The Pyramids at Giza and Theories Behind Their Construction

Many theories exist behind the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza, including the use of levers and pulleys, and both straight and spiral ramps.

The Hoover Dam, begun in 1933, contains enough concrete to fill two Empire State Buildings. It took two years to build the 60 story high wall on the Nevada rim of the Black Canyon, and as visitors stood in awe of the massive structure, one reporter coined the phrase that the Hoover Dam was the “Great Pyramid of the American Desert.”

The comparison was more accurate than it at first appears, considering that the dam was the only man-made structure in the Western world to even come close to the size and bulk of the Great Pyramid. However, the three pyramids of Giza were built without the aid of modern technology. How this was done has interested and puzzled engineers, Egyptologists, and historians for years. Hypotheses range from the seemingly absurd, such as extraterrestrial help, to more plausible theories involving ramps, levers, and pulleys. It is these more plausible methods that ignite the interests of many scientists and have been the focus of much study.

Size of the Pyramids

The sheer sizes of the pyramids and the stones that form them makes the fact of their formation without modern equipment that much more amazing. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is 481 feet tall and has a base of 756 feet, and it contains over 7 million tons of stone. Khafre’s pyramid (estimated to have been built around 2650 BC) is a smaller, yet still formidable, 471 feet high with a base that measures 706 feet on each side. Finally, the smallest of the three pyramids, Menkaure’s pyramid, measures 203 feet in height and 354 feet along the base.

The stones that compose these pyramids range from approximately two tons to 80 tons. It is no surprise that the construction of these massive buildings has been the focus of much speculation and attention.

Herodotus’ Theory of Levers and Pulleys

Serious consideration of possible methods used to construct the pyramids at Giza has been recorded as early as the fifth century BC. Herodotus, described by Sarah Boxer in her 1987 Discover article,“Herodotus’ theory of how the pyramids were built gets a lift,” as a “sometime historian and occasional fibber,” he is well known for his theory that the stones were lifted up the pyramids by way of a system of levers and pulleys.

Many have considered Herodotus’ theory at worst, a myth and at best, unlikely; however, there has been evidence uncovered that others consider proof of his theory. According to Somers Clark and R. Engelbach, authors of Ancient Egyptian Construction and Architecture, “small wooden appliances known as ‘rockers’” have been found in foundation deposits of the New Kingdom. Some have suggested that these artifacts, or “rockers,” are evidence that Herodotus’ method was actually the one used to construct the Great Pyramid, as well as the other two main Giza pyramids.

The Use of Ramps to Construct the Pyramids

Another theory of the construction of the pyramids involves the use of ramps and sleds. This hypothesis involves the use of teams of laborers pushing the stones on wooden sleds up a single straight ramp connecting the quarry and the pyramid. However, this idea has lost the majority of its supporters for a number of reasons. According to Evan Hadingham in his 1992 The Atlantic article “Pyramid Schemes,” in order for the slope of the ramp to be gentle enough for the workers to push the sleds up the ramp to the Great Pyramid’s height of 481 feet, the ramp would have to be approximately a mile long. The pyramids were each respectively 400 to 500 yards from their quarries, and a mile long ramp would have required more resources than the pyramid itself. However, while the use of a single straight ramp seems to be unlikely, a modification of the ramp theory has the support of many, including well-known archaeologist and Egyptian expert Mark Lehner.

Lehner’s idea, as described by Hadingham, is a more plausible alternative to the long straight ramp theory. He suggests a spiral ramp that wound its way up and around the pyramid, using the sides of the developing structure for support. Many researchers agree that the spiral ramp theory put forth by Mark Lehner appears to be the most likely case scenario.

The Mystery Behind the Pyramids

While the mystery behind the pyramids’ construction may never be solved for sure, one thing remains true—they are truly an awesome sight and a magnificent feat of human creativity and manpower. Perhaps it is unnecessary to know the truth behind the pyramids; part of what makes the pyramids so interesting is the mystery and wonderment at how such an ancient people accomplished a task that many consider impossible today.

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