How Did The Pyramids Get Built

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We talk a lot about processes here at Process Street and we try to give insight into not only how to make current processes better but also into how processes have evolved over time and why.

We’ve looked at case studies, poor processes, optimized processes, and technical guides to business process management. But we’re no stranger to going back in time to explore the development of processes and where they came from.

Historical development

In this article, we’re going to follow up on the theme established in our post on surgical processes and look at processes and organizational systems in history. This is the story of ancient Egypt. The Great Pyramid is considered one of the wonders of the world.

But how did it come to be? We’ll look at a number of the classic discussions surrounding the construction of the pyramids, but focus on how a society which existed nearly 5000 years ago was able to construct some of the greatest and most iconic monuments known to humankind.

What was the Great Pyramid and how was it built? Who built the Great Pyramid and what was labor like throughout the period of construction? How were things organized in ancient Egypt?; Or, how to count from one to ten. What do we know about trade in ancient Egypt? Who were the scribes and why were they important? Ancient Egypt is one of the first civilized societies for which we have an understanding of their perceptions of organization and management.

Spoiler alert: they used checklists! Throughout this article we’ll have a couple of historical methodological issues to deal with. The most obvious being that we cannot be wholly certain that all historical occurrences belong to the same period of time. The ancient Egyptians have had a civilization existing continuously for thousands of years, and one could even argue continuity to the modern day.

The Heated Debate Over How The Pyramids Were Built

The same baking practices, for example, that we find evidence of 3000 years ago still occur in modern Cairo if you look hard enough. As such, we need to ground our investigation in a certain period of time and accept that some of our findings might span time periods slightly before or slightly after our chosen area.

We’ll focus broadly on the time period encompassing the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza; one of the most studied and revered Egyptian monuments. This puts us firmly into the Pharaonic period, not the Ptolemaic period. Distinctions are important. The Great Pyramid is sometimes known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops. It’s classified as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and was believed to have been built around 2500BC as a tomb for the fourth dynasty Pharaoh Khufu – hence the name.

Why was the pyramid at Giza so impressive? And why is it worth us thinking about? Craig Smith points out:. The logistics of construction at the Giza site are staggering when you think that the ancient Egyptians had no pulleys, no wheels, and no iron tools.

Yet, the dimensions of the pyramid are extremely accurate and the site was leveled within a fraction of an inch over the entire 13.1-acre base. This is comparable to the accuracy possible with modern construction methods and laser leveling. That’s astounding.

With their ‘rudimentary tools,’ the pyramid builders of ancient Egypt were about as accurate as we are today with 20th-century technology. In short, the Egyptians achieved things architecturally which we would struggle to do without modern technology.

This required a level of labor force which dwarfs what modern day construction teams would need for comparable projects.

The Enigma Of How The Pyramids Were Built

Their organization and management would have needed to have been incredible to simply pull this effort off. For context, let’s look at a couple of features of the construction process which may or may not have played a role in the creation of the pyramids. Academics are still not fully decided on which options are most probable, but these are some hotly discussed issues:. The stones involved in the building of the pyramids were not little bricks or lightweight breezeblocks.

The bricks in the pyramid vary in size but the largest can be found in the King’s chamber. These particular stones differ from the regular limestone blocks and were instead made of granite, weighing between 25 to 80 tonnes.

Some believe the granite slabs were transported from Aswan, a town nearly 500 miles away. Whether limestone bricks or granite slabs, the Egyptians required a way to transport the materials over land. The leading theory as to how this would have been achieved lies in rolling the stones using a cradle-like machine.

This suspended the rocks and allowed them to be rolled by a team of workers. Experiments done by the Obayashi Corporation, with concrete blocks 0.8 m square by 1.6 m long and weighing 2.5 tons, showed how 18 men could drag the block over a 1-in-4 incline ramp, at a rate of 18 meters per minute. There is a general consensus that this method may have been effective in transporting 2.5 tonne limestone blocks, but it is difficult to find archeological evidence to suggest it would have been used for the 80 tonne granite slabs.

Organize like an Egyptian

This theory is elucidated in Dick Parry’s text Engineering the Pyramids, but not everyone is in complete agreement about the effectiveness of this method. Corinna Rossi, in the Dutch paleontology and egyptology journal PalArch, presents her misgivings with Parry’s argument as presented in his book:. Undoubtedly, Dick Parry’s method works: it is certainly true that rolling a block up a slope is easier than dragging it.

Concerning in general ancient Egypt and in particular the pyramids, the problem is that there is no archaeological evidence that may confirm that such a method was ever used. Finally, there is absolutely no pictorial or textual evidence that their function was to roll objects, nor that any object was ever rolled around in ancient Egypt.

In fact, one wonders, if such a system was so successfully adopted to build the most famous Old Kingdom pyramids, why was not it widely employed also in the New Kingdom? Apart from symbolic representations that show, for instance, the king erecting obelisks by himself, the few realistic scenes that have survived showing blocks being moved around (e.g. from the tomb of Rekhmira at Thebes, or the scene from Tura mentioned in Parry’s book) depict ramps and sledges. To bind the rocks together, the Egyptians used mortar much like in modern building processes. Evidence points to the Egyptians using gypsum mortar – also known as plaster of Paris – in constructing pyramids during the Pharaonic period.

The first Egyptologist to identify this method was Alfred Lucas in 1926. Further studies have confirmed these results and point increasingly to the complex production process required to manufacture this mortar, particularly en masse.

Coppola, Taccia, and Tedeschi outline this process in their 2013 paper Analysis and Conservation of Ancient Egyptian gypsum-based binders and mortars from the temple of Ramesses II in Antinoe.

The End of the Pyramid Era

The Ramesses II temple is somewhat later than our Great Pyramid, but we can be confident similar methods were in place. Preliminary investigations (statistic and typological) on macroscopic characters allowed the identification of 12 different types of mortar: mortars for laying of blocks (5), inner integration plasters (3), outer coating plasters (4).

These different mortars all had slightly different compositions depending on what purpose they were meant to serve. Outer cladding required different strengths to mortars used to bind blocks.

Depending on the need, other ground stones may be added to the mixture, or the mortars were treated at different temperatures. The general process would have looked like this:. The constructive culture of Pharaonic Egypt is characterized by the production of binders obtained from the firing of sulphate rocks.

The low-temperature processing is undoubtedly one of the main driving factors. At temperatures as low as 110-160°C calcium sulfate dihydrate (CaSO4·2H2O) loses water and turns into hemihydrate (bassanite, CaSO4·½ H2O) in two forms α and β.

Who Built The Pyramids?

Between 170°-300°C, the dehydration is complete and anhydrous gypsum or soluble anhydrite (CaSO4) appears. The production process would have been vast and complex with huge furnaces all working to different exact specifications aiming to produce industrial quantities of the mortars required. This wasn’t simply a case of putting blocks on top of one another like legos.

So, we have some idea now of how rocks were possibly transported across land and how these structures were held together, but how were they pieced together to create this complex structure without cranes and modern machines?

Multiple theories exist, but two prevalent ones are centred around ramps.

We can find the roots of these theories in the earliest remaining writings on Egyptian construction techniques.

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus describes the following:. And ’tis said the stone was transported a great distance from Arabia, and that the edifices were raised by means of earthen ramps, since machines for lifting had not yet been invented in those days; and most surprising it is, that although such large structures were raised in an area surrounded by sand, no trace remains of either ramps or the dressing of the stones, so that it seems not the result of the patient labor of men, but rather as if the whole complex were set down entire upon the surrounding sand by some god.

Diodorus Siculus goes on to explain that he believes the workforce built and then dismantled ramps, explaining how they were able to build the pyramid and why we have little evidence of ramps leftover. However, it is dangerous to put too much faith in ancient historians writing, as we are, thousands of years after the event.

After all, another Greek historian Herodotus describes a wholly different technique:. This pyramid was made like stairs, which some call steps and others, tiers. When this, its first form, was completed, the workmen used short wooden logs as levers to raise the rest of the stones; they heaved up the blocks from the ground onto the first tier of steps; when the stone had been raised, it was set on another lever that stood on the first tier, and the lever again used to lift it from this tier to the next.

Some historians posit external ramps around the pyramid allowing for blocks to be dragged upwards on the kinds of sledges Rossi mentioned in her quote above.