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On an Anthill in Aswan
by Peter Tyson
March 21, 1999

Today, the Aswan quarry where the NOVA team will attempt to raise a 25-ton obelisk—possibly as early as tomorrow—was as busy as an anthill. Here's a glimpse of what everyone was up to:

Obelisk alone This is the obelisk as it looked early this afternoon, lying at the ready on the earthen ramp. Shortly after I took this photo, team members and quarry laborers thronged about the stone, fitting it with timber framing, lashing it with ropes, and otherwise preparing it for the attempt to put it vertical. The next time you see the obelisk as it appears here—that is, alone and unadorned—it might be in an upright position on its pedestal (inshallah, or God willing, as the Egyptians say).

Mark and Henry by obelisk Henry Woodlock (foreground) and Mark Whitby, engineers with the British firm of Whitby Bird & Partners, sit in the shade of the obelisk, reviewing every eventuality in the upcoming attempt. Whitby, who will be in overall charge of the rotation once it gets underway, told me he and Woodlock are thinking hard about how to ensure that the obelisk comes down square on its base, and how to deal with stretching in the ropes that team members will use to control the monolith's descent. But he added optimistically, "I think we've got quite a bit covered."

Rick with mallet and chisel Rick Brown puts the final touches on "the Hand of God," as he and his son Wyle have dubbed the timber frame that will grip the lower end of the obelisk, like a wooden hand, and play a key role in tipping it down onto its base. The Browns, both members of the Timber Framers Guild, have quietly assembled the "Hand" all week in a special outdoor workshop near the pedestal.

Iolo tying ropes Rick Brown assured me his timber frame would be "worthless without Iolo's lashing." He was just being modest, but Iolo Roberts' rope tying will be critical to controlling the obelisk's rotation. As the Browns fashioned their timber, Roberts and his father Owain spent the week preparing numerous lengths of thick rope, which they'll use to brake the obelisk's descent. Here, with the help of some Egyptian laborers, Roberts ties one of hundreds of knots he'll tie over the coming days.


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