In the United States, we have a holiday called Thanksgiving that we celebrate every November. The typical American family has a Thanksgiving dinner with any members of the extended family that can make it, provided they’re on speaking terms, and some interesting political conversations can come out of that.
This Thanksgiving is going to be especially interesting, because many of our American readers will have uncles or parents who believe, quite intractably, that the ancient Egyptian Pyramids were grain silos built by the biblical patriarch Joseph. And that’s because Tea Party presidential candidate Ben Carson said so.
Tea Party science operates in a very unusual way; Tea Party meteorology teaches that man-made climate change isn’t real, Tea Party physiology teaches that birth control pills cause abortions, and Tea Party biology and paleontology teach that the world (and, usually by implication, the cosmos) was created in six days some 6,000 years ago. Tea Party geology would presumably teach us that the Mount Rushmore memorial is a natural rock formation, Tea Party electrical engineering that female plugs are too delicate to bear high-voltage electrical currents, and so on.
It’s Tea Party archaeology—which links every ancient monument to the literal text of the Bible—that’s making the news right now. But for goodness’ sake, don’t argue with your relatives about the Pyramids; you’ll just make things more awkward than they already are. Send them a link to this article instead, so I can tell them that…
1. It’s pretty clear that the Pyramids contained human remains.
While staple recipes and food preservation methods have changed over the past few millennia, one practice we and the ancient Egyptians have in common is that we don’t like to put rotting human flesh in our cereal. Although European archaeologists investigating the pyramids in the early 19th century found no mummies, empty sarcophagi were found—sarcophagi that, numerous older historical documents suggest, had once contained mummified bodies. There’s also evidence of a possible canopic shrine in the second Pyramid at Giza, the centerpiece being a chest that would have contained Khufre’s preserved internal organs. That’s not something you want to find in your breakfast.
2. The Pyramids were built over a very long period of time.
The first surviving Egyptian pyramid, the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, was built around 2650 BCE; the final classical pyramid, dedicated to Ahmose I, was built around 1525 BCE. More time elapsed between the construction of the first and final pyramid than elapsed between the first Viking invasion of England and the inauguration of President Obama. That’s an 1,100-year stretch we’re talking about—10 times Joseph’s total 110-year lifespan as described in Genesis 50:26, and certainly not the short-term grain shortage described in the Bible.
3. The Pyramids identify themselves as tombs.
The most damning piece of evidence against Carson’s pyramid theory is their own testimony; the ancient Egyptians wrote down what the pyramids were for, and it wasn’t grain storage.
4. The Pyramids weren’t even hollow.
The Pyramids were mostly made of limestone, with very narrow passageways leading to relatively small chambers as illustrated here:
Even if we accept Carson’s argument that the chambers would have been useful places to store grain, why construct such massive, inefficient structures when much smaller, simpler structures would have done the job better?
5. The Bible doesn’t even remotely imply that Joseph built the Pyramids.
Most examples of Tea Party science boil down to either economics or religion, and in this case religion seems to be the culprit—specifically, the belief that the Bible implies that Joseph constructed these structures to store grain. Not only does the Bible say no such thing (the story of Joseph and the famine is recounted in Genesis 47), but giant monuments filled with relics dedicated to the Egyptian gods would have violated at least two of the Ten Commandments: the prohibition on other gods, and the prohibition on graven images.
Ben Carson is entitled to his own beliefs, and they don’t make him stupid; it’s harder to defend a crackpot theory than it is to defend a well-supported one, and goodness knows plenty of geniuses hold some strange ideas. But the fact that so many people in the conservative movement are defending such an odd take on archaeology and biblical interpretation does raise some difficult questions about the central role hierarchies of authority play in shaping the beliefs of the Tea Party movement, and the role that these increasingly eccentric beliefs may play in the 2016 U.S. election cycle.