Solving An Ancient Mystery



The Great Pyramids of Egypt include some of the greatest engineering accomplishments in human history.  Yet, despite having been completed thousands of years ago, they continue to baffle historians and archaeologists.  Even modern engineers are at a loss to explain how the ancients were able to erect1 such enormous structures without the aid of heavy machinery.  Over the centuries, countless theories have been floated2, with few able to shed light on1 the mystery.


Egypt is home to almost 150 pyramids.  Most of them were built as tombs for ancient pharaohs3 wishing to construct everlasting4 monuments in their honor.  The most famous pyramids occupy the Giza Plateau, a huge expanse of desert located near Cairo.  Giza’s largest pyramid, the Pyramid of Khufu, holds the distinction of being the only surviving construction comprising the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Likely built over a 10-20 year period by tens of thousands of workers, the 146-meter-tall pyramid was the tallest man-made structure upon its completion circa5 2500 BC, a title it held for some 3,800 years.

Scientists have long theorized that the Egyptians built the Giza pyramids by extracting huge stones from a quarry6 and dragging them 800km across the desert to the construction site.  Then, they cut the stones using sophisticated wedges7 made of wood.  On average, these stones weigh about 1,300kg, while the heaviest stones weigh up to 8,000kg.  These numbers are especially impressive considering the long distances and massive weights involved, as well as the lack of modern machines.

The seeming impossibility has led to endless speculation among both experts and amateurs.  Popular conspiracy theories have emerged, often involving life forms from outer space.  According to one theory, so-called “ancient astronauts” routinely made contact with early human civilizations, catalyzing8 the development of technology, religion and culture.  Based on mysterious Egyptian wall paintings depicting strange creatures descending from the heavens2, some have pointed to possible extraterrestrial involvement in the construction of the pyramids, which may have served as launch pads or teleportation9 terminals for little green men3.

Taking a more scientific approach, however, a team of scientists from the University of Amsterdam made headlines this May by announcing that they finally solved the ancient riddle.  The trick, say the scientists, is one very simple tool:  water.  They theorize that after the stones were placed on a sledge10, a large team of workers pulled it while a smaller team simply poured water on the sand directly in front of the sledge.  The Dutch team conducted a series of experiments showing that, while moving massive stones across dry sand would have been impossible, adding just the right amount of water, would make the grains of sand stick together.  This reduces sliding friction11 and keeps the surface of the ground flat.

Although nobody has a time machine to prove the physicists right, there is strong evidence to support that the Egyptians used this technique to build the pyramids.  “The Egyptians were probably aware of this handy12 trick,” a team representative said.  “A wall painting in the tomb of Djehutihotep clearly shows a person standing on the front of the pulled sledge and pouring water over the sand just in front of it.”

Regardless of how they were built, the ancient Egyptian pyramids will undoubtedly loom over the landscape of mankind’s imagination for years to come, inspiring wonder in all who visit.  For modern humans, the structures serve not only as mausoleums13 for the dead pharaohs that lie entombed14 within, but as monuments to human achievement and ambition.

1.   erect (v.)   建造;建立
2.   float (v.) (謠言等)流傳
3.   pharaoh (n.)法老
4.   everlasting (adj.)永久的;不朽的
5.   circa (prep.) (拉)大約在...
6.   quarry (n.)採石場
7.   wedge (n.)          楔子
8.   catalyze (v.)       催化
9.   teleportation (n.)心靈傳動移動
10.     sledge (n.)             雪橇
11.     friction (n.)摩擦力
12.     handy (adj.)簡便的
13.     mausoleum (n.)               陵墓
14.     entomb (v.)埋葬

Phrases, etc.
1.   shed light on (v. phr.)闡明;解釋
2.   the heavens (n. phr.)  天空
3.   little green men (idiom)  外星人