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On the wings of a kite

How were the pyramids built? How were obelisks erected? A new theory from a group of American amateur kite enthusiasts has provided new inroads in trying to answer this mystery.

Philip Coppens


Millions of words have been written on how the pyramids and obelisks of ancient Egypt were erected. The problem is a specifically intriguing one, as we know that the ancient Egyptians built these monuments – we just do not know how. Theories put forward include a massive slave labour force, a theory which some Egyptologists still adhere to. However, most engineers know that a skilled labour force was much more advantageous, rather than a mass presence of unskilled labourers. As to the mechanism by which this skilled labour force built the pyramids – for some reason, most people only seem to wonder how the Great Pyramid was built, as if we know how the other pyramids were built – and erected the obelisks? For the pyramids, a “ramp method” is proposed, even though this would mean that for the Great Pyramid, the ramp would be a mile long, and would require more material and construction effort than the building of the pyramid itself. As to the erection of obelisks, the “sandpit method” is the most adhered to theory, in which a sand hill was constructed around the site of the obelisk, with the obelisk then lowered into position.

Just like a massive amount of pyramids were erected in the Old Kingdom – and none afterwards – approximately 90 obelisks were raised in New Kingdom period – and apparently none before. This in itself is an intriguing analysis, as it shows “era specific types” of construction in Egypt.
Dr Maureen Clemmons’ interest in Egyptian building techniques started when she read an article in the January 1997 Smithsonian about the attempt to raise a 40-ton obelisk resting in an ancient quarry in Aswan, Egypt. The granite of Aswan was the favoured stone from which obelisks were carved. These were then transported – mostly via the river Nile – further north, mostly in the region of Thebes/Luxor, which at that time formed the capital of the Egyptian Empire.
Even though the obelisk was relatively light in monument terms (40 tons compared to other obelisks weighing 100–300 tons), the crew was unable to produce the lift needed to raise the obelisk. Dr. Maureen Clemmons pondered the problem and has since offered a new possibility as to how the ancient Egyptians may have erected their obelisks: wind power, using kites. For seven years leading up to January 2004, Clemmons was the main motivator of a team of amateurs whom received little to no funding, all of them trying to show practically that obelisks could be erected by harbouring the power of the wind.

We know that the ancient Egyptians had been successful in controlling and harvesting the power of the wind: they sailed along the Nile, which formed the artery of ancient Egypt. Furthermore, Egypt was blessed with a rather steady wind direction, coming mainly from the North West. Even though we know that the Egyptians sailed the Nile from very early times, there are few references or written records of this enterprise. Like the building of the pyramids or the obelisks, the Egyptians seemed to show no interest in committing to writing how these things were done…
Clemmons wondered whether the ancient Egyptians applied their acquired knowledge of the wind on the Nile also on land. The inspiration came when Clemmons saw a building frieze in a Cairo museum, showing a wing pattern in bas relief that did not resemble any living bird, directly below which were several men standing near vertical objects that could be ropes. Was this carving showing how the ancient Egyptians had built their monuments?

Kites are known to provide pull and lift, two great forces that, if harboured, could be great allies in their construction efforts. In the 20th century, Egyptologists have also uncovered that the ancient Egyptians were indeed aware with pulleys, a required ingredient in harvesting wind power as performed by Clemmons’ team.
After years of initially small tests, the first “real” test involved the erection of a 3.5 ton obelisk. The test site was at Quartz Hill in the California desert, hoping to mimic some of the Egyptian desert conditions. During this endeavour, modern materials, such as nylon and steel, were used. Eventually, they would become replaced with traditional tools that were at the disposal of the ancient Egyptians; the steel frame into which the obelisk would be lifted would be replaced with a wooden frame, made from cedar and pine, which the Egyptians were known to import from the Lebanon. Nylon kites would be replaced with linen kites. A metal sled on which the obelisk slid into place was replaced with a wooden sled. Finally, nylon and steel ropes were replaced with hemp rope, whereby tests showed that twisted hemp rope when wet could stand the comparison with modern nylon ropes. The team relied on the work of Dr Elizabeth Barber, a linen expert, and Rod Thrall, a kite builder from Oregon to transform the test site into a working Egyptian model.
The first successful test occurred on April 14, 2001. In wind speed of approximately 15mph, the obelisk was raised in approximately one hour. On June 23, 2001, the team raised the 3m-tall obelisk into vertical position in 22mph winds in under 25 seconds. At the end, the obelisk was seen to be swinging from the top of its lifting frame, like a giant pendulum. It seemed to be that easy…

After this initial success, the more traditional components were introduced, as well as making the obelisk larger in size. An eleven ton obelisk, made out of cement and steel, to mimic the granite used by the ancient Egyptians, was the centre of these renewed attempts.
The team now knew that the best operating conditions were steady winds, between 20-25mph. In 2003, the first attempt resulted in a partial lift of approx. forty degrees, or approx. ten feet. However, part of the set-up broke, which meant that this test had to be abandoned. Finally, in January 2004, working in optimal wind conditions, the obelisk raised itself to ten feet after 27 minutes, at which yet again cracks were heard – even though this time nothing broke. An angle of 80 to 85 degrees was reached after 57 minutes, upon which it became clear that the lifting frame was too small to erect the obelisk totally. Nevertheless, the test proved a success as it showed that a single kite was able to provide sufficient lift to raise an obelisk.
Though the team focused on the erection of obelisks, the “pyramid building” scheme was not neglected. In 2003, the team showed how two ton stones easily moved on rollers, propelled by the powers of the wind via a kite. The system also allowed stones to be lifted up a ramp.

With initial success of showing that wind power can be harnessed and used in the building industry, Egyptologists have nevertheless pointed out that Clemmons has only shown a possible technique – but that this does not mean that the ancient Egyptians followed this technique.
This in itself is true, but what Egyptologists fail to add is that their preferred explanations equally fall short of that criterion. What makes Clemmons’ approach specifically of interest – over the cherished explanations – is the speed in which these complex tasks are performed. Mass labour and massive ramps could indeed – possibly – build the Great Pyramid. But if this pyramid was built in approximately twenty years, as Egyptologists argue, than it means that one stone was lifted into place approximately every two seconds (under normal working conditions). In the ramp theory, this seems hardly plausible. However, in the wind power theory, we see how fast this process can be. Furthermore, the “wind method” requires far less ancillary work to be carried out than the “ramp method”. In the “sandpit method”, weeks would be spent constructing the sand hill and lowering the obelisk in place. In the “wind method”, a mobile if not reusable lifting frame might require a few hours or days to be put into place, with the obelisk lifted in a matter of hours.

Clemmons does have a weak point. Throughout, she looked towards hieroglyphs as a source of inspiration. Whereas some depictions and hieroglyphs have been interpreted by some as evidence that the ancient Egyptians had electricity, Clemmons interpreted these same hieroglyphs as components of the “wind power theory”. The Jed pillars – the symbolic presentation of the backbone of Osiris and also the Tree of Life – was thus seen as an anchoring mechanism to control the kites (rather than use humans to fly the kite); the “wings” of the birds depicted in the tombs were seen as the kites themselves; the zigzag patterns that is the hieroglyph for water and canals, became a rope brake. Other elements, including the ankh, were all employed as components of the “wind method”.
This is therefore the “weak point” of Clemmons’ theory: there is nothing wrong in looking at ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in search of inspiration to come up with a method that the ancient Egyptians could have employed; but extending this by stating that the various symbols of religion are part of the “wind power theory” should not be encouraged. The true value of Clemmons’ project is the novel way in which it is trying to solve a problem, whereby the method has several advantages over the existing proposed mechanisms. That a New Kingdom pharaoh would want to be buried with a series of kites on his tomb’s ceiling seems unlikely – it seems more likely these wings are indeed those of deities which the pharaoh hopes to see in his Afterlife.

Eleven tons is hundreds of tones away from the true weight of the Egyptian obelisks. But the team has only used a single kite. And if one kite can lift ten tones, then a constellation of many more kites could lift larger weights; to lift 400 tons, a constellation of forty kites could do the job; or larger kites could be employed, just like larger boats have larger sails. This also means that the “wind method” is quite “modular”: depending on the weight, smaller or larger kites can be used, meaning that a gradation of expertise is present in working with these kites.
The average weight of the pyramid stones is 2.5 tons, which means that relatively small kites could be employed to move and lift these stones – or large kites could lift more than one stone at a time. Intriguingly, it may show that the “wind method” was thus subject to a learning curve as well: that from the Old Kingdom onwards, the ancient Egyptians perfected their “wind method”, whereby in the time of the New Kingdom, they were able to lift obelisks that weighed several hundreds of tons.

Clemmons’ method has one final advantage; the bodies of the slave labour force have not been found; the remains of the giant ramps around the pyramids has equally not been found. There are, in short, no archaeological traces of a method that should have left traces. But the “wind method” would not leave such traces – and would also be a quick to clean up method once the work is completed.
The next part of the project will most likely involve trying to get Egyptologists involved to back up the team’s working model. It will be a good case to see whether Egyptologists are finally beginning to catch up with true archaeological research, or whether arch-conservatism and navel gazing will continue to be their prime concern.