Friday, 13 February 2009

Pyramids of the Old Kingdom

Old Kingdom Giza Pyramids[Above - Postcard of the Old Kingdom Giza Pyramids.]

Pyramids in Egypt were built throughout many periods of their ancient history after their land was unified under one ruler, yet the main time of their construction was during the Old Kingdom. The Old Kingdom stretched over the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth dynasties, but the pyramids built during this time-span changed dramatically over the years. Many people marvel at the strength and ingenuity that could produce such monuments and come to the conclusion that such an ancient race could not manage to erect such structures; equating them as the work of aliens or ancient, lost and advanced civilisations. The simple truth of it is that the ancient Egyptians used their own tried methods that served them well to produce monuments that would still be standing thousands of years later.
Old Kingdom pyramids were built as tombs of the pharaohs and their queens. In later years they would come to be burial places also for other members of the royal family and officials and people of general high status. It is also believed that some pyramids may have served as a false tomb, to represent the king’s rule over The Two Lands: Upper and Lower Egypt. He would have been buried in one of these specially made tombs. Before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, burial customs were very different in these two areas: in Upper Egypt people were often buried in the desert in pits with a mound of sand over to act as a marker; whereas in Lower Egypt the dead were sometimes interred within the settlement itself, often beneath the flooring of their houses. The mixture of these two traditions after unification could have brought about the idea of the mastaba as a tomb. Mastabas have a bench-shaped superstructure with shafts leading to underground chambers where the body was buried. The chambers were made to resemble houses and palaces in design, and with the body underground protected from the elements by a mud-brick or stone superstructure, the mastaba was a natural progression from the pre-unification days; being a more permanent version of the sand burial mound, as well as the dead being laid to rest within a structure constructed to resemble a house. The deceased’s life-force, which was believed to dwell in the tomb for eternity, could travel from room to room in the mastaba even though there were not any corridors built to connect the chambers, as it was supposed that the life-force could pass through the walls of the chambers unhindered.
Mastabas were the tomb of choice for rulers during the first and second dynasties; the change to pyramids came in the third dynasty with the second pharaoh of that dynasty, Djoser. Djoser and his architect, Imhotep, produced the idea of the pyramid by first making a mastaba and then enlarging it and stacking mastaba upon mastaba getting progressively smaller to form the Step Pyramid, consisting of six tiers. The True Pyramid, or Smooth-sided Pyramid, developed from the stepped version with much experimentation from one pharaoh, Sneferu; showing just what magnificent things could be built from some intelligent usage of trial and error, as construction disasters were what developed the ancient Egyptians’ learning curve in this instance. Sneferu had at least three pyramids constructed during his lifetime: the Meidum Pyramid which was likely unstable from early on; the Bent Pyramid which had to have the angle of its upper portion altered to retain its stability; and the Red Pyramid which is the first known True Pyramid. As Sneferu’s methods improved, masonry courses began being placed horizontally instead of leaning in against the structure itself, and the block sizes gradually decreased as they reached higher up the structure, as well as the inclination of the pyramid’s sides being perfected at this time, which all offers more stability and makes the construction easier to complete. The fleeting trend of the burial chamber being incorporated into the superstructure of the pyramid instead of being placed underneath was first conceived by Sneferu.
The three most marvellous pyramids, in terms of their sheer size and external beauty, are situated on the Giza Plateau, and belong to the pharaohs, Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura, of the fourth dynasty. Having to attempt to produce such structures on the ascension of each new king meant that funds and resources soon became depleted, and the pyramids that followed this golden age of the fourth dynasty did not stand the test of time as soundly as the earlier pyramids. From the fifth dynasty, instead of having precisely cut blocks in their inner cores, like in earlier periods, the pyramid builders of this period only concentrated on cutting the casing blocks exactly to size, and made the inner core from rubble, so when any damage occurred to their casing, or if blocks were taken at a later date to be reused elsewhere, the outer portions of the pyramid would just collapse leaving a mound of rubble. Supplies in the fifth dynasty were not only being use to build pyramids, however; they were being directed to sites where Sun Temples were being built, so this is likely why their resources suddenly became stretched.
Builders of the early pyramids during the third and fourth dynasties seemed to concentrate more on perfecting their stone working skills rather than their artistic work, so drawings and texts tended to be more concentrated outside of the pyramid proper, and instead was found throughout the rest of the complex, like in the causeway. This all changed in the fifth dynasty with the introduction of the Pyramid Texts. These texts which were inscribed in chambers and antechambers of the pyramid, beginning with King Unis, last king of the fifth dynasty, involved the funerary rituals and fate of the deceased ruler. In time these texts were written on other subterranean walls, too. These texts are seen to have equipped the king with the means of reaching the afterlife: by raising safely to the skies - for example, by a ramp or ladder - and meeting the realm of the gods. The texts supplied the pharaoh with knowledge regarding how to reply to questions posed by ferrymen and guardians of the afterlife and advised how to deal with demons so each stage of entry could be passed unhindered. It also served as a type of map to know where to go. Things that were regarded to the ancient Egyptians as harmful in life were also deemed to be harmful in death; this is shown by a spell in the texts to destroy one’s foes, and another one aimed at scorpions. The king intended to make it in the afterlife to Ra’s sun barque, so that he could accompany the god in his journey rowing across the skies, and therefore find his place in the cycle of life and death. This proves that pyramids were related to the death of the king and not constructed for other purposes.
Important to the ancient Egyptians’ religious beliefs, was that the dead needed a house to last for eternity, which would hold all his possessions that he required or wanted to be with him in his afterlife, so tombs needed to become more hardy to the elements and to robbers as the Egyptians’ notions and building techniques advanced, so that the body and its possessions would be kept safe. The Egyptians also believed that the life-force of the dead needed to be tended to eternally after death, to provide it with offerings of food and sustenance and to recite spells to keep the life-force, or ka, contented in the afterlife. This job was supposed to fall to the dead person’s descendants, but was often done by employed priests - and was a job that was passed down from father to son - as family members could become untrustworthy after many years had passed. These customs were performed at the tomb chapel, which, during the Old Kingdom, was attached to the tomb. Just in case the family or priests ever shirked their duty of leaving offerings to the deceased, the dead would erect stelae inscribed with the provisions he needed in the afterlife to make them magically appear there. Another vital point was that the dead body needed to be recognisable to the ka after death, so that the ka knew where to find its offerings and belongings; this prompted the concept of artificially preserving the body through mummification. Techniques of mummification during the Old Kingdom involved the body being cleaned and purified, before being wrapped in linen and encased in cartonnage which had been painted to resemble his features. The preserved remains were interred inside a wooden coffin and taken to the pyramid to be placed inside a stone sarcophagus that was standing empty inside the burial chamber. In case the mummified remains got damaged or stolen, the custom was to have a statue sculpted in the deceased’s likeness for the ka to recognise; this statue was placed in a serdab, which was a hidden chamber that allowed the statue to view the offerings and rituals that were performed in their honour.
The life of the ancient Egyptians centred around making sure they made themselves fully equipped for their afterlife; after all, the afterlife would be eternal, and therefore much longer and more significant than their current life. At one time, the afterlife could have been believed to be accessed through an underground pit in the tomb, which would explain why often the burial chamber was located in a deep pit. Lots of explanations into the tombs taking on a pyramidal form are known. The Stepped-Pyramid could have been viewed by the Egyptians as a type of stairway to the sky to enable the pharaoh to join the gods amongst the stars and to travel with Ra across the skies in the barque. The pyramid in its later sloped form, however, could be meant to imitate the sun’s rays; the sun being the symbol of the deceased’s godly father, Ra. Yet again, the pyramid could be an advancement of the early ideas of a mound covering the dead to act as a marker, only as the years went on these markers became more sturdier and elaborate. Finally, these markers were made to be as large and imposing as possible, so they took the form of a pyramid, as this is the easiest type of architecture to build on such a grand scale. The pyramid certainly evolved due to the growing importance of the Solar Cult that centred around a divine father and his Earthly son in the guise of a pharaoh: Ra and Horus respectively.
At the start of a new pyramid building project there would be considerably more workers involved at any one time due to the amount of organisation and distribution of materials that needs to occur at the start of the project, and also, as the pyramid grew in size there would be less space to manoeuvre around at the top of the pyramid, so it would be more prudent to have less workers involved. The bulk of the pyramid building possibly took place during the season of inundation, when farmers and peasants could not tend their crops, as this was when more people would be available to work, and travelling up and down the Nile in boats carrying heavy blocks to be used in construction would be at its easiest. It is possible that there was a constant workforce at a pyramid site throughout the year, but the workforce likely gained many more temporary workers during inundation for improved efficiency. Two gangs with one-thousand people in each were divided into groups containing two-hundred people in each group; groups were then divided into ten teams of twenty people. These were the actual builders of the pyramids.
The first job in pyramid construction was finding the right site to place it. According to tradition, pyramids needed to be built on the west side of the Nile; this is where the sun sets each night, and was therefore associated with death. The ground had to be good, with no apparent flaws in the rock, and it had to be situated on the desert’s edge, where it would become close to the water via specially dug harbours that were connected to the Nile by canals, as huge stones had to be transported down the Nile on ship from far-off quarries. After a site had been chosen, both due to its foundation and landscape, and the layout of the pyramid complex had been visualised by the architect, the actual foundation was stripped away to the bedrock, and the site was made level, possibly with the use of water, especially at the pyramid’s perimeter. The pyramid was orientated towards the north by using astral and solar observations and the angles of the base were calculated by using a set-square. Texts describing how foundations were laid using these methods can be found in relation to temples, not pyramids, from much later periods of Egypt’s history. After the level foundation was laid, the Stretching of the Cord ceremony took place. This ceremony was executed by the pharaoh and a priestess in the role of the goddess, Seshat. They each had to hammer a peg into the ground which was connected by a cord; this was done using a golden mallet. This shows just how much symbolism was involved in each act of pyramid construction.
Stone used for building the pyramids was extracted from quarries using copper chisels and wooden mallets. Marks on blocks used in pyramid building and at quarries show they used two different types of chisels: pointed ones were used to detach blocks from their quarry and to square blocks up, and flat ones smoothed their surface. Saws were used for cutting stone, with sand used as an abrasive to cause friction. Also wooden wedges could be used to quarry stone, as they were placed in pre-cut grooves and were wetted; as they dried they would expand and break the stone from its quarry. For especially hard stone, balls of dolerite were pounded against the stone to quarry it.
Blocks quarried either local or distant, were transported to the site; if the quarry site was many miles away, it would be first taken to a harbour close to the complex by boat, then it would be levered onto a wooden sled and dragged up an earthen ramp mixed up with assorted building debris, and pulled by thick ropes made of twisted papyrus to the worksite and on to the pyramid itself. The dragging of the sled would have been aided by pouring water, milk, or Tafla clay in the path of the oncoming sled to lubricate the ground. Evidence of these earthen ramps can still be found at some pyramid sites to this day and the methods of transporting stone on boat and sledge can be seen in later tombs and temples in the act of moving large obelisks and statues. Ramps were constructed to reach the pyramid levels as it rose, but the type of ramp has been the subject of much debate. In all likelihood, a mixture of the three most common theories were used; a single ramp that led part of the way up the pyramid face, followed by a ramp that spiralled around the outside of the pyramid and internal ramps to reach the upper portions. Right at the top of the pyramid wooden scaffolding may have been used, especially for putting the pyramidion in place at the apex. The stone that formed the bulk of the core of the Great Pyramid came from a quarry a quarter of a mile to the south of the pyramid; this bite-shape of missing stone was covered over by the debris from the pyramid waste after it had been completed, along with the outer ramps that were dismantled and dumped in the quarries as the builders worked their way down the face of the pyramid to place casing stones. Also, in the case of the Great Pyramid, the Umm el-Sawwan quarries provided the builders with gypsum to make mortar and plaster, which was located not too far from the Giza Plateau.
The pyramid itself is only one part of a whole pyramid complex; there was also the Valley Temple, Causeway, Mortuary Temple, Subsidiary Pyramid, and boat pits. Valley Temples tended to be situated by the desert’s edge so that during the Nile’s inundation the temple would be close to the river; this was where the body and funerary goods were first received into the complex, and where some believe the actual mummification of the dead pharaoh may have been performed. At the very least, acts of purification were likely performed here. The funerary procession transported the body along the Causeway towards the Mortuary Temple where the final rituals, like The Opening of the Mouth, took place; this ritual was believed to restore the senses of the king so he could see, speak, and eat in the afterlife. The Mortuary Temple was also the place where a chapel would be located for offerings to be placed. These temples were composed of an entrance hall, court, five niches for statues (possibly to represent each of the five official names of the king), storehouses, and a sanctuary which contained the false door. Subsidiary Pyramids have different interpretations to modern scholars: it could be that they were a burial place for a queen or a tomb to house the entrails of the king, but the most likely is that it is a type of false tomb for the king or his ka, possibly made to replace the southern mastaba in earlier pyramid complexes. Also some complexes had boat pits dug in them where the boats that were either used during the funerary procession to transport the body to the tomb, or symbolic boats for the pharaoh to travel in across the skies in the afterlife were placed. The whole pyramid was surrounded by an enclosure wall.
Around the outside of the Pyramid complex were villages for the necropolis officials and tomb builders, as well as mastaba tombs for favoured officials of the king. Sometimes towns were instigated by the state to provide a constant workforce for his Pyramid project, where they lived in fairly pleasant conditions with others that helped to keep the village running smoothly, like potters, bakers, and brewers. The workforce was made up of recruited peasants, which provided these types of people with employment at times when they were free to work, so the arrangement was likely welcomed. These people were unified by their dedication to equip their king with a great tomb to make his afterlife a happy one, which they would hope they could get to join in on.
Early on, the only people that were considered to achieve an afterlife were the kings, so his nobles and families all had themselves interred close to their ruler’s burial place in hopes that by close proximity they would be carried along to the afterlife with the king; the builders and artisans that worked on the tombs had themselves buried in cemeteries close to the complex for this same reason. By the same token, the pharaoh welcomed the hard workers into cemeteries within close proximity to his own final resting place in case he required people to perform hard labour on his behalf in the afterlife. This symbiotic arrangement made the workers truly enjoy their accomplishments in being able to erect such structures, and it was great for the political unity and economy throughout Egypt. In the tombs of these workers, they note such pride in their own involvement in such an important project, and inside the relieving chambers of the pyramid belonging to the pharaoh, Khufu, is graffiti left by groups that worked on the pyramid referring to themselves in association with their ruler. Such obvious pride makes it is impossible to think of these people as slaves, as some people in the past have proposed.
Settlements for the pyramid workers had to be built early on in the construction so the people had somewhere to live, rest, and eat. Workers’ villages situated in close range to tombs of pharaohs show how well these craftsmen were supported by the state: good living conditions provide a healthy basis where exceptional work can stem from. Houses usually contained beds, tables, stools, and also chests, jars and baskets for storage. One portion of a village may have housed the complexes’ permanent staff, and another portion homed temporary workers in barrack-like structures. At the Giza Plateau, bakeries, breweries, fisheries, tool shops, and storage facilities have been discovered to the southeast of Khufu’s pyramid, and behind Khafra’s pyramid are long narrow rooms that could be storerooms or workshops. This shows just how many different types of workers needed to be employed at these sites.
The tombs of these workers at Giza show that whole families lived on the pyramid sites; tombs often contain three generations of families, with wives and children being buried with their husbands and fathers. One cemetery, south of the Giza pyramids, is separated into two parts; the lower section holds the tombs of the labourers, whereas the upper, more elaborate tombs are believed to be where the overseers and craftsmen were interred. East of the Great Pyramid at Giza, mastabas arranged in parallel lines were built to entomb the relatives of the pharaoh, and on the west side the mastabas were arranged likewise and interred officials. Examinations of their mummified remains show that many of the workers suffered with serious injuries from accidents and strains connected with hard labour, but in many cases these injuries have shown signs of considerable healing, sometimes associated with surgery, so it is safe to assume that they were given good medical care. The workers and their families were paid for their work by the state in kind: they were given a roof over their head for the time in which they were employed there; given food like fish and grain, and beer to nourish themselves; given water and oils to cleanse themselves; and provided with the best medical care around. The amount of rations they received depended upon job title; the higher the rank of their job, the more they were paid. This meant that, though tomb building was maybe slightly more dangerous than everyday work, the people employed there had families that were well cared for and whom had pleasant living conditions.
Following the collapse of the Old Kingdom, pyramids for the king became less common, smaller, with superstructure’s cores being less well constructed. The substructures of these later pyramids were better planned to thwart the potential robber, though, and tended to concentrate on this in their architecture rather than conforming to the religious traditions set out in previous dynasties. In the New Kingdom, pharaohs abandoned building pyramids altogether, realising there was no monumental feat of ingenuity that could keep thieves out, as even placing blocking stones in the passageways leading to the burial chambers and changing the orientation of the entrance had no effect in deterring tomb-robberies. To attempt to remedy this problem pharaohs from then on had their tombs built away from their mortuary temples and cut into the cliffs below a natural pyramid-shaped mountain, now known as the Valley of the Kings. Some nobles and members of royalty still would have pyramids constructed as their final resting place for many years after the kings had given up building them, albeit on a much smaller scale. Artists, scribes, craftsmen, and the like that worked on producing the king’s final tomb at the Valley of the Kings during this period, often built themselves and their family a hollow pyramid at Deir el-Medina that stood over their burial pit. The pyramids stood beside a chapel and were enclosed in their own individual courtyard. The revival of the pyramid for pharaohs came during the twenty-fifth dynasty when the Nubians came to rule Egypt. The Nubians brought back some of the Egyptians’ old traditions to boast of connections to the ancient Egyptians, which helped to cement their rule over the land. These pyramids, again were smaller and much steeper than the Old Kingdom versions. The glory of the Old Kingdom pyramids would never be seen again.