Wednesday, March 25, 2015

End-of-Season: The pyramid burial chamber

Between the hectic work at the end of the season and the terrible internet connection, I wasn’t able to post about our final results for the season. So in the next few days, I’ll write about where things stand and our plans for next season.

Our most dramatic result was in the burial chamber of the pyramid. After two years of work, and about 250 tons of sand removed by hand, we came down on a big granite slab, about 10 feet (3.3 meters) long that was aligned between the door and the “stele niche” in the back of the burial chamber. 

Granite slab when first cleaned (Jaffar Madani of El Kurru village at left)

Would this be the inscribed stele that would finally give us the name of the king who built the pyramid?

Well, we cleaned off the stone and it was pretty roughly finished. So we thought maybe on the other face…so we looked underneath, but the space was too confined for us to see.

Me and Mahmoud Suliman Bashir, my Sudanese friend and colleague
 (and the project's Inspector from the Department of Antiquities)
trying to see under the stele
So we got all our strongest guys and turned it so it was vertical. 

And that face was unfinished too! Here's what I thought about that:

When we excavated the rest of the room, the granite slab turned out to be resting right on an unfinished sandstone "coffin bench" that was originally intended to support the coffin of the king. But the rest of the room was completely empty, showing that the pyramid burial chamber was NEVER USED! 

Granite slab on top of the coffin bench, with the beginnings of the "stele niche" at the back wall
We had more indications that the pyramid was also unfinished above ground. Next post!


  1. What happened after that? Why is there so little information available? Are you done? Or going back? Any other Promising Sites?

    1. Hi John,

      Well, we found out all we could about the pyramid. We are back at El Kurru right now working on a city wall. It's Medieval (built around 600 AD) but turns out to be made of the stones of all the other pyramids from El Kurru.

      The Napatan settlement of the "Black Pharaohs" continues to be elusive, although I do think it was here somewhere. Possibly now under the modern village.

      That's archaeology for you--sometimes it's spectacular discoveries, but it often tells you about something other than what you were seeking.

  2. Just saw the PBS special here in Sunnyvale CA. Great work, you are living a dream of all armchair archaeologists. Thanks for a great story.

  3. Thanks Jim. Just finishing our current season (focused on other parts of the site...). The pyramid continues to be a mystery!

  4. Hi, Geoff Emberling, Is there any word for any future excavations of the other pyramid site in Nuri? I remembered you saying the Sudanese archaeologist plan on excavating that site in the future. I am wondering when?

  5. Hi Brian,

    Nothing yet...but there are some possibilities. Will take a few years to know if any of them pan out. Our biggest priority there is actually preservation--the site is threatened by a higher water table after the completion of the nearby 4th Cataract (Merowe) dam.

  6. Is there any recorded dimensions or architectural survey of any of these Sudanese structures? I’m collecting as much data as I can so I can build some CAD models. Very interesting work and finds here. It’s not as empty or unfinished as it may appear. It really depends on your POV.

    1. Hi Ryan,
      Yes, we have measured everything! You can find more info at our new website, under "reports". The 2015 report has the most recent published plans of the pyramid burial chamber and the mortuary temple.

  7. I assume this is the Qu-1 that the documentary shows where you reached the third chamber at end of season and had to stop.
    I teach ancient cultures to elementary school children, and we have seen this documentary about Kush.
    My question is: do you now think differently about the opening above the entrance and the cave-in? I would like to give an update to the kids, they were disappointed that there was no ending to the dig. :)
    Thank you,

    1. It would be nice to have a reply here, too, even after 3 years...
      Thank you.

    2. Hi Vera,

      Very sorry about that. Yes, it's "Ku. 1" (for "Kurru") that was featured in the film.

      When you say "opening over the entrance", I guess you mean the place where people cut into the stone to break in to the underground chambers? We know that at least one of those episodes happened in medieval (Christian) times, about 1000 CE, since we found some medieval ceramics inside the tomb, on top of the huge pile of sediment in the rooms. Finding that the pyramid had never been used as a royal burial just suggested to us that some people 1000 years ago might have been just as disappointed as we were.

      As for the cave-in, we worked out that this happened because the people digging the tomb had cut into a geologically unstable layer of stone. We don't know when the first collapse happened--one possibility is that it happened during construction. Reisner's notes didn't indicate whether he found any collapsed stone in the outer two rooms. In that third room, there was a big layer (maybe 3 feet thick) of collapsed stone right on top of all the sediment, which means that the collapse happened long after the pyramid had been abandoned.

      Did that answer your questions?



    3. Yes, thank you.
      The children will be glad to hear the update.

  8. It would have all been so much better had you not filled the "Black Pharaohs" full of propaganda. It's amazing how people seem to not notice the complete nonsense which directly contradicts the facts you yourself present there.
    Like all your absurd "David vs Goliath" stuff. How they "toppled the giant". And then we discover, in that very documentary, that... the Egyptians INVITED the Nubians to RESCUE them from the Lybians. That the "giant" was already toppled - by same Lybians, and hasn't been a giant for quite a while.
    And the complete idiocy about "racial profiling" the Egyptians did to the Nubians, how they "hated and enslaved them because of the color of their skin". What a heap of crap!
    Enslaving your conquered foe was the practice of ALL the cultures, INCLUDING blacks to other blacks. ALL conquered foes were pictured by the Egyptians under the sandals of the pharaoh, in chains, Pharaoh holding them by the hair and striking them... That's their general, constant, symbolism, for almost 3K years. Also, your very documentary says they studied the Nubian fighting techniques and hired them as archers. Would they have done this if they despised them as RACIALLY INFERIOR?
    Why are you catering to this BLM-style revised history?
    Yes, Reisner couldn't see them making the pyramids, yes you are so much more enlightened blah blah. Why invent what isn't there? Just so you may show YOURSELF as so enlightened superior non-racist being?
    Blatant propaganda spoiled what could have bee a very good documentary.

  9. Hmmm Sept 10 2020 and no reply?
    What are you digging now Geoff?

    1. I wasn't sure the previous comment was an invitation for discussion.

      We're starting to work at Jebel Barkal now. We've located an area of urban settlement (1st c. BCE/1st c. CE--Meroitic period and contemporary with the Roman occupation of Egypt). We're starting a big conservation project on the temples of Jebel Barkal. And we've documented a large unexcavated area of the royal palace that we will start digging soon.