Ancient Engineering Secrets
Here's how one man lifted multi ton blocks by hand and more amazing ancient techniques!History
We tend to understate the engineering accomplishments of our ancestors and look for surreal explanations for ancient architectural wonders. However, many civilizations mastered ingenious techniques that continue to amaze scientists and modern engineers. From the construction of Stonehenge to the Great Pyramids, let's investigate some ancient engineering secrets!
On the outskirts of the city of Salisbury, England, there’s a pretty unassuming series of rolling fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Aside from a few grazing sheep, there’s nothing much there except for a bizarre monument that dates back some 5000 years. That is Stonehenge; one of the last remaining relics of England’s mysterious ancient past.
It’s a monument that consists of an outer ring of 13-foot tall sarsen standing stones, weighing around 25 tons the equivalent of a large fire truck each! And the smaller bluestones in the middle aren’t actually that much smaller, weighing between 2 and 5 tons, which is still a couple of cars worth of rock!
But here’s the thing, 5000 years ago, there was no heavy machinery like cranes or excavators. There are no other structures nearby, or big trees that could have been used for leverage so, those stones had to have been lifted into place by hand. But how? It was a question that had historians scratching their heads for decades.
That was until one man set out to solve this problem in his backyard. And as he was doing so, he made a shocking discovery one that would change how we understood ancient engineering forever!
While Stonehenge is located on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, the man who channeled his efforts into recreating it in his own backyard lives across the pond in Lapeer County, Michigan. Wallace T. Wallington, a former construction worker with one heck of a name, became massively obsessed with monoliths!
After retiring, Wallace found himself with a lot of free time on his hands; and in 2003, he set upon an ambitious project; to solve the mystery of how Stonehenge was built. He first realized he might be able to figure it out when he placed a small stone underneath a large, heavy block, and discovered that at a certain point of balance, he could spin the stone.
Following this, Wallace constructed his own concrete slabs, each one scaled in size and weight to mimic those at Stonehenge. Through experimenting in his backyard, he found that by adding a second stone underneath the slab and putting a counterweight on one end, he on his own was able to rotate and “walk” a one-ton block around.
You may think Wallace has Superman-like strength to be turning giant concrete blocks around with his bare hands, but actually, he’s applying a clever rule of physics regarding levers. The way levers operate is by applying an effort at a point, which moves a load at another point through a balance point called the fulcrum.
If the fulcrum is closer to the load, then less effort is needed to move the load a shorter distance. If the fulcrum is closer to the load, then less effort is needed to move the load. If the fulcrum is closer to the effort point, then more effort is needed to move the load the same distance.
So, that’s why Wallace could easily tip heavy concrete blocks with one long wooden lever, allowing him to shift the pivoting stones and continue walking the big blocks forward at a rate of some 300 ft per hour.
In his tests, he also constructed a wooden road to roll the stones, which had bumps the same width as the block. Once set in motion, the concrete block’s own momentum and its weight keep it rolling across the wooden road! But how the blocks were moved into position was only half the explanation.
Wallace also tried to answer how the ancient constructors raised the super-heavy stones toward the skies. For that, he again figured that the answer lay in the stone’s own weight. He used a shoring box and a counterweight to slowly elevate the block, rocking it from side to side before adding wooden slats in the gaps in the block the rocking motion created.
Gradually, the pivot power raised the block off the ground like a makeshift jack! Wallace had already dug a large hole beneath one end and filled it with sand, and eventually, when the block was at a steep enough angle to tip upright, he hosed away the sand, and the block’s own weight tipped it down into the desired position!
And that’s how one man proved it was possible to move a giant concrete block by hand! It’s these methods Wallace posits that the Stonehenge creators might have used, with ancient teams of constructors working together to transport and lift the stones into position. However, archeologists have found a number of flaws in Wallace’s proposal.
His method involved manipulating uniform concrete slabs, all evenly weighted, on top of the flat ground of his backyard. Meanwhile, the Stonehenge stones are all rough cut and unevenly weighted.
What’s more, the sarsen standing stones are thought to have been quarried from the Marlborough Downs, 18 miles to the north of the site. The smaller bluestones were brought even further, as they have been traced back to the Preseli Hills, Wales, 150 miles away!
At 300 feet an hour, that would have taken some 110 days. And back in 3000 BCE, there weren’t any smooth highways. The builders would have had to carry or “walk” those boulders across hundreds of miles of Ancient England’s uneven ground, steep hills, and swampy bogland!
That sounds impossible. So impossible, that most other theories posit that oxen and other animals were likely used to drag the stones to their destination. In addition, Wallace’s concrete blocks were a whole lot lighter than the standing stones.
While scaled to the standing stones, his heaviest block weighed 9.6 tons and his counterweight block 1.2 tons, a relatively light load compared to the whopping 25 tons that each of the standing stones weighed.
So, while Wallace’s methods are effective, they don’t reflect the reality of the conditions in which Stonehenge was built. Prehistoric builders probably used different methods, but that’s not to say Wallace’s findings didn’t play a part.
A team from the University of Exeter discovered small, stone balls like the ones Wallace used to rotate his blocks, within the proximity of another stone circle in Scotland, similar in design to Stonehenge. So, it’s possible Wallace’s balancing stone theory wasn’t too farfetched after all! Most experts agree that the way Stonehenge’s largest stones were raised was through a “rocking” method, very similar to Wallace’s slat attack!
They believe the ancient builders repeatedly rocked the giant stones from side to side with levers, each time carefully adding jointed planks of wood that gradually lifted the stone into the air. It was raised to a point where one final tug with a rope brought it fully upright. And the rest, as they say, is history!
But the greatest mystery of all remains why was Stonehenge constructed in the first place? Some more spiritually minded people (and by “spiritual” I mean crystals and star signs rather than God), believe that Stonehenge sits on a series of ley lines.
Ley lines are straight lines drawn between prominent landmarks, which are said to draw upon earth energies, which basically makes them your kooky aunt’s favorite hiking trails. Stonehenge itself is said to be a prominent ley line hub, as it connects to Salisbury Cathedral, the Iron Age settlement of Old Sarum, and the Clearbury Ring.
However, horoscope-style explanations aside, the most widely accepted theory today is that Stonehenge was built as a prehistoric pagan temple that helped track the movements of the sun, moon, and stars thousands of years ago.
But while Wallace Wallington may have tried to make Stonehenge a one man job, it’s believed to have been built, altered, and worshipped over a period of 1,500 years and involved people from over 100 generations! So, technically, Stonehenge was one of the world’s first forms of family entertainment!
Easter Island Statues
Easter Island sounds like a place full of cute rabbits and chocolate eggs but it’s actually home to a much stranger phenomenon. One of the most remote places on earth, it’s located in the southeast Pacific Ocean, over 1,000 miles from the other islands of Eastern Polynesia and some 1,400 miles west of South America.
It’s called “Easter Island” as the first European explorer located it on Easter Sunday, 1722, and discovered it’s home to the indigenous Rapa Nui people. And it’s there that you can find the famous Easter Island Heads; giant, monolithic faces, and torsos carved out of volcanic rock! But those aren’t just heads. Each head belongs to a whole body buried below the earth! Over on the other side of the island, you will see the statues with their limbless bodies.
The statues, known as Moai, were carved by the Rapa Nui in honor of their ancestors mostly between the 1250s and 1500s. No doubt you will notice the statue’s overly large heads, which comprise 3/8ths of their bodies, while an average human head is typically only 1/8th the size. Did the Rapa Nui all have super big heads or were they carving alien heads instead?
Archeologists believe that all comes down to a matter of style because the oldest statues are squat with rounded circular heads. But the youngest statues are taller and more slender, and their heads are more in proportion. But why make them so big initially? It may have been to support the weight of giant hats!
Known as pukao, these so-called hats were cylindrical red stones that represented a topknot of hair. What’s more, researchers also uncovered broken fragments of white coral around various moai sites and realized the statues used to have eyes!
But the real mystery is how those gigantic moai were ever moved across the island. There are over 900 statues, but none of them are of uniform size. On average, they’re 13 feet high and weigh 13.8 tons, though some are even bigger. The tallest moai erected, known as Paro, is almost 33 feet high and weighs 80.7 tons, the same as a large fin whale!
So, how on earth did the Rapa Nui move such mammoth statues? They couldn’t be rolled along on logs, as the statues are so heavy they’d have crushed them. Were aliens involved after all? Well, the truth is even weirder than that, because it’s believed those statues walked!
Sounds crazy, but the statue’s ingenious design enabled them to stand upright and rock forward from side to side while being guided by ropes, inching them forward with every heave and ho. Another set of ropes at the back prevented the statue from falling flat on its face as it was rocked forward, allowing 10 ft specimens to walk at a rate of about 320 ft per hour.
That also goes a way to explaining why the statues have no lower limbs; the Rapa Nui people were so brilliant at carving that they added specific, curved angles to the base of each statue instead of any legs to make these giant monoliths easier to rock!
On a rocky plateau some 200 miles southeast of Lima, Peru, hundreds of white lines are etched into the Peruvian desert. If you were just walking across the desert, you’d probably think nothing of them. You might even think they’re just worn-down trails left by animals! But if you were to view the area from above, you wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off of them!
Because those random-looking lines transform into a series of intricate geometric shapes, patterns, and animals! The lines form various shapes such as a spider, a monkey, a man, a hummingbird, and other things! But how were such precise drawings laid out? And more importantly, who put them there?
Called The Nazca Lines, the biggest of those shapes stretch nearly 1,200 feet across! That’s roughly the same length as the distance from the ground to the Empire State Building’s top floor! There are over 800 straight lines, and 300 geometric figures, with 70 animal and plant designs.
And the lines are so precise, they almost look like they’ve been carved out by lasers. Could this be proof of aliens? This time it has to be, right? Except, it turns out the Nazca creators, who were a people that lived until about the year 700, were more human and less alien.
Called geoglyphs, those designs were made by digging up the rust-colored topsoil to expose the lighter subsoil underneath. The lines are between 4 to 15 inches deep, with more than half the lines over 13 inches wide. They’ve remained near perfectly preserved for well over 2000 years due to the lack of rain and wind in the area.
Though best viewed from above, shapes can partially be seen from the surrounding foothills. However, what has researchers stumped is how they managed to carve out such huge shapes so precisely, without being able to view their work from above.
There’s simply no way, without modern technology, they’d have been able to access a high enough point of reference to see what they were doing. How they managed this is an engineering mystery, one that’s so complex it currently doesn’t have an answer.
Stone Spheres of Costa Rica
On the small island of Isla Del Cano off the coast of Costa Rica, there are over 300 stone spheres that had scientists scratching their heads when they were first uncovered because they were all almost perfectly spherical.
Later investigations then confirmed they’re actually the last remaining artifacts of the extinct Diquis culture, which existed from around 800 to 1500 CE. The spheres range in size from just a few centimeters in diameter to over 6 ½ feet, weighing up to 15 tons!
They’re made of gabbro, a dark, coarse igneous rock formed thousands of years ago from slow-cooling magma. Some were buried, some were exposed, some were worn down, and others were in near-perfect condition, but no one had any explanation for why they were there. No records have been left behind describing how so many of those perfectly shaped spheres were made!
Scientists suspect it was the result of hammering boulders into crude spherical shapes, before polishing them with sand until the friction smoothed them down into perfect spheres. Without metal tools, that must have taken weeks, if not months, especially for big ones!
So, more than ancient engineering, it seems like a masterclass in ancient tenacity. It was later discovered that the Diquis typically placed the stone spheres in important zones within their settlements, such as along the paths to the homes of the village chiefs. The theory follows that the larger the sphere, the more important the place.
The Construction of the Colosseum
In Europe, Paris may be known as the most romantic city in the world, but Rome arguably has the most impressive history. You walk around a random street corner and it's a Roman ruin. Though one of the greatest ruins in Rome by far is the Colosseum; a colossal Amphitheatre that puts Madison Square Gardens to shame!
It’s the largest permanent Amphitheatre of the ancient world. While many other contemporary theatres were built of wood, the Colosseum was built with a vast 3.5 million cubic feet of travertine, a form of limestone commonly deposited around hot springs.
The completed Colosseum rose to a height of 157 feet, roughly the same height as a 15-story building, and had seating for between 50,000 to 80,000 people! While much of Rome’s ancient architecture has been eroded away over time, The Colosseum still remains mostly intact!
But how? Modern engineers suggest it is the result of the Colosseum’s solid concrete foundations. It was built on a wetland area near the Tiber River with poor soil conditions, which forced the engineers to dig a deeper foundation to stabilize the structure.
In addition, Roman concrete is actually stronger than modern-day concrete, because where modern concrete is largely made to be inert, Roman concrete had a secret ingredient: volcanic ash. That makes it reactive to seawater!
Long-term exposure of Roman concrete to seawater creates a very rare mineral called aluminum tobermorite, which actually strengthens the material over time! So, the Roman Empire might have fallen, but that Colosseum is going to be standing for a long time to come!
Building the Great Pyramid
The Egyptian Pyramids are one of the magnificent 7 wonders of the world and they are actually one of the world’s most sophisticated works of architecture! More than 5000 years old, it’s theorized that the mighty pyramids were built as tombs for ancient queens and pharaohs.
There's an ongoing debate about their original purpose, with some pointing out that they weren't tombs and were, in fact, built to store grain. However, if they were used to store grain, why aren’t they hollow? Those pyramids are solid structures made up of millions of precisely cut stones weighing 2.5 tons each on average, built to enclose several tiny chambers!
To get an idea of how difficult those blocks would be to maneuver, imagine dragging a tireless pickup truck on ropes through the desert under the blistering sun in 95°F temperatures! Even describing that sounds like a living hell. So, with conditions that difficult, how were the pyramids built?
Even today with all the cranes and excavators in the world at our disposal, building a pyramid would be one heck of a task. Yet the ancient Egyptians managed it without any machine power. The way the ancient Egyptians actually cut and moved stone remains a mystery to this day.
As an authoritarian regime with the Pharoah residing as an absolute ruler, the Egyptians were very secretive and kept no records of how the pyramids were built as they did not want to leak any information to their enemies. Although, there is some evidence to suggest they used a method similar to one modern technique we use today!
Known as “the plug and feather”, it’s a technique that requires a 3 piece tool kit: a metal wedge known as “the plug”, and two metal sliders that are wider at the bottom and curved at the top, called “the feathers”.
First, a line is scored on the surface of the stone. A number of holes are then drilled into the stone along that line, typically 4 to 8 inches apart. Plugs and feathers are then inserted into each of the holes. As you can see in the footage below, a guy is playing whack-a-mole with those plugs and feathers, striking each one in sequence.
As the plug is driven deeper into the stone, the feathers provide additional pressure on each side, widening the singular fracture point. He pauses in between each strike to allow the stone to react to the additional pressure being hammered in. With each hit, the pressure continues to build, until a large crack splits it apart!
The Egyptians may have used a similar technique with bronze plugs and feathers, and they certainly knew to stay well away from the stone when it was about to split apart! So stone cutting aside, how were those stones assembled? You’ve probably been taught in school that the pyramids were built by slaves, but that’s actually believed to be a myth!
The slavery story was a historical fiction spread by the Ancient Greeks, with historians now understanding that the pyramids were built by skilled workers. Though the estimated number of the workforce varies.
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus estimates the Great Pyramid of Giza took 20 years to construct and demanded the labor of 100,000 men. That figure is believable, given the assumption that those men were agricultural laborers who worked on the pyramids during the months when the Nile River was flooding the fields.
However, by the late 20th century, archaeologists theorized that a smaller workforce may have occupied the site on a permanent basis. It was suggested that as few as 20,000 workers, with a support team of bakers, doctors, and priests, would have completed the project.
As for how the stones were moved, the best theory is that the Egyptians built a sloping embankment around the pyramid constructed of compacted earth and brick. That embankment rose in height as the pyramid was built up, with stone blocks hauled up the slope by means of sleds, rollers, and Wallace Wallington’s favorite, levers!
Many believe that the ancient Egyptians had some extraterrestrial help in building the pyramids, but those theories actually originate from science fiction stories written back in 1898. They were first proposed by writer Garrett Serviss in his novel “Edison’s Conquest of Mars!”, where he argued there was a link between UFOs and the pyramids, alongside some pretty hilarious illustrations.
The Monolithic Churches of Ethiopia
While most houses of worship are designed to attract the masses, in Ethiopia, Christians prefer to keep things more underground. Not hypothetically, literally. Because in Ethiopia’s mountainous Amhara Region, 11 medieval monolithic churches have been constructed underground!
The churches were not built with traditional brick and mortar, rather they were carved straight out of the solid rock! The red rock has been chiseled out to form doors, windows, columns, and multiple floors. They descend around 98 feet deep into the earth and only appear when you stand directly above them, where if you look down, you’ll see a series of carved monolithic rocks and courtyards.
They’re so well concealed that archeologists might have passed by those underground anomalies if it weren’t for the thousands of worshippers who attend daily service inside them today. Their popularity is due to the devout Ethiopian population, with Ethiopia claiming to be one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, having been officially Christian since 330 AD!
So, exactly how were those churches created? Was it a miracle from God that suddenly sprung up from the ground?! Well, locals certainly believe so. Seriously, local belief stipulates that the churches were carved by angels.
However, archeologists argue they’re actually the work of King Lalibela, who set out to construct a New Jerusalem after Muslim conquests halted Christian expansion into the Middle East in the 12th century.
The churches are organized into two main areas: The northwest group of 7 churches includes Bet Medhane Alem, the largest church in the world carved from a single block of stone. It stands an impressive 40 feet high and is supported by 72 columns; while the southeast group includes several churches that were hand-carved from existing caves.
Bet Emanuel is considered the most beautiful of all the rock churches, as its windows and columns are carved to imitate real wood. Now I’ve seen plastic imitating wood before, but solid rock imitating wood is next level!
But none of those were hewn overnight. Or over a month. Or over a year. It’s believed that with the tools they had available, the hardness of the rock, and the detailing involved, it took decades to hand carve out each church. By some estimates, the works continued for some 200 years, stretching into the 14th century! So, not a divine intervention, but definitely a god-tier undertaking!
If you were amazed at these ancient engineering secrets, you might want to read our article about what archeological sites used to look like. Thanks for reading!