Why the Pyramids Spawn So Many Wacky Theories

Ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids at Giza between 2589 B.C. and 2504 B.C.
Ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids at Giza between 2589 B.C. and 2504 B.C. (Image credit: Dan Breckwoldt | Shutterstock.com)

GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson stands by an odd theory he floated at a commencement address: that the Egyptian pyramids are not pharaohs' tombs, but ancient grain silos built by the biblical Joseph. The 1998 claim seems out of left field, but actually goes way back — to at least the sixth century.

Indeed, though the pyramids are some of the most well-researched ancient structures in the world, they have a long-standing tendency to attract crackpot theories. Over the centuries, people have argued that the pyramids were the work of everyone from Noah (of Noah's ark) to architecturally gifted aliens. Like Carson, these people ignore massive amounts of contemporary evidence about the pyramids.

"In terms of direct evidence, he's off the wall," Jim Phillips, the curator of Egypt at Chicago's Field Museum, told Live Science, speaking about Carson's notions. There's no debate about the pyramids or their purpose, Phillips said.

"Pyramids are tombs," he said. "That's what they are. That's why they were built." [6 Politicians Who Got the Science Wrong]

Strange theories

The idea that the Biblical figure Joseph built the pyramids to store grain didn't originate with Carson. It's an old notion, going back at least to the sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours, who identified the pyramids as Joseph's granaries in the volume "The History of the Franks," describing them as structures of "squared stone and rubble."

"They are wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening, and these granaries are to be seen at the present day," Gregory wrote.

The granary idea fell out of favor in the Middle Ages, though, as European travelers visited Egypt and saw firsthand that the pyramids are not hollow, author Jason Colavito wrote in a blog post on the history of these claims.

But the desire to situate the pyramids in a Christian context persisted. The 1884 Proceedings of the American Meteorological Society mentioned an 1859 book by John Taylor, "The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built? And Who Built It?" which claimed that the biblical Noah directed the largest pyramid's construction. The Society's response to this idea was dismissive, to say the least:

"There seems to be something bordering on the ludicrous in the ascription to a man situated as Noah was at that time — a man just escaped from a catastrophe so frightful as the destruction of the whole human race, his own immediate family only excepted — there is something approaching sublimity in the absurdity of ascribing to a man in circumstances so forlorn — left companionless, helpless, almost alone, to begin anew the battle of life amid the wreck of a ruined world — a project so wild, so cyclopean, so almost stupidly idiotic, as that of heaping up a pile of massive rock a million and a half cubic yards in volume … "

More recently, people who are unable to believe that ancient Egyptians engineered such massive structures as the pyramids have turned to another explanation: aliens. In his remarks in 1998, Carson erroneously attributed this belief to scientists, saying, "[V]arious of scientists have said, 'Well, you know, there were alien beings that came down, and they have special knowledge and that's how —"

In fact, the "aliens built the pyramids" claims are the domain of conspiracy theorists, not archaeologists. And contrary to the notion that humans couldn't have built the pyramids alone, scientists from a variety of fields have come up with plenty of ideas for how the ancient Egyptians accomplished the feat. Writing in a 2014 study in the journal Physical Review Letters, for example, researchers described how people could have lugged the enormous building blocks of the pyramids long distances by wetting the sand in front of their sledges, reducing friction. [Photos: Amazing Discoveries at Egypt's Giza Pyramids]

There is still some debate, however, about how ancient workers lifted these blocks from ground level to the top of the pyramids; the tallest of the pyramids at Giza was 481 feet (146.5 meters) high. However, archaeologists have found evidence of giant earthen ramps that would have been used to access the upper levels of the pyramids. Near Giza's Great Pyramid, Egyptologists uncovered the remnants of a ramp made of limestone chips, gypsum and clay.

"The ramp would have leaned against the pyramid's faces as they rose, somewhat like accretion layers wrapped around the pyramid with a roadway on top," wrote Egyptologists Zahi Hawass and Rainer Stadelmann in a 1998 volume. "The weight of this ramp was borne by the ground around the pyramid. Traffic could move along the top of this structure as both pyramid and ramp rose in tandem. The top of the pyramid could be reached with only one and one-quarter turns."

People who spin conspiracy theories about the pyramids tend to suggest the structures came out of nowhere. But ancient Egypt was an advanced society, whose people had been building structures for centuries before constructing the pyramids at Giza. The first tomb structures were built by at least the First Dynasty, around 2700 B.C. Over time, these structures became more complex, evolving into step pyramids and finally the smooth-sided pyramids seen on the Giza plateau. Mistakes were made. The "Bent Pyramid" in Dahshur is a structure with two different angles — a 54-degree inclination at the base and a 43-degree inclination farther up. [Photos: Egyptian Step Pyramid Predates Giza Landmark]

"They screwed up the angle, so it's twisted," Phillips said.

Other civilizations at the time were also building impressive structures, including the ziggurat temples of Mesopotamia. And Egyptians built more than pyramids, Phillips said. They also built temples, houses and all sorts of structures, he said.

"Architecture and building was a major element of the development of Egyptian civilization, and therefore the people who did the building, the actual architects, were very good mathematicians," Phillips said.

Clear records

Along with the copious evidence that ancient Egyptians built the pyramids without foreign (or alien) help, there are writings that clearly explain why the Egyptians did so. As the editors of "The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts" (Brill, 2005) explain, the pyramids came with what were essentially instruction manuals.

"At the end of the Old Kingdom, the walls of the inner chambers and corridors of ancient Egyptian pyramids were inscribed with a series of ritual and magical spells," the authors write in the book's introduction. These inscriptions outlined ancient Egyptian religious belief as well as instructions on how to ensure a safe trip to the afterlife for the deceased person.

And though the pyramids of Giza were looted in antiquity, enough writing remains that researchers know exactly which pharaohs occupied each tomb. Their names were Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. Each ruled during Egypt's fourth dynasty, which lasted from 2613 B.C. to 2494 B.C. These pharaohs' tombs were built centuries before the time of the biblical Joseph.  

It's even clear who built the structures. Inside the pyramids are inscriptions of names, listing the gangs of people who worked on the tombs, Phillips said. Egyptologists have found the builders' work camps: semipermanent villages set up near the construction sites.

The only explanation for the persistent myths about the pyramids is that faith trumps facts, Phillips said.

"Misinterpretations of the Bible and what's written in the Bible are ubiquitous," he said. And once those beliefs take hold, they're hard to dislodge, Phillips said.

"If you're taught to believe," he said, "it's very difficult not to."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.