Feature Articles The Pyramid Heretic
For more than thirty years, Joseph Davidovits’ scientific observations have pushed most Egyptologists into histrionics. His findings are that the blocks of the Great Pyramid were not cut, but poured – somewhat similar to cement and other manmade chemical building processes.
by Philip Coppens
What if the stones of the Great Pyramid were not quarried, but “made” on site – very much like modern skyscrapers use cement – though without the steel structure embedded inside them?
Joseph Davidovits first aired this theory in 1974. Professor Davidovits is an internationally renowned French scientist, who was honoured by French President Jacques Chirac with one of France’s two highest honours, the “Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite”, in November 1998. Davidovits comes with a French Degree in Chemical Engineering and has a German Doctor Degree in Chemistry (PhD), as well as being professor and founder of the Institute for Applied Archaeological Sciences, IAPAS, Barry University, Miami, Florida, from 1983 till 1989, being Visiting Professor, Penn State University, Pennsylvania (1989-1991) and Professor and Director of the Geopolymer Institute, Saint-Quentin, France (since 1979). He is a world expert in modern and ancient cements, as well as geosynthesis and man-made rocks, and the inventor of geopolymers and the chemistry of geopolymerisation. He is, in short, a scientific genius and the expert in his field, sometimes referred to as the “father of geopolymers”.
These are just the highlights; his CV is longer than most books. But the reason why I list his career’s distinctions is that all of his scientific credibility has made virtually no indent in Egyptological circles, who have largely disregarded his findings about how the pyramids – or at least the Great Pyramid – were “really” constructed. In his expert opinion, backed up by experiments and analysis, the stones of the Great Pyramid were not hewn from the quarries and then transported; instead, rough stone was indeed quarried, but then placed in a (wooden?) container, whereby other materials were added, causing a chemical process that made what in simple terms some might call “cement”, but which in fact is a type of stone that even experts in the field have a hard time telling apart from “natural rock”. From an engineering perspective, this technique would make the construction of the Great Pyramid much easier: there were no immense limestone blocks to be moved; there is no real need for a ramp and the transport of the stone material could be done faster, as less care was required in moving the limestone – the limestone was merely an ingredient and if it broke, no-one cared. Furthermore, the technique could also explain how the tremendous accuracy in the construction of the pyramid was achieved: the famous “no cigarette paper is able to be fitted between two stones”. Rather than figuring out how two hewn stones were perfectly fitted into each other on site, instead, we would have wooden moulds that were placed next to a completed “block”, upon which “cement” was poured into the mould, then left to dry, before the next stone was made. This guaranteed that each one fitted perfectly to the next.
It also fits in with the evidence on the ground. Some of the blocks that are allegedly hewn have large lumps trapped within the mass; others have wavy strata; others have differences in density between the stones of the pyramids and the natural stones as located in the quarries; and there is a general absence of any horizontal orientation of the shells in the pyramid blocks, when normal sedimentation would be expected to result in shells lying flat. All of this is telltale signs for an expert like Davidovits that the stones were cast, not hewn.
For the blocks to have been cast, the only missing ingredient that is required, is to identify whether or not the ancient Egyptians were familiar with such “rock making”, i.e. geopolymerisation. Davidovits is the world expert in this technology and it is fair to say not a single Egyptologist was aware of the possibility until Davidovits first proposed his hypothesis. Specifically over the past three decades, Davidovits has been trying to educate this group of scientists, but they remain largely unwilling students, even though he sold more than 45,000 copies of his book when it appeared in 1988: the general public wanted to understand, but as Egyptologists were largely unable to criticise – or had any credentials to – they chose to ignore. Today, there seems to be something of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy against his “theories”, as Davidovits books are easily published in French, and other countries, yet “They Built the Great Pyramid”, published by a mainstream publisher in France, is largely self-published in its English edition. First aired as a hypothesis in 1974, his theory has come a long way since. Davidovits was given samples of the Great Pyramid by Egyptologist Jean-Philippe Lauer in 1982, which he identified as fragments of geopolymers. In more recent years, his work has received the backing of several other experts in the field and when his team gave samples of modern reagglomerated stone produced at the beginning of the year 2002 to two leading geology laboratories for blind analysis, the scientists stated that the sample was natural limestone! When even geologists get it wrong, it underlines how difficult it is for Egyptologists, who – as mentioned – remain unwilling to venture where they truly should go.
Davidovits has used chemical analysis to show that the stones of the pyramids are different from the native stone in the quarries, showing that the traditional stance of the Egyptologists can, from a scientific point, no longer be maintained. The analysis shows that the stones did not “just” come from these quarries… and are indeed cast. To quote Davidovits: “The results [of the quarry samples] were compared with pyramid casing stones of Cheops, Teti and Sneferu. The quarry samples are pure limestone consisting of 96-99% Calcite, 0.5-2.5% Quartz, and very small amount of dolomite, gypsum and iron-alumino-silicate. On the other hand the Cheops and Teti casing stones are limestone consisting of: calcite 85-90% and a high amount of special minerals such as Opal CT, hydroxy-apatite, a silico-aluminate, which are not found in the quarries. The pyramid casing stones are light in density and contain numerous trapped air bubbles, unlike the quarry samples which are uniformly dense. If the casing stones were natural limestone, quarries different from those traditionally associated with the pyramid sites must be found, but where? X-Ray diffraction of a red casing stone coating is the first proof to demonstrate the fact that a complicated man-made geopolymeric system was produced in Egypt 4,700 years ago.” Davidovits is also convinced that the method of stone making was at the origin of alchemy. The deity specifically linked with Khufu was Khnum, which means “to bind”, “to join”, “to cement”, “to unite” and which typifies the process of geopolymerisation.
Egypt was seen as the birthplace of alchemy, but for Davidovits, it is also the cradle of chemistry. He argues that certain names, such as mafkat, which Egyptologists have been unable to translate or explain, are very much “invented words” – i.e. technical terms – as they described compounds that ancient chemists had constructed. It is therefore not “white powder gold”, as authors like Laurence Gardner have argued.
Davidovits argues that when Imhotep is credited as “the inventor of the art of constructing with cut stones”, it is actually a mistranslation of the Greek “xeston lithon”, which does not translate as “cut stone”, but rather means “the action to polish stone”. For Davidovits, Imhotep is actually the inventor of working with agglomerates, or geopolymers. Davidovits believes that Imhotep created two different chemical formulas: a very simple one for the casting of the limestone core blocks, and another one to produce the high quality stones of the exterior layer. The first and major ingredient in these techniques is soft limestone. Soft limestone can be easily disaggregated either under pressure or by diluting it in water. “Shallow canals were dug in the soft limestone along the Nile, forming ideal basins for producing large quantities of muddy limestone. Imhotep’s men began disaggregating the clayish soft rock with its water, until the lime and the clay separated, forming a mud with the fossil shells at the bottom.” Next, a substance called natron salt (sodium carbonate) was poured in. Salt is a very reactive substance that has a petrifying effect, which is why it is used to avoid the putrefaction of organic tissue (mummification). Natron is found in great quantities in the desert and in the Wadi-El-Natron (100 km to the north west of Cairo and named after the substance) and Davidovits has shown that the ancient Egyptians of the Pyramid Age used it in massive quantities.
Next, more lime, the mineral which binds, was added. Lime is a powdery residue obtained by burning and reducing to ashes sedimentary rocks such as limestone and dolomite. The fire oxidizes and converts the rocks into a powdery residue, and that is lime. Davidovits argues that as the ashes of plants are also rich in lime, the ancient Egyptians established the custom of receiving ashes from cooking fires from all over Egypt, to add them to the mixture. In short: recycling not to save the environment, but to build the pyramids.
Lime mixed with natron and water produced a third substance, a much more corrosive one, which sparks off a strong chemical reaction and transforms other materials. The water dissolved the natron salt and put the lime in suspension, forming caustic soda.
Caustic soda is the catalyst Imhotep needed to trigger off a powerful chemical reaction, one which would produce the fast integration of silica and alumina. According to Davidovits, they then mixed the ingredients in the canals until a homogenous binder paste was obtained. Imhotep had invented a water-based cement, which he had to convert into concrete. For this, he added more fossil shells, limestone rubble and silt from the river Nile, producing a concrete paste, which they carried to where hundreds of small wooden moulds had been prepared. These moulds had been smeared with rancid oil to facilitate the release of the concrete once hardened. The mixture was rammed into the moulds, becoming a dense re-agglomerated limestone, which was let to dry in the shade, to avoid its cracking under the glare of the hot sun.
The above is a proven chemical procedure, but was it known to Imhotep? For an untrained eye, the process seems terribly complex and outside of the scope of ancient Egyptians – after all, Davidovits himself discovered geopolymers only recently – how could it have been known millennia ago, and then forgotten? Davidovits thinks that ancient records have left us clues… as well as the total cost of the mineral mixing ingredients required in the above process. He believes that this information was actually left behind on the pyramid covering stones and pointed out to Herodotus when he visited Gizeh. Herodotus reported that a sum of 1600 talents, or roughly the equivalent 100 million Euros (dollars), was spent on garlic, onions and radishes, which he and everyone else considered a phenomenal amount of money for what seems to be secondary dietary requirements for the workforce. As such, the story is taken with… a pinch of salt, arguing that Herodotus was lied to by his locally hired tourist guide. But Davidovits believes that those names (“garlic, onions and radishes” were misinterpretations of what was actually written on the pyramid. Originally, we referred to substances based on their colours: rubber comes from the Latin word for red, yet when we today ask for a rubber… And so Davidovits argues that these words are not “garlic”, “onion” or “radish”, but technical terms whose true meaning had become lost and hence were misinterpretations, causing bafflement with anyone who came across them, like Herodotus. Davidovits has used other inscriptions, including several steles from the period, to show that specific mining venues were exploited during the Pyramid Age, but that the quarried materials have no clear purpose within the traditional methodology of how the pyramids were constructed – but they do make sense within his approach. Is there hard evidence to credit Imhotep and his colleagues of the Third and Fourth Dynasty with the invention of geopolymers? Davidovits argues that the Famine Stele, found on the island of Elephantine in southern Egypt, indeed describes the invention of building with stone through processing different minerals and ores, which could be chemicals involved in the fabrication of man-made stone, or a type of concrete. On the Giza plateau, he has shown that several stones have weathered unnaturally: one single block was sometimes left unfinished for the day, and thus hardened over night, before being brought to the desired height the following morning. This meant that one block was made in two phases, with slightly different materials and created under different circumstances. Six millennia later, it means that sometimes the lower section of a stone has weathered badly, but the higher section has not, even though the stones next to it, did not reveal such lower weathering. Such weathering is not conform to the traditionalist point of view of quarried blocks.
There is also circumstantial evidence. For example, we know that the ancient Egyptians were familiar with cement as such. At several places in the Great Pyramid, remains of 4500 year old cements are found, and are still in excellent condition. This ancient mortar is far superior to the cement used in modern buildings, as well as the cement used to restore the ancient Egyptian monuments, much of which has already degraded and cracked after only fifty years.
Furthermore, his idea that some Egyptian artefacts, specifically some vases, were geopolymers, has been accepted by Egyptologists. Thus, it is accepted that the Egyptians had the necessary chemical and technical knowledge (of copper, alkalis and ceramics) to mould them in this way. Davidovits argues: “So if the Egyptians knew how to make such a high-quality cement for vases and statues, what was there to stop them adding aggregates such as fossil shells to produce a high-performance reagglomerated limestone? Clearly, nothing.” These are just some examples in a long list of evidence that argues that the most likely method of construction was the use of geopolymers, and not hewn limestone slabs that were perfectly moved into position. But it is clear that it will take some time before it may ever be accepted as the most likely explanation… Let us note that as recently as 1951, Otto Neugebauer argued that “ancient science was the product of very few men; and those few happened not to be Egyptian.” In short: ancient Egyptians had, in his opinion, made no contribution to science whatsoever… though in the successive five millennia, not a single scientist has been able to explain or let alone reconstruct the Great Pyramid. Still, Neugebauer’s statement was in sharp contrast with men like Aristotle, who saw Egypt as “the cradle of mathematics”, crediting them with inventing geometry, astronomy and arithmetic. Eudoxus, like Pythagoras, studied in ancient Egypt, before being admitted in Plato’s Academy in Athens, showing that the ancient Greeks throughout their history realised that Egypt held certain knowledge which was of vital importance for an educated Greek – and which was apparently a type of knowledge that they were unable to get in Greece itself. Intriguingly, Plato, a man who has been seen as standing at the cradle of Western civilisation, himself studied with the priests of Heliopolis, the body who had, two millennia before Plato, initiated the birth of the Pyramid Age. The most recent support and headlines for Davidovits’ findings has come from Linn W. Hobbs, professor of materials science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hobbs has stated that he believes that mainstream archaeologists have been too contemptuous of work by “other scientists” – read: Davidovits – suggesting the possibility of concrete. “The degree of hostility aimed at experimentation is disturbing,” Hobbs said. “Too many big egos and too many published works may be riding on the idea that every pyramid block was carved, not cast.”
In 2006, research by Michel W. Barsoum at Philadelphia’s Drexel University confirmed Davidovits’ conclusion that samples of stone from parts of the Khufu Pyramid were microstructurally different from limestone blocks. Barsoum, a professor of materials engineering, said microscope, X-ray, and chemical analysis of scraps of stone from the pyramids “suggest a small but significant percentage of blocks on the higher portions of the pyramids were cast” from concrete – thus confirming Davidovits’ conclusions.
When Barsoum, a native of Egypt, went public with these findings, he said he was unprepared for the onslaught of angry criticism that greeted the peer-reviewed research by himself and scientists Adrish Ganguly of Drexel and Gilles Hug of France’s National Center for Scientific Research. “You would have thought I claimed the pyramids were carved by lasers,” Barsoum said. Zahi Hawass’ reaction to Hobb’s announcements was typical of the “onslaught”, stating “It’s highly stupid. The pyramids are made from solid blocks of quarried limestone. To suggest otherwise is idiotic and insulting.” “They Built the Pyramids” is the first English book on the subject by Davidovits since 1988. Though focusing on the Great Pyramid, at one point he argues that other ancient monuments too might be cast, rather than hewn. Based on UNESCO reports, he suspects that the Easter Isles statues may have been made by an agglomeration process – though it appears that only the oldest statues were done as such; the most recent statues were carved out of volcanic rock.
Seeing how volatile the reactions of Egyptologists remain thirty years on, it is clear that a head in the sand policy is adhered to, hoping that the bad news will eventually go away. That is, however, unlikely. And for anyone who needs to be convinced, there is a useful appendix, which provides a guided tour for tourists visiting the Giza plateau, where they can see the various pieces of evidence that supports Davidovits’ conclusions. They built the Pyramids is available from Lulu.