Ancient civilizations were often far more advanced than people give them credit for. There are many incredible technologies and feats of engineering that we still do not completely understand, but looking into these achievements can feel like a minefield as they have become the stuff of numerous modern-day conspiracy theories.
The internet is awash with such narratives, but in most instances, they are completely false. Far from being mysteries, we actually know a great deal about how people like the ancient Egyptians performed their technological and engineering feats. We may not know the exact methods in all instances, but there is a substantial difference between not knowing for certain and not knowing at all. So let’s examine some of these wonders and address some of the more bogus claims surrounding them.
How were the Pyramids of Giza built?
The Pyramids of Giza are not only a testament to ancient Egyptian culture but also to their incredible ingenuity. Archaeologists have studied these monuments for decades and have a pretty good idea about how they were built. Using tools and techniques that are familiar to modern engineers and construction workers – albeit simpler and more labor-intensive – the ancient Egyptians constructed them over long periods of time and with considerable human effort.
Built some 4,500 years ago, these tombs were erected to house the remains of deceased pharaohs. After death, part of the pharaoh’s spirit was thought to remain with the body, so it required special care to ensure the deceased ruler could carry out their responsibilities as a god in the afterlife. Each Pyramid also provided a form of “storage”, as they were filled with the various possessions a former ruler would need in the next world.
The largest and oldest pyramid at Giza belongs to Pharaoh Khufu and was built around 2550 BCE. It is estimated to be made of about 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing between 2.5 to 15 tons. The second pyramid was built by Khufu’s son, Khafre, circa 2520 BCE. Khafre’s necropolis, a large cemetery with elaborate tomb monuments, also includes the Sphinx, which guards the site. The third pyramid, the smallest, was built by Pharaoh Menkaure circa 2490 BCE.
Originally, each pyramid stood taller than today as they would have been encased in smooth white limestone. However, over the centuries, these casings have been removed and plundered, along with most of the grave goods the pyramids once contained.
Although this is the focus of most conspiracy claims, the Egyptians actually created these monuments with a combination of rudimentary tools – plumb bobs, stings, rope, wood, stone hammers, sleds, copper chisels, and saws – and well-known mathematical and engineering techniques. Essentially, a pyramid is a cube where the sides meet in the center through a series of increasingly smaller rectangles stacked on top of one another. So to create a pyramid, you only needed a rectangle as a base to build from.
Establishing this was pretty straightforward and could be achieved by using set squares to lay out and check right-angle triangles, while the plumb bob could measure vertical adjustments. Once the base was established, each subsequent layer became smaller, which required precision calculations. Then the outer stones had to be cut to create a smooth incline surface for the sides. The blocks were slid into place using wooden logs, and then masons chiseled them into shape with copper chisels. It is even possible to see the markings on some blocks where the chisels needed to be sharpened.
It is also likely the Egyptians used a ramp and embankment method to position the blocks at higher points on the pyramid. Gangs of workers would haul each block up ramps using sleds, rollers, and levers. As the pyramid grew, more sand, bricks, and earth would be added to raise the embankments to support the ramps. There have been various suggestions on the exact configuration of the ramps, but evidence from recent archaeological finds shows that the Ancient Egyptians had experience using ramps to move heavy stone blocks. In fact, an experiment conducted in 2022 demonstrates how a group of 20 workers could easily pull a 2-ton limestone block across sand using ropes and a sled.
We also know exactly where they got these blocks from. In the same year, researchers found evidence that at the time of the pyramids' construction, a now-defunct branch of the river Nile used to pass near the site at Giza. This lost river branch was a vital conduit allowing the workers to transport the pyramids’ building blocks from quarries several kilometers away.
There are also contemporary textual accounts of the construction of Khufu’s pyramid recorded by a middle-ranking inspector called Merer, who provided an explanation for where the stone came from. According to Merer's diary, written as the Khufu pyramid was nearing completion, limestone blocks were being quarried from Tura, on the opposite side of the Nile. These blocks were then loaded onto boats and transported to the construction site on a journey that took between two to three days to complete.
This document has been extremely influential in confirming some long-held suspicions, Dr Nicky Nielsen, Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester, told IFLScience. “It doesn’t get much better than that, you know?” Nielsen said. Merer’s papyrus is “the closest thing we get to a smoking gun for how the pyramids were built.”
Who built the pyramids and how did they know what to do?
The secret to the Egyptian’s ingenuity wasn’t in some spectacular and long-lost technology or arcane knowledge but in the size of their workforce and years of labor.
We know from the historical record that the construction of these monuments took decades to complete. The Greek historian Herodotus stated that the “Great Pyramid”, Khufu’s pyramid, took 20 years to build and relied on over 100,000 men to finish. More recent evidence has suggested that this feat probably only needed some 20,000 workers (not slaves) to accomplish it, and archaeologists have now found the site of a town and barracks near Menkaure’s pyramid that would have supported these people. It appears that the town was by a harbor that served as a bustling point of social and industrial activity at the time.
The level of power that an Old Kingdom Pharaoh had would make Kim Jong-un blush,Dr Nicky Nielsen, Senior Lecturer in Egyptology
Although it is tempting to compare the construction of the pyramids to modern-day construction projects, and therefore draw parallels between the time and resources needed to complete them, this would be a mistake. Doing so can lead to the assumption there had to be some secret method of construction that we have not yet found, but this seems extremely unlikely. Instead, we should view Egyptian production through the lens of a heavily authoritarian society where the Pharaoh functioned as a god on Earth. With such total power comes the ability to hire a workforce and mobilize whatever resources you need to achieve your goals.
“The level of power that an Old Kingdom Pharaoh had would make Kim Jong-un blush,” Nielsen explained. This is a point that many people forget when they romanticize the Ancient Egyptian world; a construction project like the pyramids “was only possible because there was this one person who had this unhealthy amount of power”.
Another point that is often overlooked is that the pyramids at Giza were not built overnight, nor were they the first of this type of monument. There are older pyramids of different designs, some more successful than others, that demonstrate how Egyptians experimented and developed their ideas over time.
Before Khufu’s Great Pyramid, there was the potentially not-so-great pyramid of Pharaoh Sneferu (c. 2600 BC), which was built at Dashur, south of Cairo. Sneferu’s pyramid, now known as the Bent Pyramid, has a unique shape as the lower courses were built at an angle of 54 to 55 degrees, but the upper courses have a lower angle of 43 degrees.
It is thought that the odd appearance was likely caused by faults in the original design that made it structurally unsound. It had started to crack before it was halfway through construction, which led Sneferu’s architects to reduce the angle for the upper courses.
Despite the changes, Sneferu decided to have another pyramid – the so-called Red Pyramid – built using a more recognizable design a short distance away. The Bent Pyramid seems to represent a key step in the evolution of the pyramid, from the old step design used by King Djoser in Saqqara to the later smooth-faced pyramids at Giza. It also shows a process of learning, whereby the preferred methods for building these monuments were the outcome of trial and error.
A good example of how things could go wrong can be seen in the Meidum pyramid, the “collapsed pyramid”, which has often been seen as a practice run for Sneferu’s pyramids. Though some have suggested the various changes to the Meidum pyramid were due to shifts in theology towards solar rather than stellar religions, which would have required alterations to the architecture and orientation of the ancient monument, it nevertheless demonstrates changes in style and thinking.
The abundance of time doesn’t just account for changes in the design and structure of the pyramids either, it also explains how Ancient Egyptians carved rock. This is another area that has been the subject of a lot of speculation and misinformation in recent years – how did the Egyptians cut through rock such as granite with simple tools? Well, the answer is mundane: they did so with lots of manpower over many days.
Denys A Stock, an expert in Egyptian technology, has even reconstructed how you can cut stone as hard as granite and basalt with simple bronze saws that use sand as an abrasive. That Egyptian masons used such a technique is largely uncontroversial among academic researchers. Instead, the current debate seems to be over whether the masons used dry or wet sand, as illustrated by Stock in his experiments.
Again, the secret here is time. “One thing I have to keep reminding my students is not to underestimate what you can do with time,” Nielson noted to IFLScience.
“We're used to these very quick solutions, power tools and stuff like that. You can cut it with a piece of wood, some sand, and some water. That's all you need to score granite; the factor is time. You need resources in terms of humans, but you also just need oodles and oodles of time to do this. And it's perfectly doable. It just takes patience.”
Old conspiracies and new
Today, we hear all sorts of claims about Egyptian science that relate to alien interventions or some secret advanced technologies that were beyond anything we can imagine today. Although such ideas continue to appear online or in dubious Netflix series, their proponents often forget that they are simply carrying on a tradition that has a long heritage.
In 1998, American politician Ben Carson claimed the pyramids had been built by the biblical figure, Joseph, to store grain. While this idea may seem ridiculous, the idea actually has roots in the Old Testament and was made more popular by Saint Gregory of Tours, a sixth-century historian and bishop, who wrote that the pyramids were “wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that the wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening, and these granaries are to be seen to the present day."
The beliefs are very much bogus by today’s standards, but they show how the pyramids have long been the source of speculation and guesswork. While grain storage is understandable – if you’ve never actually seen the pyramids – other more unusual ideas link “odd” thinking to political ideologies.
In the late 19th century, anxiety swept across Britain when contemporary “Euro-skeptics” feared that the traditional British imperial weights and measures system was to be ousted in favor of the French metric system. As was the case with the more recent panic about the introduction of the Euro in the early 2000s, the fear of European influence on a British system manifested in unusual ways related to a perceived loss of identity.
What does this have to do with the pyramids? Well, one group opposed to the metric system espoused the belief that the imperial inch was a divine and God-given unit of measurement. According to this notion, the Great Pyramids were not tombs to ancient rulers, but rather the storehouses for divinely-inspired metrological measurements and, more importantly, a sign that the British (and the Anglo-Saxon race) had inherited it.
These metrologists argued that the ancient monuments had been constructed using the Hebrew “sacred cubit”, which more or less equaled the British inch. This might seem illogical to us now, but the ideas were extremely popular at the time and were hotly debated among scientific and religious groups, learned societies, and public forums. They were so influential that they managed to stave off the introduction of the metric system for some time.
Ancient aliens and pseudoarchaeology
The subject of ancient civilizations has become a popular vista of speculation for fringe believers and various far-right conspiracists. In these alternative narratives, the supposed “unknowns” surrounding ancient civilizations – especially the Ancient Egyptians – provide proof of either some long-lost technologically advanced (and usually “white”) civilization or evidence of extra-terrestrial intervention in human history.
The idea that aliens either built or advised the construction of pyramids only dates back to the late 19th century and is more or less the result of fan fiction. In 1897, HG Wells published The War of the Worlds, which started a run of similar sci-fi books. In particular, in 1898, there was American astronomer and writer Garrett P Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars, in which the protagonist discovers that the Ancient Egyptians were actually Martians. Although the book was a work of fiction, it was the first to link the ancient civilization to alien races. Then, in 1968, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past popularized the idea that alien visitors, who were mistaken as gods, influenced the Egyptian religion, culture, and technology.
I think that fundamentally, it's because part of us really has a hard time believing that you would go to that amount of trouble just to bury one guy. I think part of the human mind goes ‘yeah, there’s got to be a better explanation than that’.Dr Nicky Nielsen
The belief in alien interference remains remarkably strong but it is still evolving. “With these kinds of conspiracy theories, one follows the other based on what is kind of in the zeitgeist at the time,” Nielson explained. “I think that fundamentally, it's because part of us really has a hard time believing that you would go to that amount of trouble just to bury one guy... I think part of the human mind goes ‘yeah, there’s got to be a better explanation than that’.”
Many of these ideas rely on pseudoarchaeology, which rejects scientific methodologies, accepted evidence, and data analysis in favor of selective storytelling to promote biased narratives. In this situation, agreed evidence and interpretations are either ignored or otherwise torn from their context and (re)presented to bolster views that are historically and culturally appropriated. Often, these ideas are directly or indirectly tied to modern racist and nationalist ideologies and prejudices. At their heart, they deny that non-European ancient civilizations – from Egyptians to Maya – could possibly be so advanced. It strips away their achievements and ignores the fact their contributions to our history are impressive and inspiring without recourse to mysterious influences.
“I think that, for the public, the most important thing to consider when they read these things is not to underestimate ancient people and not to assume that ancient equals stupid,” Nielson said. “That is not the case; in terms of ability, in terms of capacity for innovation, there is no difference between you and me and an ancient Egyptian 6,000 years ago, or an ancient Roman. They have – we all have – the same capacity for very creative and innovative problem-solving.”