Immense in size and enigmatic in their manifestation, the pyramids of Egypt are a perennial source of speculation and wonder. They have challenged the minds of generations of engineers and scientists who marvel at their construction and complexity of design.
In my discussions with fellow engineers over the years, there has been no disagreement that what was created in ancient Egypt is sophisticated to a point that would severely stretch modern capabilities. With all our modern tools and technology, when visiting Egypt, why do engineers gape in awe at what the ancient Egyptians accomplished? Where are the answers to our questions about how such miracles of stonework were created? A prehistoric culture was empowered with a vision and genius to design and build pyramids and temples that are miracles of precisely tooled stonework of gargantuan proportion. Surely they would not limit their genius to conceiving only of the final product. Doesn’t it make more sense to accept the idea that such genius would and could influence the design and building of tools which, themselves, are equal in majesty and truly reflect their capability?
There are no tools in the archaeological record that cause us to gasp with the same kind of awe that we feel when faced with the miracles this civilization produced. No machine tools have been found to explain the intricate and precise contours found on the Giza Plateau and the temples in Upper Egypt. No metrology instruments have been uncovered to explain how ultra-flat surfaces that were finished to optical precision were maintained over hundreds of square feet of surface area. We are shown ‘not-so-square’ wooden squares of dubious efficacy in a museum case and expected to buy the academic line, which flies in the face of decades of experience and training, which teaches that these were the tools the ancient Egyptians used to create square corners.
Any craftsperson of substantial skill, wielding only the tools that remain in the archaeological record, would be incapable of recreating this stonework. This presents an obstacle to understanding our past. The accepted conventional theory that all the remarkable finely crafted stonework in the pyramids and temples in Egypt was produced by hand, using copper tools, stone pounders, wooden hammers, wooden squares and pieces of string is absurd. The theories have been tested, with limited results, and they have never replicated the more difficult aspects of Egypt’s accomplishments. Attempts at shaping stone using dolerite hammers and drilling holes using quartz sand-charged copper have met with limited success. Those who have engaged in these enterprises have provided a service to our understanding. This understanding is not about how the ancient Egyptians performed mechanical work, but, rather, how they did not.
Nothing on this planet compares to the Egyptian stonework. Studies need to be made along the lines of Dr. Peter Lu of Yale University who raises the prestige of ancient China with the conclusion that they must have used compound machines 3,000 years ago. His research is systematic, logical and hard to refute.
Published in Science was circumstantial evidence from which Dr. Lu inferred that compound machines existed in China 3,000 year ago. He made this groundbreaking discovery while studying Jade burial rings (M1: 7 from Tomb 1 of the Chu minister at Henan Xichuan Xiasi, 552 B.C.) that had been carefully inscribed with what appeared to be equally spaced spiral grooves around its circumference. A simple camera and computer-aided design program were the tools with which Lu was able to draw this inference. Replication of the spirals was performed by a scribing tool guided by precise linear and rotational motion.
Employing the same methodology as Dr. Lu, I am able to present evidence from a sawn piece of granite that indicates it was cut with a circular saw that is 35.9 feet (10.942 meters) in diameter. The marks left in the granite indicate that such a saw was used to cut the rock for building the 4th dynasty pyramid of Abu Rawash in Egypt. Because saws of this magnitude have not been found anywhere in Egypt, the evidence is considered circumstantial; However, we are provided with a fairly accurate picture of at least their diameter, if not quite how they were driven or from what materials they were constructed.
Before describing the evidence from Abu Rawash, it might be useful to consider machines that are in use today of similar dimension. Between 1987 and 1994, mega machines considered marvels of modern technology chewed through 31.6 miles (51 km) of chalk marl at a rate of 482 feet (150 m) per week. Hardened steel and carbide bits at predetermined placement around the cutting face of a tunnel boring machine (TBM) traveled around an 84-foot circumference creating a tunnel that was 27 feet (8.2 m) in diameter. These were monster machines designed for a mammoth project, where size really mattered.
With new evidence from Abu Rawash, we now know that when tackling mammoth projects in ancient Egypt, size mattered then too. This evidence shows that when it came to designing equipment that was up to the job of pyramid building, nobody did it better than the ancient Egyptians! While the TBMs that bored through the English Channel were 27 feet (8.2 m) in diameter, objective evidence shows that the ancient Egyptians used mega saws for cutting granite, limestone and basalt that may have exceeded 35 feet (10.9 m) in diameter!
We should not be surprised that a culture able to conceive and build the largest and most impressive structures on the planet did not limit their superlative efforts to just the building, but also the tools they used. The ancient Egyptians created an abundance of evidence from which methods of manufacture can be inferred. In 1883, Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie remarked on the efficiency with which the ancient Egyptians cut hard igneous rock and concluded that on some artifacts circular saws must have been used. “A slice of diorite bearing equidistant and regular grooves of circular arcs, parallel to one another; these grooves have been nearly polished out by crossed grinding, but still are visible. The only feasible explanation of this piece is that it was produced by a circular saw.” While it is true that such rock can be abraded and worn away using the application of copper, bone or wood and quartz sand, or another rock, what was left unanswered in these modern studies, as with Petrie, was the diameter of the saws that were used by the ancient Egyptians.
In March 2006, I visited the pyramid complex of Abu Rawash near Cairo where I found some answers to Petrie’s and my own questions regarding the diameter of saws used by the Egyptians. Abu Rawash is located on a limestone hill off the Alexandria Road about five miles north of the pyramids at Giza. My first impression was that compared to Giza it was as unimpressive a site as I have seen, and I didn’t wonder why it was not on the list of sites that most tourists visit. There is little left of the pyramid and there are conflicting opinions on how it came to its present state. Some believe that the pyramid was never finished while others argue that it was subject to a violent earthquake and was subsequently stripped of its stone for other buildings. There is substantial evidence, though, that the design of this pyramid included the use of granite, for whether taken off the pyramid after a cataclysm or placed in line to be lifted into place during construction, large granite blocks can be seen scattered around and in the remains of the pyramid structure.
As unimpressive, by comparison, as it might have appeared upon approach, when I left the site, my mind was racing with new ideas about a piece of granite that I had spotted from the pyramid’s truncated top, which lay in the courtyard below. From the top of the pyramid, it appeared to be a piece that could be compared with some I have seen at Giza. I wondered whether the surface was as flat as those I had previously measured, so I made my way to the bottom to check it out.
Compared to all the other stone in the area, this one was different. The surface was smooth, but laying a straightedge on the surface I found that it was not flat, but concave. Inspecting it closely, I noted that the concave cut surface terminated and a compound radial break line distinguished where the saw cut ended and another piece broke off. The block measured approximately 56.75 in (1.441 m) x 47 in (1.19 m) x 9 in (.22 m). From looking at the piece from above, an arc is present where the saw ended its cut and from this arc to the end of the piece, it showed that it was broken off from the piece to which it was originally attached (see Figure 1). Figure 1 shows the piece from above where the arc can clearly be seen. A tripod was set up and photographs were taken for analysis. Three points were selected along the arc to create a circle. Zooming in on the arc it was determined that the radius was accurate over approximately 93% of the arc. Using the dimensions of the chord (56.75 in) and the sagitta (1.42 in), the radius of the arc was calculated to be 23.684 feet (7.218 m). See table in Figure 1.
A perpendicular photograph of the arc, however, does not reveal the saw’s true diameter. It assumes that the center of this radius was located perpendicular to the camera’s axis, whereas the cut surface being studied had a concave radius cut along its length (see Figure. 3). These conditions suggest that the saw that cut both radii must have been on an angle, or the granite block was pushed into the saw at an angle. By knowing the dimensions of both radii, therefore, a more accurate calculation of the saw diameter can be made. Using a photograph taken approximately parallel with the axis of the surface radius, the radius was calculated to be 22.134 feet (6.746 M) (see table in Figure 3).
A radius on two axes indicates that they are small segments of an ellipse. This technique is a popular method used by machinists and toolmakers to machine a radius that is larger than the radius of a cutting tool. Using a simple formula we can calculate the angle a circular saw should be tilted to in order to cut a large radius in a work piece, and from both radii in the granite determine with reasonable certainty both the diameter of the saw and its tilt angle (Cutter diameter / radius2 = Sin of angle of tilt). A cutter diameter of 35.9 feet (10.942) will produce both radii if tilted on a 46.5∫ angle (See Figure 2). This was tested in a milling machine on a micarta 1/61 scale model, the results of which were compared to the photograph of the granite (Figure 4). The angle is consistent with Egyptologist’s speculation on the angle of the pyramid. A bi-product of creating the model was a block with all the characteristics of a pyramid casing stone.
Closer examination of the granite surface shows that the saw which did the cutting left grooves approximately .050 inch wide (see Figure 5.1). This might normally be associated with the feed rate of the saw, but could also indicate a blade with multiple cutting teeth. What is really puzzling and will probably always remain a mystery is, why this block of all granite blocks examined has such geometry. Sensible explanations for every characteristic on the stone are not immediately clear. A step in the surface indicate a change in the saw’s angle and, therefore, the radius it cut into the surface. It could be asked whether this piece was created on a whim after a casing stone was cut and this piece was separated. It seems inconceivable that a process was designed whereby the surface area being cut continually increased as the saw passed along the piece. Could it be that the pyramid angle was cut normally and after this block was broken away it was returned to the saw to have these inexplicable features created? (see Figure 5.1)
As this evidence drove me to grapple with these concepts, I was stunned by their implications and tried to imagine what such a saw would look like, how it was installed on the plateau and how the stone to be cut was fixtured and moved through the blade. My mind was consumed when it finally dawned on me as I was waking one morning that there are other features at Abu Rawash and at Giza that could explain parts of this mystery.
Close to where this stone is located is a deep trench cut into the bedrock (see illustration on page 33). Similar trenches can be seen on the Giza Plateau east of the Great Pyramid. They have been labeled “boat-pits” because of their shape and are considered the symbolic transport of the dead king into the afterlife. Considering the appearance of solar boats in Egyptian art, particularly the prolific reliefs inside the Temple of Denderah, and the discovery of a boat in a rectangular pit south of the Great Pyramid, the label is not altogether misplaced.
The trench at Abu Rawash, however, is quite narrow and deep and does not accurately represent the shape of a boat’s hull. It would not be far-fetched, therefore, to propose that these trenches were used originally to install the lower part of the saw’s massive diameter (see photo on page 32). When looking at the trenches on the Giza Plateau, and the enormity of the task of cutting millions of blocks of stone, not just for the Great Pyramid, but for the other pyramids on the site, the efficient use of mega saws cutting efficiently through granite and limestone to exacting tolerances somehow brings the manufacture of pyramids into a different view—one that allows a sense of comportment with engineering on a massive scale using methods and machines that were equal to the task at hand.
As with Dr. Lu’s seminal studies of ancient Chinese artifacts, it also may prompt us to reexamine other ancient Egyptian artifacts that display evidence of advanced machines that have been discussed in earlier issues of this magazine. One might speculate that like the Chunnel boring machines, the giant saws that machined ancient Egypt lie buried deep in the earth where eventually, some day, they may be found.
© 2007 Christopher Dunn, all rights reserved. Article images can be seen at www.gizapower.com/Abu/index.htm and may be requested for educational purposes only. Author of The Giza Power Plant, Dunn is working on his second book, from which this abridged article was taken.