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How Did Egyptians Build the Pyramids? Ancient Ramp Find Deepens Mystery

The discovery of a 4,500-year-old ramp offers clues about Egyptians' technological knowledge.

Researchers in Egypt have discovered a 4,500-year-old ramp system used to haul alabaster stones out of a quarry, and news reports have suggested that it could provide clues as to how Egyptians built the pyramids. Yet while the ramp system is a significant technological discovery, the pyramid connection is still a bit of a stretch.

Archaeologists from the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo and the University of Liverpool discovered the ramp system’s remains in an ancient alabaster quarry at Hatnub, a site in the Eastern Desert. The ramp system dates at least as far back as the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Pyramid Ramp

The archaeological team succeeded in detecting a unique system to move and pull blocks which can be dated to the reign of King Khufu at the latest.

“This system is composed of a central ramp flanked by two staircases with numerous post holes,” Yannis Gourdon, co-director of the joint mission at Hatnub, told Live Science. “Using a sled which carried a stone block and was attached with ropes to these wooden posts, ancient Egyptians were able to pull up the alabaster blocks out of the quarry on very steep slopes of 20 percent or more.”

It’s difficult to tell the significance of this discovery since the archaeologists haven’t yet published their research on it, says Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture at the University of California, L.A., who is not involved in this research.

“It’s a stretch to take an alabaster quarry and say this is how the pyramids were built, because the pyramids weren’t built out of alabaster,” she says. “The way that the ancient Egyptians cut and moved stone is still very mysterious.”

Alabaster is a softer mineral, different from the heavy stone blocks with which Egyptians built the outer structure of the pyramids.

“We actually don’t know [their] mechanism of cutting hard stones like red granite,” she says. “And we still don’t know how the ancient Egyptians lifted blocks weighing hundreds of tons up the sides of the pyramids.”

Egyptian Pyramids

Aerial view of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Most Egyptologists already think that Egyptians used ramp systems to built the pyramids, but there are different theories about what types they used. Cooney says experts have theorized they could’ve used straight ramps that went up the pyramid’s outside walls, ramps that curved around these walls or ramping systems inside the pyramid itself.

So although the ramp system discovery in the alabaster quarry does tell us something about Egyptians’ technological knowledge, it doesn’t answer the big questions about how they built the pyramids. And that’s exactly the way the ancient Egyptians would’ve wanted it.

Just as “any authoritarian regime is going to hide their secrets as long and as best as they can,” Cooney says, the Egyptians purposefully left no record of how they built their pyramids. 

“The pyramids are there as mountains of stone proving the otherworldly nature of their god-kings. You stand in front of those pyramids and you feel it’s impossible to build such a thing.” That means, she says, that “the propaganda is still working.”

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