PALMDALE, CaliforniaWhen people think about the building of the Egyptian pyramids, they probably have a mental image of thousands of slaves laboriously rolling massive stone blocks into place with logs and levers. But one Caltech aeronautics professor has set out to demonstrate that the task could have been accomplished by several people using a kite to move the heavy stones.
On June 23, Mory Gharib and his team raised a 6,900-pound (3132.6 kg), 15-foot (3.0 m) obelisk into vertical position in the desert near Palmdale by using only a kite, a pulley system, and a support frame. Although the blustery winds were gusting up to 22 miles (35.4 km) per hour, the team set the obelisk upright on their second attempt.
"It actually lifted up the kite flyer, Eric May, so we had to kill the kite quickly," said Gharib. "But we finished it off the second time."
Emilio Castano Graff, a Caltech undergraduate who tackled the problem under the sponsorship of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, was also pleased with the results. "The wind wasn't that great, but basically we're happy with it," he said.
Despite the lack of a steady breeze, the team raised the obelisk in about 25 secondsso quickly that the concrete-and-rebar object was lifted off the ground and swung free for a few seconds. Once the motion had stabilized, the team lowered the obelisk into an upright position.
The next step is to build a bigger obelisk to demonstrate that even the mammoth 300-ton monuments of ancient Egyptnot to mention the far less massive building blocks of Egypt's 90-odd pyramidscould have been raised with a fraction of the effort that modern researchers have assumed.
Gharib has been working on the project since local business consultant Maureen Clemmons contacted him and his Caltech aeronautics colleagues two years ago. Clemmons had seen a picture in Smithsonian magazine in 1997 of an obelisk being raised, and came up with the idea that the ancient Egyptian builders could have used kites to accomplish the task more easily. All she needed was an aeronautics expert with the proper credentials to field-test her theory.
Project Born of a Passion
Clemmons' kite theory was a major departure from conventional thinking, which holds that thousands of slaves used little more than brute force and log-rolling to put the stone blocks and obelisks in place. No one has ever come up with a substantially better system for accomplishing the task, and even today the moving of heavy stones would be quite labor-intensive without power equipment.
As an indication of how little progress was made in the centuries after the age of the pyramids had passed, Gharib points out, the Vatican in 1586 moved a 330-ton Egyptian obelisk to St. Peter's Square. It is known that lifting the stone into vertical position required 74 horses and 900 men using ropes and pulleys.
Although Clemmons has no scientific or archaeological training, she has managed to marshal the efforts of family, friends, and other enthusiasts to work on a theory that could alter thinking about ancient engineering practicesand the interpretation of ancient symbols.
Researching the tools available to the Egyptian pyramid builders, she discovered, for example, that a brass ankhlong assumed to be merely a religious symbolmakes a very good carabiner for controlling a kite line. And a type of insect commonly found in Egypt could have supplied a kind of shellac that helped linen sails hold wind.
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