From Angkor Wat to Stonehenge: How Ancient People Moved Mountains
From temples to pyramids to statues, ancient techniques moved giant blocks.
Published November 6, 2013
The temple of Angkor Wat, the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and the famous statues on Easter Island were all built without the conveniences of modern technology. Ancient peoples didn’t have access to forklifts, hydraulic cranes, or flatbed trucks. So how did they build the temples and statues that we admire today?
In some cases, all they needed was rope, a little manpower, and some ingenious carving. Other construction projects required harnessing the seasons, people, and animals to transport stone blocks weighing many tons to construction sites.
A new study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that ice roads lubricated with water enabled workers in 15th- and 16th-century China to slide stone blocks to Beijing in order to build palaces in the Forbidden City. (See "Beijing’s Forbidden City Built on Ice Roads.")
Making nature work for them is a common theme in the techniques experts think ancient peoples used to build their monuments and temples.
"We forget that ancient people are just as smart as we are," said Terry Hunt, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon who studies the Polynesian culture of Easter Island. “In fact, they may have been better focused because they didn’t have our distractions.”
Here are some of the ingenious ways in which ancient workers hauled, slid, and walked the huge stone pieces needed for their big engineering projects from quarries to construction sites.
Easter Island Statues
Harnessing physics and gravity may help explain an enduring Polynesian myth about how the stone statues of Easter Island (map), otherwise known as moai, “walked” from the quarries to the coast.
Erecting stone statues is common in Polynesian cultures as a way of paying respects to the ancestors, said Carl Lipo, an archaeologist at California State University, Long Beach.
When Polynesians first arrived on Easter Island—or Rapa Nui—in the 1200s, they brought the practice with them. They carved and erected the moai pretty much from the time they arrived on the island until sometime between 1722, when Europeans first arrived, and 1774, said Lipo.
But how they managed to move statues carved from volcanic rock—weighing 5 to 80 tons (4.5 to 73 metric tonnes)—the 6 to 8 miles (10 to 12 kilometers) from a quarry to their resting places has been a contested subject for some time.
Theories range from simply dragging the moai to a display area, or ahu, to mounting them on a kind of sled and rolling them on tree trunks. (Watch a video demonstrating some of these theories.)
One hypothesis, put forth by noted researcher, author, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Jared Diamond, posits that Easter Island residents used a kind of “ladder” to help transport their statues.
First suggested by Jo Anne Van Tilburg at UCLA, the ladders consisted of two wooden rails attached by fixed crosspieces that were laid down on the ground. In Diamond’s book Collapse, he describes how the Rapanui would lash a statue to a wooden sled and then slide the entire package along the ladder to the display areas.
Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and Czech engineer Pavel Pavel have both suggested the moai walked from the quarries to the ahu in the mid-1900s and in 1990. But in 2011, Lipo and Hunt published a fleshed-out explanation of their hypothesis about how, rather than being dragged in one way or another, the statues of Easter Island were walked to their destinations.