How the Pyramids Were (and Were Not) Built, Part 2
Today we're coming back for the the second of our two-part episode that seeks to offer some basic information that will help you decide whether it's possible that Egypt's great pyramids were built by the ancient Egyptians, or whether that concept is so unrealistic that we are forced to admit that some supernatural force must have been involved, either space aliens or people from a hidden advanced civilization like the fictional Atlantis. While we would like to say that this is a foolish question not worthy of the attention of intelligent adults, recall that we live in an era where the number of people who believe the Earth is flat is actually growing. Rejection of expertise and the scientific method has become a fashion trend. What we can all expect to see in coming years is an increased number of TV shows promoting the idea that ancient Egyptians were incapable of building the things they built. If you find this notion offensive — and even more so, if you find this notion compelling — then I invite you to listen in.
Last week we talked about the watertight historical context of the construction of the Great Pyramid amid some of the other pyramids built in Egypt over many centuries, and how its engineering strengths and weaknesses fit right into the timeline of the development of this knowledge. Even taken by itself, just that one point makes it pretty hard to find a place to squeeze in aliens or Atlanteans; but the new discoveries we're going to talk about today add so much detail to our knowledge base that these alternative conjectures are pushed far into the realm of absurdity.
When the workers' city south of the pyramids was discovered in the 1990s, it added more lines of evidence to our realization that most of the pyramid laborers were farmers who worked seasonally. The Nile basin is fertile farming land and fed Egypt; but for part of the year, the flood season covered it up and left the farmers nothing to do. Pharaoh Khufu hired as many of them as he could; they brought their families and moved into the workers' city for seasonal work on the pyramids, not only earning a handsome living, but proudly contributing to what was already a project of tremendous national identity.
Note: Strictly speaking, Egyptian kings were not called Pharaohs until much later, in the 18th dynasty. None of the kings in this episode would have been called Pharaoh in their time; however it's common practice for us to retroactively apply the title, so I've gone with common practice here. —BD
The most exciting recent discovery about the Great Pyramid came in 2017 with the publication of The Red Sea Papyrus by French Egyptologist Pierre Tallet. Tallet had been working for a few years at Wadi al-Jarf, an ancient Egyptian port on the Red Sea, where limestone blocks inscribed with the name of Khufu were discovered amid boathouses for transport ships. In 2013 a large collection of papyrus fragments were found which were soon discovered to be the oldest written papyri in the world, dating from the 27th year of Khufu's reign during the 4th dynasty, some 4500 years ago, and now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. One was of particular interest, The Diary of Merer, a log of activities and transactions which detailed three months of his career. Merer, previously unknown, was an elite shipping official and transport ship captain. He oversaw the transportation of fine white limestone from the quarry at Turah to Giza. Merer's group was not just considered elite, its description translates to "the chosen group", evidently a high enough office that he was in charge of recording all of these activities. An actual transport ship from the period, probably just like the one Merer captained, is currently being restored in a building at the very foot of the Great Pyramid. Beside it is a much finer ceremonial ship built of the same materials and with the same construction techniques, already on public display.
For Merer to make his limestone deliveries, he sailed them into a great artificial harbor dug just for this purpose at the very foot of Giza, on the flood plain which normally separates Giza from the Nile, and where the modern city of Cairo now sits. Merer gave us this artificial harbor's name, the Basin of Khufu, and archaeologists have since discovered traces of it based on his description. This provided an amazing insight into the seasonality of the work on the pyramid: during the flood season, when the farmers became available for pyramid construction, the Nile rose seven meters and filled the Basin of Khufu, completing the supply chain that made the work possible. The discovery of this seasonal confluence of two events crucial to the project was one of those rare "Eureka" moments in science.
Merer's log of deliveries, including times and dates and cargos, meetings with named officials, provide an unprecedented first-person view into the daily construction activities. This included the delivery schedule of various types of rock to the construction site; we had other lines of evidence, but Merer's Excel spreadsheet either bolstered, improved, or confirmed some things we already knew. Among these was a major shift in our understanding of the overall plan for the construction. Traditionally, it was always thought that the main bulk of the pyramid was built from the bottom up; and then, as the ramp material was being removed, the fine casing was put in place from the top down. That theory is now almost entirely discarded, in part because we now know that those two types of construction materials were delivered to the site simultaneously from the beginning of the project to the end. As each course of the rough inner material was laid of common limestone from the local quarry, the casing stones of fine white limestone from Turah were delivered by boat. And even as those courses were being laid from the bottom up, the inner structures — the Grand Gallery, the King's Chamber and the Queen's Chamber — were being placed by the most highly elite workers from a fine red granite brought from 500 miles upriver. The architectural plan was complete before construction ever started, allowing the entire structure to rise fully completed, layer by layer, from the Giza plateau. This even makes more sense when you consider that the casing stones sat atop one another; you can't really do that from the top down.
And what is perhaps the single most profound and sanctified of all the that we learned from Merer's writing, he also gave us the actual name of the Great Pyramid, which had always previously been unknown. Its builders called it the Horizon of Khufu — horizon translating to something like a mountain of light where the sun would rise and set — and this name appears some 100 times in the papyri. Merer also referenced several personal meetings with Khufu's half brother, a noble named Ankh-haf, and revealed him to have been the supreme manager in charge of the Horizon's construction. Any one of the discoveries learned from The Diary of Merer would have made it perhaps the single most important document of the period; and we got not one such discovery, but many.
But even this is not where the story of the Horizon of Khufu ends. An Egyptian-International project called ScanPyramids has, since 2015, been using high-tech imaging including infrared thermography and muon tomography to look for voids within many great Egyptian pyramids. In 2017 they published in the journal Nature their discovery of a vast new void inside the Horizon of Khufu. It's above the Grand Gallery, and although we don't yet know, it's probably an engineering void similar to those stacked above the King's Chamber designed to minimize the weight bearing down on the room. If true, it's another impressive confirmation of the Egyptians' engineering ability.
But even that recent discovery is not the end of the exciting new developments from Giza. Laboratories onsite work constantly on the items brought in daily from the great trash dump outside the workers' city at Giza. So far they have millions — yes, millions — of items in their catalog, all pulled out of the pyramid workers' trash. This includes hundreds of thousands (!!) of flint tools. It includes stone pounders and polished stone knives of astonishingly high quality, telling us much about the skill level of the craftsmen that supported the workers. The smiths who made and sharpened and serviced the countless copper tools for the stoneworkers left vast quantities of metal working waste. Broken bread molds of great size give a snapshot of the production-scale baking that took place to feed the workers. Bones of slaughtered sheep and cattle contribute to the picture that anthropologists have been building of the food service industry that supported the workers. About 1500 people worked raising sheep and about 500 raised cattle, enough to keep the whole workforce fed with some 200-300 grams of meat per day (about half a pound) — a diet of relative extravagance needed to power such hard workers. Overall, some 20,000 people all up and down the Nile played some role in the supply chain needed to create the Horizon of Khufu for the three decades the project required. And these common people — farmers, masons, cooks, craftsmen, shepherds, and even ordinary unskilled laborers — working together with a sense of national pride and cooperation, did the unthinkable.
The idea touted by some westerners that aliens or Atlanteans or some other mystical civilization were needed to create the pyramids is a childish, ignorant, and fundamentally racist notion. Tell that to Merer or Ankh-haf; they'd have told the aliens to stand the heck out of the way. If you are one of those who is at least open to such an idea, or to other alternative claims like the pyramids or the Sphinx or the obelisks were made of concrete, or that the pyramids were granaries, then you owe it to yourself to go see them. If I believed there was alien evidence somewhere, you can bet I would do whatever it took to get myself there ASAP. Go online and set up a price alert for plane tickets, and go visit the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. Go see the copper tools and feel the marks they left on the stones left half cut in the quarries. See the 4500-year-old wooden sledges, the very same ones that moved the actual blocks. Cast your eye on Merer's actual handwriting. Go stand on the platform, run your hand along the angle of the flat white limestone casing, study the laser-like perfection of the surveyors' marks still visible today. Do all of that, and then come back and lecture the Egyptologists that the entire population of the greatest civilization of the ancient world, mobilized and united by national pride, possessing the same exquisite brains and the same exquisite hands that you possess, guided by the world's most experienced engineers and surveyors, were incapable of this. Or, as an alternative, celebrate their accomplishment. They were all of our ancestors, so when you look at the Horizon of Khufu, as their fellow human you have every right to feel their same pride in yourself. Humans are awesome, no aliens needed.
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