Egyptians Moving Large Statue

Physicists Might Be Jerks and Other Things I Learned While Researching Egypt

For the past 3 weeks I’ve been holed up in the library at Rosicrucian Park, a magnificent place that is also home to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, one of my favorite museums in the country. I needed to do some deep research for the novel I’m writing, and I figured this particular research library would be an excellent place to do just that. I was not disappointed.

One of the great things about researching there is that they have several older Egyptology books, some dating to the early 1900s (oh man… I typed that like it was some old timey century ago but that’s literally the century I was born in… ack). One of the interesting things I discovered as I went through some of these older books is that the paradigms of Egyptology that I’m used to encountering in books written in the past 40 years or so are not the paradigms that have always existed. Some scholars at the beginning of everything had different–and sometimes more interesting–ideas about ancient Egyptian culture that have fallen away. Some have fallen away due to more finds and better understanding of the language. But some seem to have dissipated for no good reason. I find it all fascinating.

One aspect of the shifting paradigms is shifting ideas about how advanced or primitive the ancient Egyptians were compared to the ancient Greeks or Romans or even modern peoples, for whatever value of modern one is talking about. I found varying views on the types of tools and simple machines the Egyptians must have had for them to have built massive monuments and temples of multi-ton granite stones, varying views on how sophisticated their knowledge of astronomy was, and varying views on the meaning of their mythologies. So much to take in!

One particular aspect of this caught my eye while researching, which I wanted to share with you. That is the supposed mystery of how Egyptians were able to move such large stones.

A few years ago some physicists published a paper called “Sliding Friction on Wet and Dry Sand,” which proved that one needed less force to pull a heavy object over wet sand than dry sand. The way science journalists got everyone’s attention when reporting on this somewhat boring topic is with headlines like “The surprisingly simple way Egyptians moved massive pyramid stones without modern technology” and “Solved! How Ancient Egyptians Moved Massive Pyramid Stones.” First of all, nothing in this research paper proves anything about pyramid stones, but clickbait headlines gotta clickbait, right?

Anyway, the reason why most people remember these articles is because of this:

It has long been believed that Egyptians used wooden sleds to haul the stone, but until now it hasn’t been entirely understood how they overcame the problem of friction. … “The Egyptians… placed the heavy objects on a sledge that workers pulled over the sand. Research … revealed that the Egyptians probably made the desert sand in front of the sledge wet.”

Adding more evidence to the conclusion that Egyptians used water is a wall painting in the tomb of Djehutihotep. A splash of orange and gray, it appears to show a person standing at the front of a massive sledge, pouring water onto the sand just in front of the progressing sled. What this man was doing has been a matter of great debate and discussion.

Egyptians Moving Large Statue

Bonn [one of the researchers] wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “In fact, Egyptologists had been interpreting the water as part of a purification ritual, and had never sought a scientific explanation…”

When I first read this my thought was: Ugh, typical Egyptologists/archaeologists, assuming something practical is ritualistic. Cuz, well, this happens often.

But then.

As I was going through older books, I came across that picture of the pulling of the giant stone statue several times, and every single time I did, the author explained the picture or captioned it with something along the lines of: Workers pulling granite statue of the pharaoh while someone pours water on the sand to help make moving it easier.

Um. But wait. I thought that “Egyptologists had been interpreting the water as part of a purification ritual, and had never sought a scientific explanation.”

HMM.

Either the early Egyptologists were smarter than the ones that came later about these things or maybe, just maybe, the physicist who gave that quote doesn’t know what the hell he’s fucking talking about and/or made it seem like the people in a different scientific discipline than he is were being stupid.

Quite honestly, it could be either or both.

I want to run over all those articles about this thing with a giant CITATION NEEDED stamp.

Science journalism has so much to answer for.

At any rate, I am very grateful for the opportunity to spend time reading these older books and widening my understanding of ancient Egyptian culture as well as some of the people who were formative to Egyptology. This research trip was made possible by the folks who support me via Patreon, and I am so, so appreciative of them! They’ve put up with a lot of lag from me, but next month I’ll be able to get back on track and start sending them chapters again.

If you would like to read more about my research finds, I’ve been blogging about them on Patreon for all patrons. I have a few more research posts coming this week. If you’re interested in seeing them, click on over!

Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

Do any of you out there ever listen to RadioLab, a radio show that broadcasts on NPR stations? It’s a really fabulous show and podcast that’s best described as similar to This American Life but with stories about science and cool stuff instead of just about people’s inner lives. Except the explorations of science and geeky stuff often also includes stories of people’s inner lives. It’s a pretty sweet show.

The most recent episode is called Colors and is an exploration about a bunch of stuff about color. I know, what a surprise. My favorite section is the last one called “Why Isn’t The Sky Blue?” and delves into why the descriptions of color in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are so… off. The basic explanation is that ancient people saw fewer colors than we see even though they had the physical ability to see more[1].

When I first listened to this show I geeked out a bit because I remember hearing this same thing in class back at NYU. How it starts with a long-ago British prime minister noticing that Homer never describes the sky as blue and snowballs into an exploration of how colors come into the human consciousness. My teacher at the time, Scott McPartland, said that the ancient Greeks didn’t see all colors, even though they existed, because they didn’t yet have the imagination to see them. The scientists interviewed on RadioLab have different explanations, but I like Scott’s better.

Scott also stated that two of the traditional rainbow colors are completely made up. That would be Indigo and Orange. These in-between colors were invented to make 7 colors, as 7 is a more perfect or spiritual number.

Yes, this assertion is probably arguable. I remember we argued about it in class a lot. Especially about orange. Apparently before oranges were orange (which they’re bred to be), they were yellow. So we invented oranges to justify orange as a legit color. Fascinating.

Anyway, I bring all this up not just because you should listen to RadioLab or argue with me about the realness of Orange and Indigo, but because I think this is an interesting bit of knowledge to keep in mind if you’re writing about an ancient people. How does your writing change if you can’t use the entire rainbow of colors? Not being able to describe the sky as blue? Or a berry as red or purple? Or the grass and leaves as green? How does that change how your characters see the world and relate to it?

Another cool thing mentioned earlier in the show is that some animals and insects have the ability to see thousands and millions more colors than we can. I’m toying with the idea of an alien race that can see far more colors than we can and how that affects how they relate to us. There is always an assumption that humanoid races pretty much see how we see, but even on our own planet there is a wide range of color seeing ability, thus it’s less likely to be homogeneous across worlds.

Footnotes

  1. Listen to the entire show for an explanation of how our eyes see color.[]