Blog Post

Iconic buildings – the pyramids





iconic structures

When we think of iconic structures around the world, the pyramids always come to mind as an instantly recognisable and timeless design. Their triangular presence, looming out of the Egyptian desert, has for many years baffled engineers as to how these feats of construction were conceived and built in the ancient world. Many of the largest have survived intact for thousands of years, weathered by the ages but still resilient and to be enjoyed by tourists to this day.   

Standing the test of time

The design and maths involved in their construction included calculating their shape and size, the materials and dimensions required and surveying aspects of their straight lines and regimented shape. The pyramids of Egypt have a square base, with the four sides rising to a point. The earliest Egyptian pyramid design was a stepped pyramid, a ziggurat, from circa 2700 BC. The heyday of pyramid building included the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza, which is the largest pyramid in the world. It was built circa 2500 BC and stands 146 metres high, with side 231 metres long at their base. Apart from the many iconic Egyptian examples, the largest New World ziggurat was built at Teotihuacan in Mexico in the 1st Century AD. It was 66 metres high. Ziggurats are stepped pyramids that originated in Assyria and Babylon, though examples are also found in South America – for example in Peru at the iconic Inca sites at Machu Pichu. The pyramidal shape of these ancient monuments has inspired structures across the world, from the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury music festival to the concourse of the Louvre Museum and art gallery in Paris.      

In the ancient world, feats of engineering were commonplace, but the most familiar ones are often associated with Greek or Roman culture – temples, palaces, fortresses and aqueducts spring to mind. But the ancient Egyptians were master craftsmen and engineers, and surveying would have played a huge part in their construction. Even if it wasn’t known as surveying as such in those days, the same tasks we do today would have had to be carried out somehow – setting out, levels, land surveys and mapping, and ascertaining ground condition suitability. These needed to be taken into consideration. For a modern designer working with a surveying team, the setting out or these geometric structures would be a relatively straightforward task. But imagine the complex nature of plotting out the lines and levels, without the modern technology of laser levels and theodolites.

Mysteries of the desert

In place of modern technology, the Egyptians employed ingenuity and skill. As they had no lifting equipment, such as cranes, any blocks would have to be hauled into place, using ramps and pulleys. There is no record of exactly how they constructed these vast structures, but there are some plausible explanations. Most likely is that the Egyptians employed a sloping and encircling embankment of brick, earth and sand, which was increased in height and length as the pyramid rose. Primitive scaffolding would also be used and the stones were manoeuvred up ramps by means of sledges, rollers and levers – and of course the labour of many workers.

When it came to the surveying, the Egyptians were pretty sophisticated in their use of plump tools, lines and weights, to carry out their sighting and levelling. In this way, they could create imagined lines vertically and horizontally, for structure lines to follow. Plumb bobs were used in the Egyptian world in all kinds of ways, for astronomy, navigation, surveying and building. This has been ascertained by historians, from scientific evidence of tools and instruments that have been unearthed since. They also used measuring ropes, to gauge the dimensions of various land plots and structures. They would stretch the rope and then treat it, so that remained that length. Then surveyors would use it to measure distances and would tie knots at various intervals that had significance, so equal distances could be measured out. These methods look very primitive to surveyors today, but they worked and the iconic pyramids still stand as testament to their accuracy, ingenuity and innovation today.