Ancient Ramp Construction

Information on the Internet about the construction of the great cities and monuments of the Mesoamerican and South American cultures is surprisingly hard to find, it turns out.

dThe Aztecs were real tricky to find stuff on. Almost every supposed “source” detailing its construction techniques immediately starts going on about how they sacrificed people during construction, then doesn’t bother to actually discuss the techniques they used. I’m no trained historian, but that seems like sensationalism to me, and it sure doesn’t answer my questions.

There are a few interesting tidbits out there, though. Teotihuacan, one of the major Aztec sites, was actually constructed over a thousand years before the Aztecs gained power, by someone else entirely.

The Inca and Mayan empires have a bit more out there to easily find. I had to dig through a lot of nonsense about Mayan prophecies and their mass disappearance, but there was a lot of good stuff. Like this: They actually used a primitive form of limestone-based concrete for much of their construction.

cThe Incans were the easiest to find information on, since most of the stuff on the Internet is about their construction techniques anyhow. Their buildings were famed for being constructed of huge stone blocks in irregular patterns that for together perfectly, without gaps. You can’t even stick a knife between the stones.

People go crazy over that, some even going so far as to say that there were aliens helping the Incans. (Some nuts out there.) I think it says more about contractors today than it does about ancient construction. Tight seams just take good workmanship.

The stones in Incan constructions were placed by dragging them up huge earthen ramps on log rollers. Interestingly enough, they took the opposite approach to the ramps than the Egyptians, who just put together giant straight ramps. The reason they could do that when the Egyptians couldn’t is pretty simple: the Incan Empire was huge. It was basically the Rome of South America. It could afford to just throw manpower at problems until they were solved.

They did save a little money by using locally quarried limestone or granite, but the empire was wealthy and powerful enough that it could have shipped them halfway across Peru on their excellent system of roads if the whim overtook them. We have tons of archaeological evidence for the Incan ramps, and a few—even still—partially exist.

The Ramp Incident

I broke my first bone when I was eight. My cousin John and I had decided to build a bike ramp in his back yard. His mom was asleep, so we couldn’t play inside the house, and we’d already read through his comics a dozen times before.

We gathered a bunch of cinder blocks and boards from the shed my uncle was building and hauled them out to the top of the big hill behind the house.

Incident4I had a brand new Schwinn, and he had one of those heavy black Raleigh bikes from England. The boards were resting on the cinder block at about a 45-degree angle. I went first, on account of John being quite a bit smarter than me. I moved right up against his house to get the fastest start I could. I came at the ramp straight on and made it onto the board I was aiming at, which then promptly broke in half, and I crashed full speed into the cinder blocks.

Somehow I wasn’t seriously injured, beyond a couple of scrapes and bruises. We rebuilt the ramp with a much, much lower angle this time. I went first again, again proving John was (and still is) much smarter than I am.

I hit the ramp at full speed again, and this time it held. I must have launched a good seven feet off the ramp, though at the time it felt closer to a hundred. I stuck the landing and shot down the hill faster than I’d ever gone before. I would have made it all the way down, too, if it hadn’t been for a cinder block that had fallen down the hill when I crashed into the first ramp. My bike flipped over it, and I landed on my arm, breaking it just above the wrist.

Incident3John, meanwhile, hadn’t bothered to watch me go down. When he saw me ramp, he just had to go himself. He used a different, longer board than I did. As soon as his back wheel hit the end of the board, it flipped up into the air like it were part of a catapult, flew through the air, and somehow managed to land on one end on my injured arm between the wrist and elbow, breaking it a second time before bouncing farther down the hill.

John had lost control of his bike after the failed ramp attempt. It came tumbling down the hill in loose pursuit of the board and landed right on top of me, which didn’t feel too good. John was chasing his bike, but when it came to a sudden stop, he didn’t, and he fell right on the bike, which forced all of that weight onto—yes—my injured arm again between the shoulder and elbow, breaking it a third time.

To add insult to injury, I got grounded for twice as long as John. There is one continuing advantage to the whole escapade, though: John always buys the beer when we go fishing. I guess he still feels a little bad.

On Pyramids and Ramps

The pyramids are among the wonders of the ancient world for a pretty simple reason: they’re huge. Doesn’t take much to figure that one out. But what got me interested in the pyramids in the first place was their construction.

pyr2The ancient Egyptians obviously didn’t have the technology for moving heavy loads that we did. All they had were a few primitive cranes, some basic levers and rollers, and, of course, ramps.

The old idea about how the Egyptians built the pyramids involved thousands of slaves hauling blocks up huge straight ramps to the top. It looks cool in the movies, but it doesn’t actually work that well. The amount of material and labor needed to construct straight ramps to the top—and to continue building them up as the pyramid grows—is pretty close to the amount you’d need to build the actual pyramid itself, not to mention that they haven’t actually found any evidence for ramps that colossally huge. Building ramps that huge, I say, is just a waste.

pyr1It seems more likely that they instead either zigzagged the ramp up one side or spiraled it around the pyramid, using uncompleted segments as the ramp. This would have allowed them to construct the vast majority of the pyramid easily, though the top third of the structure would have needed to be moved up, using levers. Since it’s so much narrower at the top, though, that top third makes up less than five percent of the total weight of the pyramid. That’s working smart.

Historians and archaeologists also think that rather than huge hordes of slaves, the pyramids were constructed by smaller teams of well-paid skilled laborers, who were cheaper than feeding an army of slaves and got things done much quicker. No one’s said anything about ancient Egyptian unions, but I’ve got some cheerful suspicions about that.