13 April, 2009

Science on Teevee Redux: Helping "Understanding" Understand a Few Things


So I had Understanding on in the background. It's an episode about archaeology. I loves me some archaeology. I'd been looking forward to this one. But I deleted it twenty minutes in.

One can only take so much omigod those rocks were heavy how could primitive people possibly move them?!11!!!???!1!! before one gives up. Especially when not once, but twice, they suggest that supernatural explanations can't be discounted.

You only wish I was kidding. First, they said that scientists couldn't rule out a myth about wizards flying rocks through the air to build some temple. I hadn't been paying close attention. Maybe they were being tongue-in-cheek, I told myself.

Then they suggested, in all seriousness, that the pyramids, the statues of Easter Island, and Stonehenge had been built by magic. Magic.

That's when I lunged for the remote and hit "Delete." I can only take so much.

Allow me to help Understanding achieve some understanding.

The pyramids:

Construction Techniques
Drawing of what a straight ramp might have looked like.A major problem facing the builders of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramids, was that of getting the Large stone blocks to the height they required. the method shown at left, is the only one proven to have been used. The ramps were built on inclined planes of mud brick and rubble. They then dragged the blocks on sledges to the needed height. As the pyramid grew taller, the ramp had to be extended in length, and its base was widened, else it would collapse. It is likely that for the construction of each pyramid, several ramps were probably used.

Drawing showing ramps built around a pyramidThe arrangement of the ramps used for building is in much dispute. Assuming that the step pyramid was built before the outer structure, and then the packing blocks were laid on top, the ramps could have run from one step to another rather than approaching the pyramid face at right angles.

Science Daily has a good one on this, too:

Teams of oxen or manpower were used to drag the stones on a prepared slipway that was lubricated with oil. Said Redford, a scene from a 19th century B.C. tomb in Middle Egypt depicts "an alabaster statue 20 feet high pulled by 173 men on four ropes with a man lubricating the slipway as the pulling went on."

Once the stones were at the construction site, ramps were built to get them into place on the pyramid, said Redford. These ramps were made of mud brick and coated with chips of plaster to harden the surface. "If they consistently raised the ramp course by course as the teams dragged their blocks up, they could have gotten them into place fairly easily," he noted. At least one such ramp still exists, he said.

When answering to skepticism about how such heavy stones could have been moved without machinery, Redford says, "I usually show the skeptic a picture of 20 of my workers at an archaeological dig site pulling up a two-and-a-half ton granite block." He added, "I know it's possible because I was on the ropes too."

Look, Ma, no magic!


That may or may not have been how they built it, but if one middle-aged dude can move 19,000 pound chunks of concrete with a few boards, some rope, some weights, and a couple of smaller rocks, I think the ancients could've figured out how to do this with several dudes. Oh, and even the guy from Spinal Tap knows a few ways.

As for Easter Island's statues, let's just say it's been done. In many ways. None of them involving magicians. Just because we don't know the precise technique employed just yet doesn't mean it's fucking magic.

I'm starting to think that the Science Channel is tragically misnamed.


george.w said...

I can't rule out magic, either. Maybe the orbiting teapot made a close pass by Earth every 31.09458 years, and the ancients were informed of this fact by aliens, who instructed them to entreat the all-powerful teapot to erect the stones they'd been cutting.

Huh-huh... I said "erect".

Woozle said...

I guess nobody remembers the PBS TV special back in the mid-nineties where they had an expert stonemason named Roger (can't remember his last name)* and a team of manual laborers reconstruct a miniature pyramid within a set deadline, using only classical-era technology (no power tools, no hardened steel...).

Roger's repeated phrase "I got a deadline to meet, pal" became one of my favorites.

I can't remember if they actually met the deadline, but they certainly proved the principle.

*(okay, I'll look this up... hmm, it might have been Roger Cook, but it doesn't say anything about his stone expertise... maybe I'm wrong about the "expert" bit, but I'm pretty sure he was referred to as a stonemason... and he was definitely a semi-regular on This Old House)

Woozle said...

Ahh, here we go! It was an episode of Nova, and Roger Hopkins was the stonemason.

Woozle said...

...and here is a page claiming that the show was bunk, and front-end loaders were used... [facepalms]

I'd like to see a scan of that letter from the producer (in which he admits this), please...

Cujo359 said...

Woozle @ April 13, 2009 9:15 AM

Depending on what they were trying to prove, the use of modern machinery may or may not have been valid. If they were just trying to demonstrate that tools and techniques available to the Egyptians at the time were adequate to place stones in position, etc., then it would have been OK to use modern tools to help create the "problem". They could, for instance, have used modern techniques to create the first layer of stone to see if they could drag the stones onto the top of that layer.

If they were trying to time how long it would have taken, or make some point about the logistics, it may not have been valid.

Experiments are sometimes going to be compromises with how much time and money are available.

Cujo359 said...

My favorite explanation for all these things was ancient astronauts. Supposedly, they used their advanced machinery way back when to make all those basically useless things. No wonder there are no more of them around. They clearly lacked the sense they needed to survive.

Woozle said...

Re validity: The excerpt (from the producer's letter) carefully leaves out any explanation of why the machinery was used, which presumably was present in the original letter (since that is what the viewer was asking about) -- which is why I'd want to see the whole thing before giving the "debunking" any cred.