COSI’s Lost Egypt Exhibition

A Headless Pyramid and a Lost King by COSI
June 25, 2008, 8:13 am
Filed under: The Big Picture | Tags: , ,

We just heard some fascinating new news out of Egypt. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General for the Supreme Council of Antiquities, recently announced that the remains of a previously unknown pyramid have been found in Saqqara (the site of Djoser’s Step Pyramid, among other sites). This is a story that has all the trappings of Egyptian archaeology.

First, when I said “previously unknown,” that isn’t entirely true. The foundations of the pyramid were first described in modern history by a German archaeologist named Karl Richard Lepsius in 1842. Unfortunately, though, the site became buried under sand and was considered lost until this announcement of its rediscovery. This is common in Egypt. Sometimes sand and debris from one dig is unknowingly moved on top of another site, through no fault on the part of the archaeologists—there’s just no way of knowing there’s something underneath of you. Other times the desert simply swallows the site, even if it has been uncovered in modern times. Let’s face it—there’s a lot of sand that can cover things up in a desert!

Second, the really, really old stuff once again has a way of superseding the stuff that’s just really old. The team who disclosed the pyramid discovery also announced the discovery of part of a ceremonial procession road used by ancient Egyptian priests over 2200 years ago. 2200 years ago! That’s before the time of the Roman Empire, the Islamic Golden Age, Mesoamerican empires such as the Mayans and Aztecs, and many other ancient cultures. Problem is, this road is predated by the pyramid by another 2200 years. That’s right—at the time this newly discovered road was built, our “newly discovered” headless pyramid was already more than 2000 years old. It has been really interesting hearing some of our project advisers discuss how the Late Period of Egyptian history is often found uninteresting simply because it feels “too new,” which is a shame because the Late Period has some fascinating history connected to it.

Finally, we have a little controversy. The “newly discovered” (sorry, can’t help but keep up the quotes on that) pyramid has not yet yielded any cartouches (i.e. names of pharaohs) at the site. Because we can’t carbon date stone, this means that archaeologists have to compare the pyramid’s features to the features of other pyramids in order to figure out how old it is and for whom it was built. While most scholars seem to agree that it was built for Menkauhor, a Fifth Dynasty pharaoh, others are arguing that it could belong to a Tenth or Twelfth Dynasty pharaoh, a discrepancy of more than 600 years. For me, this is where some of the excitement of archaeology comes across. We can never know with absolute certainty that our conclusions about the past are correct, mostly because, well, it’s the past (I usually can’t recall what happened last week with absolute clarity, and I was there). The best archaeologists can do is come up with stronger evidence to prove their point. The strongest evidence comes out on top, at least until someone comes up with stronger contrary evidence. As with most things in life, the more you know, the better equipped you are to prove your point. Not a bad lesson for a 4400 year old incomplete pyramid.

Check out the story on MSNBC!