Angle of Repose
The NOVA obelisk before the attempt.
by Peter Tyson
March 25, 1999
I had just finished sending my latest dispatch by satellite phone around 11 o'clock
last night when Julia Cort, producer of "Obelisk II" and leader of our effort, came
into my room, looking as exhausted as I've ever seen her. "We're calling it off,"
Our attempt to raise the obelisk was over, at least for now.
Later, Mark Whitby succinctly stated the reason why we halted: "We went from a
situation of relatively low risk to one of fairly high risk, with serious safety
implications. To go forward would be negligent."
On the van ride to the quarry this morning, team members tried their best to put a
good face on things. ("Ever heard of the second Unfinished Obelisk?" Denys Stocks
joked.) But the general mood was apparent when we arrived at the quarry: No one
went near the obelisk at first; they all found a private reason to hang back.
One of our successes: Denys Stocks measures the cut made over 10 days by a
copper saw, just what the ancient Egyptians likely used.
I walked around the site, trying to gauge how people felt about the project.
The range of feeling was surprising.
The craftsmen, those who had rigged and framed the obelisk, saw the glass
decidedly half full. "I don't think it was a failure," the timber framer
Wyle Brown said. "Frederick Douglass said, 'If there's no struggle, there's
no progress.' If we had another week, I think we could have done it." His
father, the sculptor and teacher Rick Brown, concurred. "I always tell my
students, if I could have fame, money, or time, I'll take time. It's the
one thing we're always short of." Iolo Roberts, who rigged the obelisk with
his father Owain, felt we had gone 98 percent of the way. "The last two
percent was only because we hadn't done this before."
And another: Roger Hopkins poses next to his sand-lowered obelisk.
The engineers, who had designed the attempt over many months, were palpably
disappointed. But being practical men, they were already thinking ahead. I
found Whitby, the inveterate theorist, sitting in his suit at the quarry,
brainstorming a possible sandpit method. His protégé Henry Woodlock told me
that if he had a chance for another go, he'd opt for less planning and more
execution. The foreman Abdel Aleem
was only too happy to share his ideas for how to proceed with such execution (shift
the pivot timber closer to the center of gravity, stick the obelisk's butt
farther over the ramp end, include more braking ropes, etc.).
Not surprisingly, even the experts not directly involved with the raising
each had his own opinion. When I asked for a brief summing up from
Roger Hopkins, whose own
raising had so recently met with success, he said simply, "Step by step we're
gaining more insight into how this was done" and smiled, his eyes inscrutable
behind his mirror shades. (When I said "Charitably put," he beamed and said,
"I can afford to be gracious at this point.") Mark Lehner,
for his part, drew a comparison between our project and that in Jurassic
Park: We, too, were trying to wake up an ancient dinosaur, with
unpredictable consequences. Imagine, he said, an ancient Egyptian
engineer trying to operate a car.
Hatshepsut's obelisk at Karnak Temple.
Personally, I keep going back to the archaeologist Reginald Engelbach's
point that, whatever technique the ancients relied on to raise an obelisk,
it must have been simple. To my admittedly untrained eye, our rig seemed
somehow too complex. Hamada Rashwan
was only half joking yesterday when he said, "Why don't you just use a crane?" Our
modern technology could do the job straightforwardly; is there any reason to think
the ancient Egyptians' technology would be, in its way, any more intricate? Many
of our team members believe that with enough pullers, unlimited time, and a long
enough ramp, anyone could raise an obelisk—and the pharaohs had all that.
Our project's complexity also had to do with people, I think. We had two
languages—English and Arabic—and multiple nationalities, including
English, Welsh, American, Egyptian, and Nubian. Several of our experts fall
under the category of "strong personalities." And we had never worked together
as a team. The ancient obelisk-raisers, on the other hand, spoke the same
language and likely had a crew that operated like a precision machine. Finally,
they had more motivation: We sought to raise an obelisk. They sought to glorify
The sun sets on the two-ton obelisk.
If there is one thing I've gained out of this attempt, it's a redoubled
respect for the ancient architects and what they accomplished. For me,
their success invests obelisks like those at Karnak and Luxor temples
with even more majesty and mystery than they held before.
Even our humble obelisk holds a strange power. If, for now, its angle of
repose happens to be horizontal, so be it. This unique amalgamation of
stone, rope, wood, and creative teamwork is a work of art, and it should
rest not as a monument to failure, but to the power of human aspiration.
In fact, the difficulties of this week have only strengthened our resolve
to return one day and find a way to raise this obelisk.
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
Obelisk Raised! (September 12)
In the Groove (September 1)
The Third Attempt (August 27)
Angle of Repose (March 25)
A Tale of Two Obelisks (March 24)
Rising Toward the Sun (March 23)
Into Position (March 22)
On an Anthill in Aswan (March 21)
Ready to Go (March 20)
Gifts of the River (March 19)
By Camel to a Lost Obelisk (March 18)
The Unfinished Obelisk (March 16)
Pulling Together (March 14)
Balloon Flight Over Ancient Thebes (March 12)
The Queen Who Would Be King (March 10)
Rock of Ages (March 8)
The Solar Barque (March 6)
Coughing Up an Obelisk (March 4)
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