Were the Pyramids Used as Tombs?

There are many in alternative circles who have read that there is little or no evidence suggesting a mortuary function for the Egyptian pyramids. In support of their position, they often cite as evidence the fictional "fact" that no mummies have ever been found in the pyramids, and in constructing elaborate theories in search of a more dramatic function use their conclusions as evidence to prove a non-mortuary function.  The problem is that in the construction of their theories they are completely neglecting the archaeological context in which the pyramids sit, the development of their iconographic and religious function, and what the Egyptians themselves had to say about the matter.

The truth of the matter is that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence in support of Egyptologists on this subject.  I will make an effort here to outline the reasons for believing that the pyramids were indeed used and designed for funerary purposes (the pyramids were NOT designed as tombs and tombs only, the complex as a whole played a pivotal role in the forwarding of the king's soul to the afterlife and providing sustenance while it was there) .

With only a minimal research, we can quickly scratch the idea that no mummies have ever been found in the pyramids.  Indeed, the Egyptians themselves left record of their looting and in those accounts describe what was commonly known about the function of these monuments.  We'll leave the literary evidence for later, so lets first address the archaeological evidence in support of the pyramids being used for purposes of interment.

With the transition from mastaba to pyramid came the complex of Djoser, within which sits the Step Pyramid.  During investigations in 1821 by Minutoli which involved the clearing out of the network of  (intrusive) tunnels and burial chamber, the remains of a gilded sandal and human skull were found.  More than 100 years later one of the great Egyptologists, Dr. Jean-Philippe Lauer, discovered pieces of skin, bone from a human left foot and an upper arm. While it is impossible to determine whether or not these remains belonged to the king, what is clear is that even with the first pyramid built in Egyptian history there is evidence for funerary function. However, what strongly suggests that these are indeed the remains of Djoser is the fact that to the northwest of the burial chamber there is massive evidence of tomb robbery including a disturbed wooden chest bearing the name Netjerikhet, Djoser's Horus name.

Djoser's successor constructed one of the more enigmatic pyramid complexes in Egypt.  It wasn't until the 1950s that the pyramid of Sekhemkhet was discovered, and if inscriptions on the perimeter wall have anything to say about it, this pyramid complex too was designed by Imhotep.  The pyramid was originally excavated by Goneim and when the burial chamber was breached he found a fully intact and sealed alabaster sarcophagus.  The type of stone is worthy of further consideration, as only two royal sarcophagi are known to be made out of alabaster; the sarcophagus of Hetepheres I (Khufu's mother) and Seti I (Ramesses the Great's father).  Thus, it can be broken down even further to say that only one alabaster sarcophagus is known, in 3000 years of Egyptian history, to house the remains of an Egyptian King.  Because of the sealed nature of the sarcophagus Goneim was convinced that it must hold the remains of the king, despite the urging for caution on behalf of his very good friend, Lauer.  With much fanfare the press, state officials, television teams and other members of media gathered to watch what they believed would be a momentous moment in history.  As Goneim removed the lid everyone was shocked - it was completely empty.

The empty sarcophagus in the pyramid of Sekhemkhet has been used to shore up arguments claiming that pyramids were not used as tombs.  What should be considered is the presentation of the sarcophagus in the burial chamber, with dried offerings still on the alabaster lid and the discovery of 3rd dynasty golden bracelets and other jewelry in a vertical shaft just before the burial chamber (along with 26th dynasty demotic papyri) it was obvious, at least to Lauer, that the tomb had long ago been looted.

In 1967 Lauer was heading the investigation of Sekhemkhet's pyramid complex where focus was converging on the recent discovery of the so-called "South Tomb" (Djoser's complex has one as well).  It was here, just before entering the burial chamber, that Lauer discovered a wooden coffin with the remains of a male child about two years of age.  It is probable that this was Sekhemkhet's son, but the significance for our purposes here is that we have a contemporary burial within a pyramid complex.

So, you're asking, where the heck is Sekhemkhet's mummy?  Dr. Edwards and Dr. Lauer both believe that during the onset of the First Intermediate Period and the breakdown of society at the end of the Old Kingdom priests still the service of Sekhemkhet's cult removed his remains for reburial just as the later priests of Amun removed the remains of kings from their tombs in the Valley of he Kings to Deir el Bahri.  The dried offerings were, in this case, a respectul gesture to their revered but long deceased king. 

The next pyramid for which there is direct physical evidence of primary interment is the Red Pyramid, constructed by Snefru, the founder of the 4th dynasty.  Again in 1950 badly damaged and burnt mummified human remains were found in the Red Pyramid.  These remains were examined by Dr. Ahmed Mahmud el Batrawi who concluded that these were indeed the physical remains of Snefru, based on the fact that the style of wrappings were consistant with 4th dynasty mummification techniques.  In fact, during this period of the Old Kingdom it would have only been members of of the elite who were mummified, and the additional information relating to its burnt condition lends evidence to the belief that they belonged to a member of the royal family.  In the process of looting tombs, robbers frequently would break mummies apart and burn the wrappings to quickly access the jeweled amulets contained therein.  As we shall see, there is direct literary confirmation of this practice in the recorded confessions of tomb robbers during the Middle and New Kingdoms.

Queen Khentkawes I & II were both figures of incredible importance in the early 5th dynasty.  Both mothers of  two kings and queens in their own right, they were provided with lavish burials.  In fact Khentkawes I's tomb at Giza can be considered the 4th most important tomb on the plateau, next in line to the three great kings (complete with its own pyramid town designated KKT). Indeed, its possible that Khentkawes I ruled as king of Egypt for about two years following the death of Menkaure.

Queen Khentkawes II's pyramid at Abusir is no less significant, and for our purposes here much more interesting.  In the ruins of her burial chamber were found a demolished pink granite sarcophagus, burial equipment, and pieces of her mummy wrappings.

The tomb of Khentkawes II's son, King Neferefre, doesn't disappoint in this regard either.  In this ruler's burial chamber archaeologists found the remains of alabaster canopic jars, containers for carved offerings and, most importantly of all, significant portions of the king's mummified remains.  Anatomical analysis of the remains show that the king was 23 years of age when he died, fitting quite nicely with our understanding of Egyptian chronology.

About 50 metres south of Khentkawes II's pyramid is the enigmatic monument known as Lepsius Pyramid No. 24. While the name of the owner is not known, quarry marks referencing the vizier Ptahshepses date the pyramid to the reign of king Niuserre.  Within the ruined burial chamber were found, among the damaged and scattered remnants of burial equipment (including scaled down copper objects used in the "Opening of the Mouth" ceremony), the remains of a 23 year old mummified female.  Undoubtedly the owner of the pyramid, it is not known whether she was the consort of the king, or his brother Neferefre.

Moving along but still in the 5th dynasty, we come to the pyramid of Djedkare, Menkauhor's successor. Most fully excavated in the mid-1980s by Mahmud Abdel Razek, this Egyptian team of archaeologists discovered in Djedkare's burial chamber the fragmentary remains of his sarcophagus, canopic jars, and the mummified body of a man aged about fifty.  Debris patterns within the pyramid, and the intact nature of the plugging stones, undoubtedly suggest that this must be the body of the king since it was inaccessible to potential tomb robbers. 

The last king of the 5th dynasty was Unas, who constructed the first pyramid to include the famous Pyramid Texts (which would evolve through the Coffin Texts into the Book of the Dead). Excavated by Lauer, he disovered the remains of the king's skull, right arm, and shinbone.  Also found within the burial chamber were the wooden handles of knives used during the "Opening of the Mouth".

Once again with the pyramid of Teti, the first ruler of the 6th dynasty, we come across evidence of looting involving the use of fire to access precious metals hidden under the wrappings of the mummified king.  Under the rubble in the burial chamber the burnt remains of the king's arm and shoulder were discovered.  The significance of burning cannot be understated.  Intrusive burials generally would not warrant such dedicated attention from thieves and as such the presence of isolated charred human remains should indicate a royal burial.

Teti's mother, Sesheshet, was buried near her son at Saqqara in a pyramid of her own.  Excavations of her pyramid have been ongoing for the past two years although it was not known to be a pyramid until late 2008 or early 2009.  In February of 2009 the burial chamber was finally entered and the remains of the fully intact, mummified remains of Queen Sesheshet were discovered.  The tomb had been looted in antiquity, so the excavating archaeologists were, as can be expected, extremely pleased with their findings.  A news article describing the history of the site and excavations can be found here, with pictures too!

Alright, time for a test.  How well do  you know your Old Kingdom genealogical history? Who was the daughter of Unas and the mother of Pepi I?  No wiki...

Guess Iput I? No?  Don't worry, I wouldn't have known that off the top of my head either if it wasn't for her pyramid's recent attention in the news.

First investigated at the turn of the century and again in the 1920s, the pyramid is now under investigation by a team of archaeologists led by Dr. Zahi Hawass.  When first explored, the queen's burial chamber produced a fine collection of assorted funerary equipment including five limestone canopic jars, fragments of a cedar coffin, an alabaster headrest, a gold bracelet, a necklace, copper utensils, an alabaster tablet with the names of the seven sacred oils, and the bones of a middle-aged woman believed to be the queen.

Generally believed to be the second king of the 6th dynasty, although some Kings Lists insert a king by the name of Userkara between Teti and his reign, Pepi I's burial chamber also included a wonderful collection of burial goods, as well as the first example of the Pyramid Texts found by Egyptologists.  Included in the finds were 14 shards of yellow alabaster canopic jars, a scrap of linen with the inscription "Linen for the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, may he live forever", pleated linen, a left sandal, a flint knife, fine linen wrappings, and a portion of a mummy.  Within the context of the chamber, the mummy is likely to be that of the king.

Merenre I's burial chamber contained far less burial goods but an incredible almost fully intact mummy of a young boy with hair styled in the manner worn by childern in Egypt.  As it is recorded that Merenre I died very young after a short joint rule with his father Pepi I, the mummy is almost positively that of the young boy-king.

 

With the death of Merenre's brother Pepi II, Egypt enters into a period of civil war, famine, and strife known as the First Intermediate Period.  Generally speaking, for the average Egyptian conditions changed little and the break down of centralized control under the power of the king served to democratize aspects of Egyptian culture normally reserved for the elite. For those in power, however, the effects were brutal and it was only through a long and brutal civil war between the Heracleopolitan and Theban kings that order was finally restored by Mentuhotep II.  The Egyptians of this newly established "Middle Kingdom" continued to build pyramids and be intered within them.  Had the Egyptian pyramid not served as a significant mortuary/funerary edifice for so many centuries there is no reason to believe the kings of the Middle Kingdom would have resumed the construction of major pyramids with such gusto. How, then, can one not associate pyramids with a funerary function?  Is it simply because the magical draw of dramatic theories attached to Khufu's pyramid are too entertaining to pass up?  Khafre's pyramid is only three (3) metres smaller than Khufu's.  Were it three metres taller would all the fanciful shows on TLC, Discovery and the History channel hinting at some lost civilization or unknown technology be directed to Khafre's monument?  With each pyramid being so undeniably connected in terms of architectural evolution can we reasonably isolate Khufu's pyramid and say with a straight face, "I'm just trying to learn"?

Lets recap and look at the whole picture in terms of primary physical evidence suggesting a funerary function for the pyramids (there are hundreds of intrusive burials in the pyramids and while they're not considered primary burials, they speak volumes about the widely understood  function of the pyramid).  Next, we will move on to the literary evidence, then the iconographic.

 

  • The Pyramid of Djoser: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Sekhemkhet: Probable Primary Interment (Southern Tomb).
  • The Pyramid of Khaba (Layer Pyramid): No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • Lepsius Pyramid: No Evidence For Primary Interment
  • The Pyramid of Meidum: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Seila: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Zawiyet el-Meiyitin: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Sinki: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Naqada: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Kula: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Edfu: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Elephantine: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Bent Pyramid: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Red Pyramid: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Khufu: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Djedefre: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Khafre: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Baka: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Menkaure: No Evidence For Primary Interment (very interesting secondary burial from Saite Period).
  • The Pyramid of Userkaf: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Sahure: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Neferirkare: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Khentkawes II: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Neferefre: Probable Primary Interment
  • The Pyramid of Niuserre: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Lepsis 24: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Menkauhor (Headless Pyramid @ Saqqara North): No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Djedkare: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Unas: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Teti:  Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Sesheshet: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Khuit: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Iput I: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Pepi I: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Inenek-Inti: No Evidence For Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Merenre I: Probable Primary Interment.
  • The Pyramid of Pepi II: No Evidence For Primary Interment (he probably petrified and was used in the construction of his pyramid).

 

The Literary Evidence:

The admonition texts of the Middle Kingdom are set in large part during the period of unrest resulting from the fall of the Old Kingdom and decentralization of royal authority in Egypt known as the First Intermediate Period.  As such, they provide details about the general state of affairs in Egypt during this time and provide witness to the widespread conditions of the period.  While facinating in their own right, a few of their accounts are particularily relevant to our discussion here.  As the Egyptian state lost overall control of the security of the populance, the monuments and cultic upkeep of former "heads of state" (ie previous kings) were exposed to those same diminishing conditions.  It is during this period that the majority of looting took place and the literature set during the time reflects this fact.

The Lamentations of Impuwer (Papyrus 344) states:

See now, fire has leaped high, its flame will attack the land's foes!
See now, things are done that never were before, the king has been robbed by beggars.
See, one buried as hawk is... (1)
What the pyramid hid is empty. (2)
See now, the land is deprived of kingship by a few people who ignore custom.
See now, men rebel against the Serpent, Stolen is the crown of the Sun, who pacifies the Two Lands. (3)

1. This is essentially saying, "look at the state of the buried king".  The "hawk" is a reference to the king as Horus.
2. Should be obvious.  The pyramid has been looted.
3. This is a direct reference to the king.  The "serpent" is the Uraeus, "stolen is the crown of the Sun, who pacifies the Two Lands" relates to the absense of royal authority.

Intef (Horus name translates to: "He who has brought calm to the two lands", hinting at the need for calm during the period) was a Theban ruler during the First Intermediate Period. From his tomb comes the "Song of the Harper":

He is Happy, this good prince:
Death is a kindly fate.
A generation passes,
Another stays,
Since the time of the ancestors.
The gods who were before rest in their tombs,
Blessed nobles too are buried in their tombs.
Yet those who built tombs,
Their places are gone,
What has become of them?
I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hardedef, (1)
Whose sayings are recited in whole. (2)
What of their places?
Their walls have crumbled,
Their places are gone,
As though they have never been!
None comes from there, (3)
To tell of their needs,
To calm our hearts,
Until we go where they have gone.

1. Imhotep, the vizier of Djoser and Sekhemkhet during the third dynasty. His tomb has never been located and this song may tell us why.  Hardedef was the son of Khufu and was buried in a large double mastaba at Giza.  He was held to be a great sage, a teacher of moral philosophy and personal development (believe it or not).

2. Both Imhotep and Hardedef were held by the Egyptians to be some of the greatest teachers of their kind.  Their works would have been as familiar to the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period as the teachings of our moral or spiritual leaders are today.

3. Their tombs have been destroyed, their soul can no longer come and go. 

If the tombs of these most revered of men could be destroyed, what then became of the tombs of the kings whose existance maintained the spiritual, cultural, and geographical integrity of Egypt itself? Any disharmony was seen as the result of a poor king, one who failed to serve as the manifestion of ma'at.  In a period of unprecedented turmoil like that during the First Intermediate Period, the blame would fall on not only the current king, but also those of old.  The hawk referenced above, the king as Horus, was constantly manifested by the king.  All kings were the same Horus whose duty was to uphold ma'at.  In other words, if the tombs of the most respected men in Egyptian history to that point were being vandalized, the tombs of the kings were in serious trouble.

In the Leopold-Amherst Papyrus (Dyn. XX) a tomb robber by the name of Amenpnufer admits he "...went to rob the tombs...and we found the pyramid of [king] Sekhemre Shedtaui, the son of Re Sebekemsaf, this being not at all like the pyramids and tombs of the nobles which we habitually went to rob..."

While the account from the Leopold-Amherst Papyrus is a reporting the looting of New Kingdom royal tombs during the 20th dynasty, it depicts a problem that was rampant throughout Egyptian history.  The First Intermediate Period provided ample opportunity and a sense of moral justification to loot the tombs of their previous kings. 

The Development of the Egyptian Pyramid Complex, iconographic evidence suggesting a funerary function for the pyramids:

The pyramids of Egypt weren't just tombs, and the pyramids themselves weren't the only monument connected to the burial and rejuvenation of the king.  Connected to the pyramid were a series of temples deeply rooted to the cultic activities dedicated to the maintaince of the king's soul and the preparation of the king's burial. To neglect the inclusion of the pyramid complex as a whole is to entirely disregard the Egyptian understanding of the world and how it relates to the afterlife.  While the structures surrounding the pyramid changed over time to reflect the development of religious convention, these changes were never without functional cause related to the primary purpose of the complex; the eternal residence of the king, the means by which he underwent his transfiguration, and the maintenance of his cult to provide eternal sustenance.

As the cult of Re began to gain prominence at the beginning of the 4th dynasty the temples and structures connected to the pyramid began to relfect this shift to a more Re dominated theology. The pyramid complex of the 3rd dynasty typically reflects the conventions established for royal mastaba tombs of the second dynasty and primarily dedicate their function to the continued activites of the earthly king in the afterlife.  As the cult of Re established itself (no doubt due to the growing influence of the priesthood) in the 4th dynasty we see the beginnings of an established "canon" reflecting this cultural shift.  By the time Snefru built his North Pyramid (Red) at Dashur a basic foundational framework for a functional pyramid complex within this cultural religious context was met. The previous north-south orientation of the complex was replaced with an east-west, a Valley Temple was added and connected to the Mortuary Temple by means of a splended causeway, all on the east side of the pyramid to meet the rising sun. With only minimal changes, this form was to become standard until the Middle Kingdom when the cult of Osiris began to override the cult of Re.

The Nile was always seen by the Egyptians as the symbolic barrier between life and death.  On the east, where the sun rises, you find large towns, palaces, and the Egyptians of every day life.  On the west, where the sun sets, you find their tombs.  This is an important point to remember as we progress here (if the pyramids weren't tombs they would be located on the eastern side of the Nile, or at least on both banks). 

When the king died the procession would take his body from the world of the living on the east bank of the Nile, to the world of the dead on the west bank, where he would eventually return to the gods, as one of them, through the pyramid itself.  The temples in his complex symbolically represent this passage after death.  The body would by taken across the river into the land of the dead where it would begin its process of rebirth through the ceremonies provided in the Mortuary Temple.  From there, it would progress through the causeway tunnel to the sycophany of following priests into the Valley Temple to undergo further ceremony before burial in the pyramid itself and from there the rebirth with the gods.  This is a very basic detailing of the funeral procession but what needs to be understood is that the pyramid's associated temples and causeway reflected in stone the path the king's spirit took after death.  The pyramid complex as a whole is the physical representation of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs associated with the cult of Re.

In attempting to ascertain the function of the Egyptian pyramids, one cannot remove the pyramid from its archaeological, architectural, cultural, and religious context.  The pyramids are not single monuments of stone removed from the culture that built them and the contexts in which they sit.  The complete picture involving some understanding of who the Egyptians were and what they believed is necessary to understand the history and function of these amazing monuments.

In response to the question of whether the pyramids were used as tombs I have only provided here a small amount of information and in no way should this be considered a detailed response.  It is my hope that if you've asked yourself this question you will use this information as a launching pad to further your own deeper understanding of the ancient Egyptians and the monuments they built.

 

Until next time,

 

Pete.

Works Consulted:

Aldred, Cyril. Egyptian Art. New York: Thames & Hudsom Ltd, 1998.
Aldred, Cyril. The Egyptians. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2000.
Edwards, I.E.S. The Pyramids of Egypt. England: Clays Ltd, 1993.
Fakhry, Ahmed. The Pyramids. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1997.
Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Simpson, William Kelly. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. Yale: Yale University Press 2003.
Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids. New York: Grove Press, 2001.
Wilkinson, Toby. Genesis of the Pharaohs. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.