The Great Pyramid Mystery

I was puzzled by what the old Greek historian Herodotus wrote on the construction of the Great Pyramid.

He visited Egypt in about 450 BC and talked with the old priests there and heard their account of the construction of the pyramids. That was at least a thousand years after Pharoah Cheops had built his pyramid but it is the oldest account that has come down to us and has to be taken pretty seriously. Those stones weighed about two and a half tons and were transported for miles after they were quarried, by barge and then over land. How?

The Great Pyramid didn’t look then like it does now. It wasn’t a pile of steps but a perfect geometrical pyramid that shone in the sun. It was polished. After the big building blocks were set up as we see them today, they were covered with a layer of flat slabs and polished till they shone.
Herodotus had known that. What he hadn’t known, and what surprised him, was what he learned about the road the Egyptian engineers had built for hauling the stones to the construction site. IT TOO WAS POLISHED!

“For ten years the people were afflicted in making the road whereon the stones were dragged, the making of which road was to my thinking a task only a little lighter than the building of the pyramid, for the road is five furlongs long and ten fathoms broad, and raised at its highest to a height of eight fathoms, and it is all of stone polished and carved with figures. Those ten years went to the making of this road and of the underground chambers of the hill the pyramids stand on….” (Herodotus, pp. 425-426 Loeb Classical Library, translated by A.D.Godley)

Now, I had seen how men moved blocks in a stoneyard and I assumed that the Egyptians had done the same: that they hadn’t dragged those big blocks of theirs but used rollers and planks. The problem I saw was the rollers. Probably, though not surely, the huge stones would have crushed wooden rollers or logs. And I wasn’t even sure if bronze rollers could take that weight without being flattened. Later I learned that the Bronze Age hadn’t yet begun at the time of the building—that only copper instruments were used—so I had to throw out the idea of metal rollers altogether.

Then I read Herodotus and got the surprise, the same as he had. Why had they polished the road to the pyramid? It couldn’t be that they dragged the stones over that polished avenue—that they polished thousands of square feet of pavement with the aim of smoothing the dragging of the blocks—to reduce friction. Anyone, at any stage of human inventions, can see that to reduce friction you have to get the stone OFF the ground, not polish the ground. And if they used rollers of some kind and planks, the smooth surface of the road would actually hinder the hauling. You wouldn’t want the planks on the ground to slide around but stay put while the stone rolled over them. And how could the poor slaves and oxen that pulled the stones get a firm foothold on that slippery road?

But Herodotus seems not to have thought of the problem. What awed him was the vastness of the project and the results. Perhaps he took for granted what I discovered later while reading a modern study of the pyramids: that the Egyptians, like the people who carried the boulders to Stonehenge, must have hauled their stones ON SLEDS. That is how they reduced the drag and pulled their stones down that polished avenue. Only the tracks of the sleds were in contact with the pavement and its smoothness did make the pulling easier.

Yet then wasn’t the polish unnecessary? Wasn’t it still an impediment to the pulling? The men and oxen would slide all over the place unless they worked off the polished road, to one side of the stone. They would pull a little left and right of the block, the way mules used to pull barges on canals from the paths along the banks. But the road—ten “fathoms” wide—was no dinky canal or creek, so pulling from its shoulder or berm would have meant doing so at a great angle, thus losing effectiveness.

I re-read my Herodotus and found the solution:
“Cheops compelled all the Egyptians to work for him, appointing to some to drag the stones from the quarries in the Arabian mountains to the Nile: and the stones being carried across the river in boats, others were charged to receive and drag them to the mountains called Lybian.” Ibid., p.425

I realized that the polished road leading up to the Great Pyramid was only the last bit of work, the last “mile”. The real feat was bringing—dragging—those blocks up and down the mountains, where the roads were surely not polished or even paved. If the workmen were able to perform that feat, using sleds or any other means, they had solved the problem of transporting big stones. Without polishing their roads until they were slippery.

Conclusion: the broad avenue leading up to the Great Pyramid was polished after the blocks were hauled through on sleds, just as they had been hauled for hundreds of miles on other, worse roads. The polish Herodotus saw on that road had nothing to do with reducing friction: it was there as part of the vast general design and meant to dazzle.

See Egyptologist Mark Lehner’s theory that the great blocks were quarried not in the mountains but right at the foot of the Pyramid.


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15 Responses to The Great Pyramid Mystery

  1. 100swallows says:

    Henk: Thanks. Very interesting idea.

  2. Henk says:

    But see for the best Pyramid theory to date:

  3. hi!chrisforshort says:

    Maybe, those pyramids were really a part of a mountain or a hill..

    The first to have a cut on the mountain was King Khufu.
    He decided to have a “pyramid-like” tomb-temple because when he saw the stars, it was shaped like that (Maybe, Egyptians believed on stars). He planned his tomb to be diamond at the base and made it point to the star to which he saw, so that when he died he will become like that star. Then he ordered his engineer to start the work. The engineer decided to cut the pyramid at the center of the mountain because of its height. Then the stone materials that was part of the mountain before was used to cover the rough surface of the newly-cut pyramid. Then it was polished..Other Egyptian kings followed the plan of King Khufu..:) But when the Empire started to worhip Atum, the Sun God, their tomb was built at the Valley of the Kings. For the sun rises there..:) Note: I am just sharing my thoughts:)Sorry if it doesn’t convince you but only God and Time can tell you the true story of how the pyramids were built:)

  4. Paul Hai says:

    Rampless Egyptian Pyramid construction has a definite AUSTRALIAN connection.

    Captain Matthew Flinders navigated and mapped Australia’s coastline. His grandson became Professor Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie who excavated ancient Egyptian artifacts. In 1895 as an employee of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) of London he was excavating artifacts at Deir el-Bahari and found a cache of ancient building equipment buried for preservation in a hewn out rock pit during Pharaonic times.

    One of the wooden items is stated as being of “unidentified use” and has been named the “Petrie rocker” by Egyptologists.

    Petrie considered the “rocker” was used to raise Pyramid blocks with a “rocking” motion and in 2006 he has been proven partly correct on the matter of raising Pyramid blocks using “rockers”.

    The “rocker” is a component of an ancient Egyptian pulley which operates with a mechanical advantage of 2.8 and with CLASS 2 lever principle as a wheelbarrow does. (CLASS 2 lever: Pivot – Load – Effort).

    The technical term for the “Petrie rocker” is “pinion-pulley lobe quadrant”. Four of these surround a Pyramid block and then the pulley is hoisted causing rotation and positive engagements of pulley lobes with Pyramid steps.

    Consider the Pyramid as four RACKS of stone teeth on to which the PINION pulley lobes engage and here is the earliest form of RACK & PINION mechanics that we know of.

    This is the ancient method of Pyramid construction as used on at least four large Pyramids: Sneferu’s RED Pyramid and those at Giza of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure.

    This ancient method of construction DOES NOT REQUIRE RAMPS and uses the Pyramid under construction (using all four sides simultaneously) to complete the Pyramid, thus using a Pyramid to build a Pyramid.

    Petrie died in Jerusalem in 1942 unknowing that “Petrie rockers” are components of an ancient pulley, unlike any pulley in the modern world, and his most important excavation.

  5. SOHAILA says:

    I am egyptain.I see that the pyramids are the hart of eygpt

  6. Paul Hai says:

    From Australia a complete rampless Giza Pyramid construction theory emerged in August of 2006 and published in 2007. The author is a mechanical engineering tradesman. Ramps are not mentioned in ancient records, however wooden machines are and these are fully explained. The website, provides some detail, however the complete work is in a 121 page book, titled ‘Raising Stone 1: Paul Hai’s racks & pinions theory’ – ISBN 9780646476797.

  7. cltsrok128 says:

    thanks for info!!!!

  8. 100swallows says:

    Thanks again, krys. I’d like to see some of that ancient artwork showing stones being transported in sledges and water being used to lubricate the road.

  9. Your welcome. hank you for taking a look at my blog, do let me know any ideas you have for it. All dates in Pharaonic history prior to the Late Period are only known from astronomical observations taken at the time. The Egyptians didn’t use an “absolute” dating system, but rather used the reginal years of the rulers, i.e. “Year 1 of Merenptah”, “Year 10 of Ahmose” etc. so they are approximate, given that we only have a few fixed points to work from when surviving astronomical records have been taken, and that some coronation and death dates are only estimated from the latest surviving inscriptions left by a particular ruler.

    However the generally accepted chronology of events has been narrowed down (particularly the early New Kingdom), and the 4th Dynasty dates are for the most part accurate to a matter of around 50 years(!).

    It may seem odd (it did to me at first), however Egyptian artwork does show sledges being lubricated with liquid in front when being used to haul heavy statues, so obviously they were onto something. Bear in mind this may also have the benefit not only of helping make a good slide but also may help the integrity of the sledge itself, swelling joints in the woodwork and bindings (bearing in mind the load on it) and also help keep down the dust while it’s hauled. In modern Egypt you will often find water being thrown on the street by shopkeepers and the householders to keep down the dust, and sometimes indoors as well.

  10. 100swallows says:

    Thank you, vincent. Your posts on how they built the pyramids are very clear and informative. That aerial view of Giza is particularly useful for us who haven’t been there.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, krys. I didn’t know that the construction date of the Great Pyramid had been so precisely established, or that the Tura quarries were just ten miles away from the building site. When was that determined? Water used as a lubricant for the sledges sounds like a pretty messy business. Imagine the pool that would collect below the ramp and how slippery or muddy the road would get for the men and oxen pulling. In fact, a thin layer of sand spread on the causeway might be even better. I had a look at your interesting blog and will go back soon to learn more.

  12. Vincent says:

    I’ve recently posted a series of articles on the subject of how the pyramids were built in which I cover Mark Lehner’s discovery of the worker’s city, the traditional ramp theory, the cement pyramid theory and a few others. Here it is if you’d like to read it: ‘Talking Pyramids’


  13. The approximate construction date for the Great Pyramid is around 2,550BCE, making it just over two thousand years prior to the time of Herodotus.

    The road the Herodotus mentions most likely refers to the causeway. Pyramids were merely the centrepieces of the funerary monument to the deceased Pharaoh. The complete complex consisted of the pyramid itself, a pyramid temple, located next to the pyramid itself, and a long causeway (a covered, raised road, more like an above ground tunnel) leading from these to the valley temple, located further away, nearer to the river.

    These causeways were indeed finished to a very high quality as there not intended for use in the construction. The enclosed nature would preclude it, and the construction ramp for the pyramid itself would have needed it’s own approach at a different angle, given the length of the ramp and it’s changing nature as the height of the structure increased. As you mention, the causeway was indeed built to dazzle, though it did service a practical purposes for use in the ceremonies – for taking the coffin, tomb goods and provisions from the barge to the pyramid complex, as well as for the use of the mortuary cult of the Pharaoh that would continue, in theory, forever.

    Although the causeway and both pyramid and valley temples of Khufu’s pyramid are now destroyed, the causeway of Khafra’s pyramid survives to some degree, and at Saqqara you can get a real idea of what they were like by looking at the causeway of Unas’ pyramid, which even has a small section of the roof remaining, with it’s “starry sky” decoration, though this was a much smaller complex that Khufu’s.

    Most of the material used in Khfu’s complex was Tura limestone, which was obtained from quarries located roughly 10 miles from the construction site, on the east bank of the Nile. It could be transported across the river on barges, then hauled on sledges, whose skies – and the ground in front – were lubricated (probably with water) to enable them to be moved more easily, and although not the hundreds of miles envisioned, the logistics involved are still breathtaking. There were other quarries also located nearby.

    Hope this is of interest.


  14. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, erika. I couldn’t find Professor Lehner’s well-written article in which he shows that the stones were not brought from the mountains. He discovered a quarry right near the Great Pyramid, and he thinks the stones removed from it are just the number needed for the pyramid. I saw a National Geographic CD once where he explained the theory in situ too and it sounded pretty convincing.
    I agree with you that the old methods must have been simple. Carpenters’ tools are a good example of old effectiveness. To drill holes in marble, for instance, the sculptors used a simple chisel and spun it with a bowstring.

  15. erikatakacs says:

    That’s a very good theory, Swallows. The carvings on the two side of the road support that theory greatly. All part of the grand design. Nice post!
    It would be interesting to find out for sure how those big blocks were hauled. I saw once a documentary of a modern day recreation attempt, it involved rollers made out of wood, they ran into all kinds of difficulties. Most of these recreation plans fail at the end, because modern day engineers come up with complicated tools and structures. I always think people in ancient times must have used some very simple but very effective tools. So simple, we can’t even think of it today.

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