June 5, 2008 / 10:30 AM / 10 years ago

Headless pyramid attributed to early Egyptian ruler

SAKKARA, Egypt (Reuters) - Egypt’s chief archaeologist said on Thursday he had identified a badly eroded pyramid south of Cairo as that of the Fifth Dynasty Pharaoh Menkauhor, who ruled Egypt in the 24th century BC.

Zahi Hawas, Egypt's chief archaeologist and head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, walks at a pyramid site in Sakara, Giza province, June 5, 2008. Hawas said on Thursday he had identified a badly eroded pyramid south of Cairo as that of the Fifth Dynasty Pharaoh Menkauhor, who ruled Egypt in the 24th century BC. REUTERS/Amr Dalsh

The identification by Zahi Hawas, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, could end the long controversy over the structure known as the Headless Pyramid, first described by the German archaeologist Lepsius in the 19th century.

Some archaeologists have associated the pyramid with the Tenth Dynasty Pharaoh Merykare, who ruled about 400 years later, and others with the Twelfth Dynasty, which ruled Egypt between 1991 and 1786 BC during the period known as the Middle Kingdom.

But Hawas, whose teams have excavated the lower levels of the pyramid more thoroughly than any previous expeditions, said he was now convinced that the pyramid was that of Menkauhor, who is known from inscriptions to have built one somewhere.

“Now we are sure that this pyramid is of a style of a pyramid of Dynasty V and belongs to a king called Menkauhor,” Hawas told reporters during a tour of the site.

The archaeologists did not find inscriptions with the name of the pharaoh, so Hawas based his attribution on architectural features, coupled with the fact that Menkauhor is the only Fifth Dynasty ruler whose pyramid has not been identified.

He pointed out large red granite blocks at the entrance to the burial chamber and said these were characteristic of pyramids of that period, of which there are many examples.

NO LABYRINTHINE PASSAGES

He also said that on close examination the plain lid of the sarcophagus was made of a material — grey schist — which was closely associated with the Old Kingdom.

“The material of this sarcophagus was never used in the Middle Kingdom,” he added.

Another deciding factor was the ground plan of the substructure, which lacks the labyrinthine pattern of passages which led to the burial chambers of Middle Kingdom pyramids.

“The Middle Kingdom pyramids ... have complicated corridors until you reach the burial chamber. Without discovering any inscription I tell you this is Old Kingdom. The substructure is exactly Dynasty V,” Hawas said.

The top part of the pyramid disappeared many years ago, probably removed by villagers to build houses in the flood plain of the Nile, which lies about 100 metres away.

When Hawas’s team started work at the site about 18 months ago, they had to remove about 8 metres of sand to reach the relatively well preserved lower levels.

In the process they stumbled upon what Hawas said was a processional way, built in the Ptolemaic period, along which the high priest of the Apis bull cult would lead the funeral of each sacred bull towards the Serapeum, where the mummified animals were buried underground in vast stone sarcophaguses.

A stone found nearby bears the name of Ptolemy V, a pharaoh of Greek origin who ruled Egypt between 205 and 180 BC.

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