NOVA: Can you describe what your every day work is like, when you're not called
off to Egypt to help raise an obelisk?
LEHNER: I'm an archaeologist and I study ancient Egypt. I work at the Oriental
Institute of the University of Chicago and the Harvard Semitic Museum. When I'm
not doing field work or lecturing, I prepare the maps and drawings of all the
excavations we've done. I'm working on a database of all the different kinds of
ancient material that we excavate—ancient bones, animal bones, ancient plant
remains, pottery, artifacts, mud sealings. And I'm working on a complex
topographical model of the Sphinx and the pyramids on the Giza plateau.
I'm looking into many other research reports on excavations of other sites in
Egypt—some close in time to when we're digging, and some of periods that are
far later—for parallel structures. If we find a bakery, what do other
bakeries look like? If we find a copper working shop, what do other copper
working shops look like?
I'm also doing very general reading about Egyptologists' interpretations of
Egyptian society, how they organize themselves for big projects, whether it's
the pyramid age or thousands of years later, say in Tutankhamun's time. I'm
trying to understand what their society was like; it helps me think about the
material that we're finding.
NOVA: Have you had any previous experience on a project like this one?
LEHNER: I was part of the NOVA team that successfully built a small-scale
pyramid, using tools that would have been available to the ancient Egyptians,
and I was also part of the NOVA team that unsuccessfully tried to raise an
obelisk back in 1994. This is our second chance.
During the 1994 attempt to raise an obelisk, Mark Lehner demonstrated one possible way the ancient Egyptians carved hieroglyphs.
NOVA: How important do you think your understanding of ancient Egypt is to the
outcome of this new attempt?
LEHNER: I think it's pretty important, in the way of putting the brakes on the
other experts. Just one example of that is diamonds. One of the questions we're
going to be looking at is, how did they cut granite? Diamonds are used in
modern saws for cutting granite. So, some experts have concluded, even those
who have worked in Egypt, that they had to have used diamond. The archaeologist
immediately thinks along the following lines: All right, how much granite were
they cutting? How many hieroglyphs were they cutting? How many obelisks and
statues? And how many diamonds would they have required? Where would they get
diamond? Where is diamond located as a natural resource? What does it take to
get it? Was there any word for diamond? And is there any evidence that
Egyptians went that far?
We also look at representations of ships, of the pharaoh Hatshepsuts' ship, in
particular, carrying an obelisk on a big barge. What do art historians who are
also Egyptologists say about the extent that we can trust the way Egyptians
show things as being realistic depictions of the way they actually did
NOVA: Can you give us an example?
This modern depiction of the pharaoh Hatshepsut's obelisk barge, drawn from a faded painting on her mortuary temple in Luxor, offers one of the few clues left by the ancients as to how they transported their obelisks.
LEHNER: Yes. Owain Roberts wants the obelisks to have been shipped on
what is essentially a gigantic catamaran—two ships parallel—with the
obelisk across it. In Hatshepsut's mortuary temple, they don't show that; they
show one huge barge, sitting very high off the water, and the obelisks are up
on the deck, end to end. Can we just ignore that? Can we say, in fact, that
there are other examples where the Egyptians show something, but we know for a
fact that they did it a totally different way? Or, from years of studying these
kinds of depictions, do we say, "Well, they don't just show something, if they
did it an entirely different way. There's a certain amount of truth in what
they're showing." Those are the kinds of questions that an Egyptologist or an
archaeologist brings to a project like this.
NOVA: What about the actual raising of the obelisk? Are there depictions of
LEHNER: This is something that lay people ask all the time, not just about
obelisks but about the pyramids: Why don't they show them building it? And
somehow, Egyptologists are so used to this that they would be totally amazed if
Egyptians did show themselves building something. Egyptians didn't choose to
show these things as structures of their creation. They always emphasized that
it was done according to a divine plan. It's my interpretation that they didn't
show these things because they didn't want it to be the work of humans. They
wanted it to be a thing that was divine.
They also liked the idea that once something was created, it was instantly old,
because divine things, in a sense, are very hoary and old. They'll say of a
temple that it was laid out according to a plan that was devised in the time of
the gods, so to speak. That's my take on it.
NOVA: What about your understanding of how people were organized? How will that
help in the actual raising of the obelisk?
LEHNER: Well, there's some issue there. I have some questions in my mind,
because there's a model of coercive forced labor, on a military scale, and
there's a model of households turning out—as in the NOVA program about
building the Incan bridge—where it's kind of a festival. I think it gets a
bit ambiguous. In the age of the pyramids I'm really curious as to how much
natural communities were turning out labor for it, rather than it being a huge
Stalinist kind of cooperative forced-labor situation. The massiveness and
difficulty of the project make us think coercion, but the care with which it's
finished, and that includes obelisks, makes us think conscientiousness, or
conscience. Therein lies the paradox.
Mark Lehner hefts a dolorite stone that the ancients used to quarry granite.
NOVA: How will this year's attempt to raise the obelisk be different from the
one in 1994?
LEHNER: I think we have some really good people this year. I think Owain
Roberts is enormously insightful. He will look at the knots tied in rope that
once held the Khufu ship together, and he will say things like, "there's a
whole range of thinking in those knots." So, he looks at knots and, almost like
a clairvoyant, he's reading a way of thinking. And I think rope was the
linchpin of just about all of this—obelisks, pyramids, and so on. Engineers
Mark Whitby and Henry Woodlock, they're the ones you've got to hold in
check. They want to get very clever, in an engineering way. But if you hold
them in check and say, "Well, hold on there," I think they're very insightful—they're trained engineers. They know where the center of gravity is. They
know why you don't actually tip the obelisk on its center of gravity; you tip
it a little ahead of its center of gravity so that the center of gravity acts
as a brake, and that kind of thing.
NOVA: But you say to the engineers, "Hold on, the Egyptians wouldn't have done
it this way, because of...."
LEHNER: Well, because engineers want to get clever, and they want to gain
advantage. That's the engineer's whole thing. So, for example, Mark Whitby was
very keen on raising the obelisk up and having a big heavy block on it that
slides to the end and tips the obelisk down, like the old scales when the
doctor weighed you and he tipped the little weight over?
NOVA: Like the method Mark Whitby used to raise the stone in the NOVA
LEHNER: Exactly. And I'm saying that that seems just a little too tricky. First
of all, you've got to get this ten-ton block up on top of a 400-ton obelisk, or
however many tons the block was. Why can't you just pull the nose of the
obelisk down with ropes on the butt end? And in the conversation, Mark actually
said, "Well, because you can't do this with ropes," Owain said, "No, wait a
minute, sure you can, they do it in boats all the time." So that's how the
whole technique that we're going to use evolved.
NOVA: It sounds like a really great team.
Mark Lehner shares a laugh with stonemason Roger Hopkins.
LEHNER: It is a great team. And then there's Roger Hopkins, who brings an
uncanny kind of insight that keeps everybody honest. And everybody else keeps
Roger honest. Roger's like that stone: he's a whole counterweight just on his
NOVA: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of this whole project?
LEHNER: Well, one of the most difficult aspects is actually getting a big
obelisk—that's no easy thing. And it's just a wonder that they were able to
get such huge pieces without fissures and cracks, because we're being
challenged to do it with modern quarrymen, with modern flame jets and pneumatic
The other most difficult aspect is actually tipping the obelisk without losing
control, using some kind of a mechanical advantage—whether it's a height and
a pivot. And then, in our day and age, a very difficult thing is the safety of
everyone involved. I think maybe the priorities would have been different in
ancient times. Finally, a difficult thing is doing it within the film
production schedule. I don't think that would have been a priority in ancient
NOVA: Do you think that the way you're going to try to raise the obelisk this
time was the way the Egyptians did it?
LEHNER: Well, you know, it's very hard to know, because you can only go so far
in the evidence—the positions of the obelisks that are standing, the bases,
the turning grooves—and then you're sort of out in the realm of, "It could
have been done this way."
I think it's very possible, however, because one of the insights that's come to
me is that they probably wouldn't have gone too far out ahead of the most
complex technological ensemble that they had in their everyday life, and that
would have been in nautical technology—in their boats and in their seagoing
ships, where they were using something like an A-frame for a mast—and using
a lot of the mechanical advantages of rope and windlasses and so on. It's the
kind of knowledge that Owain Roberts brings to the project.
NOVA: What do you expect to learn from this experience?
LEHNER: All kinds of things. I expect to learn a lot from Owain Roberts about
the mechanical advantage you get from rope. Obviously, what we're doing is very
audacious, to go out and actually carve these things and try to do these
things. I know a lot of experts think it's popularizing and therefore not
really a scholastic endeavour. In fact, it is; I think we're learning a lot
from it. I think it's a learning experience for everybody. And that's the neat
thing about these NOVA ancient technology films. They really are a learning
experience, even for the experts involved, as they are for the audience.
NOVA: What odds do you give the project of succeeding this time?
LEHNER: If we actually get a big obelisk out, or even replicate one in cement,
if necessary, I'd give the project pretty good odds of raising it, with the
combined expertise. But it also makes you wonder how many times the Egyptians
experimented and tried and failed, before they got it right.