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Sunday, August 9th, 2009

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8:22a
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This is another one of those "older books" ... another, in fact, that I picked up at the Newberry Library Book Fair a couple of weekends back. I note that it's "old" (and it's not all that old, having come out in 1974), because I recognize several things in here which are no longer the case due to research in the intervening 35 years, and I understand that there is also more stuff in here which is "dated" that I'm not familiar enough with to comment on.

That being said, The Riddle of the Pyramids is a very interesting book. Written by a physicist, Kurt Mendelssohn (who had studied with Planck, Schrödinger, and Einstein in Germany and ended up in England after fleeing the Nazis), this spends 80% of its length looking at the pyramids of Egypt. The author claims to have somewhat "accidentally" come to writing the book, having made a connection between the dynamics of various landslides (in Wales) with the condition of "the collapsed pyramid" at Meidum. Fascinated by his perception (of the physics involved in the Meidum pyramid's collapse), he goes on to look at the entire period of pyramid construction.

The first half of the book pretty much looks at the construction of pyramids, from Mastabas, to the first "step" pyramids (which were essentially "stacking up" mastaba-type structures) to the evolution of the "true pyramid", and the eventual decline in pyramid building. The Meidum pyramid was built in three phases, a small step pyramid, a larger step pyramid, and eventually what would have been a "true" pyramid ... except that it (according to Mendelssohn) collapsed during construction of the third phase. The author looks at construction techniques, types of internal buttressing, the physics of materials under pressure, and then takes his conclusions from the specifics and expands to more general hypotheses.

One very interesting suggestion he makes is that the Egyptians did not actually know pi, even though the pyramids involve ratios that express that concept. He posits a "rolled cubit" measurement ... where height was determined by a linear measure (a hanging rope), but length was measured using a wheel with a diameter of a Royal Cubit, the tracing of the circumference creating a measure that inherently expressed pi, but all the Egyptian engineers needed to do was create ratios involving both measures. A 4:1 ratio resulted in the "true pyramid" angle of 51° 52', while a 3:1 ratio resulted in 43½°, the angle of the top of the "bent pyramid" and the "red pyramid"! Mendelssohn suggests that construction on the "bent" pyramid was well under way when Meidum collapsed, and that the angle was changed to the lower figure to avoid the same thing happening there. It was only when the ancient Egyptians figured out the material issues (those huge blocks of well-cut stone used at Giza), that they were able to successfully build the taller form.

The realization that there could well have been overlapping construction projects (Meidum and "bent") brings him to looking at the dynastic timelines, and finding that there are, during this particular period (as he was dating the construction by, there certainly is a lot of argument in this area that he simply side-steps), considerably more pyramids than Pharaohs to bury in them, and the construction projects seem to be on-going despite who was wearing the crown. This brings Mendelssohn to considering the logistics of building these monuments. Again, he side-steps the "technical" debate about how, specifically, the pyramids were made and (in true physicist fashion) simply breaks the problem down into how much "work" an individual human can do (in terms of, say, dragging a sled with a large stone on it), how much mass is involved in a given edifice, and figuring how many men over how many days it would take to get the blocks from the quarry and onto the pyramid (and then add on support, oversight, and technical staff estimated to be needed for that number of workers). He ends up with some charts which show how difficult it would be to "gear up" for one of these projects, but how reasonably easy it would be to maintain this on-going use of the population (for about 3 months a year, while the Nile was in flood and there was no agricultural work to be done), shifting resources between construction sites.

This then leads the author to another hypothesis. Looking at the uncertainty of the pyramids being specific burial sites, the on-going nature of the building process, he asks "what were they for", and instead of coming up with some Sitchin-like scenario, he posits the pyramid building phase was a significant cultural shift, creating what we know today as "the state". Rather than having an unorganized web of small village structures, loosely controlled by a "divine" king who happened to have enough of an army to extract tribute and a certain degree of loyalty, there was now a structure which brought all these various minor entities into a common concern, over-seen by a organizational caste, working on a project that spanned many generations. He posits that the end of the "pyramid era" came when the tribal nature of Egyptian society had pretty much been erased by generations of "working for the state" on these huge construction projects ... once the societal goal was achieved, the "tool" for achieving that (building the pyramids) was no longer needed.

The book then takes a bit of a side-trip off to look at Mesoamerican pyramid building, and some general thoughts on how these sorts of huge "public works" projects become the defining elements of "the state". Ultimately he suggests that the "nation-state" which evolved from these various cultures (and has been humanity's primary organizational template for the past 5,000 years or so) has reached "in the nuclear era" (remember this was being written in 1974) a level of unsuitability that needs to be supplanted by a more global model, and asks what could be "our pyramids" that would erase the nation-state the way the Egyptians erased (or substantially supplanted) the village millennia ago. He suggests a unified space program which would focus vast resources over a long period of time on a project that might not have any true utility but could organizationally change the cultural template.

Anyway, The Riddle of the Pyramids is out of print, so if you're interested in checking it out, you'll have to go through the used guys ... "very good" copies can be had for under a buck, and a couple of them have "new" copies for as little as $7.50 (plus shipping, of course). If you've read a lot of archaeology/Egyptology (as I have) this provides a thought-provoking "outside look" at the pyramid era which strips away all the religion (well, the book does deal with the issue, but more on an "organizational" level) and tries to specifically look at the function. Very interesting.


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