Ancient History & Civilisation




Having demonstrated that the terms “magic,” “science,” and “religion” have no real meaning, we will begin our study of Egyptian science in the same negative manner, by stating that there was no such thing. The Egyptians were skilled at a number of practical crafts, many of which involved the application of scientific laws. But these laws were seldom if ever explicitly stated. We can have, as we had in Egypt, technology without science: knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why it works.


Perhaps the nearest thing in Egypt to a pure science was mathematics. The Egyptians used a decimal system in which a single stroke represented one. Two strokes stood for two, and so on, up through nine. Ten rated a separate sign, like a croquet hoop. From eleven to nineteen the figures were formed by adding the requisite number of strokes to the ten symbol. Twenty was two croquet hoops, twenty-one was two hoops and a stroke. Besides ten and one, the only other numerals that had separate signs were one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand, and one million. There was no zero.


Egyptian numerals

This system is even more cumbersome than Roman numerals. The Romans could write “1965” with only six signs. The Egyptians needed twenty-one separate symbols to express the same figure. Just on the basis of the Egyptian numerals we might reasonably suspect that Egyptian arithmetic was a tedious process. It was.

Egyptologists seem to take a grisly delight in disillusioning people who believe the Egyptians were masters of sciences lost to the modern world. If they were, they were masters of sciences so obscure that we have no evidence of them. In all the known sciences they were not remarkably advanced; they are admirable, not because of their wisdom, but because of what they were able to accomplish with the knowledge they did have. Egyptian mathematics was no more advanced than any of the other sciences. Indeed, the Egyptian method may not even deserve to be called mathematics; it was hardly more than simple arithmetic.

Their arithmetic was essentially additive. Even multiplication and division were done by an additive process. To take an example, let us multiply eight by sixteen as the Egyptians would have done it.

   1         8

   2       16

   4       32

   8       64

 16     128

What we have done is to double each side of the table until we reach the desired answer. If our problem is one that does not work out evenly by such a process, we simply add the two factors necessary for the required sum. Ten times eight, using the above table, is the sum of eight times eight and two times eight—sixty-four plus sixteen, or eighty.

Division was done by the same method, only backwards. To divide ninety-six by eight, we would double eight (the right-hand column of the above table) until we obtain two figures which can be added to make ninety-six. Thirty-two and sixty-four meet this requirement. The corresponding numbers on the left-hand side of the table, which we have, of course, doubled as we doubled the right-hand column, are eight and four. Eight plus four equals twelve—the answer.

Sometimes the doubling method did not give the exact answer. Thirteen divided by three ends up as four threes with one left over. How did the Egyptians deal with the leftovers?

Egyptian fractions are lovely objects. They were expressed by the word “r,” “part,” written over a number. “R” over five was one-fifth, “r” over a croquet hoop and four strokes was one-fourteenth, and so on. There are separate signs in hieroglyphs and in hieratic for one-half, one-fourth, two-thirds, and, rarely, three-fourths. But in ordinary computation, the only kinds of fractions the Egyptians could express were unit fractions, in which the numerator is one.

But, says the reader, with such a limitation one cannot do arithmetic! As soon as you add or multiply a fraction—almost any old fraction—you get an answer in which the numerator is more than one. The Egyptian method of doubling would work with fractions in which the denominator was an even number; twice one-fourth equals two-fourths, which can immediately be reduced to the unit fraction one-half. Twice one-third equals two-thirds, and the Egyptians had a sign for that fraction. But twice one-fifth, or twice one-seventh, gives a result which the Egyptians could not express at all.

They did express it; but not as two-fifths or two-sevenths. Instead of two-fifths, they wrote one-third plus one-fifteenth—which is the same thing expressed in the necessary unit fractions.

Admittedly this is not a simple procedure, and it would have taken a scribe some time to work out the necessary unit fractions for every fractional computation. Hence, the Egyptians developed tables of such problems, presumably for reference, so that when a scribe had to double one-ninth, he merely looked at his table and found that the answer was one-sixth plus one-eighteenth. Our illustration gives excerpts from such a table which presents solutions to problems of addition of fractions.

We are told by a specialist in pre-Greek science, Otto Neugebauer, that “experience teaches one very soon to operate quite rapidly within this framework.” I am sure it taught him to do so, but it would take more than experience to let most of us “operate” easily with fractions like these! However, we are handicapped by the knowledge of our own framework. If we had been taught arithmetic by the Egyptian method from the beginning, presumably we would find it easy too.

We don’t know for sure how the Egyptians worked out these tables. They had no algebra. They did have geometry; they could calculate areas of triangles, trapezoids, rectangles, and circles, and there were problems for similar elementary volumes, including a correct computation of the volume of a truncated pyramid. This last was the most impressive achievement of Egyptian mathematics; equally admirable, perhaps, was their value 3.16 for pi, which is reasonably accurate. It has been claimed that the Moscow mathematical papyrus gives a solution for calculating the area of a hemi sphere, but Neugebauer thought a simpler interpretation of the problem is more likely.

Not only was mathematics, the basic tool of the sciences, fairly simple, it was also completely pragmatic. The mathematical texts from which we derive our knowledge contain tables and sample problems of the type a working temple or court scribe would have had to be able to do—finding the area of a field, or the number of bricks needed to build a ramp of a given size. The Greeks had nothing much to learn from the wisdom of the Egyptians in mathematics; in many ways the Babylonians were far ahead of their contemporaries down south.


The Egyptians have a certain reputation as astronomers; this may derive from their invention of a good calendar, since they have no other claim to fame in that field. Their calendar is the distant ancestor of our own, with its twelve months of thirty days each, plus an extra five days, to make the total of 365. The year is longer than 365 days, of course, but it was a long time before anyone figured out how to work in the extra one-fourth (and a fraction) day per year. The Egyptian calendar did not take the extra into account, and as a result it soon got out of step with the real solar year. Still, it was a decided improvement over the flexible lunar calendars used by other peoples.

Our twelvefold division of day and night is also Egyptian in origin. The sixty-minute and sixty-second divisions are not; in fact, hours of fixed length probably did not appear until the invention of mechanical clocks. Egyptian hours varied in length depending on the season of the year. An hour was the twelfth part of the time from sunrise to sunset for day, and from sunset to sunrise for night. In winter the night hours would be longer than the day hours, and in summer the reverse would be true.

The hour divisions can hardly be called astronomical, however, and it is doubtful whether the Egyptian calendar owed anything to astronomy. It may have come from observations of the annual Nile rise, which culminated in the vital inundation. This phenomenon, in turn, was at some point connected with the reappearance on the horizon, after a period of invisibility, of the star Sirius. But it is yet to be proved that we owe our calendar to the astronomical talents of the ancient Egyptians.

What, then, did they accomplish in this field? Surprisingly little. Not until Hellenistic times, when Egyptian thought was influenced by ideas from Greece and Babylonia, do we find any texts involving mathematical calculations of astronomical phenomena. The only things which could possibly be called astronomical from pharaonic Egypt are the decan charts.

The decans are constellations whose risings, or transits, fall ten days apart (hence “decans”) and which may be used to tell time during the night. On coffin lids of the Middle Kingdom and on ceilings of later tombs we find representations of the night sky with the decanal constellations inscribed thereon. The most elaborate of these are the ceilings of the tomb of Senenmut, the architect of Queen Hatshepsut, and of the cenotaph of King Seti I at Abydos. At first glance, Senenmut’s ceiling looks as if it ought to mean something. There are circles subdivided into pie-shaped wedges, stars, mysterious deities, and short identifying inscriptions.

Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, it has thus far proved impossible to identify Senenmut’s stars with known constellations. Part of the difficulty may lie in the Egyptians’ willingness to subjugate accuracy to neatness, and reality to an artificial order. There are indications in Senenmut’s ceiling that the original sketch was redrawn, possibly to make it look more artistic. Obviously we cannot hope for accurate drawings under those circumstances. Another consideration which may have affected accuracy was the mechanical copying of older texts, which were no longer accurate for the later period, and which may not have been copied correctly. Religious requirements—each hour was under the guidance of a particular god—may have caused further deviations. In this last consideration we see the working of the now-familiar principle—the impossibility of separating science from the other categories which we call religion and magic. The so-called astronomical texts are usually found in tombs or in coffins; their function was not scientific, but religious, and they were probably altered, as necessary, to best serve that function. The decans had some effect on astrology, but they never had an influence on the development of astronomy.


The Egyptians could not calculate the volume of a hemi sphere or predict an eclipse, but they do not seem to have been disturbed about this. They got along; and they did some surprising things with the knowledge they did possess.

We have already mentioned a few of the technological processes at which the Egyptians excelled, such as metalwork, papyrus-making, weaving, beer-and wine-making, faience, glass, and pottery. Eventually we will discuss mummification, which, in Egypt, can be viewed as a technical skill. Perhaps the best way of studying Egyptian technology is to take a specific example and see how it was done. I have chosen to examine the Great Pyramid for several reasons; in the first place, the construction of a pyramid involved a number of different technical problems, and in the second place, Khufu’s pyramid has been analyzed, measured, described, and discussed at greater length than has any other structure in Egypt.

The Great Pyramid is the largest of the three pyramids of Giza, and the tomb of King Khufu (Cheops in Greek) of the Fourth Dynasty—around 2600 B.C. I have already been taken to task by several friendly pyramidologists for refusing to admit that Khufu’s tomb is the Master Plan of the Universe and a monumental prophecy in stone; but at the risk of incurring further correspondence I must cling to my narrow-minded opinion. The Great Pyramid was a tomb, and that is all it was.

The Great Pyramid is impressive. It is impressive to look at, and quite overwhelming when you consider the statistics. The more than two million blocks of which it is composed average about two tons apiece in weight; the biggest blocks weigh fifteen tons. The four sides measure approximately 755 feet each. No two are exactly the same length, although the difference between the longest and shortest sides is only 7.9 inches. The structure was, when completed, 481.4 feet high. The area covered by the base is 13.1 acres.

Even more amazing than the size of the pyramid is the accuracy with which it was put together. The sides are oriented almost exactly in line with true north, south, east, and west, the greatest error being on the east side, which is only 5'30" west of north. The angles are almost perfect right angles: 90, 3, 2; 89, 59, 58; 89, 56, 27; 90, 0, 33. The casing blocks which cover the exterior were fitted together with joints of one-fiftieth of an inch—so small that you can hardly get a pin into them. And the whole massive building rests on a dressed-rock platform which has a deviation from true level of only 0.004 percent.

It is no wonder that generations of travelers have been moved to extravagant speculations about this pyramid. All sorts of wild theories, from djinns to “unknown lost sciences,” have been invented to account for its existence. But there is no need for such fantasies. The Great Pyramid and its smaller relations could have been built with the simplest of tools and technology.

Before the actual hauling of stones began, the Egyptian architect had to meet two separate problems. The first was the leveling of the plateau; the second, the plotting of the angles and the orientation of the building.

Once the sand and gravel had been removed down to bedrock, the area to be leveled was surrounded with low walls of brick and then flooded. By measuring down from a number of points on the surface of the water, a network of trenches of equal depth could be cut. The water was then released, and the areas between the trenches leveled to the same depth. The Egyptians had a long history of experience with flooded fields, irrigation trenches, and the like; this method would have come naturally to them. That it was actually used, as most authorities believe, is suggested by a curious fact—when the prevalent north wind of the Cairo area is blowing it would cause precisely the error from true level, on the water surface, that is actually found on the Great Pyramid plateau.

This is one theory. Other scholars, including Mark Lehner, who went so far as to build a small pyramid of his own—no, not to be buried in, just to see how it was done—have raised practical objections. For one thing, it would require an awful lot of water. The areas on which the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre were built was not level, and they were never completely flattened out—a large chunk of rock was left in the middle. Lehner has suggested that holes around the pyramids in question may have contained stakes cut to equal lengths or carrying reference lines tied from stake to stake to establish the pyramid baseline.

For some reason or other a pyramid had to be made so that its sides faced the four cardinal points. We know, from later reliefs, that temples were oriented by “looking at the sky, observing the stars, and turning [one’s] gaze toward the Great Bear.” However, simple observation of even so prominent a star as the North Star, would not give results commensurate with the remarkably accurate orientation of the pyramids. So it has been suggested that the Egyptians might have found true north by sighting on a star in the northern sky and then bisecting the angle formed by its rising and setting positions and by the position of the observer. In order to do this accurately it is necessary to have an artificial horizon—a wall, in other words, which is perfectly level and which is high enough to cut off everything but sky from the view of the observer. Said observer stations himself behind his wall and waits for the chosen star to appear. Following his directions, an assistant marks the spot on the “horizon” wall where the star is first visible. A second mark is made at the point on the wall where the star sets, or disappears from the sight of the observer. Plumb lines are then dropped down from the top of the wall and marks made on the ground immediately below the marks on the wall. Lines drawn from the observer’s position to the two marks on the ground form an angle whose middle line gives true north. The other compass points are found by constructing right angles to the line of true north. Then there’s the sun-and-shadow method—bisecting the angle of a vertical pole cast at different times of day. I refuse to go into detail about this procedure; you can read about it in various books, including Dr. Lehner’s, if you are interested. The point is that the Egyptians could have used such simple methods to attain the desired result.

While the pyramid plateau was being cleared and leveled, stoneworkers were already busy in the quarries, cutting out the first of those two million blocks of stone. The material used for the bulk of the Great Pyramid was a kind of limestone, the same stone of which the pyramid plateau itself is composed, and it was cut right on the spot. The casing stones, which gave a smooth covering to the structure, were of a different, finer-grained limestone. They must have been brought from the well-known Tura quarries just across the river from Giza, in the Arabian hills near modern Cairo. Limestone counts as a soft stone—soft as stones go—and it can be cut with copper tools, like the ones the Egyptians had. With copper chisels the workers cut the desired block free on all sides except the bottom; it was detached from its base by wedges.

Not all the stone used in the Great Pyramid was soft stone. The pavements of the mortuary temple next to the pyramid were of basalt, a decidedly hard stone. The great sarcophagus in which the king was buried was made of granite; so were the walls of the King’s Chamber, or Burial Chamber, and the plugs which were meant to block the passage leading to the royal mummy. Granite was used for casing parts of the Second and Third Pyramids at Giza; in the Third Pyramid probably the greater part of the casing was of this hard-to-work stone.

Granite and basalt cannot be cut with copper chisels. One of the happiest of the claims made for the ancient Egyptians is that they must have had steel—two thousand years before they had iron in any quantity—in order to cut such difficult materials. An alternative theory is that they had some method of tempering copper to make it fantastically hard. So far, there is no evidence for either of these notions, except for the undeniable fact that these hard stones were cut. But there are simpler, if not easier, ways of accomplishing this feat.

One method of quarrying granite, which was certainly used later in Egypt, was to pound it out with heavy dolerite balls—a tedious, heartbreaking job, certainly, but so is building a pyramid. Another possibility is the use of copper saws and/or drills. Saw marks have been found on the granite sarcophagus from the Great Pyramid and on the basalt pavement blocks from the temple of that pyramid, and drills were certainly used for hard stone statues and vases. It is true that cutting basalt with a plain copper saw would be somewhat difficult. Nowadays we sometimes cut hard stones by using points of even harder stones which are set into a drill or saw. The use of diamond points in industry is well known. Diamond ranks 10 on a measure known as the Mohs scale; it can cut just about anything, including quartzite, the hardest stone the Egyptians ever quarried (7 on the Mohs scale). But, sad to say, the Egyptians did not have diamonds. Neither did they have topaz (8) or rubies and sapphires (9) or even beryl (8) before the Greek period. We must conclude, then, that the Egyptians did not use hard-stone points, or teeth, to cut their granite and quartz.

There is another method of cutting hard stone: with an abrasive powder. Diamond dust is used to cut diamonds. Having no diamonds, the Egyptians had no diamond dust either, nor, so far as we can tell, did they use pumice or emery powder. They did have quartz sand. If diamond dust can cut diamonds, quartz sand can cut quartz. The remains of such sand, perhaps mixed with water, have been found at the bottom of drill holes and cuts in various types of stone. So that’s probably how it was done, using copper drills and saws.

Once the blocks were cut, they had to be transported to the pyramid plateau. The limestone used was either from Giza or from quarries across the river. The dolerite probably came from the Fayum, not too far away, but the granite was cut at Aswan, six hundred miles south of Giza. All the stones were transported as far as possible by water, being floated across the river from Tura to Giza in the case of the limestone, and carried by boat downstream from Aswan in the case of the granite. Probably the transport was done during the period of high water, when much of the valley lay under the inundation and the stones could be floated right up to the base of the plateau. The hardest part of the job was the distance from the bottom of the plateau up to the pyramid site.

Although we have no description or drawing of stones being dragged up to a pyramid site, there is an interesting scene in a Twelfth Dynasty tomb which depicts the transport of a colossal statue. The colossus rests on a sledge without wheels, which is pulled by 172 men. Perched precariously on the knee of the statue, the overseer claps his hands to set the rhythm for the “heave-ho” chant which still accompanies heavy labor in the Near East. Another man, on the front part of the sledge, pours water onto the ground to lubricate the track. This colossus must have weighed fifty or sixty tons. The blocks for the pyramid ranged from a mere two tons to a possible, staggering, two hundred tons (in the temple of the Third Pyramid). But there is no doubt that they were pulled, just as the statue was, without assistance from wheels or engines.

Now we have the stone and the site all prepared. It remains only to build the pyramid.

Archaeologists are still debating the details of pyramid building, just as they disagree about a number of other things relating to ancient Egypt. There is little disagreement, though, about the main point: that these mammoth structures, and all the other colossal building works of Egypt, were constructed without motive power other than that of human muscle, and with the simplest of tools. The Egyptians had plumb bobs and set squares and a few other simple gadgets; you can see them in museum cases. It has been claimed that they had pulleys, but you won’t see any of them in museum cases, which is a pretty strong indication that they didn’t exist. The conventional view is that the stones of the pyramids must have been dragged into place, just as they were dragged across the land between the river and the pyramid site. Ramps are the only possible method, and ramps must have been used. The remains of several have, in fact, been found.

If you put two Egyptologists into a room together and mention a subject—any subject—connected with ancient Egypt, you will probably get two different theories. A ramp is a simple affair, and most Egyptologists agree that ramps must have been used. Nevertheless, there are two different ramp theories. According to one, a main ramp was built straight out at right angles to the face of the pyramid, with subsidiary ramps or scaffolds on the other three sides. An alternative theory suggests that one or more ramps wrapped around the pyramid as it rose. There are several variants of both theories, of course. The subject is too complex to go into here. The important thing is: no pulleys, no hoists, only muscle power and ramps.

Naturally no ramps were needed for the first layer of stones; they were hauled up to the leveled site and shoved into their designated places. Wooden rollers may have been used for precise placement. Then the ramp was begun. It would have been raised for each new level, and the next layer of stones would have been dragged up and positioned.

The process was not that casual, of course. You can build a pyramid by piling blocks on top of other blocks, but if you want to build a really BIG pyramid you have to align those blocks with absolute precision. The angles of the slopes and the diagonals of the four sides must match and meet. Again, accurate measurements could have been (and obviously were) made with the simple instruments available. In many pyramids additional stability was given by internal casings, or accretion faces. The blocks of these inner casings, made of the finer Tura limestone, were built into the core of the pyramid as it went up.

Something else was built in—the “substructure.” In the case of Khufu’s pyramid, it was located not under the structure but in its very heart—mortuary chambers, ramps, and passages. One of the pyramid mystics’ favorite arguments has been the fact that the sarcophagus is too big to go through the passage leading up to the burial chamber. I don’t know what this could possibly prove (djinns?) except the obvious—that the sarcophagus was put in from up above before the chamber was roofed over.

The interior of the pyramid presents us with several mysteries (though not the kind of mysteries pyramidologists love). There is an entrance in the north face, some fifty feet above the ground and about twenty-five feet east of the center of that side. From here a corridor leads down at an angle of approximately twenty-five degrees, through the pyramid and down into the rock of the plateau. The entrance was probably masked by casing blocks which looked like all the other casing blocks, and the passage itself is less than four feet high; it was not designed for the convenience of inquisitive tourists. The descending passage goes along for 345 feet and levels off, ending in a small, uncompleted chamber. On the far side of this chamber the passage continues for a little way before ending abruptly.

According to the conventional theory, this chamber and passage were part of the original interior plan, which called for a burial chamber under, rather than in, the pyramid. Subterranean burial chambers are found in other pyramids, including both the other Giza tombs. But later on, this theory maintains, Khufu changed his mind. By that time the pyramid itself was partly built, so the workers had to cut a passage up through the roof of the descending corridor at a point about sixty feet from the entrance. The new, ascending passage runs up through the blocks of the pyramid core, going up at the same angle as the older corridor went down. It is about 130 feet long. Then it levels off, and at the end of the level stretch, right in the middle of the pyramid, a chamber was built. It is the so-called Queen’s Chamber, although it was not meant for a queen, but was the king’s burial chamber in this second stage of design. The corridor leading to it is so low that present-day tourists have a choice of two equally awkward positions: hands and knees, or an angle, at the waist, of ninety degrees.

Before the Queen’s Chamber was finished, Khufu changed his mind again, or so it is claimed. He went back to the top of the ascending corridor and built the Grand Gallery. It goes on up at the same angle as the ascending corridor, but instead of being only a few feet high its ceiling is 28 feet above the floor. The walls are only seven and a half feet high, and above them there is a corbel vault of astounding size, some 153 feet long. It is still one of the most imposing sights in Egypt, in spite of the naked lightbulbs and the crude stairs which have been constructed to aid weak tourists in reaching the Burial Chamber.

You didn’t think it would be that simple, did you? More recent research claims that Khufu didn’t change his mind, that all three chambers were built at the same time, and that they have specific cultic meanings. The Queen’s Chamber may have served the same purpose as the later serdab, the closed-in room where the statue of the deceased was placed. The so-called Subterranean Chamber and the cramped, unfinished tunnel leading away from it could represent the Underworld. So there you have it, for what ever it’s worth. I have no opinion on the subject.

The King’s Chamber was the final burial chamber. It is lined with granite blocks and is rectangular in size, measuring about 34 by 17 feet, and 19 feet in height. It does not open directly off the Grand Gallery but is reached through a low passage and an antechamber. The King’s Chamber is perfectly plain—no paintings, no inscriptions, no reliefs. The walls are smooth except for two curious breaks—shafts, which start from the north and south walls and go through the pyramid at angles of thirty-one and forty-five degrees, respectively. We don’t know why these shafts were built; they are too small for anything bigger than a mouse. The most obvious suggestion is that they were for ventilation—not so absurd as it sounds, since the king was not really dead. However, it is doubtful that the Egyptians realized the healthful value of fresh air, and anyhow the shafts don’t reach all the way to the surface. They provided no such shafts in later tombs. Presumably there was a religious reason—orienting the king’s spirit toward the eternal stars, for instance. The Queen’s Chamber has similar shafts, but they were never finished. In recent years one of these shafts has been penetrated by a little machine—a robot camera—which reached a dead end blocked by a cut stone with a couple of copper objects in it. What this means nobody knows. But I am going to go on record as predicting that if investigators ever get past the blocking stone they will not find the Key to the Secrets of the Universe or even a cache of uncut emeralds.

Although the King’s Chamber has a flat ceiling, this is only the base of a remarkable architectural element. Above the ceiling there are five small rooms or compartments, one above the other. The lower four have flat roofs, and the highest has a pointed roof. All these little chambers were invaded by modern searchers looking for hidden treasure, but it is unlikely that anything was ever concealed in them. They were meant to relieve some of the strain on the ceiling of the burial chamber; and it was quite some strain, we must admit. Modern calculations suggest that there was, in fact, no necessity for such elaborate safeguards. The Egyptian engineer may have overcompensated for a pressure which certainly was present, but no one can deny that over-compensation is better than not enough.

Among the objects which were inserted into the heart of the pyramid while it was being built were several huge granite stones. Their function was to plug up the ascending passage after the funeral and keep out (Khufu hoped) ambitious tomb robbers. Three of them were actually found at the bottom of the passage.

Several minor but intriguing points are raised by these stone plugs. In the first place, they really are plugs, being less than half an inch narrower than the width of the corridor, and only about an inch less in height. Maneuvering these huge blocks into position up a sloping passage would have been a tricky job even for the Egyptians. How, for instance, could they keep the first block from sliding back down and braining them while they pushed numbers two and three in behind number one?

The answer is that they didn’t. The entrance to the ascending passage is an inch narrower than the plugs; they couldn’t have been shoved into it from below, via the descending passage. Therefore they must have been put into the pyramid from above and stored in some spot above the ascending passage until it was time to use them. Measurements show that the only space big enough for them was the Grand Gallery. After Khufu’s coffin had been deposited in the huge granite sarcophagus, amid the lamentations of his women and the solemn prayers of the priests, the funeral cortege departed, leaving a crew of workmen in the Grand Gallery. These men levered up the stones which had been stored there and slid them down into the ascending passage, one after the other; they continued to slide until they reached the lower end, whose mouth was too small to let them pass. There they piled up, forming a very effective barricade between the dead king and the outside world.

But what about the workers? Their situation looks bad; they are barricaded from the outside world too. Have we another example of barbaric sacrifice for the benefit of the dead?

Look at the plan of the pyramid (opposite). At point N you will see a long well, or shaft, leading down from the Grand Gallery to the lower part of the descending corridor, near the abandoned burial chamber of the first stage. After the entombed workers had lowered themselves down the shaft, all they had to do was walk up the descending corridor, bypassing the plugs in the ascending corridor, and go out. The entrance (A) was the last part to be blocked. It has been suggested, somewhat absurdly, that the workmen put in some strenuous overtime on this escape shaft, without official permission. There is no reason to suppose that Khufu planned to share his tomb with a group of motley workers; this sort of thing was not done during the Fourth Dynasty. Nor is it likely that a work of such magnitude could have been carried out unbeknownst to the official powers.

By the time the interior of the pyramid was finished, the exterior resembled a high flat platform whose sides were hidden by ramps and embankments. Up the main ramp a sweating, chanting gang of workers pulled the stones for the next course of masonry. These stones had already been flattened on the bottom—the bedding joint—and the masons had smoothed the top of the previously laid course to receive the new stones. When the fill, or core, stones had been positioned, the casing blocks of fine Tura limestone were hauled up. Masons had prepared them while they were still on the ground, cutting the jointing sides and the bottom level and marking the outer surface to indicate the correct angle. Before the stones were slid into place a thin layer of mortar was spread over the bedding joint and the other faces. This was done not so much for adhesion, since the weight of the huge stones made them stable enough, but to facilitate movement and make final adjustments easier. The casing stones were then levered or shoved into position, using the bosses left in place for that purpose; and then, while the masons smoothed the tops of the stones in the new course, the ramp was raised in preparation for the next course of stone. The very top of the pyramid, 481 feet off the ground, was finished off with a pointed pyramidion, a miniature pyramid of hard stone, sometimes plated with gold.


Plan of the Great Pyramid of Giza

Then the workers started to demolish the ramp. As it went down, masons swarmed over the face of the structure, smoothing the face of the casing stones so that each block matched neatly with its neighbors. The Egyptians used scaffolding in later periods, so presumably they would have employed it for this purpose. As the ramp descended, the masons worked down, finishing their work by smoothing the lowest course of stones, and the pyramid stood in all its glory, smooth and shining, tipped with gold.

How long would it take to build something this size? Herodotus, the energetic Greek traveler, gawked at the mass of the Great Pyramid as thousands of later tourists have done, and like them, he asked his guides for statistics. He reports that it took twenty years to finish the work, employing one hundred thousand men “for periods of three months” on the transport of the stone. Presumably this meant four gangs of twenty-five thousand each. Petrie calculated that one hundred thousand men might have been employed in a given year. This is almost certainly too large. Calculations of the numbers needed for separate operations admit a workforce of twenty thousand, and that includes the support groups—the men who sharpened the copper chisels, for example. (They took a lot of sharpening.) Khufu reigned for forty-three years, possibly longer, so he had a lot more than twenty years to get the job done.

Herodotus describes how a pyramid was built, but there is no point in quoting him since he did not know as much about it as we do. One sentence, however, is worth repeating: “The upper part of the pyramid was finished first, then the middle, and finally the part which was lowest and nearest to the ground.” Obviously Herodotus is—correctly—describing the final polishing and finishing of the casing blocks, but I will never forget the first, wonderful image that popped into my mind when I read this sentence: the top third of the pyramid hanging unsupported in the middle of the air, while the workers shove the middle part under it, and then put the bottom under the middle.

Often when I think about pyramids and the workers straining to drag the monumental blocks, I remember a scene from a film, one of those day-long, wide-screen, Technicolor extravaganzas about the Hebrews. The Hebrews were, in this scene, dragging stones for a temple. Watching the work was Moses, dressed in kilt and collar, which costume showed off his admirable physique. As the sweating slaves groaned and staggered along, one old lady got the hem of her flowing robe (an admirable uniform for stone dragging) caught under the block she was helping to haul. Moses did not know that the old lady was really his mother. Being the hero of the film, however, he tried to get the overseer to stop the block and let the old lady disentangle herself. The cruel overseer refused. The next ten minutes of the film were very exciting. First we saw Moses, rushing frantically around the plateau trying to find someone with enough authority to stop the wicked overseer. Then we flashed to the stone, grinding remorselessly onward, and the elderly female tugging weakly at her skirt—which must have been woven of iron. Back to Moses; back to the old lady. Nobody in the theater laughed—except me—so apparently it did not strike the audience as incongruous that the Egyptians would employ feeble old ladies for such heavy labor, or that the old lady would prefer a messy death to the immodesty of taking off her dress, or that nobody in the vicinity thought of whacking off the tail of her robe with a knife, or that the overseer would rather run her down than get on with his work. True, a modern automobile is not much deflected when it hits a human being, but a monolithic stone on wooden rollers would probably come to a grinding halt. None of the reliefs show women engaged in work of this sort; masons, stonecutters, laborers, are all men. An old lady wouldn’t be worth her bread and onions. I suppose no one enjoys films about ancient Egypt more than Egyptologists; it gives them the generally popular opportunity, rare in their specialized profession, of sneering at someone else’s ignorance.

We are also inclined to sneer, I am afraid, at the pyramidologists who, in defiance of all the evidence, persist in believing in the occult properties of the Great Pyramid. It was built, they say, by supermen of ancient times (Anglo-Saxons, usually), and if you know how to read its message, it mentions all the important events of world history—most of which were future events for the pyramid builders, who were thus not only supermen but prophets.

It is easy to understand why people are driven into such beliefs. The pyramid itself promotes extravagant theories; it really is hard to believe that it could have been built by people as poorly equipped as the Egyptians. Another motive which probably prompts the pyramid mystics is the rather pathetic desire to find answers to questions which never can and never will be answerable in terms of feet and inches. I can understand these people, but they irritate me nonetheless, because their views cheapen a rather impressive accomplishment. We need not ask whether the Great Pyramid was worth the effort. The Egyptians, or some of them, thought it was, and their opinion carries more weight than ours. What ever the reasons and what ever their moral value, the fact remains that a structure like the Great Pyramid shows what people can do if they want to badly enough. Without iron, without machines, with only human muscle power and human will, they quarried these monumental stones and put them into place. There is more wonder in this than in any marvels of magical lore.


We could describe a number of other examples of Egyptian technology, but for lack of space, we will have to restrict ourselves to only one more. I want to talk about boats.

There are few other countries in which boats have been as important as they were in ancient Egypt. Not only was the river the most convenient form of transportation, flowing straight and navigable for almost six hundred miles, but it split all of Upper Egypt into two halves. Constant communication between the east and west banks was necessary, particularly when a city was built on the east side and its cemetery, as dogma preferred, on the west. Without boats, it would have been a long walk around. The Delta, with its many small streams and canals, found water transportation equally convenient. Some places could only be reached by water, and boats were a lot more comfortable than donkey back or shank’s mare. Perhaps the pyramids and the massive temples could never have been built without the river; blocks of stone which were transported six hundred miles by water could never have been hauled the same distance.

The earliest boats in Egypt were bundles of papyrus tied together. Little skiffs of this type, propelled by poles or paddled, were used far into dynastic times by sportsmen fowling in the marshes, and all through Egyptian history by the peasants, who could afford no more elaborate craft. Before the beginning of the First Dynasty, however, fancier boats had been built. We can see rough outline drawings of them on pots of the late predynastic period. I don’t know how accurate these drawings are; I would think a boat so sharply curved would sink like a stone. However, we can assume that such boats had twin cabins and were propelled by banks of oars.


Some Egyptian boats

These oared predynastic boats must have been made of wood, as were later boats. The Egyptians had a serious problem with regard to wood, since none of their native trees produced good long planks. The boats of the king and the gods were sometimes fashioned of cedar, imported all the way from the Lebanon, but the great majority of craft were patchwork affairs, made of many small pieces of wood fitted together with the matchless skill early displayed by Egyptian carpenters.

Modern boats have a keel, with closely set ribs. Egyptian boats had no keel, only a shell or framework of planks with light ribs at intervals. The deck beams, or thwarts, did not interlock on the frame to give added strength, but were fastened directly to the hull planking.

In calm waters, boats like these would do well enough. But heavy seas, such as might be encountered on voyages to Punt or Asia, could break the back of such a frail structure. Some sort of additional strengthening, to compensate for the absence of a keel, was desirable. The Egyptians did not use nails. Their boats were pegged together or laced with rope, and they used rope to give added strength to the hull. Some of our examples show heavy cables wrapped around the hull at bow and stern; attached to these was another stout cable which passed fore and aft, over crutches, along the length of the ship.

Oars or paddles like the ones on the predynastic ships were used throughout Egyptian history. When boats sailed downstream with the current, against the prevailing north wind, or when bends in the river made the wind in effective, the oarsmen got to work. When boats went upstream, with the wind, the sails were raised. Since sails were only useful part of the time, masts were built so that they could be unstepped or, as I would say, taken down. They were then laid on high crutches so as to be out of the way of the steering gear and the rowers. The sails were made of linen and were square. The earliest sails had only a single yard; they were “loose-footed” and flapped. Later sails had two yards, so that the sail could be used to maximum advantage. Sails also got bigger as time went on, until some were enormous affairs, wider than they were high.

The steering apparatus was simple at first—two or three large paddles, without tiller or rudder post. At the end of the Old Kingdom there was a technological breakthrough in steering; rudder post and tiller were added, and the steering oars were reduced to one. The helmsman followed the directions of an officer who stood in the bow with his eyes wide open and his sounding pole ready. In certain stretches of the river, such as the narrows we referred to in the first chapter, he had to be on his toes.

The Middle Kingdom is the period of models—houses, workers, shops—and boats. We have a number of model craft, all of them quite charming with their little crews and ornaments, including the owner, lounging in a chair and sniffing a flower. Wealthy noblemen of this period may have owned a whole fleet of boats. One lucky fellow had twelve models of various types placed in his tomb.

Models and drawings are all very well, but Egyptologists have something better—the boats themselves. Khufu’s so-called solar boat, which was buried alongside his pyramid, is one of the most marvelous sights at Giza. But it isn’t the earliest boat ever found. An American expedition working at Abydos, the holy city of Osiris in Middle Egypt, discovered an entire fleet, fourteen or more vessels, which are believed to be associated with the burial of a First Dynasty king. That’s around 3000 B.C., three hundred years before Khufu. According to the experts, they were not models but viable ships which could have been used. One of them is about seventy-five feet long and between seven and ten feet wide (in the middle). The thick wooden planks were lashed together with ropes and caulked with bundles of reeds. Boats and boat pits have been found near several pyramids, and there are certainly more to be found. They were apparently essential equipment for the dead king.

The standard riverboat might be thirty to forty feet long. Some traveling boats belonging to nobles were extremely elegant, with big cabins made of leather over a wooden framework. The busy official could carry his luggage, his servants, and even a minstrel to sing to him while he sat in the shade, under a canopy, and watched his crew of eighteen ply the oars. When he got hungry he headed for the banks and had the mooring stake pounded in; up bustled his kitchen boat, which had been following at a respectful distance. From the small utility cabin of this boat, joints of meat and jars of wine were fetched, and the women servants brought out the bread they had prepared during the day’s travel.

Other boats were designed for the dead rather than the living. The funeral bark proper, which carried the dead pilgrim to the holy city of Abydos, was of a characteristic shape; the curved bows, ending in stylized papyrus flowers, recall very ancient boats made of papyrus or reeds. Other boats placed in the tomb were solar barks, like the ones used by the sun-god, or regular craft which the dead man might need in the hereafter—which was bound to be, the Egyptians argued, as full of water as this present world.

The height of Egyptian boatbuilding was reached during the New Kingdom. Models were dying out, but we have some lovely drawings of boats from tombs and from places such as Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. The great queen dispatched a fleet to the mysterious southern land of Punt in order to bring back exotic trees for the temple she was having built for herself and her father, the god Amon. Punt was probably somewhere along the Somali coast, and since there was no canal between the Nile and the Red Sea in ancient times, boats sailing south to Africa had to be built on the seacoast. There was an ancient port on the Red Sea, not far from the end of the Wadi Hammamat, which led east from the Nile in the vicinity of Coptos. Hatshepsut’s great vessels must have been built there: they were true seagoing ships.

Ships sailing north to Asia had no such problem; they simply went down the Nile and out into the sea. There have been a number of wild claims as to the Egyptians’ seafaring exploits, but so far there is no evidence from reliable sources that they circumnavigated Africa or passed the Pillars of Hercules to carry civilization to the wild lands of the Western Hemi sphere. Very little is known about their methods of navigation; but we suppose that, like most ancient sailors, they preferred to keep land in sight. This would have been possible during the voyages to Punt, or north to Syria-Palestine, but the Egyptians had commercial and diplomatic contacts with the Aegean Islands and Crete and, later, with Mycenaean cities on the mainland of Greece. They must have lost a lot of ships out there in the Great Green, but they were probably as skilled as any of their contemporaries. Indeed, it is now generally believed that instead of borrowing from their neighbors, the islanders of Crete or the famed seafarers of Phoenicia, the Egyptians actually originated certain types of ships used by the latter. The “Byblos” and “Cretan” vessels were built by the Egyptians for voyages to those places.

But back to the boats themselves. One authority has compared the lines of Eighteenth Dynasty boats to those of modern racing craft. The hull was deeper than that of older boats; the deck beams now passed through the hull and were fastened outside, for added strength. The sails had two yards, the lower of which was stationary. The deck was boarded across. The oars went through loops of rope which served as oarlocks and, perhaps, as a means of holding the oars when the boat was moored. Ships of this type are extremely attractive in appearance, and the size of the sail suggests that they were capable of considerable speed.

In addition to sailing ships, there were barges and freighters. Barges towed by regular boats were used for massive pieces of stone such as obelisks. Hatshepsut depicts two of her obelisks lying end to end on such a barge, which was pulled by thirty boats with almost a thousand rowers. The towing boats had to be rowed, since they were traveling downstream from Aswan to Thebes, against the wind.

Boats were also used in war. Most of them would probably be considered troop transports rather than warships, but some of the texts do mention battles on sea as well as on land. In the Twentieth Dynasty, Ramses III had to fight off a threatened invasion of the Sea Peoples, who came at him from every direction except the air. His warships had long low hulls with raised bulwarks to protect the rowers. They must have been fairly efficient; Ramses won the battle.


The next time a scorpion bites you, you might try this. Recite:

I am the King’s son, the eldest and first, Anubis; my mother Sekhmet-Isis came after me forth to the land of Syria, to the hill of the land of Heh, to the nome of those cannibals, saying, “Haste, haste, my child, king’s son, eldest and first, Anubis….” And you lick [the bite] with your tongue, while it is bleeding, immediately; then you recite to some oil, you recite to it seven times, you put it on the bite daily; you soak a strip of linen, you put it on it.

There is no field of ancient Egyptian knowledge in which the mixture of magic, science, and religion is seen so clearly as in medicine. Most of Egyptian medical lore is, in spirit as well as in form, like the prescription quoted. The only part we would consider efficacious is the licking of the wound, which may imply sucking out the venom. But perhaps the incantation, which invoked the divine names of Isis and Anubis, had some value if it strengthened the patient’s will to live.

Egyptian physicians had an excellent reputation in Greek times. Herodotus mentions that there was specialization, some doctors tending to the feet, some to the teeth, some to the eyes. We have evidence of this specialization even in the Pyramid Age, with doctors of the belly, the head, and the teeth, among others. Physicians were men of some social standing. They owned handsome tombs and equipped them well.

The diseases treated by these men included ophthalmia, bowel trouble, running ears, rheumatism, and parasites. That’s only a partial list, and there were frequent accidents resulting in fractures and dislocations (and maybe a missing leg if the accident took the form of a crocodile). Some of these ailments can be found in mummies, but diseases which affected only the soft organs of the body are, as a rule, undiagnosable by modern mummy investigators. One poor old lady had been an invalid for so long that she developed a bad case of bed-sores, but we do not know what her trouble was.

Since dentists keep telling us that cavities are a result of soft food and too many sweets, we expect people who do not enjoy these dangerous luxuries to have excellent teeth. Not many Egyptians suffered from dental caries. But they had other troubles. Inevitably, grain got mixed with sand and bits of gravel from the grinding stones. The result was attrition of the hard parts of the teeth, with resultant exposure of the pulp, and alveolar abscesses.

Now we come to the pertinent question: what did the Egyptian physician do to alleviate all these woes, and others which have left no traces on the physical remains of the long-dead sufferers? For this information we must rely, for the most part, on the medical texts.

In this field the Egyptians were—for them—surprisingly communicative. Considering the vast areas of knowledge and activity for which we have no written documentation, we are pleasantly surprised to find approximately a dozen papyri dealing with medical problems. Several are specialized; the Kahun papyrus deals with veterinary medicine and gynecology (an interesting juxtaposition), and the Edwin Smith with the surgical treatment of wounds and fractures. Others are collections of miscellaneous material.

The information we derive from the medical texts is certainly useful, but not consistently so. The texts tell us something about medicine and drugs, yet we are still a long way from complete knowledge on this subject. Medicine was given internally in various liquids; water, milk, honey, wine, and beer are mentioned. Other medicaments were applied externally, and these were usually mixed with fat to form a salve. The burning question for us is, what ingredients were mixed with the liquid or the fat? What, in other words, was the effective pharmacopoeia of the ancient Egyptian doctor?

Some ingredients came from animals, and these are fairly easy for us to identify. Blood, fat, bones, and organs of various mammals, reptiles, and insects were used, as well as entire bodies if they were small enough to be macerated or taken intact. One remedy used for children’s diseases was a skinned mouse, swallowed whole; evidently this nasty object was a last resort, for the remains of the mouse have been found in the alimentary canals of several little bodies. Warren Dawson points out that the use of mice as a children’s medicine has continued up to modern times, in Europe as well as in the Near East. However, an ordinary M.D. would not be apt to write you a prescription for it.

The plant and mineral ingredients in prescriptions are still giving archaeologists trouble. Perhaps an example will show why. Suppose that you find, in your medical papyrus, a word “abet.” You know it is a vegetable substance because it has the determinative that signifies the category of “plants.” But you have never met it in any but a medical context, and it is not related to any word you do know. You look at the prescriptions in which it occurs, and you find that it is used to prevent baldness and to cure excessive menstruation, eye infections, and warts. What is it?

Thanks to the really brilliant analyses of some specialized scholars, we can now identify a certain number of these vegetable substances. Often plants seem to have been selected for magical values, as was also true in medieval leechcraft. Thus, a red fruit might restore a patient’s healthy color, or a plant leaf shaped like the organ affected might be selected to cure an injury to or deficiency in that organ.

Were any of them, animal, vegetable, or mineral, actually effective?

Not many. I understand that the green malachite has some mild antibacterial properties, and the salt natron would help to dry out an infected wound. The most useful was probably honey, which the Egyptians employed widely, taken internally or applied to open wounds. Some strains of bacteria won’t grow in honey, so it may sometimes have accelerated healing. But don’t try this at home.

We have a lot of other things that work better. As for analgesics—pain relievers—the best the Egyptians could do was get the sufferer drunk. (Don’t try this at home either.) There is no conclusive evidence that the analgesic (or euphoric) effects of opium and cannabis were known to the ancient Egyptian doctor.

Given the early development of medical specialization, as indicated by the titles of doctors, we might anticipate a high degree of anatomical and physiological knowledge. And considering the dreadful condition of ancient teeth, we would expect the doctors of the teeth to be especially active.

One of the surprising facts brought out by the study of human remains from Egypt is the paucity of surgical treatment. Some operations certainly were performed. A very ancient scene shows the act of circumcision, which was commonly practiced in Egypt. In this picture the “doctor” squats on the ground in front of the patient, who is standing. Sometimes an attendant holds the victim’s wrists, but one valiant lad is unconfined; he places one hand lightly on the operator’s head and has the other resting on his hip. (According to Egyptologist Ann Macy Roth, his nonchalance may be owing to the fact that the instrument in alarmingly close proximity to his penis is not a knife, but a razor. Shaving body hair was done for reasons of ritual purity. Even so….)

Although other ancient cultures certainly did practice trepanning, the evidence for it in Egypt is questionable. Splints were used, and so were bandages and pads of various sorts, and in these cases the art of the embalmer and that of the physician may have overlapped. Splints were employed to hold damaged mummies together, and of course mummy bandaging was an old skill; but we cannot tell whether splints for the living preceded splints for the dead, or vice versa. One medical text describes how to treat a dislocated jaw; the procedure sounds effective, if painful.

Particularly noteworthy is the apparent absence of any sort of dentistry. I cannot imagine what the doctors of the teeth were doing! Great claims have been made for Egyptian dentistry on the basis of one hole in one jawbone from the Fourth Dynasty which, according to enthusiasts, was drilled in order to drain an abscess under a tooth. But if that was the purpose of the hole, it is very strange indeed to find no other evidence of the activity of the doctors of the teeth. If any man merited their attentions, it would have been the king; and yet one mummy—tentatively identified as that of Amenhotep III—had teeth so badly abscessed that they must have reduced the poor man to a state of screaming misery and semi-invalidism.

Up to this point we have done nothing but criticize the ancient Egyptian physicians; now we must look at their accomplishments. In some areas these accomplishments were quite impressive. So let us abandon our mummies in favor of the medical papyri, and investigate these texts in greater detail. We are going to concentrate on one papyrus—the so-called Edwin Smith. It is named after its first (modern) owner, an American who worked in Egypt in the 1860s.

Edwin Smith was a member of a class which has been—politely—called “adventurers.” Many of the pioneers of Egyptology, such as the flamboyant ex-circus performer Giovanni Belzoni, belong to the same category. Smith’s avowed professions were those of moneylender and antiquities dealer. Both professions give, on occasion, ample scope for skulduggery. Few of the antiquities dealers of that era were overly scrupulous about the sources of the objects they bought, and Smith has been accused, among other things, of forging some of his stock.

In January of 1862 a group of Egyptians appeared in Smith’s office with a papyrus roll for sale. It was incomplete and looked as if someone had trimmed its edges to make them neater, but Smith recognized it as a valuable acquisition. He bought it. To this day no one knows where the thieves found it—but that they were thieves no one can deny, since the previous owner had never officially bequeathed it to them. It may have come from the tomb of that owner, a physician of ancient Egypt.

Two months after the first sale, the Egyptians turned up with another medical roll. Smith looked it over and realized that it was a fake, made up of odds and ends and covered, to lend it verisimilitude, with scraps which had been cut off the first papyrus! Nevertheless, he bought this roll too; and among the fragments so rescued was one containing a particularly important section of the original scroll—a passage on the action of the heart.

Smith never disposed of the papyrus which is still called by his name. He left it to his daughter, who gave it and his papers to the New-York Historical Society. The Society called in James Henry Breasted to translate and publish the text, which he did in 1930. To his surprise, Breasted found that Smith had left extensive notes on the text, which he had tried to translate. Like many of his fellow “adventurers,” Smith was no simpleminded crook. His notes display a surprising understanding of the Egyptian language, considering that during his lifetime the modern knowledge of the hieroglyphs was less than fifty years old. The text is written in the cursive hieratic script, which was at that time even less well understood than hieroglyphic writing.

By a strange coincidence, Edwin Smith was also at one time in possession of another extremely important medical text—the papyrus later bought by the German Egyptologist Georg Ebers, and named after him. The Ebers and the Edwin Smith papyri are the most useful and interesting of all the texts; the others are either fragmentary or so hopelessly mixed with magic as to give little information on medical knowledge.

Ebers is the longer of the two—the longest, in fact, of all the medical texts. It is twenty meters long; rather an unwieldy size, we might think, but the Egyptians were accustomed to handle such rolls. This text is really a mixture, much less homogeneous than Edwin Smith. It contains: recitals of incantations before treatment; internal diseases; diseases of the eye, skin, extremities, head, and sense organs, diseases of women, and house keeping matters; general medical notes; surgical cases.

Much of this, particularly the earlier sections, belongs to the category which has been called “magico-medical,” as opposed to true medicine. We cannot avoid the suspicion that what we have in Ebers is a one-volume reference library for a practicing physician who copied down, perhaps from other volumes, all the remedies and reminders and prescriptions that he found useful in his daily profession. Yet there are sections in the Ebers papyrus which indicate an approach quite alien to the magico-medical parts. This approach can best be seen and described, however, in the shorter Edwin Smith papyrus.

The Edwin Smith text was probably written during the New Kingdom, but it contains material copied from a much older source—a source that may go back as far as the thirtieth century B.C., before the pyramids were raised at Giza. The text, in its original form, is so old that four or five hundred years after it was first composed a copyist decided that it would be a good idea to explain some of the thenarchaic terminology. He added a section of explanations—archaeologists call them “glosses”—after each case, a sort of commentary on confusing phrases and words.

Considering that we are living four thousand years after this first commentator felt it necessary to emend his “archaic” text, Breasted’s accomplishment in translating the papyrus becomes quite impressive. Some minor modifications have been suggested, but they don’t change the basic accuracy of his version.

Edwin Smith deals with the surgical treatment of wounds and fractures. As it now stands, it contains forty-eight cases, starting with the top of the head and moving down; but unfortunately our copy stops just below the shoulders. Was the scribe interrupted, or is the remainder lost? The order is interesting; it is a logical way of organizing cases dealing with the human body, and it was, in fact, the standard order through the Middle Ages.

All the cases in Edwin Smith are arranged in the same manner. First comes the title: “Instructions concerning” the injury. Then follows a description of the symptoms. The third element is the physician’s diagnosis, beginning with “you should say concerning him,” and ending with a prognosis, which may take one of three forms: (l) an ailment which I will treat; (2) an ailment with which I will contend; (3) an ailment not to be treated. The meaning is obvious, isn’t it? Pity the poor devil whose ailment was “not to be treated.”

Following the prognosis comes the suggested treatment. At the end of the case we find the glosses which explain difficult words and phrases. I am fascinated by this papyrus, so I’m going to quote a specific case, amending Breasted’s translation as it suits me.

Instructions: a gaping wound in his head, penetrating to the bone, perforating the suture [?] of his skull.

(Description of symptoms) You should palpate his wound, [though] he shudders greatly. You should cause him to lift his face. [If] it is difficult for him to open his mouth, and his heart is weary to speak; if you observe his spit upon his lips, not falling to the ground, while he gives blood from his nostrils and ears, and he suffers a stiffness in his neck and is not able to look at his shoulders and breast; then you say concerning him:

(Diagnosis) “One having a gaping wound in his head, reaching to the bone, perforating the sutures [?] of his skull; the cord of his mandible is contracted; he gives blood from his nostrils and ears; he suffers a stiffness in his neck.”

(Prognosis) An ailment with which I will contend.

(Treatment) Now if you find the cord of that man’s mandible is contracted, you should have made for him something hot, until he is comfortable, so that his mouth opens. You should bind it with fat, honey, and lint, until you know that he has reached a decisive point.

If then you find that man has developed fever from that wound which is in the sutures [?] of his skull, while that man has developed severe pain [?] from that wound: you should lay your hand upon him. Should you find his face is wet with sweat, the ligaments of his neck are tense, his face is ruddy, his teeth [and] his back…the odor of the box of his head is like the urine of goats, his mouth is bound, his eyebrows are drawn, while his face is as if he wept, you should say concerning him:

“One having a gaping wound in his head, reaching to the bone, perforating the sutures [?] of his skull; he has developed acute pain [?], his mouth is bound, he suffers a stiffness in his neck;

“An ailment not to be treated.”

If, however, you find that that man has become pale and has already shown exhaustion, you should have made for him a wooden brace, padded with linen, and put it in his mouth. You should have made for him a draught of w’h fruit. His treatment is sitting, placed between two supports of brick, until you know he has reached a decisive point.


As for “perforating the sutures [?] of his skull,” it means: what is between shell and shell of his skull, and that the sutures [?] are of leather.

As for “the cord of his mandible is contracted,” it means: a stiffening on the part of his ligaments at the end of his ramus, which are fastened to his cheekbone, that is, at the end of his jaw, without moving to and fro, so that it is not easy for him to open his mouth because of his pain.

As for “the cord of his mandible,” it means: the ligaments which bind the end of his jaw, as one says “the cord” of a thing, as a splint.

As for “his countenance wet with sweat,” it means that his head is a little sweaty, like “a thing is wet.”

As for “the ligaments of his neck are tense,” it means: that the ligaments of his neck are stiff because of his injury.

As for “his face is ruddy,” it means: that the color of his face is red, like the color of the tmst-fruit.

As for “the box of his head is like the urine of goats,” it means: that the odor of his crown is like the urine of goats.

As for “the box of his head,” it means: the middle of his crown next to his brain; the likening of it is to a box.

As for “his mouth is bound, both his eyebrows are drawn, while his face is as if he wept,” it means: that he does not open his mouth that he may speak, both his eyebrows are distorted, one drawing upward, the other drooping downward, like one who winks while his face weeps.

As for “he has become pale and has already shown exhaustion,” it means: becoming pale, because he is a [case of] “Undertake him, do not abandon him, in view of the exhaustion.”

At first glance this excerpt may seem long and confusing, but one cannot help but be struck by the difference in approach between Edwin Smith and texts like the one quoted at the beginning of this section. In the description of the skull fracture and in the other cases discussed in Edwin Smith, the approach is rigorously matter-of-fact. There are no appeals to divinities, no dubious prescriptions, no incantations, and no mention of demons. In fact, another case explicitly states that the illness is not caused by something entering from without, like a malicious ghost; it is “a thing which [the patient’s] own flesh has made.”

The Edwin Smith papyrus is also noteworthy for the detail and accuracy of the physician’s observations, which are meticulously recorded. The doctor recognizes the significance of various symptoms and changes his treatment accordingly. His anatomical knowledge is very detailed. The texts give words for skull, for brainpan or braincase, and for the brain itself. The jawbone and temporal bone (Breasted’s “cheekbone”) are distinguished; it is observed that the end of the jawbone joins to the temporal bone. The ramus of the mandible—or, in nonmedical terminology, the end of the jawbone—is described, in Egyptian, as a “claw”-shaped object. In the commentary to another case it is further explained as resembling the claw of a certain bird, which has two opposing members. Thus, the bone, whose location is precisely named, ends in a double-headed connecting part; so the translation “ramus” is obvious.

The “cord” of the mandible is, equally obviously, the muscle that connects the jawbone to the temporal bone and allows it to move. If it is “bound,” or locked, the man cannot open and close his mouth. Here again the physician’s knowledge is extremely accurate.

The word used for muscles, tendons, and ligaments was the same word, and it could also mean “vessel”—a hollow tube which carried the bodily fluids. It is strange to find one word covering such disparate entities, particularly when, as seems probable, the Egyptians knew quite well the difference between the functions of a ligament and those of a blood vessel.

The section of the Edwin Smith medical papyrus which deals with the heart and the vessels—a section also found in Ebers—is one of the most interesting and significant aspects of Egyptian medical lore. These vessels run to various parts of the body—to the eye, the anus, the arms, and so on. Yet it seems that vessels can carry not only blood but other bodily fluids. It was well known that blood sometimes flowed from the nose, not only in an ordinary nosebleed but as the result of a hard blow on the head. Therefore, some of the vessels leading to the nose must carry blood. But the nose also secretes mucus. Then, argued the Egyptians, two of the vessels must carry this mucus to the nose from somewhere inside the body. Vessels also carried urine, semen, and water.

Where did the vessels originate? They were connected with the heart; yet we cannot say that the Egyptians recognized the heart’s function as a pump for passing blood around the body. The heart was a vital organ, perhaps the most vital of all. Other, nonmedical texts make it clear that the heart was thought to hold not only the emotions but also the functions we know to be connected with the brain.

One of the great achievements of Egyptian medicine was the discovery of the pulse. It was called the “voice of the heart,” and in one section, found in both Ebers and Edwin Smith, the physician is told where in the body this voice “speaks.” Remarkable as this is, it is not enough to let us claim that the Egyptians anticipated Harvey in the discovery of the circulatory system. Yet they knew not only that the pulse was connected in some way with the heart, but that it was a factor the physician had to note. They did not count the pulse; they could not have done so, since they could not measure small units of time accurately. But its usefulness as a general symptom was certainly known.

The functions of the brain were never really recognized. Yet the surgical papyrus shows that the medical writer of the text recognized that injury to the brain could affect motor activities. One case gives a beautiful description of a case of partial paralysis of one side of the body resulting from a blow on the head.

The physician took full advantage of skull injuries to observe the brain. One case refers to something inside the skull which resembles copper slag; it is generally agreed that this must be the gray brain matter itself, with its convolutions. There is mention of a membrane enveloping the brain and of a liquid which can only be the cerebrospinal fluid.

The word “tepau,” which Breasted translated as “sutures,” is somewhat difficult. Perhaps the ancient commentator found it difficult too, but it cannot be said that his explanation helps us a great deal. He says it is between two “shells” of the skull. These “shells” must be bones of the head, and the only things which can be said to be “between” them are the sutures, the lines of union. Yet the commentator adds that these “sutures,” or what ever they are, resemble leather. This does not sound like a good description of the texture of the suture.

The Egyptian physician’s extensive knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and skull must have been derived from his observation of head injuries; he could not have learned it from his friend the embalmer. The contributions of the craft of mummification to anatomy were limited; the only area of the body in which the embalmer did any extensive excavating was the abdominal cavity. The brain was left in situ or removed piecemeal and discarded.

I began this chapter on science by remarking that there was almost no such thing in Egypt. “Almost” is not “altogether” and if any production of ancient man can be called scientific, the Edwin Smith surgical papyrus deserves that description. It is indeed one of the high points, not only of Egyptian empirical knowledge, but of thought and reasoning. In its sober, rational approach, its careful organization and meticulous documentation, and, above all, in its attempt to reason from observed data, without demons, Edwin Smith is a work of science in the strictest sense of that word. Yet how are we to interpret it? As a separate, distinct current of speculative thought which existed side by side with the leech-magician’s lore? As the work of a single great man or school whose results were copied for countless generations, not because the copyists recognized the greatness of its implicit content, but because they found it useful? Or as one aspect of the Egyptian “multiplicity of approaches,” which excluded no idea simply because it was inconsistent with another, so long as it had limited value?

Being a romantic, I have been fired by the suggestion that Edwin Smith, Ebers, and a few of the other texts derive their surgical lore from a single, very old source. And my imagination inevitably reacts to the fact that this postulated source book may come from a period roughly contemporaneous with Imhotep, the Old Kingdom sage. Imhotep’s reputation as a physician outshone even his fame as an architect; it was as a medical man that he was deified. We would be going far beyond the evidence if we suggested seriously that the surgical papyrus owes its existence to Imhotep. Still, if I were a physician today, I would join the movement—already begun, I believe, by some historically minded doctors—to give to Imhotep the honored position, now accorded Hippocrates, as the father of medicine. As George Sarton has pointed out, “Hippocrates comes about halfway between Imhotep and us.” He also comes about halfway between us and the lost original of the Edwin Smith surgical papyrus, which is thus the oldest scientific document in the world; and its author, whether it was Imhotep or another unknown genius, ought to rate, at the very least, a plaque in some medical institution.

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