How the Egyptians Actually Built the Pyramids Matters to Climate Change.

Always ahead of their time, ancient Egyptians may have left us a recipe for fixing one of the most polluting industries on earth.

Alex Wright
Mar 31, 2015 · 11 min read
The Pyramids of Giza with modern Cairo in the background. From left to right: the great pyramid of Khufu, 481 feet; the Pyramid of Khafre 448 feet; the pyramid of Menkaure 215 feet; the pyramids of Queens. Image ©David Holt used with permission of Creative Commons license.

Spoiler alert: We may be wrong about how the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramids.

Cecile B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments, while not specifically about the construction of the Great Pyramids, has contributed to the common image in many of our minds explaining the construction of the pyramids. In the 1980s, a French materials scientist named Joseph Davidovits proposed a very different scenario.
A gash in the side of one of the pyramids built by Senefru — the father of Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid — shows a combination of what appears to be irregularly cut quarried limestone blocks surrounded by tight jointed, cast-in-place geopolymer blocks. Image © Michel Barsoum.
A ground level block in front of the Great Pyramid of Khufu includes a irregular lip at the bottom that would have been very hard, and somewhat pointless, to carve. This lip indicates that the block was cast in place — the material in the lip having slid out under the temporary wooden mold before hardening. Barsoum analyzed a piece of material from the bottom lip and says he did not find smoking gun evidence. “The only logical conclusion is that after 5000 years, the binding phase has basically been washed away. Solution? Get samples from the core of that block. Easier said than done.” Image © Michel Barsoum.
Cement factory in China. The production of cement alone is responsible for 6% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Image ©Jonathan Kos-Read, used with permission of Creative Commons license.

Concrete is the most voluminous material made by all mankind.

Bahia Honda Bridge in the Florida Keys. The reinforced concrete deck was installed 1938 and abandoned 34 years later. Image ©Phil’s 1stPix, used with permission of Creative Commons license.
The ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome — the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world — still standing 2,000 years later. Image ©Biker Jun used with permission of Creative Commons license.
The Pyramids of Giza, as seen from the International Space Station. The pyramids are so large that they’re clearly visible in a photograph taken with a hand-held consumer level digital camera from space. Their size is also overwhelming compared to the structures of modern Cairo. Public domain image courtesy of NASA / ISS Crew 032.

Always ahead of their time, the ancient Egyptian’s command of materials science may have allowed them to create man-made stone from little more than raw earth.

Alex Wright

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Works at Watershed Materials. Writes about sustainability. Reads about technology, finance, and most anything nerdy.