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Using the locations of Kochab and Mizar, she determined the start of construction of the pyramids to within 5 years, she reports in the 16 November issue of Nature.

Dating Giza's Pyramids - Scientific American

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All that can be radiocarbon dated, for example. But primarily we date the pyramids by their position in the development of Egyptian architecture and material culture over the broad sweep of 3, years.

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So we're not dealing with any one foothold of factual knowledge at Giza itself. We're dealing with basically the entirety of Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology. Can you give us an example of a single aspect of material culture, from ancient Egypt that you might use as a starting point for dating the pyramids?

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The pottery, for example. All the pottery you find at Giza looks like the pottery of the time of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, the kings who built these pyramids in what we call the Fourth Dynasty, the Old Kingdom. We study the pottery and how it changes over the broad sweep, some 3, years. There are people who are experts in all these different periods of pottery or Egyptian ceramics.

So to bring it down to a level that almost anybody can understand, if, for example, you were digging around the base of the Empire State Building, assuming that it was a ruin and the streets around it in Manhattan were filled with dirt, and you started finding ceramics that were characteristic of the Elizabethan era or say the Colonial period here in the United States, that would be one thing.

But if you started finding the Styrofoam cups and the plastic utensils of the nearby delicatessen, then you would know by virtue of their position in the overall material culture of the 20th century that that's probably a good date for the Empire State Building. Of course then you'd look at the Empire State Building's style and you'd compare it to the Chrysler Building, and you'd compare it to the Citicorp Building, which is considerably different.

And you'd work out the different styles in the evolution of Manhattan itself. But by and large, you would, in the broad scope, be able to put the Empire State Building and Manhattan in an overall context of development here in the United States and in the modern 19th and 20th centuries. And you would know that it didn't date, for example, to the colonial period of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, because nothing you'd find in the Empire State Building ruins, around it, in the dirt surrounding it—maybe it's a stump sticking up above the sloping ruins of Manhattan—nothing really looks like the flowing blue china, or the other kinds of utensils and material culture that they used in the time of the American Revolution.

So it's hard to give a succinct answer to that question, because we date things in archaeology on the basis of its context and a broad mass of information and material culture—things that were used by people, styles, and so on. When it comes to carbon dating, do you need organic material? There has been radiocarbon dating, or carbon dating done in Egypt obviously before we did our studies, and it's been done on some material from Giza. For example, the great boat that was found just south of the Great Pyramid, which we think belongs to Khufu, that was radiocarbon dated—coming out about 2, B.

But how do you carbon date the pyramids themselves when they're made out of stone, an inorganic material? We had the idea some years back to radiocarbon date the pyramids directly. And as you say, you need organic material in order to do carbon dating, because all living creatures, every living thing takes in carbon during its lifetime, and stops taking in carbon when it dies. And then the carbon starts breaking down at a regular rate. So in effect, you're counting the carbon in an organic specimen. And by virtue of the rate of disintegration of carbon atoms and the amount of carbon in a sample, you can know how old it is.


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  • Introduction;
  • Dating Giza's Pyramids?
  • So how do you date the pyramids, because they're made out of stone and mortar? Well, in the s when I was crawling around on the pyramids, as I used to like to do and still do, I noticed that contrary to what many guides tell people, even the stones of the Great Pyramid of Khufu are put together with great quantities of mortar. We're looking, you see, at the core. A pyramid is basically, most basically, two separate constructions: Since most of the outer casing is missing what you see now is the step-like structure of the core.

    The core was made with a substantial slop factor, as my friend who is a mechanic likes to say about certain automobiles. That is, they didn't join the stones very accurately. You have great spaces between the stones. And you can actually see where the men were up there and they didn't, you know, they may have like four or five, even six inches between two stones.

    And so they'd jam down pebbles and cobbles and some broken stones, and slop big quantities of gypsum mortar in there.

    Egyptian pyramids

    I noticed that in the interstices between the stones and in this mortar was embedded organic material, like charcoal, probably from the fire that they used to heat the gypsum in order to make the mortar. You have to heat raw gypsum in order to dehydrate it, and then you rehydrate it in order to make the mortar, like with modern cement. So it occurred to me that if we could take these small samples, we could radiocarbon date them, not with conventional radiocarbon dating so much, but recently there's been a development in carbon dating where they use atomic accelerators to count the disintegration rate of the carbon atoms, atom by atom.

    So you can date extraordinarily small samples. So we set up a program to do that. And it involved us climbing all over the Old Kingdom pyramids, including the ones at Giza, taking as much in the way of organic samples as we could. We weren't damaging the pyramids, because these are tiny little flecks and it's a very strange experience to be crawling over a monument as big as Khufu's, looking for a bit of charcoal that might be as big as the fingernail on your small finger.

    We noted, not only the samples of charcoal, sometimes there was reed. Now and then in some of the pyramids we found little bits of wood. But we saw in many places, even on the giant pyramids of Giza, the first pyramid and the second pyramid and the third one, fragments of tools, bits of pottery that are clearly characteristic of the Old Kingdom.

    Were the Pyramids Built Before the Flood? (Masoretic Text vs. Original Hebrew)

    And it occurred to us, you know, these are not just objects, these, the pyramids themselves were archaeological sites during the time they were being built. If it took 20 years to build them—and now we begin to think that Khufu may have reigned double the length of time that we traditionally assign him—if people were building the Great Pyramid over three decades, it was an occupied site as long as some camp sites that hunters and gatherers occupied that archaeologists dig out in the desert.


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    • So you see the pyramids are very human monuments. And the evidence of the people who built them, their material culture is embedded right into the very fabric of the pyramids. And I think I could take just about any interested person and show them this kind of material embedded in the pyramids as well as tool marks in the stones and say, hey, folks, these weren't lasers. These were chisels and hammers and you know, people who were really out there. What does the radiocarbon dating tell us about the date of the pyramids?

      Well, we did a first run in , actually, funded by the Edgar Cayce Foundation because they had definite ideas that the pyramids were much older than Egyptologists believed. That they date as early as 10, B. Well, obviously for them it was a good test case because radio carbon dating does not give you pinpoint accuracy. If you have a plus or minus factor, but I say it's kind of like shooting at a fly on a barn with a shotgun.