I originally published this story for the Atlan Humans of Data publication.
A little over 3,800 years ago, humankind began to build the tallest structure ever known to the world until then—the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Humans managed this feat without any modern technology or tools, using only ramps, ropes, levers and sheer muscle power. That too in an era where we were yet to discover the wheel, pulley or iron tools.
The Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu) is 481 feet (146.6 meters) or 280 Egyptian royal cubits of breathtaking stonework. It has survived over 4,500 years of wars, desert storms and other natural calamities.
How did the ancient Egyptians build one of the most resilient infrastructures humans have ever known?
How did they calculate the exact angles of the edges of the pyramid, align it to the true north, and transport massive blocks of limestone and granite across a vast sandy desert?
Spoiler alert: Data had an important role to play.
Read on to find out how!
The Great Pyramid: A timeless masterpiece
The Great Pyramid of Giza is made up of more than 2.3 million massive stones weighing anywhere between 3 and 90 tons each.
An average Asian elephant weighs anywhere from 2.5 to 5.5 tons. So the ancient Egyptians were capable of transporting anywhere between 1-16 Asian elephants at a time.
Wondering how many decades the Egyptians took to finish constructing the pyramid?
The answer is 2 decades, between 2560 B.C. and 2540 B.C. This means the Egyptians laid at least one block—one Asian elephant—every five minutes.
Now you might believe there must have been millions of Egyptians toiling under the harsh sun to build the pyramid. The answer, not really.
According to archaeologists, it took roughly 4,000 primary laborers (quarry workers and masons), supported by 16,000–20,000 secondary workers (ramp builders, tool-makers and suppliers of food, clothing and fuel) to build the massive monument.
To build such a pyramid today (using modern technology and equipment such as cranes and helicopters), it would take 1,500 to 2,000 workers around five years, and cost around $5 billion.
The masters of Organizing Data
Archaeologists have found ancient papyri that stand testament to the mega-organizational skills of the ancient Egyptians.
One such finding was a logbook recording the everyday activities of a team of 40 men. Yet another document shows several accounts of food rations and deliveries from various parts of ancient Egypt.
All these inscribed papyri are well dated and detailed—one of the earliest examples of spreadsheets and checklists.
Ancient Egyptian papyri detailing administrative details such as wages and food rations. Photo courtesy: Daily Mail
The scribes of ancient Egypt also documented their calculations and theories for building all the ancient pyramids on mathematical papyri.
Some of these include:
The calculations for the number of blocks requiredThe precise angle of the sides with the ground (for Khufu, it’s 52 degrees)The geometry of the overall structureThe water-to-sand ratioThe calculations to align the Great Pyramid of Giza to true north
Data science in action
Moving heavy blocks on sand generates friction, which creates piles of sand on the path and makes transportation a nightmare.
A pile of sand accumulates in front of the sled on dry sand.
Photo courtesy: Phys Org
Photo courtesy: Phys Org
So how did the ancient Egyptians manage to haul massive stone blocks across the desert?
Thanks to the river Nile and brilliant application of science.
In 2560 B.C., the pyramid site in Giza was surrounded by the floodplains of the Nile. The Egyptians opened dikes to divert the river water into man-made canals that led directly to the pyramid. They used these canals to transport huge blocks from the famous limestone quarries of Tura—a town along the Nile—to the city of Giza.
This only worked for the lighter stones (up to 15 tons), so the Egyptians had to haul the heavier stone blocks, such as granite, across the Sahara desert on wooden sleds. They accomplished this Herculean task by figuring out the principles of fluid mechanics.
A painting depicting an Egyptian worker pouring water on sand to transport a giant statue. Photo courtesy: Washington Post
When sand is wet, the sand grains stick together because of the water and reduce friction. However, pouring too much water will increase friction. The Egyptians determined the ideal amount of water to be poured (2-5% of the sand volume) and reduced pulling force by 50%.
How did they determine the exact ratio?
By experimenting and documenting their findings and formulae.
A pile of sand doesn’t accumulate in front of the sled when the sand is wet. Photo courtesy: Phys Org
Through documented experimentation, the ancient data scientists in Egypt were able to drastically reduce the time and effort required to build the Great Pyramid.
The humans of data behind the Great Pyramid
While archaeologists are still trying to decipher all the mysteries behind the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza, we know it wouldn’t have been possible without bringing together and managing people with various skill sets.
Humans with diverse abilities such as architects, engineers, artists, scientists, scribes and supervisors, came together to work on a nationwide project. These ancient humans of data were responsible for making ancient Egypt more famous and more powerful than before.
A recreated image depicting the pyramid builders at work in Giza.
Photo courtesy: Abroad in the Yard
Photo courtesy: Abroad in the Yard
Note: Wondering what the lives of the pyramid workers might have been like? Here’s a resource that attempts to reconstruct their lives.
The Great Pyramid of Giza is proof that data science can help humans achieve incredible feats. While creativity and innovation played a huge role, the ancient Egyptians could not have built a timeless masterpiece without proper data collection, analysis, documentation and management.
In building the pyramids, the Egyptians have built a thing of inspiration and wonder for generations of curious minds to come.
Author’s note: This article has been written after extensive research. As with many historical events, there could be many interpretations of a story. If you see anything that appears to be incorrect or have a different perspective to share, please leave your message in the comments below.