Were the Pyramids Built or Poured?

concrete pyramid
Photo by Hassan Nasser (https://www.instructables.com/How-to-Make-Mini-Cement-Bricks/)

In this post, I review the idea that monumental architecture in Egypt or elsewhere was created by pouring concrete into forms to make stones. From powdered stone.

Since Joseph Davidovits first proposed the notion as early as 1988, various proponents of fringe archaeology like to claim that the monumental architecture of cultures around the globe was created through the use of geopolymer. In short, pyramids and temples weren’t’ made by stacking stones but by pouring cement into stone-shaped forms.

This, they claim, explains how the material was moved, how it was shaped, and why some stones fit together so tightly.

Except it really doesn’t.

The fringe proponents of pseudoarchaeology, including Davidovits, argue their points at least partially from ignorance. To illustrate that ignorance Davidovits makes positive claims like how granite being “among the hardest” of materials is not worked by modern sculptors. They do.

Or how granite objects of Egyptian art, so “smooth and glossy, … bear no tool marks.” Many do.

But who want’s tool marks in their artistic creations. These were often burnished and polished away with stones and clays.

Red Flags of Pseudoarchaeology

traveler standing on stone monument in desert
Photo by Spencer Davis on Pexels.com

Davidovits is so resolute in his views of ancient stonework it should be a red flag for the reader. That he mischaracterizes the positions of Egyptologists who have many hundreds of hours of experimental archaeology and direct study of ancient Egyptian construction techniques based on materials and writings found in the archaeological and epigraphical records is certainly a red flag.

Davidovits states “Egyptologists claim that this unparalleled structure [the Great Pyramid] was built using primitive stone and copper tools.”

On the contrary, Egyptologists conclude that ancient Egyptians made remarkable use of available materials which happen to include stone, copper, wood, water, sand and other materials in ways that demonstrate some very advanced understandings of environment, math, physics, and engineering for their time. Primitive they were not.

Yet, Davidovits sees copper tools as “quite unsuitable for cutting 25 million limestone blocks in 20 years.” what he seems to ignore is the fact that it wasn’t the copper that did the cutting—it was the quartz sand. And it all becomes very possible when you apply a huge labor force.

An argument from personal incredulity

Drilling diorite with a bronze tube and sand. Photo from Denys Stocks (2003).

Ultimately this is a setup for his question: how can a civilization without benefit of hard metals prepare many thousands of blocks with such precision?” Ignoring the use of billions of tiny hard quartz cutting blades (sand), Davidovits continues with his version. Which is: this ancient and “primitive” civilization poured concrete into wood forms to create a geopolymer concrete.

In his 1988 book, The Great Pyramids an Enigma Solved, Davidovits continues cherry-picking this or that claim of Egyptology and archaeology, mischaracterizing most of them and misunderstanding many others, until he creates a straw-man easy enough to knock down with his own hypothesis.

Davidovits’ central hypothesis

Davidovits lays it out with the method of ancient Egyptians pouring and casting stones for the pyramids. “No stone cutting or heavy hauling or hoisting was ever required.”

“Limestone mud was carried up by the bucketful and then poured, packed or rammed into molds (made of wood, stone, clay or brick) placed on the pyramid sides.”

Where was the limestone mud obtained from, you ask? By crushing limestone blocks into a near powder form.

Questions?

From the point of view of even a first-year archaeology student, one question should come immediately to mind: “where are the molds in the archaeological record?”

Photo by Gullevek on Flickr.com

I’m sure Davidovits would hand-wave the question with something like most were wood and were either burned for fuel or reused for other construction projects. However, this would not be the only evidence for them. I’ve observed a lot of poured concrete over the years and there’s always some mold line left in places the builder didn’t think would show. There are always things that end up trapped in the concrete matrix as it cures. And some cat always walks across the project.

Davidovits claims previous poured blocks would be the face for the next side, etc. But this really doesn’t follow since the pyramids have the appearance of thousands of individual blocks not concrete poured against other concrete.

If these skeptical points aren’t enough, however, the real argument against Davidovits’ hypothesis is his own hypothesis.

Imagine adding concrete to this small form one small bucket at a time. Photo by NCDOTCommunications at Flickr.com.

Davidovits claims the ancient Egyptians poured the pyramids because moving precut and quarried stone was too much work. But it’s still at least the same amount of mass being transported, albeit in smaller chunks. In fact, one could easily argue the amount of mass being moved from source to pyramid is between 1/3 and 2/3 more when you consider the water needed to turn limestone powder and the other geopolymer additives Davidovits describes into a pourable matrix.

If I hammer even the most brittle limestone block to a pile of powder that I then mix with water which I need to move bucket-by-bucket to an alleged form at the pyramid under construction fast enough that it doesn’t dry out before I pour it, am I really saving any calories than if I just got a few hundred friends and moved the stone whole?

Even if I move the powder and mix it with water on location, I still have to bring the water. How many hundreds or thousands of bucket loads would this be?

His critics

Davidovits’ hypothesis has been disputed by several geologists in the past, and he always responds with how they are doing “pseudoscience” and hand-waves their evidence away with grand gestures that essentially amount to he’s just smarter than they are that’s why they’re wrong.

I read his book. His papers. I read a few of the critiques that came out by Jana, Harrell and Penrod, and Folk and Campbell. And I read Davidovits’ response to the critics.

Initially, I was interested in the idea that a geopolymer might have been used in at least some of the pyramid construction. I was genuinely hopeful this might prove to be a hypothesis worth considering. But the manner in which Davidovits presents and defends his ideas end up with many of the red flags one might associate with other pseudoarchaeological and fringe ideas. He responds to critics by cherry-picking and mischaracterizing their critiques and accusing them of “pseudoscience” in a tu quoque manner, as if to say, “no you!” at the accusation.

The idea of ancient concrete or geopolymer use is intriguing. I see no reason why it would be beyond their technical capabilities. I just don’t think the Egyptians would have increased their workload to create monumental architecture of grandiose proportions. Particularly when it essentially means they would be constructing fake stones instead of using genuine ones.

The whole point of grandiosity is to be grandiose.

About Carl Feagans 379 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

1 Comment

  1. Did the pharaohs prefer their concrete shaken or stirred?/

    I really don’t see how moving a ten ton block of concrete is easier than movong a ten ton stone block/

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