Few monuments capture the public imagination quite like pyramids. These feats of engineering teach us about cultures that lived long before us — not just their art and innovations, but their everyday lives.
Just how old is the earliest pyramid? How did Egyptians start building their iconic smooth-sided pyramids? What are we still discovering within them? From the towering Great Pyramids of Giza to the complex stepped pyramids of Mesoamerica, these seven facts reveal just how mind-blowing pyramids really are.
Egyptian Pyramids Were Rarely Just Pyramids
In Egypt, these triumphs of architecture — reserved for royal tombs — were the main buildings of larger complexes. Typically, the complex also included an attached mortuary temple with shrines, an open courtyard, and chapels, staffed in perpetuity, with an offering table.
Ancient Egyptians also buried pits full of boats around these monuments to help ensure smooth sailing into the afterlife. One of the more impressive boats was uncovered in 1954 next to the Great Pyramid of Khufu — sometimes referred to as just the Great Pyramid. The 144-foot-long, 4,600-year-old ship was buried in more than 1,200 pieces stashed underneath stone blocks.
The Great Pyramids of Giza Created Whole Cities Around Them
Building pyramids as large as the Great Pyramids of Giza was a major undertaking, and required a lot of labor — especially the Great Pyramid of Khufu which, at 481 feet high, was the tallest building in the world for thousands of years. (The date of its construction is debated, but may have begun around 2550 BCE.)
Archaeologists have uncovered two "towns" around the Great Pyramids that not only housed pyramid-builders, but bakers, carpenters, weavers, stoneworkers, and others that supported day-to-day life. Some lived in family dwellings with their own courtyards and kitchens, while others, likely itinerant workers, slept in something more like a barracks. There is so much we don’t know about these areas, but one thing’s for sure: Based on animal bones and pottery found around the site, everyone there was very well-fed… and had plenty of beer to drink.
The First Known Pyramid Is 4,700 Years Old
Djoser’s Step Pyramid, built sometime between 2667 and 2648 BCE, is considered the oldest pyramid, although it doesn’t have the smooth sides we associate with Egyptian pyramids today. Previously, pharaohs had been buried underneath mastabas — structures that look like single plateaus. The Step Pyramid stacked multiple mastabas on top of one another, creating the tapered effect. It’s located Saqqara, a necropolis about 15 miles south of Cairo.
Pyramids in Egypt Used to be Bright and Shiny
We picture pyramids now as immense buildings of sandy-colored stone, but when they were originally constructed, they were adorned in polished limestone. These casing stones needed to be individually cut to a specific angle and sanded until they shone. Many of these outer layers were knocked loose by an earthquake or dismantled for building other things.
Sudan Has More Than 200 Pyramids
Until the mid-20th century, many archaeologists viewed these sites as extensions of Egypt, rather than part of a unique cultural heritage. But Sudan’s pyramids, most of them located in Meroe, are much smaller and steeper, surrounded by their own collections of chapels and monuments, and are unique to Nubian culture.
For what it’s worth, Egyptian-style pyramids are all over the place, including Italy and Greece. Pyramids more broadly, however, take many different forms.
The Americas Contain More Pyramids Than the Rest of the World Combined — Including the Biggest One of All
In ancient Mesoamerica, a region spanning from much of modern-day Mexico through most of Central America, peoples such as the Inca, Aztec, Maya, and Olmec had their own style of pyramid dating back to about 1000 BCE — and they built a lot of them. Unlike Egypt, they weren’t used exclusively for tombs.
The most well-known Mesoamerican pyramids are the ones in Teotihuacan, an Aztec city near present-day Mexico City. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest of the structures, and nearby Pyramid of the Moon were both constructed by putting rubble inside a set of retaining walls, building adobe brick around it, then casing in limestone. The Pyramid of the Sun hides an extra secret: another pyramid, accessible through a cave underneath. These pyramids were built between 1 and 200 CE, although the pyramid inside the cave is even older.
The Great Pyramid in La Venta, an ancient Olmec civilization by present-day Tabasco, Mexico, is much different: It’s essentially a mountain made of clay. Later Olmec pyramids were also earth mounds, only faced with stone in a stepped structure.
The largest pyramid on the planet by volume, not height, is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, or Tlachihualtepetl, in Mexico. It dates back to around 200 BCE, and is essentially six pyramids on top of one another. Later civilizations expanded on previous construction, taking care to preserve the original work. It’s made of adobe bricks and, whether accidentally or through a deliberate effort from the locals, eventually became covered in foliage and was later abandoned. When Spanish invaders, led by Hernan Cortez, came through, murdered 3,000 people, and destroyed more visible structures, they thought Tlachihualtepetl was part of the natural topography and let it be.
We’re Still Finding New Stuff Inside Pyramids
The Great Pyramid of Khufu, the tallest of the Great Pyramids, has been the topic of rigorous study for more than a thousand years — but we’re still finding out what’s inside, including whole new chambers. The Scan Pyramids project, a collaboration between Egyptian, French, and Japanese research institutions that started in 2015, uses updated cosmic ray technology for a noninvasive peek inside.
So far, they’ve found two previously unidentified areas: a corridor on the north face of the pyramid and a “big void” above the Grand Gallery. The void is at least 100 feet long and has a similar cross-section as the Grand Gallery, which connects various areas of the pyramid, including the burial chamber.
A team of American researchers hopes to use even more advanced technology to try to get a full three-dimensional image of the big void. Whether it’s a structural element or a whole new chamber, it could provide a wealth of information on how the pyramids were built.
One thing’s for sure: U.S. Presidents are the stuff of legends. However, just because personal tales about the leaders are passed down from generation to generation doesn't mean the stories are rooted in truth. In fact, many of the stories are so outlandish that it’s amazing people believed them in the first place.
From flammable teeth to ridiculous bathtub debacles, we take a look at the eight of the oddest presidential myths out there — and set the record straight.
Myth: George Washington Had Wooden Teeth
Cherry tree aside, one of the most chewable facts is that the nation’s first President had a mouth full of wooden teeth. While it seems like an odd story to be linked to the founding father, a deeper dig gets to the root of the issue. Washington did indeed have terrible teeth, so much so that he had multiple dentures made. Those mouthpieces were made out of ivory, gold, lead, and even human teeth, but never any wood. Wood was not used by dentists at the time, because not only could wooden dentures cause splinters, but wood is also susceptible to expanding and contracting due to moisture — not ideal for something that lives in your mouth.
Myth: Thomas Jefferson Signed the Constitution
It seems incomprehensible that a big-name founding father like Thomas Jefferson missed out on signing the U.S. Constitution, but he never inked the deal. He was actually absent during the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, as he was across the Atlantic Ocean in Paris, France, as the U.S.’s envoy.
Myth: Abraham Lincoln Wrote the Gettysburg Address on an Envelope
There’s no doubt that the 16th President was a brilliant orator. But the idea that he haphazardly scribbled one of the most important speeches in American history on the back of an envelope during a train ride sounds a little far-fetched. In reality, Abraham Lincoln toiled away at different versions of the Gettysburg Address, which he gave on November 19, 1863. Not just that, it was anything but a solo project. He collaborated with several associates on it — and there are even five original copies of the speech, not one of them on an envelope.
Myth: William Howard Taft Got Stuck in a Bathtub
One of the stranger presidential myths might be chalked up to potty humor. Somehow, 27th President William Howard Taft became associated with an embarrassing incident around getting stuck in a bathtub. While it’s true that he was larger in stature, weighing in at 350 pounds, he never had to be rescued from a tub.
That said, there is a reason he’s associated with baths. During his presidency, a super-sized porcelain tub that was 7 feet long, 41 inches wide, and a ton in weight was installed in the White House. It was so massive that four grown men could fit inside. In another bath incident after his presidency, he filled a tub at a hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, a little too high and when he stepped into it, it overflowed to the point that the guests in the dining room below got a bit of a shower.
Myth: The Teddy Bear Got Its Name After Theodore Roosevelt Saved a Real Bear
Theodore Roosevelt had long been a hunter, but didn’t exactly show off his best skills on a bear hunt in November 1902. Everyone else in the group had had a fruitful hunt, so to help Roosevelt, the guide tracked a 235-pound bear to a watering hole, clubbed it, and tied it to a tree so the President could claim it. As the story goes, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear.
The incident made its way to the Washington Post, which published a satirical cartoon about the President sparing the bear. New York City store owners Morris and Rose Mitchom saw the cartoon, were inspired by the President's act of heroism, and created stuffed animals in his honor, appropriately naming them “Teddy’s bear.”
The problem? Roosevelt didn’t shoot the bear, but he didn’t save it either. He saw that it had been mauled by dogs so savagely already that he asked for the bear to be killed with a hunting knife. Given the dark nature of this true tale, it makes sense that the details are often ignored when talking about this beloved childhood toy.
Myth: John F. Kennedy Won the Election Because of the TV Debates Against Richard Nixon
The televised broadcast of a 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is often said to have clinched the victory for JFK, who many found to be more photogenic and charismatic. But when you truly look at the election numbers, it didn’t really have that big of an effect on the results. The candidates were pretty much neck-and-neck throughout the campaign, even appearing to be tied in the polls before and after the four debates. Kennedy seemed to have a slight boost after the first one on September 26, but then Nixon hit it out of the park on the others, especially with his foreign policy take during the final one. In the end, Kennedy won the election by a mere 119,000 votes.
Kennedy and Nixon’s September 1960 debate is often credited as the first televised presidential debate, but that is also a myth. In 1956, a televised debate aired during the run-off between Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. However, neither of them attended, and sent surrogates in their place. Eisenhower sent Maine senior senator Margaret Chase Smith, while Democrats went with Eleanor Roosevelt, and it aired on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Myth: Zachary Taylor Was Poisoned
Just over a year and four months into his term, 12th President Zachary Taylor fell ill and died while in office. For years, many thought that he may have been the first President to be assassinated, since it was rumored that he was poisoned. Despite his death in July 1850, it wasn’t until 1991 that Kentucky scientists definitively concluded there was no arsenic in his blood. Another story, that he died of eating cherries in iced milk, unfortunately may have more truth to it. After leaving the Washington Monument dedication in 1850, he had that combo as a snack and likely came down with severe gastroenteritis — an inflammation of the digestive system — dying five days later.
Myth: Gerald Ford Was a Total Klutz
Throughout Gerald Ford’s presidency, many joked that his Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, was only a banana peel away from the presidency, since the 38th President was so often caught being clumsy. He tumbled down ski slopes, slipped in the rain, and fell coming out of Air Force One, so much so that he was spoofed by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. But in actuality, Ford was quite an athlete in his younger days. He was a football star at the University of Michigan, where he earned his letter for three years. He even tackled future Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwander in 1934. During his White House years, he also swam and skied regularly, and played tennis and golf, so perhaps all that falling was just to add to his relatability.