In this essay, Robert Carson explains why he thinks Egyptologists have got so much wrong, and why they might be the least qualified people to answer questions about the construction of the pyramids of Giza.
Over the course of my life (I am sixty-five) there have been many theories as to how the pyramids at Giza had been constructed. Most of those theories have been proffered by Egyptologists, but others outside of archaeology have also theorized as to how they were constructed. One of the most inspired and intriguing theories of recent times was put forward by Jean-Pierre Houdin some years ago. He maintained that a spiral ramp had been created within the Great Pyramid during its construction for the transportation of limestone blocks up to the upper levels of the structure. He had come to this conclusion after realising that most of the construction materials had to have been taken into the structure at a fairly low level, before being transported up to the higher levels.
This was a most logical conclusion, given that the ancient pyramid builders had no means of installing the outer casing stones on the stepped levels after the core of the structure had been built up. Indeed, it was absolutely imperative that the outer casing blocks were installed on each course of the structure first – before the rectangular core blocks were installed behind them – for this was the only way to accurately survey the structure and ensure that its pyramid shape was maintained throughout the construction process. An architect by profession, Jean-Pierre Houdin was well aware of the need to accurately survey a structure at all stages of its construction.
Theories about the construction of the pyramids and their intended purpose range from the extremely naive to the faintly ridiculous, with the more reasoned theories, like the one mentioned above, somewhere in the middle. One would assume therefore that most of the theories that emanate from the archaeological profession would be somewhere in the middle also, but that is not the case. Some of the most naive theories have come from Egyptologists and, indeed, they have had to back-peddle on a number of occasions when new information has come to light – or when plain old common sense prevailed. However, I do not wish to single out Egyptologists for criticism for they were in a most difficult position. Both the public and the media looked to Egyptologists to provide the answers to a myriad of questions regarding the pyramids at Giza, yet in many cases Egyptologists didn’t have the answers to those questions. The big problem for Egyptologists and other professionals is that they can only say they don’t have the answer very occasionally, for if a specialist says that they don’t know an answer to a question on too many occasions people begin to doubt their ability to do their job – and that’s the last thing any professional person would wish to bring upon themselves. So as long as the public believed that it was the responsibility of the Egyptological profession to provide them with answers to these questions Egyptologists were expected to come up with the answers.
There is a paradox here though, for the very people who have been put under most pressure to provide the answers to all of our questions regarding the construction of the Great Pyramid and its companions – the Egyptologists – are probably the last people we should be asking the questions of. After all, since when did archaeologists become experts in building and construction and civil engineering? This was not what they were trained to do. So is it any wonder that they show such little understanding of complex structures such as the pyramids at Giza? Of course, Egyptologists must shoulder some of the blame for this situation having been allowed to get out of hand, for they should have brought it to the media’s attention long ago that this was not their speciality – and they should have consulted with other specialists on this at the very least. I personally believe that they should have gone much further, however, and set up a multi-disciplinary working group to consider the implications of building the pyramids at Giza. Had they recognised the need to do so, they could probably have avoided much of the criticism that was levelled at them at the end of the last century and in the first decade of the twenty first century.
Egyptologists had come to believe that the pyramids at Giza had been constructed as mausoleums for three successive Old Kingdom rulers; therefore, they reasoned that the chambers and passageways within these structures must have been created with this purpose in mind. They seemed unconcerned that many of these internal spaces seemed unsuited to the purpose. But this was all conjecture on their part, and based more on their belief system than on a thorough analysis of the physical evidence that was available. However, the media and the public expected them to know the purpose of these chambers, so why would they have doubted what Egyptologists had to say on the subject. After all, these were the experts on ancient Egypt.
I believe that their problems began with the discovery – and subsequent reporting in the western press – of a basalt sarcophagus found in the burial chamber deep below the foundations of the smallest of the three principal pyramids at Giza a long time ago. This sarcophagus was discovered during excavations in the small pyramid by English army officer, Colonel Howard Vyse, in 1837. The sarcophagus was decorated in what’s known as the “Palace Facade Style” but there were no hieroglyphs on the sarcophagus. Its lid was missing, but some fragments of the lid were found in the chamber. (This sarcophagus would have been a prime museum exhibit today had it not succumbed to misfortune on its journey to the British Museum. The ship transporting the sarcophagus to England sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea somewhere between Malta and Spain, when it encountered bad weather.)
I think that many misconceptions about the Great Pyramid originate from Vyse’s exploration of the small pyramid at Giza, for it was here that it was discovered that three “portcullis” slabs had been lowered into one of the passageways that blocked the entry to the passages and chambers beyond. In a chamber at the end of this passageway it was also discovered that a huge block of limestone had been slid down a ramp to block the entry to a passageway on a lower level where the burial chamber was to be found. This pyramid therefore contained all the elements that later contributed to the great muddying of the waters regarding the chambers and passageways in these structures, especially with regard to those in the Great Pyramid.
The smallest of the three large pyramids at Giza contained – among other passageways and chambers – a burial chamber, portcullis blocks/slabs and a blocking stone, wasn’t it logical therefore to assume that similar features in the Great Pyramid also served the same purpose? I believe that this was the fundamental error made by Egyptologists that led to their subsequent theories regarding the Great Pyramid being challenged more and more, for the orthodox position on these structures simply did not stand up to scrutiny.
The smallest of the three principal pyramids at Giza does not contain a burial chamber – as far as we know – for the burial chamber mentioned above was discovered far below the foundation level of the small pyramid on the lowest subterranean level – it was not within the pyramid itself. A granite coffer was discovered in the upper chamber (King’s Chamber) of the Great Pyramid, so it was assumed that this chamber had been a burial chamber also. But where were the parallels here? The coffer found in the upper chamber of the Great Pyramid was a plain coffer with no decoration or inscriptions whatsoever. Was this really a sarcophagus? The other big question, of course, is why would the builders of the Great Pyramid create a burial chamber fifty metres or more above ground level, when they could put it fifty metres below ground level and then put a massive pyramid on top of it? After all, Egyptologists tell us that the pyramids evolved from the early mastabas and the later stepped pyramids, where the ancient Egyptians buried their dead deep underground beneath these structures. Why then would they change habits that had probably endured for many generations and inter the body of a king in a chamber within the Great Pyramid? Hadn’t they shown that in the smallest of the three principal pyramids at Giza they had continued with the practice of placing the burial chamber far below ground level, just as they had done with these earlier structures?
The portcullis slabs are another feature of the small pyramid that archaeologists should have ignored until they better understood their function. However, that was not to be, and they went on to muddy the waters further when they concluded that portcullis slabs had also been installed in the “antechamber” in the Great Pyramid. There can be no comparison of chambers here, for the portcullis slabs were simply installed in three pairs of slots cut into the sidewalls of a horizontal passageway in the small pyramid, a passageway that was deep underground, not in the pyramid itself. The three pairs of empty slots (there is a granite counterweight in a fourth pair of vertical slots) in the Great Pyramid are cut into the granite sidewalls of the so called antechamber. It is also plain to see that this little chamber sustained considerable damage at some time in the past, unlike the small pyramid, though no fragments of portcullis slabs were discovered in the inner chambers and passageways of the Great Pyramid. (As a matter of interest, the walls of the grand gallery in the Great Pyramid have also sustained considerable damage.) The thought that immediately springs to mind when one first learns of these facts is that maybe these inner spaces – the chambers, shafts and passageways in the Great Pyramid – served some other purpose … or is that just the engineer in me talking? Either way, surely archaeologists should have realised that something else may have been going on here – that these chambers and passageways may have been created for another purpose.
There is also another very significant factor that I believe Egyptologists should have been concerned about when these theories were first aired. All of the chambers and passageways mentioned above and discovered at the site of the small pyramid are below ground level – they are all subterranean. Why then should these chambers and passageways have been compared to those situated within the Great Pyramid? To my mind, this is a road down which Egyptologists should never have ventured. But little by little this was the road down which they travelled, and in time their theories became untenable. However, this failure to take account of the bigger picture and think things through also had other implications, for it meant that the Egyptological establishment had to expend a great deal of time and energy defending their flawed theories – time that could have been put to better use in an effort to discover the true purpose of these inner spaces. That, to my mind, is why no real progress was made in this area over the course of my lifetime … and longer. Egyptologists became distracted and eventually lost their way on this issue. They never seemed to accept that maybe it was their theories that were wrong and that maybe a complete rethink was called for. Egyptologists never came close to discovering how the pyramids at Giza had been constructed for no one was looking at the internal layout of the chambers and passageways in the Great Pyramid and trying to figure out their true purpose. That was left to others to do.
Looking back at how little progress was made over the last century on this issue, however, it now must come as a great shock for Egyptologists to learn now that almost all of the clues as to how the Great Pyramid had been constructed have been hiding in plain sight for decades. The physical evidence that I uncovered over a ten year period – after I had discovered the key to how these structures had been constructed – literally turns just about everything we thought we understood about these structures – and the people who built them – on its head. Egyptologists failed to spot all of these physical clues for the simple reason that they believed they had it all worked out. Unfortunately – for Egyptology – they had made the most fundamental error of all, they believed their theories to be infallible despite the fact they were unproven.
The unpalatable truth (for Egyptologists) is that there is no King’s Chamber, Queen’s Chamber or antechamber to be found in the Great Pyramid in the twenty first century, for we now know the true purpose of all of its chambers and so called “passageways”. Jean-Pierre Houdin was indeed correct when he concluded that the overwhelming bulk of the masonry used in the construction of the Great Pyramid was taken into the structure at a low level, before being transported up through the structure to its final destination. What Jean-Pierre failed to discover, however, was that the chambers, passageways and shafts inside the structure constituted the internal infrastructure required for the transportation of all the construction materials (it was not an internal spiral ramp, as Jean-Pierre had assumed). What Egyptologists and most of us had failed to understand for so long was that these massive structures could only be constructed from the inside. Had we grasped this fundamental fact earlier, the internal features of the Great Pyramid and its companions may have made much more sense to us long ago. As it was, we had to wait until the twenty first century for the Great Pyramid to give up its secrets.
Robert Carson is a retired engineer with a lifetime interest in ancient structures. He is the author of The Great Pyramid – The Inside Story, a book he describes as an A to Z of pyramid construction based on physical evidence that can be found in the pyramids at Giza.