8.Building Pyramids

Building Pyramids

Building a pyramid requires a lot of organisation and planning, and everything needs to be done as efficiently as possible. This method uses only wood, flint,sinew, leather straps and human energy. All movements are as friction freeas it is possible to get with wood sliding on greased wood, and handling blocksis kept to the absolute minimum, so this is the fastest method theoretically possible with human labour.

See also Cutting Stone and Lifting jacks

The most difficult task is cutting the stone from the quarry face, so selectingthe right stone is of paramount importance. It has to be soft enough to cuteasily with wooden saws and grit - or tipped with flint teeth, yet hard enoughto support the structure of the pyramid.

This combination of properties can be found in limestones which are soft underground, yet harden chemically on exposure to air.

So the most efficient way of organising the quarrying, is to cut the soft stone first, and then set it out in the desert to cure and harden through exposure to the air.

It would simplify the measurement of how much stone has been cut, and howmuch is needed, to cut from a quarry that has the same size of base as thepyramid.

It is almost impossible to quantify the labour force needed to cut the stone, how many making and repairing saws, how many cutting, how many moving the blocks to a curing area, without knowing the exact source of the stone and being able to determine the hardness of the limestone before it has been exposed to air.

An estimate could be made using a similar soft limestone that hardens onexposure to air such as that from the Beer Quarry caves in Devon UK.

Moving Stone

As soon as a block is cut, it is pushed out using a lifting jack onto a wooden sledge. The most efficient way of using a sledge is for its hardwood runners to slide in greased grooves on a hardwood track laid over sleepers in a very similar way to a modern railway. This is a method used for shifting stone since antiquity. It requires far less energy to move the sledge than if the runners are scraping over rock and sand.

This is a picture of a sledge used for hauling stone - large blocks of granite - on Dartmoor in the UK. Sledges like these were in use into the 20th century even in the UK. (This one is on display at Parke, Bovey Tracey)

A large block on a sledge would move along the track at a steady walking pace, pulled by a pair of oxen, or a small team of men.

Going downhill, the block could easily accelerate out of control, and would need to be controlled by ropes held round stout anchor poles bedded in the ground.

The sledge and block could also be pulled up a gentle rise with ease by a team of oxen or men.

Setting out the base

First clear and level the base area. All that is needed to get 'extraordinary' accuracy is lengths of cord and a pole.

The cord should be as inelastic as possible.

Decide where the centre of the pyramid is going to be and cut a post hole. Set a tall pole with a pointed top in this hole and use a plumb line to ensure it is vertical. Now mark the tip of the shadow in the rock at the base for a full day

Now use a cord to find the shortest distance from the pole to the tip ofthe shadow and you have a line running due north /south.

Now you need a length of cord from the center to the corner of the pyramid and draw a circle round the central pole. Keep the cord the same tension andyour circle should be accurate to within an inch.

Now extend the north / south line until it meets the circle.

Next we need another line through the center at 90 degrees to the first. Take a longer rope out to where the north lines cuts the circle, and draw circles to the east and west. Do the same from the south line with exactly the same length of rope.

A straight line through the center gives us due east and west.

Now we use the rope again to split each of these quarters in two. Again, just drawing circles with an inelastic rope gives us 'extreme' accuracy, andwe have established the four corners of the pyramid.

The great pyramid is out by 8 inches. It suprises me that it is as much as that. I suspect that the great earthquake that loosened the casing stone also caused slight spreading of the base, and originally the dimensions would have been within an inch.

To ensure that the pyramid is built symetrically, the most important method is to leave a central well during construction so that a plumb line can be used to determine the exact centre at all stages of construction. This well would be filled with shaped blocks lowered into it towards the end of construction, but it should be possible to identify this central block at the top.-if it isnt hidden by modern concrete holding the pole on top.

Sight poles would also be attached to the corners to show the angles at which the corners should be built, and for lining up each layer of stone. Again, these can be set out with rope to give 'extraordinary accuracy'.

Complex surveying instruments are not required!

Lifting the stone

Each block of stone is brought to the site strapped to a sledge, and the wooden roadway extends over the site to the building face. The block can nowbe slid off the sledge, but it still has to be manouvered into its exact position.

The smaller blocks can probably just be pushed to get a tight fit, but the friction between a larger block and the stone below would be considerable. The top and bottom faces of these blocks are very flat - sawn - and so if you slide the block off the sledge, as near as you can to its final location, onto some thick grease, the blocks will slide easily until the grease soaks into the stone.

The grease will oxidise away over the centuries but some chemical traces should remain.

There is a report that the pyramid and workers stank of rancid grease duringconstruction, which supports this hypothesis.

As the blocks are slid into place, the wooden roadways are lifted, section by section, up onto the next level.

The first two or three layers of blocks can be placed with simple ramps without any problems of delivery, but then you need a lifting mechanism.

The Lifting Engine

Herodotus describes how the lifting engines were simple wooden structures that delivered the block from one engine to the next up the face of the pyramid.

The roadways were attached to the face of the pyramid, with sleepers sittingon each step, or they could just have rested against the face of the pyramid,but braced to each other with diagonal poles.

The sledges carrying the blocks need to have substantial wooden pegs that act as ratchets- lodging against the sleepers to prevent the sledge from slidingback.

The fastest and most efficient lifting mechanism would have been 6 men - 3 on each side- on each step. Each man controlling the pole for one lifting jack

All six men pull their lever poles at the same time, and the sledge and block is lifted one step, where the next lugs run over the closed lifting jacks of the next team (engine) and drop down.

The next team pull their lever poles and the sledge and block is lifted the next step, to catch on the jacks of the next engine above, and so on smoothlyto the top of the lift where it will tip onto the roadway laid on the workinglevel to be pulled to the building face.

The sledge needs 4 sets of lugs to ensure a smooth transfer up through the engines, as there must always be at least one set of lugs holding the sledge.

See an animation of the engine lifting blocks. Levers and people are not shown. This is a large animated gif (1718KB) as I don't have a copy of flash at the moment.

This is an extremely efficient system, with no time wasted in manhandling the blocks. As soon as one block is clear of the base, the next sledge can be turned into place and lift started, so blocks are moving up in quick succession.

Each lift needs space each side for the men working the engine, but these engines could cover all 4 faces of the pyramid. I would expect that only oneface would be used for lifting, as it greatly simplifies the layout of roadwayson the working platform.

Several slides would be needed to return the empty sledges back to the bottom without dammage.

The same engines could be used to raise the casing stones into place, withthe lifting engines resting on the casing stone below.

Transfer from roadway to lifting engine

The roadway along the base of the pyramid is a broad, solid wooden roadway. Between the roadway and the pyramid are timbers sloping down slightly to theface of the pyramid, on which the sledge can be pushed sideways off the mainroadway. The people stand in the gaps between these side timbers. At thebase of each lifting engine the roadway is solid. The 6 people at the baselift the front of the sledge to tip it onto its back on the greased platform.They can now twist it round until its runners locate on the lifting engine- the slight slope helps - and push it forward into place.

See This is a large animated gif (1347KB) Lift now commences in less than 1 minute from arrival of the block.

Transfer from lifting engine on to working level

At the top of the lifting engine, the topmost section rotates on a timber resting on the top step. When empty, it will drop into the vertical position under its own weight. The sledge coming up will be lifted up this section until the weight of the block is above the fulcrum, and the sledge rotates smoothly to be slid out onto the roadway on top of the working platform.

Copyright Peter Thomson 2001 -2004

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