Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies

pyramids1.jpg

(Photo: Ricardo Liberato/Wikimedia Commons)

To Haul Pyramid Stones Over Egyptian Sands, Just Add Water

• May 05, 2014 • 10:04 AM

(Photo: Ricardo Liberato/Wikimedia Commons)

A clue from an Egyptian tomb has provided scientists with a new explanation of how stones were transported for the construction of pyramids.

If a new scientific validation of one interpretation of a painting in Djehutihotep‘s elaborately decorated tomb is correct, then ancient Egyptians understood the key to king-sized desert Slip’N Slides.

The artistic commemoration that followed the Egyptian leader’s death is offering up clues, more than 4,000 years later, about how armies of men hauled hulking stones that were used to build the ancient pyramids.

Scientists who investigated the effect of potentially wetting sand in front of large Egyptian sleds—a process that may have been depicted on a painting in the nomarch’s tomb—say their discovery could have implications for how modern society can most efficiently transport everything from sand and cement to flour.

Check out this painting discovered more than a century ago in Djehutihotep’s tomb. It shows a giant statue of the leader being dragged on a sled, which was the same strategy taken for moving stones and other heavy payloads. Sometimes these sleds were dragged over wooden sleepers. But this scene might show something slightly different.

Painting from Djehoetihotep's tomb(Photo: P. E. Newberry, El Bersheh, The Tomb of Tehuti-Hetep, Vol. 1.)

Now, in this close-up, note the dude pouring what appears to be water over the sand ahead of the sled.

Pouring water ahead of Egyptian sled

What’s he up to?

Some say the pouring was purely ceremonial. But after simulating the effect of moistening sand in front of an Egyptian sled in a laboratory, an international team of scientists has rejected that explanation. They say the water could have reduced the amount of friction between the wooden sled and the sand beneath it—a process they concluded may have halved the amount of horsepower required, which, back then, was measured as manpower.

“[I]n some cases the Egyptians built roads for the sleds out of wooden sleepers,” the scientists write in a letter published last week in Physical Review Letters. “The possibility of dragging the sled through desert sand is often precluded because it is believed to be too difficult. However, in view of our results, it seems very possible to drag the sleds over wet sand with the manpower available to the Egyptians.”

The scientists measured how much force was required to drag a weight-laden sled over miniature deserts, some of them damp and some of them dry. By adding a “small amount” of moisture to the sand that most closely replicated the Egyptian variety, the scientists hit a sweet spot: a friction coefficient for wood-on-sand that’s similar to that of wood-on-wood.

The scientists say that isn’t just fascinating from a historical perspective—it has ramifications for bulk commodity handling today.

“Most of civil engineering deals with the handling and transport of granular materials—sand, concrete, cement and so forth,” says Daniel Bonn, a University of Amsterdam professor who co-authored the new paper. “Slightly wet sand is transported more easily through pipes than dry sand. This is counter-intuitive, since the wet sand is harder.”

John Upton
John Upton is a science journalist with an ecology background. He has written recently for VICE, Slate, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, Grist, and Audubon magazine. He blogs at Wonk on the Wildlife. Upton's favorite eukaryotes are fungi, but he won't fault you for being human. Follow him on Twitter @johnupton.

More From John Upton

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.