A garden and a brick structure uncovered at the Dahshour Necropolis have changed views of the functions of a pyramid complex, writes Nevine El-Aref
In the parched desert of the Dahshour Royal Necropolis, the southernmost area of the Memphis Necropolis, a number of pyramids are revealing the changes in ancient Egyptian architecture that occurred during the Third and Fourth Dynasties, with step pyramids giving way to the first true pyramids.
There is the Bent Pyramid, the first attempt at building a complete pyramid carried out by the Fourth Dynasty king Senefru, who took pyramid construction to a new level. There is also the Red Pyramid, the first truly smooth-sided pyramid.
Several kings of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties also built pyramids at Dahshour, among them Amenemhat II, Sesostris III, and Amenemhat III, who built a pyramid encased in black stone.
A military zone until 1996, the site remained untouched for many years, except for excavations carried out by Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhri in the 1950s, and later by German Egyptologist Reiner Stadelmann. Although several tombs and funerary structures were unearthed, Dahshour still retains many of the secrets of the ancient Egyptians.
The site recently attracted the attention of a mission from the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, which started comprehensive excavation work in 2010. The work was concentrated in the area north of the Valley Temple of the Bent Pyramid, previously explored by Fakhri, who stumbled upon a brick building that he dated to the Middle Kingdom.
Stadelmann later thought it could be a magazine or vestry of the Valley Temple. The brick structure was then reburied in sand.
In 2012, a re-examination of the site using a magnetometric survey showed that the building was actually older than the Bent Pyramid Valley Temple and its remains more extensive than previously thought.
“The major aim of the project was to investigate this earlier building in its entirety and gain as much archaeological evidence as possible on its original layout, date and function as well as having a better understanding of the whole landscape of this area especially after a recent magnetic survey detected a settlement with orthogonal streets,” project field director Felix Arnold told the Weekly.
After removing 15 cm of sand, excavators not only rediscovered Fakhri’s brick structure but also found the remains of an extensive garden which once featured more than 350 plants arranged in long parallel rows enclosed within a five-metre thick wall.
The garden site is spread along the area inside the enclosure wall, and its west side includes four rows of 26 tree pits, which range from between 2.2 to 2.4 m in size with diameters ranging from between 50 to 100 cm. An irrigation channel that once watered the roots of the plants was also discovered around the pits.
In most cases, Arnold said, the space between the pits was covered by a thin layer of earth, allowing smaller plants to grow. Only in one segment was the earth limited to narrow strips, possibly serving as flower pits. Additional rows of tree pits were arranged along the east side of the enclosure, though apparently more densely spaced, while another two rows were found on the northern side. An area of 150 m in the core of the enclosure wall was left free of plants.
“A few remains of plant roots are clearly visible,” Arnold said, adding that the remains revealed that the whole garden was once planted with palm trees, sycamores and cypress trees.
“This is the first time we have found a cypress tree in Egypt,” Arnold said, adding that it could have been imported from Syria. He said that studies have suggested that all the trees were planted as adult plants, meaning that they were planted somewhere else and later transported to Dahshour at one or two years old.
“It seems at first that the trees used to grow in the garden, as we can see the roots going into the sand. But regretfully this did not last long,” he said, saying that the growing process had lasted for just a few years.
The ancient Egyptians must have brought water in pots to irrigate the plants in pits every day or every week as the water of the Nile was not extended to Dahshour. “There could have been more rain at that time, but never enough to irrigate a whole garden,” Arnold said. The site would have been filled with workers busy building the Bent Pyramid, so it would have been very possible to bring extra water, he added.
Arnold explained that the field excavations revealed that the ground level of the garden was not entirely horizontal as its southern part was more than one metre higher than the northern side. On this elevated ground, Arnold said, a brick building was constructed, part of which was discovered by Fakhri.
Very little of the building is preserved, only the traces of the foundations. It was constructed directly on the natural surface of the desert, in the north on stone and in the south on a compact layer of sand. The building turns out to have been surrounded by a massive, rectangular five-metre-thick enclosure wall running 80.5 m from north to south and 55.8 m from east to west.
“Walls of these dimensions were only made for a king, and they are known from the so-called funerary enclosures of the Early Dynastic Period at Abydos, as well as from the city temples of the Old Kingdom, such as at Bubastis,” Arnold said.
He said that the mission has not yet unearthed any entrance for the building, but that early studies suggest the existence of at least two gates, one near the south end of the east side and the second in the centre of the south side.
The southern part of the building consists of three entrance rooms, and its northern part has a courtyard. The main entrance lies at the southern end of the east side and was set into the back of a shallow niche. Behind the door, the direction of the entrance was bent twice, leading through a passage into a columned hall. Along the foot of the walls of the rooms deep pits were found.
“They possibly served as emplacements for offering vessels,” Arnold suggested, adding that a third squared room with a depression in its middle was located to the west side of the hall and it could have served as a space for washing or ritual purification.
“During its period of use the building was refurbished and reformed,” Arnold said, adding that a wing of rooms was added to the west, giving the building a square ground plan. The extension occupied an area formerly occupied by part of the garden, the plants now being covered by the floor of the building. In a third stage, the new wing was subdivided into at least two spaces and an entrance added at the south end of the west side.
Additions were also made in the area surrounding the building, he said. A building was constructed adjacent to the enclosure wall, and another smaller structure was built into the southwest corner of the enclosure, but the northern half of the enclosure remained free of buildings.
Traces of a gypsum floor were found, indicating that it was used as a courtyard. “The purpose of the enclosure and the structures in its interior remains unclear,” Arnold said, adding that it was not a chapel or a palace or a regular temple. There are three theories about its original use, as it was built during the life of the king and used during his lifetime and not after his death, like the Valley Temple of his Pyramid Complex.
Due to the age of the root remains of the trees, Arnold said that the building could have been used for just five years. “It was a temporary structure,” he concluded.
The first theory, the best one, says that the structure could have been a temple where special festivals or ceremonies for a living king were held and not for eternity like in the Valley Temple. “It could have been a place to celebrate the renewal of the king, for example,” Arnold said.
The second theory says that the complex is a direct predecessor of the limestone Valley Temple built later in its vicinity, though its ground plan does not share any features with the temple, such as the wing of entrance rooms in the south and the courtyard in the north.
The third theory is that the building was a temple for the cult of the king with a garden, but missing the features of a regular temple as it was constructed entirely out of brick. No chapel has been found or any kinds of stelae, statues or false doors.
It cannot be ruled out that the king was present in the building as a living person, rather than as a statue. In this sense the structure could have been related in purpose and meaning to the funerary enclosures of the First and Second Dynasty at Abydos or the sacred enclosures familiar from depictions of burial rituals.
“The brick building can be dated to the middle of the reign of king Senefru,” Arnold told the Weekly, adding that it could have been erected at the time that work started on the Bent Pyramid in the eighth year of Senefru’s reign. The building could thus have been used until the Valley Temple was erected in the 15th year of Senefru’s reign.
The construction of the Valley Temple respected the location of the brick building, and the earlier structures do not seem to have been used after the temple was completed. Most of the brick walls are covered with the building debris of the temple. The thick enclosure wall was later entirely removed and replaced by a new, much thinner wall. The new enclosure wall did encompass most of the space formally occupied by the brick enclosure, however.
The garden was also extended to the north along the slope of a low hill. Two additional rows of plants were added. In several cases the roots of bushes have been preserved in this part of the garden. How much of the original garden remained in use is unclear. In some areas, plants were added later, sometimes replacing earlier ones.
“It is a very important discovery that could change ideas of the function of the Pyramid Complex, especially the Valley Temple,” Arnold told the Weekly.
While the specific function and meaning of the structure remains unclear, he said the building adds a new facet to our knowledge and understanding of the origins of pyramid temples at the beginning of the Old Kingdom and the purposes behind their construction.
“Though possibly related to other building types of the period, the structure in its design, and especially in its extensive integration of plants, is something new and so far unique,” Arnold said.
“Buildings of a similar kind may indeed have existed in the vicinity of the valley temples of other pyramid complexes, but no one has yet unearthed one.”