visit the store The Great Pyramid: a course in project management
by Philip Coppens During the research stage of “The Stargate Conspiracy”, Clive Prince cheekily stated that he desperately needed to go to Egypt. I asked why. “Because I have been reading up on the various books on the subject and they all seem to conclude it was impossible for this pyramid to be built in the manner in which it was built. So I need to go to Egypt and touch it, to verify its existence.”
During the research for “The New Pyramid Age”, I thought it would be a good exercise to address the building of the pyramid itself – but this area was slightly out of scope for the book – and hence becomes the subject of this article. Having had experience as a project manager – though not in the building industry – I wanted to approach the subject of “building the Great Pyramid” from the perspective of project management. For the purpose of this article, I will try to paint what is going on during the project’s kick-off meeting. First of all, it should be noted that the Great Pyramid – despite claims to the contrary – was not a “one off” or “unique”. When placed in the traditional timeline of pyramid development that Egyptology has established, from Zoser’s Step Pyramid to Dashur’s Red Pyramid, we see a consistent growth in complexity and volume. Complexity, specifically, should be defined by the method of creating chambers inside the pyramid itself, rather than a mere tunnel leading into the bedrock. But despite not being unique, several new elements would be introduced into the Great Pyramid – which would become the greatest pyramid so far – and in retrospect, ever. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the “detail” and the “precision” that has made the Great Pyramid an object of affection if not obsession, but less emphasis has been placed on the effort that went into building it.
The Great Pyramid is indeed one of the most accurately surveyed constructions in the world; it is also one of the most accurately made; it is claimed that it is the largest and most accurate stone building in the world. Only modern optical surveying equipment has detected any errors in its ancient stones. As I have pointed out in “The New Pyramid Age”: the builders of my parent’s downstairs’ toilet managed to work with greater error over a distance of two metres, than the pyramid builders over fifty times that distance.
But it is seldom pointed out that the three pyramids that were built during Sneferu’s – Khufu’s predecessor – reign was much larger than the amount of stone required for the Great Pyramid. It is also seldom pointed out that between the Red Pyramid and the Great Pyramid, there are – as a whole – only “minor” differences – and it are these that will come out during our kick-off meeting. The first problem that the project is facing is manpower – resource. Though large amounts of people worked on previous pyramids, at best, these have either returned to work on the land, or are still in Dashur, the site of the Red Pyramid. If all workmen and their family were in Dashur, at least 10,000 people would have to move 40 miles north, to Gizeh. Alternatively, various families either need to make their own way, or be picked up in some type of “caravan” from potentially the entire length of the river Nile, and be brought to Gizeh.
As a project manager, one would hope the workforce is assembled in one place and is merely awaiting an order to relocate – rather than send out orders across the nation, to find willing families, and keeping records of who is coming from where, can do what, is coming with how many, etc. At some stage, “engineers” will be at work to come up with plans for the Great Pyramid. Though the official verdict still stands that the interior of the Great Pyramid was the result of a plan that was changed at least twice, more recent theories suggest this is simply not the case – and from a project management perspective, we will throw in a few objections to this official doctrine too.
Nothing remains of the “plans”, but it is assumed that most of the planning actually occurred on site, to the east of the actual pyramid, and that these “plans” were executed in real dimensions. However, it seems reasonable that before such detailed, on-site planning, some “high level estimates” and “rough plans” must have existed. Why this was required, is again a simple problem of project management; failure to do so, would result in the failure of the project as a whole. As a project manager, one should first address any type of novelty. In the case of the Great Pyramid, that is the extensive use of granite, to be used for the “King’s Chamber”. Any project manager will ask why this should be used, and the answer is simple: granite and imported wood are the only materials available that could span the type of distances the designers have in mind. But so far, granite had been hardly used – and never on this scale. Furthermore, the granite is sourced in Aswan, 400 miles south of Gizeh. Though granite can be used to span the chamber, copper chisels – the standard tool – have little effect on it. We are told that granite can only be quarried by using granite, resulting in a clean cut, but one that is attained a rate of only one inch per hour. This means that my workforce in Aswan needs to be ten times the workforce that is required to quarry the local limestone. We are told that approximately 7500 tons of granite will need to be quarried. An initial calculation suggests that we need a workforce of 100 people, working for eight years, shipping 940 tons per annum.
If the King’s Chamber was an afterthought, it would mean that production of Aswan granite would have started much later – a few years into the building of the pyramid. This means that the choice of granite for this chamber would have seriously impacted the timescales: the project may have grounded to a veritable halt, as building work could not progress until the granite was quarried, shipped and put in place, before construction on the rest of the pyramid could continue. If the King’s Chamber was an afterthought, it is almost certain that the project managers would have consulted with Khufu, arguing that though he could change his mind, the choice for his chamber should not be granite – a slightly different design would do away with the need to use granite, and would thus not have a detrimental impact on the project’s schedule. In short: from a pure logistics point of view, if the King’s Chamber was afterthought, it would not have been built in granite. The main component of the pyramid would be stone – limestone. There were to be two quarries: one local, which would be an open cast quarry a quarter of a mile south of the Pyramid. A total of 12,000 people would be required here.
The second quarry site is Turah, chosen for its milk-pure stone, which contained far less fossils than the local Gizeh material. Unfortunately, it is located eight miles upstream of Gizeh, meaning transport is upstream. 220,000 tons of stone would be quarried and shipped from there. Here, there would be a workforce between 300 to 600 in the first years, dropping to 150 to 300 in the later years of the project. On all three sites, we would need to double the workforce, to take into account water carriers, chisel sharpeners, etc. Most of these people would be male. Assuming that entire families would be on-site, it seems likely that the women would look after food preparation: feeding the workforce, as well as feeding themselves. Add a few children per family, and the extent of people descending on these sites, as well as the actual building site, is immense. It is nothing short of a mobile city. With Aswan and Tura, there was also the added problem of transport. Transport from Aswan required barges, whose operation may have required 400-500 people. To build these barges, wood is required, and the only wood meeting the criteria is cedar – which itself would have to be imported. There are, unfortunately, hardly any details on the barges that were created, but it is estimated that there were potentially as many as fifty, each able to carry twenty ton loads. A total of 1750 people might hence be required for the river traffic, with a round trip Aswan-Gizeh taking thirty days, relying on favourable winds. That brings the stones to Gizeh, but not to the site of the Great Pyramid itself. Fortunately, the Nile was much nearer to the Plateau than it is today – but then as now, the Gizeh plateau is just that – a plateau – high ground. First, a canal had to be dug, approximately half a mile to the south of pyramid. Such a lake existed in Dashur too. From there, the stones would be carried up the plateau; halfway, the stones from the local quarry would join this stony procession. Of course, this is just the slope that brings the stones to the plateau itself. Once there, there would be another mechanism to put the stones in place on the Great Pyramid itself – which itself becomes ever higher. Some of the workforce requirements above are given because the project schedule is obviously not endless. In fact, there are rather tough deadlines – and very tough deadlines if we consider Egypt to be a “simple” Bronze Age society. In Antiquity, Herodotus was told that 100,000 men laboured constantly, and were relieved every three months by a fresh workforce…The pyramid itself, he argued, took twenty years to complete.
As John Romer reports, graffiti on the Red Pyramid provides details on the building of that pyramid. It shows that the rate at which the Red Pyramid rose into the air was constant. However, to accomplish this, there was an initial high demand for stone, which dropped dramatically as time progressed – and the pyramid rose. From a project management perspective, this means that a lot of effort and expert skills have to be required early on in the project. Project Managers prefer a ramp up, in which more stones are produced as time progresses – because it is in line with what one would expect: the more people quarry, the better they get at it, the more they produce.
Graphics such as used by Romer suggests that stone quarrying began at the same time as pyramid construction, but perhaps the project manager would think it is less risky if some of the blocks are cut before and transported to the site before construction begins? This way, the amount of workers that are required to cut – which was hard and precise work – would be less, and training, etc., would be easier. The quarries would be less crowded too.
A Great Pyramid feasibility study relating to the quarrying of the stone was performed in 1978 by Technical Director Merle Booker of the Indiana Limestone Institute of America. Consisting of 33 quarries, the Institute is considered by many architects to be one of the world’s leading authorities on limestone. Using modern equipment, the study concludes: “Utilizing the entire Indiana Limestone industry’s facilities as they now stand [for 33 quarries], and figuring on tripling present average production, it would take approximately 27 years to quarry, fabricate and ship the total requirements.” If this were not the case and Romer’s graph reflects the chosen approach, in the first year, over a quarter of the pyramid’s required amount of stones, i.e. around a million tons of limestone, would have been cut, hauled and set into place. It is here that we get the infamous one-liner that to build the Great Pyramid, made up out of 2.5 million stones, each weighing 2.5 tons, a stone would have to be set into place every two minutes, throughout the project lifetime – which is, using the Red Pyramid as the model used for the Great Pyramid, 14 years.
Using the Red Pyramid example and an extrapolation, there would have to be a workforce of 26,000 people in the first year, dropping down to less than 4000 people in year 14. They would work ten hours per day, for 300 days per year.
Egyptologist Mark Lehner has asked the firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall to carry out a study; they estimated that the project required an average workforce of 14,567 people and a peak workforce of 40,000. They argued that the project, from start to finish, would last approximately 10 years. The study has been criticized, if only for only using 2 million, rather than the 2.5 million stones that are believed to have gone into the Great Pyramid. The Red Pyramid at Dashur At the time, Egypt had an estimated population of 1.6 million, which means that for the first year, more than twenty percent of the adult male population would have been employed, one way or another, on the pyramid project. This must have had a gigantic impact on Egypt as a whole, specifically on the harvest. Furthermore, economy wise, the Great Pyramid only took resource and cost money; the benefits were spiritual.
At least one harvest would be seriously affected by the project and it is therefore possible that a percentage of the previous year(s) was stored in granaries. Failing such precautions, it is possible that the workforce was indeed not continuous but that seasonal labour was used for the pyramid project. This, however, would have an impact on time spans and the 14 years would no longer be a viable option. The rotational workforce proposed by Herodotus would have less impact on the economy, but problems of required skill level and training would be higher, for a qualified stonemason would almost be let go once he is qualified. 5.5 Million tons. That may seem a staggering amount, but the Red Pyramid consisted out of 3,800,000 tons of limestone. We know how that project was tackled, due to surviving graffiti. And hence, we know that any project manager on the Great Pyramid could merely have copied the Red Pyramid’s resource schedule, which would have resulted in the Great Pyramid being completed in thirty years. This, of course, is a very long term for a project. And the preferred models suggest it was done in just under half that time. How was it accomplished? Like so many projects, more people were thrown at it.
It is also known that the blocks of the pyramid largely have blocks of uniform size. One benefit – which has been less stressed – is that such uniformity would be a great aid to track progress – and identify whether the project is advancing on time, or not.
It should be noted that the blocks do become smaller as the height of the pyramid rises, but the prime concern here seems to have been a visual, optical effect. Of course, from a project management perspective, it is easier to haul a smaller stone up a very steep sloop than a big one. On the downside: the smaller the individual stones, the more you need of them.
There is ample archaeological evidence that this transport was achieved by roping the blocks to a sledge. With the assistance of water or other lubricating fluids, experiments have proved that a third of a ton per man is a reasonable hauling average, meaning that seven or eight men could transport a 2.5 ton block. This is for hauling over flat surfaces though. Pulling a 2.5 ton block up a slope is believed to have required approximately twenty men – a work-gang size that was typically employed by the ancient Egyptians. To meet the project schedule, each team would move one block from the quarry into its position every two hours, or five per day. This would 55 such teams, or 1100 men. For transport from Turah, a larger workforce would be required. Identifying key tasks of what needs to happen early on in the project, is another key ingredient of any kick-off meeting. In this case, the first task is levelling the site. A decision was also made at some point that part of native rock would be left in place in the centre; this decision – not to remove some native rock and replace it with limestone blocks – would save ca. 160,000 tons of quarried limestone, or three percent of the pyramid’s volume. It may seem little, but it is vital, as this “benefit” would occur early on in the project, when the building process would by default be a less smooth operation than later on. Largely overlooked amidst all of these plans could be the need to have chisels. And these chisels required copper. Copper needed to be mined and smelted and the preferred site to acquire copper was the Sinai. It is estimated that 10,000 tons of copper were mined throughout Ancient Egypt; 8000 tons of those – 80% – came from Sinai. Specifically for the Great Pyramid project, there is a need for 300,000 chisels, or 290 tons of copper. But estimates argue that a total of 950 tons were mined under Khufu, or one tenth of the entire copper production of Ancient Egypt. It underlines the colossal effort that was the Great Pyramid. Copper chisel Though we have identified the main ingredients, there are other items we need: gypsum. The site where gypsum was acquired was Umm el-Sawwan. Here, we find the oldest example of a purpose-built quarry road, which ran for seven miles through the desert to Lake Moeris, where the gypsum was placed on ships.
An estimated 300,000 cubic yards (230,000 m3) of gypsum was baked and slaked and brought to Gizeh in Khufu’s time, where it was mixed with water, poured, pushed and shovelled into the cracks and crevices.
Finally, there was a quarry of mottled gneiss, situated in Nubia. Here, a fifty mile quarry track was required to bring the stone to the river, where it began a 600 mile journey to Gizeh. Worst of all: the convoy would have to negotiate the rapids – cataracts – which could only be done during the annual summer flood. Already, the project manager realises that no-one has said anything about surrounding buildings, valley temples, causeways and “satellite pyramids”, all of which are no doubt only begun in the latter years of the project – when the main workforce for the actual pyramid is reduced in size, but seems likely to have been reused to begin work on these “satellite structures”.
Furthermore, once the Great Pyramid has been constructed, when the quarries will no longer be needed, if a slope was built to drag the stones up to the heights of the pyramid, this slope had to be dismantled; the effort of building a slope and dismantling it has been calculated as being the same as the time and effort as building the pyramid itself! It leaves one with the realisation that for a period of ten to fourteen years, Gizeh would have a population of 40,000 people, who were here but for one goal. If this was a permanent workforce, then it seems they had come from Dashur, and would soon move to Abusir, before returning to Gizeh to construct Khafre’s Pyramid. It is here that Egyptologists have hidden some of the true problems of their official timeline. For example: the descending corridor of the Great Pyramid shows how good workmen had become in cutting such descending corridors. After all, they had done this several times; it was the key ingredient of every pyramid. When compared to for example the King’s Chamber, in which granite was used, we see how cumbersome this was: the cracks and fractures that are now visible in the ceiling of the chamber are now believed to have occurred during the building phase of the project itself. It underlines that the engineers got it wrong.
But back to the descending corridor: in the case of the Great Pyramid, it never deviates from true North by more than a quarter inch, underlining this workforce obviously consisted out of experts. And what became of them? Once their work was done, did they return to the quarries to help or instruct stonecutters there? Or were they instead sent ahead, to begin the next job? It may explain why at Abusir, only the descending passage was cut – and nothing more. One question needs to be asked: was the Abusir pyramid begun, in Khufu’s time, then abandoned, and then the decision made to have the workforce remain in situ and work on Khafre’s Pyramid? For an Egyptologist, working within the traditional timeline, this makes no sense at all. But the ancient Egyptians that constructed the Great Pyramid, were not Egyptologists – they were expert project managers, building pyramids.