As the obelisk continues to pivot, I'm free to wonder, too, at the power of
sand. It's astonishing how a single scoop makes all the difference whether or
not this 25-ton behemoth moves. Our crew of sand-removers from Hanscom Air
Force Base and the Massachusetts College of Art will hoe and shovel for many
minutes, clouds of dust visually obliterating both them and their masked
co-workers, who haul away the sand in baskets. Then, without warning, that
crucial scoop comes and the obelisk plunges its ineluctable plunge, down a few
more inches. The sound and accompanying movement are like the first crack of a
building collapse that never occurs, thanks to the pure control these guys have
over their rock.
A cheer goes up deep in the sand pit and on top of the concrete containing
wall. The obelisk has come full (quarter) circle, as it were, and come to rest
against the ramp wall at the desired angle of 75°. Today's operation is
half-complete; now we need to lower it the final foot-and-a-half into the
still-unseen turning groove. What a contrast between the softly flowing, almost
liquid sand and the package of hard rock and taut rope.
Now, when the ropes become too stressed with the weight of the descending
obelisk, Jim Kricker and Al Anderson (a bearded timberframer from Virginia who
dubs himself the "brake-and-alignment" man and who, like the Browns and others
here, belong to the Timber Framers Guild of North America), loosen the fat braking ropes.
These extend from a pair of braking timbers wedged behind two giant granite
blocks buried in the ramp, around the butt end of the obelisk, and back to the
braking timbers, thereby cradling the obelisk as if in a sling. Then, under the
direction of Grigg Mullen and Rick Brown, the sand-removers again begin to
slowly hoe and shovel sand out from the pit, until the next creak-and-shift
calls a halt so the ropes can again be loosened. It's that simple. (As Mullen
confides to me with his earnest-looking deadpan: "Keep it simple, stupid.")
Moments before this photo
was taken, the obelisk settled onto the edge of the pedestal's turning groove,
seen here still slightly filled with sand.
As the setting sun paints the first feathery clouds we've seen today a pastel
orange, a request comes from below for more sand-removers, so I take a turn
with the long-handled hoe. To dry it out, the sand was heated before delivery,
and this morning a thermometer someone stuck into it topped out at 130°.
Only the sand-removers have an idea how hot it really is, and as I hoe away in
the growing darkness, I begin to wonder if the rubber soles of my sneakers are
Wyly Brown, self-described "Attila the Hoe," calls out tentatively, "We're in
the turning groove." He's tentative, because while it's clear the back edge of
the obelisk butt has indeed entered the groove, it's not clear whether the butt
itself has fully settled onto the groove edge; a layer of sand may still be
propping it up. As "Attila" and Kricker sweep sand off the pedestal stone,
being careful to keep their hands out from under the obelisk, I wonder if the
ancient Egyptians had special sand-sweeping slaves, who would crawl under the
treacherously angled base of the obelisk to get every last grain off the
A happy crew "groovin'" at 8
p.m. last night.
With our flashlight beams illuminating the obelisk like some lost treasure
inside a tomb, the word finally goes around that the obelisk appears to have
finally come to a rest. Someone lets out a yahoo, and then everybody is
whelping and whistling, cheering and chortling. The job is done.
And what a job. As I write this a day later, I'm still amazed at how seemingly
effortlessly they pulled it off. A sandpit method like this one may or may not
have been the way the ancient Egyptians erected their obelisks, but thus far
Brown and Company have proved in spades that it can be done in this manner.
They got in the groove, in every way.
Return to this web site September 11th to see if they get it all the way