HOW PYRAMIDS WORK
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How do pyramids work?
Pyramids are structures that are toured throughout the
world today. We are astonished at how massive these structures are and imagine
how each brick or stone must have been placed one at a time, and all done by
hand. One of the most awe-inspiring thing about any pyramid is that is was most
likely made by hand. And that’s unquestionably true when you’re talking about
the pyramids from ancient periods. Probably the most common pyramids are the
Ancient Egyptian Pyramids, which are among the Seven Wonders of the World. But
truthfully, these are just a few sets of the thousands of pyramids that are
found throughout the entire world. And although they were all built for
different reasons, the one thing that holds true among all pyramids is that they
are structures of mystery and beauty. And one can’t help but be stricken by
their magnificence when looking at one.
The geometry of pyramids consists of a square
foundation with four walls. Each wall is built into an equilateral triangle
side, giving the structure the appearance of four equally slanted walls. The
entire structure is usually made from stone or bricks and before modern
machinery that laid brick for us, pyramids were built entirely by hand. Because
of this, many of the pyramids took hundreds of years to build. And some, such as
those in Egypt, took decades to complete. Pyramids were built for different
reasons and we still don’t know today why many of them were constructed. It is
known however that they were commonly built to be used for burial grounds and
were often constructed as a tribute to kings or leaders of the time.
One of the reasons why we all think “Egyptian
pyramids” when we consider pyramids of any kind is because it was the Egyptians
that turned the pyramids from being magnificent structures to being magical
ones. The Great Pyramid of Khufu for instance, consists of 2.3 million blocks of
limestone and granite. In total, today this pyramid stands at 146 meters high
and has a base of 230 meters. In total the Great Pyramid of Khufu weighs an
amazing 6.5 million tons. It still stands today after standing up to thousands
of years exposed to the elements.
Another very historical pyramid is the pyramid in
Saqqara. This pyramid was finished in 2620 BC and was built for the Third
Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Djoser. This pyramid is not only a sight to see because
it has four levels and a burial chamber built underground, but because it’s the
first stepped pyramid in history. This pyramid had six steps in total and
although there were many attempts, there was never a six-stepped pyramid built
again. One of the most famous attempts to beat the record of the pyramid for
Djoser was the Meidum pyramid. The Meidum was finished in 2570 BC and during the
end of its time it had seven steps, which was leading to eight. However, this
pyramid eventually collapsed.
It was then that pyramid architects and builders
learned that if pyramids were going to be taller, they needed to have a wider
base. They also learned about things such as how important the material for a
pyramid’s foundation was, after having several pyramids cave in on themselves
before they were even completed. But pyramids consist of much more than just a
slab of foundation and walls. Inside, they’re elaborate places filled with
different chambers and passageways, and were even built with practicalities such
as outside air vents in place. In order to understand pyramids, the Great
Pyramid of Khufu is often used as a model. This pyramid lies amongst the Ancient
Egyptian pyramids of Giza. Not only is it the largest pyramid in the world but
inside, it’s also the most elaborate. It was also ingeniously built and still
stands as a testament to its time today.
The king’s chamber was the primary place for
storage and it held the tomb as well as many hieroglyphs along the wall. The
hieroglyphs were drawings and writings that featured different aspects of
Egyptian life and history. The king’s chamber was located to the left of the
pyramids generally and was usually up at least one level from the entrance. One
of the geniuses of pyramids is that there were weight-relieving chambers built
above it to prevent the chamber from collapsing in on itself. The queen’s
chamber on the other hand, does lay on the main entrance and is smaller than the
king’s chamber. Pyramids that had underground chambers used them often as
secondary burial chambers.
The gallery in a pyramid is a large passageway with vaulted ceilings. The walls
have been layered while traveling up and each layer extends further out than the
one below it to form an arch. The rest of the pyramid was a myriad of
passageways that connected different chambers to each other. The passageways
also had ventilation holes that allowed for air movement. Many people thought
during the time of pyramids that these holes, especially those in the king’s
chamber, were so that the king’s spirit could escape to the other world after
the physical body had died. Once the pharaoh’s body has been placed inside for
burial, the entrance would be sealed shut. The exterior walls of the pyramid
would then usually be lined with another layer of brick or stone to give the
pyramid a smooth and finished look. In the case of the Great Pyramid of Khufu,
the outside was lined with limestone. But, other than just the components of the
pyramids, just how exactly where they built? Because there’s no recorded
evidence, it’s hard to say. But there are some good guesses that researchers
Building the pyramids took four basic steps:
surveying and excavation; obtaining building materials; transporting building
materials; and building a workforce. The pharaohs had master builders, who were
called viziers, and the viziers had a team of builders that worked for them.
It’s likely that the viziers first drew out plans of the pyramids and then their
team carried out the instructions.
Once a building site was determined to be suitable
for a pyramid, the land first had to be plotted out. But the architects and
builders had to keep a few things in mind. The sides of pyramids always ran
parallel to each other and ran from north to south and east to west. Not only
did they not have GPS systems, but they didn’t even have compasses. And at that
time, they also didn’t have a North Star to dictate where true north was. (This
was due to an alteration in the Earth’s rotation.) Instead, these ancient
civilizations used the movement of the sun or the movement of circumpolar stars.
Once they had determined where true north lay, they could determine the other
measurements they needed by using lines and right angles.
Still, ancient Egyptians needed to use something to
make the precise measurements needed to construct a pyramid. And they proved
that what they used was accurate enough. The first measurement Egyptians used
was known as ‘cubits’ and this is the length that runs from the tip of your
extended finger to the middle of your elbow, with your arm held straight out.
Another measurement ancient Egyptians often used was ‘hands’ and this was the
measurement of the width of the hand, with the thumb positioned straight and at
the side. Using these measurements, they would dig holes for posts at measured
points and prepare the site in a grid.
The fact that the foundations of the pyramids’ were
so level was one of the pyramids’ many mysteries. No one knows exactly how they
did this but there are a couple of theories. One suggests that workers dug out a
site and leveled all the material above the waterline. Once this was finished,
they would reduce the amount of water and once again, level all the material
above the waterline. This process was thought to have been continued until the
foundation was flat and level. Another theory of how the foundations became so
level says that more posts could have been planted along fixed points. A line
that had been leveled with plum bobs, was then pulled tight against the posts at
determined points to determine straightness and alignment. The workers could
then dig down to the determined points, which would make the foundation level.
Although it may be hard to believe, getting the
foundation level and flat was not the hardest part of building the pyramid. That
was only the beginning. Once the foundation was laid, the stones then had to be
taken from one place, and brought to where the foundation was.
The pyramids were constructed from various materials. They consisted of
limestone, granite, basalt, mortar, and baked mud bricks. These materials were
gathered from whatever sites were near the site of the pyramid. Pyramid workers
also did not have access to the excavating tools that we have today. Because of
this they had to use tools to cut out the stone needed for the pyramid by hand.
They then used large levers to move the stone from one point to another.
How this was done is also not exactly known.
Placing the stone on any device with wheels would have been impractical as the
transportation would have needed to cross sand and gravel. The stones also weigh
2.5 tons each so the transportation device would have needed to be substantially
strong. It’s thought that workers may have used wooden sleds with ropes to drag
the blocks. Sometimes when the pyramids were close to the Nile and the load was
large, they would be sent down the Nile on a barge. Often canals would need to
built along the river to get the loads closer to the pyramid site.
It’s thought that the workers built ramps along the
pyramid that helped them build them. These, along with lever systems and kites,
were how the workers placed the 300 stones they were thought to a day. While
workers placed stones in the core of the pyramid, stone cutters worked to create
the holes and ventilation systems in the pyramid. It was artists that created
the hieroglyphs inside the walls, and not those trying to tell stories of what
happened to them, as are some drawings that were found inside other historical
caves and structures.
One can imagine how many people it takes to build a
structure of this significance. It’s estimated that it took 100,000 slaves to
build the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Movies such as The Ten Commandments have
pounced upon this idea of ancient slaves and slave ownership. But the idea that
this many people worked on the pyramids is actually founded on little evidence.
After unearthing the camps of some of the pyramid workers, Mark Lehner, an
archaeologist from Harvard, found that there was actually only housing to
provide for about 2,000 workers. These housing conditions were broken up into
smaller camps of about 200. There’s also evidence to suggest that the workers
who lived there were not slaves at all but employees who were very well paid and
There’s no doubt that with all the research already
done on pyramids, there is still a lot to learn. One thing is certain however.
The pyramids are wonderful structures that reflect intellectual civilizations
who could create such things of beauty and strength with much less than what we
have available to us today. It’s no wonder that, with each stone placed one at a
time by hand, and with foundations that need to be laid, and stone that needs to
be cut out by hand, that it could take decades for any one pyramid to be built!