Not long ago British art historian Julian Spalding made international headlines when he claimed that Stonehenge was never meant to be a temple or a calendar but rather a glorified pedestal. Spalding concluded that a wooden platform rested atop the site’s stones, allowing visitors to have a better view of the stars. How exactly that worked with the central stones being taller than those around them, I’m not sure, nor am I quite following why smaller stone circles preceded the current Stonehenge we know in love since they were impractical for holding up a platform. That’s not important, though, because Spalding published an article in the Guardian last week that made some claims about pyramids that suggest that he is less familiar than he thinks with the subjects on which he delivers such dramatic conclusions.
We still think the pyramids are mysterious, but actually they were products of common sense. They are virtually identical in Mexico, Egypt and China – not because one civilisation learned how to build them from another but because they thought alike.
Holy crap. He thinks the pyramids around the world are “virtually identical”? It may come as a surprise to Spalding, but the pyramids are very different in form and function. Egyptian pyramids were, in general, low-angled and smooth-sided true pyramids culminating in a pyramidion. Mexican pyramids were, in general, steep step-pyramids with external staircases and a temple surmounting the structure. The Chinese pyramids are not stone constructions but are smooth-sided earthen mounds, and they culminate in a flat platform. There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule, but they serve to prove that “pyramid” is simply a catch-all term for any raised construction that tapers as it rises. Other pyramids can be found in Peru and the Sudan (Nubia), and pyramid-shaped mounds occur throughout the Americas.
He is right, however, that the superficial similarities stem from the demands of ancient building techniques, which demand a tapering structure for stability. Spalding, though, take a psychological view of pyramid building, reducing the construction of pyramids to a question of cosmology:
Piles of stones or earth naturally form cones but there are no massive cones in ancient history. The reason is simple: cones form circles and, therefore, couldn’t be on the ground. A circle was the shape of heaven. The flat earth had to be square because it had four directions – north, south, east and west. That’s why all pyramids are four-sided, and, incidentally, extremely difficult to build.
Not all pyramids are four-sided. Los Guachimontones in Teuchitlán, Mexico contains a pre-Hispanic round pyramid in the shape of a series of concentric and diminishing circular steps. The great pyramid of Cuicuilco, infamous for fringe historians’ false assertion that it predates known civilization, is also round. There are several additional Mexican round pyramids: Structure 3 at Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca, El Corral at Tula, and some in Veracruz, according to Emily Umberger and Cecelia F. Klein, writing in “Aztec Art and Imperial Expansion.” Some Mayan pyramids, like the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal, have rounded sides and thus lack corners. If we expand the definition of pyramid to include mounds, as Spalding’s citation of the Chinese pyramid-mounds demands, then we are bombarded with a plethora of round structures, from the cone-shaped Neolithic mounds of the British Isles to the rounded and cone-shaped mounds of the pre-Columbian Americas.
I would hazard that when building in stone, shaping rocks into squares and rectangles is probably easier than finishing them on a curve to construct a perfect cone. I would argue that the four sided pyramid was the easiest way to work in stone, much easier than creating a cone and perfecting its curves.
Spalding, though, elides all of the many and varied reasons for building mounds, platforms, and pyramids—from tombs to temples to raised residences for elites—in favor of one quasi-mystical claim:
The reason for pyramid building was simple: they harnessed the mysterious forces that we believed held the world together – the sea’s flat horizon that ran through the earth, the invisible force of gravity that dragged us down to our graves and the spirit of life which, like flames that always rise, lifted us to our eternal, future home among the stars. The bigger and heavier we could build them, the more pyramids concentrated the powers of the universe against the ceaseless changes on earth that brought so many calamities. They weren’t symbols of celestial bodies but forces for permanence on earth. That’s why pyramids looked alike.
This fails to explain why Mesoamerican pyramids were built in stages, from small temples on which the gradual accretion of new layers turned them into pyramids. It fails to explain why the Maya and the Aztec discounted “permanence” to the point that they rebuilt their pyramids on a regular schedule, sometimes changing their very shape (from round to square, for example). And it fails to explain why so many pyramids are small. The Nubian pyramids, for example, wouldn’t be mistaken for the great weights holding fast the heavens. And if we count mounds, it fails to explain why many mounds aren’t pyramids at all but can take a bewildering array of shapes.
In short, it’s hard to attribute a human universal to a phenomenon of startling diversity, much less one predicated on Western ideas about spirituality that don’t necessarily apply in non-Western contexts. It is astonishing how closely Spalding captures the essence of the medieval pyramid myths so popular with fringe historians.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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