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Topics: Topics: Engineering
Science > Engineering
Subtopics  Mining, Hydrology

The ancient Egyptians were able to complete sophisticated engineering projects such as the great pyramids and massive temples with primitive tools. They developed methods for quarrying and moving massive stone blocks and then placing them in position. Pyramids were built on a perfectly horizontal base, aligned with the stars.

Masons, engineers, and construction workers used parts of their bodies as a system of measurement. Their basic unit was the cubit, the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger. Despite variances in the size of body parts of different workers, this system was fine for small projects. The royal cubit, which was 52.5 centimeters (20.6 inches) was set as the standard for temples and pyramids, which required greater precision. Architects, surveyors, and construction workers used special tools and instruments to observe the stars and orient the structures according to the four directions and to make accurate straight lines and right angles.

Several theories exist regarding how the ancient Egyptians created a perfectly horizontal base for the pyramids. Early Egyptologists believed the Egyptians first cut a grid of shallow trenches into the foundation rock then flooded them with water. The intervening "islands" of stone could then be reduced to an even height. More recently, it is thought they simply made sure the perimeter strips around the edges of the pyramid were as perfectly horizontal as possible.

The massive stone blocks were cut from quarries located relatively near the building projects. Limestone was the most common and quarries have been found at Saqqara, Giza, and Dashur. Granite was quarried at Aswan. Stone blocks were marked out with just enough space for workers to stand between them. No saws or drilling equipment have been found to date, but tomb paintings provide some information about the techniques used to cut and refine the limestone or granite boulders. Workers used copper saws, drills, pickaxes and chisels and granite hammers. The hard stone would have worn down the copper drills and saws used at the time, but it is speculated that the Egyptians added sand to the grooves between the stone and the tools. The sharp sand crystals would have increased the tools' cutting power.

After they were cut, the stones were moved down the Nile on large wooden barges and then transported to the site on large wooden sledges pulled by hundreds of men or oxen. The sledges were pulled along a path made slick with Nile mud or by wetting the sand, which made it easier to move the heavy blocks. The ancient Egyptians used several different types of ramps, both internal and external to the pyramid, to drag the huge stones into place. They probably used wooden and bronze levers to move the blocks into position.

To raise the obelisks, the largest of which weighed about 500 tons, ancient Egyptians would first raise a high mound of rubble and sand near where the obelisk was to stand. The obelisk would be dragged horizontally onto the mound with its base facing the foundation. Around the foundation, a large, square stone box-like structure was built and filled with sand. The obelisk was dragged to rest on the sand, which workers began to remove from an opening at the bottom of the box. As the sand was removed, the obelisk would slowly move down into the box until it stood upright.

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Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum
Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum

Museum

Aswan
Aswan

Archaeological Site

Abusir
Abusir

Archaeological Site

Cubit Measuring Rod
Cubit Measuring Rod

Carpenters and Sculptors Tools

Kneeling Statue of Senenmut
Kneeling Statue of Senenmut

Statue

Hawara
Hawara

Archaeological Site

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