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Secret of the pyramids: John Romer

Sunday, July 15, 2007
Tara went into the depths of the pyramids at Giza with archaeologist John Romer (Nine Network Image).
60 Minutes presents a live interview with archaeologist and pyramid expert John Romer.

Interviewer: John, thank you for joining us tonight in our live online chat.

John Romer: It's a real pleasure to be here, thank you.

Thomas asks: How long would it have taken to build the great pyramid and how is it that they've lasted this long?

John Romer: The way I have worked out how long it took to build the great pyramid by using the figures used to build the pyramids before. No one was able to do this till quite recently, since the texts that have told us have only been found in the last few years. It would have taken 14 years to build. They've picked the best stones out of the nature rocks, and have been laid in the same order as they were naturally so they have weathered perfectly.

Raven asks: Other than the pyramids in Egypt, where else can pyramids be found?

John Romer: Off the top of my head China, Mexico and Central America.

Tobias asks: How difficult would it have been to build the pyramids with the level of technology they had in the past?

John Romer: Easier than we think. We have lost the skills of ordering huge numbers of intelligent, highly skilled craftsmen. It's a world we don't know anymore.

Hatshepsut asks: What are the most famous pyramids on earth?

John Romer: The Great Pyramid of Giza.

Allycat asks: Has it ever been discovered just how they managed to get the precision down pat and be able to cut the stone and assemble it without such modern tools today as levels etc?

John Romer: Yes, that's what my book set out to do. What I've discovered was that what we call 'the design' is really the same as the craftsmanship. Making a pyramid is like weaving a basket, using complex mathematics. We've lost the ability to organise large numbers of people to work like they did back then.

Tailz asks: Hi John. Can you explain more about the comment regarding the Limestone being ransacked?

John Romer: All the pyramids of Egypt have had the best part of their casings taken away. There is no proof of where they ended up, but it looks like a lot of it has been built into the Mosques of medieval Cairo. robert lake macquarie asks: I have always wondered how they could get all of the rocks into place, especially the ones at the top, it would be difficult even today. What equipment would have been used?

John Romer: They used very simple systems of ramps. It's like they're using quarries, ancient and modern. Except that in quarries they are usually taking the stone down, whereas in the pyramids they are taking it up. The ramps were made of mud and stone chippings and the top of the ramp was made very wet so that the stone would slide easily. Like a skate on ice.

Tom asks: Just wondering when you became aware that the "markers" on the side of the pyramid were actually of some significance in the construction of the pyramid?

John Romer: Quite a long way into my work. Once I had worked out the plan of the pyramids of the cross section, I then had to try and think how an ancient Egyptian who had never seen a cross section could have used the same design. The idea came quite quickly, and it seemed the best solution until someone else can come up with something better.

Ty asks: It would be quite interesting to see people of today try and build a pyramid using the same technology and techniques the ancient Egyptians used. What do you think?

John Romer: Yes, people have done it. And it's never really worked because the people in charge have always been western engineers who don't understand how craftsmen work with simple methods. I once saw a film with two Egyptians pulling a stone. And one said to the other, this foreigner is going to kill both of us.

George asks: Hi John, do all tourists have access to most areas with the exception of the top, and can you tour the great pyramids in one day?

John Romer: Yes! It will cost you 50 pound Egyptian. And well worth it.

Mingers asks: During the story, you extended an invitation to touch the fingerprints on the stone in the room above the tomb. Wouldn't this damage and erode the stone?

John Romer: Yes, it would. But that's a place that people cannot go and it's a rare privilege. As for it damaging the stone, the grease from the tourist hands all over the stone properly helps to preserve it.

geust asks: Is there any particular reason for the pyramid being constructed in that geometric shape, rather than say a square, or rectangular building? Surely it would have been easier to construct?

John Romer: Nobody knows of any reasons. There are lots of theories. But the pyramids are the best shape to get the maximum effect with the minimum amount of stone.

kissy asks: Do you feel it's safe to still explore inside these pyramids? Does anyone ever check on the current structure for safety for tourists?

John Romer: Yes, it's perfectly safe, especially if you're thin. And yes, people check. I've been with the checkers [when they had] an earthquake in Egypt. But it doesn't stop people from panicking.

leah asks: The reconstruction of the bottom half of the Sphinx looks disgraceful! The sphynx was carved but the building blocks of today do not live up to the same aesthetic quality of the pyramids, Do you agree, John?

John Romer: Well, a lot of them are of Roman date. The blocks in the bottom of the Sphinx is not all new. And the new ones are to replace the Roman originals. Indeed some of the blocks might be very much older. As for their colour, it will go down to the yellow fairly quickly.

Kelsey asks: I was just wondering why this particular pyramid is known as the "great" pyramid, and how many pyramids can be found in this particular part of Egypt?

John Romer: It's called the great pyramid because it's the biggest and it's always been known as the great pyramids. There are about 100 major pyramids in Egypt, all of which are within about 50 miles of the Great Pyramid.

denno asks: Is the Egyptian Government doing enough to protect the pyramids from the impact of tourism? It would be a shame to see these amazing structures being lost to acid rain or just eroded by the constant feet of tourists.

John Romer: The Government is doing a tremendous amount to preserve the monuments. They will not be lost to tourism. It is very well controlled and regulated.

spr197 asks: There seem to be lots of theories about how the pyramids were built. What makes your theory stand out from all the others? Which theory do we believe?

John Romer: Well people believe whatever they want. My theory is the only one that has taken the facts from the ground and tried to build from them. I'm the only person in 70 to 80 years to actually look at the plans of the inside of the pyramids and try to scientifically work out a plan from it. I'm using nothing but the facts.

syd asks: I'm guessing that the Egyptians were quite small people, seeing you squeezing through the small spaces?

John Romer: Yes, they were around 5'2. Every mummy I've seen is around 5'2 high. And craftsmen who work manually cannot have large muscles. They were thin, wiry people.

NickP asks: There are rumours that the Sphinx has tombs not allowed to be opened by the Egyptian government. Do you believe this to be true?

John Romer: No. It's something dreamt up in America in the 19th Century. And it comes from some dream somebody had. The Sphinx is made of solid rock and no one has ever found an entrance to it.

King Solomon asks: Are the pyramids truly in alignment with the constellations?

John Romer: No, the ancient Egyptians had no way of aligning monuments other than by eye and strength. They did not have the equipment to do so, nor the interest.

guest asks: John, is there any particular reason why the Pyramids, especially the Great Pyramid, are located where they are, or is it simply a geographical reason, for instance easier to get the quarried stone from the Nile?

John Romer: We don't know if there is any special, intellectual or religious reason. But it's a wonder place to build. It's on a huge cliff, it's near a quarry and the river and you've got to think, with 5.5 million tones of stone it's good to be near the quarries and have a nice strong piece of ground to put it on.

fatty asks: How do you know that it took 14 years to build the great pyramid with 25,000 men and that they laid two blocks every three minutes?

John Romer: I don't. What I do know is that the previous pyramid, which is not as big, took around 11 years to build. And that if you simply add on the extra stone on the great pyramid, with the same size work force working at the same speed, they would have finished the pyramid in 14 years. It's easy to estimate the numbers of people once you've got the time it took, because you can only fit so many people around a block of stone to cut and shape it.

denno asks: The British Museum and The Vatican Museum to name but two, have a great many Egyptian artefacts. Do you ever see these being returned to their country of origin? It is terrible that so much has been plundered from Egypt.

John Romer: Yes it is terrible, but no I don't think they will be returned because then all the museums would be empty and the curators would have nothing to do.

ken asks: Do you think there is any validity in the proposition that there was/is a curse on those who enter the burial chambers/pyramids?

John Romer: No. There is no validity, because the ancient people never made such a curse. Or if they did, they never wrote it down.

mel asks: What is the significance of the sphinx? Was it to be like some sort of guard to the entrance of the pyramid?

John Romer: We don't really know. The face seems to have been a portrait of King Kahfre, who is one of Khufu's sons. It's cut from the natural rock and was probably a lump of stone left over from the quarry. Interestingly, one of the Egyptian hieroglyphs for the word horizon is a picture of a Sphinx. So for them, the two have a close connection.

Ra asks: Dear John, Is it known why the Great Chamber exists? It is a mighty structure.

John Romer: It's where King Khufu is buried. His sarcophagus still stands in the room.

Fiona.J asks: Why are they no hieroglyphics inside the Great Pyramid?

John Romer: There are no known literary texts from the time of Khufu. The first known literary text is 200 years later. But Khufu's name is written out in hieroglyphs in some of the building blocks.

guest asks: Are the Egyptians who live and work around the Pyramids very superstitious and traditional about the sacredness of the Pyramids, or are they quite blasé about them now?

John Romer: I think they are superstitious, but being good Muslims they cannot regard them as sacred as that would be worshipping a false God. But they are very proud of them.

denno asks: Are there any archaeological remains of the villages where the workforce who built the pyramid lived? What do we know about the worker's lives?

John Romer: Part of the large town in which the workers (who built the second and third pyramids of Giza) lived is presently under excavation. Nothing is known of the accommodations of the people who made the great pyramid, but there are a few small diagrams in my book.

Vamps asks: Is there any possibility that they will restore the great pyramid to what it would have looked like before time took its toll?

John Romer: I really, really hope not. There was, however, a plan to take it down completely. And they were going to make a dam with the stones across the Nile. But it turned out to be too expensive.

Joshua asks: I am a student doing my final years of school. I am interested in studying archaeology after I finish. Just wanted to know if archaeology is dominated by theory or is archaeology as exciting as you make it seem?

John Romer: Archaeology is what you make it, there are several very good courses on Egyptian archaeology in Australia, which you'll do for love and not for money.

Codger asks: What is the name of your book and where can you get it?

John Romer: My book is called The Great Pyramid and it is published by the University of Cambridge, who have a very good website and a bookshop in Australia. You can find my book at the following website address:

Osiris asks: What makes the pyramids so awe-inspiring?

John Romer: It's their size and their age. But you have to be very quiet and stand by them for a while before it hits you. We're so used to modern things being big that it takes a while to see how special pyramids are. And there is one very odd thing, and that is the top of a pyramid is 300 feet back from the bottom of the pyramids and it leaves you with a very strange impression, not like any other building.

Curious asks: I read recently that there are doubts re: Khufu as the building contractor. There are no detailed reliefs as in the Valley of the Kings etc. Also, why are there no blackened ceilings or walls from lighted torches? How did they illuminate the tunnels?

John Romer: We don't know much about King Khufu. His name, though, is written on the stones of the Great Pyramid by some of its builders. And everyone down through the millennia seems to have remembered that the Pyramid was built in his reign. As for the soot, there is soot in the Great Pyramid from the 19th Century travellers, but most of it has been washed off. Most of the pyramids, of course, were built in sunlight. So lighting in the interior would only have been a problem after the roof went on. They would have used lamp, with salt in the oil so the flame burns very pure.

Interviewer: Unfortunately we are out of time. Do you have anything you would like to say before we finish?

John Romer: It's nice to know that so many people in Australia are so interested in the pyramids. The full story, which you can never do on the television, is in my book The Great Pyramid. Interviewer: Once again thank you and goodnight. This concludes our chat with John Romer, Sunday, July 15, 2007.

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