Cochise College             Student Papers in Geology   
Geology Home Page               physical geology  historical geology  planetary  gems
Roger Weller, geology instructor

Michelle Vasquez

Physical Geology
Spring 2006

Construction of the Egyptian Pyramids


Scientists and explorers alike have helped to uncover the development of the pyramidal building process.
To begin with, there are four different types of structures which the Egyptians used as tombs.  Over the course of time, the development of each of these structures led to what is known as the true pyramid. 

The earliest structures were called mastabas.   “Mastaba is the Arabic word for stone bench” (“mastaba”).  The mastabas were made of mud or stone bricks faced with limestone slabs.  Unlike the pyramids most people are familiar with, they were rectangularly shaped, flat-topped, and had sloping sides; hence the name stone bench (  Builders most likely had to use ramps to move the bricks and limestone slabs.  Each mastaba had an outer chamber that was used for offerings.  The inner chamber was connected to a shaft which led to the actual tomb where the body was placed.


Figure 1-Mastaba:  Source-Pyramids


            From there, the mastaba developed into the step pyramid.  The step pyramids were not much different than the mastabas, in that they were a series of mastabas placed one on top of the other; each smaller than the one beneath.  A series of ramps would be used to get the stones from one mastaba level to the next.  The ramps would “have run from one step to another rather than approaching the pyramid face at right angles”  (Winston).    



Figure 2-Step pyramid with ramps: Source-Alan Winston


The first step pyramid was designed by the architect Imhotep for King Djoser in 2780 b.c.  This pyramid still stands today on the west bank of the Nile River at Sakkara near Memphis (Padwe). 


Figure 3-King Djoser’s Step Pyramid:  Source-The Ancient Egypt Picture Library


            As the fourth dynasty came about the Egyptian pyramids went through another phase of development and design.  The bent pyramid was a combination of the mastaba and what would later be known as the true pyramid.  The bottom portion of the bent pyramid looked like a mastaba while the middle and upper portions resembled a true pyramid. This was sort of the halfway point of the evolution towards the true pyramid. 


Figure 4-Bent Pyramid:  Source-The Ancient Egypt Picture Library


It is at this point that the Egyptians really begin to utilize the vast quantities and varieties of stone that are available to them. 

            There were four basic materials that the Egyptians used to build the pyramids:  limestone, pink granite, basalt, and alabaster.  Each type of material had a diverse use. 

            Limestone had, for the most part, two uses. The low-grade limestone was used for the core of the pyramid, while the fine limestone was used for the outer casing of the pyramid as well as the covering for interior walls.  It has been found that the first location where limestone was used for a pyramid was at Sakkara.  Unfortunately the limestone was of poor quality.  The yellow to greenish gray colored material was “layered in regular, strong formations as much as half a meter thick”  (Winston).  Each layer of limestone was separated by a thin layer of clay, which would at times cause slight color variations throughout the material. 



Figure 5-Limestone:    

Source-R. Weller/Cochise College  

            When it came to quarrying the stone the Egyptians would make small passage ways throughout the material with just enough room for the builders to cut out the blocks of stone.  The builders would use various tools such as copper pickaxes  and chisels, as well as, “granite hammers, dolerite and other hard stone tools” when working in the quarries  (Winston).  At times the builders would also use saws and drills to cut the stone.  When it came to acquiring the finer white limestone the task was much more difficult.  The fine limestone was much deeper underground than the rough limestone which meant that the builders had to dig a series of tunnels to reach the quarry itself.  At times the deposits were as far as fifty meters underground.  Thus the builders would have to create large caverns to reach the quarries  (Winston).  After reaching the quarries the builders would remove large pieces of the stone and then cut them into blocks. 


Figure 6-Stone quarry:

Source-Alan Winston


Pink granite was a material that the builders would use much more sparingly.  Pink granite was mainly used for the interior walls of the pyramid.  When quarrying the granite the “workmen may have used an abrasive powder, such as sand, with the drills and saws”  (Padwe). 


                                     Figure 7-Pink Granite:

                                      Source- R. Weller/Cochise College


            The builders would quite commonly use basalt as the flooring for the pyramids.  Basalt was also used as flooring quite often in the mortuary temples.


Figure 8-Basalt:

Source- R. Weller/Cochise College


            Alabaster seemed to have been a little bit easier to quarry than limestone.  It could be acquired from open pits or underground quarries.  Within the open pits “veins of Alabaster are found 12 to 20 feet below the surface under a layer of shale which can be two or three feet deep”  (Winston).  The rocks that were quarried would have “an average height of sixteen to twenty inches and a diameter of two to three feet”  (Winston). 


Figure 9- Alabaster:

Source-Mineral Information Institute


            It was during the reign of King Snefru, founder of the fourth dynasty, that the fourth and final pyramid, the true pyramid, came to be.  (Padwe).  By this time all of the basics for building a pyramid were in place.  The builders knew what materials to use and how to transport those materials.  The only feature of the pyramids that needed a little bit of an over hall was the design aspect.  The pyramids changed from the bent pyramid style to having straight and almost perfectly sloped sides.  The construction of the pyramids also changed.  Builders would first build a step pyramid out of stone or mud blocks;  this would be the core of the pyramid.  Beyond that the builders would use a material as packing stone to fill in the steps of the pyramid.  Once the pyramid was all filled in an outer casing of either limestone or granite was applied to the entire pyramid.  This gave it its somewhat smooth looking appearance.


Figure 10-True pyramid in construction

Source-Alan Winston


            The largest and most famous of the true pyramids is the Great Pyramid at Giza.  Built for the great Pharaoh Khufu, the Great Pyramid “stands today at four hundred and fifty feet high” (Padwe).  Originally the Great Pyramid had stood at over four hundred and eighty one feet tall, however, due to weathering and the sands of time some of its height was lost.   Even so, the Great Pyramid at Giza still stands as one of Egypt’s most magnificent structures.


Figure 11-The Great Pyramid at Giza

Source- The Ancient Egypt Picture Library


            We know so much about the Egyptians, yet so many questions, in terms of the construction of the pyramids, still remain unanswered.  Could each of the stone blocks really have weighed as much as fifteen tons?  Were the stones that the builders used to build the pyramids quarried or could the same stones been used to create blocks, as if pouring cement?  Did the Egyptians use some sort of devices acquired from extraterrestrial beings to lift the massive stones?  We may never know.  However, one fact will always hold true, as the great architects of their time, the Egyptians must have possessed great strength and imagination to build such wonderful structures as the pyramids.  It is through these pyramids that the lives of the pharaohs and of all of ancient Egyptian society has lived on and will continue to do so for generations to come.


Works Cited


Articles 14 Mar. 2006 <http://dictionary.reference/com/search?q=mastaba>.


Gill, N.S. . "Purpose of the Egyptian pyramids and the Egyptian view of death." 14 Mar. 2006 <>. 14 Mar. 2006 14 Mar. 2006 <>.


Winston, Alan. "Building Materials of the Pyramids Builders." 15 Mar. 2006 <>.


Winston, Alan. "Overview of Pyramid Construction." 15 Mar. 2006 <>.



Photographs and Drawings


"Development of Pyramids Gallery." The Ancient Egypt Picture Library. 15 Mar. 2006 <>.


"Development of Pyramids Gallery." The Ancient Egypt Picture Library. 16 Mar. 2006 <>.


"Development of Pyramids Gallery." The Ancient Egypt Picture Library. 15 Mar. 2006 <>.


"Pyramids." Thinkquest. 14 Mar. 2006 <>.


"Travertine." Mineral Information Institute. 16 Mar. 2006 <>.


Weller, R. "Limestone." Cochise College Geology Home Page. 16 Mar. 2006 <>.


Weller, R. "Basalt." Cochise College Geology Home Page. 16 Mar. 2006 <>.


Weller, R. "Granite." Cochise College Geology Home Page. 16 Mar. 2006 <>.


Winston, Alan. "Overview of Pyramid Construction." 15 Mar. 2006 <>.