Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt:
Advanced Engineering in the Temples of the Pharaohs
The landscape of the ancient world is dotted with fabulous structures that are breathtaking in their complexity. The Egyptians and Mayans had their pyramids and temples. The Hindus crafted elaborate temples throughout Asia. The Greeks built the Parthenon, and the Babylonians constructed the Jupiter Temple and the fabled Hanging Gardens. The Romans made their mark all over their world, with engineering geniuses guiding the construction of their famous roads, the Coliseum, and numerous temples and viaducts, while Roman sculptors guided their chisels over marble and alabaster, giving it physical presence and beauty.
With the exception of artifacts such as the mysterious Antikythera Mechanism, an astronomical computer found by fishermen on the sea floor near the island of Antikythera in 1901, the development of technology in the ancient world seems to have clear origins and is fairly well understood.
Going back yet further in time, a deeper mystery lies in the question of how the ancient Egyptian civilization could have flourished for three thousand years without improving the tools used to quarry and shape stone to near perfection. Since 1984, when Analog magazine published my article “Advanced Machining in Ancient Egypt?” controversy on this subject has persisted. The article proposed that the ancient Egyptians were more advanced than previously believed and that they used advanced tools and methods to cut granite, diorite, and other difficult-to-work stone. It does not seem credible that brilliant architects and engineers would continue to use stone tools and copper chisels for three millennia.
The most stunning and convincing artifacts that clearly contradict theories about how hard igneous rock was quarried and worked in prehistory are the incredible granite and basalt boxes in the rock tunnels of the Serapeum at Saqqara. Within these mysterious tunnels that were carved out of the limestone bedrock are over 20 huge granite boxes. These 70 ton boxes with their 20 ton lids were quarried at Aswan over 500 miles away and installed in arched crypts recessed into the walls of the labyrinth of underground tunnels. All of the boxes were finished on the inside and the bottom side of the lid, but not all were finished on the outside. It appears that work stopped suddenly in the Serapeum, for there were boxes in several stages of completion: boxes with lids, boxes that had yet to have the lids placed on them, and the rough box and lid near the entrance. The floor of each crypt was several feet lower than the tunnel floor. Iron railings were installed to prevent visitors from falling.
In 1995 I inspected the inside and outside surfaces of two boxes in the Serapeum with a 6-inch precision straight edge that was accurate to .0002 inch.
In one of the crypts there is a granite box with a broken corner, and this box is accessible by means of steps down to the lower floor. The outside of the box appears to be roughly finished, but the glint of a high polish on the inside surfaces beckoned me to climb inside. Running my hand along the surface of the granite reminded me of the thousands of times I have run my hand along a granite surface plate when I was working as a machinist and later as a tool and die maker. The feel of the stone was no different, though I was not sure of its flatness or accuracy. To check my impression, I placed the edge of my precision-ground parallel against the surface—and I saw that it was dead flat. There was no light showing through the interface of the steel and the stone, as there would be if the surface was concave, and the steel did not rock back and forth, as it would if the surface was convex. To put it mildly, I was astounded. I did not expect to find such exactitude, because this order of precision is not necessary for the sarcophagus of a bull—or any other animal or human.
I slid the parallel along the surface both horizontally and vertically, and there was no deviation from a true, flat surface. The flatness was similar to precision-ground surface plates that are used in manufacturing for the verification of exactly machined parts for tools, gauges, and myriad other products that require extremely accurate surfaces and dimensions. Those familiar with such products and the relationship between gauges and surface plates know that the gauge may show that the stone is flat within the tolerance of the gauge—in this case 0.0002 inch (0.00508 millimeter) flatness. If the gauge is moved 6 inches along the stone surface, however, and the same conditions are found, it cannot be claimed with certainty that the stone is within the same tolerance over 12 inches—unless the plate has been inspected by another means and is calibrated to a known standard.
Nonetheless, moving the steel edge along the granite provided enough information for me to conclude that I needed a longer straight edge—and, preferably, even more sophisticated alignment equipment—to determine the accuracy of the inside surfaces of the box. I was also impressed to find that each corner of the box had a small radius that ran from the top of the box to the bottom, where it blended with the corner radius of the floor of the box.
The artifacts I have measured in Egypt have the marks of careful and remarkable manufacturing methods. They are unmistakable and irrefutable in their precision but origin or intent will always be open to speculation. The following series of photographs were taken inside the Serapeum on August 27, 2001. Those taken of me inside one of these huge boxes show me inspecting the squareness between a 27 ton lid and the inside surface of the granite box on which it sits. The precision square I used was calibrated to .00005 inch (that is 5/100,000 of an inch) using a Jones & Lamson comparitor.
The underside of the lid and the inside wall of the box I found to be square, and finding that the squareness was achieved not just on one side of the box but both, raises the level of difficulty in accomplishing this feat.
Think of it as a geometric reality. In order for the lid to be square with the two inside walls, the inside walls would have to be parallel to one another along the vertical axis. Moreover, the topside of the box would need to establish a plane that is square to the sides. That makes finishing the inside exponentially more difficult. The manufacturers of these boxes in the Serapeum not only created inside surfaces that were flat when measured vertically and horizontally, they also made sure that the surfaces they were creating were square and parallel to each other, with one surface, the top, having sides that are 5 feet and 10 feet apart from each other. But without such parallelism and squareness of the top surface, the squareness noted on both sides would not exist
The flat surfaces of the inside of the boxes exhibited a high degree of accuracy that is comparable to surfaces found on surface plates in modern manufacturing facilities.
Finding such precision from any epoch in human history leads one to conclude that a sophisticated system of precise measure must have been in existence. This is an area of intense interest to engineers—such as myself—who find in Egypt a language with which we are familiar. This is the language of science, engineering, and manufacturing. Our counterparts in that ancient land left future generations of scientists, engineers, architects, and those who take their instructions and shape materials to their specifications, with a difficult challenge. This challenge is to recognize what they created and provide evidence-based, reasonable answers that give the ancient engineers credit for what they achieved.
The ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids and temples, who crafted monumental statues out of igneous rock, were thinking with the minds of architects, engineers, and craftspeople. Were ancient archaeologists responsible for the legacy they left us? Without the advice of modern Egyptian architects, engineers, and craftspeople, are today’s Egyptian archaeologists missing something? Are modern interpretations of the awesome feats of the ancient Egyptians irrelevant in providing new and powerful information about this ancient culture? Are the thoughts and conclusions of Western writers and travelers who stood in front of the Great Pyramid one hundred years ago (or some forty-five hundred years after it was built) more intrinsically linked to the ancient Egyptian mind than those who come after them, a century or more later? What can be described as a “modern perspective?” In his time, Herodotus would surely have been considered modern. So were Egyptophiles Petrie, Marriette, Champollion, and Howard Carter—each in possession of a modern mind that was clothed in a fabric of prejudices and stereotypes that existed within their own culture.
When it comes to completely understanding the ancient Egyptians’ level of technological prowess, there can be no final conclusion. What is left to study today is a mere skeleton of what existed at the time of the ancient Egyptians. This skeleton survives as highly sophisticated and precisely crafted sedimentary and igneous rock. It is my belief that the clothes we have placed on this skeleton are mere rags compared to what should be there. I have proposed in the past that higher levels of technology were used by the ancient Egyptians, but for the sake of argument, I have rejected some ideas and cast doubt on my previous assertions as to the level of technology they enjoyed. At the same time, I cast doubt on the methods of manufacture that Egyptologists have asserted were used to build the pyramids and the glorious temples in Egypt. These methods are primitive and include stone and wooden mallets; copper chisels; tube drills and saws; and stone hammers for quarrying, dressing, and sculpting hard igneous rock.
Having knowledge of the incredible precision in the boxes in the Serapeum, we should be reminded of the work of Sir William Flinders Petrie, who measured and recorded for prosperity the marvelous layout of the Giza Plateau, and particularly the accuracy and true alignment of many of the features found in the Great Pyramid. His measurements discovered that the casing stone were cut within .010 inch and the constructed portion of the Descending Passage was accurate to within the thickness of a thumbnail (.020 inch) over a length of 150 feet.
To understand how the ancient Egyptians created these testaments to manufacturing prowess, we need to rely on an examination by scientists and engineers. They would take measurements with modern tools and analyze the full scope of the work and compare them with our own capabilities. The full scope of the work includes the most difficult aspects of the work, which are ignored by Egyptologists when they attempt to explain how the ancient Egyptians created their monuments. For instance, dragging a 25 ton block of granite over wooden rollers, with great difficulty, does not explain how a 500 ton obelisk or monolithic statues weighing 1000 tons were moved by prehistoric people. Bashing out a few cubic centimeters of granite with a dolerite ball does not explain how thousands of tons of granite were extracted from the bedrock and shaped with extreme precision and displayed as monumental pieces of art in the temples of Upper Egypt. To know the true majesty and capability of the ancient Egyptians, one only has to know and appreciate the full extent of their work.
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