Were the pyramids built by aliens? The real history that debunks the conspiracy
Are the pyramids too awesome to have been the work of the mere mortals of ancient Egypt? The conspiracy theory that aliens built the pyramids is the subject of an episode of our new podcast series Conspiracy, in which Rob Attar speaks to Professor Joyce Tyldesley about the origins of the belief and the evidence that reveals how the monuments were really constructed
More than 50 pyramids still stand in Egypt: colossal feats of architecture and engineering and lasting monuments to the ancient civilisation of the pharaohs. From the oldest – the step pyramid of Djoser, erected during the Third Dynasty in the 27th century BC – the period of pyramid building lasted around a millennium, and the structures took many forms. They could be made of mud brick or limestone, stepped or with smooth white casing.
Pyramids served as royal tombs and aids for pharaohs to reach the afterlife; heavy with symbolism, the shape almost represented a stairway to heaven or the Sun’s rays coming down to Earth. They had a worldly purpose too as a status symbol for kings – who else could command Egypt, both its people and resources, to build something so wondrous?
Of all the examples in Egypt, the most famous is the Great Pyramid of Giza, built over several decades in the 26th century BC on the command of pharaoh Khufu. It was the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one still surviving, and for nearly 4,000 years it stood as the tallest human-made structure in the world.
Were the pyramids built by aliens? The conspiracy theory
So the theory has it, the pyramids were not the result of decades-long construction projects involving tens of thousands of people, gigantic logistical and administrative efforts, near-inexhaustible supplies of stone, and master architects and engineers. Instead, they were built by aliens, or at least aliens showed humans how to build them.
Extra-terrestrial interference has not been the only outlandish theory to explain how an ancient civilisation boasted such awesome monuments. The people of Atlantis have received similar credit. Much about the pyramids, from how they were made to what is inside them, remains unknown to this day, so perhaps unsurprisingly there are many misconceptions as well as conspiracy theories.
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A common claim that still lingers is that they were built by slaves. “The Bible suggests that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, and classical authors visiting Egypt recorded that slaves must have been used. But if you came from a civilisation that used slaves, like Greece or Rome, you’re probably going to assume any massive monument was built by slaves,” says Joyce Tyldesley, Egyptologist at the University of Manchester. “While there certainly was what could be called forced labour, it is incorrect to imagine slaves being whipped and dragged from other countries. They were native Egyptians rather than prisoners.”
Conspiracy: A HistoryExtra podcast seriesMember exclusive | Was the moon landing faked? Did Shakespeare actually write his plays? Were the pyramids built by aliens? Expert historians offer their perspectives on history's biggest conspiracy theories.
What is the source of the 'pyramids built by aliens' theory?
Although pyramids have existed for more than four millennia – and across many civilisations around the world – the introduction of aliens was a fairly recent idea. “I would say it really develops after HG Wells publishes The War of the Worlds in 1897. This starts a run of sci-fi books,” says Professor Tyldesley.
“There’s one in particular in 1898, Edison’s Conquest of Mars [by American astronomer and writer Garrett P Serviss], which reveals that the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx are Martian constructions. It’s not supposed to be a serious book; it’s fiction. But this idea that someone from outside Earth might have visited Egypt and built the pyramids took hold.”
In 1968, the Swiss author Erich von Däniken published his bestselling book, Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, which went a long way in popularising the theory that ancient astronauts visited Earth, were welcomed as gods, and greatly influenced the cultures, religions, technologies and, of course, architecture of ancient civilisations.
The reasons why the theory took hold
There is a compelling argument that the belief in ancient aliens visiting Earth and imparting their superior knowledge stemmed, initially at least, from a deep-rooted racism and prejudice against people from the past, a reluctance or refusal to believe that an ancient civilisation from somewhere else in the world – like Africa or, in the case of the Mesoamerican pyramids, Central America – could actually construct such impressive monuments. Any explanation, even aliens, would be preferable or more believable.
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“It’s not appreciating the skills and abilities of the people of the past because we have sufficient evidence to show that these people could do this type of building,” says Professor Tyldesley. “But I think there’s more to it than that. Prior to the idea of aliens helping to build the pyramids, we had the idea that people from Atlantis might have helped, and prior to that we had the idea that God inspired the builders.”
The long succession of changing and evolving theories may be a result of the longevity of the pyramids themselves: they are still there, inspiring wonder and bewilderment. “The fact that we didn’t understand the Egyptian beliefs of death and the afterlife for a long time after the end of the dynastic age meant that we were forced to find explanations to try and understand why they were there.”
The evidence that debunks the conspiracy
“If we take the Great Pyramid of Giza, we know that it was built by gangs of workers summoned under a sort of national service or corvée system,” says Professor Tyldesley. “They had fairly basic but effective tools, and the workers were able to cut blocks of stone, transport them to the construction site and gradually erect the pyramid. “There are parts of the technology we can’t see today – for example, the ramps – but basically, it was the sheer amount of person power that made it all possible.”
The existence of a limestone quarry near to the site of the Great Pyramid, plus evidence of the camp sites for the workers, reveals how extensive the project would have been. “We have evidence of how they were fed and for the cemeteries where they were buried,” adds Professor Tyldesley. But it is only in the past 50 to 70 years that our understanding of pyramid building has made significant strides, which for a long time left a vacuum in which conspiracy theories were able to take root. Egyptologists, archaeologists and historians could do more, according to Professor Tyldesley, to present the evidence and a credible alternative to the idea of alien visitors.
“The construction of the pyramids encouraged not only building techniques, it encouraged civil service to develop to coordinate all the workers; the development of boats to ship timber or stone; medical skills to deal with accidents; and possibly increased the sense of community. I think the building of the pyramids is absolutely fundamental to the building of Egypt.”
Writer and broadcaster Dr Joyce Tyldesley is honorary research fellow at the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at Liverpool University, and teaches Egyptology at Manchester University
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.