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The famous pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three ancient monuments in the Giza Plateau and is believed to have been constructed for the Pharaoh Khufu over a 20-year period. Among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it is the only one still largely intact and is estimated to weigh approximately six million tonnes, from the 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite used, some weighing as much as 80 tonnes. There have been varying theories about the Great Pyramid’s construction techniques, but most accepted hypotheses are based on the idea that it was built by moving huge stones from a quarry and dragging and lifting them into place.
Writing more than 21 centuries after its completion, Greek historian Herodotus was told that a building force totalling 100,000 men worked in three-month spells a year to finish the structure in 20 years.
In 1974, Kurt Mendelssohn, a German-born British physicist, put that number closer at 70,000 seasonal workers and up to 10,000 permanent masons.
But Professor Vaclav Smil believes these are overestimates, adding: “We can do better by appealing to simple physics.”
Writing for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Magazine, he added: “The energy needed to lift the mass of the blocks above ground level is simply the product of acceleration due to gravity, mass, and the centre of mass, which, in a pyramid, is one-quarter of its height.
“The mass cannot be pinpointed because it depends on the specific densities of the Tura limestone and mortar that were used to build the structure.
“I am assuming a mean of 2.6 metric tonnes per cubic metre, hence a total mass of about 6.75 million metric tonnes.
“That means the pyramid’s potential energy is about 2.4 trillion joules.”
Prof Smil places the number much lower than previous estimates.
He added: “To maintain his basal metabolic rate, a 70kg man requires some 7.5 megajoules a day.
“Steady exertion will raise that figure by at least 30 percent.
“About 20 percent of that increase will be converted into useful work, which amounts to about 450 kilojoules a day.
“Dividing the potential energy of the pyramid by 450 kilojoules implies that it took 5.3 million man-days to raise the pyramid.
“If a work year consists of 300 days, that would mean almost 18,000 man-years, which, spread over 20 years, implies a workforce of about 900 men.”
Prof Smil calculated that an additional 2,500 workers would be needed to place the stones in the rising structure and then smooth them over.
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He places the grand total at 3,300 workers.
The expert concluded in June: “Even if we were to double that number to account for designers, organisers, overseers and the labour needed for transport, tool repair, the building and maintenance of on-site housing, and cooking and laundry work, the total would be still less than 7,000 workers.”
In the Nineties, archaeologists uncovered a cemetery for workers and the foundations of a settlement used to house the builders of the two later pyramids at the site, indicating that no more than 20,000 people lived there.
Prof Smil believes this, with the new calculation, shows how quickly early Egyptians mastered the building of pyramids.
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