Three stages of understanding how ancient Egyptians built the pyramids

I’m sure many people have thought and written great stuff about the Egyptian pyramids and overcoming the challenges to building them. I haven’t read much on them, but I’m writing not so much about the pyramids than on how one person’s thoughts developed as he learned to solve harder problems, though nowhere near the scale of a great pyramid.

Stage 1: The challenges of mechanical engineering

When I first thought of the challenges of building the pyramids, I looked at the challenges the way I think most people do — from a mechanical engineering perspective. I wondered

  • How could they cut, transport, and lift those stones?
  • How could they measure the angles and distances accurately?

Stage 2: The challenges of organizing and leading people

At the time I thought those mechanical challenges were the biggest and only ones. Starting a company and learning leadership in business school changed that.
My second stage of thinking about how they built them had me wonder how they could have motivated and organized people to build them. I can’t imagine something on that scale being created by slaves motivated by threats and pain. I wondered things like

  • How did they motivate so many people to do what I presume was a lot of hard labor?
  • If their society had enough resources to supply so many people not producing resources the rest of society could use like food and water, didn’t that mean some people had to do menial hard labor in the midst of plenty?
  • How did they supply food and other resources to large teams not helping produce resources for society?
  • If they used slaves how could they keep people from running away?
  • What organizational structures and leadership and management techniques did they use?
  • How did they communicate over distances and among so many people?

In time I came to consider the human challenges greater than the mechanical challenges. In general, I’ve come to consider social challenges harder to solve than technical ones, though cases vary. I feel like most people consider technical challenges harder and tend to look for them more. Global warming comes to mind, if you’ll pardon the digression, where I see social challenges of changing behavior greater and more important than technical proposed solutions.

Stage 3: Overcoming challenges through experience

Now I tend to think of how they built the pyramids like I think of how many challenging projects get done — by doing something a little challenging that one already successfully completed.
I don’t think anyone sat down to figure out how to build the great pyramids we know about. Generations earlier someone figured out how to build smaller pyramids they knew how to build, themselves probably improving in yet simpler earlier structures.
After building early, modest pyramids, people probably built slightly larger, more complex pyramids. And so on and so on until the great ones we know from postcards.
Now I wonder things like:

  • How did their society grow to create more resources that enabled the pyramid-building industries to grow?
  • What motivations did the leaders have to keep building them?
  • What was it like to work on those teams?

I think the best way to answer the questions of the first two stages is to build smaller pyramids with the technologies available at the time and to build on what we learn in the process, not that I could imagine anyone doing that.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. David Lloyd-Jones

    You’ve gotten a good bit farther on the pyramids than me: I said the hell with it, i.e. that’s all I wanna know, about the time that platoon of Japanese air force men showed that any bunch of farmers could build the damn thing with less hard work than it takes to feed cows.
    Still I do have one small thing to add: there’s a stage 3++ to all this: understanding what can go wrong.
    In order to ship the stone around, or maybe just concomitant with shipping the stone around, the Egyptians dammed the Nile, or at least buiilt enough weirs that flatboats could get around. Then their dams were swept away, “floated” up by the water that flows beneath the apparent surface of the riverbottom. Today’s dams have huge skirts upstream and down to control the below-ground flows.
    To see why things go wrong, and to fix them, I guess needs both imagination and socially shared imagination about things invisible, in this case unseen rivers beneath the obvious river-bed.

    1. Joshua

      Great point!
      It resonates with my science training that taught me to trust no measured number without an error estimate. Not the same concept, but they feel related to me somehow.

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