NOVA Online: Pyramids—The Inside Story (see bottom of page for navigation)
(see bottom of page for navigation)

Responses to Your Questions

(posted February 7, 1997)


How did the pyramid lose 9.5 m off the top?


Mark Lehner, Egyptologist: Well, this is the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The top-most part was lost because, over time, the pyramid outer casing was stripped for stone to use it in building elsewhere. What we see of the pyramids today is the stepped core stone which is a coarser limestone than that which was used for the outer casing. On the upper fourth or fifth of Khafre's Pyramid the casing is still preserved. We have evidence that the stripping of the pyramids' fine outer casing began as early as the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt - the era of Tutankhamen, when the pyramids were already 1,200 years old, or more! The removal of the casing of the Giza Pyramids, therefore, went on from the 12th century B.C. to the 12th Century A.D. when the Arab historian, Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, visited Egypt (about 1196 A.D.) and reported that Karakoush, working for the Egyptian ruler, began to quarry the smaller pyramids at Giza for building stone. The fact that the casing still hangs on the upper part of Khafre's Pyramid indicates that those who stripped the fine limestone off the pyramid casings started from bottom and progressed to top. We are not sure exactly when the stripping of the casing of the Khufu Pyramid reached the top, but in the process the upper courses were completely removed, probably because they were almost entirely composed of the finer limestone from across the Nile Valley at Turah as opposed to the cruder limestone from nearby quarries at Giza, which makes up the bulk of the core stone. As they got to the top, the builders needed that finer limestone for greater control in bringing the sharp diagonals to the point of the apex.


Dear E., When you first entered the pyramid (mostly the lower and king's chambers) were you totally freaked-out or just thinking to yourself too cool? Write back soon, Jessica.
Jessica McNealy, Mobile, AL.


Mark Lehner, Egyptologist: When I first entered the Subterranean Chamber, at the end of a narrow passage over 100 meters long and about 30 meters below the outside ground level, I thought, "what on earth did they have in mind here!!!!?!" The chamber is unfinished, and so it presents a "frozen moment" in how the ancient quarrymen hollowed out and squared off a chamber carved in bedrock (we can talk more about that later). But in the lower northeast corner of this chamber, there is a passage carved in the solid rock that runs for many meters to the east. It is only big enough for one man to have driven it forward, with pick hammer and chisel, lying on his belly. Where were they going with this? With what did they want to link up?


We today with our technology could not possibly build these pyramids. We cannot even lift one of those stones more than a story. The big pyramid is aligned more accurately to the cardinal points than the Greenwich Observatory. How did a primitive people with copper tools just out of the stone age do it? How did they so exquisitely cut the granite and marble (not just the limestone) with hand tools? Why are you so afraid to even consider the idea that the culture (Egyptian or not) was an advanced one and then disintegrated?
Dave Trottier


Mark Lehner, Egyptologist: Well, personally, I am not afraid to consider that idea at all. After twenty years working in Egyptian archaeology I am convinced that the ancient Egyptian culture was far from primitive. The society of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure was 500 years after what is commonly considered the beginning of pharaonic culture or ancient Egyptian civilization. That is more than double the time separating this Internet transmission from George Washington's day (cultures can go through periods of accelerated change). In fact, right now we are excavating the disintegrated remains of an advanced culture, the culture of Old Kingdom Egypt, dating around 2,500 B.C. We see no evidence there was another culture responsible for the wonderful achievements of the Giza Sphinx and Pyramids. What exactly do YOU mean by 'advanced culture?'

(next questions & responses)
(mail table of contents)

Pyramids Home | Pyramids | Excavation
Contents | Mail

NOVA Home | WGBH Home | PBS Home
Search | Feedback | Shop
© 1997 WGBH and PBS

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site

PBS Mail Site Map Excavation Explore NOVA: Pyramids—The Inside Story NOVA PBS NOVA NOVA: Pyramids—The Inside Story