From pit graves to a piramid

Naqada III tomb, Minsjat Abu Omar 3300 BCIntroduction
All we know about the fascinating history of ancient Egypt is mainly based on the remains of the rich and interesting funerary culture.

The huge number, the architectural, and functional design of the graves gives us an impression in which way the Egyptians took care of their dead. Concerning the architectural changes of the graves, there were several important developments during the Predynastic and Early Dynastic period. To understand the reasons of those changes we have to go back to the graves of the Predynastic period and find out how simple graves finally led to the creation of the world's first, huge monument entirely made of stone: the Step Pyramid of Djoser.

From simple graves to a characteristic tomb model
In ancient Egypt preservation of the dead human body was important and grew in importance in later times, probably the result of the development of a religious concept. Concerning the graves of the ancient Egyptians, in the beginning there was, in absolute terms, no trace of architecture. In later times tombs were accommodated with remarkable substructures and the superstructures.

Ginger, the Gebelein man in a pit grave, British MuseumIt all started with the simple pit graves of the people from the first settlements. They buried their dead in shallow depressions in the desert sand. The dry climate of the Egyptian desert was a good place for preservation and burying a human body. Entering the Neolithic period, with the appearance of settlements, cemeteries did arise. At the edge of the western desert the large settlement of Merimba Beni Salama (5000-4100 BC) was situated. The graves of the Merimba people were all pit-burials, with contracted bodies, lying on the left side and orientated to the south. In contrast to the later tombs they included hardly any grave goods. In Upper Egypt the Badarian culture (4500-4000 BC) had a lot of settlements and cemeteries. The Badarians were the earliest farmers of Upper Egypt. Their cemeteries were situated in the low desert, away from the fertile land.
Even though there were no identical graves in the Predynastic period one could speak of a typical Badarian burial. Their graves were an oval pit, containing a contracted body. The body was lying on a mat and wrapped or covered by a mat or animal skin. The position of the head was to the south and the face to the west. There are a few examples of graves lined with reed matting, a pattern we see again in later tomb walls, but there is not an evidence for a kind of superstructure which eventually covered the pit. Contrary to earlier times there were grave goods inside.
After analysing the grave goods it seems there was an unequal distribution of wealth. This became more featured since the Naqada Period. In fact, it was a continuous process: the graves of the wealthy became larger and gradually changed of forms, the poorest kept their simple graves.

Drawing of Tarkhan tomb 1845 after PetrieDuring the Naqada I period the burial customs followed the same pattern, but some graves were larger. Grave goods were of better quality and more numerous. Providing the dead seemed increasingly important. Entering the Naqada II period we see an obvious change. Because of the urbanisation of the settlements, which makes life more materialistic, towns such as Naqada and Hierakonpolis became important trade centres. Yet we started to see clearly the difference between the richest tombs and the poorest pit graves. The tombs of the more wealthy were larger, often with a rectangular plan instead of an oval one, just like their houses. The tombs were surrounded by mud brick or wooden walls, which offered the opportunity for decoration. Often they have a side room, and they were topped by wood and reed structures. However, one could not speak of a superstructure yet. Several tombs, for example at the cemetery of Tarkhan, included a side room filled with storage jars and food containers. The wall, attached to the burial room, comprises two slits, probably for the offerings to reach the deceased. As Steven Snape argued this aspect represents “an early version of what become a fundamental feature in the way that the form of Egyptian tombs reflected their function”. It seems as if the food of the dead and the way he can reach it was very important, as well as the possibility that the living could bring the food in that special room. Snape states that the external room can probably be seen as an offering chapel and the burial underneath as the burial chamber. These bipartite tombs were predecessors for the so-called mastabas, tombs with sometimes elaborate superstructures and substructures. The lay-out of the bipartite tombs got an overall function between the living and the dead. The architectural tomb development during the whole dynastic period was based on the example of this bipartite tomb.

Mastaba of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, the tomb of the two brothers, 5th Dynasty, photo: OsirisnetThe mastaba tombs
The tombs of the early dynastic period were still mud-brick lined, rectangular pits, but their forms gradually changed. The elite started to protect the bodies of the deceased with coffins and sarcophagi. For them, a depression in the sand did no longer meet their standards. The burial chamber was cut out deeper into the bedrock and was lined with wood. A low mound (tumulus) of sand and stones, covering the burial chamber was surrounded by a rectangular, mud-brick building. The graves got more and more a superstructure and a substructure and grew finally out to sand-free, mastaba-like tombs. Mastaba is the Arabic word for low bench. In general, the superstructures and the substructures of these tombs followed a more or less independent development. Originally the superstructure contained the spaces for the offering cult; the substructure the burial chamber.

A lot of royal mastaba-like tombs of Dynasty 0 and the 1st and 2nd Dynasty were situated at the Abydos cemetery site Umm el-Qua'ab. The site contained several funeral enclosures with central tombs, surrounded by large substructures with many storage rooms. The burial chamber, in the centre, was roofed with wooden beams. The tombs were marked with a pair of stela on the east site. A mound of sand and gravel was laying above the central tomb. These mounds, surrounded by retaining walls, had probably a symbolic significance. It seems that they became increasingly important in relation with the architectural development of later tombs. There are no traces of a kind of superstructure above these mounds.

Lay-out of a mastabaThe high officials and court members build their own mastabas in Saqqara. The outside walls had smooth, sloping sides. Often, the superstructures measured hundreds square meters. These mastabas accommodated numerous rectangular rooms and had a niched exterior, referred to as 'palace façade' decoration, resembling to the palace of the living king. With the wooden panelling or woven reed matting the façades looked a lot like the shrines representing Upper and Lower Egypt. By the end of the Early Dynastic period the façade was less complex and had just two simple niches on the eastern wall.
The eastern façade included a false door, an imaginary passage between the worlds of the living and the dead. It was an open-air offering place that later on moved inside the core of the mastaba. It became an offering chapel with a false door in the western wall.
Compared to the superstructure, where the cult centre was established, the burial chamber beneath the mastaba was more modest in size. Often it consists of one or more vertical shafts leading to the, mostly undecorated, burial chambers, perhaps 10 meters underground.

Stairs of the mastaba of Ti (5th Dynasty), photo: Petra LetherThe earliest mastabas had no entrance, and access to the substructure was only possible before the construction of the superstructure. In the mid-first dynasty the staircase was introduced. In that way it was possible to access the subterranean of the mastaba, which could be build during the lifetime of the tomb owner. Usually the staircase was accessible from the eastern side of the mastaba. Now it was more easy for the Living to put food for the dead in the offering chapel.

One more architectural element during the 1st Dynasty showed the first portcullis grooves and slabs in the corridors. This meant more security and the possibility to enter the burial chamber and storerooms even after sealing the superstructure. Filled with lots of grave goods the superstructure had become an easy target for thieves. That is why by the end of the 1st Dynasty the substructure grew extensionally, and contained numerous storerooms for grave goods. The superstructure of the elite tombs got more simple, and eventually led to solid rubble-filled structures in later times.

T Serdab in mastaba of Ti, 5th Dynasty, photo: Petra Letherhe 1st Dynasty shows another new architectural interior element. It was the so-called serdab, a separate chamber, with inside the Ka-statue of the deceased. The Ka was a spiritual entity of the deceased. By two slits into the wall, the necessary interaction between the living and the dead was possible. Such a serdab was also added to the exterior of the later Djoser Pyramid.
During the 2nd and the 3rd Dynasty the substructure of the royal tombs were growing larger. The main pits of the tombs became deeper and the wooden shrine around the burial chamber was attached more closer to the walls. The tombs became more and more a model of a house, with even private chambers, and more public rooms for providing the spirit with numerous pottery. This replica of a 'great house' characterized the further tomb development into the Old Kingdom pyramids. Although, in which way the architectural development of royal tombs into the pyramid aged is not quite certain. Especially the 2nd Dynasty shows a gap in information concerning this. The gradual changes in the royal architectural design pointed to an accent on the (sometimes stepped) interior mound above the burial chamber, an extensive development of the substructure, and remarkable changes concerning the surrounding of the tomb, clearly related to cult rituals.

Djoser piramid, photo: WikipediaThe Step Pyramid of Djoser
A forerunner of Djoser's pyramid can maybe be seen in a mastaba 3038 from the 1st Dynasty of Andjib at Saqqara. The burial pit was 4 meter deep, the surrounding mud-brick walls, 6 meter high. Three sides of this structure were built out to form eight swallow steps. A niched enclosure wall was built around the stepped structure. Within the space was filled with sand.
Djoser's pyramid was probably the work of Imhotep, the great architect of the king. As Snape argued, the pyramid “is a combination of innovation and tradition”. The 60 meters high, monumental tomb was the centre of a huge enclosure containing courtyards, dummy buildings, courts for religious festivals, and mortuary temples. All those structures were necessary, not only for ceremonies, but also for the king's activities in the afterlife. Instead material as wooden, reed and mud-brick the builders used large quantities of stone. The rectangular enclosure wall of the Djoser complex is reflecting the earlier palace façade, and other buildings can be compared with earlier architectural elements in tombs. Consequently, in contrast to previous tombs Imhotep transformed the relative simple mound, which covered the burial shaft of previous tombs, into a huge pyramid with a base measuring 121×109 metres.

The pyramid itself was built in Tura limestone, rose above the enclosure and must have impressed the ancient Egyptians by glistening and sparkling. The building process included several phases. They first started building a square mastaba-like structure. Then the mastaba was extended on four sides, and a two-stepped mastaba was born. Thirdly, they created an extension of a more conventional form on the eastern site, but they also blocked the original entrance to the substructure. To get strength and stability they put the bricks in a specific way, pointing to the centre of the pyramid and the builder used larger blocks for the remaining phases. Finally the six step superstructure was finished.

Djoser construction, drawn after Lauer, J. P. (1936)
The substructure is an extensive underground structure. It exists of more than 5,7 km of descending corridors, stairways, tunnels, shafts, chambers, galleries and storerooms. The granite burial vault measures 2.96×1.65 metres. It is situated on the base of a wide shaft, 7 metres square in the centre of the first build mastaba. The shaft is not accessible because of building the second mastaba over the shaft. The relative small burial chamber was sealed with a heavy, massive, granite plug.

Frieze of blue tales, photo: WikipediaThe increasing skills of the craftsmen resulted in a beautiful decoration of some chambers with blue-tiles with raised bands of limestone, probably this referred to the early reed-mat structure. The eastern chamber was divided in six decorated panels, including djed-pilars, a real doorway and false door stela on the southern wall. In fact, art and architecture came together and some of the decorations became standard for centuries. The decorated chambers may probably have represented Djoser's private rooms in his palace.

A striking fact in building the pyramid complex is that not only the tomb was a place for offering but the whole pyramid complex had become a cult centre. As Cyril Aldred states Imhotep had not only created a huge stepped pyramid, the first large building in the world, but also “a vast city of the dead”.

As we could see the simple pit graves finally developed in a huge funeral building. Tracing the developments, the architectural changes, and facing the historical context it seems clear that the transformation of the tombs has to do with several things. Firstly, the development of the concept of the dead which evolved from forms of the early Dynastic period. Preservation and providing the body were highly related with that. Secondly, the urbanization of the settlements and later on the unification of the country the difference between the rich and the poor resulted in much bigger and more wealthy tombs for the elite and a specific architecture and design of the kings graves. Lastly, the kings increasing influence, power and divinity finally dominated the architecture by creating huge, monumental buildings.

However, for all Egyptians applied Steven Snapes premise that the body of the deceased “became seen as the vehicle by which the afterlife could be achieved”. In my opinion the increasing religious influence was actually the most important animus behind the evolution in the architecture of the tombs in which a special place and treatment was reserved for the “divine” king.

Joke Baardemans © 2017


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