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Denys' demonstration Video clip—Denys Stocks demonstrates his answer to Richard's question:
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Questions and Responses
Set 5, posted March 16, 1999
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How did the ancient Egyptians drill stone before they had copper tools?

Richard White
Madison, WI

Response from Denys Stocks, Ancient Egyptian Technologist:

In my opinion, the evidence all suggests that the Egyptians were able to drill stone—not too-hard stone, certainly not granite—with hollow reed tubes and sand. Now, the sand would be dry, because if we use wet sand, that would make the stem of the drill collapse into a solid drill, which would be useless. They then took a bow, with an ordinary string maybe a couple of millimeters in diameter, and wound it round the shaft once, then put a capstone on, which had a hollow in it, so that it could rotate. Just apply a little bit of pressure, and gradually, the reed moved backwards and forwards by the bow bit into the stone.


What evidence from the ancient times suggests that obelisks were raised rather than built on the spot? What I am suggesting is that, why not build the obelisk piece by piece on the spot and raise it up gradually, and when it gets high enough, use pulleys attached to the tip of an A-frame to pull the small pieces to the top of the obelisk. The height of the A-frame could be adjusted to a required height each time a piece is pulled at the top of the obelisk.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Response from Mark Lehner:

All the Egyptian obelisks were single pieces of stone. They were not like the obelisk of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., which is composed of separate blocks of stone.


Being a New Yorker, I read with interest in 'A World of Obelisks' about the New York City obelisk. Do the Egyptians have a policy on having such artifacts returned?

New York, NY

Response from Mark Lehner:

No, because—I would have to check the records—but I think it was an official gift. And if something is an official gift, then there is no mandate for it to be returned. The issue of cultural property outside the countries of origin is a bit of a sensitive one and is often discussed. When objects and artifacts went out legally, then there's no question about it. It's when they go out illegally, or when artifacts end up in museums and collections abroad and have questionable origins that you get controversy—and rightly so.

In earlier decades, there was an official policy of dividing finds with expeditions, so that you would array all the best objects, and a representative of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority and the director of the mission would sort out what Egypt would keep and what the foreign missions would take back to museums and institutions. That kind of tradition is passing and it's right, as we see now, that all excavated art objects and artifacts of importance should remain in the country. There is so much dispersed all over the world now that it would be almost inconceivable to call for everything to be returned.

As a dirt archaeologist, I can say I favor a very strict policy of objects staying in their country of origin. I'm a bit against the market in ancient artifacts and art objects in general, because I think it encourages illicit digging, which represents the destruction of archaeological sites and the trashing of information. If these sites were dug correctly, we could read from the earth. And, of course, once sites are dug for treasure-hunting and looting, you can never put things back, so that you can know the story of that site. It's also of course the case that when an artifact is stolen, you no longer know the complete story of the artifact beyond its value as an art object—a value that is often very different for the modern world than that same so-called art object might have been to the ancient society that produced it.


Do you believe that pharaonic tombs still remain to be found in the Valley of the Kings or nearby?

Jack Daw
Isle of Man, UK

Response from Mark Lehner:

Well, I think there might be tombs left in the Valley of the Kings. Some of my colleagues know that subject much better than I do, and they know the evidence for which kings they're missing. The great majority of the kings I believe are accounted for. But the tomb of Herihor is unknown, and he was high priest and virtual ruler of Egypt towards the end of the 20th dynasty. There might be a few other tombs missing, perhaps minor tombs from the Amarna period. It would be hard for me to conclude that everything is known and all the tombs are accounted for that were originally made in that valley. But, like I say, others who are actually working in the valley like Kent Weeks and others know these questions much better than I do and obviously they're out there digging, so there is still information, if not tombs to be uncovered.


What is the meaning of the obelisks?

Russell Willner
Menlo Park, CA

Response from Mark Lehner:

The meaning of the obelisks has to do with solar worship. They definitely are inspired by Heliopolis, the ancient cult center northeast of modern Cairo, which was the seat of sun-worship, or the worship of the sun god Re.

The sacred item in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Heliopolis was something called the ben-ben. Ben-ben comes from an ancient Egyptian word that originally, primarily means "to swell." The ben-ben was a conical-shaped object like a small pyramidion. And the swelling, of course, has to do with the rising of the sun, the swelling of the light and so on. The Pyramids are thought to have been inspired by the Heliopolitan ben-ben and so were the obelisks, which have been called "pyramids on a stick" rather flippantly. The texts all associate the obelisks in various ways with the solar cult.

The obelisks were also put up for the pharaoh's Jubilee, which was traditionally a celebration of 30 years of rule, but some pharaohs could celebrate it earlier if they chose.

And finally, my own personal take on it, which is nothing you could prove or disprove, but just a kind of personal interpretation, is that the obelisks stand for resurrection. They stand in front of temple entrances. We know there were inner obelisks in the innermost sanctuary of Amun. It has even been suggested that there were portable obelisks that were picked up and put on the sacred barque when Amun went in procession to the temple of Luxor for the Festival of the Opet, and there were sockets there that were put in place right in front of Amun's shrine. Important people during their funerals had their own little obelisks, and in their tomb scenes, in which they show the funeral ceremony, these obelisks are being set up in the proximity of the necropolis or right in front of the tomb. So I think the combination of the solar symbol, the Jubilee—which as a renewal ceremony—and the use of the obelisks in private tombs, all suggest resurrection as a kind of key idea behind the obelisks.

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