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The pyramids

Engineering and construction lessons from the pyramids

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Learning from history: engineering and construction lessons from the pyramids.

Besides the debated existence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the vast majority of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World have been lost to the ages. From the Lighthouse of Alexandria to the Clossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus to the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the Temple of Artemis, the Wonders have sadly been destroyed one by one. Only the Great Pyramid of Giza remains.

The pyramid has certainly earned its place, though. Of all the Wonders not only has it survived the longest, it is actually the oldest of the group. It stands to reason then that, even in a modern world with such advanced technology as state-of-the-art tooling and highly accurate structure analysis software, we can certainly learn something of engineering from the ancient structure.   

How modern tools evolved

It is said that the Ancient Egyptians may have used lathes to perform different tasks on 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 used by the Ancient Egyptians too. 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. Plumb bobs allow for measuring an accurate vertical line for surveying and building, 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.

How the pyramids walls were built

We still use some of the materials used to construct the walls of the pyramids in wall construction 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.

But before the stones can be set, they need to be manoeuvred into place. 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?

But there is still some debate on how exactly the Ancient Egyptians managed to move such large stones. According to Peter James, who spoke to the BBC on restoring the pyramids, the ramp-theory might not be the practice the Egyptians used to construct the pyramids, and another practice has 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.

The future of engineering

Besides tooling and practices, what else could we glean from the ancient structures that can be implemented in the modern world of engineering? Design Intelligence 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.

A mixture of a low centre of gravity, aligned expectations, and an understanding of how the environment will damage the structure over the years have come together to maintain the pyramid’s form. 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.

The durability was also aided by another practice, says Design Intelligence. 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.

Should we be looking far beyond a building’s original purpose when designing the structure? 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.

It seems then that the modern engineering world can certainly be assisted by the practices of the builders of the pyramids. 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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