Friday, May 2, 2014

For we were civil engineers in Egypt

Passover is just past us. One of the discussions at my table was the story told in the Torah that Hebrew slaves built the pyramids. It's a great story, and if it lead to a passion for social justice, I'm all for it. It just isn't true.

Big chunks of the Passover narrative contradict the archeological evidence. It's been known for a long time that they pyramids were built by contract labor, not slaves. We know this because the Egyptians kept records on how much they paid for the labor and that it was paid to the workmen themselves.

Now a group at the University of Amsterdam has published a paper showing how they did it. And the answer it, just the way the Egyptians documented it. They left a record.

How do you move a huge block of stone or a massive statue over the dry and shifting desert sands? By pouring water on the sand so it wasn't quite so shifting any more. The Washington Post quotes the lead researcher, Daniel Bonn:
I was very surprised by the amount the puling force could be reduced — by as much as 50 percent — meaning the Egyptians needed only half the men to pull over the wet sand as compared to dry.
The record in question, from the tomb of Djehutihotep, shows a worker pouring water on the sand, but Bonn notes that
Egyptologists had been interpreting the water as part of a purification ritual, and had never sought a scientific explanation.
While this is not proof, given the greater ease of wet sand, it would seem likely that if it happened once by accident, then it was soon happening on purpose.

It certainly does show how science can (among so many other things) help us illuminate the distant past.
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