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Obelisk building technology in ancient Egypt

Obelisk building technology in ancient Egypt

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Obelisk making technology in ancient Egypt is an archaeological matter that is quite well understood today. Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in what is now the modern country of Egypt. Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh...

ian Obelisk
Obelisk
An obelisk is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top, and is said to resemble a petrified ray of the sun-disk. A pair of obelisks usually stood in front of a pylon...

s are tapering stone pillars which have a square cross-section, were used for ornamental purposes in temples and had religious or socio-political connotations. They were generally made from granite
Granite
Granite is a common and widely occurring type of intrusive, felsic, igneous rock. Granite usually has a medium- to coarse-grained texture. Occasionally some individual crystals are larger than the groundmass, in which case the texture is known as porphyritic. A granitic rock with a porphyritic...

 coming from well-known quarries
Stone quarries of ancient Egypt
The stone quarries of ancient Egypt once produced quality stone for the construction of decorative monuments such as sculptures and obelisks. These quarries are now recognised archaeological sites...

 located near the banks of the Nile
Nile
The Nile is a major north-flowing river in North Africa, generally regarded as the longest river in the world. It is long. It runs through the ten countries of Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt.The Nile has two major...

, mainly in the region of Aswan
Aswan
Aswan , formerly spelled Assuan, is a city in the south of Egypt, the capital of the Aswan Governorate.It stands on the east bank of the Nile at the first cataract and is a busy market and tourist centre...

. In a quarry in this area, the northern quarry which is now an open-air museum, there is the famous unfinished obelisk
Unfinished obelisk
The unfinished obelisk is the largest known ancient obelisk, located in the northern region of the stone quarries of ancient Egypt in Aswan , Egypt. It is unknown which pharaoh created this structure. It is nearly one third larger than any ancient Egyptian obelisk ever erected...

 of huge proportions. It has been partially carved out of the rock, but its bottom face is still attached to the ground. When it cracked, unsuccessful attempts were made to salvage some of the effort by carving a smaller obelisk from it. It is only crudely carved, marks are left which hint to the technology employed in its extraction.

The carving procedure


The carving was done on granite directly on the surface of the stone at the ground, by cutting four sides. It is now known that the tools employed for carving the granite were small balls of diorite
Diorite
Diorite is a grey to dark grey intermediate intrusive igneous rock composed principally of plagioclase feldspar , biotite, hornblende, and/or pyroxene. It may contain small amounts of quartz, microcline and olivine. Zircon, apatite, sphene, magnetite, ilmenite and sulfides occur as accessory...

. Once the sides were cut off, the stone piece had to be separated from the ground. A series of perforations were made, again using diorite tools. Obelisks made out of softer rock other than granite (i.e. sandstone) were carved with wooden spikes. These perforations were then filled with wood and these wood pieces were water saturated. The small pieces of wood expanded with the humidity breaking the separations between successive perforations and then effectively separating the carved piece from its bed. Many residues left at the rock beds and measuring nearly the size of many famous obelisks (for example the Cleopatra's Needle
Cleopatra's Needle
Cleopatra's Needle is the popular name for each of three Ancient Egyptian obelisks re-erected in London, Paris, and New York City during the nineteenth century. The London and New York ones are a pair, while the Paris one comes from a different original site where its twin remains...

s) are now known to exist at the Unfinished Obelisk open air museum.

The transportation


The obelisks were conveniently made at quarries situated in the banks of the Nile
Nile
The Nile is a major north-flowing river in North Africa, generally regarded as the longest river in the world. It is long. It runs through the ten countries of Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt.The Nile has two major...

 so that the heavy weight structures were easily transported by navigating the river in specially built ships that cruised at the flooding days when the river was deeper. This seems to be a very difficult task to perform but the engineers at the time managed perfectly well without modern machinery or steel cranes.

Raising obelisks


Large obelisks such as the ones erected by Thutmose III
Thutmose III
Thutmose III was the sixth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. During the first twenty-two years of Thutmose's reign he was co-regent with his stepmother, Hatshepsut, who was named the pharaoh...

were usually lifted by teams of workers, probably laborers or retired farmers. These structures were lifted with thick ropes attached around the pyramid top and base.

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