National Geographic News
Photo of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Icon of Khmer civilization, Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published November 6, 2013

The temple of Angkor Wat, the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and the famous statues on Easter Island were all built without the conveniences of modern technology. Ancient peoples didn't have access to forklifts, hydraulic cranes, or flatbed trucks. So how did they build the temples and statues that we admire today?

In some cases, all they needed was rope, a little manpower, and some ingenious carving. Other construction projects required harnessing the seasons, people, and animals to transport stone blocks weighing many tons to construction sites.

A new study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that ice roads lubricated with water enabled workers in 15th- and 16th-century China to slide stone blocks to Beijing in order to build palaces in the Forbidden City. (See "Beijing's Forbidden City Built on Ice Roads.")

Making nature work for them is a common theme in the techniques experts think ancient peoples used to build their monuments and temples.

"We forget that ancient people are just as smart as we are," said Terry Hunt, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon who studies the Polynesian culture of Easter Island. "In fact, they may have been better focused because they didn't have our distractions."

Here are some of the ingenious ways in which ancient workers hauled, slid, and walked the huge stone pieces needed for their big engineering projects from quarries to construction sites.

Easter Island Statues

Harnessing physics and gravity may help explain an enduring Polynesian myth about how the stone statues of Easter Island (map), otherwise known as moai, "walked" from the quarries to the coast.

Erecting stone statues is common in Polynesian cultures as a way of paying respects to the ancestors, said Carl Lipo, an archaeologist at California State University, Long Beach.

When Polynesians first arrived on Easter Island—or Rapa Nui—in the 1200s, they brought the practice with them. They carved and erected the moai pretty much from the time they arrived on the island until sometime between 1722, when Europeans first arrived, and 1774, said Lipo.

But how they managed to move statues carved from volcanic rock—weighing 5 to 80 tons (4.5 to 73 metric tonnes)—the 6 to 8 miles (10 to 12 kilometers) from a quarry to their resting places has been a contested subject for some time.

Theories range from simply dragging the moai to a display area, or ahu, to mounting them on a kind of sled and rolling them on tree trunks. (Watch a video demonstrating some of these theories.)

One hypothesis, put forth by noted researcher, author, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Jared Diamond, posits that Easter Island residents used a kind of "ladder" to help transport their statues.

First suggested by Jo Anne Van Tilburg at UCLA, the ladders consisted of two wooden rails attached by fixed crosspieces that were laid down on the ground. In Diamond's book Collapse, he describes how the Rapanui would lash a statue to a wooden sled and then slide the entire package along the ladder to the display areas.

Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and Czech engineer Pavel Pavel have both suggested the moai walked from the quarries to the ahu in the mid-1900s and in 1990. But in 2011, Lipo and Hunt published a fleshed-out explanation of their hypothesis about how, rather than being dragged in one way or another, the statues of Easter Island were walked to their destinations.

In their book The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, they argue that the shape of unfinished statues—with their forward-leaning bellies and D-shaped bases—would have allowed people to rock a statue from side to side as it tipped forward. It's similar to how one might rock a refrigerator across the floor, said Lipo.

"As we walk, we tip our center of mass forward and catch our fall," he explained. "As the statues [are] leaned forward, they tip and take a step forward."

In 2011, funded by a grant from National Geographic's Expeditions Council, Lipo and Hunt demonstrated this movement with a ten-foot-tall, five-ton replica statue and a team of 18 people.

 

They were able to walk their statue 330 feet (100 meters) in 40 minutes. The Rapanui probably could have gone across the island with a statue in a matter of weeks in this fashion, said Lipo.

Once a statue arrived at an ahu, Hunt and Lipo believe workers would refashion the base so that the monolith could stand on its own. They would also add eyes and, on some of the statues, a headpiece.

One of the more surprising things, according to Hunt, was how easy it was once the team of people got the statue rocking. "It sort of starts walking itself," he said. "It's a little eerie—this multi-ton thing is walking and we're not trying very hard to make it move." (Read about Easter Island in National Geographic magazine.)

Temple of Angkor Wat

The seat of the Khmer kingdom from the 9th to the 15th centuries, the ancient city of Angkor—in what is now Cambodia—is perhaps best known for the temple of Angkor Wat. (See the city of Angkor in 3-D.)

"Angkor Wat is only one temple among others," said Christophe Pottier, an archaeologist and architect with the French Institute for Asian Studies in Bangkok and an expert on the ancient city.

But it is the largest temple, and its design is heavily influenced by Indian and Chinese cultures, he explained.

Trade relations with India and China ensured they left their mark on the Khmer, said Pottier. "Angkor is really at the crossroads of two giant civilizations, and [the Khmer] benefited from both."

Indian religion played a prominent role in the design of many of Angkor's temples, Pottier said. "They are not palaces; they are not places for the living. They were houses for gods."

The Khmer gods lived on top of a mythical mountain called Mount Meru. And so Angkor's temples were built as monoliths to symbolize that mountain.

The city is situated in an alluvial plain, said Pottier. So when the Khmer first started building their temples in the ninth century, they used bricks made of clay dug up from the surrounding areas.

But starting in the tenth century, they began to use stone blocks in their construction.

The quarries that produced those blocks were about 31 to 43 miles (50 to 70 kilometers) away in a sandstone plateau.

Of the blocks used in Angkor's temples, 90 to 95 percent were between 440 and 660 pounds (200 to 300 kilograms), said Pottier. And initially, experts thought ancient workers used roads to transport the stones to the city.

But about 30 to 40 years ago, researchers identified canals linking Angkor to the quarries, Pottier explained. Most likely, the Khmer used rafts to float the blocks down to the city, especially during the rainy season, he said.

"During the dry season, [they] would have concentrated more on carving the blocks and assembling them."

Once the blocks reached construction sites in Angkor, workers could have rolled the stones on wooden rollers for short distances, the archaeologist explained. A system of scaffolding, levees, and pulleys likely enabled the Khmer to position the blocks while constructing their temples, Pottier added. (Learn more about the city of Angkor in National Geographic magazine.)

Stonehenge

It seems the mysteries surrounding this Stone Age monument are endless. But one of the more down-to-Earth questions that has tugged at the imagination of experts, and the public, is how early Britons managed to move the monument's enormous stones into place. (Related: "Stonehenge Revealed: Why Stones Were a 'Special Place.'")

Two main kinds of stone were used to build Stonehenge: bluestones, which make up the monument's inner ring, and sarsen stones, which populate the outer ring. (Explore the different stages of Stonehenge.)

"The sarsens were moved about 40 to 50 kilometers [25 to 31 miles] from essentially local sources," wrote Timothy Darvill, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in Dorset, England, in an email.

They were most likely moved over land routes mounted on sleds, which then slid across rollers or rails, he explained. "Plenty of experiments have been done to show this is possible."

Some of the bigger sarsens weigh about 40 tons (36 metric tonnes) and would need about 150 people to pull them along, Darvill added.

Michael Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London—and a National Geographic grantee—notes that the roller method of transport can be problematic.

"Most of the Stonehenge sarsens weigh about 20 tons [18 metric tonnes] or more," Pearson wrote in an email. Their weight would have squished any rollers into the turf under them.

And sliding the stones on rails can be slightly unstable, he added.

Pearson's favorite theory is that stone-carrying sledges slid along logs lubricated with water. Such a method appears in Egyptian and Mesopotamian depictions, although Pearson doesn't think there is any connection between Stonehenge and Egypt or Mesopotamia.

Bournemouth University's Darvill notes that the bluestones, sourced 155 miles (250 kilometers) away in Wales, needed to travel much farther along different routes to Salisbury Plain (map).

"There are various route options, but all involve crossing major rivers or using the sea routes around the coast," he said. Experiments show that even the largest bluestones, which weigh in at 4 tons (3.6 metric tonnes), could travel waterways via rafts.

Pearson added that ice routes would not have been an option in Britain. "I receive hundreds of queries about moving Stonehenge's megaliths on ice," he said.

"This method was apparently used in medieval China, but the climate of Neolithic Britain—slightly warmer than today—was nowhere near cold enough for long enough for this to be realistic." (Read about Stonehenge in National Geographic magazine.)

Egyptian Pyramids

Theories abound on how ancient Egyptians moved the enormous limestone and sandstone blocks into place for their pyramids. But how did they transport these blocks, some weighing hundreds of tons, from the quarries to the construction sites?

"They would use the Nile whenever possible," said Per Storemyr, a geoarchaeologist with Archaeology and Conservation Services in Brugg, Switzerland, and an expert on ancient Egyptian quarries.

"Mainly quarries in ancient Egypt were located along the Nile, so the transportation distances were relatively short," he explained.

But for quarries located tens to hundreds of miles from construction sites, ancient Egyptians probably used a combination of manpower, sleds and rollers, and waterways to transport their building materials, Storemyr said.

Basalt quarries in Egypt's northwestern Faiyum desert (map), about 31 to 37 miles (50 to 60 kilometers) southwest of Cairo, produced blocks that weighed up to ten tons (nine metric tonnes).

In the Old Kingdom, about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, workers would wedge a block out of the side of a Faiyum quarry and let it fall onto a paved road, explained Storemyr. The road wended its way southward for seven miles (12 kilometers) until it reached a now-dried-out lake that connected to the Nile River.

Workers would then take their stone block up the Nile to the intended construction site.

"It's very difficult to find out how they transported stones on the roads," Storemyr said. Wooden rollers work over short distances, but they're "totally impractical for long distances," he added.

"What we think is they made some sort of railway," Storemyr explained. "Not a railway in the sense we know today, but some type of wood with fixed beams that a sledge that the stone is mounted on could be dragged on."

Then it's just a matter of "lots of people, lots of rope, lots of animals," he added.

The railway, mounted on top of the paved road, would enable workers and animals to lug a stone on top of its sled to the lake and, eventually, up the Nile to the emerging pyramids. (Learn about the pyramids at Giza.)

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

46 comments
Ernest Terry
Ernest Terry

 The problem with most of these theories is they confine ancient people to primitive technology.  Also archeologists don't research modern engineering. If they did they would understand their theories don't hold up and they would have to admit that ancient people were more advanced than they care to admit.


I know, looking at 50 ton finely cut and what looks like molded joints of the wall of six monoliths at Ollantaytambo at such high mountain elevations and made from pink granite that was quarried many miles away I quickly realized stone tools, wood sleds and hemp rope wasn't capable of making and moving those stones.  The grades and the weight, each stone weighing 100,000 pounds or 20,000 pounds more than a fully loaded 18 wheeler you can't move such weight, especially on sleds without roads and reducing the grade.  Ever take a ride through a mountain pass?


Where are those slowly sloping long winding ancient roads around Ollantaytambo?  Answer they don't exist.  Their sleds would have sunk into the ground as soon as they put that heavy of stones on them.


The engineering methods posited by archeologist just doesn't work.

Dmitriy Bykov
Dmitriy Bykov

method of "refrigerator", used for moving statues on Easter Island, I guess, is incredible smart for that time. I've never thought about it before. It's really prove that ancient people are smarter than most of us today

jeff young
jeff young

ancient construction theories abound.  don't forget about 'rock gate park' built by Ed Leedskalnin (sp?) barely 5' tall 100lbs in the 1920's or 30's.  aka 'coral castle' in Homestead, Fla.  One lady interviewed on tv show 'in search of' commented that Ed used to tell people that it was easy, if you knew the secret.  I never heard if anyone ever asked him how he learned 'the secret'.  I would love to know more myself.

Ginette Blansjaar
Ginette Blansjaar

Why don't you just read Thor Heyerdahls Aku-Aku, the Secrets of Eastern Island? I find it incredible, his findings are not even mentioned here, while the book contains photographs showing the islanders transporting the statues as well as showing how they got the statues on their pedestral.

MATTHEW CABALLERO
MATTHEW CABALLERO

WOW I THINK ITS HILARIOUS ABOUT THE SH$! THESE GUYS COME UP WITH. THAT THEY MOVED THE EASTER ISLAND STONES WITH ROPES AND LOGS. FUNNY CUZ THE LARGE STONES WOULD CRUSH THE TRUNKS UNDER THEM AND WOULD BUST ROPE FROM THE EXTREME WEIGHT OR ANY KIND OF WOODEN LEVYS TO LIFT UP RIGHT. THATS LIKE 40 AVERAGE CARS COMBINED WEIGHT, IMAGINE HOW MANY PEOPLE IT WOULD TAKE TO PULL THE WEIGHT OF 40 CARS NOT TO MENTION GEOGRAPHICAL DIFFICULTIES OF THE LAND. I THINK THESE GUYS SHOULD FIND OUT FIRST HOW THEY EVEN MADE SUCH MEGALITHIC SITES, THEN HOW THEY ALIGNED THEM WITH THE STARS, THEN THE PURPOSE.

Paul Duke
Paul Duke

Leverage,strength of numbers,and cooperation/teamwork was how they accomplished it. no secret here, hundreds of years from now people will be wondering how we ever survived with all the technical distractions.


Debbie Chappell
Debbie Chappell

This is what I am always saying. It's great to see an actual expert say it! :"We forget that ancient people are just as smart as we are," said Terry Hunt, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon who studies the Polynesian culture of Easter Island. "In fact, they may have been better focused because they didn't have our distractions."

John Barrett
John Barrett

Why don't they test some of these theories out, using only tools and materials that would have been available at the time.

Changchun Tang
Changchun Tang


interesting theory! ancients could take advantage of the water as a lubricant on already frozen ice to facilitate stone transportation.

Vincent M.
Vincent M.

no one is accusing the romans and the chinese and the russians (pre communism) of having alien help but they all have moved humongous rocks with simple tech

sol rothman
sol rothman

In the 1950’s I remember a teacher brought up the deferent theory’s of how the Egyptians built the pyramids. The subject fascinated me, and I developed my own theory that still haunts me.

Isn’t it possible that the Egyptians used the services of the Nile and built deep canals leading to their building sites. And with a doorway leading into the Pyramids, creating water locks. They floated the stone on wood rafts into the site and by controlling the locks, raised the water level in the Pyramids with the stones floating up. Then lowered the water level and replenishing the stones and again raising the water, with the stones floating up, higher and higher, until it reaches the Pyramids summit.

Sol Rothman

rothmanstudios@verizon.net

antoinette amegbletor
antoinette amegbletor

This is so revealing! i realy love reading this article, thank you NaGeo!

The ancient people certainly were very smart people! They set the pace for morden technology,no doubt about that.

Nagraj V.
Nagraj V.

Astonishing....marvel of human technology.

nick bonardy
nick bonardy

There seems to be a stubborn conceit in the existing human inhabitants of this planet to acknowledge the input of Extraterrestrials in the work mentioned ... therein lies the biggest stumbling block to understanding how these former civilizations   managed to move mountains ! The conceit that this present day civilization is the highest rung ever reached is grossly repulsive !

Shiva Reddy
Shiva Reddy

In my assumption a large wheel with a wooden handles enough to rotate it stringed to a pulley and the other end is tied to the large stone block. That wheel is so big that it would require nearly 100 men to rotate it a cycle standing in two floors vertically holding the handles provided which in turn pull the block along the paved road on a wooden blocks beneath them to roll over the construction site. Rotating one cycle of the wheel will bring the block to half kilometer, pulling it to construction site make them work for few days or weeks.

Karma Kraze
Karma Kraze

These are some elaborate modern ideas that conventional people came up with. We need to think out of the box. Even today we would not be able to achieve these feats. How did these stone pieces get to the top of pillars and placed so perfectly, without mortar or bond? How does one mold an exact fitting piece that is held up by adjacent gravity from other stones?  The construction complexities of counter weight, geometry and physics is not within our grasps yet. How did the ancient achieve better symmetry then we ever could? The ancient Romans and Greeks went far to try and discover. We haven't.. I've heard theories of vibrations and chanting to move and levitate objects. It all theoretically speaking at this point. What if they used magnets to manipulate gravity?  What if the gravitational pull on earth was way less than what it is now.?  I'm sure the answer lies somewhere in time.

Wester (Wes) Olsen
Wester (Wes) Olsen

Very Nice!  Quite precise!!  Love the price!!!  Another National Geographic premium production. 

          Thank You,  

                Wes Olsen

Subarnarekha Chatterji
Subarnarekha Chatterji

The amazing thing is that the ancient Egyptians did not use any bonding material (like mortar) to bind the stones together and the pyramids still stand! How did they negate friction?

Philippe GEORGIOU
Philippe GEORGIOU

All of this is vastly speculative. What we see today is the final product, but very little about methodology. As long as we don't have clear evidence on how they made them happen, those who believe in extra-terrestrial intervention will continue to be heard

Paul Duke
Paul Duke

I beleive they had a little help from a visitor.

Ashok Naidu
Ashok Naidu

COULD NEVER VISIT THE ABOVE MENTIONED PLACES, ALWAYS EITHER STUDIED IN THE BOOKS OR WATCHED IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHY CHANNEL. I  WISHED TO KNOW ABOUT THE PAST, THIS ARTICLE SUPPORTED BY VIDEO CLIPS DEFINITELY HELPED TO KNOW MORE ABOUT HANDLING AND TRANSPORTATION OF CONSTRUCTION MATERIAL I..E. HUGE STONE BLOCKS OF        STONEHENGE,PYRAMIDS,EASTER ISLAND AND ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE .

Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson

the answers are almost all in the ancient Sumerian records and Cuneiform tablets which are the oldest written records,but the scientific community chooses to ignore them.

chris Dolan
chris Dolan

Didn't they walk the Statue of Liberty into place the same way?  

Ferris Romero
Ferris Romero

Why isn't the theory for the 'walking technique' of the Easter Island statues applied to the monoliths at Stonehenge? Certainly they had rope, and could have transported the monoliths in that fashion.

Kip Williams
Kip Williams

@MATTHEW CABALLERO I agree 100%. How do they explain inside cuts all over the GIza. And with one of the stones with an estimated weight of over 400 tons.

Ernest Terry
Ernest Terry

@Paul Duke A 50 ton or higher weight stone can't be moved those distances without reinforced roads like we have today.  Have you seen how thick a highway's concrete is and how much reinforcement goes into it?  All that is done to support an 80,000 lb total weight 18 wheeler (fully loaded) or 40 tons.  The eighteen wheeler has the benefit of span to disperse that weight over the tractor and trailer's 90 feet of total length.


Those wooden sleds would have sunk into the ground or crushed round wood rollers making them not round just after a few turns or so.  The friction alone would make gangs with ropes ineffective without massive road projects.


Just look at Ollantaytambo perched high in an alpine environment.  They would have needed tens of miles of long winding switchback roads reinforced like I stated above just to deal with the elevations to make your rope and sled idea even possible.  Not to mention making a surface hard enough to slide or roll the crushing weight of 100,000 lbs of each stone making up the wall of six monoliths.  That pink granite came from mountains several miles (as the crow flies) across the valley and had to not only come up the mountain but cross the river in the valley below.

Ernest Terry
Ernest Terry

@John Barrett engineers and stone masons have and guess what on limestone they work, sort of anyway.  However, on igneous rocks like granite, diorite and andesite they don't.  Archeologist just ignore these experiments and dismiss findings that don't fit their world view.  They also ignore folklore and oral history that attribute certain structures to actually earlier more advanced humans that pre dated their Egyptian or Inca civilizations.

jason whitmore
jason whitmore

Aliens helped to make these temples,check out the youtube sereis,there's a temple called puma punku in Paru,they think is 17000 years old with 200 ton blocks carved with perfect 90 degree angles holes cut at 45 degree angles through corners of stone,oh and btw this rock is not just any rock it's Diorite,you would need something a little higher than 7 to cut this stone,diamond has the hardness of 10,and also the tools in which these blocks could only be cut with would of been machines..... 

Ernest Terry
Ernest Terry

@Karma Kraze Well one thing is for sure, ancient men who built the mysterious structures of granite, diorite and andesite had the ability to harness electricity and make machined cuts in these stones.  What their power and delivery source was remains to be discovered.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Ferris Romero One important aspect of the walking theory for Easter Island statues is the shape of unfinished examples.

Hunt and Lipo argue that the forward-leaning potbellies and D-shaped bases of abandoned statues found along roadsides means the stones were deliberately shaped for transport.

To my knowledge, no such shaping is seen in the Stonehenge monoliths.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Ferris Romero One important aspect of the walking theory for Easter Island statues is the shape of unfinished examples. 

Hunt and Lipo argue that the forward-leaning pot bellies and D-shaped bases of unfinished statues abandoned along roadsides mean the statues were shaped for transport.

To my knowledge, such shaping isn't seen in the Stonehenge monoliths.

Ernest Terry
Ernest Terry

@Kip Williams @MATTHEW CABALLERO exactly right, way too many inside cuts on status made of granite?  Also machined tool marks not only in Egypt but in Peru at several of their ancient sites.  I find their choice of granite, diorite and andesite and the obvious machined quality of cuts proves something from our ancient past is far more interesting than the pedestrian explanations archeologists give us.

Wester (Wes) Olsen
Wester (Wes) Olsen

@Subarnarekha Chatterji         It has been suggested that the weight of the limestone would allow the soft material to 'cold-flow' and seal itself.  Indeed, mortar would have resulted in a weaker structure. 

Trending News

Celebrating 125 Years

The Future of Food Series

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

See more food news, photos, and videos »