'Heram el-Kaddaab'
April 22, 2016 3:52 PM   Subscribe

 
I love Sneferu. In my head I always tack on "my man" Sneferu because I first learned of the guy from listening to Bob Brier's "History of Ancient Egypt" lecture series from the Great Courses. Whenever he talks about Sneferu he always says "my man Sneferu." Very endearing. Anyway, Sneferu is pretty awesome.
posted by snwod at 3:58 PM on April 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


Having read this, I'm honestly disappointed I've never heard of these before. The Great Pyramid and the others around it seem so unique, and yeah, dropped out of nowhere (next to the Pizza Hut) from outer space or something. But obviously getting to that from the step pyramids would have taken some trial and error. I'm so happy to have seen those errors now! It's less a mysterious engineering miracle and so much more understandable.

My mind is completely blown by the scale of these mistakes, though. And how much progress they had to have made before the failure became inevitable. And what a thing, for Sneferu to keep ordering people to do it until they got it right. I can't imagine having the kind of brain that would come up with these ideas, and then make (thousands? What kind of workforce built the pyramids?) tons of people literally slave away at it over and over again.

Would these kinds of failures be evident from a scale model? I guess, how else would you figure it out, if not? I'm dealing with some of my own technical failures at the moment, and a very tiny scale, and it truly is the best way of learning about something in depth. These are amazing, thanks for sharing.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 4:07 PM on April 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


I've heard of and even seen pictures of these before, or at least the last two, but had no idea they were all thanks to the same king and his decreasingly inept engineers. What a fantastic little article.
posted by timdiggerm at 4:14 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Who was it who said that the Egyptians solved the problem of collapsing pyramids, which led them to build so many pyramids that it caused the collapse of their civilization?
posted by clawsoon at 4:14 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


...literally slave away at it over and over again.

This is a hell of a "well, actually" for Passover and also I could be wrong but think the current consensus is that they were built by compensated skilled laborers, not slaves.
posted by griphus at 4:19 PM on April 22, 2016 [37 favorites]


I suppose if you've just gone off to conquer the gold-rich country south of you and brought back thousands of slaves you are much more likely to say "Okay, try it," when the contractor says "Really, boss, we can do it this time!"
posted by TigerB at 4:20 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's fascinating how they experimented with angles.

1. Step pyramid at Meidum (base): almost 52 degrees.

2. Bent Pyramid: base 54 degrees, top 43 degrees.

3. Red Pyramid: 43 degrees.

3. Great Pyramid: 51.5 degrees.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:23 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also now I want to see a similar thing about Sphinxes. Like there's one where they put the head on the wrong end, one where it's a human body and a cat head, one where they accidentally built a pyramid with a tail and paws, etc.
posted by griphus at 4:28 PM on April 22, 2016 [51 favorites]


This is a hell of a "well, actually" for Passover and also I could be wrong but think the current consensus is that they were built by compensated skilled laborers, not slaves.

You're right, I was really wrong. Sorry.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 4:29 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


so how much grain could you fit in those?
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:33 PM on April 22, 2016 [28 favorites]


I think the current belief is that temporarily unemployed agricultural workers built the pyramids and tombs and various civic improvements in ancient Egypt. Most people back then were farmers, who were out of work when the Nile flooded every year. So the pharaoh would employ them as construction gangs to keep them out of trouble and maybe keep them fed during the lean times, and in return they gave him a big labor force that could be put to work on monuments celebrating his greatness.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:39 PM on April 22, 2016 [23 favorites]


... one where it's a human body and a cat head ...
posted by iotic at 4:40 PM on April 22, 2016 [5 favorites]


Good find! I've seen the bent pyramid close up, but the guide didn't explain the story behind it half as well as this article did.

I'm going to take Mrs w0mbat and baby w0mbat to see Silbury Hill this summer, a giant man-made conical hill in England which is a similar age and size as the Giza pyramids. Nobody knows how they built it or why.
posted by w0mbat at 4:43 PM on April 22, 2016 [5 favorites]


So the pharaoh would employ them as construction gangs to keep them out of trouble and maybe keep them fed during the lean times, and in return they gave him a big labor force that could be put to work on monuments celebrating his greatness.

Ahh that makes sense out of a bunch of stuff I've read about levys. So it was essentially the the Pyramidworks Progress Administration?
posted by griphus at 4:46 PM on April 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


Another thing that always blows my mind is that all of these pyramids were built using copper, stone, and wooden tools IIRC.

(From cursory Googling, it appears that the Bronze Age is considered to have begun hundreds of years previously in Egypt; but whenever I see "let's try to re-enact part of the construction of the Great Pyramid" documentaries they're using copper chisels and stone hammers I think, and talk about how quickly the chisels would have worn out. Maybe tin/bronze was scarce at that point?)
posted by XMLicious at 4:47 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


XMLicious: Maybe tin/bronze was scarce at that point?

The closest known major deposits at the time were in Spain and Germany, though there may have been tin mines in Turkey and maybe minor sources in Syria and Egypt. But the Inca and Maya had pretty impressive accomplishments in stone without any metal tools, didn't they?
posted by clawsoon at 5:05 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


've heard of and even seen pictures of these before, or at least the last two, but had no idea they were all thanks to the same king and his decreasingly inept engineers

Same here. I had the vague idea that they were for (at least) three different kings. I'm amazed they had the time.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:07 PM on April 22, 2016


Somehow or other I've gotten really fascinated by the Egyptians in the last few years. For one thing, the various incarnations of their empire lasted thousands of years. The various questions about how the pyramids were actually built (I've heard one explanation that the rubble from the stone carving was used as an interior ramp/fill, making the whole thing a lot simpler than we generally imagine - and another report that copper became more valuable than gold, and that the workers' tools were weighed daily), hieroglyphs which are just awesome and how about that Rosetta stone?, the various interesting things their religion did (monotheism, at one point, and the general notion that it's all transformation and rebirth), why Tut's tomb was built where it was (he died young, and possibly was put into the tomb that had been prepared for a noble, not a Pharaoh, and so it was in an obscure location dug primarily down rather than into the cliff wall) and why it hadn't been looted (a flood shortly after Tut's death buried the entrance - no one knew it was there for a couple thousand years). Etc. Just a whole really big fascinating piece of how we figured out how to be people. And that Imhotep? One amazing innovative architect, and eventually deified I believe.
posted by emmet at 5:21 PM on April 22, 2016 [12 favorites]


Ha ha "The name of the structure in Arabic is Heram el-Kaddaab, which means something like The Sort-Of Pyramid."

Great article!
posted by rhizome at 5:27 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


You'd think aliens who can build and fly a spaceship across half the galaxy would be able to build a fucking smooth-sloped pyramid without any problems.

I wonder how the ancient aliens brigade square this, the dodgy, failed attempts with their notions.
posted by marienbad at 5:31 PM on April 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


The historical record is inverted, which the scientific orthodoxy will not admit because of reasons. The shittier pyramids came later and were built in poor imitation of the Great Pyramid, which was not necessarily built by aliens but definitely an advanced civilization.

(Hand to god I can't tell if I made that up or if I've read it in a Graham Hancock book.)
posted by griphus at 5:35 PM on April 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


Knowing how perfectly happy people wear to strip any piece of antiquity for materiel for building, even burning mummies as firewood, the idea of a bunch of people just standing around the Bent Pyramid all like "holy shit no don't touch it, don't even look at it too hard" makes me happy.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 5:37 PM on April 22, 2016 [44 favorites]


(Hand to god I can't tell if I made that up or if I've read it in a Graham Hancock book.)

Same difference, really. Read a bunch of stuff, get high, draw a line between the pyramids and the Templars -- Graham Hancock will be somewhere in that line.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:11 PM on April 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


griphus: "
Ahh that makes sense out of a bunch of stuff I've read about levys. So it was essentially the the Pyramidworks Progress Administration?
"

Forced work in the off-season was pretty common - check out the corvée.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:16 PM on April 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


Would these kinds of failures be evident from a scale model? I guess, how else would you figure it out, if not?


You'd need an accurate understanding of the underlying bedrock, which would involve learning from previous failures, or doing test boreholes and sums involving young's modulus or finite element analysis or something. (I do not rock things.)

I don't see how a scale model would help - "Well, this pile of sugar cubes didn't collapse under its own weight or overstress the bedrock, let's build it!"

I'm going to take Mrs w0mbat and baby w0mbat to see Silbury Hill this summer, a giant man-made conical hill in England which is a similar age and size as the Giza pyramids. Nobody knows how they built it or why.

Probably egyptian farmers on their winter holidays.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:05 PM on April 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


"You will build me a pyramid as daring as his first began, yet as massive as his second. In short--the greatest pyramid of all. So that no one who sees it can doubt the power and the glory of the King of Egypt, from now until the end of time."

I learned about these by repeatedly watching the animated sequences of David Macaulay's Pyramid over and over again as a kid. I don't know who designed the Great Pyramid, but I'm pretty sure he sounded a lot like BRIAN BLESSED.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:23 PM on April 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


Is that John Hurt in that "Pyramid" clip? That's gotta be John Hurt...
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 7:44 PM on April 22, 2016


They had lots of beer.
posted by clavdivs at 7:48 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Sneferu: situation normal, everything fucked entirely right up.
posted by Segundus at 8:36 PM on April 22, 2016 [56 favorites]


I also didn't realize they were so closely connected. I'l bring it up next time I need to make conversation with a particular person I my life who thinks that the pyramids couldn't have been built without the help of aliens.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:43 PM on April 22, 2016


Nobody knows how they built it or why.

...But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock, of Stone'enge
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:48 PM on April 22, 2016 [19 favorites]


Oddly enough, I do.
posted by Sphinx at 9:31 PM on April 22, 2016 [17 favorites]


But it's a riddle, right?
posted by orrnyereg at 11:19 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Sneferu: situation normal, everything fucked entirely right up.

In middle school English we had a "weird word day" where all of us brought in obscure and silly sounding words to share. To this day, I still try to imagine the huge sigh of relief my teacher must have experienced after I wrote "snafu" on the blackboard and turned around to recite the definition "situation normal all fowled up".
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:35 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I thought it might have been James Burke who said that, but not so. He does have a great bit on Egypt, though, about 30 minutes into the first episode of his first Connections series. He points out some hieroglyphs you don't usually see, like an attempt to domesticate a hyena, a guy weeding a garden, and some metalworkers.
posted by clawsoon at 7:24 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I don't think pyramids can be blamed for causing the collapse of Egyptian civilisation; if I'm right, they only built them during the Old Kingdom, so they had a good two thousand years or so after they stopped - the whole of the Middle and New Kingdoms.
posted by Segundus at 8:14 AM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think it was referring to the collapse of the Old Kingdom, but it has been a long time and I don't honestly remember.
posted by clawsoon at 9:13 AM on April 23, 2016


Fair enough, it really has been a long time.
posted by iotic at 9:22 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Fair enough, it really has been a long time.

Heh.

And, anyway, it's one of those sweeping statements about history which are more clever than true.

(Although... this page argues that what arose from the ashes of the Old Kingdom was a change in the Egyptian ideal of kingship from god and commander to "notions of justice, mercy, and social services" in which "the king stressed the social obligations of the king... to remember that god created godly rulers to fortify the backbones of the weak and counteract the blows of fate." If those ideals were absent in the Old Kingdom, the "collapse" statement sounds more true; a system which was great at establishing dominance and building amazing pyramids when times were good utterly failed at preserving its legitimacy when times turned bad. It knew how to extract labour for pyramid building, whether it was paid or forced, but that perfect pyramid-building social machine couldn't adjust when Sirius no longer predicted the floods.)
posted by clawsoon at 9:50 AM on April 23, 2016


"Bless you."

"I was talking about the Pharaoh, but thanks anyway."
posted by mule98J at 10:33 AM on April 23, 2016


King of Swamp Castle: When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. And that one sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up! And that’s what you’re going to get, Son, the strongest castle in all of England.

posted by Enemy of Joy at 11:48 AM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


The Bent Pyramid has always been my favorite. Maybe cause if I were going to try to make a pyramid, it'd probably end up something like that.
posted by threeturtles at 11:00 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Came hoping for literal pyramids of shit. This is cool too tho.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:24 AM on April 24, 2016


Ha, I learned about the bent pyramids (along with basically everything else I know about ancient Eygpt) from playing Pharaoh endlessly. Who says video games are a waste of time?
posted by randomnity at 8:35 AM on April 24, 2016


I learned almost everything I know about Akhenaten from The Secret World.

(Rather, from furiously looking up Akhenaten stuff in Wikipedia while doing the second Egypt zone.)
posted by tobascodagama at 10:18 AM on April 24, 2016


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