BOOK: THE PYRAMIDS AN ENIGMA SOLVED
Prof. Joseph Davidovits
The Technological Paradox
When considering the historical overview of Egyptian art and architecture, one can clearly distinguish the existence of two distinctly different masonry methods. One was used primarily during the Old Kingdom, and the other, carving with hard bronze tools, was introduced during the late Middle Kingdom or perhaps a little later, about 800 years after the Great Pyramid was built. The distinction between the two methods can be made based on quality of workmanship, the hardness of the stone materials worked, and the design and structural features of buildings.
The contrast between the two methods is apparent in large monuments and small works of art. The quality of sculpture declined dramatically in the later periods. Nestor l’Hote (c. 1780 - 1842), an artist who worked with the founder of Egyptology, Jean François Champollion (1790 -1832), was ecstatic about the artwork found by Karl Lepsius (1810 - 1884) and Auguste Mariette (1821-1881) in three particular masta- bas of the Old Kingdom. Describing the sculptures in one of the most ancient, that of the vizier Menefra of Memphis, l’Hote remarked :
“ The sculptures in this tomb are remarkable for their elegance and finesse. The relief is so light that it can be compared with one of our five franc coins. Such perfection in something so ancient confirms the observation that the further one goes back in antiquity towards the origin of Egyptian art, the more perfect are the results of this art, as if the genius of these people, unlike others, was formed in one single stroke. Of Egyptian art we only know of its decadence. ”
Egyptian sculpture was so degenerated by the New Kingdom that it fell into irredeemable decadence. Neither artists of Saite nor Thebes produced such masterpieces as the more ancient diorite statue of Khafra (Khefren or Chephren) or the Kneeling Scribe now exhibited in the Louvre. Remarks by archaeologists and architects Georges Perrot (1832-1914) and Charles Chipiez express awe of the Old Kingdom sculptors :
“ How did the sculptors manage to carve into these rocks which are so hard?... Even today it is very difficult when using the best tempered steel chisels. The work is very slow and difficult and one must stop frequently to sharpen the edge of the chisel, which becomes dull on the rock, and then retemper the chisel. But the contemporaries of Khafra, and everyone agrees on this, had no steel chisels. ”
On a grand scale we observe the same scenario. The blocks of the Old Kingdom pyramids exemplify a peerless fit, and Old Kingdom monuments exhibit hard stone materials prepared with ultimate care and perfection. Egyptians of the New Kingdom and later times were incapable of comparable workmanship when using bronze tools. In New Kingdom and later monuments, precision joints and the regular dimensions of blocks disappears. The degradation that occurred after the introduction of bronze tools astonishes architects and archaeologists who have studied Egyptian architecture over the last two centuries. Champollion, for instance, was astonished by the poor quality of the New Kingdom structu- res erected for Theban kings at Wadi Esseboua. He commented :
“ This is the worst piece of work from the epoch of Ramses the Great. The stones were poorly masoned, gaps are hidden by cement upon which decorative sculpting continued, and this was bad workmanship.... Most of these scenes are unrecognizable because the cement onto which large parts were carved has fallen and left numerous gaps in the inscrip- tions. ”
The Theban kings of the New Kingdom built a prodigious number of edifices from Nubia to the Mediterranean beaches. Surfaces of the walls were nearly always covered with richly colored polychrome decorations that masked imperfections. Perrot and Chipiez commented about this technique:
“ But why would they have prolonged their work by patching up, with infinite patience, joints that had to be hidden? Was the purpose of the stucco and paint to hide imperfections? In these edifices we do not see certain combinations of stones which the elegant building civilizations who left the stone undecorated were happy to use.... You will search in vain for regularity of construction, perfection in joints, and the perfection of carving and fitting which gives the face of a wall in the fortifications of Mycenae even when separated from all to which it belongs, its own nobility and beauty. At Thebes the worker relied on fillers and was content to say,‘That should do the trick’.” It is assumed that the use of stucco and paint made it unnecessary for joints to be perfect. In my opinion, it was because the carving method was used, and I think that it was to mask imperfections that the polychrome coating on a stucco base was developed. There was no question of laziness. Ramses II drafted masses of Asian and African slaves in order to dot the land with temples, palaces, and cities bearing his name. As frantically as he built, he simply could not compete with his illustrious ancestors.
Egyptologists usually explain the difference between the workmanship of the New Kingdom compared with that of the Old Kingdom by saying that Theban kings built more edifices than did their ancestors. I have already shown that by de Roziere’s estimates there is far more stone in the Giza pyramids alone than in all the construction built during the New Kingdom, Late period, and Ptolemaic period combined, that is, in 1,500 years.
Furthermore, New Kingdom and later monuments were made, with few exceptions, of very soft varieties of stone, but since the inception of Egyptology, a common misconception has been widely perpetuated in literature, which is that monuments built during the New Kingdom and later are made of hard stone materials. De Roziere commented :
“ It would be hard to believe that such famous monuments, famous for their age, richness, and the multiplicity of their ornamentation were built with rough, common materials. Most travelers, using their imaginations more than their eyes, believe that they have seen in the layers of the land, and in the monu- ments themselves, hard, precious granites from the Syene environment, the porphyries and variegated rocks of Arabia, and sometimes even basalt. Others are content with the use of marble, inspired by what they have seen in the ancient monuments of Greece and Italy. The truth is that there exists in these quarries, and in the edifices of the upper Thebaid, neither porphyry, nor basalt, nor marble, nor any kind of limestone. All that can be found in this entire area, on both banks of the Nile, are layers of sandstone... and it is with this stone that, almost without exception, all of the still surviving monuments from Syene to Dendera were built. ”
When making the latter remark, de Roziere was not referring to hard sandstone such as that in the pavement of Fontainebleau, near Paris, withstanding generations of wear. He was talking instead about a particular soft variety called monumental sandstone. To avoid confusion, he distinguished it as psammite, since, having been a Parisian, the word sandstone suggested to him a dense material consisting of grains of tightly bound quartz, material comparable to the Fontainebleau sandstone. Psammite sandstone adheres poorly and will easily disaggregate under very light pressure. He mentioned its structural tolerance:
“ Egyptian sandstone is, in general, not very hard and it can often be scratched with a fingernail. The hardness is, at any rate, very uniform throughout each block and so is the breaking strength, which is low but equal throughout. This stone contains neither cavities nor blow holes [holes where a tool can be inserted]. ”
Practically all of the New Kingdom temples and those built later were made of this psammite sandstone which is so soft that one can scratch it with one’s fingernails. This includes the temples of Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, and Esna. Even the more recent temples erected during Egypt’s Iron Age, such as the Temple of Dendera built by the Ptolemies (c. 250 BC), are composed of extremely soft stone. De Roziere described this temple:
“ One surprising fact is that the stones of the Temple of Dendera, one of the most admirable for the execution of its sculpted ornamentation, are precisely the roughest of all. One finds there several varieties of fine sandstone but, in general, the grain is rather coarse, unequal, and can be disaggregated with a fingernail. ”
Many New Kingdom and later structures, the famous Abu Simbel Temple for example, were hollowed directly into hills of very soft sandstone, so no heavy lifting or hauling was necessary for construction. After the Aswan Dam was constructed, the Abu Simbel Temple was moved in its entirety by a team sponsored by the United Nations (1964 -1966) to avoid inundation by Lake Nasser. The operation was far more difficult than anticipated because of the weakness of the sandstone, which is so fragile that it was necessary to cut very deep into the cliff to obtain a mass strong enough to withstand the move from the edge of the lake to the top of the hill. De Roziere commented on the ease with which this material is carved:
“ From Philae to Dendera, a distance of about fifty leagues in which the most important and best preserved edifices of ancient Egypt are found, nearly all are made of sandstone. Even though limestone mountains reign over the two sites of the Thebaid in more than three-fifths of this area, hardly any ruins made of limestone are found, and the few that exist are the least significant.That alone is proof enough of the preference shown by the Egyptian architects for sandstone over all of the several fine varieties of limestone found in their country.... But what must have, above all, met their approval was the extreme ease with which it could be chiselled, its docility, if we may use the term, to yield in every sense to the tool and to receive on its different faces the numerous figures and reliefs with which Egyptian architects felt compelled to decorate all the walls of these great edifices. ”
Because the limestone of the Theban landscape is hard, it was not used during the New Kingdom. Instead, a soft grade of limestone found at Tura, devoid of fossil shells, was employed. This limestone is unlike that used for the core blocks of Old Kingdom pyramids, which is relatively hard and difficult to carve because it contains large fossil shells. The French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero (1846 - 1916) described the type of soft limestone used for the New Kingdom temples of Memphis :
“ The Tura quarries enjoyed the privilege of furnishing choice material for the royal architects.Nowhere else could such white limestone be seen, so soft for carving, so perfect to receive and preserve all of the finesse of a bas-relief. ”
The casing blocks of the Great Pyramid and the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, reputed to come from Tura, are very much harder than the soft Tura limestone used even in today’s restorations (see for example later in the restoration at Saqqara). It seems logical that soft materials, such as psammite sandstone and this very soft limestone to which Maspero refers, should have been used during the Old Kingdom when only modest stone or soft copper tools were available, but the opposite occurred.
Furthermore, unlike the Old Kingdom workmen, those of the New Kingdom and later periods rarely used large building units.A few obelisks and colossal statues are exceptional cases. Only the lintels and architraves of some New Kingdom and later temples have lengths comparable to those of the more ancient temples, but those of the later ones were less massive. The temples of Karnak are characterized by huge pylons, but all were made of small blocks.
The front pylon of the Temple of Dendera has a width of 110 meters (370 feet), a thickness of 15 meters (49 feet), and a height of 42 meters (138 feet). The first pylon of the Temple of Luxor, built by Ramses II, is a more modest 27 meters (88.5 feet) high, with each of its towers 30 meters (98 feet) in width.Although their dimensions are impressive, these giant monuments composed of small stone blocks cannot compare with the superstructures of the Old Kingdom, where monolithic beams in late pyramids weigh eighty tons and the Valley Temple of the Second Pyramid of Giza exhibits blocks weighing at least 500 tons.
Most of the colossal statues built during the New Kingdom and later, the remains of the great obelisks built by Theban and Greek rulers,those made during the later periods which were transported to Rome, during the Roman occupa- tion, and Paris, London, and New York during the nineteenth century, were cut from a type of granite known as oriental red granite or pink syenite, a material relatively easy to carve. It cannot be scratched with one’s fingernails like psammite sandstone, but it will easily disaggregate when hit with a pointed instrument.
There has been great confusion over this material. Pink syenite has two principal components: large, elongated, pink to brick-red feldspar crystals that are truncated at the cor- ners, and extremely soft black mica. This type of mica has a hardness of 2.5, according to Mohs’ scale, which is the same as plaster, and it makes an ideal point of attack for a tool. The pink feldspar crystals are also fragile, making this variety of granite easy to carve. However, since the inception of Egyptology, pink syenite has been confused with harder ty- pes of granite because its soft mica has been mistaken for an amphibole that requires a tempered steel tool to be sculpted. The main reason for the confusion is that today the word syenite indicates a hard hornblende, whereas in literature written before the nineteenth century the word syenite was used to describe soft granite from Syene (Aswan).
Most syenite monuments are found in northern Egypt, mostly in the Delta, and were erected during the Late and Ptolemaic periods. They have been discovered in Bahbeht, Canope, and the greatest accumulation is found in the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria, where the entire land is scattered with the ruins of syenite statues, walls, and obelisks.
The overview permits assessment of the paradoxical and dramatic contrast. The pyramids of the Old Kingdom consisted essentially of fossil shell limestone, a heterogeneous material very difficult to cut precisely. Temples dating to the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (1400 BC) are found over the entire face of Egypt. Some were made of very soft white limestone, even when constructed in entirely granitic regions in southern Egypt. After the Eighteenth Dynasty, the use of soft limestone eventually gave way to soft sandstone. The sandstone of Silsilis, in southern Egypt, was used to build the New Kingdom temples of Karnak, Luxor, and Edfu; it is homogeneous, soft, and easy to sculpt. Therein lies the great technological paradox of Egypt: at a time when tools were made of stone and copper, a tremendous amount of hard varieties of stone were used in monuments, but when bronze and iron were introduced, only the very softest stone material was used. There is more than ample evidence to support the existence of two different masonry methods used in different epochs and yielding very different results.