Ancient Nile branch was a conduit for Pyramids building materials

Published online 2 September 2022

Egyptian pyramid builders harnessed a now-defunct arm of the Nile to transport construction materials.

Rieko Kawabata

An old postcard with a picture of the Pyramids of Giza.
An old postcard with a picture of the Pyramids of Giza.
Lehnert & Landrock/ TIMEA Visual Materials/CC BY-SA 2.5
Archaeologists have long suspected that an ancient arm of the Nile, known as the Khufu branch, served as an important route for freight transport to enable construction of the Giza Pyramids around 4,500 years ago. However, little has been known about how this river section evolved.

Now, a team of researchers from France, Egypt and China has obtained a more detailed history of the Khufu branch by studying fossilized pollen grains extracted from five sediment cores drilled on the floodplain east of the Pyramids complex. 

Analysis of the pollen grains enabled the team to track the emergence and disappearance of more than 60 different plants, including aquatic species, such as papyrus and sedge, and terrestrial ones, such as date, palm, cereals and ferns. From these data, they were able to infer the rise and fall of water levels in the Khufu branch over a period of 8,000 years.

They found that the waters of the Khufu branch rose significantly during the African Humid Period, from 14,800 to 5,500 years ago. The Khufu branch remained at a high-water level for some time after this period during the reigns of Khufu (2589 to 2566 BCE), Khafre (around 2570 BCE) and Menkaure (around 2530 BCE), facilitating the transportation of construction materials to the Giza Pyramid Complex. 

The water level is thought to have gradually declined after the reign of King Tutankhamun (1349 to 1338 BCE). This fall correlates with previous evidence from chemical markers in the teeth and bones of Egyptian mummies that suggests a more arid environmental period.

“Our 8,000-year reconstruction of Khufu branch levels improves understanding of fluvial landscapes at the time of the construction of the Giza Pyramid Complex,” says environmental geographer, Hader Sheisha, of Aix-Marseille University, France. “It demonstrates that Old Kingdom engineers harnessed the fluvial environment — the Nile and its annual floods — to exploit the plateau area overlooking the floodplain for monumental construction.” 

Sheisha adds that similar approaches used in the study could help reconstruct ancient waterscapes that bordered other Egyptian pyramid complexes, such as the Saqqara and Dahshur pyramids south of Giza.

While such reconstructions can indicate how building materials may have been transported, there are ongoing debates as to how the massive blocks were placed on top of each other. The Great Pyramid of Giza initially stood at 146.6 metres tall and consisted of more than 2.3 million stone blocks weighing 6 million tonnes in total.


Sheisha, H. et al. Nile waterscapes facilitated the construction of the Giza pyramids during the 3rd millennium BCE. PNAS (2022).