It’s September 2018 and Dr Roland Enmarch, co-director of an Anglo-French team of archaeologists, is excavating at the Hatnub quarries in Egypt. The site includes many ancient inscriptions and it’s those that Enmarch and his team are here to study. But then they stumble across something else entirely. And it may hold the key as to how the Egyptians built their pyramids.
The building of the pyramids has long been the subject of speculation and controversy. For example, one of the most heated debates has been about the labor force that constructed the buildings. Though what isn’t in doubt is the large size of the team that built them.
We can be sure that thousands of people worked on the pyramids. This is due to their scale and the necessary logistics involved in the task. For example, the stones that built the Great Pyramid of Giza’s core weighed up to 1.5 tons each. The granite stones used for the roofs of the burial chambers weighed as much as 80 tons.
Workers had to first quarry the stones. Then they transported them some distance to the construction site and subsequently raised them into position. But were these people slaves? They certainly have been portrayed as such, since ancient Greek historian Heredotus made the claim.
Yet findings by archaeologists in 2010 turned that idea on its head. They discovered the 4,000-year-old graves of laborers and craftsmen near the pyramids. And these were not the tombs of slaves. Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass was unequivocal an interview with the The Guardian. “[There is] no way would they have been buried so honorably if they were slaves,” he said.
And Hawass said that the workers had actually been paid. So that’s just one example of how theories about the building of the pyramids generate controversy. But Enmarch and his team’s discovery went to the heart of a different debate. How were the huge blocks of stone that the pyramids were built from moved?
Enmarch was co-leader of a team of archaeologists. They came from the U.K.’s University of Liverpool and France’s Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo. In fact, Enmarch has been researching at the Hatnub quarry since 2012. The dig in 2018 was a continuation of the research there.
Enmarch and his colleagues have been working on the Hatnub Epigraphic Project, examining ancient inscriptions. The ancient Egyptians valued the series of quarries at Hatnub due to the alabaster found there, and in fact quarrying continues to this day. Alabaster is a light-colored mineral which is relatively soft and ideal for carving.
Enmarch explained alabaster’s importance on the University of Liverpool’s website. “The Hatnub quarries were the most prestigious source for… alabaster, the milky white banded stone which was much beloved of Egyptian civilization,” he wrote.
The carved inscriptions in the quarries have drawn archaeologists there. The effort to record these is particularly urgent as quarrying continues at the site. The work has revealed unrecorded inscriptions, with the team also photographing some only previously documented in handwritten records.
These inscriptions can cast light on the early Middle Kingdom of Egypt dating from around 2150 to 1950 B.C. “The quarry preserves large numbers of inscriptions left by ancient quarrying expeditions from 4500-4000 years ago,” Enmarch wrote. “These enable us to better understand the personnel and logistics of organizing expeditions to these desert quarry sites.”
But while examining these important inscriptions, the archaeologists discovered something unexpected. They found a 4,500-year-old stone ramp cut from the rock. And it had some intriguing features.
Enmarch described what he and his team had found. “… We discovered an extremely well-preserved ramp leading up out of the quarry, with traces of post holes that will enable us to reconstruct in more detail the ancient technologies of stone haulage and extraction.”
Stairways are carved into the stone at the edges of the ramp. Enmarch’s colleague from the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology explained what they’d found. “This system is composed of a central ramp flanked by two staircases with numerous post holes,” he said.
“Using a sled which carried a stone block and was attached with ropes to these wooden posts, ancient Egyptians were able to pull up the alabaster blocks out of the quarry on very steep slopes of 20 percent or more,” Gourdon continued.
And what’s exciting about the discovery of this ramp is its age. At 4,500 years old, it matches closely with the period when the Great Pyramid of Egypt was being built. “Since this ramp dates to the reign of Khufu, our research offers the exciting possibility for offering further insights into the logistics and technologies used in constructing that astonishing building,” Enmarch pointed out.
The idea that construction workers may have used ramps to move the huge blocks that the pyramids were constructed from is not new. But this discovery casts fresh light on the engineering techniques that were actually used. And it’s the purpose of those steps and post holes that is most fascinating.
The positions of the steps and the holes suggest teams of laborers may have pulled the blocks at the bottom as well as the top of the ramp. They could have achieved this by using a system of pulleys attached to the posts, archaeologists believe.
Speaking to the Guardian, Enmarch said, “The system we have discovered would allow more people to exert force at one time. So it means you would be able to exert more force and move the blocks more quickly.” In other words, the process of moving these gigantic stones would have been made more efficient.
So our knowledge of how these wondrous structures were built continues to grow. The myth that slave labor constructed them has been largely debunked. And now it seems that the methods used to build the structures were rather more sophisticated than we previously understood.