Many aspects of pyramid construction still a mystery

  • Courtesy of the Field MuseumThe limestone block tomb of Unis-ankh, son of an Egyptian pharaoh, dates to 2400 B.C. and is part of the "Inside Ancient Egypt" exhibit at Chicago's Field Museum. Directions etched on his father's pyramid describe methods for transitioning from life into the afterlife.

    Courtesy of the Field MuseumThe limestone block tomb of Unis-ankh, son of an Egyptian pharaoh, dates to 2400 B.C. and is part of the "Inside Ancient Egypt" exhibit at Chicago's Field Museum. Directions etched on his father's pyramid describe methods for transitioning from life into the afterlife.

 
Posted9/20/2016 9:29 AM

"How was the pyramid of Giza made?," asked a Vernon Area Public Library District patron who attended a recent youth program. The library is in Lincolnshire.

The world's oldest inscribed papyrus journal was found just a few years ago in storage vaults at the world's oldest harbor. Discovered on Egypt's east coast near the Red Sea, the harbor was a stop for sailors whose ships transported copper and turquoise from nearby mines, and limestone tagged for the largest of Giza's pyramids -- the burial monument for the Pharaoh Khufu (also known by the Greek name Cheops).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The journal, written by inspector Merer, includes twice-a-day entries documenting activities by his staff of 200, dating back some 4,000 years ago. Discovered by archaeologists from the Sorbonne University in Paris and Cairo's French Institute, journal entries list food served to the workers including meat, fish, poultry and beer, and the details of the four-day trip to deliver limestone from the quarry to the pyramid construction site at Giza.

The ancient Egyptian civilization lasted from 3100 B.C. to 300 B.C. Egyptian life focused heavily on the afterlife -- and getting there in style drove pharaohs to create incredible tombs with multiple chambers and surrounding complexes. Burial chambers for the most important royals originally took on a step-back rectangular design, called a mastaba, and included chambers and tunnels like the familiar pyramid.

Around 2500 B.C., Pharaoh Snefru's architects constructed pyramid-shape tombs, but hadn't developed the techniques needed to create the three-dimensional triangle shape, resulting in a "bent" pyramid that tapers too quickly near the top.

Architects for Snefru's son, Khufu, perfected the angles and drafted one-to-one diagrams when building the Great Pyramid, Khufu's remarkable burial chamber at Giza.

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The Giza complex includes three pyramids: Khufu, the first and largest; Khafre (Khufu's son), set at the highest level; and Menkaure (Khufu's grandson). Surrounding communities were built with apartments and homes for possibly more than 20,000 people, with temples, a harbor basin and causeway. The face on the giant sphinx is believed to be Khafre's image. Not surprisingly, this complex built to celebrate the afterlife of kings also includes cemeteries for the pyramid builders.

The awe-inspiring Great Pyramid stands more than 44 stories high and is about a half mile in perimeter. Giant blocks created the base and accommodated the chambers and passages that would hold Khufu's mummy, organs and items needed for his ultimate journey to the afterlife. Highly polished casing stones faced the pyramid surface, each measuring 100 inches thick and weighing 15 tons. The brilliance possibly created a mirror-type finish, giving it the name Ikhet or "glorious light." Unfortunately, only a few remain in original slots, the result of an earthquake and looting over the centuries.

It took 10 to 20 years to build the Great Pyramid. First, the location was cleared and leveled. Gigantic limestone and granite blocks were carved from quarries. This civilization did not have wheels, so stone blocks were hauled on sledges across dampened sands and wooden rails and a pulley-type system hoisted stones up the pyramid while laborers tugged ropes downward. The pyramid point is made of a pyramid-shaped stone.

Many aspects of construction remain a mystery to today's architects, engineers and archaeologists. For example, the precision with which the pyramids are aligned on a north-south axis, possibly using the sun's angles to find the exact point of true north, has perplexed scholars. No one knows exactly what metal cut the gigantic blocks needed to construct the pyramids -- copper or iron.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Much of what is known about the pyramids comes from decades-long research conducted by Ancient Egypt Research Association or AERA, a joint program with U.S. and Egyptian scholars and archaeologists.

All of Egypt contributed to the pyramid building activity. Copper miners harvested ore for stone cutting implements. Fertile farms raised crops for the construction workers. Archaeologists believe hundreds of head of cattle were sent to the site to feed workers, possibly an enticement to lure people to work at the job site. The Nile was a key waterway used to ferry granite from the north and limestone from the south to Giza, so an active shipping industry built boats, trained sailors and transported materials.

New insights and developments unfold as scholars continue to decode these ancient mysteries, like the whereabouts of Khufu's mummy, which has yet to be discovered.

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