The Megalith Movers Prehistoric Engineering
The Obelisk Experiments by Gordon Pipes      The obelisk experiments were carried out by a small group of semi-retired expats living in Thailand, at the instigation of myself who has devoted much of the last twenty years to experimenting with concrete replicas of Stonehenge monoliths.    My Stonehenge  experiments concerned the transportation and erection of these stones, starting with the problem of picking up the stone from the bare earth with only the materials and methods that were available to the ancient Britons in order to place the stone onto some sort of conveyance.    The picking up the stone from the bare earth experiment was accomplished using a concrete stone weighting twelve imperial tons. The method was to dig a series of what I can best describe as rabbit holes on each side of the stone, wooden fence posts of four inch diameter were then inserted into the holes and the earth itself provided a fulcrum for the poles to pivot on.    The experiment was conducted on an over-spill grass car park at my workplace, The Crich Tramway Museum in Derbyshire. Once the posts had compacted the soft earth with the help of stone ballast introduced. As the earth compacted the ground, the stone rose clear of the ground and each rise was consolidated with timber packing between the stone and the earth. As the stone rose higher we abandoned the rabbit holes and used spare posts as fulcrums on each side of the stone, until we had the stone high enough to slide two nine-inch diameter posts under the stone, to form our conveyance.    With the stone now clear of the ground, we laid two more nine-inch logs on the ground, one each side of the stone. These we used as our fulcrums in our next experiment, which was to test our transport system with the twelve-ton stone. We had tested and improved this system many times with smaller stones, but now wanted to know if the method which we called “Stone-rowing” could be successfully scaled up without increasing the manpower requirement per ton of stone. After some experimentation, we proved that while it was indeed possible for twelve men to transport a twelve-ton stone by using bigger levers, it was not so easy to manhandle the levers and we settled on a formula of one man per three-quarters of a ton of stone (or fifty men to move the biggest stone at Stonehenge). This is possible because of the mechanical advantage we can gain using levers which can be as much as fourteen to one.    The Crich experiments were recorded by a film crew working for The National Geographic Channel and later further experiments were filmed on Salisbury Plain. The Stone-rowing experiment which proved a great success, and an erection experiment which was a complete failure.    After learning more about the profiles of the stone holes at Stonehenge from Dr Mike Pitts, a leading expert, I was later able to test a different method of erection, which was totally successful while I was on a trip to the USA for a Stonehenge conference.    After the these experiments I began to think about the Egyptian obelisks, which I considered to be the most difficult challenge on earth. The difficulties with obelisk erection are many and varied. First of all they do not sit in stone-holes, but are erected on special plinths and stand supported only by their own weight. Also there are very few clues as to how they were erected, save the existence of a semi-circular groove cut into the top surface of all the plinths. These grooves became the starting point for my thinking. It was apparent to me they held the key to understanding how the erection may have proceeded.    The years slipped by and my marriage ended. Some months later I visited Thailand to meet a young woman I had met on the internet, we were quickly married. Soon I made many new friends among the ex-pat community. A number of us met regularly most afternoons at a cafe/bar where we would discuss the issues of the day, various sports, etc. Inevitably the talk turned to my hobby of experimenting with large monoliths, which many of the group found interesting. Before long I had a group of willing volunteers who would help with a new experiment to erect a small obelisk. Although we had no budget, we all agreed to chip in what we could afford.                    The first experiment, which I called “The barn door theory” failed overnight when the timber holding up the obelisk failed and the obelisk came crashing down. The next morning we found the obelisk had been thrown several yards to one side of the plinth and lay among a pile of broken timber. One of our group, Steve, was undeterred and said, “We can soon get a crane in and put things back as they were.” I said, “Let’s not rush things Steve, the barn doors were never really up to the job anyway, and for the last few weeks we have been lifting from directly under the obelisk, so the barn doors have been largely superfluous. I think we can rescue the obelisk without a crane, and then expand the experiment to include the initial positioning of the obelisk prior to the erection. Furthermore, if we use the levers from each side of the obelisk, we can lift directly from under the stone, dispensing with the barn doors completely. If in the future we get the chance to repeat the experiment on a larger scale, we won’t need to scale up the barn doors. This disaster may prove to be a blessing in disguise.”    Over the next couple of months we rescued the obelisk, rowed it forward of the plinth and then reversed it back, so that it was in line with the plinth. We then elevated it so that it was higher than the plinth. Then still elevated, we rowed it back so that the base of the obelisk was directly over the turning groove in the top surface of the plinth. We then lowered the base of the obelisk onto the plinth, so that the base was directly over the turning groove. When we started to lever up the tip, the base dipped into and engaged with the turning groove. Because of the lack of manpower in the team, we had to use sandbags hanging from the ends of the levers to create enough downward pressure to complete each small lift. This slowed down the operation enormously, and what would with sufficient man power, have taken a few weeks, took many months.  The obelisk in position above the turning groove, ready for raising    During the time spent rescuing the obelisk, we discussed a problem that had become of concern during the early stages of the barn door experiment. As the tip of the obelisk was being lifted progressively higher, the pressure of gravity acting on the ten-ton obelisk began to exert a lot of backward pressure on the crib of timber, threatening to push the crib backwards, and if this was not contained would eventually topple the crib.    We were discussing this in the bar one afternoon, when I mentioned that the obelisks were usually erected in pairs, one each side of a temple entrance. “Then perhaps we should imagine we are working on a building site”, said one of our team, Sean. “A building site where there would be many large blocks of stone lying about for future use on the temple. We could position one of these blocks behind the crib to resist this pressure.” I replied, “That would work Sean, but thinking about it why not just row a block of stone under the partly raised obelisk on the other side of the crib, and then row it forward until it was touching the obelisk. With this block now holding up the obelisk, we could then dismantle the crib and replace it with another block, giving us a solid surface for our fulcrums on top of the two blocks. We could even elevate a third block, and row it on top of the first two, giving us a sort of stone staircase holding up the obelisk.” The rest of the team agreed, and we began to cast some large concrete blocks. When these had cured, we began to put this plan into action. Just by doing, we were actually learning as we went, much better than theorizing at a desk, in my opinion, and we were able to amend the plan as we worked.    The first block we rowed into place underneath the obelisk was a big one, roughly eight feet by four feet by four feet, and weighted about nine tons. With this block in place and supporting the obelisk, we dismantled the wooden crib and rowed two more four-ton blocks in place under the tip. We were then able to lever the tip higher again, packing under the tip by rebuilding the crib on top of the two half-blocks. Periodically we moved the nine-ton block towards the plinth until was touching the obelisk, which acted as a fail-safe device should the timber crib fail.    We had the obelisk at an angle of about twenty degrees, an angle we had reached during the original experiment when the original crib failed and we lost the obelisk overnight. It was about this height that for the first time I fully understood why I wanted to use wedge shaped lifting plates under the obelisk. The stone staircase being assembled The obelisk approaching forty-five degrees beneath the rising obelisk     During the early stages of the erection we had been able to lever the prone obelisk up inch-by-inch just by levering without using lifting plates, but as the angle of the obelisk increased, this became more and more difficult. It was essential that the underside of the lifting plate was parallel to the ground, while the top side was at the same angle as the obelisk had reached at the time of each lift. Obviously this meant using steeper and steeper lifting plates, and it was also obvious that we could only reach a certain angle by restraining these plates with rope. By the time we had reached about forty-five degrees we could restrain the plates no more. We needed a new plan.    After many hours of discussion and many failed suggestions, we finally agreed a new plan. We would attempt to pull the obelisk upright, not by using ropes but by using our levers in a new way. Even with the obelisk at forty-five degrees we simply didn’t have the necessary manpower, even if we used an A-frame to gain some mechanical advantage, it would not be enough. Think of using a pencil as a lever to open a ring-pull can. We would use the levers to pull the obelisk upright. Once the set-up was right we could gain a mechanical advantage of as much as fourteen-to-one, from each lever. While we could all see the advantage of using the levers, this way the practical application of the theory was another matter, but we eventually succeeded and the obelisk started to be pulled ever higher.    The stone staircase proved its worth in the practical application and gave us the advantage of levering from a rock solid base.    An even greater advantage was the fact that the action of moving the staircase forward meant that position of the levers under the obelisk moved forwards and lower down the obelisk, thus keeping the lever operators (lever- men) closer to ground level than would otherwise be the case     Using the levers in reverse to pull Close-up of the rope-work showing how the the obelisk upright reverse levers work. The top-most of the two logs is pulled forward, while the lower log of the two rests on the stone staircase, forming a fulcrum for the levers. As the levers pivot on the fulcrum, the obelisk is pulled forward.    During our ten-ton experiment we completed the job using scaffold only about six-feet high, while the tip of the obelisk when erected stood more than twenty-feet above ground level. As the obelisk was pulled higher and higher, we knew that sooner or later it would become self-righting when the excess weight in the base overcame the weight at the tip. To prevent this movement becoming too violent and perhaps causing the obelisk to topple right over, we placed bags of salt on the far side of the plinth, to slow down the final stages of the erection. When this danger was over and the bags of salt had cushioned the obelisk, we dissolved the salt with water. Slowly the salt dissolved and slowly the obelisk came to vertical.    We had proved the method was feasible, and although the obelisk was very small by Egyptian standards we had completed the experiment using on average less than four men. It was the first time since the last Egyptian obelisk was raised 4000 years ago, that an obelisk had been erected totally without modern lifting equipment. Since the start of the project we had used only simple wooden levers and timber packing. The timber wedged between the obelisk and the lifting beam being used in the manner of a hydraulic ram    With a credible method of erecting an obelisk at our disposal, we began to think about how the Egyptians had transported the two obelisks from the granite quarry at Aswan to the site of their erection at the entrance to the Temple at Thebes. A clue as to the likely distance the obelisks were moved overland lies in the fact that both places are located not far from the banks of the Nile. Remembering that both obelisks weigh around three- hundred tons each, it is inconceivable to me that the Ancients would not have taken advantage of this, and made use of the Nile for covering the majority of the distance by boat. The only problem being the loading and unloading of the boat at each end of the river journey. Having worked as an apprentice at a boat-builders, I know how a boat behaves on water and the difficulties of loading and unloading a floating boat. Here the annual flooding of the Nile offers a solution.    I believe these difficulties could have been overcome by providing a wet dock at each end if the river journey. The procedure would have been as follows: During the dry season, dig a cutting or short length of canal on the banks of the river as near as possible to the granite quarry at Aswan, and the same near the temple site at Thebes. While the cutting at Aswan is dry, use the stone-rowing method to move the obelisk overland to this short stretch of canal. Place stout tree trunks across the canal and row the obelisk over the trunks, so that the trunks are resting on the banks of the canal, and lower the obelisk onto these trunks. When the Nile floods the cutting will also flood, and the obelisk will be suspended across the cutting at Aswan, supported by the tree trunks which are resting on the banks of the cutting. Then sail your boat or barge to the flooded canal, and load it with sufficient ballast to sink it low enough in the water for it to be hauled beneath the logs and the obelisk. With the boat in position, unload the ballast and the boat will rise in the water and the trunks will also rise, lifting them clear of the banks, where-upon the boat can then be moved into the river. With the boat and the obelisk fully loaded, sail to a similar cutting near the erection site, and enter the cutting, before loading enough ballast onto the boat to sink the boat low in the water, thus bringing the tree trunks into contact with the banks of the cutting. With the tree trunks now holding the obelisk suspended above the cutting, drag the boat out and back onto the Nile. All that remains to be done is to row the obelisk to the site at the temple and begin the erection.    Our recent experiments in erecting an obelisk prove that it can be done with just simple levers, blocks of stone arranged as a movable staircase, and timber packing. Would this work with an obelisk weighing three-hundred tons? Simple mathematics suggest that it would. Queen Hatshepsut’s obelisk was a single piece of red granite over ninety feet long, weighing about three-hundred tons. With levers arranged each side, we would have a hundred-and-eighty feet of space, and with each lever only four inches in diameter we would have plenty of space for more than three-hundred-and-sixty levers, with each single lever capable of picking up one ton, a total lifting capacity of three-hundred-and-sixty tons or more. These figures are based on the actual levers we used on the ten ton obelisk. They were light, easy to handle and none failed when they were still reasonably fresh-cut. The reason being that fresh-cut saplings bend in use rather than fail.    It is my conclusion that the art of stone-rowing would have been essential for both the transportation overland, and the initial positioning of the obelisk on the plinth, prior to the erection. This initial positioning has to be absolutely precise in relation to the turning groove and the base, while at the same time the obelisk must be positioned precisely at right-angles to the turning groove, for the groove to work properly. Success at last! Gordon Pipes return to top of this page

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