William Flinders Petrie is rightly called the father of archaeology because of the revolutionary new methods he introduced. He was the first archaeologist to recognize that archaeological strata could be identified and dated by the style of pottery they contained. This rapidly became universal practice. Second, he recognized the role every little piece of evidence could play in recovering history. Before him archaeologists were mainly interested in recovering treasures, discarding anything of lesser value. Petrie meticulously collected and recorded every tiny particle that came from the ground. This also has become standard practice.
Nowhere was this better illustrated than in his work on the pyramids of Gizeh. His findings are recorded in his book The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh, published in 1883 and reprinted in 1990, with an update by the current Director of the Supreme Antiquities Council of Egypt, Dr Zahi Hawass, who says that after all these years, “Petrie’s work on the Gizeh Plateau is still considered as an accurate and important archaeological investigation, and a basic reference for the site.” (p. 98). I purchased my copy from Maat Books.
Petrie was both practical and incredibly meticulous in his measurements of the pyramids. Beginning in 1880 he settled into a tomb near the pyramids, where he said his diet consisted largely of “brown ship-biscuit, tinned soups, tomatoes (excellent in Egypt), tapioca and chocolate.” p. 4. His measurements were made, not with a tape measure which might stretch slightly, but with long iron rods. His measurements were accurate to within 1/00th of an inch (.25 of a millimetre). When making measurements inside the pyramids he waited till all visitors were gone and then toiled from evening to midnight.
Petrie stood in awe of the ingenuity, skill and accuracy of the original pyramid builders. He called the Gizeh Plateau “the most remarkable piece of ground in the world,” (p. 1) and frequently expresses his admiration, as though he cannot restrain his wonder at the skill of the ancients. He was contemptuous of his French predecessors Vyse and Perring whom he called “energetic blasters and borers”. (p. 2) He carefully refrained from criticising Mariette but he obviously took a dim view of him calling in soldiers to blast to pieces some roof blocks from the Valley Temple so that visitors who came for the opening of the Suez Canal would be suitably impressed with the orderliness of the temple.
Some scholars maintain that the great pyramid was added to and modified as building progressed, but Petrie was of the opinion that “the arrangement of the interior of the pyramid, as we shall see below, proves that it was all, or nearly all, designed at first” p. 69.
The average distance from one corner to another he measured at 9068.8 inches (229.01 m), the angle of height 51.52 degrees, making the height when completed 5776 inches (145.86 m) (p. 13). Quite understandably the top of the pyramid is not exactly square (p. 12). After piling up 3 million huge blocks of stone it would be almost supernatural to achieve precision at the top.
Petrie was over-awed at the precision of the front stones. “The pavement, lower casing, and entrance passage are exquisitely wrought; in fact, the means employed for placing and cementing the blocks of soft limestone, weighing a dozen to twenty tons each, with such hair-like joints, are almost inconceivable at present; and the accuracy of the levelling is marvellous.” p. 86
The front of the pyramid faces north but its orientation is 4 feet (1.212 m) west of north, (p. 40) but Petrie was so impressed with the accuracy of the pyramid that he concluded that rather than the builders making a mistake, he thought the north has changed direction. In support of this he points out that the internal passage is also the same angle out and he felt sure the builders would not make the same mistake twice (p. 41).
The descending passage is 150 feet (45.45m) long and terminates in an unfinished tomb chamber. Incredibly, “the average error of straightness in the built part of the passage is only 1/50th inch (half a millimetre), an amazingly minute amount in a length of 150 feet” (p. 19). Petrie was so impressed by this that he comments on it again on page 41. “The passage was laid out by the most skilful workmen of the Great Pyramid, with their utmost regularity, the mean variation of the built part being but 1/50th inch.”
Petrie was not able to accurately measure the length of the ascending passage because it is blocked at its lower end by stone plugs that were slid down the passage from above. They must have been stored in the ascending gallery as it was being built, and left there until the king’s burial, and then slid down to block the lower opening. There could have been no trial fitting. It was all done by prior measurement and it worked perfectly.
These blocks in themselves are an astonishing piece of engineering. They, and the passage, are slightly wider at the top than at the bottom so that when they slid down they blocked the passage but could not be pushed lower down. They are there to stay unless they are broken to pieces.
The ascending gallery, 1883.6 inches (47.565m) in length, is also a marvel of design. It has corbelled walls, which means that every course of stone slightly narrowed the passage until it reached the top. Thus the span from one side to another at the top was minimal, and there was no possibility of the enormous weight above the roof blocks causing them to collapse.
There are some regular holes in the side ramps of the ascending gallery. Not even Petrie was able to come up with any idea about their purpose. These mysterious holes are alternately long and short.
The king’s tomb chamber is lined with huge granite blocks which must have been floated down the Nile from Aswan 800 km to the south. They are so perfectly squared that it is not possible to squeeze a postcard in between them. The roof beams have not fared so well. They stretch across the chamber from one side to another and each one is cracked. Petrie felt that their downfall was only a matter of “time and earthquakes”.
Well, there have been some earthquakes since then and they are still there, so they must be more firmly attached than even Petrie surmised. Of course there is a series of five gaps above them, the top one boasting a gable roof, to deflect the pressure on the ones below, so hopefully they will survive, or should we say, hopefully the tourists will survive.
The king’s sarcophagus is still in place. The lid has gone and one top corner of the sarcophagus is broken, presumably by the tomb robbers who broke into it when they were prising the lid off. Petrie was not concerned about the contents of the sarcophagus. Royal mummies were regularly stolen, and not one mummy has survived from a pyramid. The mummies in the Cairo Museum are from burials in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. But Petrie seemed very interested in how the sarcophagus was made.
Using a hammer and chisel to hollow out the centre would be awkward and liable to crack the wall of the sarcophagus. Petrie insists it was done by use of hollow drills to which were affixed hard stones, possibly diamonds. The core could then be snapped off and further drilling done. The downward pressure needed on such drills would have to be one or even two tons.
Petrie admits that no such drills have ever been found, but obviously copper chisels would not make much impression on granite.Some holes can still be seen at the bottom of the sarcophagus. He says the outside cuts were made with a jewelled saw 9 feet long (p. 29). He does not suggest where the diamonds may have come from. The sarcophagus must have been placed in the tomb chamber as it was being built because it is one inch wider than the entrance to the chamber.
Admittedly the ancient Egyptians must have had more sophisticated tools than we have ever credited them with. Petrie says that lathes were as common then as they are today. They also had circular saws
After Khufu died his son Djedefre built his pyramid at Abu Roash some 8 km north of Gizeh. There are only a few of the lower courses left there today. Some scholars claim that it was never finished. Petrie feels sure it was finished but local builders have taken all the upper stones. He says that it was reported to him that 300 camel loads of stone were being removed daily. The causeway from the valley floor to this pyramid is somewhat of a wonder. It is nearly one mile long.
The next pyramid was built by another of Khufu’s sons, Khafre. This also is immaculately built. Many of the casing stones at the top are still in position giving us a view of how the finished pyramids must have appeared before the stone robbers stole the fine white outer casing. The angle is 53.10 degrees and its height 5664 inches (143.03m). The internal design of this pyramid is much simpler than Khufu’s.
To the west of this pyramid are the remains of some buildings. Petrie say they were workmen’s hut galleries which, stretched out, would have extended 1.5 miles (2.4 km). Later scholars have divergent ideas including store rooms or workshops. All agree that there were barracks to the south of the pyramid. Petrie says they could have housed 4000 men; Hawass says they had 91 rooms that could have housed 5,500.
More debatable are the sphinx and temple to the west of this pyramid. A beautiful causeway was laid down from the pyramid to the valley temple which is made of massive granite pillars brought from Aswan. Exquisite statues of Khafre were found in a pit just inside the entrance to the temple. The sphinx was cut out of standing rock and was a superb piece of workmanship, undoubtedly cut by Kafre’s workmen to represent the king, though some non-archaeologists have tried to prove that it was carved much earlier than the 4th dynasty.
Petrie had a lot to say about moveable doors in the pyramids. He was bewildered by the granite portcullis door in Khafre’s pyramid which “shows signs of great skills in moving masses, as it would need 40 to 60 men to lift it; yet it has been moved, and raised into place, in a narrow passage, where only a few men could possibly reach it” (p. 36). Not even Petrie could speculate how it was accomplished. He summed up the topic by writing, “Such is the evidence for the closing of the pyramids by doors” (p. 73).
The third pyramid, built for Menkaure, is much smaller, but also not lacking in wonders. Its angle is 51 degrees and height 2564 inches (64.747m). Instead of being faced with fine white Tura limestone the lower 16 layers (1/4 of its height) were faced with granite blocks most of which were never smoothed. This was rather fortuitous as it gives the clue as to how the facing was done. The workmen started at the top and then worked down. How they clung to the surface as they worked is a mystery. Perhaps they had ropes, perhaps they had scaffolding.
This pyramid is unique for the number of tomb chambers that were prepared. A descending passage runs from the north face of the pyramid down to an ante-chamber. From here steps go down to the main tomb chamber which was hewn out of bedrock but faced with granite lining. The roof of this chamber has a gable ceiling, straight on top but curved underneath. But the mystery is how the workmen got these blocks into position.
There is a gap between the ante-chamber and the top of this gable roof but how they got the blocks into position is a question. Petrie makes the conservative observation, “The introduction of these massive blocks through such a small space, and the placing of them in such a confined position, is a good piece of work” (p. 40).
Just before the tomb chamber is reached a doorway to the right leads down some steps into another tomb chamber in which there are six vaults. Petrie thought they were to contain coffins. It is not known whether family members or favoured court officials were to be buried here.
Equally impressive was the funerary temple on the east side of the pyramid. The stone blocks that went into it are staggering. There are 38 blocks which must weigh up to 100 tons each. Statues of Menkaure must have lined the temple interior because some beautiful groups have been recovered. Some are in the Cairo Museum and others have gone abroad.
Petrie was especially impressed with the complicated but accurate mathematics that were involved in the building of the pyramids. He commented on the now well-known relationship of the height to the outer measurement of the base. The Egyptians seemed to have understood the formula 2 x pi x r, for if the height is regarded as the radius of a circle the circumference would be equal to the distance around all four sides of the base of the pyramid. Either this is a remarkable coincidence or the Egyptians knew their mathematics.
This formula also seems to have been employed in the dimensions of the tomb chamber in the Great Pyramid. Petrie wrote, “The king’s chamber walls are determined by the same pi proportion which rules the exterior of the pyramid; the circuit of the side of the chamber being equal to a circle described by its width as a radius; and further the length of the side of the chamber is equal to diameter of its circuit. Thus the circuit of the side has its radius at right angles across the chamber, and its diameter the length of the side along the chamber” (p. 94).
He wrote further, “By this theory, then, the squares of the dimensions of the King’s Chamber, the Queen’s Chamber, the Ante-chamber, and the Subterranean Chamber, are all even numbers of square cubits, and nearly all multiples of 10. From this it necessarily follows that the squares of all the diagonals of the sides of these chambers, and their cubic diagonals, are likewise multiples of 10 square cubits; and the King’s and Queen’s Chambers are so arranged that the cubic diagonals are in even hundreds of square cubits, or multiples of 10 cubits squared” (p. 94).
Petrie does not try to allocate a date for the pyramids of Gizeh. He simply refers to their epoch being “variously stated by chronologers as being in the third, fourth, or fifth millenium BC” (p. xi). Today’s chronologers are a little more specific reducing them to about 2550 BC but there is still no certainty about their dates. If the TIP, dynasties 21-14 are regarded as contemporary with other dynasties, as some scholars claim, that would reduce the dates for the pyramids.
Perhaps their dates could even be reduced to the 19th century when Abraham came to Egypt. Petrie stood in awe at the phenomenal mathematical ability displayed by the pyramid builders. It may be that Josephus knew more than we think when he wrote, “He (Abraham) communicated to them arithmetic, and delivered to them the science of astronomy; for before Abram came into Egypt they were unacquainted with those parts of learning; for that science came from the Chaldeans into Egypt”. Antiquities of the Jews I viii 2.
Abraham came from Ur in Iraq which Woolley excavated. He found evidence of remarkable mathematical ability. Even schoolchildren could work out the area of a triangle or the square root of a number.
Whatever the date, one thing is certain: the ancient Egyptians had knowledge, skill and artistic ability which makes us wonder. Some may conclude that this is evidence of supernatural intervention, or visitation by beings from other worlds. Such is idle speculation not supported by evidence or reason. We enjoy the benefits of accumulated knowledge. As far as the Egyptians are concerned, their intellect and ability were equal to, or even superior to, our own. We are still not sure how they built the pyramids.
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