How the Egyptians Constructed the Pyramids-the Mud Ramp Theory Debunked!

© Copyright March 2007 Frank Steiger
Revised September 2007
Second Revision December 2009

 

Mud rubble ramps to the top of 400 foot high pyramids? Ridiculous! Instead, the Egyptians used portable wooden ramps at each level. This web site provides a complete description. The Wikipedia web site on Egyptian pyramid construction refers to the writings of Herodotus, a 5th century B.C. Greek historian. He describes a pyramid construction procedure based on moving blocks with levers from one level to the next as each level is completed:

This pyramid was made like stairs, which some call steps and others, tiers. When this, its first form, was completed, the workmen used short wooden logs as levers to raise the rest of the stones; they heaved up the blocks from the ground onto the first tier of steps; when the stone had been raised, it was set on another lever that stood on the first tier, and the lever again used to lift it from this tier to the next. It may be that there was a new lever on each tier of steps, or perhaps there was only one lever, quite portable, which they carried up to each tier in turn; I leave this uncertain, as both possibilities were mentioned. But this is certain, that the upper part of the pyramid was finished off first, then the next below it, and last of all the base and the lowest part.

If you substitute "wooden ramp" for "lever," the procedure described is the same as described below. In order to raise an object with levers, you need a ramp!

Please send comments or criticism to fjsteiger@gmail.com. Replies may be posted to this web site.

My background:
I am a California State registered engineer (retired), registration number CH 2830. To obtain this registration, I had to pass two eight hour written examinations. I have a B. S. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. My post graduate university studies included courses in soils and foundations, and concrete technology. Before retirement, I was in charge of the Materials Testing Laboratory which was, and still is, part of the Engineering Division of the Port of Los Angeles. I have published a paper in the Geotechnical Testing Journal of the American Society for Testing and Materials. In 1981 I received a Special Service Award from ASTM for my work in soils and foundation engineering.

Is it easier to push a two ton stone block up a wood ramp or a ramp made of mud and gravel? According to the three most recognized experts in the field of Egyptology the answer isa mud ramp! Mark Lehner, Zahi Hawass, and John Romer have committed their web pages and lavishly illustrated books to the absurd mud ramp theory. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Wikipedia continue to sick their fingers in their ears and insist that these authorities could not possibly be wrong.

Even though it is generally conceded that a single straight mud rubble ramp to the top of one of the larger pyramids is simply not possible, it is still illustrated in many web pages. The gigantic size and the labor and materials necessary to construct and remove such a ramp effectively rule it out of consideration. The only practical method of raising and placing the stone blocks is the use of portable wooden ramps on each of the four sides of the pyramid. Photographs of the larger pyramids reveal that the stone blocks were placed in uniform horizontal layers. (See photographs on cover and pp 59 & 61 of Pyramids: Treasures, Mysteries, and New Discoveries in Egypt, Zahi Hawass, editor.) During construction, the outermost course of stone blocks was temporarily omitted in order to provide room for the wooden ramps. As each layer was completed, the topmost ramp was moved upward, with the lower ramps following in succession to form a continuous queue of stone blocks moving on the ramps to the placement level. Upon reaching the top, the angular facing blocks were placed from the top down. The angular blocks alternated with the final rectangular blocks to fill the space previously omitted to provide for the wooden ramp. As each row of angular facing blocks was placed, the wooden ramps were moved down in a stepwise progression, starting with the lowest ramp. This required careful planning to ensure that upon reaching the top, the queue then consisted of angular facing blocks alternating with rectangular blocks.

Many of the most visited web sites, including Wikipedia "pyramid construction," mistakenly accept the fiction that the larger Egyptian pyramids were constructed using mud rubble ramps to move the stone blocks to the placement level. Strangely enough, some of these same web sites quote (and reject) ancient sources that the stone blocks were raised in a stepwise manner from one level to the next.

On pp. 216-217 of the book, The Complete Pyramids, Solving the Ancient Mysteries, by Mark Lehner, a number of ramp configurations are shown. In the book, The Great Pyramid, Ancient Egypt Revisited, by John Romer, a single ramp placed against one side of the pyramid is illustrated. (Fig. 197, p. 401)

Pyramids Treasures Mysteries and New Discoveries in Egypt is a large, detailed, and lavishly illustrated collection edited by Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Director of the Gaza Pyramids Excavations. It represents current thinking regarding pyramid construction. Chapter 3, Building an Old Kingdom Pyramid by Mark Lehner postulates the use of temporary mud-rubble ramps placed against the sides of the pyramid and growing as the pyramid grew. On pages 54 and 55 he illustrates different ramp configurations and states "To raise most of the stone, the builders probably used ramps that, however they were shaped, must have been enormous structures in their own right."

Wikipedia has consistently rejected any submittal describing a method of pyramid construction using movable wooden ramps, and continues to illustrate various configurations of mud rubble ramps, including the absurd single mud ramp to the top of the pyramid.

These mud ramp theories lack credibility. A mud rubble ramp would have to be about a mile long and a hundred yards wide at the base in order to reach the top of the largest pyramid. Placing and removing this enormous amount of material by hand labor is clearly impractical, if not impossible. In addition, the ramp would have to be maintained as a constantly changing smooth surface to allow the movement of the stone blocks. The ramp surface would have to renewed after the placement of each level.

The zig-zag and spiral mud ramp configurations displayed on the Wikipedia web site and others also lack credibility. The slopes between each ascending mud ramp would have to be too steep for the ramps to merely remain in place. As in the case of the straight mud ramp, the difficulty in placing, maintaining, and removing these ramps effectively rules them out of consideration.

In Chapter 3 of Pyramids Treasures, Dr. Lehner assumes that the angular casing (finishing) stones were placed from the bottom up as the pyramid was constructed and then trimmed to fit after all were placed. He concludes "...the masons shaved the extra stock of rough [casing] stone after the entire pyramid had been built, starting at the top and working down to the baseline as they removed the construction ramps and embankments." In order to do so, the embankment would have to provide access to every part of the steep sides of the pyramid. This explanation raises more questions than answers.

Photographs in the Hawass publication show that the rectangular "backing stones" were placed in even horizontal rows of the same thickness. The angular finishing casing stones could have been manufactured off site to fit in each concourse of backing stones. The casing (finishing) stones must have been placed from the top down after all the backing stones were in place.

In response to comments rejecting the use of wooden ramps as impractical, here is a detailed explanation how they were made, how they were used, and how they were moved. Photographs of the Khufu pyramid reveal a construction of uniform blocks placed in horizontal layers. Based on this and other information, it is safe to assume that a typical block would be 4 feet high, 5 feet deep, and 5 feet wide. That is, 5 feet parallel to the side (face) of the pyramid. This equates to a volume of 100 cubic feet. The density of limestone varies from 135 to 160 pounds per cubic foot. In order to avoid under estimating the forces involved, a value of 150 pcf was selected. This equates to 15,000 pounds, or 7.5 tons. For a ramp slope of 7 to 1 slope selected as the most practical, the resolution of gravitational forces reveals that a force of 2143 pounds is the component parallel to the slope. This force, plus frictional resistance, would be necessary in order to move the block up the ramp. This could be done with a collection of 15 rope loops of various lengths enabling 30 men (15 on each side) to pull with a force of 71.4 pounds per man. Rollers were used to lessen the dragging friction. Because this friction is dependent on the force perpendicular to the plane on which movement occurs, it would be slightly less than the frictional force on the 6 foot long horizontal portion at the upper end of the ramp. It is not possible to estimate the amount of roller friction, but it should be a very small fraction of the 2143 pounds required to overcome the gravitational component. It could be necessary to secure the large end of the ramp to prevent it from being moved due to the force applied to the block.

The same team of 30 men would pull the stone block off the horizontal portion of the ramp on to the pyramid under construction. Because of the 90 degree change of direction, the rollers on the horizontal section of the ramp would not assist as before. However, this could be done without the assistance of rollers because the surfaces are now horizontal. In order to move more easily on to the previously placed pyramid layer, rollers would be placed in advance parallel to the ramp, that is, at right angles to the rollers on the ramp.

After a layer is completed, leaving a space around all four sides of the pyramid, it would be necessary to lift the ramp up and in so that future blocks could be moved up to the following future layer. The ramp itself was made with slots on the bottom to allow the passage of rope loops under the ramp. The ramp itself would have to be pulled and/or pried far enough away from the stone layer next to it to allow each rope loop to pass behind, under, and back up again. As before, there would be two men on each loop to lift the ramp and move it up and in. At a slope of 7 to 1, the horizontal length of the sloped portion of the ramp would be 28 feet. In order to move the stone block on to the pyramid layer being constructed, the top end of the ramp would need a horizontal extension of 6 feet. The over all horizontal length would therefore be 34 feet. A lifting loop at two foot intervals would equate to 34 men lifting, or 16 on each side. At an assumed 70 pounds per man lifting force, the total potential lifting force would be 2380 pounds to lift the ramp. Because more force would be required at the heavy end, this figure must be considered a ballpark estimate, but it should be possible to construct a wooden ramp capable to supporting the stone block and still not be too heavy to move.

It is clear that the only practical means of moving the stone blocks is the use of movable wooden ramps at each level as illustrated in this model. Each ramp consists of a sloped portion and a horizontal section the same height as the vertical dimension of the backing stone blocks. Each block was pushed and pulled up the sloped ramp to the level of the next course, then pushed and pulled into place. The large ceiling slabs were moved on their edges, possibly requiring a different set of ramps with a more gradual slope.

Wooden rollers were used to expedite moving over longer distances.

Before starting to place the blocks, it was necessary to orient the pyramid in a true north-south, east-west direction. On a night with no moon, two technicians with hanging plumb lines and oil lamps established the true north-south line. Worker A at a marked spot sighted through his plumb line to the plumb line of worker B, stationed in a northerly direction at a maximum distance at which observer A could still distinguish the second plumb line when lighted by lamp light. Worker A directed worker B to line his plumb line to coincide with the nearest polar star and mark the spot on the surface below. Fortunately at that latitude the pole star was not too high in the sky. However, it may have been necessary for worker B to be elevated on a support of some kind. As the polar star made its apparent small circle in the sky, worker B shifted his plumb line to coincide with the star, as observed by worker A. After a complete shift from side to side had been observed, the midpoint of the marked spots was then marked, and the line from A to B was then true north-south. The space between A and B was as great as possible to be accurately observed. This procedure was repeated at the opposite side of the building site, and a number of intermediate locations. The east-west lines were constructed by striking right angles using the procedure of two intersecting arcs. This whole process was repeated a number of times during construction to maintain accurate alignment.

To start a layer of rectangular blocks, a single block was placed at the exact center, as determined by the intersection of two sight lines from opposite corners. A marked grid of north-south and east-west lines insured that the blocks were correctly oriented and also established the location of the corners. Then four blocks were placed alongside the initial block to form a cross. Four more blocks were then placed to form a nine block square. Four more blocks were placed at each corner of the nine block square in such a manner that each side of the square had only on block placed against it. Three more blocks were moved along each side of the square to each of the four corner blocks, as illustrated here. The fourth block in each line created a 25 block square with a corner block at each corner.

Note that as each row is completed, an extra block is placed at the end of the row. The following rows will start by placing the first block of the new row against the extra block at the end of the previous row. This permits the placing of four rows at the same time. This is far more efficient than the single block at a time configuration illustrated in other web sites, and I give the Egyptian engineers credit for choosing the more efficient procedure.

This process continued to complete the first level. These models illustrate the manner in which the second and third levels were constructed.

In this manner each layer was constructed from all four sides simultaneously. As each level was completed, the topmost ramp was moved up (and necessarily in) one level, followed in succession by each following ramp, with a new ramp placed on the lowest level to complete the sequence.

These illustrations are meant to illustrate the procedures involved. In actual construction, the interior of the pyramid consists of chambers, passageways, and areas of irregular stones and possibly even rubble. In addition, the lower layers were often built around natural stone outcrops. Allowance had to made for these variations. However, regardless of the interior structure and material placed, the placement procedures remain the same as illustrated.

As stated, wooden ramps were used to move the blocks to the next higher level. Because the ramps were too wide for the ultimate setback at each level, the outside perimeter of each level was temporarily omitted, to be filled in later. The ramps were arranged so that the sloped end of each ramp faced the sloped ends of the ramps above and below. Sufficient space was left between ramps to allow movement of the stone blocks, and later, the angular facing stones. After the first level of blocks were placed, a ramp was placed at ground level to place the second level of blocks. After the second level was placed, the ramp was moved up to the first level and a new ground level ramp installed. This permitted the placement of the third level, and so on. Near the top of the pyramid the blocks had to be muscled in by manpower because there was no room for the ramps.

Ramps 1, 2, and 3 were made of wood and therefore light enough to be lifted from one level to the next. Initially the ramps were placed as shown in the top diagram. Block A was originally in the lower position occupied by block C. It was moved to the top position by being shoved, pulled, and pried to the top position. In a similar manner blocks B and C were placed. They were moved on wooded rollers constructed from imported wood shipped from areas like the upper Nile and the eastern Mediterranean coast.

In the second diagram, block A was moved up one level, followed by ramp 1. Using ramp 2, block B was moved one level. Ramp 2 is then moved up one level. Block C is moved up one level, and ramp 3 is then moved up one level. The result is the same configuration as in the first diagram, but one level higher.

Finally, block A is a position to move to the top of the assembly to start a new level, and the whole procedure is repeated once again. As stated before, these steps take place simultaneously on all four sides of the pyramid. At the same, provision had to made for interior tunnels and chambers. An extraordinary degree of engineering planning and management was required to carry out the complex production in a timely manner.

The work was carried in a "production line" format using a continuous string of blocks and ramps with each one moving to the position of the previous as the changes were made. In order to do this, crews of workers were stationed at each level of the work in progress, starting at ground level.

In order to maintain the proper slope, a triangular template was used with the slope angle extended downward as far as possible, probably about three courses of stone levels.

Both the rectangular and angular facing blocks were placed from all four sides at the same time, reducing the time to one-fourth of what it would be otherwise.

After all the rectangular blocks were placed to the top of the pyramid, the angular facing blocks were placed from the top down, as illustrated in this model. Each angular facing block in the queue was alternated with one or more rectangular block or blocks in order to fill in the stepped back sections temporarily left empty in order to provide room for the wooden ramps. Placement started simultaneously at the top on each of the four sides. Each row started at the corner end with a double angled corner block and continued to meet the previously placed corner block of the adjacent side.

The ramps were shifted laterally as the facing blocks were placed in order to avoid having to move each block laterally over the existing rectangular blocks to its final location. Thus the assemblage of ramps in a time lapse sequence would appear to swing back and forth in slow motion as each row of facing blocks was placed. As the row of facing blocks neared the end of its course, it was necessary to move the blocks laterally over the remaining existing rectangular blocks because at this point there was no room for the placing ramp. After each row of angled facing blocks was completed, the ramps were moved down one level in a stepwise progression, beginning with the lowest ramp. The block moving crew assigned to each level moved the ramps in sequence in a sort of chain reaction. In this manner the ramps were moved in less than a day.

This diagram shows the placement of the triangular facing blocks. These angled facing blocks were placed from the top down after all the rectangular blocks were placed. Block 1 represents the corner facing block and is placed first in the line. The ramps R1, R2, and R3 enable the facing blocks to be moved to level L1. In the top diagram, Block 3 will move up ramp 2 to level 2. Ramp R1 is then moved to the left so that block 3 can move up to level 1 adjacent to block 2.

Note that each level recedes as you go up. In the top diagram R 2 is not on top of block 4, but rather one step back, away from the viewer. Likewise, in the bottom diagram R1 is not on top of block 12.

As each facing block is moved up one level to be placed in the row, the block below is moved up to take its place. In the top diagram, block 4 will move up to take the place of block 3 after block 3 has moved up to level 2.

The ramp R1 is moved to the left as each block is placed until it runs out of room at the left end. It is then necessary to move the blocks from position 8 to the left end, in the numbered sequence shown. The end block C is already in place from to a similar simultaneous procedure on the left adjacent side. After block 11 is placed, ramp R1 is removed. This could be done in one of two ways. Either by removing the top most ramp and carrying it down to the bottom, or by moving all the ramps down one level in a stepwise process, starting at the bottom. The whole process is repeated, this time from the left end. The left hand end block of level 2 should be shown, but was inadvertently omitted from the diagram.

In order to avoid having to move the facing blocks an excessive lateral distance before placing, and also due to the fact that the ramps must be moved to the next rectangular block to stay in position to place each facing block in turn, the upward queue of facing blocks must be offset to the left as shown in the position of facing blocks 4 and 3. The position in the queue where the angular facing blocks replace the rectangular blocks when loaded at the bottom of the queue was determined by the Egyptians based on calculating the length of the queue and the number of spaces left to be filled. The Egyptians also calculated the points in the facing block queues where the double angled corner facing blocks had to be put in the proper sequence to arrive at the end of each assigned row of facing blocks. In addition, in order to maintain the proper lateral skew of each group of facing assigned to the planned level, the loading location at the bottom was systemically moved back and forth to establish the necessary zig zag queue pattern.

Successful completion required sophisticated engineering and careful planning.

The pyramids by necessity were constructed on bed rock. A sand foundation would not support the weight of the pyramid, and it would not be possible to move and place heavy stone blocks on unstable sand. After the limestone outcrop was approximately leveled and the surplus material used to manufacture blocks, it was necessary to accurately level the site. In order to do this, a rectangular box was used to provide a sighting level. The Egyptians knew how to construct 90 degree right angles by two intersecting arcs, so the box was perfectly rectangular. Its height was equal to the eye level of the person using it. From the center of the top surface a plumb bob was suspended. When the plumb was directly over the center of the bottom surface, the top surface was perfectly level.

The surveyor's system consisted of a short plank with two identical sights at each end. It was placed on the level box. A vertical rod, held by an assistant, was viewed by the surveyor sighting along the sights of the level. The rod was marked at a height HI equal to the height of the level sights above the ground. Above and below this mark were units of measurement. As directed by the surveyor, the man holding the rod moved a pointer P until it lined up with the viewing sights. The distance below the HI mark indicated material to be removed. The stone base was accordingly marked and and the surplus later removed. This procedure was repeated many times, moving from one area to the next and back again.

In addition to this procedure, the Egyptians constructed large wooden isosceles triangles with the midpoint of the base marked. A plumb bob was suspended from the top corner. The surface on which the triangle was placed was level when the bob was directly over the marked mid point. These instruments continued to be used during construction in order to maintain a level surface as the work progressed.

 

Contrary to Wikipedia misinformation, the pyramid blocks were NOT placed using kites-click here for info!

 

A criticism of Jean-Pierre Houdin's interior ramp theory of pyramid construction-click here for info

 

The pyramid blocks were NOT made of concrete-click here for info!

 

Why you won't find this information in Wikipedia!

 

Some inconsistencies in the National Geographic and Smithsonian web sites!

 

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