A Tale of Two Rivers:

Paddling up the Nile on a Clyde-built steamer

As political turmoil persists in Egypt, it’s worth reflecting on the tranquility of the Nile. The mighty river was, and is, Egypt’s lifeblood. As the Greek historian Herodotus put it, 2,450 years ago, Egypt is the gift of the Nile. My hometown Glasgow is also associated with a great river, the Clyde. The Clyde has the grandest history of any river in terms of the wonderful ships that were built on its banks during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of them were sent off to other lands, several went to Egypt and one of them still steams alongside the banks of the Nile.

Two hundred and one years ago, in August 1812, the world’s first commercially successful steamboat service began on the River Clyde. Henry Bell’s twin paddle ship Comet, named after the great comet of 1811, began transporting passengers between Glasgow and Greenock. Comet displaced 45 tons, but a 4hp steam engine could drive her along at 5 miles an hour into a headwind, something that was unthinkable on a sailing ship (NB: old non-metric units are quoted here as these ships were mostly built using them). A replica of Comet, newly renovated for the bicentennial anniversary at Ferguson’s Shipyard, can be seen in Port Glasgow today, and the wonderful PS Waverley maintains the tradition on the river itself, but there are Clyde-built paddle steamers still in service further a field, including one on the River Nile.

Painting of the 'Comet' courtesy of the National Museum of Scotland

Painting of the ‘Comet’ courtesy of the National Museum of Scotland

In 1870 Thomas Cook and son established a mail and tourist service on the Nile when Egypt’s viceroy granted them a concession to run the steamer fleet between Cairo and Aswan. They proclaimed that “Ancient Egypt’s splendour, its glory, romance, magic and strange peoples, are best comprehended by voyaging on its placid, scenic water-way”.

In the same decade on banks of the River Clyde, William Bow and John McLachlan formed a new company at Abbotsinch near Renfrew, making steering gear and light marine steam engines for the Clyde shipyards. In 1900 the company expanded into the building of small ships by taking over J. McArthur and Co’s Thistle Works and shipyard near Paisley. They specialised in the fabrication of ‘knock down’ paddle steamers, something like a Clyde-built IKEA kit. Their dismantled ships were exported overseas as far a field as Lake Victoria and the rivers of Australia where they were re-assembled and put into service.

In 1884 Cook’s existing Nile fleet was requisitioned by Lord Kitchener for transporting troops, armaments and supplies south to Khartoum, to put down the Sudanese uprising that had led to General Gordon’s demise. The fleet was decimated by this action and ended up in an irrecoverable state. As a result, Cook commissioned several new paddle steamers, including the PS Sudan in 1921. The Sudan was the first of a new Sudan class fleet and was built by Bow and McLachlan in Paisley. The new ship, yard number 315, displaced 600 tons, was 300 feet in length, with a breadth of 32 feet and a shallow draft of 9.5 feet. The 500 hp engines were triple expansion type and the ship could carry up to 80 passengers. This larger class of vessel operated during the high season, while a smaller class, carrying 50 passengers, operated in low season. Sudan was sent to the Nile where she was put into service plying Cook’s routes.

Egypt regained its independence after the Second World War and the Cook fleet was requisitioned by the Egyptian government. The Sudan was operated as a royal steamer and tourist ship under the flag of Eastmar Nile Cruises. The proverbial functionality and reliability of Clyde-built ships, and the century of experience that her Clyde-side designers had building paddle steamers may go some way towards explaining how she survived her various roles and remained in service. ln 2004 she appeared briefly in the BBC’s Death on the Nile, a production of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel starring David Suchet as Hercules Poirot. She was subsequently acquired by a French company who carried out an extensive restoration and refurbishment and she now operates as a tourist cruise ship with 23 luxury cabins. Each one has its own theme based on a historical character related to Egypt. Two suites recall the Scottish origins of this venerable ship. One is named after the Scottish artist of oriental and Egyptian scenes, David Roberts, another after the fashion designer and author of Letters from Egypt, Lady Duff Gordon, who survived the Titanic disaster along with her Scottish husband Lord Cosmo Duff-Gordon. Armchairs and shaded tables now line the deck-side walkways outside the luxurious Belle Époque styled cabins, providing vantage points from which passengers admire the wonderful monuments and natural landscapes of the Nile’s riverbanks.

A Clyde Built Steamer on the Nile. PS Sudan

A Clyde Built Steamer on the Nile. PS Sudan courtesy J. Ward.

One other Clyde-built paddle steamer still survives in Egypt, although in an un-restored state. The PS Ibis, a stern wheel paddle steamer built in 1886 at Fairfield’s yard in Govan specifically for the Nile military expeditions to Sudan is moored on the Nile near Cairo, ready for a generous benefactor to take under a wing.

In 2012 the Egyptian tourist minister announced that the Nile would be reopened for cruises between Cairo and Aswan for the first time in 18 years. The current situation is rather more turbulent, but once the long overdue political changes have been negotiated, just as a ship might negotiate the great cataracts of Aswan, it could be a good time to embark on a leisurely trip ‘doon the watter’ (as we say in Glasgow for our river) on the PS Sudan.

See http://www.steam-ship-sudan.com/en for details.

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The Edinburgh Casing Stone – A piece of Giza at the National Museum of Scotland

April 2013 I was allowed access to the National Museum of Scotland’s offsite storage facility to see a rather remarkable artefact in its collection. I was there to study a casing stone from the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. The casing stones have an angled front face that formed the outer surface of the pyramid. The front is triangular in form when viewed from the side, as opposed to the inner blocks which were left roughly hewn and were approximately cuboid. If we know the slope of one of the casing stones faces we know the side slope of all of the pyramid’s faces, and so they are of particular interest to archaeologists studying pyramid architecture. I intended to repeat some typical measurements of the stone in order to study it methodically, but what I found was quite unexpected, and constituted something of an archaeological breakthrough…

Giza casing stone catalogue number A.1955.176 at the NMS and Egyptian cubit rule

Giza casing stone catalogue number A.1955.176 at the NMS and Egyptian cubit rule

This stone was mined at the Tura quarries on the east side of the Nile 45 centuries ago, shipped across the river to Giza on the west bank, dragged to the pyramid construction site, carefully shaped with copper tools and lifted into place on the outside of one of the Old Kingdom pyramids. Its original architectural position on the pyramid remains a bit of a mystery as it was found in the mounds of debris on the north side Great Pyramid of Khufu by Waynman Dixon in 1872. Dixon was an English engineer who was carrying out investigative work at Giza for the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth [1]. These casing stones were stripped off the pyramid in the ancient past as they were very high quality stone and therefore useful for building in modern Cairo. Only a few fragments remain at the Giza site, and this example found by Waynman Dixon was unique in several respects.

Artefacts from Giza brought back by Waynman Dixon in 1872 including the Edinburgh casing stone

Artefacts from Giza brought back by Waynman Dixon in 1872 including the Edinburgh casing stone

Smyth was interested in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid as he believed they may have had profound significance, and the stone was brought back to Edinburgh for him [2]. In fact the dimensions of the Great Pyramid do have significance, although Smyth was unable to understand the symbolism fully as he did not yet have an understanding of the technical systems used by the Ancient Egyptians such as the seked slope measuring system and the cubit length measuring system. 1 cubit was a standard measurement length used all over Ancient Egypt for measuring fields and constructing buildings. It was 52.35cm long during the Old Kingdom when these great pyramids were built, and this was broken down into 7 palms of 4 digits each [3][4].



In order to understand the pyramids and this casing stone in Edinburgh then, we needed to approach the study using these Ancient Egyptian systems. We can only understand the Egyptian achievements and the Egyptian artefacts by working from within their own systems of thought. Although I took along some modern tools, including a laser spirit level and a degree marked ‘gravity inclinometer’ (slope measurer), it was in fact the replica Egyptian cubits that revealed the most significant and interesting information regarding of this heavy lump of Tura limestone.

Once we managed to move it carefully out into the open from its storage position, I was able to see that it is substantially broken, probably due to having been pushed down the pyramid in the ancient past. Nevertheless, the three all-important worked faces are still partially intact and in good condition in places. These three surfaces are the flat base, the sloped front face and the flat top. I had hoped to measure the sloped face angle using the gravity inclinometer, which uses a weighted pendulum against which to measure the slope angle, but in fact the stone was on its side and so I could not use the inclinometer as had been intended. The stone was too heavy to turn onto its bottom face, on which it would have sat originally, but by using a variation of the technique shown on the diagram below (see photo), I was able to tell that the face was approximately at the correct angle known for the Great Pyramid, of 51.84 degrees. The limestone of the block was also surprisingly bright in color, almost silvery, especially the limestone dust on the surface. The Tura limestone from south of Cairo is thought to have been mined specifically for its light colored limestone, to be used for the outer faces of the monuments, so these two facts gave me confidence that we were indeed dealing with a genuine Giza casing stone.

Measuring the inclined face of the pyramid casing stone if it was sitting on its base

Measuring the inclined face of the pyramid casing stone if it was sitting on its base

Below is a photo of the actual measurement taking place. Note that the accuracy of this technique is around 1 degree at best, and so it was carried out only to verify the known data rather than to establish new data. The top face is on the left of the stone in the photograph below, with the laser spirit level held flat against it. The inclinometer is being held against the front slope face. The red laser line shines a beam straight out parallel to the flat top side, and the blue lines show that a right angle was clearly formed at the intersection of this line and the pendulum line when it was held at the known pyramid angle. This means the stone’s face was sloped compared to the top surface by the expected pyramid angle which is known to be 51.84 degrees. The stone is broken in places, but these parts of the faces are intact, flat and smooth and so the measurement was legitimate, if of moderate accuracy.

Measuring the angle of the casing stone slope

Measuring the angle of the casing stone slope

After this was done I brought the replica cubits into play, and this is when things began to get really interesting. On one of them I had already marked off 5 1/2 palms (you can see the small mark in the middle of one of the white palms on the cubit on the left below) as this is the known seked of the Great Pyramid . When used with another cubit the two formed a triangle with a seked slope face of 5 1/2. This known seked of the Great Pyramid corresponds to 51.84 degrees, the known ‘pyramid angle’. By placing the marked cubit (left) against the top surface I could use the second cubit as a vertical to check the size of the slope using the cubits. In this case the second cubit should touch the face surface at some point allowing a measurement. In fact, as it turned out, the second cubit was a little long and stretched right down to the lower edge of the block, almost meeting its lower corner. I wondered if the erosion of the lower corner of the block had rounded off that edge, so I placed a nearby flat unmarked plank against the bottom of the stone. I was surprised to see that the darker cubit (right) fit exactly between the upper white cubit and the plank, indicating that the casing stone was exactly 1 cubit thick. We checked the right angles with a square and they were all correct. To further check that this right angled triangle was the accurate design form, I extrapolated the front sloped face down to the plank by placing a cubit flat against the front slope face, and slid it down until it met the unmarked plank still held against the flat bottom. At the meeting point of these two, I marked off the plank with a pen, thus re-establishing where the lower corner edge of the original face had been before the corners had been broken off (NB: This was an extrapolation technique I have used before when measuring the base corner of a monument pyramidal foundation structure in Cyprus).

The seked triangle revealed when measuring the block faces with replica cubit rods

The seked triangle revealed when measuring the block faces with replica cubit rods

The diagram below shows more clearly what we are doing in the photograph above and what this seked triangle used by the Ancient Egyptians looks like. This task demonstrated that the block is in fact exactly one cubit in height and with the offset of 5 1/2 palms it corresponds pretty much exactly with what we know about the seked measurement system and the ‘pyramid angle’ of the Great Pyramid. The block is one cubit high and offsets 5 1/2 palms for each cubit rise – the very definition of a seked of 5 1/2.

Pyramid angle of casing stone block using cubit and seked system

Pyramid angle of casing stone block using cubit and seked system – Seked of 5 1/2

Knowledge of the seked system only came after Smyth’s time, thanks to another discovery made by a Scottish antiquarian, Alexander Henry Rhind. In 1864 Rhind was offered a remarkable papyrus recovered from the West Bank of Thebes that contained some of the oldest mathematical calculations known in human history. Rhind unfortunately died as he brought the papyrus back to Scotland, but the papyrus did complete the journey and it is now known as the Rhind mathematical papyrus [5]. It took several decades to translate and publish it and so Smyth was never familiar with its contents. It contained many examples of how to approach arithmetical and geometric problems, including, crucially, how to calculate the required and measured slope face of a pyramid. The Ancient Egyptian methodology for defining a slope face began with the architects choosing the desired base and height dimensions for the pyramid, measured in Egyptian standard cubits and then working out what the slope value was

Using straightforwards arithmetic, the Rhind papyrus shows us how the side slope of a pyramid’s faces can be defined numerically by working out its ‘seked’. This seked is the name the Egyptians used for their slope system. It is a little like modern day degrees and angles, or inclines quoted in percents like we see on road signs for steep hills. According to the Rhind papyrus, however, the seked slope consisted of the number of palms moved horizontally for each 1 cubit rise [6].

Pyramid seked calculation - Problem 56 of the Rhind Papyrus
Pyramid seked calculation – Problem 56 of the Rhind Papyrus

These experiments show how much information can be derived from ancient artefacts by using appropriate archaeological methods to study them and by understanding the cultural and technical systems of the people you are studying,  This demonstrates the value of experimental archaeology as methodology. Basically, this is a large chunk of limestone, but when studied in the correct manner it can reveal substantial information about the cultural and technical systems of the Ancient Egyptians. But this particular angle or seked also has a more profound geometric significance, which is what makes this issue even more fascinating to study:

A pyramid having this face angle has a base perimeter equal to a circle formed by its vertical height

This relationship only holds for a pyramid of this precise angle. Smyth thought that this had been deliberate, but he then drew a whole series of unfounded conclusions about the significance of this geometric relationship. The great English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie followed Smyth’s work with a more scientific study and detailed triangulation survey of the whole Giza Plateau in 1882 [8]. He concluded that the circular relationship had indeed determined the choice of this particular slope with a seked of 5 1/2, but he also demonstrated that Smyth’s conclusions about what this meant were nonsense, and that the other geometric relationships Smyth had supposedly identified were unfounded or culturally and historically irrelevant.

Circular proportions of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

Circular proportions of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

Petrie was certain that the circular symbolism had been intentional. In fact he wrote about in print this no less than five times through his long career, in 1883, 1885, 1890, 1925 and 1940. In Wisdom of the Egyptians [7], published in 1940, he wrote, correctly, that “…these relations of areas and of circular ratio are so systematic that we should grant that they were in the builder’s design”. He also found the same proportions and related numerical dimensions used in the construction of the pharaoh’s burial chamber in the Great Pyramid, again best understood when using the Ancient Egyptians’ own cubits. Other great pyramids such as the pyramid of Meidum and the Queens pyramids at Giza use the same proportions, and Egyptologists such as I.E.S. Edwards and Miroslav Verner agree with Petrie’s conclusion that these proportions had significance and were deliberately chosen because of their symbolic relationship with the circle [8][9]. My own contribution to this subject was to check all of the data again, and try and identify what this symbolic architectural choice meant to the Ancient Egyptians, within their own cultural systems of thought. In order to check Petrie’s data I studied amateur Egyptologist Jon Bodsworth’s analysis of the Great Pyramid’s dimensions, based on Petrie’s 1883 survey [10], as well as later surveys and surviving casing stones. He constructed a three dimensional model which included details of the heights of each core block layer and the slopes of the casing stones. His model is shown below with half the casing stones as they would originally have been placed.

Great Pyramid with half of the casing stones in place correctly proportioned

Great Pyramid with half of the casing stones in place correctly proportioned

My own contribution to this subject matter then, has been to show what this architectural symbolism meant. The special proportions were a manifestation of a deep seated belief in the power of encircling protective symbolism, that was expressed in the architecture and the more portable material culture of the Ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom (on crowns, royal statues, fine furniture and precious vessels) [11][12]. Iconographically, this encircling royal protection was represented by a shen ring. The shen ring was often shown carried above the pharaoh by the royal patron god Horus, the falcon.

Typical arrangement of the royal god Horus with shen ring often seen flying above the pharaoh

Typical arrangement of the royal god Horus with shen ring often seen flying above the pharaoh

In this form the falcon was often shown flying above the pharaoh in reliefs, from as early as the Third Dynasty and many high status royal items from the Old Kingdom bore the shen ring symbol. This protective symbolism was manifested in the architecture, particularly within the all-important outer perimeters of the buildings that protected the pharaoh and protected the sacred space within from the dangers of the profane world outside. From the start of the 6th dynasty this symbolism was also expressed through texts on the walls of the funerary monuments. But the clearest textual manifestation of this symbolism with respect to the pyramids is undoubtedly Pyramid Text 534, a ‘spell of protection’ for the pyramid [13]:

PT 534

This spell or prayer of protection is written on the walls of the entrance passage into the pyramid of Pepi I at south Saqqara and may describe the fundamental rituals involved with building this monument. The text starts with a ‘Geb offering’, which may allude to a foundation deposit made at the start of the construction as Geb is the god of the earth. This is followed by lines describing how the pyramid and temple are then ‘established’ and then ‘encircled’ to make them pure; an ‘eye of Horus’. The encircling here, using the word shen, implies that the pyramid is also protected by this action. It is difficult to tell if the casing slope angles of these later, smaller pyramids were the same as at Giza and therefore manifested the significant circular proportions, as they are much smaller and in ruins compared to the great pyramids of the 4th dynasty, but it is clear, through this text, that the protective symbolism endured and was expressed in new and innovative ways during the 6th dynasty. In fact, each pyramid of Egypt needs to be understood within the continuously changing historical and cultural contexts. They were, to some extents, designed and constructed using ‘ad hoc’ techniques [15]. Beliefs with respect to the death of pharaohs are inherently conservative, but the ways in which those beliefs were expressed changed with respect to the cultural context in which those expressions were made. These are the real secrets of the pyramids. The architecture embodied spells of encircling protection, in many different ways.

To understand the casing stone in Edinburgh then, we need to use the technical systems used by the 4th Dynasty Egyptians, we need to understand the architecture of the monuments in which they were used, and understand the beliefs held by those who commissioned, designed and built the monuments at the time. That includes understanding their measurement systems, their iconography and even their hieroglyphs, texts and ritual beliefs.

Hieroglyphs used for writing cubits, palms, digits and sekeds

Hieroglyphs used for writing cubits, palms, digits and sekeds

Substantive arguments have been made, based on the evidence, that the Egyptians were not able to calculate the circumference of a circle to this degree of accuracy, however, the latest analyses show that the evidence has been misinterpreted or treated in isolation, and when it is revisited and properly examined, it shows that the textual evidence and the architectural evidence do indeed agree with each other and do support the above conclusions that the Old Kingdom Egyptians were well able to calculate circumferences and perimeters to this degree of accuracy [14].

One final mystery remains, however. Heavy though this casing stone is, it is small compared to the giant sloped stones still in place along the northern side of the base of the Great Pyramid.

Base layer casing stone from Great Pyramid of Giza

Base layer casing stone from Great Pyramid of Giza

Most of the fine casing stones were stripped off the Great Pyramid and recycled to build Cairo during the medieval period, but a few of the huge bottom row remained in place, protected under the mounds of fragmented stone that had gathered along the edges of the pyramid over the centuries. The question was then, was this Edinburgh stone actually from the Great Pyramid at all, or did it come from one of the similarly proportioned queens pyramids nearby, which were also built at the same time as the Great Pyramid, but which seem to have used smaller casing blocks of around this smaller size. This would not impact on the conclusions of our analysis regarding circular symbolism, as we know that both king and queens’ pyramids were similarly proportioned with a seked of 5 1/2, but it is interesting with respect to the architectural provenance of the Edinburgh casing stone.

In fact the answer to this question becomes clear if we refer to the surviving casing stones still in place on the upper levels of Khafre’s pyramid, near the peak. As Mark Lehner described with respect to the second Giza pyramid of Khafre, [15] ‘the casing stones at the top of the pyramid are much smaller – about 1 cubit thick (c. 50cm/20 in)’. Our example from Edinburgh then, from the north side of Khufu’s pyramid, is most likely to be a rare survival – an upper level casing stone from Khufu’s pyramid, perhaps dropped and lost or forgotten during removal in Antiquity or the medieval period. This stone, however, is not ‘approximately’ 1 cubit tall, it seems to be precisely 1 cubit tall. This level of precision would fit with what we know from the rest of the architectural and archaeological remains of the Great Pyramid. The standards of workmanship and consistency were greater here than for many, if not all, of the later pyramids. It is quite possible that all of the upper level casing stones of the Great Pyramid of Khufu were precisely 1 cubit tall, to make the finishing of the peak of the pyramid more manageable, and to ensure that high levels of precision and control could be maintained over the final form of the structure. Our Edinburgh casing stone, therefore, is probably not just a Great Pyramid casing stone, it is probably an upper level Great Pyramid casing stone, from up near the summit of this incredible monument, 146 meters high when completed.

All in all then, this unadorned block of broken stone has truly remarkable historical and scientific significance, both regarding the ancient world, the 19th century world, and now in the 21st.

Thanks to Margaret Maitland, Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at National Museums Scotland, and Alan Jeffreys of Egyptology Scotland for help in this research project.


Additional notes:

Here is a link to Smyth’s description of the casing stone  from his long, rambling and largely erroneous book devoted to the Great Pyramid, first published in 1874 [16], two years after the casing stone was brought back to the UK. We can see from the measurements he records that Smyth had indeed measured the vertical height of the stone, and noted that height in inches. He was aware of the length of the real Egyptian cubit by that time (as opposed to his imagined ‘sacred’ cubit), and so it is surprising that he did not see the significance of this dimension, particularly as he was clearly obsessed with measurements and units. Why did he miss this? Perhaps it was because he was not using a cubit to actually do the measurement. It was only by physically having the cubit there in my hand that I noticed the correspondence. I am also aware of the Egyptians’ own seked system, and so when I noted the correspondence I was able to mentally refer to the Egyptian texts that confirmed the significance of this particular dimension to slope measuring. Smyth did not have this luxury, as the seked system examples from mathematical papyri had not yet been translated or understood in his time. The final, and perhaps most significant reason that he missed the presence of the real system in the block’s measurements is because he was clearly busy trying to confirm the presence of his own imagined system of ‘sacred cubits’ and ‘pyramid inches’ in the width of the block. He actually notes the width of the block as possibly related to his imaged system and flawed understanding of the pyramid’s architecture, while at the same time being completely oblivious to the fact that actual measurements utilized by the Old Kingdom builders were staring him in the face. Hindsight is 20-20 as they say!…

Here is a link to a recently published discussion regarding the practical challenges faced by the Ancient Egyptians when installing these casing stones, as opposed to the mathematical, metrological and symbolic issues that I have discussed above. Jean Pierre Houdin is a French architect turned Egyptologist (yes I think he deserves the designation) who probably knows almost as much as I do about pyramid building ;), and who has also dedicated his life to studying these amazing monuments. He is interviewed by Keith Payne, owner of Em Hotep BBS, a dynamic and positive discussion page devoted to disseminating archaeological and Egyptological information to the wider readership.

Note: Other than the black and white casing stone photograph and Jon Bodsworth’s 3D computer model image, the photographs and diagrams on this page remain the property of, and copyright © National Museums Scotland and/or David Lightbody.



[1] Brück, H.A. & Brück, M. (1988) The Peripatetic Astronomer: the Life of Charles Piazzi Smyth. Bristol: Hilger

[2] NATURE , Dec. 26, 1872, pp 146-9. THE GRAPHIC, Dec. 7, 1872, pp 530 & 545

[3] Arnold, D. (1991) Building in Egypt. Pharaonic Stone Masonry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 251

[4] Petrie, W.M.F. (1883) The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh, London: Field and Tuer, pp 179

[5] Chace, A.B. (1926) The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, Ohio: Oberlin

[6] Gillings, R. (1972) Mathematics in the Time of the Pharaohs, New York: Dover

[7] Petrie, W.M.F. (1940) Wisdom of the Egyptians, London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account ; [vol. LXIII], pp 30

[8] Verner, M. (2003). The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History. Atlantic Books, pp 70

[9] Edwards, I.E.S. (1979). The Pyramids of Egypt. Penguin. pp 269

[10] Petrie, W.M.F. (1883) The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh, London: Field and Tuer

[11] Lightbody, D.I. (2008) Egyptian Tomb Architecture: The Archaeological Facts of Pharaonic Circular Symbolism. British Archaeological Reports International Series. Oxford: Archaeopress

[12] Lightbody, D.I. (2012) The Encircling Protection of Horus in Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Symposium Current Researches in Egyptology, 2011, University of Durham Oxford: Oxbow, pp 133-140

[13] Faulkner, R.O. (2007) The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Stilwell, Kansas pp 201, 202

[14] Cooper, L. (2011) Did Egyptian Scribes Have an Algorithmic Means for Determining the Circumference of a Circle? Historia Mathematics Vol 38, pp 455-484

[15] Lehner, M. (1997) The Complete Pyramids, Thames & Hudson pp 122, 123

[16] Smyth, C.P. (1874) Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid Including the Most Important Discoveries up to the Present Time. London: Isbister. pp 489

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Glasgow Giza 3D

On this page are photos of the Glasgow Giza Plateau model that I put on display at the open day of the University of Glasgow Center for Open Studies yesterday. This is a 1:2000 scale model constructed from survey reports and mapping data back in 2006. In all it took around 1 year to build. It has proved very useful as a means to teach information regarding the unparalleled cultural landscape that is Giza. This model shows the plateau as it could have looked around 2,400 B.C. The project also allowed me to develop familiarity with the details of the landscape and the architecture, and I carried out an in-depth analysis of the dimensions of the plateau, in Egyptian cubits. The rule on the right hand side is a replica Egyptian official cubit of 52.35cm, just the size the Ancient Egyptians used to build the architecture on the plateau. This work also allowed me to investigate the evolution of the plateau and eventually served to develop an understanding of the architecture that I included in my 2008 publication Egyptian Tomb Architecture.

But this is not the only 1:2000 scale model of Giza in existence. When I was at the Semitic Museum of Harvard in the summer I took a photo of their own 1:2000 scale model of Giza which is covered by a large perspex dome. While the pyramids and causeways are almost identical, you can compare the different reconstructions regarding what the canal system would have looked like. These are now buried and leave little remnants, but Mark Lehner of Chicago has now found evidence of the harbor reaching right up beside Menkaure’s Valley temple (left of three) and to the foot of Khentekawes’s tomb complex, so both the Glasgow and Harvard models were correct in this respect.

Harvard’s model is joined by a less accurate model of the Giza plateau in the Bible Lands museum in Jerusalem:
Great Giza Pyramids model

and an architectural style model with a very wide and straight edged harbor area at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, (photo by Yair Haklai):

Originally the Glasgow Giza model had a glass pyramid case with electric LED illumination, but the glass was heavy and unwieldy as it was multi-layered and unbreakable.  The main issue with these type of models over the long term is that they take up a lot of museum space. Easy storage means that they must be dismantled and stored on end and so the case was not suitable for long term storage. 

Most modelling of architectural sites has now transferred over to 3D digital modelling, and again Harvard is at the forefront of this work. They have joined up with the French Dassault Systemes project which has been applying a military sized budget to Giza as a way to test and promote their software systems. The Dassault Systemes project with Harvard now has its own website:


One of the amazing aspects of the Dassault site is the ability to visualize the models dynamically in 3D wearing 3D glasses, but here again Glasgow got there first:) As part of the open day yesterday the students brought out some of the collection from the Hunterian Museum, including an early and surprisingly effective 3D viewing machine from the 19th century. Here is a picture of my nephew Gavin having a look at some photos, including a superb image of the beautifully carved interior of Roslyn Chapel, of Da Vinci Code fame.

As well as the monumental architecture I tried to recreate some of the domestic and industrial areas beside the Nile, where the workers lived. This provided scale for the larger monuments.

Workers' village. Domestic and administrative quarters to south east of plateau

Workers’ village. Domestic and administrative quarters to south east of plateau

All in all, Giza is an amazing place to study for an archaeologist, not only because of the ancient remains, but because it has often served as a proving ground for the latest archaeological techniques, from 3D photography to laser scanning surveys.

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Visit to Newport Synagogue – in a multicultural cosmopolitan port.

“The Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”

Last week I visited Touro Synagogue with Desi in Newport, the little east coast US port where she used to work. The Synagogue is the oldest standing in the US, and it is particularly famous because of the role it played in ensuring that multiculturalism became part of US life, at the constitutional level, and for the role it played in standing up against religious bigotry. I am not really a follower of established religion any more, but I do study the history of religion, religious architecture and sacred ideas, and in particular, I am an opponent of religious bigotry. As Voltaire once said “the only thing not to tolerate is intolerance”.

Touro Synagogue Newport. Dave with his Kippah jewish skull cap at the entrance.

This is something I have been interested in ever since growing up in Glasgow Scotland, where anti-religious bigotry was, and still is to some extent, an unpleasant and sometimes violent reality.

Newport is a special place because it was a meeting place for many cultures in the 18th and 19th centuries. People fleeing religious persecution in Britain and the rest of Europe mixed with fishermen and merchants on the US east coast. Newport became a place of diversity and it remains this way today. Others came from Boston, where the Puritans were intolerant of ‘non-conforming’ Christians of other denominations. Some walked to Newport, and joined the growing community. The jews who established the synagogue came from Portugal where they were being forced to flee or convert, and Amsterdam where a growing Jewish community had established itself in the ports where diversity was tolerated.

When the USA was first forming at the end of the 19th century, Rhode Island state where Newport is found was one of the last of the original 13 to join up, and this may be because they were demanding that religious liberty was first enshrined in the new constitution. The First Amendment was proposed in 1789 and adopted in 1791. This ensured the freedom of religious groups to worship, and their protection from oppressive or discriminatory laws. It also established the separation of religion and state, and ensured that people of all faiths could work together and yet continue worshiping in their own particular ways. This is really the core principle of multiculturalism.

We had a very interesting tour of the attached museum of religious liberty, and the ancient synagogue itself .

There is one special document, however, that records these events in more detail. After Rhode Island signed up to the United States, George Washington paid a visit to Touro Synagogue, and in reply to a letter addressed to him by the Hebrew congregation, he wrote a letter that still exists today. This assured them that “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Touro Synagogue with Desi

The letter in full:


Loeb visitor centre:


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How the pyramids were REALLY built? Really?

English construction man Chris Massey has recently proposed a new theory on how the pyramids could ‘really’ have been built. He has also produced some serious animations and a book to outline his theory. Unfortunately, the laws of physics would not allow his system to work for several reasons.

Here is his theory explained in a short animation:


Here are some reasons it can’t work:

Proposal 1 –  The blocks could have been transported by animal skin float rafts.

This part is quite possible, although un-evidenced as far as I know in Egypt. There are records of people and timber and other things being moved by animal skin float rafts in Antiquity. Some of the archaeologists working in Iraq in the late 19th century even used animal skin float rafts to send their finds down the Tigris to the Persian Gulf sea, to be carried back to Europe on larger ships. The volume of floats required, however, for a limestone block, would have to be more than is shown in the animation. The density of limestone is around 2.7 tons/meter cubed, so the volume of water that needs to be displaced to float a 1 meter cubed block is 2.7 meters cubed total, minus 1 meter cubed displaced by the block itself, which totals 1.7 meters cubed (fresh water has a density of 1 ton/meter cubed). So the volume of floats would have to be 1.7 times the volume of the block just to make it float at all [*See update note 1 below]

Proposal 2 – The blocks could float up a sealed inclined channel. 

This is not scientifically or physically possible. Unlike the animation where weight is not a problem, the weight of the water pressure acting down these inclined channels would be immense, and would create huge problems that have not been taken into account. Firstly, the pressure at the bottom of a 100 meter shaft like this would be 10 bar, or 140 psi. This is more than the pressure in a fully pumped racing bicycle tyre at high pressure. I once had a bicycle tyre pumped up to this sort of pressure, and it exploded as the bike was sitting outside my apartment. That was while the air was sealed within a specially made rubber inner tube and within a new racing cycle tyre around it. This sort of pressure would send water squirting through between wall blocks like a jet, and would push blocks aside like they were made of balsa wood. The pressure on each 1 meter square block at the base of such a channel would be 10 tons, and the gaps would have to be sealed to withhold pressures in excess of those within a racing cycle tyre. Physically possible using modern materials, but not at all plausible in Antiquity.

Proposal 3 – The blocks could be floated up such a channel using a system of locks.

Once the blocks with skins were entered into this sealed channel, and the locks above opened, the full pressure of the water above would act on the floats. This means the floats would have to resist a pressure of 10 bar or 140 psi just to stay inflated. If they were at a pressure less than this then they would contract and the blocks would sink as less water was displaced. There is no way an animal skin float could be inflated to a pressure of 10 bar or 140 psi. This would make it expand and explode in a second.

Proposal 4 – This system would be efficient.

As each block entered the channel with its floats attached, it would displace an equal volume of water, or 2.7 meters cubed of water from inside the channel, and this would be displaced back down behind it. This means that this volume of water would have to be carried up to the top of the pyramid for each block in the first place, just so the block could be floated up the elaborate and immensely complex channel. The weight of this water would be exactly 2.7 tons, equal to the weight of the block in the first place…

Proposal 5 – Locks could hold back this sort of pressure

The locks would have to be at least 1.5m x 3m in area to allow these blocks to pass through into the channel. The water pressure on these gates from 100m of water above would be 45 tons. This would require immensely thick and incredibly well sealed metal gates/valves, something that is not conceivable or evidenced in Old Kingdom archaeology or texts.


In conclusion then, although Chris’s scheme is just about scientifically possible using the latest materials of our age, it is not at all plausible or evidenced based on the archaeology from Ancient Egypt. The reality is that implementing this scheme would cause more problems than it solved,  and even if it ever actually worked, the water would still have to be carried to the top first, meaning that there was no physical benefit to constructing the system in the first place. There are other problems with the system, but these ones above are enough to disprove the theory based on physics and archaeological evidence alone.

The truth is that the Egyptians did know how to manage and use water, but this was not how they did it. In Aswan for example they would load a boat down with sand, maneuver hugely heavy granite obelisks over the boat, then remove the sand. The boats would rise up under the obelisks and lift the obelisks up to float. They carried granite blocks down the Nile for hundreds of miles in this way. Another story from the Old Kingdom tells how the pharaoh’s engineers managed to pump out a lake to find a valued necklace belonging to a girl from the Harem who had dropped it over board. As usual with Egypt, the truth is more fascinating than the fiction.

I have spent 10 years and more now trying to get the real facts about the archaeology and engineering skills of the Ancient Egyptians accepted. These facts were uncovered by Flinders Petrie and others more than 100 years ago, and while they have been accepted and reiterated by modern Egyptologists familiar with scientific principles, they have not been acknowledged by some academic Egyptologists more used to working with texts. I have also tried to get the real facts more widespread coverage through my own publications and videos. If Chris draws more people to study the real history and archaeology of Egypt through his work, then at least that will have been a worthwhile accomplishment. I think many people like to re-visit Ancient Egypt and create these alternative theories in order to engage with the problems again. This is a useful exercise, and allows us to appreciate the true magnitude of what the Ancient Egyptians achieved.

For an introduction to how the pyramid really was really made, this little book is a great starting point:


David Ian Lightbody



*1 Mark Heaton checked the density figures. My figure was taken for generic limestone average. For Giza, the 19th century Scottish scientist Piazza Smyth tested the density of the core blocks of the Great Pyramid and found 2.35 tons/metre cubed to be the actual value. With the additional weight of the floats, rope and sheets of fabric the 2.7 x volume I assumed is within the correct range then to float the blocks.

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Den’s Shen in the BM. The first known : from 2,950 B.C.

So here’s a new post to keep some blog momentum up, following the excitement of the conference last week and the publication of my latest article (1) related to the shen and the encircling protection of the pharaoh by the falcon god Horus. (The post with the relevant textual proof of concept is  here. Check it out if you haven’t seen PT534 before).

I don’t have any particular bee in my bonnet this week to write about to be honest, as I’m winding down after the CREXIII conference, at the end of a verrrry long term and for the Easter holiday, so I thought I would just pick out at random a shen related image from my files and post it and write about it.

So, quite aptly, the first image I found in my shen files was Den’s Shen, the first ever shen known. It comes from the pharaoh Den’s Early Dynastic royal tomb excavated by Flinders Petrie at Abydos. Abydos is in Upper Egypt, about 40 miles north of Luxor. The cluster of royal tombs there are about 1km into the western desert, away from the Nile valley. Abydos is the ancient burial ground of the earliest pharaohs of all Egypt.

The earliest shen ring known in Egyptian iconography. From an ivory tag discovered by Flinders Petrie at the tomb of Den, Abydos.

Petrie found this ivory tag or fragment of a small ivory box lid in Den’s tomb there, and as it carries the king’s name we can date it to the middle of the First Dynasty,  about 2,950 B.C. Already we can see that the full form of the shen, with a circular loop and little tied ropes at the base, is shown, alongside a patterned box with the pharaoh’s name inside known as a ‘serekh’. In the First Dynasty and later on, the king’s name was contained inside this ‘palace facade’ decorated rectangle that was used  to signify and protect the king’s name, long before the cartouche came into use at the end of the Third Dynasty. The cartouche is of course an extended shen ring, so it is possible that the shen here already represented the same encircling royal protection that the cartouche did later on. The lines on the serekh represent the characteristic niched walls of the palaces and mastaba tombs of the nobles and royals at the time. People would have recognized this as a royal motif and would have recognized the king’s name by it, even if they couldn’t read it. On top of the serekh, as was usual, is the falcon god Horus, protector of the king and emblem of the king’s original center of power, the town of Hierakonpolis, about 40 miles south of Luxor. Although his body has broken off we can still see his characteristic legs and claws on top.

Also here we can see the hieroglyph for gold on the right center ‘nub’. It looks like a basket with a cloth draped over it, and it may refer to an item of king’s gold or to the nearby town of Nubt, the town of gold, as it was close to the gold mines in the eastern desert.  The ureaus snake above was another symbol of protection for the pharaoh and of the sun god Ra. It has other meanings as well so it is difficult to interpret exactly what it meant in this context. All in all this is some sort of tag or fragment of a small box lid with many significant symbols related to the pharaoh and protection and gold. Den’s shen. The first ever.

Here is a link to the British Museum catalogue for this item museum number E35552. The description incorrectly refers to the shen as meaning ‘eternity’. The meaning of the shen is in fact closer to ‘enduring royal encircling protection’, or eternal royal encircling protection. The entry is also incorrect as it states that the arrangement on this tag was influenced by similar glyphs at the Step Pyramid, whereas of course the Third Dynasty step pyramid of Djoser was built long after this tag or lid was made.

Lightbody, D.
2012 The Encircling Protection of Horus in Proceedings of the XIIth Annual Current Researches in Egyptology Conference, University of Durham, Oxford: Oxbow

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PT534 – Spell of protection for the king’s tomb

As promised, here is the Old Kingdom text that confirms the existence of encircling protective symbolism directly linked to the pyramids themselves. This is from the Pyramid Texts inscribed on the walls of the 6th Dynasty pyramid of Pepi I.

PT 534 – The encircling part of this spell or prayer of protection refers to the ideology of eternal encircling protection, represented by the ‘shen’, for the pharaoh. The shen is usually depicted as being carried by Horus. This text describes the same encircling symbolism as was identified in the pyramid architecture by Petrie. Also re-iterated by Edwards and Verner and others.


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Welcome to my archaeology website.

Hi! and Welcome to my webpage.

This new site presents a summary of my research into Ancient Egyptian symbolism, and in particular, the motif of the shen ring. If you click on the link on the top right it will take you to the page that explains the current status of my research into this symbol, and the implications of this for my forthcoming presentation at the CREXIII conference in Birmingham. (Check out the gorgeous CREXIII website here :) http://www.crexiii.co.uk/ )

The information I will make available on Wednesday morning has not been known to the public for over 2000 years. It is only by properly understanding the textual, archaeological and iconographic details that the underlying meanings can be understood, and the evidence correctly interpreted.

Symbols are visual motifs that carry associated meanings in the mind of the artist and the observer. These meanings can be complex, can vary through time, can be manipulated and even combined with other meanings through the combinations of different symbols.

Ancient symbols can be difficult to interpret if we are not familiar with them, but when we are, they can reveal valuable information about what the people in the past were thinking,

These pages are dedicated to the circular protective symbolism used in Old Kingdom Egypt, which was represented by the shen ring.

On the 28th of March this spring at the Current Researches in Egyptology conference at the University of Birmingham I will present the latest and surprising information relating to the shen ring and the meanings it carried in Ancient Egyptian artwork and iconography.

As a direct result of contacts I made at the previous conference in 2011 I have been able to identify a text from the Old Kingdom that conclusively confirms that the Egyptians did use this symbolism, and that it was intimately associated with their architecture. In this text they even detail exactly what it meant within the context of the Old Kingdom pyramids.

Watch this space for updates in the run-up to the CREXIII conference!

David Ian Lightbody

University of Glasgow

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