Who Really Built the Pyramids? | Unveiled

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There are few landmarks anywhere on Earth that are as historic nor iconic as the pyramids in Egypt. And yet, although these spectacular structures are so widely known, there's still so much mystery and intrigue surrounding them. In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the current best theories as to how the pyramids came to be!

Who Really Built the Pyramids?

There are few landmarks anywhere on Earth that are quite as historic, iconic, nor as universally recognised as the pyramids in Egypt. And yet, although these spectacular structures are so widely known, there’s still so much mystery and intrigue surrounding them. And, since the advent of the internet especially, the wild theories about their origin have mounted up and up.

So, this is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question: Who really built the pyramids?

If ever there was a symbol to instantly bring to mind a certain civilization, it’s the pyramids and Ancient Egypt. The pyramids at Giza, eight miles southwest of the Egyptian capital, Cairo, are the most famous of all… but actually there are more than one hundred examples of these incredible structures all across the country, and one-time empire. The pyramids were primarily built as tombs for Pharaohs and other, high-ranking figures, and some are thought to date to more than five thousand years ago. The Pyramid of Khufu - otherwise known as the Great Pyramid of Giza - is the largest standing today, measuring 481 feet from base to pointed top. It was built around 2600 BCE, and ranked as the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost four thousand years - until it was finally bested by Lincoln Cathedral, in the UK, which was completed in the year 1311.

What’s beyond doubt, then, is that these things are amazing. And, even in the modern world, where tall buildings are the norm, they stand out as truly spectacular feats of engineering. However, this general sense of amazement forms perhaps part of the reason for the emergence of another aspect of the pyramids’ story in recent years. We refer, of course, to the infamous debate over who really built the pyramids.

Claims that the pyramids may not have been built by human hand are generally thought to date back to the mid-nineteenth century, when certain writers and speakers began to fashion themselves into what we now tend to call “fringe” or “alternate” historians. These figures - among which the US congressman Ignatius L. Donnelly was a leading voice - sought to challenge the mainstream theories in science and archaeology, to argue (amongst other things) that there may have been earlier civilizations that history has forgotten, and that there may have once been more advanced civilizations on Earth than even that which we see today.

In more contemporary times, these ideas have often been merged with the more twentieth century fascination for aliens and UFOs. With various fringe theories falling under the broad, umbrella term “ancient aliens”, there’s a suggestion (by some) that the earliest civilizations we know about - including the Egyptians - may have been helped along in their development by some kind of extraterrestrial force or group. Importantly, this still isn’t the line taken by mainstream, professional scientists, historians, or archaeologists. But, and particularly thanks to the more recent, connecting power of the internet, these are suggestions that refuse to go away, no matter how badly traditional academics might like them to.

With the pyramids, in particular, counter claims tend to centre on a couple of common questions. How did Egypt organise the incredible workforce that would’ve been needed to build them? And how did that workforce achieve such seemingly exquisite workmanship with such early tools?

Mainstream archaeology has a fairly robust answer for the first question, based on evidence unearthed within the vicinity of certain pyramid structures. Close to the pyramid site at Giza, for example, the remains of a workers’ village have been found, thought to have once housed at least ten thousand people at any one time. According to some estimates, the real number might’ve even been closer to fifty thousand, or more. It would seem, then, that the construction of a pyramid was so significant, and was given such great precedence, that it became a truly (and literally) monumental affair. It required a civilization-wide effort to make it happen. And, as strange as it might seem to modern minds, perhaps such a supreme level of dedication to the cause wasn’t unusual at the time.

In general, the Egyptians viewed death as a kind of passage to the next life and another world, so it perhaps follows that thousands of people should be determined enough to ensure that their leader - the Pharaoh - had as grand a tomb as possible, equipping them with all they’d possibly need for what comes after. With the Pyramid of Khufu, specifically, while it’s clearly an ancient structure, there were other major pyramid constructions before it. By the time of its construction, then, the logistics and techniques of pyramid building may’ve already been honed for efficiency… meaning the pyramid of Khufu might perhaps also be seen as the world’s most prominent example of the age-old adage, practice makes perfect.

There has been a darker possibility debated amongst even mainstream archaeologists and historians before, however, that the pyramids may have been built by slaves, and that’s how come they were made possible - via the brutal treatment of an unpaid workforce. But, today, the consensus has moved away from that, with various evidence found that seemingly points to a paid workforce, predominantly made up of skilled and specialist workers. Nevertheless, some fringe theories still challenge that idea, suggesting that the numbers required couldn’t possibly have been gathered. And, in the case of some of the wildest theories, that the apparent thousands of human workers may have actually been backed up by a significantly fewer, but significantly more powerful alien group.

As for the second question, regarding how any workforce built the pyramids at all with the tools available to them, there are again answers put forward by mainstream, conventional archaeologists. Over recent years and decades, experiments have been held, for example, to show that pyramid blocks may have been relatively simple to shape. Other, slightly more controversial studies, have erred toward the use of a kind of ancient concrete. While experiments and models have also been built to show how ramp systems may have worked, and pulleys, to move the completed stones to where they needed to be. Or to transport recently quarried material from faraway to the construction sites. Evidence of these systems has also been discovered, but some have still launched major challenges against this mainstream idea.

The overriding argument that links many a counter theory is that the pyramids themselves appear to be too perfectly formed. The angles of the outer walls, the smoothness of the joints, the meticulous detail in which the blocks will have had to have been carved… so that they not only served their purpose at the time, during the Egyptian Empire, but they were able to withstand the test of time and remain strong even now, thousands of years later. That, according to many an alternate theory, simply can’t have been achieved by Egyptian workers thousands of years ago, no matter how dedicated they were to the cause, because they shouldn’t have had the technology to make it happen. Which seemingly leaves one of two options. Either Egypt did have more advanced technology, perhaps handed down to them by an even older civilisation, and it’s just been lost to time so that modern humans now know nothing about it… or some form of not-of-this-world, alien technology was involved.

As with so much about the pyramids, then, there’s now a direct clash between traditional, mainstream science, history, and archaeology… and modern, popular, alternate science, history, and archaeology. And there are deeper problems on both sides, too. Perhaps the most scathing criticism of many an alternate theory on the pyramids is that it can find itself laced (either knowingly or unknowingly) with prejudice and racist themes. So many of the most prominent and unusual, fringe theories about the pyramids - fantastic structures built by an ancient civilization in Africa - are proposed by North Americans or Europeans, many thousands of years after the event. For critics, the suggestion is, then, that these ideas come from a depressingly rooted feeling that Egypt simply can’t have achieved something so supreme and magnificent as the pyramids. That something must be wrong about the historical record, and that something unexpected must have happened for the pyramids to be built. Be that a long-lost technology or a secret alien presence.

There’s an emerging problem for mainstream science and archaeology to face, as well, though. While fringe theories still need to prove themselves beyond doubt, all while losing the unwanted tags of prejudice that their ideas can carry, conventional archaeology finds itself with a different task. The fact is that there are still certain aspects about the pyramids, for instance, that remain mysterious or unexplained. And the best explanations put forward sometimes haven’t been improved all that much over the years. Here, perhaps, is the gap that fringe theories are trying to plug… but, maybe, in the near future, mainstream science will fight back.

For now, we do know that these incredible structures were made in Egypt by quite probably many thousands of members of the ancient Egyptian civilization. There may be suggestions that something else was afoot, yes, but the current evidence still shows that that’s who really built the pyramids.