The Ancients Did Great Things With Muscle Power



Editor's note: Purely by coincidence, the Discovery Channel happened to air a program titled "Building the Great Pyramid" just after Tom Garrett sent in this column. It is not the program that prompted this column. In fact, it is well worth watching if it airs again.

I ran across yet another program on television the other day which sought to cast doubt on whether the ancient Egyptians could really have built the pyramids. The speculation on strange and mysterious methods ran the gamut, with the usual dark hints of things magical, extra-terrestrial help, or forgotten knowledge.

May I say just one word in response?


The ancients were men and women, just like you and me, men and women who did what they did with muscle, sweat, patience, and brain power. They deserve credit for what they did. Selling air time by hinting that they couldn't have done what they did, rather than looking at the evidence is just plain wrong.

We need to appreciate the wonderful structures our ancestors built for what they are: Testaments to the determination of human beings to do that which at first seems to be impossible.

Did you catch that word evidence back there?

Yes, they left evidence! Here's just a part of it:

Paper, in the form of papyrus in ancient Egypt, was too expensive to be used to scratch out little notes as we do today. The Egyptians used what are called ostraca, small pieces of stone broken off during the shaping of blocks.

They wrote on them, and then discarded them just as we do our scratch work.

Fortunately, stone lasts a bit longer than paper, so we have found many ostraca with very interesting things written on them. One of them, written by a scribe practicing his skills, is a calculation of how many mud bricks it takes to build a ramp of a given length and height. So we know that the Egyptians built and used mud brick ramps.

Next piece of evidence: They left us a picture! Not just one, but several of them. Tomb drawings show large pieces of stone being moved by men pulling them with ropes and pushing them from behind with long push-poles. In front of the moving stones are workers who are pouring something out jars to lubricate the surface of the mud bricks. The substance pouring out of the jars is drawn as wavy lines, both a drawing of water and, interestingly enough, one of ancient Egyptian words for water, en, from which we derive our letter N, which, if you look at it, can be seen to be a derivative of a wavy line. So we know how they lubricated the mud bricks; they wet them with ordinary water.

But the most stunning of all pieces of evidence is an actual mud brick ramp left behind when work was abandoned on a pylon (a gatelike building) in Karnak near the famous temple. So we can still go and see the actual thing, an ancient mud brick ramp.

Finally, there is the experimental evidence. Way back in the 1960's, French archeologists, wishing to test all this evidence, laid down some mud bricks and let them dry. They then got two dozen men and a one-ton block of limestone. Wetting the mud bricks with water, as shown in the drawings, they told the men to push.

Away went the block of limestone, the only problem being that the method worked too well. Two dozen men made the thing literally fly along the surface of the bricks.

In the end, they found that it took only one man to move a one-ton block of limestone along the water-wet surface of their mud bricks.

No mystery, no magic, no aliens, and no deep, dark secrets -- just good old muscle power, sweat and determination.

If the word "we" is allowed to stand for all humankind, including our ancestors, we have a right to be proud of ourselves. Over the long history of our species, we have done a lot, often with very little.

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