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Scientists create moveable Stonehenge-sized slabs to recreate ancient mysteries

By Benjamin Bullard

If these scientists could only find their way to a distant planet, they’d be in prime position to leave a monolithic mystery behind. Thanks to some ingenious dallying with the laws of physics, researchers have engineered Stonehenge-sized concrete slabs that can be manipulated with nothing more than a little human elbow grease.

Part science project, part art installation, the new “Walking Assembly” exercise from the science-minded Matter Design studio tackles the age-old mystery of how ancient civilizations erected Giza’s Great Pyramid and other slab-sized edifices, from Chile’s Easter Island to Bolivia’s Tiwanaku temple.

Weighing as much as 25 tons, each of the concrete-cast shapes is fashioned with mobility in mind. And it actually works, as Matter Design’s video demonstration clearly shows.

Solving the riddle of how pre-technological societies built structures and monuments out of massive blocks too heavy to transport short distances — let alone many miles — remains one of science’s ongoing mysteries. Matter Design doesn’t suggest that their solution is the only one that fits, but it’s definitely a plausible demonstration of how supersized masonry could work.

Dubbed by the studio as “Massive Masonry Units,” or MMUs, the engineered blocks “unshackle the dependency between size and the human body,” according to Matter Design. “Intelligence of transportation and assembly is designed into the elements themselves, liberating humans to guide these colossal concrete elements into place. Structures that would otherwise rely on cranes or heavy equipment can now be intelligently assembled and disassembled with little energy.”

Ensuring that each object bears a shape that allows people to leverage the massive slabs’ center of mass is the key to making it all work. In addition, the concrete blocks possess an advantage that natural stone, unless by a happy accident, simply doesn’t: By design, the weight of each piece varies throughout its structure.

That modern-day engineering trick is what makes the blocks easy to move without the aid of machinery — or just tons and tons of human labor.

“By using variable density concrete, the center of mass of the object is calibrated precisely to control the stable, but easy motion of the elements,” the studio explains. “This ensures that these massive elements successfully walk and assemble into place, creating the possibility for a crane-less tilt up construction method and turning our building sites into spectacles of play.”

The design team doesn’t claim its new creation answers the age-old question of how we got the pyramids and other ancient feats of engineering. But at least they’ve shown you don’t need to bring out the big machines — so long as you start with the right kind of monolith in the first place.

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