Archaeologists Unearth 4,600-Year-Old Step Pyramid in Egypt

An international team of researchers has unearthed a 4,600-year-old small step pyramid at the archaeological site of al-Ghonemiya near the modern town of Edfu, Egypt.

4,600-year-old step pyramid discovered near the modern town of Edfu, Egypt. Image credit: © Oriental Institute.

The pyramid belongs to a series of almost identical small pyramids that have been discovered near several provincial centers in Egypt such as Elephantine, Hierakonpolis, Naqada, Abydos, Zawiet el-Meitin near Minya, and Seila in the Fayum.

According to an inscription found at Elephantine that can be linked directly to this pyramid, the whole group dates to the reign of Pharaoh Huni (around 2600 BC), last ruler of the 3rd Dynasty.

The monument is situated north of the modern village of al-Ghonemiya – between the edge of the desert and the cultivated areas of the Nile Valley, about 5 km south of Tell Edfu and at 25 km south of the pyramid of al-Kula, which is linked to the major Predynastic site of Hierakonpolis.

The first reference to the Edfu pyramid dates back to 1894, when G. Legrain indicated a ‘false’ pyramid at the entrance of the Edfu-Kharga caravan road. In 1908, H. de Morgan mentioned the structure again, and two years later Arthur Weigall mentioned its presence in his Guide to the Antiquities of Upper Egypt from Abydos to the Sudan Frontier.

In 2009, the archaeological team led by Dr Gregory Marouard from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and Dr Hratch Papazian from the University of Copenhagen commissioned the Tell Edfu Project in order to unearth and protect this pyramid.

According to the archaeologists, the Edfu pyramid had been built directly on the sandstone bedrock and was made exclusively of sandstone and some calcareous sandstone blocks. The quarry area has been discovered only 800 m north of the site during an extensive preliminary survey conducted on some of the small hills that mark the desert edge at the site.

“The construction itself reflects a certain care and a real expertise in the mastery of stone construction, especially for the adjustment of the most important blocks,” Dr Marouard and Dr Papazian said in an article published in the News & Notes, a Quarterly Publication of the Oriental Institute (in .pdf).

“The stones had been cut roughly into shape by percussion without any further refinement, but they are all relatively similar in size with standardized dimensions of 65–80 cm in length for the upper part. In the lower part, some blocks regularly exceed 1.0–1.5 m in length and more than 2 m for some large slabs of very hard brown sandstone, which was mainly used for the external courses and for producing a solid foundation layer. The blocks are held together by a large amount of clay mortar that contains a considerable amount of river sand.”

The Edfu pyramid was originally made of three steps, two inclined layers leaning against a central core. Its internal structure and the use of the accretion layer technique can be easily seen on the northern and southern faces.

Along its base the pyramid measures about 18.5 m, which corresponds to about 35 royal cubits. The height reaches only 5 m today mainly because of the reuse of the blocks for private construction.

With a length of approximately 50 cubits in the diagonal direction through the center, a simple geometrical link between triangles can be used for evaluating the original elevation of the monument, which can be estimated to have been about 13 m (25 royal cubits). This means only less than a third of it remains today.

During 2009-2013 seasons, Dr Marouard and his colleagues have discovered two groups of post-Old Kingdom graffiti.

“Two graffiti on the north face and two graffiti on the south face incised on the soft and light-colored stone blocks. Both groups are located toward the center of each side, and they were at eye level in antiquity.”

“One of the blocks on the south side contains four signs: a four-legged animal, a seated man, a reed leaf, and a book roll; a fifth sign, a bird, is placed a few centimeters away to the right. The second block on the south side only has parallel lines or lines that make triangles.”

“On the north side, a block on the lower half shows a four-legged animal, which is not carved as nicely as the one of the south side. Another block above and to the right of this one shows a series of vertical lines, some of them double lines.”

This may indicate that the Edfu pyramid had kept its symbolic form and significance throughout a large part of the pharaonic period.

The archaeologists have recently unearthed the stone foundation of a small shrine or offering chapel near the monument.

“It might have been used for the royal cult of the late Third Dynasty Pharaoh Huni, to whom this pyramid has been attributed,” they said.

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