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Indiana State pyramids research to be tested in Europe

October 10, 2014

Nearly five years of research into how the Egyptian pyramids were built is set to be tested in Europe.

Each summer for more than four years, Joe West, associate professor of chemistry and physics at Indiana State University, has been testing the theory that the Egyptians temporarily changed the shape of the blocks and rolled them to the construction site of the pyramids. While his theory has received lots of media buzz, he hasn't tested it in a full-scale experiment.

Starting Oct. 11, the Earth Pyramid project (earthpyramid.org) is set to give it a try.

"They're going to test a couple of different ways, so I hope they get some good tension data for the comparison. It'll be fabulous if they decided ours was the best one," West said. "Scaling things up, it's not entirely certain it'll work. It'll be interesting to see what they find."

All these centuries later, West says it's the sheer scale of the pyramids that continues to fascinate. Some experts suspect the Egyptians built the pyramids over a period of years during the off-time of the growing season, West said.

"It's an immense amount of people time and effort and knowledge for something that doesn't feed anyone," West said. "For that time period, it's impressive to say you're going to spend that much effort on something that doesn't feed one person. And then to do it a second and third and fourth and fifth time."

West's research started when he was watching a NOVA special about building pyramids with his daughter, who was 8 at the time and fascinated with all things Egyptian. On the TV show, the experts surmised the pyramids were built by moving the blocks by sled.

"I noticed when they were moving the block, they rolled it over to get it in place and it rolled a little bit and then went up. I thought, why not try to roll these things instead of drag them?" West said.

West went to Rural King and bought every size of dowel he could find and attached them, graduated by size, to his daughter's jewelry box -- which was filled with rocks and minerals, not jewelry -- with rubber bands, so it changed the shape of the box into more of a sphere.

"She and I laid it out, attached rods to the box and tried it on the coffee table there at home. It seemed at least reasonable," he said.

That following summer, West tested his theory with Summer Undergraduate Research Experience students. They tried different numbers of dowels, on a variety of surfaces and scaled up the experiment - videotaping each try to make sure their pace was historically accurate.

When they tried testing a 50- or 60-pound limestone block, though, they were stymied by the rubber bands and the rods shifting. So, they tried rope.

"It still didn't work. If we put enough tension on the rope to keep them on the block, the rods would slide under each other," he said. "So, we were kind of stumped. That's not terribly unexpected when you scale things up -- they don't always work the same."

Then undergrad Kevin Waters, now a graduate student in Michigan, suggested tying three rods all the same size on the blocks to make it a 12-faced polygon, instead of a circle.

"It worked wonderfully. It was amazing. The three rods didn't try to squish into each other at all. The three were really stable, and we could lash them across," West said.

Student Greg Gallagher tested a few other methods, but they settled on the 12-faced polygon theory.

The plan for the following summer was to try on a one-ton block. West contacted a sand and gravel company, which has big concrete blocks used for parking barriers.

"I got the dimensions for (the blocks), we were going to scale up the rods and use fence posts from Rural King. We needed to figure out what we were going to use to measure the tension, because it's way higher than it was before. All of that was in preparation," West said.

Gallagher and Waters then discovered a study by an engineer who put panels on blocks and literally made them into cylinders. It worked using a reasonable-sized work crew, although the engineer didn't take any numerical data on the tension.

"At this point, we figured there wasn't much point to us doing full-scale here. In essence, his method was very similar to ours, and it worked pretty well," he said.

West and his students submitted their findings to free and open online academic journal, arxiv.org. An online science publication saw the paper, called West and wrote an article about his research.

"The next day, it was on 30 sites. And the next day, it was on 50 sites. It just went nuts. I never would have expected that at all. I didn't think it would have much interest, and certainly not that kind of interest," he said. "It's not actually a published paper, but it's been read more than anything else I've done in my entire career."

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Photos: http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-CqTC9zz/0/X2/i-CqTC9zz-X2.jpg -- The parameters of the blocks being used in Earth Pyramid's tests are 60 centimeters by 60 centimeters by 120 centimeters, and the mass equals 1,000 kilograms (weight of about one ton). (Photo courtesy of the Earth Pyramid.)

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Sciences/SURE-Program-West-and/i-5V8fWBL/0/X2/06_12_12_SURE_program-6512-X2.jpg -- Joseph West, associate professor of chemistry and physics at Indiana State University, works on a summer research project in 2012 with a student to test moving blocks to build the Egyptian pyramids.

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Sciences/SURE-Program-West-and/i-D34drs5/0/X2/06_12_12_SURE_program-6441-X2.jpg -- -- Joseph West, associate professor of chemistry and physics at Indiana State University, works on a summer research project in 2012 with a student to test moving blocks to build the Egyptian pyramids.

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Sciences/Joe-West-Class/i-GxLnTMn/0/X2/12_03_13_joseph_west_class-9139-X2.jpg -- Joseph West, associate professor of chemistry and physics at Indiana State University, lectures in one of his classes.

Contact: Joseph West, associate professor of chemistry and physics, Indiana State University, Joseph.West@indstate.edu or 812-237-2037.

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or libby.roerig@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

Joe West theorizes the Egyptian pyramids were built by rolling the blocks to the construction site. His theory -- and a couple others -- is set to be tested this weekend.

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