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It is claimed in many different pseudoscience publications and sites that it was impossible for the ancient Egyptian civilization to build the pyramids, because:

  • too much labour was needed
  • it was impossible to cut stone with such precision
  • they were built with particular geographical orientations that required knowledge they didn't possess
  • etc

This is probably due to the fact that we don't exactly know how the pyramids were built in the first places. There are different conflicting theories.

Is Wikipedia misleading me here? Is there an accepted historical version of how the pyramids were built that can be used to effectively debunk the pseudoscience?

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If you define the "ancient egyptian civilization" as the people who build the pyramids, they were by definition capable of building them :). But I doubt that statment helps anyone :P –  Nanne Mar 5 '11 at 12:16
To quote the fabulous Red Dwarf: "They had whips, Rimmer. Massive, massive whips." –  Nellius Mar 28 '11 at 10:41
I think the major breakthrough in Pyramid construction was the technique of putting fewer stones on each layer. –  user1458 Apr 3 '11 at 18:55
The generally accepted theory is that the pyramids were built from the bottom up. –  Zano Sep 14 '11 at 7:49
@jwenting wikipedia is notable but not reliable. Where did we ever decide that wikipedia does not support a claim? Of course it does. It doesn't support an answer. –  Sklivvz Oct 3 '12 at 19:18

5 Answers 5

up vote 62 down vote accepted

ScienceDaily has a nice article on this, as well as many related articles. In the cited article, they state:

But the process of building pyramids, while complicated, was not as colossal an undertaking as many of us believe, Redford says. Estimates suggest that between 20,000 and 30,000 laborers were needed to build the Great Pyramid at Giza in less than 23 years. By comparison, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris took almost 200 years to complete.

I think what gets people so confused is they mistake old cultures for being unintelligent. Humans have had the same level of intelligence for nearly 200,000 years, just not the full benefit of technology. (Citation: Hominid Brain Evolution Testing Climatic, Ecological, and Social Competition Models, Drew H. Bailey & David C. Geary, Hum Nat (2009) 20:67-79, DOI 10.1007/s12110-008-9054-0)

Furthermore, in the article, it states "laborers". A common misconception is that slaves built the pyramids, which is not the case. Archaeological evidence shows the builders were skilled and paid for their efforts. From the same article:

the image most people have of slaves being forced to build the pyramids against their will is incorrect.

An additional collection of articles can be found at this Discover Magazine Blog post by Andrew Moseman. It starts out saying:

Forget the myths about massive numbers of slaves or Jews building the great pyramids, Egypt‘s chief archaeologist argues this week. He says Egyptian researchers have found the tombs of more pyramid builders, and in those tombs more evidence that free men erected these monumental tributes to the ancient pharaohs.

And continues with numerous links to even more articles.

As to the assertion that it was impossible to do many of the things that the builders of the pyramids did, that is a common misconception people seem to have. Most people don't consider ancient humans to have been as intelligent as we are, when in fact they possessed the exact same intellect as we do today, just not the technology. And since we rely so much on advanced technology, many people make an argument of incredulity because we just don't do things the old fashioned way. Some people have started to collect reconstructions of those methods on the web.

The same argument regarding the mathematical precision could be made. Also, in ancient times, without our calendars and clocks, astronomical observations played a much more important role than today (i.e. when to plant, when to expect rains, etc.). Again, ancient humans were not stupid.

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The "ancient intellects" aren't better ore more wonderful, just different. I think that is a fundamental mistake a lot of people make (not you personally, but I see it in many of the "woo" variety of ancient wisdom beliefs). Steam power just isn't as efficient as other forms of power generation, so it doesn't make sense to hod on to that (even though it may be romantic). I'm sure that in the distant future, people will be aghast at the idea of an internal combustion engine. It's just different, and what is available. –  Larian LeQuella Mar 30 '11 at 20:59
Cite: Hominid Brain Evolution Testing Climatic, Ecological, and Social Competition Models, Drew H. Bailey & David C. Geary, Hum Nat (2009) 20:67-79, DOI 10.1007/s12110-008-9054-0 (sorry, sometimes I look in BOOKS!) –  Larian LeQuella Jun 15 '11 at 22:05
Nice job. I like the comment about "old cultures being unintelligent". At my age, I sometimes have to remind my young friends who say "anyways" and "between you and I " that, just because I don't give a hoot about iPhones or "World of Warcraft", I may not be totally stupid :) –  Mike Dunlavey Sep 8 '11 at 3:00
@Larian LeQuella: Your statement "Steam power just isn't as efficient as other forms of power generation" is not completely correct. Power plants used for generating electricity rely on steam to drive the generators, and modern, ocean-going vessels (especially submarines) typically use steam in their power plants as well. It's a very efficient medium to use when converting heat energy to electrical energy. Its main drawback is the weight and size requirements of the steam engine. –  oosterwal Sep 15 '11 at 17:07
@oosterwal, you are correct. I was specifically referring to locomotion with vehicles such as the Stanley Steamer, etc. Nice correction. –  Larian LeQuella Sep 15 '11 at 19:36

A good program to watch would be Mark Lehner's This Old Pyramid, where they attempt to build a small scale pyramid using contemporary tools. It was done with a budget, time, and people constraint, so they did end up having to use some shortcuts.

this is another case where hands-on, trial archaeology I think really proves some points. Because even the men, even the experienced masons here, were saying vehemently that this isn't going to work, and they were almost angry and irritated about it. And lo and behold, it got off the rollers.

I'd also recommend a look at his book, the Complete Pyramids.

We know they used sleds and rollers to move heavy objects, remains of both have been found, and evidenced in reliefs like in the tomb of Djehutihotep.


And this example of a sled from Lisht:


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I've put in images and added a citation from the tv show you mentioned. Hopefully it respects the spirit of your answer. (btw +1) –  Sklivvz Apr 3 '11 at 19:36
that's great, I was hesitant to as I wanted to include the links to images, as with my current rep level I'm unable to include more than two links. Er... with what WAS my current rep level. –  Mike Apr 3 '11 at 19:38

To debunk parts of the third claim, you could use Radosophie , a fun-science just build for such debunctionarisms. Since there is no English translation, I will try a brief roundup: You take a typical bicycle from the Netherlands. There you take some measures, like pedal way, perimeter of a wheel, light and bell. Then you mix up all numbers with all mathematical operators you know, as well as some smaller numbers like 1, 2, 3.

You can then generate every number you need within a few steps, the gravity constant, Eulers Number e, Pi and the fine-structure constant alpha and so on, to a surprising precision.

The same way you can do geometrical measurements at historical buildings, and conclude, that the Egypts knew the half-value period of plutonium.

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Nice. The link you have for Radosophie actually states the English translation Cyclosophy (Rad = (Bi-)Cycle, or "wheel" in general; at least in German, but should be the same in Dutch). Seems to be similar like the Bible-Code, which can be applied to any other book to get similar predictions. –  Martin Scharrer Mar 28 '11 at 11:33
+1 for "debunctionarisms" –  Mike Dunlavey Sep 8 '11 at 3:03

By people, who experimented to get robust designs and who sometimes made mistakes

The really compelling evidence that pyramids were built by people with no advanced technology is that they sometimes fell down. Not only that, but in one case the design of a part-built pyramid was altered as a result of a failure in another (I think this is the Bent pyramid at Dahshur but I don't have the reference to hand so can't be sure).

The argument above was made in the book The Riddle of the Pyramids, Kurt Mendlesshon, Thames and Hudson 1974. This is a great source of debunking of strange theories about them and also a source of many interesting ideas about how and why they are built. I think he argued that they were a huge public works program that was instrumental in forging a coherent Egyptian state.

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Although I’m not sure that this conclusively disproves the pseudoscience theories (after all, aliens are fallible, too) it’s nevertheless an interesting fact in the bigger picture, and well referenced. –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 9 '11 at 14:43
i've never met an alien, but I won't make claims about a race of beings that I've never met, especially ones that if they managed to get to this planet, are capable of things far beyond our capabilities. Perhaps you have met some aliens and know differently. –  user3344 Sep 9 '11 at 22:10
the bent pyramid is bent because of problems that showed up during its construction, which were recognised as making the structure impossible to complete at the angle chosen and being stable (iow, it would collapse under its own weight). Pyramid building took several centuries to perfect, which is why there are so many different half complete and semi collapsed structures of older date than the ones most people are familiar with. –  jwenting Sep 14 '11 at 10:21
Mendlesshon's theory is that there were often several under construction at the same time. He argues that the bent pyramid was altered after the collapse of another of similar design. –  matt_black Sep 24 '11 at 15:37

There seem to be several theories about how you can build a pyramid using then available systems and techniques. It is of course hard to find out how it was done, but there seem to be valid possibilities.

I see no big problems raised in normal sources about the problems that you raise. Unless I read publications as this one wrong, the discussion is about how it was done exactly, not about if it was possible at all?

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well, there's still those who believe in Sagan's and von Danicken's claims that aliens visited the earth in ancient times and built the pyramids (and various other ancient structures) as well as being what we now call the gods of those civilisations, and how various pictures prove that. –  jwenting Mar 8 '11 at 8:47
That doesn't really matter. I do not believe it, but the question is not if they did build them, but if it was impossible that they did. Now if it was, then the alien-claims -unfounded as they are- could be easier believed I admit. But since the question is not about who build the pyramids, but if it was possible it does not really matter if you believe Sagan / von Danicken .... –  Nanne Mar 8 '11 at 12:03
Wait a second - Sagan? When did Sagan make a claim about ancient astronauts? –  Tim Farley Mar 8 '11 at 20:35
I have no clue, just repeating @jwenting s claim :) –  Nanne Mar 8 '11 at 21:48
Might have been mistaken about Sagan, or some of my old sources mixed him and von Daenicken. Wikipedia says he didn't believe in aliens, yet I distinctly remember reading in the past things claiming to be by or endorsed by him that did mention von Daenicken-like ideas. –  jwenting Mar 21 '11 at 12:23

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