Building the pyramids (again)


Wandering around the work site outside Cairo, Egypt, Mark Lehner looks like a cross between Larry David and Indiana Jones. Despite the heat and his faltering building project, Lehner, a former researcher at the Oriental Institute (OI) who now directs the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Ancient Egypt Research Associates, seems assured that his pyramid will be completed.

Part of the museum’s Sunday Film Series, Lehner’s story unfolded on a screen in the OI’s Breasted Hall. This week’s film was This Old Pyramid, a 1992 NOVA documentary about Lehner and stonemason Roger Hopkins’s attempt to reconstruct a pyramid using ancient Egyptian building methods and materials. They hope to explain how the pyramids, especially the most famous ones at Giza, were built, evaluating whether archaeological theory works in practice. As the narrator intones,“What better test than to build one’s own pyramid?”

The film plays on the tension between Lehner’s historical, theoretical approach and Hopkins’s pragmatic, hands-on style. Lehner insists that stones be placed precisely and without the help of modern machinery, while the burly, bearded Hopkins rolls his eyes when Lehner’s demands complicate his task. Theorists interviewed in the film contend that the Egyptians moved scores of two-and-a-half-ton blocks by levering them up the pyramid or by pouring them—laying a limestone mix into blocks that harden—but Lehner and Hopkins’s experiment challenges their ideas. Levering proves too unwieldy to be the Egyptians’ sole method, and pouring proves too inexact. In the end, the modern-day builders pull the blocks up ramps over the course of three weeks, completing a project 1/27th the size of the Great Pyramid, which was composed of more than two million blocks. The Egyptians’ original task appears less inexplicable, though their achievement seems, if anything, a greater one.

The project left some questions untouched. “What motivated them to do that?” Lehner asks, reflecting on his and Hopkins’s discoveries. “That’s the real mystery.”

Seth Mayer, ’08

Photos: Lehner talks with Hopkins at the work site; the pyramids hold tombs and other relics.

June 20, 2007