structure was being built. [p. 82]

iron plate

While the iron plate's physical properties apparently argue in favor of its authenticity, its provenance argues against. A more recent date is attractive mainly because the antiquity of the artifact would be out of place in the known metallurgical progress of ancient Egyptian technology. Certain "fringe" authors make much of this opportunity, claiming the anachronism proves alien or Atlantean intervention in Egyptian industry, or, at the very least, that Egyptologists have underestimated exactly how advanced Egypt's ancient civilization had become. If the iron is of recent vintage (see below), the point is moot. But if it is as old as the Great Pyramid, what are the implications?

Precisely where and when the smelting of iron originated is uncertain. Making useful implements from iron ore is a fairly complicated procedure, requiring specialized fuel to maintain high temperatures, aided by a steady and controlled system of forced air (such as produced by bellows), and heavy tools are necessary for working the red-hot metal. Evidence of iron production dating to 2800 BC has been found in Mesopotamia (Wainwright, "The Coming of Iron," Antiquity 10, 1936, p. 7). Though iron manufacture may have spread from western Asia south through Africa, iron working in sub-Saharan Africa may have developed independently.

It would be likely that, if the iron plate is indeed proved to be ancient, it represents a trade good from the north, or possibly from the south. The unlikelihood of Egyptian manufacture is supported by both its uniqueness and the absence of archaeological evidence for iron-making technology. What function might the iron plate have served in association with the Great Pyramid? It is doubtful that might have been a part of a tool, nor is it similar to any known type of ceremonial implement. Various authors have offered an explanation that makes some degree of sense. The royal funerary Pyramid Text §907 reads:

The doors of bA-kA [an unknown region of the sky] which is in the firmament are opened for me, the doors of iron which are in the starry sky are thrown open for me, and I go through them ...

This, taken with the idea that the so-called "air passages" found in the pyramid are in fact meant to serve as egress for the king's soul, might suggest that the iron plate served as a door of sorts at the terminal end of the shaft. The plate was, after all, reported to have been found near the outer opening of the King's Chamber southern "air passage." The discrepancy between the size of the plate (30.5 x 10 cm) and the size of the opening of the shaft (30.5 x 23.3 cm) may be explained by the plate's obvious fragmentary nature. The plate in its original form could easily have been a good fit.

A more recent analysis of the plate, however, has cast doubt on the findings and conclusions of the study by El Gayar and Jones. In their article "Gizeh Iron Revisited" (Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society, Vol. 27 No. 2, 1993, pp. 57-59), Paul Craddock and Janet Lang of the British Museum reported that they were at first unable to obtain the section cut by El Gayar and Jones, consequently the initial study was confined to the larger portion of the plate. A new section was cut adjacent to the original section, and it was examined under a scanning electron microscope both at the British Museum and independently at the Ancient Monuments Laboratory, English Heritage (the work was carried out there by Dr. G. McDonnell). It was also analyzed by x-ray fluorescence. Surprisingly, no gold was detected in the metal or in the corrosion. Craddock and Lang further wrote:

Since the last report the original section has been returned to the Museum and we have been able to carry out a thorough investigation. Once again we must report that despite extensive searches no trace of gold could be detected, and it is our firm opinion that the original report of gold is incorrect. [p. 57]

The authors agreed with El Gayar and Jones regarding the structure of the iron plate, but they did not agree on the interpretation.

The unusual features are the absence of slag stringers and the very large number of other inclusions. These are unusual in that they contain large quantities of calcium (up to 60%), phosphorus (up to 15%), and some sodium, silicon and potassium. A number of chlorine-rich areas were also found. However, we do not agree with the view of El Gayar and Jones, that these inclusions indicate ancient primitive manufacture -- careless maybe, but not primitive. [p. 57-58]

They believe that the structure is unfamiliar because the iron plate is representative of the largely unstudied period of iron manufacture that falls between "traditional" solid state bloomery iron and "modern" iron and steel of the late 19th century. The structure of the plate is consistent with iron-making in the post-medieval Islamic era. Craddock and Lang conclude:

Gold was neither observed nor detected anywhere on the plate. The composition and structure of the iron rules out any form of natural iron. Similarly iron smelted in the solid state is precluded as some form of molten slag would be essential, which could only be eradicated by melting the iron. A more mundane but tenable explanation of the observed features is that the iron ore was smelted to cast iron in a blast furnace, using charcoal as the fuel, resulting in a chemically much purer iron than smelted with coal or coke. This iron was then decarburized by the finery process to form solid wrought iron. The inclusions are likely to have originated either as deliberate additions during the fining, as specified in some European accounts, or inadvertently during the subsequent forging. The blast furnace process does not seem to have reached the Middle East until the post-medieval period, and this strongly suggests that the plate of iron from the Great Pyramid is of no great antiquity. [p. 58]

It would seem, then, that the iron plate found by J.R. Hill in 1837 is not contemporary with the construction of the pyramid, but rather dates to the post-medieval (Islamic) period sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries. It would be a matter for speculation just how such a plate might have found its way down a joint between the pyramid stones, but after the Arab conquest there was much activity at the Giza pyramids. Hill's report that the iron "was taken out by me from an inner joint, after having removed by blasting the two outer tiers of the stones" and "that no joint or opening of any sort was connected with the above-mentioned joint" was made ex post facto, and one may well wonder how closely he examined the joints before blasting considering he had no idea that he might find something there.

The Concave Faces of the Great Pyramid

Aerial photo by Groves, 1940 (detail).
Great  Pyramid

In his book The Egyptian Pyramids: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference, J.P. Lepre wrote:

One very unusual feature of the Great Pyramid is a concavity of the core that makes the monument an eight-sided figure, rather than four-sided like every other Egyptian pyramid. That is to say, that its four sides are hollowed in or indented along their central lines, from base to peak. This concavity divides each of the apparent four sides in half, creating a very special and unusual eight-sided pyramid; and it is executed to such an extraordinary degree of precision as to enter the realm of the uncanny. For, viewed from any ground position or distance, this concavity is quite invisible to the naked eye. The hollowing-in can be noticed only from the air, and only at certain times of the day. This explains why virtually every available photograph of the Great Pyramid does not show the hollowing-in phenomenon, and why the concavity was never discovered until the age of aviation. It was discovered quite by accident in 1940, when a British Air Force pilot, P. Groves, was flying over the pyramid. He happened to notice the concavity and captured it in the now-famous photograph. [p. 65]

This strange feature was not first observed in 1940. It was illustrated in La Description de l'Egypte in the late 1700's (Volume V, pl. 8). Flinders Petrie noticed a hollowing in the core masonry in the center of each face and wrote that he "continually observed that the courses of the core had dips of as much as ½° to 1°" (The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh, 1883, p. 421). Though it is apparently more easily observed from the air, the concavity is measurable and is visible from the ground under favorable lighting conditions.

Ikonos satellite image of the Great Pyramid.
creased  sides

I.E.S. Edwards wrote, "In the Great Pyramid the packing-blocks were laid in such a way that they sloped slightly inwards towards the centre of each course, with a result that a noticeable depression runs down the middle of each face -- a peculiarity shared, as far as is known, by no other pyramid" (The Pyramids of Egypt, 1975, p. 207). Maragioglio and Rinaldi described a similar concavity on the pyramid of Menkaure, the third pyramid at Giza. Miroslav Verner wrote that the faces of the Red Pyramid at Dahshur are also "slightly concave."

Diagram of the concavity (not to scale).
concave  sides

What was the purpose for concave Great Pyramid sides? Maragioglio and Rinaldi felt this feature would help bond the casing to the core. Verner agreed: "As in the case of the earlier Red Pyramid, the slightly concave walls were intended to increase the stability of the pyramid's mantle [i.e. casing stones]" (The Pyramids, 2001, p. 195). Martin Isler outlined the various theories in his article "Concerning the Concave Faces on the Great Pyramid" (Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 20:1983, pp. 27-32):

  1. To give a curved form to the nucleus in order to prevent the faces from sliding.
  2. The casing block in the center would be larger and would serve more suitably as a guide for other blocks in the same course.
  3. To better bond the nucleus to the casing.
  4. For aesthetic reasons, as concave faces would make the structure more pleasing to the eye.
  5. When the casing stones were later removed, they were tumbled down the faces, and thereby wore down the center of the pyramids more than the edges.
  6. Natural erosion of wind-swept sand had a greater effect on the center.

Isler dismisses the first four reasons based on the idea that "what is proposed for the first pyramid should hold true for the others." He also dismisses the last two because they would not "dip the courses," but rather have simply "worn away the surface of the stone." Adding another category to the list above, "a result of imperfect building method," he proceeds to theorize that the concavity was an artifact of a compounding error in building technique (specifically, a sag in the mason's line). One is tempted to reject this theory based on Isler's own reasoning: "what is proposed for the first pyramid should hold true for the others."

The concavity has prompted more improbable theories, usually in support of some larger agenda. David Davidson (cited by Peter Tompkins in Secrets of the Great Pyramid, pp. 108-114) defended the discredited Piazzi Smyth by attempting to demonstrate that if measurements included the hollowing, they would provide three base measurements that describe the three lengths of the year: solar, sidereal, and "anomalistic." (These lines, on the diagram below, would be AB, AEFB, and AMB.) What Davidson is assuming is that the concavity, present today in the core structure of the pyramid, would extend to the finished cased surface. There is no evidence for this; indeed the extant casing is perfectly flat. Maragioglio and Rinaldi observed that the granite casing of Menkaure's pyramid was flat, but above the granite the packing-blocks formed a concavity in the center of each face. The evidence indicates that the concavity is a functional feature of the core structure that was hidden from sight when the casing stones were applied.

Three proposed "baselines" of the Great Pyramid (not to scale).
concave  sides

John Williams, author of Williams' Hydraulic Theory to Cheops' Pyramid wrote that "the only advantage that I can see - and it is a great one - for having a concave face on a structure is to contain extremely high internal pressures - the type of pressures that would result from using a hydraulic method of my description. Think of this in terms of an egg shell, arch or gabling." This explanation is also voiced by other purveyors of the "pump-theory" such as Edward J. Kunkel (author of The Pharaoh's Pump, 1962) and Richard Noone (author of 5/5/2000: Ice: The Ultimate Disaster, 1982). Unfortunately, they fail to understand how an arch or load-bearing gable works. A supporting arch is designed to convert the downward force, or weight, of a structure to an outward force, which in turn is transferred to a buttress, a pier, or an abutment. An arch simply redirects the force; it does not make it vanish. If the sides of the Great Pyramid were designed as arches, then those arches would serve to direct the load into thin air. It doesn't make sense. The eggshell analogy is yet less applicable because the pyramid is not egg-shaped. Like the arch, the egg is strong because it transfers load pressure, in this case into vertical as well as horizontal forces that are distributed more evenly along the structure of the egg due to its shape.

Kunkel likened each pyramid face to a dam. He claimed that each side bends inward against the pressure of the water inside the pyramid just as a dam (Hoover Dam for example) bends towards the force of the water it holds back. An arch dam employs the same structural principles as the arch (described above). The dam curves towards the hydrostatic pressure from the water behind it, which in turn is distributed horizontally to abutments on the side walls against which the dam is built. Again, the pyramid lacks such abutments.

In Ancient Egyptian Construction and Architecture, Clarke and Englebach wrote:

Most pyramids have individual peculiarities which are as yet difficult to explain. For instance, in the Great Pyramid, as possibly in certain others, a large depression in the packing-blocks runs down the middle of each face, implying a line of extra-thick facing there. Though there is no special difficulty in arranging the blocks of a course in such a manner that they increase in size at the middle, there is no satisfactory explanation of the feature any more than there is of the 'girdle-blocks' [in the Great Pyramid's ascending passage] already discussed. [p. 128]

The purpose for the concavity of the Great Pyramids remains a mystery and no satisfactory explanation for this feature has been offered. The indentation is so slight that any practical function is difficult to imagine.

The Hieroglyphic Inscription Above
the Great Pyramid's Entrance

GP entrance

Though it is often reported that the Great Pyramid of Giza is bereft of any hieroglyphic inscription save for some quarry marks on inside surfaces, and also that the last hieroglyphics in Egypt were inscribed at Philae in AD 394, both of these statements were made somewhat inaccurate in the middle of the 19th century.

Karl Richard Lepsius, born in 1810 in Naumburg (Saale), Germany, began studying Egyptology after completing his European archaeology doctorate in 1833. He studied in Paris, using Champollion's newly published grammar. By 1837 he had a good working knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language. During the years 1842-1845, Lepsius led an expedition of Prussian scholars to Egypt, Nubia, and Sinai to record monuments and collect antiquities. Architects and draftsmen described and sketched tombs, temples, and other monuments in the Nile Valley and, with the cooperation of Muhammed Ali, about 15,000 artifacts were taken to Berlin. The resulting work, the twelve-volume Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, made Lepsius a dominating figure in Egyptology. In 1855 he became a Scientific Director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, and in 1865 he was appointed its Director. Lepsius died in 1884.

While in Egypt, the expedition thought appropriate to honor the birthday of Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV, patron of the project, by adding a unique set of graffiti to one of the western gables above the original entrance of the pyramid.

GP glyphs

In a letter dated 17 January 1843, Lepsius himself provided the translation:

Thus speak the servants of the King, whose name is The Sun and Rock of Prussia, Lepsius the scribe, Erbkam the architect, the Brothers Weidenbach the painters, Frey the painter, Franke the molder, Bonomi the sculptor, Wild the architect: All hail to the Eagle, The Protector of the Cross, to the King, The Sun and Rock of Prussia, to the Sun of the Sun, who freed his native country, Friedrich Wilhelm the Fourth, the Loving Father, the Father of his Country, the Gracious One, the Favorite of Wisdom and History, the Guardian of the Rhine, whom Germany has chosen, the Dispenser of Life. May the Most high God grant the King and his wife, the Queen Elizabeth, the Rich in Life, the Loving Mother, the Mother of the Country, the Gracious One, an ever vibrant and long life on earth and a blessed place in heaven for eternity. In the year of our Savior, 1842, in the tenth month, on the fifteenth day, on the forty-seventh birthday of his Majesty, on the Pyramid of King Cheops; in the third year, in the fifth month, on the ninth day of the reign of his Majesty; in the year 3164 from the commencement of the Sothis period under the King Menepthes.

GP glyphs

The Orion Mystery

In their book The Orion Mystery (1994), authors Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert made popular the idea that the pyramids of Giza, and other pyramids to the north and south, are laid out in a plan to reproduce the pattern of the stars in the constellation Orion. They propose that there existed a unified "master plan" that originated thousands of years before the pyramid age of the Fourth Dynasty (pp. 50-55; 193-196). The Giza layout is an expression of this plan, the authors assert.

Are the three Giza pyramids situated to reproduce the pattern of the stars in Orion's belt? Although it is certainly possible, a "grand master plan" for all three pyramids would not have been necessary for the pattern to result. That the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre were near each other was enough of a start. The two pyramids, no matter how they were oriented with respect to one another, would form a straight line. Only the position of the third pyramid would be necessary to set the "Orion's belt" pattern. Thus, regardless of the relative locations of the first two pyramids at Giza, it is possible that Menkaure alone conceived the idea to position his pyramid to set the pattern, if this was indeed the case.

Some have made the point that the three Giza pyramids don't reproduce exactly the pattern of the three stars in the sky; that is, the pattern is flipped over. Before arguing this point, one must take into consideration Menkaure's options. Where else could he have built his pyramid to reproduce the pattern? Not to the northeast of Khufu's pyramid -- it would have been off the plateau. Nor could he have built it to the southeast of Khufu's pyramid -- the Eastern Cemetery is situated there. Nor could he have built it to the west of Khafre's pyramid -- there would have been no place for his mortuary temple and causeway. Menkaure had only one place he could have put his pyramid in order to imitate the three stars: in its present location.

Bauval and Gilbert, and later Graham Hancock, have tried to fit other pyramids into the scheme of the Orion constellation. Both The Orion Mystery (pp. 222-223) and The Message of the Sphinx (Hancock and Bauval, 1996, p. 229) include comparisons of a star chart of the Orion constellation and a map of the locations of pyramids. They find a "fit" between major stars and Abu Roash and Zawiyet el-Aryan (the unfinished "Layer Pyramid").

The stars (red) and the pyramids (black).
Stars and pyramids

I tested their conclusion by copying a map of the pyramid sites (Baines and Málek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt, 1980, p. 135) and a map of the Orion constellation (Pasachoff and Menzel, Stars and Planets, 1992, p. 255). I inverted the latter, and reduced it until the stars of Orion's belt matched exactly with the three pyramids at Giza, then I superimposed it upon the map of Egypt. The result (see chart above) shows that there is no fit at all. The nearest star to Abu Roash is more than 3 miles to the southeast, and the nearest star to Zawiyet el-Aryan is nearly 1.5 miles northwest. These are hardly "fits," considering the precision with which the Egyptians were supposed to have mapped out this plan. Even with a little twisting and turning to account for precession, the match is unsatisfactory.

The stars of what we know as Orion played a part in the Egyptian's concept of the afterlife:

O King, you are this great star, the companion of Orion, who traverses the sky with Orion, who navigates the Netherworld with Osiris; you ascend from the east of the sky, being rejuvenated at your due season and rejuvenated at your due time." (Pyramid Texts, § 882-883.)

It may well be that the similarity between the layout of the Giza pyramids and the arrangement of the stars in the belt of Orion was intentional. But a "master plan" would hardly have been necessary. One king alone, Menkaure, could have set the pattern. Evidence of a master plan is lacking.

The Mystery of
Sekhemkhet's Pyramid

Sekhemkhet's  Pyramid

When Zakaria Goneim, a native Egyptologist, and his team excavated an outcropping of rubble masonry west of Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, they found a theretofore undiscovered, unfinished pyramid. In his book The Lost Pyramid (Rinehart & Company, 1956), Goneim wrote:

It might be thought that, since the building had been used as a quarry in later times, its existence was known until a comparatively recent date. Fortunately I was able to satisfy myself that the monument had been undisturbed for at least 3,000 years and probably for longer. Proof of this lay in the large number of later burials which my workmen found during the excavations, and as the earliest of these dated from the Nineteenth Dynasty (1349-1197 B.C.), and as some were found lying undisturbed above the buried pyramid itself, it is obvious that the walls we had uncovered had not been seen by human eyes since that remote epoch. [p. 64]

In January 1954, Goneim began his search for the pyramid entrance, certain that "no superstructure would have been built without beginning the substructure." Excavating the northern side, he first found the remains of a mortuary temple. Encouraged, he sought the entrance there, as the entrance to Djoser's pyramid was found in a like location. When this proved futile, he moved the work to the north. Finally, about 75 feet from the pyramid face, he found what appeared to be the entrance gallery.

My workmen and I were intensely excited. As we dug down into the sand and more and more of the trench became visible, it was clear that we were nearing the entrance to the pyramid substructure. The question which worried us was: "Would the entrance be found intact, or had the tomb robbers entered the pyramid before us?" [p. 91]

The gallery was blocked intermittently with thick masonry, and the gaps between filled with rubble. At length the doorway to the pyramid was uncovered. "To our extreme relief," Goneim wrote, "we found that the doorway was intact, sealed with masonry." The pyramid was opened on 9 March 1954. The door led into a high gallery cut into the bedrock, but within sixty feet they encountered a wall of rubble reaching from floor to ceiling. The team found a vertical shaft in the ceiling through which the rubble had been dropped; the mouth of the shaft above was buried in the pyramid superstructure. Goneim determined that the shaft had not been fully breached since the pyramid was built. The blockage of rubble in the corridor proved to be more than fifteen feet thick, but first the shaft had to be cleared so that the debris would not fall on the workers below. It was during the clearing of this shaft that a fatal accident occurred: one of the workers at the bottom of the partially cleared shaft was suffocated after he was buried when the rubble gave way beneath him. This stopped the work amid tales of a pyramid curse and exaggerated claims by the press that eighty men were killed when the "pyramid had entirely collapsed."

Excavation commenced anew a fortnight later, and the corridor beyond was found to be cracked and unstable, necessitating reinforcement with masonry and timber. Under a thick layer of clay at the bottom of the corridor beyond the blockage, the workers "found hundreds of stone vessels of many kinds, similar to those found in the subterranean galleries of Djoser's pyramid." They also found gold bracelets and armlets, a gold wand, and a cosmetic box of embossed gold in the shape of a scallop shell, all among bits of jewelry and beads and other toiletries. It was theorized that they likely had been in a wooden chest, long rotted away, that may have belonged to a lady of the king's household. This evidence, Goneim wrote, "provided us with a valuable clue to the fact that, in spite of its unfinished state, the pyramid had been used for burial." He brushed aside notions that the items had been abandoned by tomb robbers of antiquity:

My answer to such critics is this. The objects were found under a thick layer of clay. The stone bowls, dishes, etc., had been carefully arranged in layers with the clay above them as protection., and above this clay the builders had piled the huge stones of the blockage which had been thrown down the shaft to fill it. That blockage, I am convinced, had never been disturbed since the shaft was made by the pyramid builders. Therefore, the objects, including the gold jewelry, must have been left there deliberately, and not discarded by robbers. In any case, why would tomb robbers have left behind such valuable and easily portable objects as the golden bracelets and other trinkets, which had lain in a wooden casket, traces of which still remain? [p. 107]

Later, jars were found with clay seals bearing an imprint made with a cylinder seal. Upon them, Goneim read the name of a "hitherto unknown king," Sekhemkhet (this king had actually been known by another name, Djoser Tati). More than one hundred feet from the entrance, another door was breached that led into a gallery containing 120 storage magazines (16 more were later found). The entire complex was filled to about two thirds its height with rubble. Beyond this, some 236 feet distant from the pyramid entrance, a "seemingly impervious mass of rock" was encountered. Somewhat disheartened, and working beyond April, the usual end of the excavation season, work slowly progressed into the heart of the newly discovered and apparently undisturbed pyramid. On 31 May 1954, beyond ten feet of blockage, Goneim climbed into the darkness of a large vault accompanied by one of his lead workman, Hofni.

In the middle of a rough-cut chamber lay a magnificent sarcophagus of pale, golden, translucent alabaster. We moved toward it. My first thought was: "Is it intact?" Hurriedly, with my electric torch, I examined the top for the lid. But there was no lid; the top was of one piece with the rest. [p. 115]

alabaster  coffer

The sarcophagus proved to have been carved from a single alabaster block, and the only opening was sliding panel at one end, slid into position from the top. The decayed remains of a wreath sat atop the sarcophagus (years later, analysis proved it to be bark and decomposed wood). The chamber, never completed, was surrounded by a complex of unfinished galleries. No entrance other than the excavated passage could be found. "At last," Goneim wrote, "I was able to satisfy myself beyond any shadow of a doubt that we were the first to enter the sarcophagus chamber since its makers left it." A close examination proved that the sliding door to the sarcophagus was sealed and bore no traces of tampering. For the first time in modern history, an intact royal burial had been discovered within a pyramid.

World press interest was high, and the find was compared to the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. Visitors were plentiful and Goneim found himself in the spotlight of publicity. The impending discovery of the royal mummy was eagerly anticipated by Egyptologists of the day. The press was first admitted on 17 June, at first ten at a time, but later as many as sixty as journalists lingered. Finally, preparations for the opening of the sarcophagus were complete, and on 26 June ropes were threaded through steel hooks inserted into two holes on top of the sliding panel as lights and cameras were placed into position. As a small party watched, crowbars were inserted into the crack beneath the sliding panel and workmen pulled mightily on the ropes. At first, the panel stuck fast. It was wedged tightly into position, sealed with gypsum plaster. But then it began to move, at first only an inch, but bit by bit, flakes of plaster dropping to the floor, it slid upward. Falling to his hands and knees, Goneim peered inside, eager to witness the culmination of his considerable efforts. The sarcophagus was empty.

Public interest immediately ceased with news headlines such as "Pharaoh Fiasco" and "They Dig for Three Years and Find Nothing." It was for Goneim "a bitter blow," and his name quickly faded into relative obscurity. He was later accused (falsely, it would turn out) of stealing antiquities and smuggling them out of the country, and as a result he suffered the humiliation of repeated police interrogation. Discredited and stripped of his duties, he drowned himself in the Nile in 1957.

Why would an undisturbed burial chamber contain a sealed but empty coffin? Shortly after opening the sarcophagus, Goneim had concluded:

... I feel fairly certain that the chamber I discovered beneath the new pyramid is another example of a "dummy tomb" or ritual burial. No other explanation will fit the facts, and unless other evidence is produced to contradict it, I shall continue to accept it. If this hypothesis is correct, it would explain why other kings of this remote period -- for example, Snofru -- built two tombs. [p. 153]

Jean-Phillipe Lauer, who made it his life's work to excavate Djoser's Step Pyramid complex, took over the excavation of the Sekhemkhet site in 1963. Four years later, he found a south tomb, looted and empty save for the mummy of a small boy. It was Lauer's opinion that the mummy of Sekhemkhet, along with the burial goods, was removed during the First Intermediate period, a time when many of the Old Kingdom pyramids were plundered. Most Egyptologists believe, however, that the chamber that Goneim discovered was never intended to be the burial place of Sekhemkhet. Where, then, is the king's mummy? It may have been in the ravaged south tomb, or it may remain yet undiscovered in a tomb somewhere beneath the desert sands.

Why were the Pyramids built?

Step Pyramid

In about 450 B.C. the ancient historian Herodotus reported that there were underground chambers beneath the Great Pyramid at Giza. "These chambers," he wrote, "King Cheops [Khufu] made as burial chambers for himself ..." (History, 2:124). Diodorus (c.80-20 B.C.) added more detail:

And though the two kings [i.e. Khufu and Khafre] built the pyramids to serve as their tombs, in the event neither of them was buried in them; for the multitudes, because of the hardships which they had endured in the building of them and the many cruel and violent acts of these kings, were filled with anger against those who had caused their sufferings and openly threatened to tear their bodies asunder and cast them in despite out of their tombs. Consequently each ruler when dying enjoined upon his kinsmen to bury his body secretly in an unmarked place. [Library of History, 1:64]

Strabo also wrote that the pyramids served as "tombs of kings" (Geography, 17.1.33). After the Arab conquest, knowledge that royal burials were accompanied by a wealth of gold and jewels motivated treasure-hunters to invade the pyramids using any measure necessary. Apocryphal tales of pyramid riches abound, such as Masoudi's description of early plunderers of the Great Pyramid: "They also discovered, in a large hall, a quantity of golden coins put up in columns, every piece of which was of the weight of 1,000 dinars [c. 9 lbs. or 4 kg.]. They tried to take the money, but were unable to move it." (In Vyse, Operations Carried On at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837, Vol. II, p. 329)

Most Egyptologists also believe that the pyramids were meant to serve as tombs for the pharaohs. There are many reasons why they hold this to be true. One is that the pyramid structure represents just one point in the long continuum of the evolution of tomb design. Long before dynastic kings ruled Egypt, tombs were little more than open pit graves. In time, modifications were made. The pit was lined with crude brick and roofed with wood, and the number of chambers increased. The tomb was surmounted by a modest superstructure: a mound of gravel with an outer layer of mud, probably in imitation of the Primal Mound, the epitome of creation and regeneration. By the 2nd Dynasty, brick corbel roofs had been introduced as building technique advanced. Such a roof took the appearance of a dome or vault. At this time, the "mastaba" superstructure (so called because of its bench-like shape) was common. These were rectangular in plan, with flat roofs and walls that slope outward to the ground. By the end of the 2nd Dynasty, royal tombs were subterranean chambers cut deeply into the stone, accessed by stairways, with mastaba structures above them. The 3rd Dynasty saw the true pyramid-shaped superstructure take form, first as a stepped pyramid (successive tiers of mastabas built upon one another and descending in size to the top; see photo above) and then as a true pyramid with smooth sides. The "Pyramid Age" reached its apex at the beginning of the 4th Dynasty with the construction of the pyramids at Dashur and Giza, but by the end of that dynasty, pyramids had become smaller until its last pharaoh, Shepseskaf, reverted to the mastaba shape for his tomb. Though pyramids would again be built in the 5th Dynasty, they would be of inferior quality and materials. Pyramid tombs remained popular through the 13th Dynasty, though none would rival those of the Pyramid Age in size or endurance. By the 18th Dynasty and on, following several pyramid revivals, royal tombs had largely become underground tombs with no superstructure.

The pyramid did not exist as an isolated structure. It represented only one element, though a primary one, of the pyramid complex. Other elements commonly included a satellite pyramid, other small pyramids for queens, a mortuary temple, a valley temple, and a causeway between them, and also offering shrines, funerary boat pits, and mastaba tombs for other family members and nobles. The main complex was surrounded by a temenos wall and was frequently a part of a larger necropolis, or "city of the dead." Thus, its location was another indication that the pyramid was intended as a tomb.

In the 5th Dynasty, beginning with perhaps Unas, the walls of pyramid chambers were decorated with the Pyramid Texts, a collection of utterances that served as spells with certain functions for the dead (such as protection from harm, various rituals performed at the royal funeral, etc.) These text would later become the Coffin Texts and finally the Book of the Dead that was placed with the deceased. The purpose of these utterances, wrote W. Stevenson Smith, were "to aid the king in the transition between his earthly functions and the position which he was to assume amongst the gods after death." (The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt, p. 440 n. 31). Such texts are clear indications of the pyramid's funerary function. Smith added that "the function of the pyramid temple, on the basis of its architecture, wall reliefs, statuary, and relevant inscriptions, is the promotion of the corporeal afterlife of the dead king through the funerary cult, his continued victories over his enemies in the hereafter, the continuance of his kingship, and his deification, all achieved through the building and decoration programme of the pyramid complex." (P. 440, n. 31)

Another reason why Egyptologists believe that pyramids were tombs is because the ancient Egyptian record explicitly states as much. For example, the Papyrus Abbott describes the inspection of "sepulchers of former kings" under Ramesses IX. The pyramid of 17th Dynasty Sobekemsaf II was inspected:

It was found, that the thieves had broken into it by mining work through the base of its pyramid, from the outer chamber of the tomb of the overseer of the granary of King Menkheperre (Thutmose III), L.P.H., Nebamon. The burial-place of the king was found void of its lord, L.P.H., as well as the burial-place of the great king's-wife, Nubkhas, L.P.H., his royal wife; the thieves having laid their hand upon them. The vizier, the nobles, and the inspectors made an examination of it, and the manner in which the thieves had laid their hands upon this king and his royal wife, was ascertained. [Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, IV.517]

Much has been made of the fact that of all the pyramids of Egypt that have ever been explored, never once has the mummy of a pharaoh been found within. Mummy parts have been found in pyramids. Such discoveries include part of a mummified foot in the pyramid of Djoser; a right arm, skull fragments, and various other bones in the pyramid of Unas; an arm and shoulder in the pyramid of Teti; fragments of a mummy in the pyramid of Pepi I; mummy wrappings in the pyramid of Pepy II, and charred bones in the pyramid of Amenemhet III. In the center satellite pyramid of Menkaure, Perring and Vyse found a skeleton of a young woman in the sarcophagus within. They also found, in the main pyramid, part of a wooden coffin believed to be Menkaure's along with some mummy fragments. But never has an extant mummy been found in any pyramid, nor have any parts of a mummy been identified with certainty as those of a king. Critics of the pyramid-as-tomb theory claim that such mummy parts, rather than being detritus left after the robbers hacked away the mummies for jewels and gold, represent parts left from intrusive burials made long after the pyramid was built. Burials of this type are common in areas and tombs around the various pyramids.

The absence of mummies has invited all manner of odd theories about the pyramids' function. It has been claimed that they served as power plants, water pumps, astronomical observatories, sources of ill-defined "pyramid power" energy vortices, guidance beacons for alien spacecraft, and sites of mystery initiation ceremonies. In order to hold such a view, however, it is necessary to ignore the provenance of the pyramid and its place in the context of the overall pyramid complex and necropolis.

"To suppose that the pyramid's only function in ancient Egypt was as a royal tomb," wrote Miroslav Verner, "would be an oversimplification." (The Pyramids, p. 45) Alexander Badawy observed that "The main incentive in the evolution of the tomb was the fear from plunderers." (A History of Egyptian Architecture, p. 37) It is notable that some kings had more than one tomb; indeed, some had more than one pyramid. Amenemhet III, for example, had two pyramids built for himself, one at Dahshur (containing his granite sarcophagus) and one at Hawara (containing his quartzite sarcophagus). There is a type of tomb called a cenotaph (from the Greek kenotaphion, or literally, "empty tomb"), a symbolic false tomb never intended to be a repository for the king's actual material body. The cenotaph served every function as a real tomb, and also provided an additional location for the perpetuity of the king's funerary cult. Taking all these factors into consideration, one might be tempted to conclude that, if the pyramids were not meant to be the literal tombs of the pharaohs, they were meant to be cenotaphs, and the king's mummy was buried elsewhere.

In any case, that the pyramids were tombs is clear, and to deny this observation is to ignore a substantial body of corroborating evidence.


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  5. I know that Egyptology has never been able to make a casing stones or even one face of a casing stone like the one at the Great Pyramid. I know that Egyptology has never lifted a 16 ton payload one inch! There is a 50,000 Dollar reward for anyone or any group who can make 5 casing stones and move them in the way Egyptologists say it was done her eis the link:

  6. I should be thankful now for all those layoffs and redundancies. Thanks for the pointers.