The science behind the pyramids

The pyramids of Egypt are incredible feats of engineering and construction, especially considering how long ago they were built. The Pyramid of Khufu – AKA the Great Pyramid of Giza – was built 4,500 years ago, but remains today mostly intact and as sturdy as it was upon construction. Naturally, people are consistently puzzled by just how an ancient society was able to build such a large structure with the technology of the day, and how they were able to build with such a high level of accuracy. This has been the subject of debate for decades, with several explanations being offered for how the ancient Egyptians managed such a feat. Although a lot of aspects of the construction lack a definitive answer, our understanding has improved to the point that there are some explanations which seem to offer us a glimpse at the truth.


Moving the stone

One of the most common queries about how the pyramids were built centers around the ability of the ancient Egyptians to move the stones that make up the pyramids. After all, the blocks that make up the structure can range from 1.5 tons to an incredible 80 tons – so how were they moved during a time in Egyptian history when the wheel wasn’t even in common use? Well, the answer seems to lie with water. It is now believed that the blocks were placed on a sled, and that the ground in front of these sleds was dampened with water, to make them easier to drag. Hieroglyphs can be seen depicting this process, with workers dragging blocks and statues on a sled while someone pours water onto the sand. When the right amount of water is poured on sand, it forms tiny liquid bridges between the sand grains, which would have reduced the friction immensely and made it much easier to move the stones.

Build in the right direction

One of the most interesting things about the pyramids is their positioning. The pyramid of Khufu – along with numerous other pyramids the ancient Egyptians built – lies with its sides almost perfectly aligned with the cardinal directions of North, East, South, and West. The level of accuracy achieved in aligning them this way is remarkable, with the pyramids being accurate to 1/15 of 1 degree. Given that the compass would not be invented for another 2,000 years, people are often perplexed as to how the Egyptians achieved this accurate an alignment. However, ancient civilizations were amply capable of working out the cardinal directions without a compass, and there are several theories as to how this was achieved. One theory posits that the ancient Egyptians might have used the movement of polar stars to gauge these directions – charting their rise and fall throughout the night to garner a reading. There is also a method that involves using a rod to chart the progress of a shadow during the fall equinox, which produces a line that runs almost perfectly from east to west.


Ramping things up

One of the most enduring mysteries around the pyramid is just how the blocks were moved upward to build the structure – a question that becomes more mysterious the higher you go on building. There have been numerous explanations for how the ancient Egyptians were able to lift stone blocks up the pyramids – with most scientists accepting that ramps would have been used, although the exact shape of these ramps is not agreed upon. One quite convincing method for moving the blocks themselves has arisen though, suggested by Joseph West from Indiana State University. West has suggested that wooden rods may have been attached in groups to each side of a block, changing its shape. This change would have made it possible for just one person to move a stone block – as such this offers a concrete answer and makes the actual movement of the blocks a much less mysterious process.