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Drill
The drill, with instructions.
Roger Hopkins
Roger Hopkins, cheering 170 pullers.
raising derrick
Raising derrick lashed to the obelisk on the ramp.
obelisk
An ancient obelisk in its native habitat, at Karnak Temple.
quarry
Wyly Brown considers the unfinished obelisk still in the quarry at Aswan.

Raising an Obelisk

by Rick Brown
Reprinted from the Number 54, December 1999 issue of Timber Framing.

Since early times, obelisks, some of them huge, have been removed from Egypt to cities such as Constantinople, Paris, Rome, London and New York, but they were always re-erected using the most recent technology of the time. In 1994 and 1995, Public Broadcasting System's educational science series NOVA produced a film of an attempt to raise an obelisk using probable Egyptian New Kingdom technology. This attempt provided vital information, but the film crew departed Aswan, Egypt, leaving their obelisk resting on the ramp at a 35-degree angle to the ground. The producers geared up for another attempt in 1999.

I agreed to make a replica of an ancient tool (a bronze core drill for stone, shown left) in exchange for an invitation to travel with the film crew to Egypt. Shortly before departing, the film director Julia Cort asked if I would, in addition, construct a timber-framed device to help raise the obelisk. I agreed in exchange for another invitation, this one for my anthropologist, timber-framing, jack-of-all-trades son.

Next thing we knew, Wyly Brown and I were on our way to Egypt, proudly carrying our reproductions of Middle Kingdom stone cutting tools and an abundance of woodworking tools that would be vigorously checked by every baggage inspector from Boston to Cairo. It is right that inspectors should be a little unnerved by suitcases laden with bronze cylinders, 21-in. chisels and a chain saw.

Arriving at the Aswan quarry 440 miles south of Cairo, we discovered the film crew and extras reenacting the overland transport of a 25-ton block of granite lashed to a wooden sledge sitting on lard-lubricated timbers set in the sand, seen at right. Teams of laborers levered on the sides and behind the sledge while 170 people pulled on two sets of ropes under the direction of structural engineer and project designer Mark Whitby (London), nautical archaeologist and ancient rigging expert Owain Roberts (Wales) and stonemason Roger Hopkins (Massachusetts). The air was filled with dust, shouting and frustration.

By the end of the day, the stone had been moved all of 20 ft. Wyly and I met with Mark Whitby to discuss the timber device we would soon construct, and he anxiously presented us with a schematic sketch and the sense that time was a-wasting. We were concerned about the basic theory and that several details were not fully understood.

Wyly and I fast-track designed with engineers Henry Woodlock (England) and Iolo Roberts (Owain's son). We rounded up a substantial pile of 20-ft. 10x10 Southern yellow pine timbers left over from the 1994 raising attempt. Additional materials were delivered (for cash) via the local donkey cart. Abdul Alim, proud of his participation in the construction of the modern Aswan Dam and now our construction manager, led a team of Egyptian workers hired to assist in the raising of the stone. This group, which Henry named the "Happy Gang" because of their enthusiasm, quickly built a temporary woodshop with a grass roof to protect us from the hot desert sun. We began cutting timbers for the levering apparatus, which we entitled The Hand of God.

We inscribed names on all the wooden parts: Dave, Ed, Joel, Grigg, Al, Jim, Mikey, Ellen, Laura, Donna, Bob. If people inquired, we told them, "These are the names of the timber framers who should be here with us." Of course, these were the names of our trébuchet-building mates in Virginia and Scotland. On several occasions, we telephoned home to mechanical engineer Grigg Mullen of the Virginia Military Institute, at that time working on the Guild's Project Horizon Workshop in Lexington. He would pull his calculator out of his pocket (we presume) and verify the load capacities of our late-night designs. Thus shooting from the hip, Grigg played an important role in our contribution to the project. For the next five days, the building was fast and hard, dusty and dry under a constant hot desert sun. The Egyptian bystanders fell completely under a spell when I cranked up my orange Husqvarna chainsaw. For a few days I was Mikey Goldberg on the upper Nile.

Raising an obelisk was not an official Timber Framers Guild project, but it's no accident that, in the end, a good number of Guild members became directly involved. The Guild constantly defines and redefines itself. Craft, history and public service certainly are its concerns. But as an artist, educator and part-time timber framer, I am very interested in the creative problem-solving skills of many Guild members, and in their undertakings. When given a problem, many of these maker-thinker-doers can find a solution using hand tools, hard work, principles of physics -- and cooperation.

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