The techniques used to build the Giza pyramids were developed over a period of centuries, with all of the problems and setbacks that any modern-day scientist or engineer would face.
Pyramids originated from simple rectangular “mastaba” tombs that were being constructed in Egypt over 5,000 years ago, according to finds made by archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie. A major advance occurred during the reign of the pharaoh Djoser (reign started around 2630 B.C). His mastaba tomb at Saqqara started off as a simple rectangular tomb before being developed into a six-layered step pyramid with underground tunnels and chambers.
Another leap in pyramid-building techniques came during the reign of the pharaoh Snefru (reign started around 2575 B.C.) who built at least three pyramids. Rather than constructing step pyramids, Snefru’s architects developed methods to design smooth-faced, true pyramids.
It appears that Snefru’s architects ran into trouble. One of the pyramids he constructed at the site of Dahshur is known today as the “bent pyramid” because the angle of the pyramid changes partway up, giving the structure a bent appearance. Scholars generally regard the bent angle as being the result of a design flaw.
Snefru’s architects would correct the flaw; a second pyramid at Dahshur, known today as the “red pyramid” — so named after the color of its stones — has a constant angle, making it a true pyramid.
Snefru’s son, Khufu, would use the lessons from his father and earlier predecessors to construct the “Great Pyramid,” the largest pyramid in the world.
The pharaohs appointed a high-ranking official to oversee pyramid construction. In 2010, a team of archaeologists discovered papyri dating to the reign of Khufu at the site of Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea. Text on the papyri stated that in the 27th year of Khufu’s reign, the pharaoh’s half-brother, Ankhaf, was the vizier (highest official to serve the king in ancient Egypt) and “chief for all the works of the king,” archaeologists Pierre Tallet and Gregory Marouard wrote in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology.
While the papyri said that Ankhaf was in charge during the pharaoh’s 27th year, many scholars believe it’s possible that another person, possibly the vizier Hemiunu, was in charge of pyramid building during the earlier part of Khufu’s reign.
Researchers are working to understand the sophisticated planning that would have been involved in pyramid building, which required constructing not just the pyramids, but also the temples, boat pits and cemeteries located near the enormous structures.
Researchers have noted that the Egyptians had the ability to align structures to true north very precisely, something that may have helped in planning the pyramids. Glen Dash, an engineer who studies the pyramids at Giza as part of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), noted that Khufu’s pyramid is aligned to true north within one-tenth of a degree. How the ancient Egyptians did this is not fully clear. In a report published recently in an AERA newsletter, Dash wrote that a circumpolar star like Polaris and lines of rope were likely used as part of the method.