This Passover I indulged in one of my favourite holiday-themed activities, next to cathartically cleaning house: watching the classic 1956 movie epic The Ten Commandments. Between bouts of arguing the relative acting abilities of Yul Brynner vs Chuck Heston (Brynner for the win!), we got to talking about all the theories about the building of the pyramids. When I went to school, the leading theory involved thousands of slaves — much like the Israelites — using a series of dirt ramps to elevate the giant stone blocks required. (My daughter-in-law, on the other hand, is firmly in camp Ancient Aliens)
Though the Israelites in The Ten Commandments (and in the original source) weren’t on pyramid duty, slave labour was definitely a part of Ancient Egyptian society. But scholars have shown that specifically the Great Pyramids were more likely constructed by well-compensated artisans rather than slaves.
How they did it is another mystery to be unraveled; but I wonder if there was some engineering magic at foot, like that recently wrought by researchers at MIT and sculptors at Matter Design. These innovators have created a fascinating set of 3900 lb concrete bricks, which are so precisely calibrated that they can easily be moved by one or two people. This project, called Walking Assembly, was undertaken to explore how ancient peoples might have made their monolithic structures well before the invention of the crane. From the project description:
“Walking Assembly re-introduces the potentials of that ancient knowledge to better inform the transportation and assembly of future architectures. If a brick is designed for a single hand, and a concrete masonry unit (CMU) is designed for two, these massive masonry units (MMU) unshackle the dependency between size and the human body. Intelligence of transportation and assembly is designed into the elements themselves, liberating humans to guide these colossal concrete elements into place.”
The giant bricks are made out of variable-density concrete, which makes for an exact centre of gravity. Builders then tilt and roll the bricks into assemblages like walls and staircases. Check out the video of Walking Assembly in action here!
The designers also cite play as a key aspect of their creation — and the manipulation of the bricks looks fun, in a jungle gym kind of way! It’s possible ancient builders, enslaved or artisans found ways of engineering their materials for maximum efficiency in the way these modern creators do. Whether they had fun is anyone’s guess.