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.