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Construction of the Pyramids

There are many theories relating to the construction of the pyramids at Giza. These theories range in subject from the way in which the stone was cut to the actual placing of the blocks.

The stone blocks were cut into huge pieces. Some say this was done through the use of wedges which were placed in sockets along the rock. The wooden wedges were then wet and they expanded, splitting the rock which would then be cut into smaller pieces. There has been debate over this method as the only evidence of this is in the New Kingdom but marks made by the wedges have been found on the backs of the roofing slabs of Menkaure’s burial chamber indicating this method was in use at least in the 4th dynasty.

Another method proposed as a way of splitting the rocks was to throw glowing embers onto the surface of the stone and quickly dowse this in water causing the rock to disintegrate at this point making it easier to carve blocks from the stone.

The stone was then transported by boat to the harbours built for receiving these stones. These harbours would eventually become the valley temple of the pyramid complex where the body was thought to be received after death and prepared for burial. From the harbour a ramp had been built, possibly using date palm trunks for stability and to spread the weight of the stones over a larger area. These trunks were covered in desert clay or mud and wet down constantly so the huge stones which were placed on sledges could be pulled easily by men harnessed onto the sledge. Evidence of this method is seen in the tomb of Ti, a 5th dynasty noble. Here we see a massive statue being pulled by many men on a sledge while one of the workers pours a liquid in front of the sledge. This ramp would later become the causeway which was covered and decorated with reliefs and led from the valley temple to the mortuary temple giving access to the funerary procession.

There are many theories concerning ramps and no one is able to accurately say which theory is correct but some are more feasible than others. One such theory is the helical ramp. A spiralling platform which winds its way around the pyramid until it is completed and is then removed to place the facing stones. This theory was tested by Mark Lehner, an Egyptologist, who built a 30 foot pyramid on the Giza Plateau using a spiral ramp, he also found that the huge stones which weighed an average of 2.5 tons would slide easily on wet desert clay using only 10-12 men. Henri Chevrier also experimented with large stones and found the theory of wet clay or mud worked well. Gustave Goyon agrees with Lehner's theory of a spiral ramp but he also suggests that all pyramids were built in the step method giving a good foundation for the ramps to run from one step to another.

However, there are problems with the helical ramp. Some believe it would prevent constant surveying as it obscures the corners of the pyramid, but this could be overcome by building platforms at each corner enabling the handling of the massive stones around the corners. Others believe the helical ramp would not have been stable as there is evidence the pyramids were not originally stepped, as Goyon believed, thus there would be no foundation for such a ramp. The helical ramp is also disputed by Dieter Arnold who believes them to be unstable. He proposes an internal ramp which switched back on itself as the gradient became too high producing a series of ramps inside the pyramid. Another internal ramp suggested by some is that when the gradient became uncomfortable, that part of the ramp was roofed and stones and provisions were hauled through this corridor and onto the roof of the ramp, this proceeded until the highest courses were laid.

Lauer believes there was only one ramp built, as does Stadelmann, but Stadelmann also believes the first several courses were laid from mounds of sand or rubble and then the ramp was built. The problems with this theory are the gradient would become prohibitive and it would need constant repair, wasting resources and energy.

Some of these theories coincide with proposals as to how the interior of the pyramids were built. Some believe the workers and artisans who were working on the interior had their own separate ramps inside the pyramid which were brought to a higher level than the work on the exterior. Thus the interior chambers would be completed before the exterior. This is possibly illustrated by the fact that Khufu's sarcophagus was placed inside the burial chamber before the pyramid was completed, probably through the roof.

There is also debate over the workers. Some believe that they were slaves made to build the monuments, but there is a dearth of evidence of slavery from the Old Kingdom. The fact that few supervisors are depicted overseeing the workers indicates they were there willingly. The probable source of so many workers was the peasant farmers who were idle during the months of the inundation. Although, some believe the building of pyramids continued year round, as by the 3rd dynasty side canals had been dug giving access to the valley buildings. The king used the construction as a way of unifying and stabilising the country, bringing about a sense of pride in their nation. It also gave the peasants purpose while they were usually idle and provided food when it was scarce. The projects were seen as a kind of insurance against famine and also possibly a form of taxation.

The accuracy with which the blocks were laid and the pyramid placed has been explained in several ways. Mark Lehner discovered sockets alongside a pyramid he proposes were used for stakes with a line between giving a level. It is also thought that a series of trenches in a grid-like pattern and filled with water was used to level the site, evidence of these grids can be found near the pyramid of Khafre.

Finally, methods of lifting the blocks of stone is also debated. It is thought that a simple combination of wood and rope could have been used or wooden cradles used to rock the stone, models of such can be found in museums today. Ludwig Croon suggests a device similar to the shaduf was used but this was not in general use until the New Kingdom. Another suggestion is a fan-like device which could be used by several men at the same time.

All of these theories relate to the actual construction of the pyramids and that construction took a certain shape. This shape is also a bone of contention between scholars as there are many different views. The pyramids were placed almost exactly in relation to the compass points. It is thought such accuracy was obtained through astral observations. The entrances were placed in the northern side to allow the spirit or ‘ka’ to reach The Imperishables where the king became a part of the heavens. All offering places were positioned so that anyone placing an offering would be facing the west, the road to the underworld. The shape of the pyramid has been related to the sun god Re and his association with the afterlife.

All or none of these theories could be true. Debate will continue until there is more substantial evidence documenting the construction of the pyramids than there is today.

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Copyright Sherrie Thompson 1999
all rights reserved

Posted 4 May 1999