Ancient Precision Stone Cutting
By Laura Lee
This article appears in Ancient American magazine February 1997.

All content (c) 1998, Laura Lee,Seven Directions Media Inc. No duplication without permission. All Rights Reserved.

I found much to marvel over during a recent trip to Egypt. Most marveling over ancient stonework focuses on the size of the huge stone blocks in the Great Pyramid, and how they were put into place. But I was enchanted by an aspect of ancient stonemasonry that gets little press, yet offers tangible clues to another mystery. Cairo Museum's Old Kingdom rooms are full of vases, bowls, large lidded boxes, and statues, carved from schist, diorite, granite and obsidian, that defy simple answers to the question, "how did ancient sculptors carve this hard igneous rock with such precision?" Surely not with pounding balls, and copper and stone tools, as suggested by Egyptologists.

After our tour, my husband Paul and I spent a full day in the museum, where we could leisurely examine the wonders therein. To our eyes, the oldest artifacts have an austere, "modern" look, with their clean lines and perfect proportions, that make the New Kingdom items seem baroque by comparison. The big stone boxes wore marks, in corners where two curved lines came together, for example, that even I could guess were made by machine tools. I was especially puzzled by life-size diorite and granite statues with satin-smooth surfaces, and precisely, delicately carved features. On the base of several statues, a few crooked rows of crudely-drawn, rough-edged hieroglyphs had been chipped in. Now this is more the look you get with chisels on hard stone. I imagined those hieroglyphs to be the equivalent of graffiti on a fine work of art, a later addition to an heirloom antique. Two very different techniques implies two different dates. And why use a lesser technique, unless the first, superior technique had been lost?

When the standards are inadequate, new theories arise. So I went looking for them. I find great benefit in crossing disciplines. Following the trail of evidence, to see where it leads, often requires stepping outside the constraints of the preconceived notions of one field. So I went looking, not among Egyptologists or archeologists, but to those who would know about rocks and tools. I found two independent researchers, a geologist and a machine tool manufacturer, to see what the stone artifacts could tell us, and what the marks left behind by precision machine tools looked like.

Both were recent guests on "The Laura Lee Show," the weekly, nationally syndicated radio interview/talk show that I host. Here is their story.

Ivan Watkins is a Professor of Geology, Department of Earth Sciences, at St. Cloud University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He is investigating the finished surface of Inca stonemasonry. He says the surface of stone, at the microscopic level, indicates how it was, or wasn't, worked. "And you can rule out the standard issue explanations when it comes to ancient Inca stonemasonry, which is very similar to that of Egypt," he says.

Watkins explains that soft rock is easy to cut; granite and the other hard igneous rocks are difficult. Granite contains 15 to 30% quartz crystals, and a few other minerals of varying degrees of hardness, which is important when viewing the signature marks left in stone under the microscope. The methods that are supposed to have been used by the ancients, such as pounding, hammering, grinding, polishing with abrasives, and wedging, just don't match up with what Watkins sees under the microscope.

What he sees, in the case of hammering, is rock wanting to break along pre-existing planes of weakness. When river sand, which is mostly quartz, is used to grind and polish rock with quartz, the softer minerals in the rock are sanded out, while the quartz crystals, little affected, are left standing above the rest of the minerals on the surface. In the case of wedging rock, Watkins finds the absence of low-angle fractures, and no ability to control the cracking of the rock. On a surface worked with pounding stones, all the minerals are unevenly fractured.

All of which is incompatible with what Watkins sees with Inca stonemasonry. What he does see on some Inca stones are slick surfaces, at Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, and the Rodadero at Sacsayhuaman, still used as a slide by children. Similar to a ceramic glaze, heat can melt quartz fragments into a glaze that fills in irregularities, creating a smooth surface..

In an effort to discover just how such surfaces could have been obtained by ancient cultures, Watkins went looking for modern technology that produces a similar signature. He found an important clue in the work of geologist David Lindroth, at the US Bureau of Mines, Twin Cities Research Center. Lindroth was using 100 watts of light energy, focused to a circle of 2 mm, to cut through any rock, in a process called "thermal disaggregation." The cuts were only 2 mm deep, but repeated passes can cut through rock of any size, he reports. Quartzite fragments quite easily with this process while basalt melt. And, he concludes, Inca stone surfaces are similar to those that have been thermally disaggregated.

What about a process that could cut stone, produce this signature, and used an energy source available to the Inca? Watkins found another clue in the bracelet worn by a modern-day priest in Cuzco. In the yearly Festival of the Sun, fire must be given by the hand of the sun. The ceremony requires lighting wisps of cotton on fire by using the sun’s rays, which are concentrated with a highly polished, concave indentation on a large gold bracelet. The bracelet is similar to those worn by ancient Inca.

Then Watkins noticed large parabolic gold bowls in a museum in Peru. "These bowls weren't meant to sit on a table holding fruit; they'd roll around the table. They must have been used for something else. They are just the right shape and material for catching the sun's rays, and focusing them into a beam of light."

Sun light strong enough to cut stone? Watkins suggests ancient Inca stonemasons heated and cut stone by using a series of very large gold parabolic reflectors to concentrate and focus solar energy. He points to the Conquistador’s records mentioning an Inca golden dish so large, it spanned the length of two men (it was cut up for poker chips before it was melted into ingots and carried back to Spain); to those big granite bedrock posts at Machu Picchu as possible supports for the mirrors; the fact that Peru, like Egypt gets strong sunlight all year long; and that gold is at its most reflective when its alloyed with silver. (Interesting that some pyramidions, or capstones, found in Egypt were made of electrum, an 80/20 ratio of gold to silver.) Watkin's research led him to develop a solar-powered device for cutting and polishing stone, for which he received a patent, application #4611857.

Now let me introduce you to our guest who reads the signature of precision machine tools, even when he sees them in places that just ‘can't be,’ according to Egyptologists. And read them he did, from core drills more efficient that our diamond bits today, to "space- age precision" planing, to intersecting lathe marks.

Chris Dunn, now in senior management at Danville Metal Stamping in Danville, Illinois, has spent much of his career working with machinery for jet-engine components, and non-conventional manufacturing methods such as laser processing and electrical discharge machining. He also brings a fresh perspective to viewing an ancient artifact, describing himself as "unencumbered with dates and histories and chronologies."

Two visits to Egypt, for personal inspections of selected artifacts, had him asking "how was this created? How, precisely, is this engineered? what tools were used to make this?" His opinion of the tools on display as the instruments by which many ancient artifacts were created: "they are simply physically incapable of reproducing those artifacts today. So why should I believe they could do so thousands of years ago?" Logical enough.

And it does not deter him that ancient tools capable of reproducing these artifacts have not been unearthed. "The tools haven't yet been found, but that shouldn't stop us from deducing what they were, by the marks left on the artifacts," he says. What marks? According to Dunn’s investigation, the marks of sophisticated sawing, drilling, lathe, and milling practices, and a standard of even, level, flat surface planes impossible to achieve by hand.

There’s the diorite bowl in the Cairo Museum that appears to have been cut on a lathe. Dunn points out the simple stone bowl has a "sharp cusp, where two spherical, concave radii intersected. This indicates the radii were cut on two separate axes of rotation. Cutting stone on a turning lathe is a pretty sophisticated use of a wheel."

And how to explain the spherical, stone drill cores, the piece removed when a round hole is cut? Dunn points out that ancient drill cores fascinated famed British Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie, who first established, by examining the cores and the holes left behind in the stone, that a tubular drill was used, the same as we use today.

Dunn found, in "Pyramids and Temples of Giza," published in 1883, that Petrie had calculated the rate of descent of this ancient tubular drill, by measuring the distance between the spiral grooves it left behind on the core, as 1/10th of an inch per revolution. Which means, according to Dunn, that these ancient drills cut through solid granite with a feed rate 500 times greater than today's diamond drills.

"I presented Petrie’s astonishing calculations to other craftsman, asking them to determine what possible method could create that same feed rate, and the other characteristics we see in ancient drill cores, such as the hole and core tapering into the stone, and grooves cut deeper in quartz than in feldspar," says Dunn. "Most gave up. Only one figured it out, and he independently came up with the same method I did." What method is that? "Ultrasonics."

How do we use sound today to cut through rock? Dunn explains, "today’s ultrasonic drills use very high frequency vibration, sound, traveling through a medium. It induces a tool to oscillate, or reciprocate back and forth about 19,00 to 25,000 hertz, in a rapid grinding process. A paste or slurry stimulates the cutting action." Modern ultrasonic machine-bits are used for the precision machining of odd-shaped holes in hard, brittle materials. It is significant that ultrasonic drills cut through quartz more easily than through the feldspar of granite. "Ultrasound gets the quartz in the granite vibrating in sympathy, and therefore cuts more easily," says Dunn..

Then there's the so-called sarcophagus in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid. (Why assume it was meant to hold dead bodies, when no bodies, mummified or other, were ever found in the Great Pyramid? Was it instead a chamber of initiation? Or did it have something to do with the Ark of the Covenant, since the Ark's outside dimensions are said to be a perfect fit to the sarcophagus' inside dimensions?) Dunn points out the end piece of this granite box, the side facing north, bears saw marks that are very similar to saw marks on today’s granite surface plates. What is a surface plate? "They are precision- ground, flat blocks that serve as a reference plane when measuring other flat planes in the manufacturing process. Granite is used, because it’s stable and extremely hard. Metal surface plates can swell. Granite surface plates don’t," explains Dunn.

And this is why he finds it intriguing that the big black granite boxes in the Serapeum at Sakkara were only roughed out when first brought into underground chambers with quite different atmospheric conditions than the dry outside air. (We deduce this from one rough-cut box that still sits in a corridor, having never made it to its chamber.) Once inside the chambers, after the stone had a chance to adapt to the atmosphere, was it then finished. This helped the granite retain it’s precise dimensions.

And "space age precision" is how Dunn describes the level surface of the inside of the Great Pyramid's sarcophagus, or granite box, and those of the Serapeum. He brought along a portable instrument which measures the accuracy of a level surface, and shone a flashlight behind a straight edge held against the smooth sides. No light escaped between the straight edge and the granite to indicate slight imperfections. "Of course, to really measure it, I’d like to bring in laser surface scanning equipment. But from my quick measurements, I'd say it was so even, so level, it would be impossible to achieve that by hand," says Dunn.

Still, why was such precision needed? After all, you don't go to all that trouble for no reason. So it's an open question as to exactly what the builders were doing with these artifacts. Unfortunately, these stonemasons weren’t giving away any secrets, or writing them down. Judging by the Freemasons, architects and builders who, some say, trace their lineage back to mystery schools of ancient Egypt, they were a secretive lot. This too does not deter Dunn. "The interpretation and understanding of a civilization's level of technology cannot hinge on the preservation of a written record for every technique that they developed," he says.

What about the preservation of an artifact? In this case, these precision tools. Where are they? What were they made of? Copper is just not tough enough for this kind of work. "Ferrous metal tools would have rusted away by now," answers Dunn.

Petrie, who was the leading Egyptologist of his day, also determined that saws nine feet in length were used by the ancient Egyptians, and noticed that, during the construction of the Great Pyramid’s sarcophagus, the drill had wondered away from its course, leaving a scallop cut a little deeper in the corner. Yet today’s Egyptologist never seem to mention such curiosities. I wonder how they can overlook such rock-hard evidence, forsaking the opportunity for sound forensic science.

When a theory cannot adequately explain the evidence, let’s throw out the theories, not the evidence. Personally, I’ve found it helpful to become comfortable with the unknown, to be wary of easy answers, and to follow the clues provided by the anomalies. Which after all, are anomalies only because they, for now, lie outside our intellectual comfort zone.

Now I must share with you my other favorite story of the year: Pyramids in China, long rumored, are finally confirmed, and they look a lot like those of Meso-America.

Since 1945, when U.S. Air Force pilot James Gaussman, flying over a large earthen mound in a remote section of China, snapped a picture, this single photo of a shadowy, pyramidal form was one of the few clues that China had pyramids.

In 1994, German researcher Hartwig Hausdorf was invited to the Forbidden zone in China's Shensi Province. There, he saw over a hundred pyramids, and was allowed to climb, photograph, and videotape them. Here is what Hausdorf shared with me in recent correspondence:

The Shensi pyramids are made of clay, and have become nearly stone-hard over the centuries. They are without decoration. Carved stones stand in front of a few pyramids. Many are heavily eroded or damaged by farming. They are flat topped, reminiscent of the pyramids of Meso-America. One pyramid stood tall, reminding Hausdorf of Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun, in Mexico.

Some of the pyramids are large enough to be seen from space. Hausdorf mentions an article in the March 1994 issue of the Chinese newspaper "Xian Wanbao" in which it was reported that a U.S. astronaut took photos of nine dark spots in the Shensi region. When developed, an enlargement revealed nine pyramids the size of a forty-story house.

Many of the pyramids were designed along the golden mean proportion, as was much ancient architecture around the world. This is the case in the only stone pyramid so far located in China. In Shandong, there is a 50 foot tall stone pyramid of a different style, no steps, topped with a little temple. The golden proportion, 0.618, is also found in the great Shensi pyramid. Divide the height by the base (approximately 300 meters divided by 485 meters).

The pyramids stand alone, or in rows of three, or in clusters. (And when mapped, will some turn out to be configured along key constellations, as the three Giza pyramids are found to imitate the placement of the three belt stars of Orion?) Hausdorf talked with one Shensi archeologist who is of the opinion that there must be an astronomical connection and alignment of the pyramids around Xian, and who reported that additional pyramids were recently found north of Xian city; one of which stands exactly on the geometric center of the old Chinese empire.

How old are China's pyramids? One clue comes from the 1910 diaries of two Australian traders, who noted what an old Buddhist monk told them --- that in the 5,000 year old records of his monastery, those pyramids are mentioned, described even then as being very old.

Don’t miss the opportunity to talk with Hausdorf live, on The Laura Lee Show in August.


Resource Information

Prof. Ivan Watkins
For a detailed examination of Prof. Ivan Watkins research, see "How Did the Incas Create Such Beautiful Stonemasonry?" in "Rocks and Minerals" Vol. 65 Nov/Dec 1990, or write to him c/o St.Cloud University, St. Cloud, MN, 56301-4498.

Chris Dunn
For the
Chris Dunn’s article, click here

Hartwig Hausdorf
To view a few of the
Pyramids of China, click here.
Hartwig Hausdorf is the author of "The White Pyramid" and "Satellite of the Gods," not yet available in English. Hausdorf, who lives in Munich, will be here in the U.S. in August lecturing to the Ancient Astronaut Society in Orlando, and the A.R.E. in Virginia Beach. He is scheduled to be a guest on The Laura Lee Show on August 2nd or 9th. 1997

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