Sliding Stones

New study explores the transportation of pyramid blocks in ancient Egypt

A depiction of workers moving a colossal statue in the tomb of Djehutihotep shows one worker pouring water in front of the sledge. Could this shed light on the movement of pyramid stones?

A depiction of workers moving a colossal statue in the tomb of Djehutihotep shows one worker pouring water in front of the sledge. Could this shed light on the movement of pyramid stones?

So many scholars have come up with divergent theories on how the great pyramids were built—from internal and external ramps of all shapes and sizes to suggestions that the pyramid stones were actually concrete—that sometimes it feels like the story of the Egyptologist who cried wolf. The construction has been scrutinized from every angle: Were these pyramids built by slaves? How did the pharaoh feed this massive workforce? How did the pyramid builders lift these massive stones? And finally, how were the stones transported to the site?

University of Amsterdam physicists recently addressed the final question in a recent study published in Physical Review Letters. By wetting the sand in front of sledges carrying heavy stones, Egyptians were able to reduce friction and pull the large objects more easily. Wet sand is more stiff than dry sand, as water droplets bind grains together; the Physical Review Letters introduction notes that “everyone who has been to the beach will know that dry sand doesn’t make good sandcastles—the grains slump into a puddle when the bucket is lifted. Adding water can solve this problem: the grains stick and the castle holds its shape.”
 


 
The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.
 

 
A wall painting from Egypt’s 12th dynasty show workers transporting a colossal statue; on the front of the sledge, a worker pours water into the sand. The Egyptians were well-adapted to manipulating the granular desert environment around them, and modern physicists are just starting to put together the science behind Egyptian techniques. Maybe someday we’ll be able to build sandcastles to the scale of the Great Pyramids.

Read more in phys.org and in Physical Review Letters.
 


 
How were stones moved in ancient Israel? BAS Library Members can read Murray Stein’s article “How Herod Moved Gigantic Blocks to Construct Temple Mount” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review.

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  1. Rob says

    Cecil Blount DeMille made it look awful (maybe he reflects labor conditions in Hollywood at that time). Recent research makes it look like they were a bunch of skilled artisans employed for wages. I still wonder how an agrarian economy could manage such luxury.

  2. Shane says

    Rob, this method has been clear to Egyptologists for decades – since at least the early 20th century. They’ve also done experiments with actual stone blocks on liquid-lubricated sleds. As to how they afforded this, they had central organisation of taxation and massive agricultural surpluses, plus the population was effectively unable to access the farmland during the annual floods, so a combination of mouths to feed, lots of food and nuthin to do seems to have led to ability to carry out enormous projects.


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