A Boston-based archaeologist has developed a theory that the Egyptians delivered stone to the pyramids at Giza through a system of canals and harbors, shedding more light on the mystery of how ancient people — sorry, not aliens — built the massive structures.
Mark Lehner, director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates, says his research indicates that, when the Nile River was in flood, Egyptians could steer boats laden with stone to a major port city at the pyramid complex.
The Egyptians, consummate engineers, cut waterways from the Nile through floodplain that now is covered by sand and the urban sprawl of Cairo, Lehner believes. Illustrations developed by Lehner show water within several hundred yards of the Great Pyramid, a startling vision to anyone who has long thought of them as being surrounded by dusty desert.
“The Egyptians were basically using the Nile as a huge hydraulic lift,” he said in a telephone interview.
Lehner was one of the experts featured on a BBC documentary on Sept. 24, “Egypt’s Great Pyramid: The New Evidence,” that rounded up recent research finds. The release of the film generated breathless headlines across the world, saying that the mystery of the pyramids had been “solved.”
Lehner, 67, who has an office in Brighton and splits his time between his hometown of Milton and Egypt, has been studying and conducting digs at the pyramids for 45 years. He said his theories have been known among fellow archaeologists, but the documentary has generated “quite a bit of interest.”
He said his discoveries and another major discovery by a French archaeologist detailed in the documentary may not have solved the mysteries of the pyramids, but they have opened a “ new window” onto how they were built.
Peter Der Manuelian, professor of Egyptology and director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, said he knew of Lehner’s work. He said Lehner was known for “fine scholarship and good archaeological technique.”
“He has been exploring this area for many years,” he said.
It was long thought that if the Nile were in flood, the Egyptians could have used water transport to get stones closer to the pyramid, Der Manuelian said.
But Lehner has gone a step further, Der Manuelian said, excavating the area and “giving us a better understanding of the ancient landscape.”
The pyramid complex at Giza includes the Great Pyramid, two smaller pyramids, the Sphinx, and other structures. All are believed to have been built in a 70- to 80-year period about 2500 BC, said Lehner.
“This was an age of experiment ... an innovative time,” said Lehner.
The pyramids’ cores were mostly built from stone that was quarried right at the site, said Lehner. But there is other stone in the pyramids that had to be brought from afar, including granite from Aswan 370 miles to the south and white limestone from Tura, across the Nile.
How that stone got there is the piece of the mystery that Lehner’s theory sheds new light on.
The Nile’s current channel runs five miles from the pyramids, a long distance to drag heavy blocks of stone. Far enough to make you wonder if spaceships and tractor beams, or mystical levitation, may have been involved.
Lehner believes the channel may have run closer to Giza in ancient times and, when the Nile was in flood and spread across its floodplain (the river is now tamed by the Aswan Dam), Egyptian engineers may have seen a way to bring water even closer.
“They dug canals and basins into the floodplain as ambitiously as they quarried the high plateau and built pyramids, tombs, and temples,” he said in a 2014 report on his company’s website.
The blocks hauled by boats would have weighed as much as 15 to 17 tons. Stone could have been offloaded in two places, Lehner said, one close to the Sphinx site and one close to a small temple linked to the Great Pyramid by a causeway.
Lehner has built his theory by looking at archaeological evidence, traces of ancient features on the current landscape, and core drilling samples that revealed deep and solid clay and silt, which he took to be evidence of former river channels and artificial basins.
The waterway theory is bolstered by another discovery Lehner has made. He found and excavated a settlement on the rim of the Giza plateau, uncovering evidence of a major port that he dubbed the “Lost City of the Pyramids.”
Another astonishing piece of the puzzle of the pyramids that has come to light in recent years also dovetails with his theory, said Lehner.
Archaeologist Pierre Tallet in 2013 found rolls of papyrus in caves on Egypt’s Red Sea coast that were written by men who appear to have participated in the building of the Great Pyramid. The rolls included the journal of an unknown official named Merer who described leading a large team making deliveries. Merer mentions stopping at Tura, the source of the pyramids’ white limestone, filling his boat with stone, and delivering it to Giza.
“Pierre Tallet has done a wonderful job with these texts,” said Lehner. He said his own discovery and Tallet’s find “cross-confirm” each other.
White limestone was used for the flat, smooth outer casing of the pyramids, though most of it is now gone. “Merer and his men were bringing the siding” for the pyramid, Lehner said. “It’s just an everyday account of an employee working on the pyramid.”
Lehner said Tallet once came to give a presentation on his findings to his team and displayed an image of the papyrus that included multiple mentions of the name of Khufu, the pharaoh who is believed to have commissioned the Great Pyramid.
It was clear, Lehner said, that “here’s a guy delivering stone to the Great Pyramid.”
After the presentation, Tallet said to Lehner, “This should put the nail in the coffin of the alternative theorists” who have attributed the building of the pyramids to extraterrestrials or the lost citizens of the legendary civilization of Atlantis.
“We kind of looked at each other and then shook our heads and then said, ‘No, it’s not going to stop all that,’” Lehner said.