Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The suprisingly simple way ancient cultures got to the second floor without an elevator

Photo courtesy of Jack Newton
Few have looked at an ancient building and not wondered how the people who built it got to the second floor without the use of an elevator (or lift). 

Indeed, why would an culture expend the effort on building structures that are inaccessible? Some say it was for ceremonial purposes, as a tribute to the gods, and that these structures were never actually used. On the flakier side, some say it was for the benefit of ancient aliens who would have levitated to the second floor using mental powers or advanced technology.

The most confounding mystery is how the building materials made their way up there in the middle of the air for construction. Engines did not exist to raise a lift, and no construction worker, not even the kind from Brooklyn who whistle in sexist fashion at women as they pass, is that strong.

The truth, researchers at the University of Nevermind announced this week in a study published in the journal Shit You Already Knew, may actually be quite simple. It has long been believed that ancient humans used series of offset wooden platforms to raise themselves and cargo, but until now it hasn’t been entirely understood how they overcame the problem of height. It amounts to nothing more, scientists say, than a “clever trick.”

They likely used a lot of platforms. ”To get to the second floor, ancient peoples had to lift their heavy asses the entire height of the first floor,” the university said. “They therefore placed a series of platforms next to each other, each short enough so that it can be reached by stepping up without actually climbing. Research revealed that by repeatedly "stepping up" and pausing to wheeze and catch their breath, people eventually reached the top of the stairs. Getting back to the first floor involved repeatedly "stepping down" in similar fashion. The elegance of this scheme was that ascending or descending was accomplished using the same set of platforms!

It has to do with physics. See, your ass is pretty heavy. Making the platform too high means you'd have to lift yourself in one go, probably by jumping or some such stuff, and let's face it, you can't even do a pull-up. Dragging yourself up to the second floor by your fingernails just isn't going to happen. It “was perhaps observed by the Egyptians or some other other old dudes that a hill's pretty tall, and you still get to the top, so maybe building something like a hill was worth a shot,” says the study, authored by a team of eight researchers led by Idi Oates..

Archaeologists' reconstruction of what early "steps" may have looked like

The problem is that the top of a hill is pretty far away from the building, requiring a ramp or platform and a really sturdy pair of shoes with the grippy soles.

This was partially solved by leaning the hill up against the building. But the big breakthrough came when the hill was replaced by wooden platforms, enabling the entire structure to be brought indoors for the first time. This couldn't be done with the hill technology because of ancient housewives' insistence that "you're not bringing that dirty thing in my house".

Eventually this evolved into "stairs". While the actual existence of stairs has been long known, what they were actually for has been a matter of great debate and discussion.“This was the question,” Oates wrote in an e-mail to The Gullible. “In fact, archaeologists had been interpreting the steps as part of a floral display, or maybe some really badly built bookshelves, and had never sought a scientific explanation. And walking up stairs is a terribly complicated problem. Unlike an escalator you can stand there forever and you'll never get to the top. We had always assumed that trying to use a non-motorized lift would end in starvation."

Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, building on this work, have released a video detailing how this novel invention may have been used:

Oates said the experiment not only solved “the architectural mystery, but also shows, interestingly, that people probably had a lot fewer books than we thought they did.”

In all, the scientists say, “pretty much everybody before about 15 years ago were probably aware of this handy trick.”

Ok, yes, I'm parodying this Washington Post article about Egyptology... or more accurately, I'm lampooning the reporter who wrote it.

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