The role of wood products in building the Pyramids

Martin Fairbank
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I had the opportunity last fall to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Of the original seven wonders of the ancient world, they are the only one remaining.

Built about 4500 years ago, they are impressive in terms of their enormous size and the amount of engineering and labour that must have been involved. From my tour, I realized that the pyramids could not have been built without wood products, which had four important roles in their construction, according to the most recent theories.

If you’re speculating what those four products were, you can probably come up with the first one fairly easily. The blocks of limestone averaging 2.5 tons in weight had to be transported from quarries near the Nile River to get to the site at Giza, and for this the Egyptians used wooden rafts that were unloaded in the harbour at Giza. No rafts have survived, but there has been a great deal of speculation as to what they would have looked like.

Once the blocks arrived in Giza harbour, they had to be transported across the sand to the foot of the pyramids. Here a track system made from round logs was installed on the landing ramp, and the stones, tied to wooden sledges, were hauled down from the raft, onto the pier and from there up to the pyramid.

Now you’re probably wondering what the fourth wood product is. To understand this crucial role, I had to see the pyramids up close. There is no mortar between the stones – gravity is the only force holding them together. But these massive blocks, up to a meter in each dimension, have almost no gaps between them, so precisely are they cut. I asked my tour guide how the Egyptians managed to cut the stone blocks to such precise dimensions. The answer is that first, a series of holes were made at the quarry, using a combination of pounding, chiselling and drilling actions along the line where they wanted to break the block away from the bedrock. Wooden poles were then placed in these cavities and soaked with water, causing the wood to expand. Eventually, the expansion of the wood along the series of cavities caused the stone to fracture under stress, along the line of holes.

And there you have it: 4500 years ago, the Egyptians used the unique properties of wood: low density for flotation, the circular shape of logs as primitive wheels, the dimensional strength of wood for sledges, and its absorption of water to crack stones!

And don’t forget the Egyptians also invented papyrus, the predecessor to paper, but that story is for another day!

Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.

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Martin Fairbank Consulting

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