DID EGYPTIANS USE KITE POWER TO BUILD PYRAMIDS?
When people think about the building of the Egyptian pyramids, they probably have a mental image of thousands of slaves laboriously rolling massive stone blocks into place with logs and levers. But one Caltech aeronautics professor has set out to demonstrate that the task could have been accomplished by several people using a kite to move the heavy stones.
On June 23, Mory Gharib and his team raised a 6,900-pound (3132.6 kg), 15-foot (3.0 m) obelisk into vertical position in the desert near Palmdale by using only a kite, a pulley system, and a support frame. Although the blustery winds were gusting up to 22 miles (35.4 km) per hour, the team set the obelisk upright on their second attempt.
"It actually lifted up the kite flyer, Eric May, so we had to kill the kite quickly," said Gharib. "But we finished it off the second time."
Emilio Castano Graff, a Caltech undergraduate who tackled the problem under the sponsorship of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, was also pleased with the results. "The wind wasn't that great, but basically we're happy with it," he said.
Despite the lack of a steady breeze, the team raised the obelisk in about 25 seconds, so quickly that the concrete-and-rebar object was lifted off the ground and swung free for a few seconds. Once the motion had stabilized, the team lowered the obelisk into an upright position.
The next step is to build a bigger obelisk to demonstrate that even the mammoth 300-ton monuments of ancient Egypt, not to mention the far less massive building blocks of Egypt's 90-odd pyramids could have been raised with a fraction of the effort that modern researchers have assumed.
Project Born of a Passion
Clemmons' kite theory is a major departure from conventional thinking, which holds that thousands of slaves used little more than brute force and log-rolling to put the stone blocks and obelisks in place. No one has ever come up with a substantially better system for accomplishing the task, and even today the moving of heavy stones would be quite labour-intensive without power equipment.
As an indication of how little progress was made in the centuries after the age of the pyramids had passed, Gharib points out, the Vatican in 1586 moved a 330-ton Egyptian obelisk to St. Peter's Square. It is known that lifting the stone into vertical position required 74 horses and 900 men using ropes and pulleys.
Although Clemmons has no scientific or archaeological training, she has managed to marshal the efforts of family, friends, and other enthusiasts to work on a theory that could alter thinking about ancient engineering practices and the interpretation of ancient symbols.
Researching the tools available to the Egyptian pyramid builders, she discovered, for example, that a brass ankh, long assumed to be merely a religious symbol, makes a very good carabiner for controlling a kite line. And a type of insect commonly found in Egypt could have supplied a kind of shellac that helped linen sails hold wind.
For Gharib, the idea of accomplishing heavy tasks with limited manpower is appealing from an engineer's standpoint because it makes more logistical sense.
"I prefer to think of the technology as simple, with relatively few people involved," he explained.
No one has found any evidence that the ancient Egyptians moved stones or any other objects with kites and pulleys. But Clemmons has found some tantalizing hints that the project is on the right track. On a building frieze in a Cairo museum, there is a wing pattern in bas-relief that does not resemble any living bird. Directly below are several men standing near vertical objects that could be ropes.
Gharib's interest in the project is mainly to demonstrate that the technique may be viable.
"We're not Egyptologists," he said. "We're mainly interested in determining whether there is a possibility that the Egyptians were aware of wind power, and whether they used it to make their lives better."
Now that Gharib and his team have successfully raised the four-ton concrete obelisk, they plan to further test the approach using a ten-ton stone, and perhaps an even heavier one after that. Eventually they hope to obtain permission to try using their technique to raise one of the obelisks that still lie in an Egyptian quarry.
An important question is: Was there enough wind in Egypt for a kite or a drag chute to fly? Probably so, as steady winds of up to 30 miles per hour are not unusual in the areas where pyramids and obelisks were found.