Riddle of pyramid’s secret hieroglyphs solved

Last month we reported on some secret writing discovered in the Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, near Cairo. A robot with a camera went down a mysterious passage only eight inches wide and found some hieroglyphs daubed with red paint onto the floor of a secret chamber at the end of the tunnel.

Egyptologist Luca Miatello has deciphered the writing and says they’re engineering marks. They make the number 121, which corresponds to the length in cubits of the so-called Queen’s Chamber of the pyramid.

The numbers are written in hieratic. Ancient Egyptian writing had three forms. Proper hieroglyphs were the most formal style and the one we usually associate with ancient Egypt. Hieratic was a cursive style that was quicker and easier to write. It was usually used for religious texts but since a royal tomb was a highly sacred place, it’s no surprise to find it here. Demotic was derived from hieratic and was used much later, after Egypt had lost most of its power and glory. All three styles are often termed “hieroglyphs”.

The numbers in the pyramid are sloppy, as if written by some foreman who wasn’t completely literate. Because of this, new interpretations of the writing will probably be published in the future.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Robot discovers secret writing in Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza has always sparked the imagination. Among its many mysteries are four tiny passages running through the interior. The smallest are only eight inches square, far too small for a person to crawl through, so what were they for?

As you can see from the cutaway above, two of the tunnels angle up from the King’s Chamber to exit the pyramid. Some researchers believe these have astronomical alignments. Like with all ancient agricultural societies, observing the heavens was important to the Egyptians. The other two tunnels seem not to go anywhere. Some claim they lead to hidden chambers, or allowed the pharaoh’s soul to pass out of the tomb, but nobody really knows. Now a robot has added new pieces to the puzzle by going down one of these tunnels and filming it.

Robots in the pyramids are nothing new. Robotic exploration started in the 1990s, when remote-controlled cameras on wheels rolled up the two lower tunnels, only to find them blocked by strange stone “doors” decorated with a pair of copper pins. One of the doors had a small hole drilled in it, and a new robot with a camera on the end of a flexible cable looked on the other side.

What it found raises more questions than it answers. The secret door doesn’t seem to have any way to open, and on the other side of it are hieroglyphs. Egyptologists are hoping the hidden message will explain one of the pyramid’s greatest mysteries.

Why is there writing where nobody can read it? And why is the back of the door highly polished? There’s also a mason’s mark on the stone that the researchers are puzzling over. Egyptologists are busy trying to decipher the hieroglyphs and are planning more journeys for the intrepid robot. For more on the technology behind the discovery, check out this post on Dr. Zahi Hawass’ website.

These are good times for pyramid studies. A satellite has detected what could be seventeen lost pyramids, and last summer the pyramids of Abusir and Dahshur opened to the public.

[Image courtesy Jeff Dahl]

Lost pyramids found in Egypt

You’d think it would be pretty hard to lose a pyramid, yet in fact plenty have gone missing in Egypt over the years. Not all of them are giant edifices like the Great Pyramid at Giza. Most are only a dozen or so meters high and were meant to house the body of a Queen. In 2008 the pyramid of Sesheshet was discovered in the desert near Saqqara, and now a survey using infrared satellite imagery has found up to seventeen more.

The survey was conducted by Dr. Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In addition to the 17 suspected pyramids, the survey yielded more than 4,000 other sites, including tombs and towns. Excavations on the ground have confirmed that two of the suspected pyramids are really there and not just natural anomalies. Hopefully there will be further excavations to uncover the rest.

Infrared imaging is commonly used in satellite surveys because it reveals differences in the ground. Stone or harder soil show up as a different shade than loose soil or sand. This has applications in many of fields, and is turning out to be pretty handy in archaeology too.

[Photo of Queen’s pyramids at Giza courtesy Daniel Mayer. These are not the ones just discovered by the Dr. Parcak and her team.]

More Egyptian pyramids to open to the public

Visitors to Egypt have always flocked to the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara. Many people don’t realize, however, that these are only the most famous of more than a hundred pyramids in the country. In fact, there’s a whole “pyramid field” to the west of Cairo that includes Giza, Saqqara, and numerous other groupings across a long swath of desert. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is now opening some of them to visitors for the first time.

At Dahshur, more than a dozen pyramids give an interesting lesson in pyramid construction. The largest of these were built in the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613 to 2494 BC) just prior to those at Giza. The founder of this dynasty, the Pharaoh Sneferu, was quite the pyramid builder. His first attempt was at Meidum, 100 km (62 miles) south of Cairo. It collapsed, and he moved his workmen to Dahshur for his next try.

This was the famous Bent Pyramid, pictured above in a photo from Jon Bodsworth’s excellent collection at the Egypt Archive. Check out the gallery below for more of his work. The architects started building the pyramid at a 55 degree angle, but when the structure showed signs of weakness they chickened out and built the rest at a more stable angle of 43 degrees. This gives the pyramid unique appearance. The pyramid’s two interior passages will open for the first time to visitors in December. A third passage leads 25 meters (82 ft) to a nearby smaller pyramid of Sneferu’s queen so the two could have conjugal visits in the afterlife. His third try was the Red Pyramid, built at the safer 43 degree angle. It held up nicely and is the third largest pyramid in Egypt at 104 meters (345 ft) tall.

Other pyramids at Dahshur include smaller examples from later dynasties. They aren’t nearly as grandiose as the earlier ones, perhaps because later rulers couldn’t command as much authority or they simply had other things they needed to spend their money on. The Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III (c. 1860-1814 BC) makes for an odd photo. To save money, the architects only used stone on the outside, and when later generations stole it for other building projects, the mud brick interior was revealed. This has been weathering away for the last four thousand years and now looks a bit deflated, although it’s still impressive.

%Gallery-97617%Between Giza and Saqqara lies the royal necropolis of Abusir, home to 14 pyramids that will open to the public this month. The necropolis on the outskirts of modern-day Cairo was started in the fifth dynasty (c. 2494 to 2345 BC) after the previous dynasty had filled up Giza with pyramids and temples. Abusir’s pyramids are smaller than those at Giza, and some have all but disappeared after millennia of weathering, but the site is still worth visiting. Most are step pyramids like the famous one at Saqqara, not flat-sided “true” pyramids like those at Giza. Some have smaller pyramids next to them to house the pharaoh’s queens.

One pyramid, that of the pharaoh Neferefre, was never finished, and has given archaeologists a glimpse at the construction techniques that went into building these behemoths. Some people like to think the pyramids were built by aliens or people from Atlantis, but archaeological evidence and the Egyptians’ own written records prove they built the pyramids themselves.

These “new” pyramids are just a few of the large number of Egyptian attractions opening in the next three years. Several museums are under construction, and the area around the Pyramids of Giza has been cleaned up. This month the famous Avenue of Sphinxes between the temples of Luxor and Karnak is opening, with about 900 statues and a recently excavated Roman-era village nearby.

Note to budding Egyptologists: this article is way too short to cover all the various theories and discoveries at Abusir and Dahshur. You need a few books to cover all of them! A good start are the works of Miroslav Verner, including The Pyramids: The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt´s Great Monuments and Abusir: The Realm of Osiris.

Ancient Egyptian tombs discovered

Two painted tombs have been discovered at the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara, twenty miles south of Cairo.

The rock-hewn tombs belong to a royal official named Shendwa and his son Khonsu. Both men lived in the Sixth Dynasty (2345-2181 BC) of the Old Kingdom. The pharaohs of this dynasty are buried at or near Saqqara. The pyramid of Pepi II is shown here, although it isn’t in the best of condition.

The find comes just a month after the tomb of a royal scribe was discovered at Saqqara and brings further attention to an important archaeological site many tourists miss. Saqqara is home to the oldest pyramid built of dressed stone–the Step Pyramid of Djoser constructed from 2667 to 2648 BC. Earlier pyramids made of brick are known from Mesopotamia and can now be found in modern Iraq and Syria.

Image courtesy Jon Bodsworth via
Egypt Archive. Check out the site for some amazing photos of some of Saqqara’s painted tombs.