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“Inside the Step Pyramid” Vincent Oeters (EEG Meeting Talk)

At the November meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group Vincent Oeters talked to us about the Step Pyramid of Djoser – in particular the inside of it. He doesn’t himself work on the Step Pyramid, but while he was working (as an archaeologist) nearby he was able to go into it three times (with the permission of and accompanied by an Inspector from the Ministry of Antiquities, as it’s not generally open to tourists). And one of those times he was also allowed to take photos! And it was those photos that formed the core of his talk.

He started his talk with a bit of geographical and historical scene setting. We don’t actually know all that much about Djoser – he reigned c.2640 BCE, and the names of his wife and daughter are known and that’s about it. There are two known statues of him – one is in the Cairo Museum, and one is a partial statue that has the name of Imhotep on it as well and is now in the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara. The first modern research on the pyramid was done by Lepsius in around 1843 CE. Old drawings and photos from that time show the pyramid still partially covered by sand. Around the pyramid itself is a large enclosure wall, and the pyramid is not exactly centred within the enclosure. And around that is a feature that isn’t often mentioned, and certainly I’d not heard of before: a large dry moat, shaped a bit like the hieroglyph for “house”. This moat isn’t simply a big pit – there are subterranean rooms & corridors, and niches in the walls of the moat at some points too. Some of the corridors from this moat appear to run towards the pyramid. One of the corridors has been reused for later burials, another one was where the wooden harpoon (that I saw when I visited the Imhotep Museum this October) had been found by the Polish mission led by Karol Myśliwiec. This wooden harpoon has a snake motif on it that matches a snake motif on columns that are also carved with Djoser’s name (also in the Imhotep Museum) – so it probably belonged to Djoser and was a symbolic burial. Only a very few parts of this moat have been excavated to date so there’s still a lot more than these tantalising details to be discovered!

Inside, or rather, under the pyramid is a complex and confusing network of tunnels which extends beyond the edges of the pyramid’s superstructure. Oeters had tried to find us a clear map of these corridors, but there doesn’t appear to be one publicly available. This is in part because they haven’t been fully explored let alone mapped, despite the site having been worked on for over a hundred & fifty years – there’s just that much to investigate that there hasn’t been time to look at everything. There are people working on this – in 2007 a Lativan mission made 3D models of parts of the inside of the pyramid. One of the things they found is that there appears to be a tunnel from the pyramid to the South Tomb (which is at the edge of the enclosure, so quite a distance). One thing that makes the tunnel network confusing is that as the construction of the pyramid above evolved the tunnels underneath needed to change as well. For instance when the original mastaba structure was expanded it covered up the original entrance to the tunnel network, which meant a new entrance (and new connecting tunnels) were needed.

The main portion of Oeters’s talk was walking us through the inside of the pyramid via his photos. This is, obviously, rather difficult to write up in detail because it was all about the images. One of the themes that came up frequently through the photos was how unstable the structure is. Oeters’s visit was before the pyramid began undergoing restoration – which is controversial, particularly in that it covers up the evidence on the outside of the pyramid for how it was constructed. But it’s also a necessity, an earthquake in 2006 destabilised the structure even more than just the passage of time has done and a lot of blocks fell inside the pyramid. He showed us several photos of either unstable looking ceilings with blocks ready to fall, or large blocks on the floor which had fallen from the ceiling. During the restoration work by the Ministry of Antiquities it was also discovered that one of the wooden “beams” supporting the roof was actually a piece of a Late Period coffin – the modern restoration is not the first one! It is a bit more hi-tech, tho – first large “balloons” were put in and inflated to provide pneumatic support to the roof whilst the restoration team drilled holes in the ceiling and injected glue and inserted rods to stabilise the structure. The original plan was that the balloons and internal scaffolding would be removed when the work was finished, but the events of early 2011 in Egypt interrupted and it’s all still in there.

Djoser’s sarcophagus is still in the burial chamber. It’s oddly made compared to later large sarcophagi. It’s not made in two parts, base + lid, instead it’s constructed out of black granite slabs with a block in the lid that looks like it plugs the gap where Djoser’s coffin was put in. It has recently been cleaned up – that was done before in the 1930s, but so much debris had fallen since then that it needed doing again. Some of the stone removed during cleaning had star motifs on it, so this must’ve been part of a decorated ceiling. While it was being cleaned they discovered that there were inscriptions on the granite slabs! Not religious texts, but notations as to how to put the sarcophagus together – e.g. “4th from the south”. Another oddity about the sarcophagus is that it doesn’t rest flat on the floor, instead it stands on several small piles of stones. There was a robbers’ tunnel underneath that entered the sarcophagus as well, which Oeters went through – he said it was a very tight fit.

Amongst the many tunnels under the Step Pyramid are 11 that were full of broken pottery vessels. These bits of pot are inscribed with the names of Pharaohs pre-dating Djoser, and it’s believed that he deliberately brought them here from where they were originally placed in Abydos and reburied them in his tomb to emphasise his link with his predecessors and to show them respect. In these corridors there are also other artifacts, including two sarcophagi which were originally assumed to be from a later period but are now thought to belong to relatives of Djoser.

After our break for coffee & cake Oeters told us about the South Tomb, which is at the south end of the Step Pyramid complex. It has a proper tomb layout with a superstructure above ground, a burial shaft and chambers & corridors below ground – there was even an empty sarcophagus in it. Part of the superstructure is visible at the site today, a wall with protective snakes around the top. Djoser’s immediate predecessors had tombs at both Saqqara and Abydos (which is to the south), with the Saqqara tomb being their actual burial place and the Abydos tomb being symbolic. Djoser doesn’t have a tomb at Abydos, and it’s thought that this South Tomb in the Step Pyramid complex is fulfilling the same symbolic role.

One of the unique features of the Step Pyramid complex is that some of the chambers under both the Step Pyramid itself and the South Tomb were decorated with blue faience tiles. These were, sadly, mostly removed by tourists both ancient & modern and these days are scattered throughout museum & private collections all across the world. There’s a reconstruction in the Imhotep Museum that shows what the walls would’ve looked like – covered in tiles surrounding niches with inscriptions mentioning Djoser and showing his Hebsed festival. The tiles were each labelled with a mark on the back, either a hieroglyph or a number. The meaning of the marks isn’t clear – the tiles are so dispersed now that no-one’s been able to do a systematic survey (and the original positioning of the tiles is lost forever). They might be batch numbers, or positioning marks like those on the sarcophagus slabs. Or they may have had some religious significance. One thing that is known is that they weren’t just stuck onto the wall like you’d tile a wall today – instead they were strung onto ropes (which have long since decayed) and then fixed to the wall. This is another way that the designers of the complex were mimicking the more temporary materials of daily life in permanent materials: these tiles represent the mats that were hung on the walls of the King’s palace rooms.

Towards the end of his talk Oeters again emphasised how much there is yet to be discovered at the site, there is so much that hasn’t been fully excavated. For instance the layout of the corridors that are so far known feels very random, yet it would be unlike the Ancient Egyptians not to’ve had some sort of system when digging them. It seems astonishing that a site that has been worked on for over 150 years has still so much left to tell us, and it was this (as well as Oeters’s enthusiastic delivery) that made the talk so fascinating.