A project management masterclass from the Ancient Egyptians

 Caleb Bastian

Caleb Bastian,
Visiting Scientist at princeton

Today we’re going to pretend to be in charge of Pharaoh’s pyramid building apparatus. To give socioeconomic context of such an activity, note that during Old Kingdom, around 5,000 years ago, the Ancient Egyptians had a Pharaonic system, a palace economy (redistributive) whereby everything and everyone is owned and controllable by Pharaoh. Pharaoh rules for life and the position is hereditary. Pharaoh has the responsibility of ensuring prosperity for the people and ensuring Maat, the cosmic balance of truth, order, and justice. The Ancient Egyptians mastered agricultural production with the enormous capacity of the Nile to create extraordinary wealth for the country. Huge supply chains of livestock were developed, and the state had ample surplus resources at its disposal. Old Kingdom is the “Age of the Pyramids” whereby the Ancient Egyptians mastered the art of building massive stone smooth-sided pyramids.

As they were a Solar cult, worshipping the Sun, their source of all existence, they believed the Great Pyramids to be Solar Resurrection Machines which ensure the rebirth of the Sun each day, protecting Egypt from chaos. To build the Great Pyramids at Giza, they moved on order of 10,000,000 stone blocks, weighing on average 2.5 tons (roughly a truck), over a period of 60+ years. The blocks are of different stone types, shapes, and functions, which are mass-produced through huge labor by hacking stone using diorite smashing blocks. The stones are quarried locally and at locations with distances 500-1,000+ miles away. The blocks are either dragged or floated down the Nile, which must be timed with the flooding of the Nile, itself an exogenous disturbance process. The sequence of the blocks must be controlled such that the right stones arrive at the right locations at the right time in the right quantities.

This is non-trivial as the pyramids possess complex heterogenous interiors, and the Nile is filled with crocodiles and hippopotamus. A further challenge is that over 99% of persons are illiterate, meaning they can neither read nor write, so all records of the project are maintained by the scribes, which function as the database of Ancient Egypt. The scribes keep track of millions of stones and use big-integer arithmetic. Instructions are communicated orally to all persons, who must remember what they have been told. Graffiti on the interior stones left by work gangs show private affection towards Pharaoh, with Friends of Khufu and Drunkards of Menkaure a couple notable examples: there is enthusiasm towards a shared vision. These descriptions are to the provisioning of the supply chains of stone production, transportation, and placement. The overall labor involved in the project was the entire population of Egypt. The workers have families, and everyone is provided meat, bread, beer, housing, and healthcare. Evidence of herd sizes of cattle are some 100,000+ strong at any point in time to feed all the persons involved. The aforementioned agricultural production was extensive in order to supply wheat and other crops to ensure a surplus of resources which could be directed towards state projects. This whole effort must be sustained and financed over generations, and knowledge must be passed down. Above all, there must be a prevailing order in all things and activities.

To give some context on the sizes of stones at the Giza Necropolis, below is an image of a Queen's Pyramid, a "small" pyramid at Giza. As you can see, each block is larger than a horse.

The massiveness of the foundation stones of the Giza Necropolis is mind-boggling. Below is a block of comparable mass. Khufu's base foundation is over 13 acres.

I have a few questions in mind for the reader to think about:

  • 1. On organizational structure, what is the span of control for this system, given the nature of the storage of information and its oral propagation and the size of the labor force (on order of 100,000)?
  • 2. How do you protect against variability caused the Nile’s flooding? Is a solution to maintain inventories of stones when the Nile is not flooded?
  • 3. For the multi-modal supply chain, how do the production locations interact, such as in the flow of resources and information? We know that the Ancient Egyptians utilized an elaborate system of ports alone the Nile and the Red Sea for shipping stone and wood.
  • 4. What kind of quality control system is used? There are certain tolerances that must be achieved for the foundations and the stones, otherwise the pyramid will be unstable. Is the known the Ancient Egyptians prototyped and tested fabrication of complex components nearby the pyramid before actual production.
  • 5. How do you implement “market wages” for persons in meeting quotas? This economic problem, of how the “agents” of the Great Pyramids were paid, especially the “executives,” is interesting and actually caused there to be no more Great Pyramids built after Giza. Simply put, it became too costly. Starting in Khufu’s reign, there began a steady but large transfer of wealth from Pharaoh himself to a subordinate class. Crucially Pharaoh decreed that such wealth could be inherited, thus creating a noble class that eventually came to contend for resources with Pharaoh, causing there to be fewer and fewer resources to build massive pyramids for Pharaoh’s tomb.

Many people look at the Giza Necropolis and think “How did they do it? How did they execute such a perfect construction at such enormous size?” [The diagonal base of Khufu is over 2/10’s of a mile] Because of such a seemingly singular astounding feat, the Ancient Egyptians have been to subject to numerous persistent speculations for thousands of years on how they did it, up to and continuing into present day, that are extraordinary but untrue, such as in religious stories, conspiracy theories, Hollywood films, etc. The answer is simple: they accomplished it through a masterclass of project management:

through iteration and selection. Prior to the Giza Necropolis, they had already spent over 100 years building Great Pyramids, including three Great Pyramids of Sneferu, Khufu’s father (which were on order of the same size as those at Giza). Notably, the first two Great Pyramids were failures. That’s 30+ years of failure. The Ancient Egyptians rapidly learned from these mistakes and kept on. They selected for what worked and passed improvements into subsequent designs. By the time of Giza, they were in the advanced stages of iteration, following many rounds of selection (many Great Pyramids built before, identifying how to build at such scale). Now, with the entire national economy adapted relative to the project, with physical expression at a titanic scale, the Ancient Egyptians hit the gas pedal for full-burn for 60+ years to forge the Giza Necropolis as the master identity, representation and expression of their culture, expending most of Pharaoh's resources in the effort. This is not unlike the “Space Age” accomplishments of the United States and Russia, which involved tremendous resources and much failure before finally being mastered, to avail the great frontier to humanity.

On a note of reflection:

  • • What do you think will be or are the “Great Pyramids” (long-lasting achievements) of humanity of the third millennia for the world?
  • • For USA?
  • • For other countries / examples you want to think about?
  • • Can modern humanity produce masterpieces that will endure thousands of years anymore? Is is possible? The Giza Necropolis, as a physical construction, has survived massive earthquakes, Biblical floods, stone robbery, erosion, and so on. It’s still there. It’s going to be there effectively forever. Where are all those stones going to go? They're in a globally physically optimally stable form. This is the significance of the Arab proverb “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids” and even the Eye of Providence in Christian and Masonic iconography (US Dollar Bill) with the watchful eye of God on top of a Great Pyramid.
  • • Perhaps a great Space Age, such as from the show "The Expanse", or perhaps a Genomic Age, will be the Great Pyramids for global humanity? I’d love to hear your ideas on what could be lasting achievements of present-day humanity.
  • • Could the Great Pyramid for global humanity be some kind of large-scale reduction in conflict, where states work in balance towards large-scale multi-national projects, to improve ecological and public health and diversity, among other outcomes?

Also, on a curious note, given the demonstration of such technique by the Old Kingdom Ancient Egyptians, it is interesting to see what factor ended their run: climate change. The immediate cause was that the flooding of the Nile was severely disrupted over an extended period of time, which undermined Pharaoh’s authority and negatively impacted agricultural production, leading to famine. Consequently the state eventually deteriorated due to lack of funds (default) and authority in relation to the problem at hand, and local rule emerged. This shows, in a lesson to humanity, that even the most powerful of human societies cannot endure mass food insecurity. The severity of the climate change in the 4.2 kiloyear event that destroyed Old Kingdom Ancient Egypt was of such intensity and geographic extent that it also caused the collapse of the Ancient Mesopotamian, Indian, and Chinese Civilizations, among others, at that time, and some suggest to be the result of a comet impact. So the glorious Age of the Pyramids and others were brought to their ends by catastrophic climate change. This is a good lesson to keep in mind for all looking forward. This has happened before, many times, i.e. the collapse of primary production by photosynthesis at the foundation of food chains on land and in the ocean, leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs, the then dominant lifeforms on land, in the air, and in the ocean, where the climate effects (specifically a global impact winter, dropping global temperatures by up to 70F for decades) followed a massive asteroid impact at Chicxulub 66 million years ago.

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