the future of megaprojects

ancient megaprojects:
the great pyramid of giza

The Great Pyramid

For almost 4,000 years, the Giza Pyramid was the tallest building in the world. It remains the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing. Many of us may have visited the site at Giza and marvelled at this monumental structure. The question of how the ancient Egyptians managed to build such an impressive set of pyramids is of huge interest to academics and tourists alike.

Aside from being simply awe inspiring, the Great Pyramid serves as a fascinating example of how people in the ancient world faced many of the same challenges project teams face today. Last week, we explored the medieval city of Baghdad and the success of Caliph al-Mansur and his project teams in constructing an entire city within just eight years. This week, we are turning our attention to a story of highly agile schedules, meeting technical challenges and integrating lessons learned from previous projects. We are exploring the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Organisational Learning

Historical evidence points to the Egyptians utilising past knowledge and experience of building pyramids to optimise their performance in building the Great Pyramid in Giza. This strongly reflects a process of “lessons learned“. When looking at the detailed specification of the Great Pyramid against those built in previous years, there is a real sense of an ingrained organisational learning.

The table below outlines just a few ways in which the Egyptians learned from previous pyramid projects and integrated this knowledge into the planning an execution of the Great Pyramid in Giza.

The practice:

Materials

Starting point:

Mudbrick

Lessons Learned and Improvement:

Over time, the Egyptians realised that mudbrick was easily damaged by the elements. As a result, they utilised limestone in the initial phases of construction. However, the rate at which the limestone deteriorated due to weather conditions produced gaps between the bricks – a significant problem when constructing a pyramid. Having learned from their experience with limestone, they adopted basalt in the next construction phase. Unfortunately, breakage was still a problem with basalt. Finally, the decision was made to use granite to surround the precious burial chambers within the Giza Pyramid. In making this choice, project teams ensured not only structural integrity but a fitting resting place for Pharoah Khufu.

The practice:

Pyramid type

Starting point:

Mastaba

Lessons Learned and Improvement:

A mastaba is a rectangular ancient Egyptian tomb made out of mudbrick rock. On understanding that this structure did not meet the intended purpose of symbolising the Pharaoh’s wealth and grandeur as he moves to the afterlife, the Egyptians adopted a step pyramid design. The step pyramids (e.g., the Djoser pyramid) utilised flat paltforms to achieve the impression of a pyramid structure. However, after developing their understanding of geometry in the years following the Djoser project, the Egyptians realised that they could construct “true pyramids” with smooth sides by integrating ‘casing stones’ into the plan. Not only did this development give the pyramid the desired visual effect of strong, smooth sides but it also served to reinforce the structure over time. ​

The practice:

Angles of Inclination

Starting point:

60° inclination

Lessons Learned and Improvement:

Previous pyramid sites had faced major problems due to an overestimation of the ground strength underneath the pyramids. The angles of inclination of the pyramid of Sneferu had to be lowered from 60° to 54.46° to combat casing damage as the angles were simply too steep to prevent severe structural problems, which were made even worse due to the weak ground. Project teams took stock of these risks and when working on the Giza pyramid, they utilised a slope of 51.83° on its face and 42° on its edge. This required building upon previously acquired knowledge in construction and utilising special wooden measuring gauges to perfect the angles.

The practice:

Scale

Starting point:

205ft height, 11,667,966 cu ft of volume

Lessons Learned and Improvement:

The Great Pyramid at Giza was the tallest building on earth for over 3,800 years. The enormous scale of the completed project is a direct result of learning from previous pyramid projects. In the 27th century BC, the Pyramid of Djoser was constructed to serve as the burial place for Pharoah Djoser. In the 70 years between the construction of the Djoser pyramid and the beginning of the Great Pyramid, expectations of Pharoah’s for a grand entrance into the afterlife had grown. Expectations around pyramid size grew in tandem. The Djoser pyramid, one of the first constructed in history, measured 205ft high and almost 12 million cu ft in volume. Pharoah Khufu, in an attempt to demonstrate the granduer of his achievements, ordered that the pyramids at Giza be significantly larger than this. The result was the 481ft high Great Pyramid with an astounding volume of 92 million cu ft. This incredible growth in size within a matter of decades reflects a huge leap in technological advancement made possible by reflecting on challenges faced at Djoser with the express intention of building bigger and better this time around.

The practice:

Materials

Starting point:

Mudbrick

Lessons Learned and Improvement:

Over time, the Egyptians realised that mudbrick was easily damaged by the elements. As a result, they utilised limestone in the initial phases of construction. However, the rate at which the limestone deteriorated due to weather conditions produced gaps between the bricks - a significant problem when constructing a pyramid. Having learned from their experience with limestone, they adopted basalt in the next construction phase. Unfortunately, breakage was still a problem with basalt. Finally, the decision was made to use granite to surround the precious burial chambers within the Giza Pyramid. In making this choice, project teams ensured not only structural integrity but a fitting resting place for Pharoah Khufu.

The practice:

Pyramid type

Starting point:

Mastaba

Lessons Learned and Improvement:

A mastaba is a rectangular ancient Egyptian tomb made out of mudbrick rock. On understanding that this structure did not meet the intended purpose of symbolising the Pharaoh’s wealth and grandeur as he moves to the afterlife, the Egyptians adopted a step pyramid design. The step pyramids (e.g., the Djoser pyramid) utilised flat paltforms to achieve the impression of a pyramid structure. However, after developing their understanding of geometry in the years following the Djoser project, the Egyptians realised that they could construct “true pyramids” with smooth sides by integrating ‘casing stones’ into the plan. Not only did this development give the pyramid the desired visual effect of strong, smooth sides but it also served to reinforce the structure over time.

The practice:

Angles of Inclination

Starting point:

60° inclination

Lessons Learned and Improvement:

Previous pyramid sites had faced major problems due to an overestimation of ground strength. The angles of inclination of the pyramid of Sneferu had to be lowered from 60° to 54.46° to combat casing damage as the angles were simply too steep to prevent severe structural problems, which were made even worse due to the weak ground. Project teams took stock of these risks and when working on the Giza pyramid, they utilised a slope of 51.83° on its face and 42° on its edge. Again, they built upon previously acquired knowledge before beginning construction and utilised special wooden measuring gauges to perfect the angles.

The practice:

Scale

Starting point:

205 ft height, 11,667,966 cu ft of volume

Lessons Learned and Improvement:

The Great Pyramid at Giza was the tallest building on earth for over 3,800 years. The enormous scale of the completed project is a direct result of learning from previous pyramid projects. In the 27th century BC, the Pyramid of Djoser was constructed to serve as the burial place for Pharoah Djoser. In the 70 years between the construction of the Djoser pyramid and the beginning of the Great Pyramid, expectations of Pharoah’s for a grand entrance into the afterlife had grown. Expectations around pyramid size grew in tandem. The Djoser pyramid, one of the first constructed in history, measured 205ft high and almost 12 million cu ft in volume. Pharoah Khufu, in an attempt to demonstrate the granduer of his achievements, ordered that the pyramids at Giza be significantly larger than this. The result was the 481ft high Great Pyramid with an astounding volume of 92 million cu ft. This incredible growth in size within a matter of decades reflects a huge leap in technological advancement made possible by reflecting on challenges faced at Djoser, with the express intention of building bigger and better this time around.

Timeline Constraints and Agility

The purpose of the pyramid made one thing overwhelmingly important: timing. The entire project needed to be completed before the death of the Pharoah in order to provide him with a final resting place and grand entrance into the afterlife. As highlighted by researchers, this was a difficult time constraint to work with and it carried a huge amount of risk. When the project first got underway, Khufu was 40 years old. With his estimated life expectancy being 60, construction had to be finished within 20 years at the latest. While this was feasible given that the Red pyramid had taken 17 years, it was a daunting time frame nonetheless.

In order to meet the deadline, the Project Director, Hemienu, designed a highly agile schedule that could respond quickly if the Pharoah’s health was to suddenly deteriorate. He instructed project teams to install several burial chambers at various heights as construction progressed, a contingency which ensured that a chamber was always available should the Pharoah die before the project was completed.

Material Transport

Raw materials such as limestone could be found in quarries within 20km, however, having previously encountered the weaknesses of limestone, the Giza pyramid required granite from around 1000km away in Aswan. In the end, 5.5 million tonnes of limestone were transported the 20km distance to the Giza site, along with 8000 tonnes of granite from 1000km away and 500,000 tonnes of mortar from the surrounding area. A construction project of this size required “complex and massive” supply-chains which spanned across the Eastern Mediterranean

Quarrying granite and transporting such huge quantities through vast expanses of desert was a challenge in itself. Getting the material to the Giza site on time made this even more daunting. In order to keep the supply-chain moving smoothly, workers would wet the ground ahead of a sled filled with granite. This allowed them to transport materials swiftly. It also meant that the time contingency for the potential death of Khufu was met, as the granite made up the walls of the burial chambers.

Conclusions

A quick Google search for ‘integrating lessons learned’ is enough to demonstrate just how much project teams still struggle with the task today. The case of the Great Giza Pyramid challenges our assumption that it is too difficult to get this right in practice. Academic researchers into the construction of this pyramid have made clear that its resilience “can be attributed to the responsiveness of the Egyptians to their previous experience of pyramids, suggesting a culture of organisational learning” where teams “reflected on their work and made adjustments to the structure”.  The evidence presented here supports this argument completely.

Both today’s blog and last week’s exploration of the Round City of Baghdad serve as important reflection points for modern megaproject teams. Integrating lessons learned to build something bigger and better than before, within tight time constraints, was possible in ancient Egypt. It demonstrates highly intelligent planning and incredibly capable construction teams utilising what was cutting edge technology at the time. It was ingeneous of Hemienu to utilise the tools and plans he did, and we have a lot to learn from him and his colleagues. However, we have one thing that he didn’t: artificial intelligence. 

Today, AI can take care of the details for us. You can contact us to learn more about our AI solution for megaprojects. By taking care of the complexity for you, it might just enable you to build like an ancient Egyptian.

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Author:

Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Business Writer at Foresight Works

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