Beyond the Pyramid Ramp: Unravelling Egypt’s Most Elusive Enigma
The mystery of how the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt were built continues to elude scholars, even in the 21 st century. As famed Egyptologist Flinders Petrie records in his The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (1883): “The means employed for raising such masses of stone is not shown to us in any representations.” The brightest minds in the world still wrestle with competing ideas, offering educated guesses based on incomplete evidence.
Every theory begins with the inclined plane, or the pyramid ramp. This idea was first mentioned two millennia ago by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who recounted what the Egyptians told him about the pyramids: "It is said that … the construction was undertaken with the help of ramps of earth, since at that time cranes had not yet been invented." (Library of History 1. 63).
Many Theories for the Pyramid Ramp
By the end of the 19 th century, Petrie had carefully measured the Pyramids of Giza, particularly the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and determined that the likeliest manner of their construction was using a single, long ramp, with a smaller zig-zag ramp near the summit. Since then, this idea has largely been discredited due to lack of evidence, and other theories have taken its place.
Three types of single, straight pyramid ramps to build that could have been used in the construction of the ancient site. (Smuckola / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Late German Egyptologist Uvo Hölscher believed the Egyptians employed a short ramp that zig-zagged all the way up the face of the pyramid, while Dieter Arnold, the German archaeologist who wrote the famous Building in Egypt (1991) believes a long ramp was used, but that it cut through the center of and was partially composed of the pyramid itself.
Meanwhile, Giza archaeologists Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner believe the material evidence most clearly points to a spiral ramp that would have twisted up the exterior of the pyramid, either resting against the structure or on a large earthen mound. They suggest that water or milk would have been used to lubricate wooden sleds strapped with stone blocks, similar to a scene from the Middle Kingdom tomb of Djehuti-hotep (~1900 BC).
Three different pyramid ramp proposals, by Uvo Hölsher (left), Dieter Arnold (center) and Mark Lehner (right). (Althiphika / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Numerous recent experiments have confirmed this possibility, including a study in 2014 by Daniel Bonn and other scientists from the FOM Foundation and the University of Amsterdam that demonstrated the right proportion of water on sand could reduce the required people hauling a block by half. There is also a depiction on a New Kingdom stela showing six oxen pulling a block on a sled (~1575 BC), and many actual sleds have been recovered.
What About the Evidence?
Evidence of earth ramps do exist in Egypt. The best example comes from the Temple of Karnak at Thebes, where it can be found still leaning against the back of the towering First Pylon. Made of mud brick, it was never completely disassembled, and it stands today as testament to the manner in which these large stone structures were built and decorated. Further examples come from the abandoned step pyramid of Sinki at Abydos. Likely built by Huni, Sneferu’s father and Khufu’s grandfather, this pyramid has four construction ramps still in place, composed of two outer mud-brick walls with an interior fill of debris and stone chips.
Remains of an ancient mud-brick ramp at the Temple of Karnak at Thebes (First Pylon, New Kingdom). (Vermeulen-Perdaen / Adobe stock)
Amazingly, the potential construction ramp of the Great Pyramid has already been discovered, and it was similar to these other ramps. In 1995, the Giza Inspectorate “excavated trenches through thick layers of limestone debris south of the southwest corner of Khufu’s pyramid. Remains of fieldstone walls were found running north-northwest that could have been the accretions or retaining walls of the foundation of (such) a supply ramp.” (Lehner, 2017; 440).
According to Hawass, this lower section of the ramp: “consisted of two walls built of stone rubble and mixed with “tafla” (a calcareous clay). The area in between was filled with sand and gypsum forming the bulk of the ramp.” (Hawass, 1998; 58). He calculated the ramp would have reached ~30m (98ft) above the pyramid’s base, or roughly 20% of the pyramid’s original total height of 146.7m (481.3ft). Beyond that he believes the ramp would have spiraled up the exterior of the structure.
Map of the Giza Plateau, showing newly-discovered ancient ramp in red line at southwest corner of Khufu’s pyramid, and quarry and authors’ proposed wooden scaffolding running up to the top (red and brown lines added by author). (MesserWolland / CC BY-SA 3.0)
In late 2018, the remains of a ramp were found in the ancient alabaster quarry at Hatnub, from the very time of Khufu. It reveals how the Egyptians could have moved tremendously heavy blocks of stone by using physics to aid them. Archaeologists from the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology and the University of Liverpool excavated a ramp with flights of stairs on either side, and with post-holes near the stairs running all the way up the ramp.
It has been suggested by the excavating team that by using ropes tied around wooden posts, ancient workers could have hauled large blocks much easier by using gravity to pull down rather than pulling up. They could also control the blocks better, which are imagined as having rested on wooden sleds attached to the ropes.
Ancient ramp discovered at Hatnub, Eastern Egypt, in 2018, similar in shape but smaller in dimensions than the pyramid ramps that could have been used to build the contemporaneous site at Giza. (Yannis Gourdon / IFAO)
The addition of ropes and wooden poles to change the direction of force could have effectively doubled the ramp grade, meaning any ramps on the pyramids would have only needed to have been half their projected size. This could have potentially doubled the grade of Khufu’s ramp, discovered in 1995, up to ~60m (197ft), or 40% of the pyramid’s original height (and most of the volume).
However, problems persist. A ramp that spiraled around the pyramid would be impractical because of the inability to back-sight each corner to remain true, its massive size (rivalling the pyramid itself), and the lack of any archaeological evidence. So if the builders did use a ramp, where was it? An ingenious architect named Jean-Pierre Houdin thought he had the answer.
A Hidden Ramp Inside
Perhaps no other theory in recent years has garnered as much attention as that of the Great Pyramid’s supposed ‘internal ramp’, an idea first proposed by the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin in 2005. Aided in his exploration by Egyptologist Bob Brier, they flew to Egypt to hunt for evidence of this proposed inside-ramp.
In essence, Houdin proposed that the Egyptians had built an internal ramp just inside the perimeter of the structure that wound its way up as the pyramid rose, composed of corbelled ceilings and corner notches in which the blocks would be rotated on rope cranes. This would seemingly eliminate the need for external ramps, levers, cranes or scaffolding.
Several lines of evidence jumped out at the researchers as proof of their idea. First, Houdin detected faint ‘phantom’ lines within the masonry of the pyramid that ran at ~7°, the exact angle he determined the internal ramp must run at.
Second, there is a mysterious ‘notch’ on the northeastern edge of the pyramid, where Houdin had predicted was an original ‘corner block-turning station’. This ‘notch’ was explored by Brier, who found a small irregular chamber (‘Bob’s Room’) but nothing more.
Third, in 1986 a French team completed a microgravimetric study of the pyramid, and the resultant CG-image of low- and high-density areas revealed an image consistent with an internal ramp.
Attractive Theory But Where is the Evidence?
Despite how attractive this theory seemed at first, many noted it was an unlikely scenario. Egyptologist David Jeffreys called it “far-fetched and horribly complicated,” for it proposed the pyramid is vastly more complicated than presently believed. Instead of having four internal chambers and corridors, it would actually have the equivalent of dozens of internal chambers. Instead of having one impressive and corbelled Grand Gallery, it would have the equivalent of over thirty grand galleries winding up through the monument, all corbelled corridors of impressive masonry.
It seems absurd, considering how amazing a feat the Grand Gallery itself was, that there would still be thirty more of them to discover somewhere inside the pyramid, all connected together. And despite much indirect evidence, Brier and Houdin have not found any specific hard data for their ramp. Even their much-lauded microgravimetric scan could be interpreted differently, such as via the model of internal ‘steps’.
The Grand Gallery in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Houdin’s theory would require another 30 of these inside the pyramid. (Keith Adler / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Now, despite the difficulties with the idea, it remained a promising theory in need of independent verification. Fortunately, the ‘Scan Pyramids Mission’ ( scanpyramids.org) would be its ultimate test. Beginning in 2015, this study was based on the idea of using cosmic particles called muons to remotely scan the pyramid for void spaces, an idea first employed by famed physicist Luis Alvarez in the late 1960s on Khafre’s pyramid.
Large collectors were set up in the Great Pyramid and the muons that streamed through the structure were measured in the hopes of identifying any hidden chambers. The idea that a beautiful internal passageway snaking up through the structure would be revealed had millions of excited archaeology buffs on the edge of their seats. Then the results came in.
While a large void was detected above the Grand Gallery, no internal ramp was detected. Nada. This deflationary news was relayed by the theory’s first expert supporter, Bob Brier himself: “these data suggest that the ramp is not there. I think we’ve lost.” So if there was no internal ramp inside the Great Pyramid, then how was it actually built? How were the stones lifted skyward hundreds of feet, beyond the ramp?
New research looking at the density of particles called muons has found an empty space (shown in this illustration) more than 98 feet (30 meters) long right above the Great Pyramid's Grand Gallery, but no internal pyramid ramp was found. (Scan Pyramids Mission)
A Ramps and Levers Combination
Any theory based on ramps, whether internal or external, runs into problems near the apex of the pyramid. Lehner and Hawass admit that: “the fact that the four sides of the pyramid narrow towards closure at the top means that the builders ran out of room for ramps.” (Lehner 2017; 418), and that: “it is very possible that levering was the only means to raise the blocks of the highest courses, near the apex, once the builders had brought them as high as they could on ramps.” (Lehner, 2017; 417).
Other archaeologists have suggested a combination of ramps and levers, including Martin Isler in On Pyramid Building I & II (1985 & 1987).
The idea the ancient Egyptians used other technologies besides ramps was first put forth by Herodotus in 425 BC. He describes the construction of the Great Pyramid thusly: “This pyramid was made after the manner of steps, which some call ‘rows’ and others ‘bases’: and when they had first made it thus, they raised the remaining stones with machines made of short pieces of timber, raising them first from the ground to the first stage of the steps, and when the stone got up to this it was placed upon another machine standing on the first stage, and so from this it was drawn to the second upon another machine.” (Histories 2. 125).
“Construction of the Great Pyramid According to Herodotus”, lithograph depicting multiple so-called ‘Herodotus Machines’ operating on the Great Pyramid (Antoine- Yves Goguet (1820) / Public domain).
This description calls to mind a ‘liftjack’ tool, which uses levers and small shims, or wedges, to gradually lift a large block in many small increments. This was first suggested by Petrie in 1883: “for the ordinary blocks, of a few tons each, it would be very feasible to employ the method of resting them on two piles of wooden slabs, and rocking them up alternately to one side and the other by a spar under the block, thus heightening the piles alternately and so raising the stone.”
Several other scholars have noted this theory as well, including Isler, who actually tested this theory during a 1991 Pyramid building project filmed for NOVA. He discovered it was harder and took much longer than he anticipated, but mainly due to his lack of experience and the instability of his wooden support cribbing.
Assisting with this method may have been mysterious rounded wooden objects colloquially called “Petrie rockers”. Found by the famed Egyptologist at Thebes, he proposed these semi-circular wooden devices could have been used to help jack up heavy blocks by allowing them to tilt back and forth easier ( “rocking them up alternately to one side and the other”), allowing successive planks to be inserted on either side and lifting the block.
Others like Paul Hai imagine the Egyptians actually “rolled” the large blocks by lashing a Petrie rocker to each side of the block, creating a cylinder. Again, there is no evidence for this, and there have never been found any of these wooden rockers near the pyramids.
A model wooden “rocker” device found by Flinders Petrie at Thebes, from the New Kingdom, ~1450 BC. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
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Alternatively, the Egyptians could have employed a counter-weight levering mechanism, similar to the shaduf, which has been used for millennia to lift water from the Nile. The machines described by Herodotus could have been composed of wooden beams with counterweights, used to see-saw the blocks up course-by-course.
Tomb painting showing an ancient Egyptian gardener using a shaduf (Tomb of the Royal Sculptor Ipuy, Deir el-Medina, 19th Dynasty, 1279-1213 BCE). The shaduf relies on the same principles of counter-weight leverage as the so called “Herodotus Machines” imagined by Goguet and other artists. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
Did the Egyptians Use Scaffolding?
Other researchers such as Peter Hodges, Julian Keable, Louis Croon, and Robert Scott Hussey-Pailos have all made improvements on these designs, decreasing Isler’s original lifting time of over an hour down to only minutes. Whether the Egyptians used a rocker-shim-lever or counter-weight-lever method, they would have also needed some degree of wooden scaffolding.
We have no painting or material remains of any of these proposed lifting devices, but we do have evidence the Egyptians were familiar with wooden scaffolding. In a painted scene from the tomb of the Vizier Rekhmire in Thebes (~1450 BC), we can see several workers standing (and even sitting) on a scaffold while they polish and paint a large statue.
Depiction of wooden scaffolding from the Tomb of the Vizier Rekhmire, ~1450 BC. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Nina De Garis Davies / Public domain)
An earlier scene from the Fifth Dynasty Saqqara tomb of Khaemhesit shows a vertical wooden ladder with workers perched along it, and surprisingly wheels and an axle at its base! This is the only known Old Kingdom depiction of wheels, and the Egyptians did not use them to move the heavy pyramid blocks: wheels would have sunk into the ground, and there was no material strong enough for the axles.
Many researchers have suggested scaffolding was used to help build the pyramids, as far back as Somers Clarke and R. Engelbach in their classic Ancient Egyptian Construction and Architecture (1930). Hawass, Lehner, and Isler have likewise voiced limited support for the idea, along with James Frederick Edwards in his article Building the Great Pyramid: Probable Construction Methods Employed at Giza (2003). He notes in particular the likely use of scaffolding by the masons to dress the fine-white Tura casing stones, generally believed to have been the final stage of construction. Perhaps the most vocal supporter of the idea of wooden scaffolding is the Welsh structural engineer Peter James, who was called upon to save the Step Pyramid after being damaged in a 1992 earthquake.
As detailed in his 2018 book Saving the Pyramids, James and his team worked deep under the Step Pyramid in Djoser’s burial, using large air bags in conjunction with wooden scaffolding to prop up the sagging ceiling. They carefully drilled narrow holes into the superstructure, inserting steel rods and then cementing them in place, finally securing the 4,700-year-old building - the world’s oldest stone building - from collapse.
Modern wooden scaffolding set up around Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara (David Broad / CC BY 3.0)
However, it was the abundant wooden scaffolding that was set up around the Step Pyramid to restore its crumbling façade that gave James an idea about its construction. He thought that similar scaffolding could have been used in the past, composed of pieces of timber lashed together: “In recent restoration work on the pyramids, traditional timber lashed together has been used as scaffolding, which demonstrates that it clearly would have been possible to use scaffolding to construct them in the first place.”
“We Have People, We Need Wood”
Most scholars dispute the notion that scaffolding served any primary construction role, relegating it to a minor function, such as dressing the casing stones or laying the very top courses of masonry. It remains an unpopular idea for one simple reason: most Egyptologists believe that the ancient Egyptians, with their dry and relatively treeless environment, had limited access to timber.
However, several scholars have demonstrated that the Egypt of the Old Kingdom, ~2550 BC, would have had more vegetation than today. Researchers have demonstrated that a major climate change accompanied or perhaps caused the end of the Old Kingdom of Egypt around 4200 years ago. For example, Jean-Daniel Stanley and his colleagues, using strontium isotopes and petrologic data, showed in their 2003 study that Nile levels, and consequently tree populations, dropped drastically between 2200-2000 BC.
As D.M. Dixon states in his article Timber in Ancient Egypt (1974), “in antiquity, Egypt possessed, and still does, a number of trees capable of providing timber.” These include the date palm, acacia, tamarisk, persea, willow, sidder, moringa, and sycamore-fig. These trees were used for boat construction, to make furniture, huge temple doors, coffins, bows, arrows, and ramps, as described on the Papyrus Anastasi I: “There is to be constructed a ramp … consisting of 120 compartments ﬁlled with reeds and beams.”
Left: acacia tree, similar to what would have been found in Egypt and across the Levant during Khufu’s time, Israel’s Negev Desert. (Mark A. Wilson / Public domain). Right: avenue of acacia trees leading towards the pyramids in 19th century Cairo (William Henry Jackson (1894) / Public domain)
Archaeological evidence of wood inside ancient ramps has been found at Lahoun, Lisht, and Deir el-Bahri. We also know that Egypt imported huge beams of cedar and cilician fir from Lebanon, confirmed by the discovery in 1954 of two deconstructed funeral boats of Khufu buried beside his pyramid.
Al Arzz above Bsharri (Forest of the Cedars of God), Lebanon. (BlingBling10 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Made of gigantic beams of cedar, they were lashed together with rope and would seal by swelling in the water. We know from the Palermo Stone inscription that Pharaoh Sneferu, father of Khufu, sent an expedition of forty ships to Lebanon to collect prized cedar beams: “Bringing forty ships filled [with] cedar logs … Shipbuilding [of] cedar wood, one ship, 100 cubits [long].” 100 cubits was roughly equivalent to 50 meters (164ft), even longer than Khufu’s boat at 43.6m (143ft).
The magnificent Boat of Khufu, Solar Boat Museum, Giza. (David Berkowitz / CC BY 2.0)
We can still see the massive fifty-foot (15m) cedar beams that Sneferu’s engineers wedged between the walls of the Bent Pyramid’s burial chamber to keep it from collapsing. He could have easily used similar beams to construct wooden scaffolding for the construction of his two pyramids at Dashur (and earlier structure at Meidum).
Ancient wooden beams still inside the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu at Dashur. (Ivrienen / CC BY 3.0)
The Secret to Building the Pyramids
An interesting feature of the solar boats is that their beams were held together entirely with hemp rope, which was also preserved beside the boat. Having cedar beams and sturdy rope, the Egyptians could certainly have built a robust scaffolding capable of supporting large stone blocks and multiple workers.
I believe the secret to building the pyramids, beyond the ramps anyways, was actually very simple: a relatively narrow section of wooden scaffolding, lashed together with ropes and anchored securely at the base. This would have rendered unnecessary large external mud brick ramps, internal stone ramps, and the need to dress the stone from the top down. The entire structure could have been completed level-by-level, with the exterior stone dressed before the next layer was begun (or even in the quarry when first removed, when it is softer and easier to carve, as noted by Bob Brier).
I believe work gangs would have used a combination of levers, rockers, and wedges to lift the blocks up through the scaffolding to the active building surface, where other gangs would have taken over. The scaffolding itself would have had dedicated wood-working teams building it as the pyramid rose. Each level of scaffolding would have had separate teams, while the teams operating on the pyramid would have likely been divided again.
Most work gangs would have focused on the inner fill and less precise masonry of the interior, some would have focused on the core blocks and grout, while the most skilled would have been stationed around the exterior to set and finish the precisely-angled and highly polished Tura limestone casing blocks. I therefore imagine an assembly-line type of process, from quarry to pyramid, with teams remaining at their spots and the rocks moving between them.
There is no good reason the Egyptians couldn’t have built a narrow stretch of scaffolding up the south side of the Great Pyramid through which to lever-up all the necessary blocks for its construction. It could then have been removed very quickly and re-used at further pyramid projects or alternatively used for solar boats, coffins, etc. The re-use of wood was common in Egypt, as demonstrated by Pearce Paul Creasman in his article: Ship Timber and the Reuse of Wood in Ancient Egypt (2013).
The Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. (sculpies / Adobe stock)
The pyramids were built with the available technology during the Old Kingdom: ramps, bronze chisels, stone pounders, levers, ropes, poles, plumb bobs, cubit rods, mallets, adzes, wedges, and squares. To these primitive yet capable tools, I believe, we can add wooden scaffolding, the final missing piece to the puzzle of their construction.
It was more than this technology, however, that helped realize these massive building projects. It was the organization and hierarchy of workers, overseers, priests and scribes that helped to bring to fruition these huge state dreams. It was the skilled coordination of this hard-working society, all based on the careful measurements by priests of the seasons, sky and Nile, that ultimately built the pyramids. It was a nation-wide effort, one of the largest in our history, to serve the kings, the gods, and to preserve balance in the land, so that their names and works would last forever.
Interestingly, Welsh architect and pyramid rescuer Peter James does dispute the idea the Egyptians used poles and ropes to increase their ramp grades at pyramid sites, as suggested by the new ramp discovery at Hatnub. In a personal email communication he discusses several flaws he has identified with this model:
“The question of the size and diameter of the ropes needed to haul the heavy blocks is an issue and also their durability on the edges of square blocks. The method of attaching the ropes to the blocks that would avoid twisting the blocks as they are lifted would also be a problem.
How would you make sure that the two sets of operatives pulling up the blocks would be able to provide the same tension in the ropes to control the lift and not induce twisting and movement of the blocks, particularly as they are on temporary constructed steps? This would be a very dangerous operation.
The same goes for the temporary wooden post that may have been good in a permanent position in a quarry but would be prone to movement under load on unconsolidated substrate and again would cause difficulties controlling the blocks; also the leading edge of the block would dig into the soil and any force used to move it would rotate the block into the soil and prevent further movement.”
Jonathon Perrin is the author of Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.
Top image: We must go beyond the ‘pyramid ramp’ to unravel Egypt’s most elusive engineering enigma. Source: Givaga / Adobe stock
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