Engineer Challenges Historical Theories on Building of Egypt’s Pyramids

Words: Bronzella Cleveland
Pyramid scaffolding
Scaffolding in use on the Step Pyramid. In recent restoration work on the pyramids, traditional timber lashed together has been used as scaffolding, which demonstrates how it is more than possible to use scaffolding to construct the pyramids.

A Newport, Wales-based engineer has presented a new theory on how Egypt’s great pyramids were built, challenging many of the ideas accepted and shared across the world currently.

Peter James, managing director of Newport-based engineering company, Cintec International, suggests that the ancient Egyptian builders used construction techniques that still are commonly used by modern-day builders. The practice of using high-quality stone on the outside of a building and lower-quality infill on the inside, is an age-old builder’s technique still employed for modern structures, and one which James believes was used by the Ancient Egyptians when constructing the Pyramids.

He says, “Having worked in the construction industry for 54 years, I started to put myself in the mind of an ancient Egyptian builder faced with all the problems of limited tools and little experience of large-scale construction. The main problem I found with the existing theories on the construction of the pyramids was that, from a builder’s perspective, they made the process more difficult than it needed to be. Why would the Egyptians haul huge stones from kilometres away unless it was absolutely necessary? The internal core and filling would never be seen, so why fill it with quarried blocks that took time and presumably money to extract and transport to the site?”

The sheer size and ingenuity of the pyramids has amazed humankind for centuries. The Step Pyramid, which is 62 meters high, was the first high-rise structure the ancient Egyptians built, as normally their structures were no more than 10 meters. Although archaeologists have long been fascinated with, and have widely researched how the ancient Egyptians built these incredible monuments, there still is a lot of mystery surrounding the process.

Cintec have worked in Egypt restoring its historical buildings for 18 years and have undertaken restoration work on Mosques, Temples, and both Egypt’s Red and Step Pyramids. During this work, James has witnessed what he describes as, “the evolution of the ancient Egyptian builders knowledge and techniques.” He says that, “with every pyramid they built they became more skilled and put right previous design defects.” Therefore, they built the pyramids in the most efficient and innovative way they knew how.

James' new theory was initially sparked by observations he made during work restoring the ceiling of the burial chamber of Egypt’s Step Pyramid. Cintec was called in to restore the ceiling, which was collapsing due to the failure of the timber beam which the ancient Egyptians used to hold the ceiling stones in place, buckling under the weight of the stones. Cintec’s unique Waterwall airbags were used to temporarily support the dangerous hanging stones, and Cintec’s patented anchors were inserted to permanently secure the chamber ceiling.

Cintec Waterwall airbags supporting ceiling
Cintec Waterwall airbags supporting ceiling
The burial chamber of the Step Pyramid
The burial chamber of the Step Pyramid.

While in the burial chamber, James noticed that although Cintec were drilling holes that were 4 meters in length, they never actually drilled through stones that were more than 40cm wide. This appeared to directly contradict the common belief that the large stones on the outside were the same all the way through the pyramid.

This observation led him to question the historical theories on this and other aspects of the construction of the pyramids.

James believes that the pyramids consist of three different ‘layers.’ First, the middle core that is visible on every pyramid after the Bent pyramid. James predicts that this layer is only three blocks wide, with the blocks diminishing in size as they near the apex. He suggests that this layer was used by the Egyptian builders to retain the core filling and would have been a key to connect the outer cladding. The step design of the pyramid meant that the builders were able to connect the cladding to the pyramid while still supporting the weight of the cladding blocks.

James suggests that the infill and central core of the pyramid primarily consisted of much smaller stones, and any other larger blocks the builders wanted to conceal. He believes that the inner core was used to create internal ramps, which enabled the Egyptians to build the pyramid from the inside out. The ramps were started at the mid-point of the pyramid and would zigzag across the full internal width of the pyramid, matching the height of the middle-core stones as the pyramid was built. The small number of heavy middle core blocks could easily be raised on these internal ramps and positioned at the perimeter of the pyramid. As most of the inner fill stones were much smaller, they could be easily handled by men and animals.

The ramps would get steeper as the pyramid grows in height, but this would not exceed the normal angle used to calculate the external ramps gradient. The ramps could have had small palm tree trunks partly embedded into them as a mechanism to slide the heavier core blocks on wooden sledges.

As the pyramid reached the apex, more reliance would have to be made on the scaffolding to top out the pyramidion.

Diagram demonstrating the three ‘layers’ of the pyramids
Diagram demonstrating the three ‘layers’ of the pyramids.

The final layer is the outer cladding, which would have been added last and used by the ancient Egyptians to smooth the outer appearance of the pyramid and ensure its ‘true’ pyramid shape using additional stones or tufla grout, like the final icing on a cake.

James explains that, “Some people have been skeptical of any theory involving the use of scaffolding as they argue that the ancient Egyptians would not have access to enough timber. My theory requires only a small amount of scaffolding to be used in order to fix on the outer cladding, and the same scaffolding could be moved around the pyramid as they worked. ”

In recent restoration work on the pyramids, traditional timber lashed together has been used as scaffolding, which demonstrates how it is more than possible to use scaffolding to construct the pyramids.

James points to a previous discovery to support his theory that the core of the pyramid consists of these smaller ‘infill’ stones. In the 18th century, archaeologists or treasure hunters used gunpowder to break into Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Giza in search of treasure. The explosion left a gash at the side of the pyramid, exposing a jumble of large blocks that were neither coarse nor aligned. This supports James' opinion that the internal fill of the pyramid is a mixture of material, and not the block work that we can see from the outside.

Stylized pyramid of the second stage of construction.
Stylized pyramid of the second stage of construction.

Furthermore, it has already been established that the smaller pyramids, which surround some of the large pyramids, were built with this structure of good quality, large stones on the outside, and a central core filling of smaller irregularly shaped stones. The question therefore arises again; why would the ancient Egyptian builders make the work much more difficult for themselves and not use this same technique for the larger pyramids?

James admits that these are only his theories and not proven fact. However, he suggests that there is an easy way to put his theory on the core filling of the pyramid to the test. He volunteers to use a diamond drill to drill 100mm holes into the pyramid at varying heights, to a depth of 30 meters to investigate the interior of the pyramid. He offers to do this at no charge to the Egyptian Antiquities, and would use the latest dry drilling techniques to ensure no damage to the pyramid.

This is not the first time thanJames has employed his engineer’s mind to answer some of the riddles of the pyramids. Earlier this year, he proposed his explanation as to why the Egyptians stopped building the pyramids and instead moved to bury their pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.

He explained that thermal movement caused damage to cladding of the pyramid. The stones and debris that fell to the ground were then taken away and used for other buildings. He believes that such damage may have contributed to the decision to stop building pyramids.

James' theory on thermal movement is now accepted by the archaeological community across the world, including experts at the Cairo University.

For more information, as well as a link to a National Geographic video on the subject, visit:

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