How Were The Egyptian Pyramids Built? Hint: It Took A Lot Of Sand And Some Water

By Matthew Mientka on May 3, 2014 4:31 PM EDT

pyramids
Researchers say the ancient Egyptians probably saturated the sand with water to slide sledges carrying huge stone blocks to build the pyramids. (Photo: Wilhelm Joys Anderson, CC BY 2)

Whereas the ancients saw the pyramids as the work of divinity, some moderns have preferred another deus ex machina — a historical contact with alien visitors recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Now, scientists say the seemingly anachronistic technology required to move such massive amounts of stone was accomplished by the same ingenuity a child uses to build a sand castle.

Physicist Daniel Bonn of the University of Amsterdam says the ancient laborers drenched the immediate pathway with water, temporarily paving the way for the sledges on which the massive stone slid across the desert to the site of pyramids first built some 4,000 years ago. “The water forms liquid bridges that glue the sand grains together, as in a sandcastle,” Bonn told The Huffington Post. “The inspiration for the research was a tomb drawing that showed exactly this.”

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In other words, modern science is confirming the veracity of reports etched thousands of years ago in stone, explaining the mystery that would become one of the “Seven Wonders of the World. Donn and his colleagues find no reason to disbelieve the reportage of hieroglyphics found at the tomb of Djehutihotep, which depict a worker standing on a sledge pouring water directly on the sand ahead.

In a paper published this month by the American Physical Society, Donn and his colleagues report the ancients knew to use varying levels of water based on the sheer weight of the load as well as the type of sand. The researchers proved the concept by experimenting with a mini-sledge in laboratory conditions, comparing its utility under conditions of dry sand and wet sand. Like children playing in the sand, the ancients discovered that water reduces the friction coefficient important to transporting granular materials such as large stone blocks. At first blush, that might not appear apparent to someone born after the invention of the wheel.

So it was perhaps no coincidence that most of the pyramids sprouted along the west bank of the Nile, an ancient admixture of fertile water and the granular stone of the arid desert. Aside from speculation about ancient alien intervention, researchers seeking to explain the mystery had speculated that workers had used a cradle-like contraption found by archaeologists at some temple excavation sites — a rolling stone. Turns out that theory is all wet.

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