The Great Pyramid of Giza has proved one of the most confounding architectural achievements humans have ever built. In its heyday, it stood at a staggering 481-feet-tall, the largest building of its time. For centuries, scientists have struggled to understand how exactly it was built. Recently, they unearthed a clue.

This recent discovery was made by a team working out of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo. What they discovered was a small embankment where people once resurrected the pyramid’s heavy stones. But it’s the way in which they dragged these stones that has scientists — like Dr. Roland Enmarch, who helped spearhead the finding — excited.

What We Know

The three pyramids of Giza were built in succession by three different pharaohs (Khafre, Menkaure, and Khufu) around 3,800 years ago. The largest of them, the Great Pyramid, was built under the command Pharaoh Khufu. Since it was the largest, it naturally took the longest to build.

In total, it took the Egyptians around 10 to 20 years to finish each Pyramid. Considering that each held over one million limestone blocks (which weighed anywhere between two to 15 tons a pop), this was no simple feat.

To help the Egyptians complete such formidable tasks, they needed help. It’s estimated that around 10,000 people were conscripted into helping build the pyramids. Most of them didn’t do it by choice.

Of Quarries and Sledges

While the buildings of these pyramids has remained mysterious, Egyptologists and the like have not been totally dumbfounded. We know, for instance, that they had a high volume of manpower. We also know that they had the architectural prowess. (They may have been so advanced as to even had underground tunnels.) The question is whether they had the strategy.

A few of the things we know are that the Egyptians had different quarries for different types of stone. They had alabaster quarries, for instance, which enabled them to get stone that could easily be manipulated into statues, tiles, flooring, and other, more ornate fixtures. But they also had limestone quarries. This is where the pyramid’s main stones would come from.

CAIRO, EGYPT - MAY 28: Visitors rest in the shade of the Great Pyramid of Cheops on May 28, 2011 in Giza, Egypt. Protests in January and February brought an end to 30 years of autocratic rule by President Hosni Mubarak who will now face trial. Food prices have doubled and youth unemployment stands at 30%. Tourism is yet to return to pre-uprising levels. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Each of the limestone blocks that the Egyptians had to move weighed a ton — literally. In most cases, they weighed several tons. And to get these giant blocks from their location in ground (from places called quarries) to their particular slot in the pyramids would take some skill.

Until recently, scientists have only had a fragmentary picture of how this was done. While we know that they would use sledges, a type of sled modified to embrace and move heavy objects, we didn’t know exactly how they would do this. Considering the sheer weight of the stones, the sledges didn’t totally alleviate the difficulty of the task.

A New Discovery

The most recent discovery, made by the crew working under the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, shed light on this process. What they found was the presence of small holes along the ramp of one particular quarry. These holes, located at the Hatnub quarry of the Eastern Desert, showed that these sledges didn’t move entirely unassisted. There was an ancient pully system, in other words, that helped them move along.

The Hatnub quarry was used to resurrect alabaster stones. While the primary stones used for the pyramids were made of limestone, we can infer from this process that the same tactic was used elsewhere.

These small holes are thought to be where ancient Egyptian architects would place posts made of wood. These wooden rods would then be used in tandem with rope that would act as a sort of pulley system, which could then be used to help heave and stabilize the stones as they were moved from the bottom to the top of the ramp. They would not only help resurrect the stone from the quarry, but to prevent it from falling backward as it was push and pulled upward.

This finding greatly helped elucidate the methodology with which the Egyptians used to build the pyramids. And while it doesn’t completely clarify they ways in which they moved the heavier stones, it does suggest some clues. And if you don’t find that too exciting, you can at least consider it another mark against the “ancient aliens” hypothesis.