Egyptian kite-flyers 'may have built the pyramids'

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An Egyptian hieroglyphic showing a number of men in odd postures holding ropes apparently connected to a huge bird has inspired a new theory about the way huge ancient monuments like the pyramids and Stonehenge were built.

A Californian software engineer saw the symbol and wondered if the "bird" could be a huge, man-made kite capable of providing the lift to raise a heavy block off the ground. After managing to raise a 180-kilogram cement block off the ground with kites bought in a shop, Maureen Clemmons took the idea to Morteza Gharib, a professor at the Californian Institute of Technology. He then lifted a 3.5-ton obelisk by using a large sail.

"The instant the sail opened into the wind, a huge force was generated and the obelisk was raised to the vertical in a mere 40 seconds," Professor Gharib told New Scientist magazine. "We were absolutely stunned."

The opening of the sail generated a huge initial force, far greater than the normal pull when the kite is static. The discovery offers an alternative theory as to how the Egyptians, and perhaps early Stone Age dwellers in Britain, constructed their huge monuments.

An attempt last year to recreate the journey of a single three-ton stone from a quarry in Wales to the site in Wiltshire, with humans pulling the stone along on greased sleds, managed just one mile, out of 293, in a day. Later in the Lottery-funded trip, the coracle carrying the block overturned and it sank, leading onlookers to conclude that the Stone Age builders must have known a few long-forgotten tricks.

Willeke Wendrich, an associate professor of Egyptology at the University of California in Los Angeles, scoffed: "The evidence for kite-lifting is non-existent." And Egyptologists can find no reference to kites in any ancient texts. True or not, Ms Clemmons believes the use of kites for lifting may have applications in poorer countries in the modern world.