Excerpt of the Day: How Egyptian Metalsmiths Constructed The Pyramids

As part of my Excerpt of the Day series, here’s an interesting quote from Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik.

Stuff Matters Book Cover“Discovering metals was an important moment in pre-history, but it didn’t solve the fundamental problem that there wasn’t very much metal around. One option, clearly, was to wait for some more to drop from the sky, but this requires a huge amount of patience (a few kilograms fall to the surface of the Earth every year, but mostly into the oceans). At some point humans made the discovery that would end the Stone Age and open the door to a seemingly unlimited supply of the stuff. They discovered that a certain greenish rock, when put into a very hot fire and surrounded by red-hot embers, turns into a shiny piece of metal. This greenish rock was malachite, and the metal was, of course, copper. It must have been the most dazzling revelation. Suddenly the discoverers were surrounded not by dead inert rock but by mysterious stuff that had an inner life…

From around 5000 BC, early metalsmiths used trial and error to hone the process of the production of copper. The making of copper tools initiated a spectacular growth in human technology, being instrumental in the birth of other technologies, cities, and the first great civilizations. The pyramids of Egypt are an example of what became possible once there were plentiful copper tools. Each block of stone in each pyramid was extracted from a mine and individually hand-carved using copper chisels. It is estimated that ten thousand tons of copper ore were mined throughout ancient Egypt to create the three hundred thousand chisels needed. It was an enormous achievement, without which the pyramids could not have been built, however many slaves were used, since it is not practical to carve rock without metal tools. It is all the more impressive given that copper is not the ideal material for cutting rock since it is not very hard. Sculpting a piece of limestone with a copper chisel quickly blunts the chisel. It is estimated that the copper chisels would have needed to be sharpened every few hammer blows in order for them to be useful. Copper is not ideal for razor blades for the same reason.”

You can find the full book here on Amazon.

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