How were the pyramids built?

One stone at a time? Well... sort of.

Asking, "How were the pyramids built?" Can be a lot like asking, "How long is a piece of string?"

Designs and structure evolved from primitive beginnings to the behemoth glory days of Giza, and then to their eventual fazing out.

Like any man made construction, it took planning, organization and hard work. Very hard work.

Humble beginnings.

The first examples of pyramids were step pyramids. These were made in stages, or steps, in the design of the original tombs of the pharaohs. These tombs were modified from a rectangular shape to a square and when another smaller one was built on top and then another, and then four more that got smaller and smaller; suddenly you had a pyramid.

Filling in the blanks.

After a while attempts were made to fill in the steps between each stage of a step pyramid until the walls were a flat incline. This marked a change from a step pyramid to a true pyramid.

End result?

Whatever the design they all had one thing in common ... a burial chamber. This is what it was all about. From the towering heights at the Giza complex, to the cone shaped rubble of Userkaf's pyramid at Saqqara, they were all designed to sit over - or contain - a shaft leading to a burial chamber. That was the final resting place of the pharaoh.

Shifting Stones.

The subject of pyramid construction is a problematic one. The question looms as large as the average 2-3 tonne stones that make up Khufu's great pyramid.

Cranes, trucks and scaffold were thousands of years in the future, so how did those big stones get from quarry to building site.

Theory one - It is possible that the stones were shifted by a sled, lubricated underneath by water. This would have involved a massive workforce. Tests carried out by the Obayashi Corporation show that 18 men could drag the block up an incline ramp, at a rate of 18 meters per minute. Slow, but achievable.

Sounds plausible. But what about the 15 tonne and 70 tonne blocks?

Alternative theory - Scientist, Joseph Davidovits, theorizes that the blocks were in fact made on site and not carved. Using quarried limestone that was dissolved, mixed with lime and natron and left to evaporate into a clay-like substance, was transported to the site and left in wooden molds to harden in a process similar to setting concrete.

His theory does not explain the 10 tonne granite stones, which he claims were carved.

Heave Ho.

At an original height of 146 metres tall, it was some feat to move those massive stones upward.

It seems that ramps were the only practical and reasonable method to move the stones up, across and placed into position.

Some different theories on designs include straight ramps, while others are more elaborate and zig zag around the pyramid.

The straight ramp seems more likely in relation to the very peak of the pyramid as the zig zag designs run out of room.

Ramps alone could not get the stones up. It would most likely have been supported by levering the blocks around once they had reached their destination.

Still, all of the ramp ideas suffer from a lack of archaeological evidence to support their existence.


An undertaking of such magnitude would require an organized workforce.

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that a large slave force was responsible.

Archaeological evidence however, courtesy of discoveries by Archaeologists Mark Lenher and Zahi Hawass, has discovered that workers were housed and fed. Willing, skilled workers in fact.

In the BBC Documentary, Building the Great Pyramid, it is suggested that the Pharaoh Khufu sent for all able men in all the provinces of Egypt to work on his Pyramid. They were assigned jobs that ranged from the more skilled quarry workers, to the grunt and muscle of the sled pullers and the men frantically wetting the ground in front of them to keep them sliding.

There were astronomers to plot an alignment with the stars and engineers to plan the project from the base to the tip and the burial chambers in between.

Foremen ran crews from sled pullers and men shifting, levering and placing the stones into place.

Every stone was marked by scribes to identify their place in the massive structure.

Whether the documentary is historically accurate or not, it was an undertaking of momentous proportions. Even by today's standards.

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