Understanding the news: How to align a pyramid - some thoughts andobservations

Understanding the news: How to align a pyramid - some thoughts and observations
Recently engineer Glen Dash published a paper in the Journal of ancient Egyptian Architecture (JAEA 2, 2017, pp. 1-8) discussing a technique that might have been used to find the cardinal directions in order to align pyramids to them.
Dash rightly cites other theories as to how the ancient Egyptians may have achieved this:
"In recent years, four of the candidate methods have been tested and found workable.4 These include the pole star method proposed by Flinders Petrie,5 the circumpolar star method tested by Joseph Dorner,6 the simultaneous transit method proposed by Kate Spence,7 and the solar gnomon shadow method suggested by Martin Isler.8" [consult linked article for footnotes]
Some thoughts and observations
Although pyramids are generally accepted to be tropes of the solar cult, the ancient Egyptians were keen observers of the stars and their notion of 'Heaven' was focused on a small group of circumpolar stars which they called 'the Imperishable Ones' or the 'Indestructables'. This was the place that the soul would ascend to after death. These stars are famously depicted in the burial chamber of Seti I (KV17)
Hang on! Everybody knows that the Afterlife is the Kingdom of Osiris... isn't it?
Well yes, but it's a bit more complicated.
The Egyptians had layered concepts of the Afterlife, and this is something many modern people struggle to reconcile. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was made up of different aspects - a soul, a personality, a physical form and a 'shadow'. Each of these aspects went to a different 'place' after death.
While a king might hope to ascend to the Heavens and be joined with the supreme solar god Ra, he also hoped to be symbolically merged with Orisis whose realm lay in 'The West'. Another part of him hoped to be joined with the Imperishable Stars. Pyramids, like other funerary structures, sought to become a means to enable the survival of the individual beyond death, so they melded different aspects of belief and function to create a 'resurrection machine'. Over time, these structures changed and were refined along with trends and the 'democratisation' of the Afterlife.
While we have no references to how pyramids were aligned we do know that temples began with a ritual: "Stretching the Cord". We know from the temple of Edfu that this involved making observations of the circumpolar stars to find north.
Dash's theory has some merit, the technology is simple, and the timing could explain why the pyramids at Giza all have a slight tilt, although I did wonder how starting all buildings at the autumnal equinox would fit into the grand scheme of state building projects. The other issue I had with this theory is a lack of any textual or archaeological evidence to support it. (Other than similar alignment of pyramids nearby).
"As to the methods they actually did use, the Egyptians, unfortunately, left us few clues. No ʽengineering documents or architectural plans have been found that give technical explanations demonstrating how the ancient Egyptians aligned any of their temples or pyramids. No Egyptian compasses have ever been discovered, nor has any other type of sophisticated survey equipmentʼ.29 The records that do survive consist primarily of descriptions of foundation ceremonies for important buildings.30 However, it is unclear as to what extent these descriptions describe technical details as opposed to the ceremonies themselves."
It is entirely possible that the ancient Egyptians used various methods to align buildings. If, for example, we could find a Foundation Deposit (part of the Stretching the Cord ritual) for a pyramid, then we could possibly ascertain the exact time of year the deposit was laid down. (Analysis of pollen, insects and other flora can inform us about this). Then we would know if Dash's autumnal equinox method may have been used.
Given the links between the Egyptian notions of the Afterlife and the importance of the circumpolar stars in recorded architectural ritual and funerary beliefs, my own personal view is that it was the circumpolar stars that were used to locate north.
I acknowledge that all the theories cited have merit and look forward to more discoveries being made in this area. I feel it is by discovery not by reconstruction that we will find the best answer to this intriguing puzzle. The Egyptians themselves may yet tell us the answer!
Further reading:


  1. Rodford Smith I meant to include a remark that while I am certified as an LSIT (Land Surveyor in Training) and familiar in general with both modern and historic survey methods, I am not an expert. Sorry if I came off as more authoritative than I meant to.

  2. Aakheperure Merytsekhmet Bookmarked! :-)

  3. Rodford Smith Not at all, by sharing what we know from informed experience in different fields we can enhance our understanding of not only the ancient world but the modern as well.

    Collaboration between experts in different areas is what makes modern Multi-Disciplinary Egyptology the diverse and exciting field that it is!


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