About Egyptian Pyramids
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston
The problems related to material movement for pyramid building has been much discussed and debated. Lifting huge blocks of stone, some weighing many tons, has inspired Egyptologists, enthusiasts and uninformed laymen to speculate on theories ranging from space alien assistance to the use of gigantic kites. However, it is also essential to understand that these problems not only involve lifting the material, but also the high rate of delivery and placement of the material in some of the largest of the pyramids. Many of the theories, including those proposed by scholars, often attempt to reduce these problems to a simple answer, but modern research, as well as common sense, seem to suggest that such solutions are not to be found. The ancient Egyptians fairly consistently built pyramids for a thousand years, in various locations and utilizing a number of different structural designs. It is highly probable, considering these factors along with archaeological evidence, that the means of lifting blocks and other material varied considerably.
Early historians attempted to explain the means in which the ancient Egyptians lifted materials used in the pyramids. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, relates to us that:
"At first, it (the pyramid) was built with steps, like a staircase....The stones intended for use in constructing the pyramids were lifted by means of a short wooden scaffold. In this way they were raised from the earth to the first step of the staircase; there they were laid on another scaffold, by means of which they were raised to the second step. Lifting devices were provided for each step, in case these devices were not light enough to be easily moved upward from step to step once the stone had been removed from them. I have been told that both methods were used, and so I mention them both here. The finishing-off was begun at the top, and continued downward to the lowest level."
However, in his Bibliotheca, the ancient scholar, Diodorus Siculus, provides another view of how the ancient Egyptians lifted construction material:
"It is said that the stone was brought over a great distance, from Arabia, and that the construction was undertaken with the help of ramps, since at that time cranes had not yet been invented."
A Straight-on Ramp Shown Growing with the Pyramid
Today, much of the scholarly work regarding material placement in pyramids revolves around the use of ramps, as per Siculus, with perhaps some of the smaller masonry also being lifted into place with other ancient lifting devices such as those of Herodotus. Egyptologists, with their careful analysis of pyramid sites in Egypt, leave us very few alternatives beyond these types of devices, so the main questions asked by scholars today is what form the ramps took, and what sort of other simple lifting devices might have been employed for smaller objects.
Ramps are generally considered to have been the main lifting devices for heavy material. While lifting devices such as pseudo pulleys and wooden levers were likely known in ancient Egypt, it has not been demonstrated that these tools could lift the massive stones of the great pyramids, which sometimes weighed as much as fifty or more tons. Yet there are many different theories regarding what shape ramps may have taken, and there sometimes appears to be flaws in most any such design. However, today we know that ramps were definitely used at least in some pyramids, because we have discovered a number of ramps at various pyramid sites, along with some documentation that would suggest the use of ramps.
Remains of ramps have been discovered at Meidum, Dahshur, Abu Ghurab and Abusir, thus supporting the claims of Siculus. Notable also are the Sinki pyramid at South Abydos and the Sekhemkhet pyramid where ramp remains, and even complete ramps have been discovered. Other ramp remains may have also been discovered at Giza, where excavators from the Cairo University excavated two parallel walls that may have formed the retaining framework of a ramp.
The ramp theory is further supported, at least circumstantially, by documents featuring mathematical problems connected with construction projects, and ramps in particular. In general, it is assumed that ramps used to lift the giant blocks had an outside wall and framework made of mudbricks, with an interior filled with sand and other rubble, and perhaps covered with clay. However, beyond these basic specifications, Egyptologists differ considerably on their views of what such a ramp might have looked like. Complicating this matter further, it also seems that at different pyramid locations, different types of ramps might have been used. For example, in some places more room was available to construct such ramps than at other locations, so it is likely that the general design of these ramp systems may have varied simply due to necessity.
For example, Uvo Holscher, a German architect and archaeologist who conducted excavations on the pyramid of Khafre at Giza, assumed that a ramp was constructed on each of the four sides of the pyramid, zigzagging upward from one corner to the other as the construction process continued. The complaint with this system, voiced specifically by Miroslav Verner, is that the ramp would not have been large enough to deliver the quantities of stone required during the construction of the lower and middle parts of the pyramid. Lehner may also have problems with model (see below). Dows Dunham and W. Vose, both American researchers, modified Uvo Holscher's ideas, theorizing a ramp that spiraled around the whole structure, but this system faces the same problems as that of Holscher's theory. The ramp would most probably not have been large enough to to move massive amounts of material, and would have also decreased in size considerably before reaching the top of the pyramid. Another Researcher, Goyon, does provide a somewhat more viable ramp theory. He pictures a single ramp that does not go around the whole structure. His model is wide enough to support several ox teams going and coming from the construction, and at the same time, leaves all four corners of the pyramid visible for ongoing measurements. However, even his ramp would have grown narrower towards the top of the pyramid, and would have been extremely long. Such a ramp would have been much more useful to build smaller rather than larger pyramids.
Petrie, the famous English archaeologist and founder of modern archaeological excavation techniques, spent considerable time researching the pyramids. In his view, there was a single, vertical ramp built, with bricks and sand, as well as round wooden beams, on only one side of the pyramid. It would have been extended as the structure grew, and its mass would have been as great if not greater then that of the pyramid itself. With Petrie's model, the ramp would have been extremely long, as it reached the top of the pyramid. Furthermore, such a ramp would have required an enormous amount of material, and would have required considerable resources to build, not to mention dismantle. Modern Egyptologists have mostly only modified the older theories concerning ramps. Dieter Arnold believed, as did Petrie, that a single ramp was utilized, but rather than ending at the edge of the pyramid, continued into the interior of the structure, thereby employing a part of the actual pyramid within the ramp system. Unfortunately, his theory does not explain how the upper part of the pyramid was finished, though it would have certainly cut down on the amount of material and labor required to construct such a ramp.
Jean-Philippe Lauer, a leading expert on the pyramids, provided a theory that seems to be acceptable, at least in part, to many Egyptologists. He suggests that both ramps and other lifting devices were used to build the Great Pyramid, which his theory specifically addresses. He believes that a whole system of ramps were utilized. These ramps would have been of various sizes and gradients. However, he also believes that additional tools and lifting devices would have been used, including wooden levers, round beams, poles and ropes.
Borchardt style Ramp
His model assumes four large frontal ramps, one running vertically up each side of the pyramid. A final ramp would have run, in the case of the Great Pyramid, directly to the stone quarries in the area. This last ramp would have at first been fairly short, with an easy gradient, but as the pyramid rose, the ramp would have been extended towards the south to a length of about 300 meters. At this stage, the ramp would have been about 35 meters high on the north end, where it could have been used to construct the great Gallery, the higher King's Chamber, and even the relief chambers built above that. However, to actually move the largest of the stone blocks, weighing up to 60 tons, he believes that smaller ramps were built into the actual core of the pyramid. Once the huge blocks were moved to the top of the ramp, Lauer believes that a system of counterweights made of sacks of sand were used to position the stone blocks. Finally, the upper part of the pyramid would have been finished off using the long ramp. Its gradient would have been gradually increased while its width was decreased. However, with a slope of about 14 degrees, the ramp would have still allowed blocks weighing as much as a ton to be raised to a height of about 112 meters. As the angle increased further to about 18 degrees, blocks weighing around kilograms could have been raised to about 136 meters. He further assumes that the pyramidion, which weighed between five and six tons, would have been set in place using a system of wooden trestles, heavy greased beams, thick ropes and counterweights.
Per N. Hampikian, suggestions for Pyramidion placement
Even here, problems persist. Lauer himself calculated that the rubble and other material used in the ramp would have a mass of some 1.5 million cubic meters. Combined with the mass of the pyramid itself, over four million cubic meters of material would need to have been found, moved and raised. This represents an enormous project even by modern standards. Lehner, another modern scholar and certainly an expert on the Giza Plateau, suggests against Lauer's view, that the ramp was not linear but spiral, and that it began in the local stone quarry for the Great Pyramid just to the southeast. Interestingly, Verner complains that for either Lauer or Lehner's solution, a great deal of material used in the ramp would have to be disposed somewhere, but he fails to mention the millions of cubic meters of limestone chips, gypsum sand and Tafla clay that covered the quarry used for Khufu's pyramid (pointed out by Lehner). In support of his theory on spiral ramps, at least in regard to the Great Pyramid, Mark Lehner suggests that a single, straight-on ramp would have soon extended beyond the quarry, if oriented in that direction, in order to maintain a usable slope as the pyramid grew taller. He also notes that such a ramp would not have been built to the east or west of the pyramid because Khufu built cemeteries in those areas early in his reign.
Essentially therefore, we know that ramps were used to lift the stones used to construct many of the pyramids. It is very probable that the ramp designs may have varied from pyramid to pyramid, dependent on the size of the pyramid, the material used to construct the pyramid, and the location of the pyramid, particularly relating to the space available for ramp construction. Whether other lifting devices were used is less clear, but certainly the Egyptians seem to have had such devices, and probably utilized them for lifting lighter building material. Regardless, what is clear is that a set, standard method for building ramps and using other devices to lift the pyramid construction materials did not exist throughout the Old and Middle Kingdoms of Egypt. Future excavations may tell us more about pyramid construction, but as is very often the case, there are simply no simple answers to the complex question.