Common Tools or Ancient Advanced Technology? How Did the Egyptians Bore Through Granite?
Ancient Egypt is known for many technological and artistic achievements, constructing pyramids and temples, inventing a system of writing, hieroglyphs, and making advancements in medicine, astronomy, and many other fields. One area for which the Egyptians are particularly famous, of course, is their stone working. A particularly controversial issue is how the ancient Egyptians were able to cut and bore through solid granite - which is considerably more difficult to do than cutting through softer, sedimentary rock such as limestone or sandstone.
View One: The Egyptians Used Common Tools to Bore Holes in Granite
The mainstream archaeological view is that it was done with copper, bronze, and wooden tools used by Egyptian masons today to cut granite. Others, however, have suggested that it was done with more advanced equipment that is yet to be discovered. For the time being, the balance of evidence seems to suggest the mainstream view that primitive metal and wooden tools used by common stone masons were sufficient for cutting through granite.
Reproduction Ancient Egyptian stone mason’s tools used for carving demonstrations. (St. Luke's Finsbury/Stephen Critchley) Were primitive metal and wooden tools used by common stone masons sufficient for cutting through granite?
The first modern Western archaeologists to study ancient Egypt in the 19th century were mostly upper class gentlemen who had no experience with manual labor. As a result, when they encountered structures which they didn’t think could be built with simple hammers and chisels, they assumed that it must have meant that the people at the time had access to more advanced tools than previously believed, advanced machinery with which they were more familiar - such as cranes and other industrial machinery.
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Later archaeologists decided to examine the work of stone masons to better understand how the ancient Egyptians built things. They realized that contemporary Egyptian masons of the day had been using primitive tools such as hammers, copper and bronze chisels, and wooden wedges to cut through granite for centuries, dating back to pharaonic Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian sculptors making a statue. (Underground Science) The mainstream view suggests ancient Egyptian stone masons used common tools to crave and bore holes in granite.
The current understanding of how Egyptians bored through granite among mainstream archaeologists is that they used a method where they would drive a wooden wedge into a crack in the rock and soak the wedge with water. As the water expanded, this would cause the crack in the rock to widen. After doing this, they would continue to drive the wedge in even further. Doing this repeatedly would eventually split the rock into blocks. This process happens all the time in nature through frost wedging. Water in the cracks of rocks, including granite and other igneous rocks, will freeze. Freezing of the water causes it to expand, which, over successive freezing and melting, will cause a crack to widen. This can sometimes cause an entire boulder to split in two. The stone mason, modern or ancient, would be using the same principle to cut granite blocks along pre-existing zones of weakness.
An unfinished Egyptian obelisk at Aswan with holes showing how the granite would be split. (Glenn Ashton/CC BY SA 3.0)
View Two: The Egyptians Used Advanced Technology to Bore Holes in Granite
This is still hard for some skeptical writers and observers to believe. They insist that the primitive methods used by early modern and ancient Egyptian stone masons were not enough and that it must have been with more advanced equipment that the ancient Egyptians bored through solid granite. They argue that this is evidence that the ancient Egyptians and other civilizations were much more technologically sophisticated than is currently believed.
While it is possible that more advanced technologies could have been developed by earlier civilizations then anticipated, there does not appear to be much reliable evidence to support this idea. If the ancient Egyptians did cut through granite with equipment such as electric drills or lasers or similarly advanced technology, these hewn granite slabs are the only evidence for it that we have. So far, there is no indisputable evidence of physical remains of electrical batteries or wires or anything else that would suggest that the ancient Egyptians used technology that was more advanced than what is expected for that period.
Abusir, Egypt. Remnant of granite pillar with lines etched on it. Photo Stephen S. Mehler, MA. 2007.
There is one case which some proponents of the idea that ancient Egypt was more advanced than contemporary archaeology would suggest - evidence that the ancient Egyptians used light bulbs. The temple of Hathor at the Dendera complex in Egypt contains several stone reliefs that appear to some observers to be a light bulb.
The so-called ‘Dendera light’ in one of the crypts of Hathor temple at the Dendera Temple complex in Egypt. (CC BY 2.5) Could the Egyptians have had electricity and electric tools to bore through granite?
It is far from conclusive, however, that this is a light bulb and most experts agree that it is a depiction of a djed pillar, a type of pillar associated with Ptah the creator god and a lotus flower. It also involves other references to Egyptian mythology such as the sun barge which the god Ra uses to travel across the sky. The fact that no unambiguous ancient Egyptian lightbulbs have ever been discovered also makes the mainstream view more likely for the time being. We know that the Egyptians had stories involving a djed pillar, a lotus flower, and a sun barge. We do not however know, or have concrete indications, that they had electric lighting (or electric drilling for that matter.)
At the moment, without independent corroborative evidence to support the existence of electrical or other similarly advanced technology in ancient Egypt, these sorts of explanations don’t seem to fair well against Occam’s Razor. They require us to assume that the ancient Egyptians had mechanical or electrical technology - for which there is currently no indisputable evidence from archaeology or from historical records written by the ancient Egyptians.
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Resourcefulness Allowed the Egyptians to Bore the Holes in Granite
There are still a lot of questions about how exactly the ancient Egyptians were able to build their monuments with the tools that they had, but the fact that we know they had these tools (as opposed to more advanced tools) makes it more likely that they used these primitive tools in some way.
Aswan, Egypt granite quarry with hole where an obelisk block was carved out. (Glenn Ashton/CC BY SA 3.0)
With our modern cranes, power tools, and lasers, we tend to assume that engineering projects such as cutting or drilling through hard crystalline rock require reasonably advanced, modern technology, but humans have always shown themselves to be resourceful. Ancient civilizations were able to make up for their relatively primitive technology by being clever in finding ways to accomplish great architectural achievements with very simple means.
Perhaps we are the limited ones, relying too much on our own technology and not our ingenuity to overcome obstacles. That is a lesson that we can learn from the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Maya, the ancient Incas, and countless other cultures across the world who brought us a collective cultural heritage.
Top Image: Using common tools to work stone in ancient Egypt. (Egyptraveluxe Tours) The so-called ‘Dendera light.’ (Olaf Tausch/CC BY 3.0) Giza, Egypt. Close-up of drill hole in granite with spiral grooves. (Chris Dunn.2007)
By Caleb Strom
“Advanced Machining in Ancient Egypt” by Christopher P. Dunn (N.D.). Global Education Project, Spirit and Stone. Available at: http://www.theglobaleducationproject.org/egypt/articles/cdunn-1.php
“How did ancient Egyptians bore into solid granite without electric tools?” Undercover Science. Available at: https://undergroundscience.net/other/how-did-ancient-egyptians-bore-holes-into-solid-granite-without-electric-tools/
“Trades and Crafts.” Canadian Museum of History. Available at: http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/egypt/egcl05e.shtml
“Egyptian Symbols: Djed.” Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Available at: http://egyptian-gods.org/egyptian-symbols-djed/
“Tools for Stone Working.” Digital Egypt for Universities, University College London. Available at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/stone/working.html
“’Technical Drawings’ at Dendera” by Keith Fitzpatrick Matthews (2007). Bad Archaeology. Available at: http://www.badarchaeology.com/out-of-place-artefacts/petroglyphs-inscriptions-and-reliefs/%E2%80%98technical-drawings%E2%80%99-at-dendera/