Friday, September 14, 2012

Ancient Aliens? The Pyramids

As I mentioned in my previous post, I gave a talk about trying to find aliens while also examining the claims of those that promote the hypotheses of ancient astronauts. In the prior posts I went into the details of several things that I didn't have time to adequately mention in my talk, but a comment I received made me realize that it would be a lapse if I did not talk about the construction of pyramids, especially those in Egypt, since these are the go-to objects that ancient astronaut, Atlantis builder, reptilian believers first point to in making their case.

I wasn't going to blog about this subject since I discussed it a fair bit in my talk, but that it not online yet (hopefully it will in the next day or so), and nonetheless this deserve attention. After all, the Great Pyramid at Giza is the only standing Wonder of the World! I should talk about it just for that reason. But instead I have to talk about how it has been abused. And as everyone knows, every time someone says another civilization built the pyramids, a baby Egyptian cries. (Come of von Daniken; think of the children!)

Now, the big claim (in more ways that one) is that the pyramids of Egypt seem to pop out of nowhere without some prior advancements; we went from living in caves to building super-structures, or so it seems. Moreover, we find pyramid structures all over the world, so the Egyptians obviously didn't build them all. This apparent explosion in technical ability thus indicates a greater civilization as the force that made them pop up on the Giza plateau.

And here is where we see that ancient alien enthusiasts are rather similar to Young Earth Creationists: they ignore the transitional forms! (HT to Thomas Verenna for this and more)

The development of Egyptian burial sites and buildings spreads over centuries, starting with simple burial mounds, and then working up to a more formal structure, the mastaba, which were used by the early pharaohs. From there, the idea of the stepped pyramid isn't a great leap; it's basically stacking up mastabas. One of the earliest stepped pyramids (27th century BCE) was for Pharaoh Imhotep (whose name should be familiar from the movie The Mummy (1932 & 1999). From here, the proper pyramid form is desired, in part because it looks better (gotta look good for the afterlife!), and finally we get the pyramid into the form we know and love (some construction details here).

It becomes even more apparent the humanity in making these structures when we look at several, chronologically progressing examples. First, there is the pyramid at Meidum, started in the 3rd dynasty, but was attempted to be finished by Pharaoh Sneferu who founded the 4th dynasty. And it wasn't a success, but instead the pyramid collapsed during construction. You can see in the image layers of limestone and of mud brick, and the step form is also apparent. However, the design had serious flaws, including having the outer layers built on top of sand rather than rock (as at Giza), so we have the collapse except for the core.

This obviously didn't make Sneferu happy, so he built another one, the Bent Pyramid. Again, the picture shows some interesting features. The rocks that make up the bricks, for example, are not well-shaped and makes the work seem slipshod. Perhaps because of this, the engineers had to change the angle of the pyramid midway through construction to avoid another collapse. This is starting to look like trial-and-error rather than a master plan from aliens, doesn't it?

But again, Sneferu wasn't going to rest his immortal soul with such a structure, so he commissioned yet another pyramid. Here, he finally builds the Red Pyramid, which still stands and looks a lot like that at Giza. And one should expect similarity to the major Giza pyramid since it was built by Sneferu's son and successor, Khufu.

So, already the pyramids of Egypt should seem a lot less mysterious. There is at least a century between the stepped pyramid and the Great Pyramid at Giza, and plenty of intermediary forms. To quote what people who evolution know say: We have the fossils, we win!

As for moving the pyramids, that's isn't so mysterious either. Sure, it seems hard to fathom that people moved 2.5 million blocks of stone, each weighing tons. But when we actually look at what the Egyptians show us, we see that the great rocks and statues were moved with a lot of back-breaking labor.

What they used was a sledge with dozens of people on ropes. No tractor beams, no anti-gravity projectors, just hard work. They also did pour a lubricant in front of the sledge as well, as is seen in the picture above, using either water, milk, or some oil. This would reduce the friction and the chances of the sledge catching fire because of the heat of pulling. And this isn't the only way they did it. Rollers are also likely used, and the wood would be either locally harvested or imported from places such as Lebanon. Again, all within the technical limits of a Bronze Age civilization, and nothing is given to indicate aliens or Atlantians.

But what about all the other pyramids in the world, such as those in Mesoamerica? Why so many similar structures around the world? First, it should be noted that these pyramids were built thousands of years apart. The Pyramid of the Sun, for example, is built sometime around 100 CE. That is about 2500 years after the Khufu pyramid, a non-trivial difference in time. Aztec and Maya pyramids are younger still. These pyramids also serve different purposes. While the Egyptian pyramids were primarily for burial of dead royalty, the Aztec used the pyramids for human sacrifice rituals, making it a sort of stage performance for all to see. That can be see in the very design of the Aztec pyramids: they have a flatter top for people stand and be seen as if on the top of a grand stage or pediment. So, there is not one culture responsible for these buildings as they have significantly different designs and purposes.

But why pyramids nonetheless? This is actually a sign not of a civilization being super-advanced and needing aliens to explain, but it shows the limitations of the technology of the time. This is because without reinforcing materials, such as iron, the only large structure you can build is a sloping pile. All else can't handle the weight unless the pressure continuously spreads out, just like what a pyramid does. And after all, if a civilization came from another planet, would you really expect them to build things out of rocks rather than advanced materials? Why are aliens making structures less advanced than our own? Or even the Romans who had concrete and iron?

Once we place pyramids in their proper historical context, we can see that they are an amazing accomplishment, but also a human accomplishment. And we really should appreciate it as that, an amazing bit of human ingenuity. All else seems insulting to our ancestors and to us. We should celebrate, not speculate.

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