Wyly Brown chisels down an edge on the pivot timber at the quarry.
The Third Attempt
by Peter Tyson
August 27, 1999
When we left you in Egypt five months ago, we claimed a "strengthened resolve" to
ultimately succeed in raising an obelisk (see Angle of Repose).
Well, we're back, and if all goes to plan, on September 11, a spanking new, 25-ton
granite obelisk will stand upright at last. It will do so not in Aswan, alas, but
in a quarry in Massachusetts, for we decided for logistical reasons to
make this third attempt a bit closer to NOVA's home base in Boston.
This morning I drove out the quarry to see how things were shaping up. The
first thing I saw upon entering the fog-shrouded quarry were some old friends.
Rick and Wyly Brown, the father-and-son timberframers who helped us in Egypt,
were back in action, with Rick running the show here. Wyly, his mother Laura,
and fellow timberframer Ellen Gibson—who, like the Browns, works as a teacher
and sculptor at the Massachusetts College of Art - were using chisels to shape
the pivot timber, on which the obelisk will pivot on its way to verticality.
These four are just part of a sizeable team that has been working for months to get ready.
"We're a really cohesive group," Rick told me as we threaded our way through heaps of
granite blocks. "All of us have a passion for building, and we work well together,
sharing ideas. It's not an ego thing, with someone walking away feeling someone
else didn't use his idea."
Will the newly fashioned obelisk stand upright in September? Rick Brown, project leader, is at the forefront of those who dearly hope so.
I grasped his meaning. In Egypt, since we had people from all over the world who had
never worked together and, in some cases, were new to the work they would do there,
"cohesiveness" was not a word that immediately jumped to mind when describing our group.
As Rick showed me around, I came to realize that this crew was doing many things
differently than the former had. Clearly some lessons were learned at Hamada Rashwan's quarry.
The most obvious is the project's simpler design. Julia Cort, producer of the upcoming NOVA film
"Obelisk II," opted for a version of the sandpit method that Roger Hopkins had such success
with in Egypt, albeit with a much smaller stone (see A Tale of Two Obelisks).
The obelisk-raising operation will begin with the 49,000-pound
shaft lying horizontally
on a gravel ramp, with its butt end hanging out over a concrete container filled to the brim with
dry sand. (In ancient Egypt, such a container would probably have been built of thick walls of
mud brick.) As team members slowly drain the sand through special doors at the bottom of the
container, they will lower the obelisk into the turning groove (for a description, see
Second Chance), in which it should rest at an
angle of 75°. Then, weather permitting, on September 11 a huge group of pullers will yank
the obelisk upright under controlled conditions.
All but complete, the ramp of "crush-and-run" gravel bears a wall of giant granite blocks
at its high end. The obelisk will pivot over the top of this wall into the concrete-block
container, which is about half finished. (Rick dubs it the "Lego sandbox" even though each
block weighs about 10 tons.) By Sunday, the container should be finished and filled with
sand, ready for sand removal starting Monday or Tuesday.
From left to right, Andy Smith, Grigg Mullen, and Jim Kricker tie a grommet onto the obelisk using heavy Manila hemp.
We wandered over to see the object of all the attention. Finely hewn from New Hampshire
granite, the obelisk is worthy of any downtown plaza or presidential gravesite. Here we
found three more members of the team tying a grommet of two-inch-thick Manila rope around
the obelisk's pyramidion, the sharply tapering tip. Tall and willowy, Jim Kricker is a
millwright from Saugerties, New York who restores sawmills and other historic structures.
Grigg Mullen, a laconic soils engineer who teaches civil engineering at the Virginia
Military Institute, is along with one of his students, Andy Smith. These three have been
doing something else we didn't have time to do properly in Egypt: testing the heck out of
the ropes, to avoid slippings and snappings like we experienced there (see A Tale of Two Obelisks).
There are other different aspects as well, like no 90-degree edges on which ropes could abrade.
And one language only (English). And perhaps most significant, more time to prepare for the big
day. This makes it easier to keep to the spirit of the operation, which calls for thinking like
the ancients. "When a problem comes up, we've tried not to throw 20th-century solutions at it,
but back up and think how they would do it," Rick says. "How would they treat lines? Were they
capable of splicing?"
About the only thing I can sense is exactly the same is the optimism. When I ask the three
grommet-tiers if they think this raising will succeed, Mullen and Smith blurt out, "Oh yeah!"
Kricker is only slightly more circumspect. "We think so," he said, and smiled.
Watch for the next dispatch on Wednesday, September 1.