Pyramid Schemes

By Mark Trodden | December 2, 2006 4:39 pm

The Times Online is reporting that

The Ancient Egyptians built their great Pyramids by pouring concrete into blocks high on the site rather than hauling up giant stones …

If true, this would be quite amazing to me, and there appears to be some science (at least the words) backing it up.

… according to Professor Gilles Hug, of the French National Aerospace Research Agency (Onera), and Professor Michel Barsoum, of Drexel University in Philadelphia, the covering of the great Pyramids at Giza consists of two types of stone: one from the quarries and one man-made.

“There’s no way around it. The chemistry is well and truly different,” Professor Hug told Science et Vie magazine. Their study is being published this month in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

The pair used X-rays, a plasma torch and electron microscopes to compare small fragments from pyramids with stone from the Toura and Maadi quarries.

They found “traces of a rapid chemical reaction which did not allow natural crystalisation . . . The reaction would be inexplicable if the stones were quarried, but perfectly comprehensible if one accepts that they were cast like concrete.”

If this holds up then I’m definitely going to start pushing my theory that The Lighthouse of Alexandria consisted of a huge LED.

  • RayCeeYa

    There is no way that archaeologists haven’t been able to tell the difference between stone and concrete for the last hundred years that people have been studying the pyramids. Concrete is not stone. And it’s blatantly obvious to anyone that the pyramids are made of stone not concrete. Is this the same professor who is running around trying to convince people that the Mayan and Aztec pyramids were built by aliens?

  • Paul Valletta

    The Ancient Egyptians were the most technically advanced civilizations, but I would be amazed if there is any substance in this story?

    The blueprint of the Pyrymids were formed by a simple twig and rope made from hemp. The Egyptians used two twigs connected by a hemp rope, thus this simple foundational geometric devise (now known as the compass!) spurned the Egyptians to build upon the scribed Earth, Circle then Square, then the Pyrimid.

    Their use of local resource’s is unsurpassed in any other civilizations, with maybe the exception of Modern Man.

  • Manas Shaikh

    Do the group give any clue to the possible (if at all) chemistry behind?

  • Peter Erwin

    RayCeeYa — according to the article, the “concrete” would have been made primarily from soft limestone dissolved in water, mixed with lime and salt, so it wouldn’t be the standard sort of concrete used today. The article actually claims that

    Until recently it was hard for geologists to distinguish between natural limestone and the kind that would have been made by reconstituting liquified lime.

    Also, they are only claiming that blocks in upper levels of the pyramids were made this way, and only for the facing; the granite blocks making up the bulk structure and the limestone blocks in the lower levels of the facing, are natural.

  • Carl Brannen

    There was a book on this subject that came out years ago by Dr. Davidovits in France. I read lots of crap science books, and believe very few of them. This was one that stood out. I showed it to various buddies (engineers) and they found it rather convincing as well.

    Sure it seems nutty, but who is the expert in construction? Historians? Or engineers? Does an archeologist even know what a “lift line” looks like in a concrete pour?

    The website for the guy who came up with this is still active after all these years because he sells novel methods of making concrete like substances to industry. He’s been asking for the chemical studies for many years. Here’s his archeology section. You can read the principle arguments here, but it helps to take a look at the book.

    There has been one other fringe science book, also in archeology, I’ve ever been impressed with and it also had recent confirmation.

    Being an academic tends to promote a certain arrogance. There is an assumption that the best minds on the planet are in academia and they’ve thought everything up. Einstein worked at a patent office, and Newton was the head of the British mint. Professionals who step too far from the accepted path in physics get slapped down.

    The situation in physics is that relativity and quantum mechanics do not agree with each other. But people who’ve asumed that one of these is correct and tried to fix the other have failed now for many years. In engineering, when you run into this problem with an interaction between two subsystems, the inevitable conclusion is that both subsystems are at fault.

  • Blake Stacey

    Assuming for the moment that the “concrete theory” is correct, I wonder why this technique, discovered relatively early in Egyptian history, wasn’t used extensively later on? You’d think that if they could build massive concrete works as early as the Fourth Dynasty, we would find examples of the same technology dating from the many centuries of later Egyptian construction. They didn’t stop thinking on the megascale after they finished the Giza pyramids!

    The only explanation I could invent based on the Times article is that the concrete manufacturing process required too much wood for fuel. Thoughts?

  • Carl Brannen

    Why they quit building pyramids, according to Davidovits: Their process didn’t need fuel, though it did use ashes recycled from all the cooking fires in Egypt.

    It was a chemical process. They needed a rare arsenic compound available only in a few dry lake beds in the area. When they ran out, they quit building pyramids.

    The pyramids were built only over about a 60 year period, with the largest ones towards the middle. Exponential growth, then a flattening, then a collapse. It’s an early version of mankind running out of raw materials. Also the techniques for casting changed with time, generally getting larger, as they learned to cast in place.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    This page reviews the evolution of the pyramids:
    Meidum is not usually included in tourist visits, but I think that with some pressure you can at least get the guides to show Abusir

  • Alejandro Rivero

    An interesting mathematical fact is the volume of a generic square pyramic needs of some kind of atomic, cavalieri-like calculus. Of course you can get pyramids off from a cube, but this only is a proof for a pyramid having as height one half of the side. So we do not know how the Ancients argued for a generalisation to every pyramid, and in fact the archeological record in Babilon has found examples of right and wrong calculations.
    The issue was put aside by mathematicians until he finally got its place into Hilbert’s list, see's_third_problem
    The Archimedes Palimpsest, unknown to the XIXth century mathematicians, adscribes to Democritus a non-rigorous method to find the formula of the volume.

  • NoJoy

    Your link to Hilbert’s Third Problem doesn’t work. Maybe because of the apostrophe? Perhaps this one will.

  • bob

    The claims of Davidovits et al. from the 1980s were examined by chemists from the University of North Texas. Their conclusions (taken from the abstract of “The Pyramids – Cement or Stone”, published in Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 20, pp. 681-687 (1993)) were “All of the results obtained in this study directly support the concept that pyramids are made of limestone and are not cementitious in nature”.

    Sometimes ideas that sound crackpot are, in the end, really crackpot!

  • Carl Brannen

    “Sometimes ideas that sound crackpot are, in the end, really crackpot!”

    No, most of the time, crackpot ideas are, indeed, crackpot. And I certainly wouldn’t want to disparage the scientific credentials of the Journal of Archaeological Science, or North Texas University, or the state of science back in 1993. On the other hand, I have read somewhere that more than 50% of peer reviewed papers are in error. And a 2006 article at the Journal of the American Ceramic Society, with three well credentialed authors from the Department of Material Sciences at Drexel University and the French National Aerospace Research Agency, does state that at least some of the pyramid blocks are cast.

    Academics read papers with preconceived notions as to the likelihood of the paper being correct. If their prejudice is against the paper, they will read until they find the first thing that they disagree with and then stop, pronounce themselves “fair minded” for having wasted their time, and conclude that the paper was, in fact, incorrect. They will only go back and read more carefully if someone they respect tells them that they need to look again.

    The more arrogant the person, the easier it is for him to maintain the illusion that he is always right. For the case of the cast pyramids, a person needs to, at the very least, carefully read the Davidovits book book before coming to a conclusion. Or if the reader is too stupid to understand the simple arguments, they can use the traditional technique of weighing the stengths of the parties disagreeing. For example, Barsoum has quite a long list of publications.

    By the way, speaking of ideas that sound crackpot, one should recall that quantum mechanics and relativity were both crackpot ideas at one time.

  • Cynthia

    My humble opinion is this: these Egyptologists, who adamantly reject the concrete claim, are doing so out of both rashness and prejudice. They are being overly quick to associate concrete with the ugly and mindless side of human culture/civilization.

    Granted, it’s only natural to equate concrete with tacky strip malls amidst sprawling parking lots as well as with Communist-style architecture, an architecture severely lacking in artistic expression. In fact, I’d say: the anti-concrete crowd is way too wrapped-up in this notion that the manipulation of huge rocks symbolizes not only shock&awe kinda artistry but mind-boggling sort of human ingenuity.

    Just think about it for a moment: it’s rather silly to conclude that the chemistry of concrete is not only less romantic but is less intellectually challenging than the physics of pushing and pulling big chunks of granite.

    I’ll remark: mechanical engineers and hard-core Egyptologists ought to get over it! After all, when it comes to ‘Pyramid Schemes’ (BTW, Mark, I love it;)), chemical engineering/synthetic crystalization is on equal — if not higher — footing with mechanical engineering/natural crystalization. Hence, I’ll argue: in the pyramid scheme of things, concocting concrete is just as — if not more — worthy of respect as putting levers and pulleys to granite.

  • weichi


    “There is an assumption that the best minds on the planet are in academia and they’ve thought everything up. … Newton was the head of the British mint.”

    This is extremely misleading. Newton was indeed head of the mint for a while, but that was *well after* he became famous as the greatest scientist of his time.

    “quantum mechanics and relativity were both crackpot ideas at one time”

    I’m not aware of any time when relativity was viewed as a crackpot idea. What are you referring to?

    I know very little about the early history of quantum theory (by “early” I mean pre-Bohr) but I don’t think that many people thought of, say, Planck, as a crackpot.

  • Peter Erwin

    weichi said:
    “There is an assumption that the best minds on the planet are in academia and they’ve thought everything up. … Newton was the head of the British mint.”

    This is extremely misleading. Newton was indeed head of the mint for a while, but that was *well after* he became famous as the greatest scientist of his time.

    Indeed. Being head of the royal mint was a prestigious post that gave Newton a good income and a position in London society, and came after many years at Cambridge and a term as Member of Parliament (and after the publication of Principia Mathematica).

    “quantum mechanics and relativity were both crackpot ideas at one time”

    I’m not aware of any time when relativity was viewed as a crackpot idea. What are you referring to?

    I know very little about the early history of quantum theory (by “early” I mean pre-Bohr) but I don’t think that many people thought of, say, Planck, as a crackpot.

    Special relativity was widely accepted very soon after Einstein published his paper; other scientists like Lorentz and Poincare had been toying with similar ideas, after all, though not in such a unified, complete fashion. General relativity was also well received; Schwarzschild published his point-mass solution within a year, and expeditions to measure gravitational lensing and test G.R. were made as soon as possible (i.e., once WWI had ended).

    Part of “early” quantum history was one of Einstein’s other 1905 papers, showing that Planck’s light-as-quanta idea would explain the mysterious photoelectric effect.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    The problem I see is that these piramids where covered with some mix, kind of plaster, to made it into really pyramidal, not steeped, shape. So one needs not only to proof the existence of concrete, but also its structural, not decorative, use.

  • Carl Brannen

    “Special relativity was widely accepted very soon after Einstein published his paper”

    Most physicists tended to believe in the aether until long after 1905. Einstein got his Nobel prize for other work.

    But returning to the topic at hand, it’s hard to deny that there is now fairly strong evidence for the pyramids being at least partly built from man made stone. The sociological tendencies of the human species (where almost all knowledge is acquired by hearsay) will have that the people who know the least about the arguments will be the most certain in their convictions. See the sociological analysis of gravity waves, “Gravity’s Shadow” for details.

    My complaint is in comparing this theory, which is published in the peer reviewed literature now by a half dozen well pedigreed authors, and which makes a heck of a lot more sense than the alternatives, is being compared to a claim that the lighthouse at Alexandria was composed of an LED by a person who is neither an Egyptologist, chemist, geologist, or material scientist, and who has read essentially none of the literature on the subject.

    The majority believes one thing or another, and then they find their view reinforced by the fact that it is held by the majority. That is not science, that is circular reasoning. If you don’t know squat about a subject, shut up about it, and avoid contributing to the already strong human tendency to swim with the school.

  • Mark

    Carl Brannen, you need to learn to read humor in posts when it is there. I know little about this topic, posted about it because I thought it was interesting and amazing if true, and included a humorous comment at the end to illustrate how amazing it would be to me if true. Somebody thin skinned might take offence at the tone of your comment.

  • Carl Brannen

    Mark, sorry for getting thin skinned about this. I read this book when it came out and it is convincing in a way that one cannot express in a couple of paragraphs. I feel more sympathy for the author than you.

    Tell you what. If you like I’ll have Amazon send you a copy of that short book (if any are left), and you can read the argument on my dime.

    Meantime, give my regards to Joanne.

  • coturnix

    Oh-oh, don’t let Osmanagic hear about this:


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


See More

Collapse bottom bar

Login to your Account

E-mail address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »