From Pit to Pyramid

Trace the evolution of funerary architecture from the predynastic pit grave through the development of the mastaba tomb, to the pyramid complexes of the 4th Dynasty.

It almost seems that from the dawn of Egyptian civilisation until the end they were obsessed with death and burial. Yet when you look at scenes of daily life they are a very happy LIFE obsessed culture. However the effort and time put into burial are considerable. Many factors seem to have driven the development of the funeral architecture but it is hard to identify these at times because the Ancient Egyptian did not tell us, so we have to deduce the reasons from the evidence left to us.

There appear to be three influences driving funerary architecture

  • Religious belief
  • Power, wealth and status
  • Tomb robbery

These influences can be in conflict and a compromise has to be made.

There are also regional variations, especially between north and south, and it is not until unification that a standard burial can be said to occur for a particular strata of society. (Wilkinson 1999, pgxii, 323)   says “Egypt was never a monolithic state” there were always local and regional variations.

Pit Graves

The Upper Egyptian initially buried everyone in shallow pit graves, either round or oval. These were situated in the desert away from the cultivation. The body was contracted in a foetal position and provided with grave goods. Some of the artifacts buried represent high art, of its time and considerable monetary sacrifice.  There does not seem to be any difference between rich and poor burials only in the contents of the burial. All were buried in pits which probably had some kind of cairn built over them reminiscent of the primordial mound.

Said to be from Gebelein, Egypt, Late Predynastic period, around 3400 BC

With the development of power and wealth, the elite did not want to be buried in this way they looked for something different. So while the very poor continue to be buried in pits we now see a different style for the rich. Wilkinson 1999, pg xiii  states “Advances in technology and an intensification of trade benefited some centres more than others, and at the favoured sites the local rulers began to adopt the trappings of royalty” he goes on to say that there was “development of an explicit royal architectural style”.

The graves of Upper and Lower Egypt are different. We do not have very much evidence about Lower Egyptian graves but those we do have show burial within the community and fewer grave goods.  According to Wilkinson 1999, pg28   this indicates a more egalitarian society. Lower Egyptian society being more family oriented and less status driven.

It is difficult to judge whether tomb architecture drove the development of mummification or that mummification was developed before the end of the pit burial. (Ikram, S. 2002, pg50) says early attempts have been recently discovered in Nagada II culture.

“……preserving the body was a concept as old as Egyptian culture itself.” (Friedman, R and Davies V 1998 pg 289)

So I think we can cut the link and just look at the architectural development, separate from any influence the development of mummification has on it. There was a religious stimulus driving the design with the development of offering niches and rooms to contain for the afterlife.

It would seem that wealthy and power was the prime motivation driving tomb development. Your tomb had to be seen, to dominate the landscape. Friedman and Davies even go so far as to propose that as a motivation for the development of the step pyramid. (Friedman, R and Davies V 1998 pg 69)  They quote Dryers contention that once the enclosure wall had been built the mastaba was obscured so had to be enlarged.

The simple pit tomb continues to serve the poorer classes throughout Egyptian history. However the wealthier, elite people now developed this structure. The pit tomb would now have a wooden roof creating a small underground chamber. The roof would be made of beams of wood consolidated with mud and smaller branches. Roofs of traditional Egyptian houses still use this. The beams often made of palm trees. The shape of the pit now changes from round to rectangle. The pit can be lined with mud brick, wood or other organic substances.

Wilkinson (Wilkinson 1999 pg 3) states “elaborate child burials are the clearest evidence of inherited status” and these are seen in the Nagada cemetery. Indeed the elite have had their own area for burials although it is not exclusive.

The next development around the time of Unification was the creation of several rooms, which meant more grave goods, which meant richer plunder for tomb robbers, so another development was security systems. Initially these took the form of digging deeper and putting a mound on top. The superstructure is largely unknown having disappeared long ago but probably had its origins in the primordial mound. This concept came about from the inundation of the Nile. As the flood waters disappeared little islands would appear. The Egyptians believed this represented the beginning of time when there was a watery chaos and the first life appeared on the first mound.

In Lower Egypt the cemeteries move outside the community and there are displays of wealth and power in the burial perhaps indicating that the Upper Egyptian style of society with elites had replaced the egalitarian Lower Egyptian society.


In shape looking like the mud brick bench outside traditional Egyptian homes, these tombs were given the Arabic name mastaba. The superstructure became more complex. Starting with a solid mound, it developed into a labyrinth of rooms and passage, with sizes up to 5 meters and large numbers of rooms. The outside was a niched wall of mud brick, the so called palace facade, which was in plan a series of in and out rectangles or niches. This distinctive style can be seen at the same period in the serak. The elite tomb has now become the house for eternity and closely resembles an ordinary house and in the kings case, his palace.

During the Archaic period subsidiary burials also occurred and it would seem from evidence of contiguous ceilings indicating burial at the same time that deaths occurred at the same time, which possibly indicates evidence of either human sacrifice or suicide. One burial had 10 donkey burials which in those days must have been high status as it was the only method of transportation.

The mastaba differed in its development depending on its owner. Nobles developed theirs into houses for eternity. But the king’s mastaba became massive with a large enclosure wall.

The progression for the king’s mastaba is quite considerable; with religious and security issues making occasional impact each tomb outdoes its predecessor in wealth and status (Wilkinson 1999 pg 234)

  • Aha goes for a larger scale
  • Djer has recesses

Tomb of Djer (photo Jane Akshar 2008)

  • Djet has valuable goods with increased signs of protection
  • Meritneith is very regular and precise
  • Den is costly and sumptuous with a paved chamber, stairway and protective portcullises and a possible precursor to the serdab.

Tomb of Den (photo Jane Akshar 2008)

  • Anedjib is an emergency burial
  • Semerkhet has subsidiary burials adjoining the main structure and is a single unified structure
  • Qaa’s entrance doorway is aligned north

From Djer onwards the twin tomb is replace by separate funerary enclosures (Wilkinson 1999 pg 238)

According to Dr Mathew Adams, at a lecture giving in Luxor in 2006, it would also seem that as one king died his predecessor’s monuments were torn down and destroyed. They seem to have been prepared for demolition, ritually cleansed, the floors were covered with pure sand and gravel and then the walls were brought down. It happened at the end of a period but not 200 years later. You should never see more than one royal monument, the living king. There had to be a ritualistic burial of the enclosures themselves. That is why we only have Khasekhemwy’s left at Abydos. Djoser was his successor and he had his complex down at Sakkara there was no conflict between the living king and his predecessor. Each king had a burial and a funerary enclosure.

Some of these early complexes are huge with evidence of offering rooms, benches with bulls head, palace facades, painted rooms and the use of the palace façade on interior rooms. When you see the remaining substructures you realise the monumental size of these tombs. They are truly enormous and the superstructure that went with them must have likewise been massive. The superstructure appears to have connections with primordial mound. These easily developed into the next royal tomb, the pyramid complex.

Khasekekhemy was a prolific builder and responsible for structures at Abydos and Hierakonpolis. He is also possibly responsible for Gisa el Mudir (Wilkinson 1999 pg95, Friedman, R and Davies V 1998 pg67).  The royal enclosure at Hierakonpolis is extremely large, with a complex layout and decoration.  These buildings, pre dating the step pyramid, have stone structures and are the oldest examples. He also had between 12 and 14 boat burials.

Egyptologists differ on how much credit these structures should have as a precursor of the step pyramid. Nowadays it is accepted that the Archaic period mastabas were the forerunner of the pyramid complex however there is still dispute about their exact role.

“While some are certainly monumental in size, they do not approach the scale that emerges suddenly in the 3rd dynasty reign of Djoser (2630-2611 BC)”

(Lehner 1997, p14)

“It seems more likely that Gisa el Mudir represents an intermediate stage between the mud brick funerary enclosure of Abydos and the stone step pyramid complex of the Third Dynasty”

(Wilkinson 1999, p244).

(Lehner 1997 Pg 84).

Wilkinson1999 pg 247 sees the step pyramid is a culmination of the royal funeral design.

It seems that king after king was trying to outdo his predecessor in glorifying the Gods.

Pyramid Complexes

Many of the previous monuments have stone elements but Djoser was the first person to use it so extensively.  His complex at Sakkara shows widespread use of stone but the styles and designs are all copying organic structures into stone. There was not the confidence to come up with new ideas in the new material. You can see doors half open, ribbons, reeds, etc all faithfully reproduced in stone. Even the pillars are attached. But his compound is a more complex development from preceding pharaohs.

We now seem to have a variety of burials

  • The really poor in pit tombs
  • Elite in mastabas or subsidiary graves around the king
  • Pharaoh in a pyramid complex

Royal offerings niches now became complex temples but the burials themselves became simpler with fewer chambers.

Djoser or his architect Imhotep started the royal tomb as a mastaba but at some point they decided to change the design until it became a step pyramid. First it was a substructure with a mound it then grew like topsy upwards and outwards gone through several evolutions both in height and dimensions  before becoming a six level step pyramid in the middle of a large complex.

The substructure is equally impressive, with miles of excavation. “The only precedent is the 2nd Dynasty  royal underground galleries a short distance south of the Djoser complex, one of which is assigned to Hetepsekhemwy. (Lehner 1997 Pg 87).

The South Tomb may have been intended for the King’s Ka a function of later subsidiary pyramids in the 4th Dynasty. (Lehner 1997  Pg 92).

The motivation is not obvious, the sun was an important religious object and it may be the idea was to reach to the sun or sky. Imhotep is supposed to be the architect but when you look at his titles he is a lot of things but architect is not mentioned. In fact in later times he was revered as a God but not a builder. However that tradition is so well established there is no real reason to dispute it.

Further step pyramid complexes were built by other pharaohs of the 3rd Dynasty  Sekhemhet’s Buried Pyramid and the Layer Pyramid of Zawiyet el Aryan. These are harder to analysis as they are not finished but they do show further development of the complex with a possibility of increased number of steps. The next pharaoh Huni also built a step pyramid but his was a step pyramid from the beginning. Egyptologists (Wilkinson v Lehner amongst others) disagree whether about the original builder some saying Huni and some Sneferu. Huni also built 8 small step pyramids along the Nile as well as a granite step pyramid at Elephantine. Not all these structures can have been intended to be tombs, but there does not seem to be a method of deciding which tombs are cenotaphs and which are buildings for ritual worship and which are the actual tomb. It indicates that the prime motivation for building was a demonstration of the power of pharaoh.  Lehner states that “These pyramids may therefore have been symbols of living sovereignty, hinting that the step pyramid stood for more than the royal tomb, the marker of of the dead king”’ (Lehner 1997 Pg 96).

The Medium pyramid was probably started by Huni (Wilkinson 1999 pg254 (Friedman, R and Davies V 1998 pg 73), and completed by Sneferu. That pyramid was a true one, the evolutionary link between step and true. Sneferu took the original design and faced the steps creating the first true pyramid. But he did not stop there and he experimented with different angles before he got it right.  The Bent pyramid starts at 54 degrees before changing to 43 degrees when this angle was impossible to proceed with due to strain of the structure.  “When Snefru abandoned his step pyramid at Medium and moved north to Dashur, there was as yet no blueprint for a true pyramid. To us with a clear image of the shape of the classic pyramid, with a slope of 52° or 53°, this may seem strange.” (Lehner 1997 Pg 102).

Snefru settled on 43 degrees as the perfect slope with the Red Pyramid which resolved the structural problems the builders had with the steeper angle.

Lastly we come to the 4th dynasty pyramids which are the greatest pyramids with complexes of valley and mortuary temples, causeways and subsidiary pyramids. The confidence in building in stone is dramatically different from Djoser’s timid work. Huge blocks are used and the craft work of the stones in these temples is amazing with irregular block fitting together so perfectly you can hardly get a cigarette paper between the blocks.

The Giza pyramids have a common design. On the banks of the Nile there would be a valley temple; this would connect with a causeway to the mortuary temple at the edge of the pyramid. Around the pyramid there would be boat burials, subsidiary pyramids of queens, mastabas of the elite of increasing complexity with serdab containing a statue of the deceased.  All the elements of the pyramid complex can be traced back. Boat pits were at Abydos surrounding the archaic period burials, the mortuary temple developed from the niche on the wall of the mastaba, and the pyramid was the primordial mound on top of the pit burial or the superstructure of the mastaba. Subsidiary burials were also at Abydos. Only the valley temple appears new to this age. Orientation of these pyramids is now solar rather than stellar with the entrance moving from the North stellar to the East solar. Ikram, S. (2002 pg153

Internally the engineering was stunning, the technology used to cope with the stresses of the structure show enormous architectural developments.

The Pyramid Complex (Lehner 1997 Pg 18,19).

Glorification of God (and King) is a key to the development of the tomb, the king wanted to out achieve his predecessor.  He was trying to build the greatest tomb ever. To fully use the resources he had, poring wealthy into the tomb with great workmanship and materials. Changes in religion meant changes in orientation and design. The elite and rulers were able to divert considerable resources into their burials. As time went by and their control of society grew they were able to use this to build bigger and better tombs. Other factors came in, tomb robbery forced security developments. Portcullis blockings, changes in orientation of the entrance, huge mounds. The workman themselves put in the best work they could. The nobles were hanging on to the coat tails of the ruler, their afterlife was the service of the king and their burials reflect this, often subsidiary, initially forced. Their tombs became their eternal houses, with many chambers like their homes.  The poor are always with us and buried with the best their family could give them.
Final Reference List

Friedman, R and Davies V (1998) Egypt

Hoffman, M.A. (1980; revised 1991), Egypt Before the Pharaohs: the Prehistoric Foundations of Egyptian Civilization, London and Austin, Texas.

Ikram, S. (2002), Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt, Longman, London.

Lehner, M. (1997), The Complete Pyramids, London.

Wilkinson, T.A.H. (1999), Early Dynastic Egypt, London.

Internet Websites (last accessed Jan 2008)

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