How Egyptian Pyramid Builders Moved Construction Materials by Water (2022)

Regardless of how they were constructed, the Egyptian pyramids of the Giza Plateau represent one of mankind’s most astonishing engineering achievements. The logistical challenges of moving millions of tons of building materials to the site would have been immense, yet the mere existence of these ancient marvels proves the Egyptians found a way to do it. And evidence is building that the Giza pyramid builders relied on water transportation to move heavy quarry stones.

Archaeological and urban development excavations in the region have revealed the existence of a series of canals and basins that experts are certain were used to carry materials - including the limestone and granite that make up the bulk of the pyramids - to the Giza site. These man-made structures would have harnessed the flow of the Nile and created a direct connection between Africa’s most famous river and the Giza Plateau. This passage would have been perfect for the pyramid builders to save time and money.

How Egyptian Pyramid Builders Moved Construction Materials by Water (1)

The recent PNAS study on the Giza pyramid builders used previous research and pollen samples to show that canals and boats carried construction materials from quarries for Egypt’s great pyramids. This illustration shows all the kinds of boats the Egyptians had in ancient times and how they were used. (New York Public Library / Public domain )

Giza’s Pyramid Builders Used Canals To Move Stones

In ancient Egyptian manuscripts known as the Wadi-al-Jarf papyri, the design of the water diversion project that allowed for the transport of materials to the Giza Plateau was described in detail. These documents relate how limestone was quarried at a site known as Toura and transported to the construction site of the Great Pyramid of Khufu , the largest of the three Giza pyramids. The canal route that connected the quarry with Giza covered a distance of 11 miles (17 kilometers), and archaeological discoveries in the area have confirmed that the basins, ports, and canals described in the Wadi-al-Jarf papyri really did exist.

(Video) How Egyptian Pyramid Builders Moved Construction Materials by Water

This type of interlocking system of waterways would have been absolutely necessary to transport heavy construction materials to the Giza building site. The Nile is located five miles (eight kilometers) to the east of the pyramids, and that would have made overland transport of millions of tons of building materials impossible. Key to the operation of the canal system was a now-extinct tributary of the Nile known as the Khufu branch, which ran along the western edge of the Giza floodplain. This natural channel would have comprised the final link in the Nile-Giza canal network.

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Up to now, however, no analysis had been performed to demonstrate that water levels on the Khufu branch were high enough to make the passage of transport boats possible during Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2,686 to 2,160 BC), when the pyramids were allegedly erected.

That oversight has finally been rectified, thanks to the efforts of a team of French scientists who’ve just published a new study of the ancient Khufu branch in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . The scientists have confirmed that water levels on this Nile tributary would have been sufficient during Fourth Dynasty days to create a permanent link with the artificial canal system, making it possible for supply boats to carry millions of tons of limestone and granite directly to the Giza Plateau.

(Video) How were the pyramids of egypt really built - Part 1

How Egyptian Pyramid Builders Moved Construction Materials by Water (2)

The recent PNAS study on the Giza pyramid builders relied on Giza floodplain pollen cores to show ancient water or canal water levels. The two cores used to reconstruct Holocene variations in Khufu-branch levels (cores G1 and G4) are located where the Khufu basin was connected to the Nile. ( PNAS)

Tracking Ancient Plant Growth to Reveal the Facts

So how exactly were the French scientists able to calculate water levels of a river branch that dried up thousands of years ago?

To obtain this knowledge, they relied on an indirect but ingenious method that gave them accurate information about what water levels on the Khufu tributary would have been in ancient times.

On the ancient floodplain surrounding this now-defunct section of the Nile River network, the scientists collected pollen grains from different sediment levels. They did so by drilling and removing pollen core samples from a location just east of the pyramid complex.

Using this approach, they were able to track changes in the historical growth patterns of 61 different plants that can thrive on floodplains, depending on the frequency of flooding that occurs (which in turn depends on water levels of the flooding river or tributary). Putting together the pieces of a complex puzzle, they were able to calculate water levels in the Nile’s Khufu branch over 8,000 years of Egyptian history, extending well past the point in time when the pyramids were allegedly constructed.

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It turns out water levels on the Khufu were highest during the African Humid Period , which lasted from 14,800 to 5,500 years ago. From this time on water levels began to recede gradually, but the Khufu branch remained at an elevated level throughout the Old Kingdom Period.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, which is said to have been constructed as a monument to the pharaoh Khufu (and hence the name, Khufu branch), was completed approximately 4,500 years ago, as were its two partners, the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure. At this time the Khufu tributary would have been navigable, making the movement of heavy construction materials (primarily limestone and granite) a viable enterprise.

How Egyptian Pyramid Builders Moved Construction Materials by Water (3)

Dr. Mark Lehner of the Ancient Egypt Research Associates has done a lot of work on the ancient port of Giza and how it was used by the pyramid builders. (Dr. Mark Lehner / Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Inc. )

Celebrating Two Works of Engineering Genius

The authors of the article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explained precisely how the complex river-and-canal system worked on the Giza end.

(Video) A now-dry branch of the Nile helped build Egypt's pyramids new study says

“The fluvial-port-complex hypothesis postulates that pyramid builders cut through the western levee of the Khufu branch of the Nile and dredged basins down to river depth, in order to harness the annual seven-meter rise of the [Nile] flood like a hydraulic lift, bringing the higher water levels to the base of the Giza Plateau,” they wrote. “In this way, it was possible to transport supplies and building materials directly to the pyramid complex.”

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The canal-and-river system would have allowed for the transport of materials and people over much longer distances as well. It was built to facilitate monument construction of all types in ancient Egypt, and it also connected Giza with Egyptian cities in the region. The Nile’s annual floods provided all the water that was needed for such a system to work once the Egyptians had figured out how best to capture it and use it for their benefit.

While not a match for the pyramids themselves, this interlocking system of canals, basins, ports, and natural river tributaries that unlocked the transportation potential of the Nile was itself a work of engineering genius of the pyramid builders.

Without such a system for redirecting water to where it was needed Egypt’s monument-building activities would have been severely restricted.

Top image: An artist's illustration showing how a now-defunct arm of the Nile River known as the Khufu branch once reached the pyramids, which the Giza pyramid builders used to great advantage to move heavy construction materials according the recent PNAS pollen core study. Source: Alex Boersma / PNAS

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By Nathan Falde

FAQs

How did they transport the materials to the pyramid building sites? ›

“For the construction of the pyramids, the ancient Egyptians had to transport heavy blocks of stone and large statues across the desert,” the university said. “The Egyptians therefore placed the heavy objects on a sledge that workers pulled over the sand.

How did Egyptians transport building materials? ›

Transporting building materials

They attached the sleds to the block, and a crew of about eight men rolled them along the ground, much like rolling a keg of beer. Others say the laborers used wooden rollers. For long-distance transport, the blocks were loaded on barges and transported down the Nile.

How did they move the bricks for the pyramids? ›

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.”

How were the pyramids built using water? ›

The Water Shaft Theory

The canals lead to a moat that went all the way around the build site perimeter, allowing blocks to be floated to the side where they were needed. Four water pipelines were then supposedly used to float the blocks uphill and were extended as the pyramid grew.

How did Egyptians move boulders? ›

Recent discoveries have led experts to conclude that the Egyptians constructed massive sleds to pull the giant rocks through the sand. They'd also have someone at the front of the sled pouring water into the sand to reduce friction.

How heavy are the bricks in the pyramids? ›

The average weight of a block is about 2.3 metric tons (2.5 tons).

How did they lift the blocks to the top of the pyramid? ›

The generally accepted theory is that the ancient Egyptians dragged the blocks on sledges over causeways made of either slaked lime or tafla (a local clay). The remains of causeways constructed of tafla have been found all over the Giza plateau (Hadingham 1992, p. 51).

What building method was used for the construction of the Egyptian pyramids? ›

Evidence points to the Egyptians using gypsum mortar – also known as plaster of Paris – in constructing pyramids during the Pharaonic period. The first Egyptologist to identify this method was Alfred Lucas in 1926.

What material was used for construction of the pyramid? ›

Locally quarried limestone was the material of choice for the main body of these pyramids, while a higher quality of limestone quarried at Tura (near modern Cairo) was used for the outer casing.

Who moved the pyramid stones? ›

The ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids may have been able to move massive stone blocks across the desert by wetting the sand in front of a contraption built to pull the heavy objects, according to a new study.

How do you lift pyramid stones? ›

The stones intended for use in constructing the pyramids were lifted by means of a short wooden scaffold. In this way they were raised from the earth to the first step of the staircase; there they were laid on another scaffold, by means of which they were raised to the second step.

How many men move a pyramid stone? ›

Then, we may need about 2250/75 = 30 men, and about ten ropes, five on each side, if each rope is pulled by three men. This is quite a number. Though we can decrease this number using counterbalance, in general many men would be needed to lift such a big stone. But this is not the case of smaller stones.

Did they use water to make the pyramids? ›

Ancient Egyptians used wet sand to drag massive pyramid stones, say scientists. New research suggests that ancient Egyptians reduced the friction of the sand with water to transport the colossal stones used to build the pyramids.

Why is there water in pyramids? ›

Basically, the water prevents the sled from digging into the sand and creating more friction. Critical thinking challenge: Why did the ancient Egyptians use slaves instead of steam engines to move the blocks to build the pyramids?

What is the water shaft theory? ›

The water shaft theory

This theory suggests that a long water causeway was constructed from a local water source, as a way of transporting the stones by floating them to the site. Supposedly, floats were made of wood or inflated animal skins so they could be pulled to shore easily.

How did they move big stones? ›

They were most likely moved over land routes mounted on sleds, which then slid across rollers or rails, he explained. "Plenty of experiments have been done to show this is possible." Some of the bigger sarsens weigh about 40 tons (36 metric tonnes) and would need about 150 people to pull them along, Darvill added.

How heavy are the stones at the pyramids? ›

For calculations most Egyptologists use 2.5 tons as the weight of an average pyramid stone block. 8000 tons of granite were imported from Aswan located at more than 800 km away. The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found above the “King's” chamber, weigh 25 to 80 tons each.

Why can't we build pyramids today? ›

While the pyramid was originally built by 4,000 workers over the course of 20 years using strength, sleds and ropes, building the pyramid today using stone-carrying vehicles, cranes and helicopters would probably take 1,500 to 2,000 workers around five years, and it would cost on the order of $5 billion, Houdin said, ...

Are pyramids hollow? ›

Pyramids aren't hollow: They're incredibly solid and usually only contain a few claustrophobic chambers, connected by long, sloping pathways and concealed entrances, in order to confuse potential tomb raiders.

How long did pyramids take to build? ›

Pyramids were constructed by large work gangs over a period of many years. The Pyramid Age spans over a thousand years, starting in the third dynasty and ending in the Second Intermediate Period. The Greek historian Herodotus was told that it took 100,000 men 20 years to build the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Did elephants help build the pyramids? ›

Elephants were never common in Egypt like they are in India today, so they were never part of the construction. It is the case that cows were used and we do have evidence of that, but in moving something as big as the obelisk it was most probably people power.

How far have the pyramids moved? ›

The great pyramids of Egypt now stand a full 3 miles south of the spot where they were originally built. That's how much the earth's surface has shifted in the last 4500 years.

How did the Romans lift stones? ›

In the case of quarried stones, workers used wooden rollers to help them overcome friction before they had to be lifted. Ropes were also used to help the workers get a grip. Access ramps were used when the stone needed to be transported up or down slightly so that it did not need to be lifted.

How were pyramids built step by step? ›

Building the Pyramids of Egypt ...a detailed step by step guide.

What challenges did the Egyptians face in constructing the pyramid? ›

A major problem facing the builders of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramids, was that of getting the Large stone blocks to the height they required. the method shown at left, is the only one proven to have been used. The ramps were built on inclined planes of mud brick and rubble.

What was the first step in building a pyramid? ›

The first step in building a pyramid was to choose a suitable site. This had to be on the west side of the Nile where the Sun would set, considering that Ancient Egyptians believed that wherever the sun sets that's was the portal to the afterlife.

Are the pyramids poured concrete? ›

Within the first minute at the Khufu (Cheops) pyramid, we knew that all other Egyptologists and geologists were correct and that the pyramids are built of real limestone blocks, not of concrete.

Could the pyramids have been poured concrete? ›

Barsoum, a professor of materials engineering, said microscope, X-ray and chemical analysis of scraps of stone from the pyramids "suggest a small but significant percentage of blocks on the higher portions of the pyramids were cast" from concrete.

Are the pyramids built on sand? ›

Made up from a thick layer of limestone, the Giza-plateau can support the weight of the pyramid. Other pyramids, built only on sand, collapsed over time, like the (smaller) pyramid of Meidum. Cheops pyramid is made up from roughly 2.3 or 2.6 million blocks, carefully selected from various rock types.

Where did they get the stones for the pyramids? ›

The Egyptians sourced this from the Tura quarries, south-east of Giza on the opposite side of the Nile. Scholars estimate that 67,390 cubic metres of fine Tura limestone was quarried for the Great Pyramid alone.

What materials were used to build the pyramids? ›

Locally quarried limestone was the material of choice for the main body of these pyramids, while a higher quality of limestone quarried at Tura (near modern Cairo) was used for the outer casing.

What methods were used to build the pyramids? ›

To bind the rocks together, the Egyptians used mortar much like in modern building processes. Evidence points to the Egyptians using gypsum mortar – also known as plaster of Paris – in constructing pyramids during the Pharaonic period. The first Egyptologist to identify this method was Alfred Lucas in 1926.

Why did pyramids have gold tops? ›

A pyramidion was "covered in gold leaf to reflect the rays of the sun"; during Egypt's Middle Kingdom pyramidia were often "inscribed with royal titles and religious symbols".

Why was the limestone removed from the pyramids? ›

The top-most part was lost because, over time, the pyramid outer casing was stripped for stone to use it in building elsewhere. What we see of the pyramids today is the stepped core stone which is a coarser limestone than that which was used for the outer casing.

What happened to the white limestone on pyramids? ›

Initially standing at 146.6 metres (481 feet), the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years. Over time, most of the smooth white limestone casing was removed, which lowered the pyramid's height to the present 138.5 metres (454.4 ft).

Was it physically possible to build the pyramids? ›

The three smaller pyramids at Giza probably were built by the Eygptians as they could be built by man but it's impossible that the three bigger ones were, simply from the size of them - they've got 2,250,000 blocks in them and each block weighs about 250 tonnes, we couldn't even move it with all the equipment we have ...

What were the materials used to build the Great Pyramid of Giza? ›

The Great Pyramid of Giza

Are the pyramids made of concrete? ›

Within the first minute at the Khufu (Cheops) pyramid, we knew that all other Egyptologists and geologists were correct and that the pyramids are built of real limestone blocks, not of concrete.

How do the pyramids not collapse? ›

The Egyptians had realised that – they knew that if they could construct joints so tight that water couldn't get in, then the building would not destroy itself and it would last a long time. They did this in the Great Pyramid.

What is the water shaft theory? ›

The water shaft theory

This theory suggests that a long water causeway was constructed from a local water source, as a way of transporting the stones by floating them to the site. Supposedly, floats were made of wood or inflated animal skins so they could be pulled to shore easily.

How long did pyramids take to build? ›

Pyramids were constructed by large work gangs over a period of many years. The Pyramid Age spans over a thousand years, starting in the third dynasty and ending in the Second Intermediate Period. The Greek historian Herodotus was told that it took 100,000 men 20 years to build the Great Pyramid at Giza.

What specialized skills were needed to build the pyramids? ›

Although materials were difficult to dig from the earth, the pyramids were achieved in such a way that leaves no doubt of the ancient Egyptian grasp of mathematics, engineering, and architectural finesse.

Are pyramids made of sand? ›

Made up from a thick layer of limestone, the Giza-plateau can support the weight of the pyramid. Other pyramids, built only on sand, collapsed over time, like the (smaller) pyramid of Meidum. Cheops pyramid is made up from roughly 2.3 or 2.6 million blocks, carefully selected from various rock types.

Who really built the pyramids? ›

It was the Egyptians who built the pyramids. The Great Pyramid is dated with all the evidence, I'm telling you now to 4,600 years, the reign of Khufu. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is one of 104 pyramids in Egypt with superstructure. And there are 54 pyramids with substructure.

Videos

1. How were the pyramids of egypt really built - Part 2
(pyramidsreallybuilt)
2. Episode 38: Building The Great Pyramid With Water
(The Land of Chem)
3. Evidence Reveals How the Pyramids Were Actually Built
(The Infographics Show)
4. Building the Pyramids of Egypt ...a detailed step by step guide.
(pyramidsreallybuilt)
5. Egypt's Pyramid Construction Secret: Just Add Water
(Newsy Weird Stuff)
6. AMAZING VIDEO! Man Lifts 20 Ton Block By Hand?
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