for National Geographic News
Experts have discovered a canal at an Aswan rock quarry that they believe was used to help float some of ancient Egypt's largest stone monuments to the Nile River.
It has long been suspected that ancient workers moved the massive artifacts directly to their final destinations over waterways.
Ancient artwork shows Egyptians using boats or barges to move large monuments like obelisks and statues, and canals have also been discovered at the Giza pyramids and the Luxor Temple. (Related: "Ancient Flowers Found in Egypt Coffin" [June 29, 2006].)
But the newfound canal, which has since been filled in, is the first proof discovered at the granite quarries in Aswan. Almost all obelisks, including those at the Luxor and Karnak Temples, were originally hewn in the Aswan area.
"What you have is very strong evidence that they may have loaded these stones in at the quarry ... and as a result not dragging and hauling them over land," said Richard R. Parizek, a professor of geology at Penn State University who led the scientific tests confirming the canal's existence.
"It eliminates that land connection."
Larger obelisks can weigh more than 50 tons, said Adel Kelany, an inspector with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities who led the team that first dug up the site in 2002.
And a well-known unfinished obelisk at the quarry is thought to weigh more than 1,100 tons. It was the largest such monument ever attempted but was abandoned after latent cracks emerged, revealing a rare glimpse of ancient construction practices.
"We have actually long suspected the existence of a canal linking the Nile to the quarry site, and it's very nice to find this real confirmation," said Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University of Cairo.
"If they had just been using rollers and dragging things each time, everything would have been much more time-consuming and far slower."
Experts said the canal likely filled in with water during the one of the Nile's annual floods. Workers would have dragged the large stone monuments onto rafts at a point below the floodwater level, allowing the artifacts to float when the water level rose.
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