Newly Excavated 4,600-Year-Old Egyptian Pyramid Threatened by Development

The pyramid is in the news this week after overblown reports about its "discovery."

Saqqara's step pyramid, shown here, served as a model for the smaller pyramid at Edfu.

Decades before the great pyramids at Giza took shape, a modest stepped pyramid arose at a site now known as Edfu. Archaeologists from the University of Chicago have been studying the 4,600-year-old stone structure since 2010, gathering information about its purpose and attempting to protect it from modern encroachment.

Contrary to many news reports this week, this is not a new discovery. In fact, the pyramid's existence has been known since at least 1894.

The archaeologists involved in the recent research declined to comment on their work. Because it is ongoing, "the archeologists don't feel comfortable giving media interviews about the project at this time," a university spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.

But the university and the American Research Center in Egypt have published a number of reports as work on the pyramid has progressed. Here's what's known, and what has been discovered over the past few years.

The Edfu pyramid is located about 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of the Egyptian capital of Cairo. Until the recent archaeological excavations began, it wore a shroud of sand that had accumulated for many centuries. The structure is one of several identical pyramids built at about the same time in early provincial centers in southern Egypt—Seila in the Fayum, Zawiet el-Meitin, Abydos, Naqada, Hierakonpolis, and Elephantine near Aswan.

Experts aren't sure exactly which king built these pyramids, but the best candidates are Huni (2637-2613 B.C.), the last ruler of the Third Dynasty, or his son Snefru (2613-2589 B.C.), the first king of the Fourth Dynasty.

Although much smaller in scale, the monuments follow the stepped shape of Egypt's first stone pyramid, built by King Djoser, the first ruler of the Third Dynasty at the dawn of the Old Kingdom. Djoser built his pyramid as a tomb. Rising in six tiers to a height of 204 feet (62 meters), it was the centerpiece of a grand funerary complex at the site of Saqqara—the Arlington National Cemetery of ancient Egypt, located about half an hour's drive south of Cairo, where kings and courtiers were buried for almost 3,000 years.

But the structure at Edfu was never intended as a tomb. Like the other provincial pyramids, it had no internal burial chamber. Though its three steps probably reached a height of only about 42 feet (13 meters), its construction required a great deal of effort. Archaeologists believe the pyramid was built of several different types of limestone quarried about half a mile (fourth-fifths of a kilometer) away.

Why go to all that trouble if the king's mortal remains weren't going to rest there for eternity?

Two reasons, archaeologists surmise in their published reports.

Royal Power, Living God

First, the Edfu pyramid and its six counterparts were likely symbols of royal power. The king ruled from Memphis, near modern Cairo. These engineered mounds of stone would have served to remind people in the provinces who was really in charge of their lives, and that Egypt was a unified political state.

Second, the provincial pyramids may have been places where people worshipped the king, who was believed to be a living god.

At Edfu, archaeologists have uncovered the stone foundation of a structure that was built against the eastern face of the pyramid—perhaps the remains of a chapel. More than 60 percent of the potsherds archaeologists collected came from that same area—possible evidence of food offerings left there long ago in honor of the king's cult.

The activity of that cult was probably short-lived. Early in the Fourth Dynasty, King Khufu (2558-2532 B.C.) began to build his iconic slope-sided pyramid tomb at Giza, shifting resources and attention far to the north.

As the University of Chicago archaeologists exposed the lower courses of the pyramid at Edfu, they discovered hieroglyphs from later periods. These may indicate that the structure retained its symbolic power throughout pharaonic history, even if the king's divinity was no longer celebrated there.

Stone is a valuable building material in the North African desert. Over centuries, blocks were pillaged from the Edfu pyramid. Today less than a third of the structure remains, with its height reduced to about 16 feet (4.9 meters).

Over time, a myth grew up that a Muslim saint was buried there, which may account for the discovery of burial sites along the eastern and southern sides of the pyramid. It also may explain why the edge of the local cemetery has crept closer over the past five years.

The village of al-Ghonemiya has also spread toward the pyramid. Additional encroachments include a modern road, built in the early 1990s, that runs about 164 feet (50 meters) from the pyramid, and the planned construction of a gas pipeline along that same route. The University of Chicago archaeologists began their study of the pyramid to learn as much as possible before the converging threats got any closer. Local residents watched the excavation with wonder. They had no idea the neglected mound hid an ancient monument.

Two years ago, the archaeologists employed local workers to build a brick wall around the pyramid. The wall, a mere three feet (one meter) high, won't keep anyone out, but it does serve as a reminder that this monument from the great age of pyramid-builders is worth protecting.