"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

Friday, December 19, 2014

Peak pyramids: the way to ruin is rapid


Originally published on Cassandra's Legacy on Friday, December 19, 2014


The graph above is a little exercise in cliodynamics, the attempt of quantitatively modeling historical data. Here, the size of the great Egyptian pyramids is plotted as a function of their approximate building date, taken as the last year of the reign of the Pharaoh associated to them. The data are fitted with a simple Gaussian, which approximates the cycle of the Hubbert model of resource depletion.


The great Egyptian pyramids built during the 3rd millennium BCE are the embodiment of the power and of the wealth of the Egyptian civilization of the time. But why did the Egyptians stop building them? Not lack of interest, apparently, since they kept building pyramids for a long time. But they never built again pyramids on such a giant scale.

Probably, we will never have sufficient data to understand the economics of the Egyptian pyramid building cycle of the 3rd and 4th Egyptian dynasties. But we can try at least to examine the quantitative data we have. So, I went toWikipedia and I found data for the size of pyramids and their approximate dates. The result is the graph above. Here, I show only the data for completed pyramids as a function of the last year of the reign of the Pharaoh associated for each one.

As you can see, it is possible to fit the data with a Gaussian curve, which approximates the Hubbert curve, known to describe the depletion of a limited, non renewable resource. This suggests that the Egyptians had run out of resources, possibly in the form of the fertile soil necessary to sustain the large workforce needed to build pyramids. Or, perhaps, in an age of increasing warring activity, they were forced to funnel more and more resources into the military sector, taking them away from pyramid building.

Another phenomenon we can note in the graph is the rapid collapse of the size of the pyramids at the end of the cycle. The last pyramid of this cycle, the one associated to Pharaoh Menkaure, is even smaller than the first one of the cycle, the "stepped pyramid" of Pharaoh Djoser. Perhaps, this rapid decline is a manifestation of the "Seneca Effect", a term that I coined to describe economic cycles in which decline is faster than growth. Unfortunately, however, the data are too scattered and uncertain to be sure on this point. But surely there was no "plateau" nor a slow decline after the construction of the largest pyramids andit is suggestive to think that even pyramid building may be described with Seneca's words "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."





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