What have the pyramids taught the engineering sector?

5th December 2018
Posted By : Anna Flockett
What have the pyramids taught the engineering sector?


The structure of the Great Pyramid of Giza is truly a marvellous feat of human engineering, and in fact of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it is the last one left standing, despite being the oldest.

Its six fellow Wonders have all fallen to natural or manmade disasters:

  • The Lighthouse of Alexandria fell to an earthquake
  • The Colossus of Rhodes also crumbled during an earthquake
  • The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was destroyed in fires
  • The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was levelled by another earthquake
  • The Temple of Artemis was rebuilt a number of times, before its final destruction in 401 AD
  • The Hanging Gardens of Babylon have never been confirmed to even exist

The tragedy of their loss is not merely for the awe-inspiring design or visual impact they held on the world, but for all the engineering and construction lessons they could have given to us. The pyramids alone have continued to shed layers of its mystery to uncover various theories and structural feats beneath.

From complex machinery and vehicles to efficient building design software, we have come such a long way in the engineering and construction sectors. And yet, ancient buildings constructed without these technologies continue to teach us. In this article, we will explore the engineering and construction lessons of the pyramids.     

A path to modern tooling
Various evidence has suggested a form of lathe tools were used by the Ancient Egyptians to help build the pyramids. We’ve come a long way from their lathe that required two people to operate — now, we use the trusty CNC lathes to carry out myriad tasks such as facing, threading, drilling, and taper turning. It is claimed that our ancient predecessors used their lathes for carving and cutting wood, but there’s some who wonder if they also used lathes for carving stonework.

Surveying tools were also used by the Ancient Egyptians and have carried on through to the modern day. Artefacts have shown the use of a plumb level, also known as a plumb bob, in Ancient Egypt. A plumb bob is a simple, yet effective tool made from a pointed weight suspended by a cord, and these tools supported the engineers in their staggeringly accurate achievements in levelling and degree-accurate positioning of the pyramids.

The use of plumb bobs allowed for vertical line measurement to a high degree of accuracy, perfect for building and surveying. But some suggest the Egyptians used plumb bobs for a lot more. Alongside sighting and levelling tools, they used plumb bobs to aid with astronomy and navigation too. Their accuracy is still relied upon today; for example, plumb bobs are used to make sure Salisbury Cathedral is not beginning to lean.

Wall construction
The pyramids also feature construction materials that we still rely on today. For instance, the slow-setting gypsum mortar was used to lubricate, move, and set the stones in place. Gypsum mortar, made from plaster and sand is still relied on today to create structures in drier parts of the world.

The stones need to be moved into place before they are set. The question of how the workers managed to haul the huge stones required to create the pyramids has tantalised historians for years. Some theories posit that the expert canal-crafters manipulated the River Nile, redirecting it so that stones could be ferried over the water closer to the construction site. Once there, many point towards the invention of ramps and levers to help manoeuvre stones into place, just as we do today. Have we been unknowingly continuing on a tried-and-tested practice in construction that dates back to the time of the pharaohs?

While speaking to the BBC regarding the restoration of the pyramids, Peter James covered how the ramp-theory may not have been the practice used by the Ancient Egyptians. Another practice had instead been adopted by builders from that age. James claims the pyramids are too tall and would make ramps too steep to move stone. He theorises that, just as construction workers would build a stone wall today, the Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids from the inside and worked outwards.

Continuing to learn
With tools and practices having been brought through the ages, have we now learnt everything we can from our engineering ancestors? Design Intelligence suggests we can still learn from the architects of the past. In particular, they outline the need for modern structures to follow the path of the Great Pyramid of Giza and start to focus more on longevity as a means to practice true sustainability. With a lifespan of thousands of years, the pyramids have lost comparatively little in the grand scheme of things. Though they no longer have their hand-polished white limestone outer façade, the material having long since been stripped away for other work or dissolved to expose the inner material seen today, the structure has remained relatively intact. And they have done so with very little maintenance.

The longevity of the pyramids is often explained through a mixture of high environmental considerations when building, a low centre of gravity, and aligned expectations. Where some structures rely on the future promise of maintenance in the event of environmental or external factors impacting the structure to stay standing, the pyramids did quite the opposite — they were built to last. Design Intelligence also notes a key factor in this robust quality of the pyramids. The materials used in its construction were cut before they arrived at the site; the site was a place of assembly, and not a place of cutting materials. This meant improvements to speed as well as quality, and everyone could focus on one job each, rather than multiple tasks.

Currently, we may not consider the benefit of building to outlast us, rather than simply building to serve our immediate purposes. Simply put, if we ‘pay’ a certain amount of carbon emissions each time we build a structure, we can lower the overall carbon impact of creating a building by having it last and be repurposed for hundreds or thousands of years — instead of paying that carbon cost multiple times to replace the structure over the years.

Though the pyramids are often lost under a natural and manufactured sense of mystery, we could learn so much more by looking at them logically as structures and potential lessons in longevity. The Ancient Egyptians developed incredible engineering and construction feats over centuries that arguable outdo our own creations today in terms of strength. Instead of looking to the future to innovate the construction industry, perhaps we should look to history.

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