A Nova Crew Strains, and Chants, to Solve the Obelisk Mystery

The public television team put theories to the test to uncover the secrets of how the ancient Egyptians moved and raised the giant blocks

Cleopatra’s Needle
Cleopatra’s Needle Wikimedia Commons

Besides the pyramid, there is no more distinctive symbol of Egyptian civilization than the obelisk, a colossal four-sided pillar hewn by the ancients from a single block of granite. Theories abound for the construction of pyramids, but the quarrying and raising of an obelisk — one of the most intriguing engineering feats of the ancient world — has largely gone unstudied. "How did ancient Egyptian engineers carve the gigantic blocks, transport them across land and water, and finally raise them upright?" asks author Evan Hadingham.

Records exist describing the moving and reerection of a 340-ton obelisk in 1586 in Rome, where it became the centerpiece of St. Peter's Square. And the relocation of "Cleopatra's Needle" from Alexandria to New York City's Central Park with the aid of a steel frame, hydraulic jacks and steam engines in 1879 is also well documented.

The ancient Egyptians, of course, lacked the tools essential to these later operations. To test some theories of the techniques the Egyptians might have used, a team from the public television series Nova traveled to the ancient quarries at Aswan and attempted to raise two stones of their own, one weighing 2 tons and the other, 40 tons. It proved to be a daunting challenge. Hadingham relates their successes and failures.

The story of their efforts, part of a Nova miniseries, will air on public television on February 12.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.