The pyramids of Egypt are some of the most fascinating and enigmatic structures on the planet; to date the secret of their unique construction has yet to be determined.
The pyramids were built using massive blocks of stone, and one of the most unfathomable mysteries is how the early Egyptians managed to transport the blocks across the desert and lift them into place.
New theories are constantly being mooted by experts around the world, ranging from the complex to the fantastic, but a recent study conducted by the University of Amsterdam claims to have discovered a very simple and rather mundane method whereby the ancient people were able to achieve this amazing feat.
The researchers suggest that the Egyptians dragged the enormous chunks of granite across the Valley of the Kings on a sledge pulled by hundreds of men, facilitating their passage by pouring water in front of the sledge. Recreating the process, scientists reported that the damp sand reduced friction and enabled the heavy objects to be moved with less force.
According to study lead author Daniel Bonn, a physics professor at the University of Amsterdam,the hypothesis was inspired and substantiated by wall paintings discovered in the tomb of Djehutihotep, which appear to illustrate that 172 men are hauling a large statue using ropes attached to a sledge, with another figure shown standing on the front of the sledge pouring liquid over the sand.
Bonn's team carried out a laboratory experiment in which a smaller version of the Egyptian sledge transported weights ranging between 100 grams to a few kilograms in a tray of sand.
"When the sand was dry, a heap of sand formed in front of the sled, hindering its movement; a relatively high force was needed for the sled to reach a steady state," stats the study. "Adding water made the sand more rigid, and the heaps decreased in size until no heap formed in front of the moving sled and therefore a lower applied force was needed to reach a steady state."
The wetting of the sand had previously been associated with some form of ritual procedure, but Bonn claims that the results of the study discredit this explanation, and that the type of jar used in the painting suggests that the liquid being poured is definitely water and not oil or any other type of fluid.
The findings of the study, entitled "Sliding Friction on Wet and Dry Sand," were published in the journal Physical Review Letters, but its "wet sand" theory seems overly simplistic and fails to address other unanswered questions, including the most obvious: once transported across the desert, how were the huge blocks lifted into place?
For millennia, historians, philosophers and researchers have attempted to answer this question, but the most widely accepted theory is that ramps were used to haul the stones up the outside of the 146m high structures, either straight or in a spiralling fashion.
However, these theories are even doubted by the experts themselves:
Egyptologist Bob Brier once said to the media, "I've been teaching them myself for 20 years but deep down I know they're wrong."
It is very doubtful that this latest study has provided any new answers; in fact, as a theory it is not even a fresh example. Chris Dunn, a retired engineer, researcher and author of the "The Giza Power Plant: Technologies of Ancient Egypt" and "Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt: Advanced Engineering in the Temples of the Pharaohs," said he was surprised at the buzz the allegedly novel theory was receiving:
"This is not a new theory and the graphic of the statue being pulled on a sled with a presumed liquid poured from a jug has been referenced many times by Egyptologists and other more conventional orthodox scholars and researchers," he told Unknown Country.
"What we see in this experiment is a tray of sand with water poured onto it. That is a failed experiment in my opinion.
"The tray would contain both the sand and the water. The open desert would allow the water to soak deeper into the sand or spread out. Under the desert sun it would evaporate quickly also. Moreover, to argue that a 500 ton obelisk or a 600 or 1000 ton statue could be moved this way based on what this lab experiment has revealed is laughable."
Sometimes the simplest answer is the most effective, but to suggest that the mystery that has baffled experts for thousands of years is now solved by such an apparently banal theory tested merely with weights in a tray of sand is beyond reasonable belief. Perhaps if the researchers had managed to recreate the transport of a mega-ton block of stone then, to pardon the pun, the theory might carry more weight, but the riddle of the pyramids would still not be fully solved.
"As with any theory, new or old, demonstration of its efficacy goes a long way to support the theory," explains Mr. Dunn. "But even if a proper demonstration is made and is proven to work, it still ends up as just a theory. "
The issue is that there is no surviving historic evidence to support any modern-day presumptions, and for this reason, the mystery of the pyramids will endure.
"For it to be accepted as a fact, eye witness testimony from the time the pyramids were built would need to be questioned," commented Mr. Dunn." Of course, that isn't going to happen and those who prefer to maintain the status quo with respect to the level of technology available to the pyramid builders will happily accept this study.
"Myself, from a scientific perspective, it doesn't even address the central problem. That is moving multi-ton blocks of limestone and granite across the desert."
Pyramids have not only been constructed in Egypt, but are to be found all across the globe in a variety of different locations including Rome, Greece, Mexico, and Mauritius, and not always in desert locations; the "wet sand" method does not explain how pyramids could be constructed in grassland or rocky locations, for example. A newly discovered pyramid has recently been found in an underwater site between the islands of São Miguel and Terceira in the Azores of Portugal. The structure is said to be perfectly squared and oriented by the cardinal points, and current estimates obtained using GPS digital technology put its height at 60 meters with a base of 8000 square meters. It cannot be a coincidence that so many of these distinctly-shaped structures are found across the globe, constructed at different times by different cultures.
So, does the latest study reveal the mysteries of the pyramids' construction?
Doubtful. The true mysteries of the pyramids lie not only in their construction, but also in their still unfathomable purpose. When one considers the astounding legacies of these ancient cultures that still remain in the form of amazing monuments, , it seems to be an affront to their incredible achievements to assume that their methods were primitive just because they took place thousands of years ago. In fact, some of the buildings appear to be such incredible feats of engineering, whose construction would still pose a challenge to the most advanced modern-day engineers, that some suggest that these societies were assisted in their endeavors by off-earth civilisations. Whether or not alien help was received, it seems certain that highly advanced technologies have come and gone many times on this planet, their secrets lost along with the long-dead societies who used them.
The Egyptians were arguably the most advanced engineers to have ever lived, whether they had extra-terrestrial help or not, and we should respect their incredible accomplishments, not belittle them in order to remain within the confines of our limited understanding.
"I have often said that when faced with the riddle of the pyramids, we are like children playing in the sandbox," sums up Chris Dunn." Nobody knows the exact truth, but some of us give the ancient Egyptians more respect and acknowledgment for their genius."
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