Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one remains to this day. The Temple of Artemis was destroyed for the final time back in 401 AD; the Statue of Zeus at Olympia was taken by fire; the Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria were all levelled by earthquakes. Without proof of the existence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the last Wonder standing,
Undoubtedly, we have lost so much information with the fall of these Wonders. Then again, modern man hasn’t proven himself to be hugely sensible when presented with ancient discoveries, as proven by the 17,645 people who felt the most important investigation to carry out upon a recently opened black sarcophagus was to be allowed to drink the putrid liquid found within in order to discover its potential powers! Hopefully, these people have not yet heard the news that the world’s oldest cheese has been discovered in an Ancient Egyptian tomb, riddled as it is with deadly Brucella melitensis.
Ancient Egypt has revealed a number of construction and engineering lessons for the modern day. We’ve made huge strides in construction technology, such as complex structure analysis software and powerful machines that bear the burden of manual labour tasks. Let’s look back on how far we’ve come, and what we can still learn in spite of all our technological advances, from Ancient Egyptian engineering.
The basis of modern tools
The pyramid construction appeared to include the use of lathe tools. We’ve come a long way from their lathe that required two people to operate – now, we use the trusty CNC lathes to carry out myriad tasks such as facing, threading, drilling, and taper turning. It is claimed that our ancient predecessors used their lathes for carving and cutting wood, but there’s some who wonder if they also used lathes for carving stonework.
Ancient Egyptians also made use of surveying tools in much the same way that we do today. Artefacts have shown the use of a plumb level, also known as a plumb bob, in Ancient Egypt. A plumb bob is a simple, yet effective tool made from a pointed weight suspended by a cord, and these tools supported the engineers in their staggeringly accurate achievements in levelling and degree-accurate positioning of the pyramids. Plumb bobs allow for measuring an accurate vertical line for surveying and building, but some suggest the Egyptians used plumb bobs for a lot more; alongside sighting and levelling tools, they used plumb bobs to aid with astronomy and navigation too. Their accuracy is still relied upon today; for example, plumb bobs are used to make sure Salisbury Cathedral is not beginning to lean.
Wall-building then and now
There are similar materials used today that have been used since the construction of the pyramids. For instance, the slow-setting gypsum mortar was used to lubricate, move, and set the stones in place. Gypsum mortar, made from plaster and sand is still relied on today to create structures in drier parts of the world.
Before setting, the stones need moving into place. The question of how the workers managed to haul the huge stones required to create the pyramids has tantalised historians for years. Some theories posit that the expert canal-crafters manipulated the River Nile, redirecting it so that stones could be ferried over the water closer to the construction site. Once there, many point towards the invention of ramps and levers to help manoeuvre stones into place, just as we do today. Have we been unknowingly continuing on a tried-and-tested practice in construction that dates back to the time of the pharaohs?
A newer theory has been presented to challenge the ramp-theory though. Peter James claims the pyramids are too tall and would make ramps too steep to move stone. He theorises that, just as construction workers would build a stone wall today, the Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids from the inside and worked outwards.
Lessons from the past for the future
Is that all there is to learn from the pyramids, in terms of engineering and construction? Design Intelligence suggests we can still learn from the architects of the past. In particular, they outline the need for modern structures to follow the path of the Great Pyramid of Giza and start to focus more on longevity as a means to practice true sustainability. With a lifespan of thousands of years, the pyramids have lost comparatively little in the grand scheme of things. Though they no longer have their hand-polished white limestone outer façade, the material having long since been stripped away for other work or dissolved to expose the inner material seen today, the structure has remained relatively intact. And they have done so with very little maintenance.
The extended durability of the pyramids has been attributed to environmental factors, aligned expectations, and a low centre of gravity. Where some structures rely on the future promise of maintenance in the event of environmental or external factors impacting the structure to stay standing, the pyramids did quite the opposite — they were built to last. Design Intelligence also notes a key factor in this robust quality of the pyramids. The materials used in its construction were cut before they arrived at the site; the site was a place of assembly, and not a place of cutting materials. This meant improvements to speed as well as quality, and everyone could focus on one job each, rather than multiple tasks.
What if we saw structures as being made to outlive our own use of them? Simply put, if we ‘pay’ a certain amount of carbon emissions each time we build a structure, we can lower the overall carbon impact of creating a building by having it last and be repurposed for hundreds or thousands of years — instead of paying that carbon cost multiple times to replace the structure over the years.
Maybe we ought to speak less of the mysteries of the pyramids in favour of its solid, logical lessons that could be used in today's society. The Ancient Egyptians developed incredible engineering and construction feats over centuries that arguable outdo our own creations today in terms of strength. Instead of looking to the future to innovate the construction industry, perhaps we should look to history.