Were ancient Egyptian Pyramids used to bury dead kings?

Pyramids of Giza. Source Picturesque Egypt by Georg Ebers 1885.

The answer according to the current scientific evidence is … YES    (no, I'm not shouting)

Because that is how archaeology works, we collect evidence from as many sources as possible, and if it all points in one direction we draw conclusions.  The pseudo crowd bleating that we all follow the party line in an elaborate cover up may work for politicians (looking at world politics consider me sceptical), but in science a whole bunch of fields rely on accumulating evidence … no evidence = no theory. 

… or rather you can have as many theories as you like at home over a cabernet sauvignon, but for anybody with half a brain to believe them you have to prove it in writing, with evidence. 

And because archaeology is an organic process of accumulating information and upgrading our understanding, we continue to study, dig and write.  In fact you cannot get a senior qualification in Egyptology without producing some voluminous dissertation that adds to what we know and/or disproves an earlier theory. 

Image via Wiki.

Early career academics are therefore always messing with the ‘party line’.   

Equally if you have ever attended an Egyptology conference you would know getting Egyptologists to agree on anything that has a low percentage of evidence is an unachievable goal.  Getting us all to keep an out of date conspiracy running for the sake of a bunch of long dead antiquarians is actually quite a fascinating idea. 

I want to attend that secret meeting.

And that’s the trick, because pyramids have been believed to be resting places of Egyptian kings for centuries of archaeological research.  If nobody in Egyptology has been able to debunk that idea at any time in the past 200 years (and trust me they would happily do it), then with this process of constantly acquiring new evidence that supports the early assumption, one has to assume very big tombs for dead rich guys is the solution. 

Notwithstanding, by the way, that if you take tomb out of the equation, then I really want to know where all these kings were buried?  Kings in a culture that for about 3000 years really liked to bury their royalty with gi-normous style … if they are not tombs then that is incidentally a hell of a lot of kings and queens with missing tombs.

Tombs of the Napatan kings from the north cemetery at Meroe in Sudan. Image via Wikipedia.

Context: Pyramids
Contrary to the rather one-eyed approach of the internet and media, there are not 2 or 3 pyramids in Egypt, rather there are actually over 100.  However, this number depends on the definition you use, like say size: about 130 + for the monumental ones, about 30 if you only include pyramids of kings, and ignore queens, princesses and high officials.   

If you include the pyramids of the Napatan kings who ruled Egypt in the 1st millennium, there were a whole lot more than this, and if any basic pyramid is taken into account regardless of scale or cost we are into the thousands.

The rest of the pyramids in Egypt and Sudan appear to get much less press or interest from the public than the 3 quite big ones… I guess size really does matter ….  This is not unlike the assumption that there are only a few actors in Hollywood based on the media reporting of same, when rather there are thousands of actors. 

Roman geographer and historian, Strabo, 64 BCE-24 CE. Source Howard-Vyse 1840.II.

But modern humans, when they can’t obsess over monarchs or dictators, replace them with celebrities and that applies to ancient Egypt as well.  Therefore many people today have maybe heard of 3 famous (now) Egyptian kings - like Cleopatra, Tutankhamen, Ramesses II, and 3 famous pyramids (but not just now, I mean 2 are ENORMOUS, they’ve been famous for thousands of years).

The 3 really big pyramids everybody talks about are the Giza pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure and date to the Old Kingdom, specifically to the 4th Dynasty (2520-2390 BCE).  They are near Cairo in Egypt on the west bank of the Nile on the desert plateau of the river’s old flood plain, originally quite close to the Nile itself in antiquity (it has moved a lot in 4500+ years). Where they stand is the middle of an enormous ancient cemetery that runs north south along the west bank.

Ibn Abd el Hakim, muslim historian 803 CE- 871 CE.  Source Howard-Vyse 1840.II.

“there was nothing found in any pyramid to prove they were tombs”
I see this statement around the traps and the level of ignorance entailed in it is actually mind boggling, try reading some lightweight archaeology books, kids, or watch a few pro docos, and I would not have to write this… full stop…  However, as there is actually too much evidence to list here, I will be using a discrete selection of evidence that I find interesting.

In fact, quite a lot of pyramids have had all sorts of interesting tat in them, not least being big stone sarcophagi in their main chambers.  Sarcophagi are btw enormous coffins of carved stone with an equally whopping lid in which the king’s mummy was preserved for eternity (if treasure hunters over the past 4500 years haven’t messed about with it). 

Granite sarcophagus of Khufu. Image via Wikipedia.

Cheops/Khufu: In the pyramid of Khufu (who died ca 2447 BCE) for example the sarcophagus chamber has sported this title since 1646 CE when an English mathematician and astronomer, John Greaves, entered the chamber and documented a porphyry (it is actually granite) sarcophagus that was only lacking the lid. He recorded that it was 7 ft 3″ long with enough room to contain a mummy, but no mummy, because the main pyramid had been the destination of preference for looters for millennia.

Particularly due to the ancient legends that treasure was hidden in it.

Source Howard-Vyse 1840.II.

So more than 470 years ago an academic described the pyramids as tombs on the basis of the sources available to him: he also cited classical Greek, Roman and Arab authors who had rummaged about in them and written their impressions down, and he too claimed the pyramids were king’s tombs, more importantly he cited the evidence he found on entering the pyramid: a big granite coffin in the main chamber. 

Chephren/Khafre: The pyramid of Khafre, son of Khufu (died ca 2439 BCE) on the other hand was first opened in 1818 by the resourceful Italian circus performer and engineer Giovanni Belzoni and he too found that the main pyramid chamber contained a stone sarcophagus. Again granite and set into the floor this time, but still retaining the lid, which was broken.  Within this giant coffin he found no human remains, but rather cattle bones.

Basalt sarcophagus of Menkaure.  Image from Howard-Vyse 1840.II.

Mycerinus/Menkaure: The smaller pyramid of Menkaure, son of Khafre (ca 2396) was gleefully dynamited and then explored in 1837 by plucky yet unscrupulous Englishmen Richard Vyse and John Perring, and they found that the main chamber too had a large basalt sarcophagus with the remains of a lid. The sarcophagus is now lost, having sunk with the ship it was carried on in 1838 while being moved to the British Museum, because they thought it would be safer there (!!!).  Remains of a wooden anthropoid coffin were also found near the chamber in the passage along with human bones, but this is now believed to be a later burial, regardless that it actually names Menkaure.

Wooden coffin naming Menkaure.  Image from Howard-Vyse 1840.II.

The smaller pyramids
There are also smaller ‘satellite’ pyramids around the 3 larger ones.  Khafre has only one largely destroyed pyramid G IIa that is originally thought to have housed the ka statues of this king, due to a wooden box with damaged pieces of a shrine on a sled designed to hold a funerary statue found within it.

The smaller pyramids beside Khufu’s pyramid were built for 3 of his queens, whose identity is still debated, but these were probably Hetepheres I (his mum G Ia), whose almost complete burial, with alabaster sarcophagus, but no mummified queen, was discovered in a separate shaft there, and queens Meritetes I (G Ib) and Henutsen (G Ic).  

Another 3 smaller pyramids beside Menkaure’s were again most likely his queens, with one (G IIIa) having a granite sarcophagus in the main chamber when Vyse and co entered it. Pyramid G IIIb on the other hand contained a granite sarcophagus and female human remains. The name of Menkaure was also chiselled on a slab on this ceiling. The occupants of these pyramids are unknown, however GIIIa may have been for queen Khamerenebty II.

Giza pyramids. Source Howard-Vyse 1840.II.

And that is just 7 smaller and 3 larger pyramids with traces of funerary occupation. I simply cannot go on listing the rest.  

Therefore one of the main arguments of the pseudo crowd is false; that there was nothing in any pyramid to indicate that they were tombs … wrong … pyramids did have coffins that were presumably used to inter dead royalty and a smattering of body parts or mummies.   

Considering the amount of tourists that have gone through over the last 2500 years, it is surprising some still had objects with dedications to these dead people, or the odd royal statue, piece of a shrine or administrative seals.  The Saqqara pyramids on the other hand contained lots of stone funerary vessels naming their dead kings.

Pyramid texts within the pyramid of Unis, Saqqara. Image via Wikipedia.

Written evidence: 
Funerary texts
There are further pyramids to the south at Saqqara, which like Giza was the necropolis for the capital of Egypt, at Memphis, east of the plateau.  These, like the pyramids of Pepi I and II, Teti and Unis, have extensive funerary texts chiselled into the inner stone walls that were designed to resurrect the dead king or queen in the afterlife and naming them so repeatedly you might think the gods had short attention spans in the late 3rd millennium.

In the 6th Dynasty it was de rigueur for kings and queens to cover their pyramid’s inner walls with these texts that much later would be streamlined onto Middle Kingdom coffins (Coffin Texts) and then written on papyri and called the Book of the Dead.  They are the oldest examples of ancient Egyptian literature and constitute lengthy offering and rebirth rituals that were intended to unite the dead royal’s ka and ba souls, so that they may be become akh ‘spirits’ and dwell among the gods in the heavens for eternity.

Currently 11 Egyptian pyramids are known to contain pyramid texts on the walls of the passages and chambers, and these texts have been translated and published extensively since the late 1800s.  They all repeatedly name the dead king or queen, and they also contain a invocation demanding that the gods guarantee that their pyramid tomb will last for eternity (Utterance 599).

The pyramids had on topic names (this is my fave)
So the way to write pyramid in ancient Egyptian is mr (or mn-nfr) and unsurprisingly it is written with an upright pointy triangle hieroglyph that looks like a pyramid… rebus signs have their uses. This sign is used as a symbol to indicate the context is a pyramid in inscriptions on architecture, like say at a pyramid sanctuary for worshipping a dead king, and it is also used in texts.

And for clarity, which btw was a thing the ancient Egyptians were quite good at, the pyramids and the vast temple complexes around them all had names that were recorded on the structures so that it was clear who they were for and how they should be referred to: for example the name netjery-menkaure ‘Menkaure is divine’ is carved within the Menkaure temple complex to name his pyramid. 

A smattering of names of various pyramids in the cemeteries west of Memphis are:

4th Dynasty to 6th Dynasty
Khufu      - achet-khu-fu -            ‘horizon of Khufu’ or 'pyramid tomb of Khufu'
Djedefre  - sehedu-djed-ef-re -    ‘starry canopy of Djedefre’ or ‘Djedefre is a star’
Khafre     - wer-kha-ef-re -           ‘the pyramid of Khafre is great’
Userkaf    - wab-sut-user-ka-ef -  ‘the pyramid sanctuaries of Userkaf are sanctified’
Sahure      - kha-ba-sahu-re -       ‘the pyramid ba of Sahure is manifest’
Neferirkare - ba-nefer-ir-ka-re -    ‘the pyramid ba of Neferirkare is perfect’
Niuserre    - men-sut-ni-user-re -  ‘the pyramid sanctuaries of Niuserre exist’
Unis          - nefer-sut-unis -          ‘the pyramid sanctuaries of Unis are perfect’
Teti I          - djed-sut-teti -            the pyramid sanctuaries of Teti are lasting’
Pepi I         - men-nefer-pepi -       ‘pyramid of Pepi’ or ‘is established and perfect’
Merenre    - kha-nefer-mer-en-re - ‘the pyramid of Merenre is perfect in appearance’, or appears in splendour'

Overkill?  … But these are only highlights, and not the name of every pyramid from Egypt.

'Horizon of Khufu' ...'akhet' - 'horizon' is btw another way of writing 'tomb'. My drawing.

As is relatively clear, the names illustrate the function of these funerary complexes which was to guarantee the rebirth of the dead king – allowing his ka and ba soul to unite so that he is reborn as a god, like the sun god Re was believed by the ancient Egyptians to be reborn every day at dawn ('kha') and then over the day travels through the heavens for eternity, hence the horizon reference for Khufu’s pyramid. 

Pretty standard Egyptian funerary symbolism actually.

Every name of a pyramid above was written with the hieroglyphic sign to indicate exactly what they were referring to …  a pyramid … as I said, clarity was a thing in Egypt. Whether a modern translator chooses to insert the word or not, the subject is clear..  

That pyramids each had names is yet another tedious indicator that the complexes were designed to guarantee a dead king eternal life … call me crazy, but all the signs appear to read ‘tomb’ built by ancient Egyptians … not little green men from Sirius or some mysterious Atlantean civilisation.

But wait … there’s more

It is not all just about dead rich guys these days and excavations in the last 20 years at Giza have focussed on the nitty gritty of pyramids and their sanctuary complexes.  Archaeologists there have excavated and studied the worker’s village of the people who built the pyramids in the middle of the 3rd millennium, from the reigns of Khafre to Menkaure.

This town housed about 20,000 people, with long dormitory-like buildings built to accommodate a large temporary workforce (the latter only worked during the off season of the agricultural year), and this workforce would have consisted of full time specialists, plus that larger rotating Egyptian worker population. 

The excavators have also found evidence for cooking enormous quantities of food for these people; beef and fish bones, vessels for bread and beer, kitchens and ovens, and large mud brick silos that were used for storing grains for making beer and bread. There is also a workers cemetery at the site containing bodies with abundant evidence of very heavy physical labour in their lifetimes.

What were all these people doing there in 2500 BCE if they weren’t building the things?  Admiring the laser show (while pulling iron)?

The most recent discovery (2013) that has added to our understanding of pyramid building is a group of damaged documents from Wadi el Garf on the Red Sea in Egypt.  These papyri document the provision of food supplies and the transportation of limestone to Giza from Tura related to the building of Khufu’s pyramid.  They name a brother of Khufu, Ankhkaf, as in charge of the work at Giza and another official who worked under him. They also specify that the work was for the ‘horizon of Khufu’, his pyramid.

So what has standard boots in the dirt trench archaeology found out about the building of pyramids at Giza? … that there is evidence for the housing and feeding of very large numbers of Egyptian workers and that officials were travelling Egypt transporting the various hard and soft stones that were used for the structure, casings and for architectural features.

Pyramid from the tomb chapel of Sennedjem at Deir el Medina, western Thebes. 
Early 19th Dynasty.  Image via Wikipedia

Conclusion - Egyptian pyramids were tombs for dead rich people
The 3 great pyramids of Giza were neither the first pyramids (the earliest true pyramid is Djoser’s in the 3rd Dynasty, 2584-2565 BCE), nor were they the last.  The ancient Egyptians built pyramids of varying sophistication to commemorate their dead for the duration of the pharaonic period.  The only thing that noticeably changed about these was scale and proportions.   

Unsurprisingly it turned out that building ENORMOUS stone pyramids was a massive drain on the economy. 

Who would have thought?

So they started building more sensible scale mausoleums and by the Middle Kingdom from ca 2100 BCE) kings were still building pyramids, but less imposing ones (50-61 metres in height is small, right?).  By the New Kingdom (ca 1500 BCE) your average pyramid was smallish and used as a landmark for the memorial chapel where the funerary offerings and rites were performed for those families in the 18th Dynasty who could afford a posh burial.

Egyptian kings and queens however had by that time learned the hard way and had stopped putting enormous stone ‘come and loot this for fabulous treasure’ inverted arrowheads on their resting places for eternity … go figure. 

And it only took them about 1000 years to work that one out.

Andrea Sinclair

Source Howard-Vyse 1840.II.

References and further reading
J.P. Allen 2005. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.
John Greaves 1752. Pyramidographia, or, a Description of the Pyramids in Egypt.
R.W.  Howard-Vyse 1840. Operations carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837: with an account of a voyage into upper Egypt, Volume II.
M. Lehner  1997. The Complete Pyramids. 
M-A. Murray 2005.  ‘Provisions for the Pyramid Builders: New evidence from the ancient site of Giza’. Archaeology International.
N.C. Strudwick 2005. Texts from the Pyramid Age.
J. Tydesley 2006. Egypt. How a Lost Civilization was Rediscovered.

On the net
The Eloquent Peasant Blog 2014. Oldest papyri ever discovered document pyramid building, or more reasons why the aliens did not build the pyramids: http://www.eloquentpeasant.com/2014/11/19/the-oldest-papyri-ever-discovered/

R. Pearse 2017. ‘The log book of Inspector Merer from Wadi al Jarf and the pyramid of Cheops / Khufu’: https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2017/09/27/the-log-book-of-inspector-merer-from-wadi-al-jarf-and-the-pyramid-of-cheops-khufu/

National Geographic 2016. ‘The Pyramid Builders' Village in Egypt’: https://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/history/the-pyramid-builders-village-in-egypt.aspx

Smithsonian 2015, ‘The World’s Oldest Papyrus and What It Can Tell Us about the Great Pyramids’: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ancient-egypt-shipping-mining-farming-economy-pyramids-180956619/

Live Science 2014. Photos: Amazing Discoveries at Egypt's Giza Pyramids:

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