When we think of Egypt we think of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Standing 455 feet tall, the largest of the Giza pyramids was built by the Pharaoh Khufu in the third millennium B.C., and has been a must-see tourist destination for the past 2,500 years. The popularity of this ancient tomb is matched only by the bafflement it inspires in its beholders. For hundreds of years, scientists and archaeologists have speculated about the ancient technologies used to build such a large structure. Some have even speculated it was built by aliens. But now, a chance discovery by a curatorial assistant at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland may help answer the question “How did they build the Pyramids?”
Towards the end of 2019, when curatorial assistant Abeer Eladany was reviewing objects in storage in the museum’s Asia Collection, she came across a small, unusually decorated cigar box. An Egyptian herself, Eladany immediately noticed her country’s former flag on the box’s exterior and knew that it had no business in the Asia Collection. “Once I looked into the numbers in our Egypt records,” she said in a university press release, “I instantly knew what it was, and that it had effectively been hidden in plain sight in the wrong collection.”
Inside the box Eladany found a 5-inch piece of cedar broken into three pieces. This (formerly intact) unassuming piece of wood was one of only three items—provocatively known as the ‘Dixon relics’—that were removed from the Queen’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid in the 19th century. The other two (a ball and hook), are housed in the British Museum. For the past 70 years, however, the wooden ‘relic’ was lost.
The Dixon relics were taken from the Queen’s Chamber by Waynman Dixon, an engineer who explored the Great Pyramid in 1872. Their “discovery” by Dixon was widely reported by British newspapers. At the time it was obvious that the items were of great significance: a December 1872 issue of The Graphic wrote that “the position in which [the relics] were left shows that they must have been left there whilst the work was going on, and at an early period of its construction.” The relics, the article optimistically speculated, could provide evidence “as to the correctness of the many theories formed by Sir Isaac Newton and others as to the weights and measures in use by the builders of the pyramids.”
Unfortunately, when the wood was donated to the University of Aberdeen by the family of one of Dixon’s associates, it was never properly classified, and it vanished into the archives. “The University’s collections are vast,” said Eladany, “running to hundreds of thousands of items—so looking for it has been like finding a needle in a haystack. I couldn’t believe it when I realized what was inside this innocuous-looking cigar tin.”
Carbon dating of the fragment, which was delayed due to restrictions introduced during the pandemic, reveals that wood dates to 3341-3094 B.C., roughly 500 years earlier than the Great Pyramid itself. The early date rules out the possibility that the wood had been left there by later visitors to the tomb. If anything, Neil Curtis, the Head of Museums and Special Collections, said “it is even older than we imagined.” This might be because of the scarcity of trees in ancient Egypt or it might suggest that wood was cut “from the center of a long-lived tree.” Alternatively, it might have been deliberately deposited there as a way for the pharaoh “to emphasize continuity with the past by having antiquities buried with [him].”
It is certainly true that the cedar fragments once formed part of a larger piece of wood that remains inside the Great Pyramid. That larger wooden piece was captured on camera in 1993 when the interior of the pyramid was explored using a robotic camera. As for what the wood can tell us about the construction of the pyramid, scholarship inches ever closer to the truth. We already know that the stones used to construct the Great Pyramid were mined from a nearby quarry and transported across the desert on large sledges. In order to reduce friction and ease the passage of the blocks, workers slightly dampened the sand in front of the sledges. The precise alignment of the Great Pyramid to true north has led one engineer to suggest that the Egyptians used ropes and stargazing to construct their pyramids.
As for the Dixon relics, they may help scientists answer the big question: how was the pyramid itself constructed? In the 1680s Sir Isaac Newton spent considerable time trying to deduce the unit of measure used to make Pyramids. His unpublished notes on the subject were recently auctioned at Sotheby’s. Given that the Dixon relics have long been presented as construction tools, it’s possible that the wood pieces once formed part of a measuring stick or a leveraging system. This does not, of course, prove Newton’s theory that the measurements of the Pyramids could help him predict the end of the world.
What is clear is that no matter what Ancient Aliens or misinformed Israeli politicians have said: the pyramids weren’t built either by aliens or by the enslaved Israelites mentioned in Exodus. These theories merely reflect the fact that when confronted with what is, arguably, the greatest wonder of the world it is difficult to imagine how human beings could possibly have built such a thing.