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Taking cognitive archaeology as “The study of past ways of thought and symbolic structures from material remains� (Renfrew & Bahn 2000, 385). What can be deduced about ancient Egyptians from either the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara or the pyramid complex of Khufu / Cheops at Giza? Wayne Barry


Introduction The Egyptian pyramids still continue to tantalise and enchant the “sophisticated” modern archaeologist and lay person alike, such has become its power and awe against an arid and forbidden backdrop. Two such pyramids, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and it’s more famous successor, the pyramid and complex of Khufu / Cheops at Giza, are steeped in mystery and magic as very little are known about them because of the apparent absence of any written material about them. We, therefore, look towards cognitive archaeology to help up reason and rationalise the intent and purpose of these ancient man-made structures, and what motivated the ancient Egyptians to build them in the first place. Taking Renfrew and Bahn’s (2000, 385) useful definition of cognitive archaeology as our benchmark:

“The study of past ways of thoughts and symbolic structures from material remains.” This essay will attempt to make some logical deductions and conclusions as to the purpose and function of the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara.

What is known at the Djoser Complex at Saqqara Before proposing or placing any theories, ideas, concepts and themes that can be attached to the Djoser Complex at Saqqara (see figure 1). It would be useful to briefly summarise what is actually known about the site based on the hard, tangible growing evidence that has been gathered up since the pyramid was first explored and excavated by Firth and Lauer during the years 1926 to 1939. It is generally believed that the Step Pyramid at Saqqara is the first example of a stone structure that superseded many of the mud-brick constructions, in doing so it set forth “a long tradition of epic funerary architecture” (Williams 2002, 5). The pyramid’s design and layout has generally been attributed to the famous architect and scholar Imhotep (Arnold 1998, 41), who, with Djoser embarked on an ambitious plan to construct this innovative edifice during Djoser’s 19 year reign which dates from 2630 BC to 2611 BC (Lehner 1997, 84). 2|Page

According to Lehner (1997, 17), the Step Pyramid at Saqqara is a 3rd Dynasty structure. Williams (2002, 8) suggests a date of around 2630 BC. It measures 121 metres by 109 metres at its base, rising in six steps to a height of 60 metres and containing 330,400 cubic metres of clay and stone. It sits almost centrally within a huge enclosure, the limestone wall measures 10.5 metres high and 1,645 metres long within an area of 15 hectares (see figure 2). Malek (2000, 92) suggests that the huge enclosure contains a large open court with a complex of shrines and other buildings, which can be seen as replicas (in stone) of structures that would have been perishable materials for sed-festivals (royal jubilees) in the king’s lifetime. Malek posits a belief that:

“Here Djoser hoped to continue to celebrate – during his afterlife – such periodic occasions in which his energy and powers, and so his ability to rule effectively, would be renewed.”

Within “this vast complex of functional and dummy buildings” (Lehner 1997, 84) are the:

“Pavilions of the North and South, large tumuli and terraces, finely carved facades, ribbed and fluted columns, stairways, platforms, shrines, chapels and life-sized statues…The above-ground elements of Djoser’s pyramid complex are only part of the story. Below, the Egyptians created an underground structure on a scale previously unknown, quarrying out more than 6.7 km of shafts, tunnels, chambers, galleries and magazines” (Lehner 1997, 84 & 87) This is especially the case of the so-called South Tomb that apparently imitates the underground parts of the pyramid. To many archaeologists and egyptologists its function is unclear, but it could be likened to the satellite pyramids in later pyramid complexes (Malek 2000, 92).


In the granite burial vault (see figure 2), Lauer had found limestone blocks with large five pointed stars in low relief. These blocks, which had been reused with their decoration hidden or neglected, would have formed the roof of the first burial vault (Lehner 1997, 87). The motif would have represented the open night sky in which the decease’s soul would be free to fly. Equally interesting is the Step Pyramid’s orientation of North-South, which so happens to mirror the exact linearity of the Nile, which channelled the flow of goods, services and the administration of the land.

Beware! Cognitive Archaeologists at Work

Arnold (1998, 43) suggests that trying to find an overall explanation for the Djoser Complex at Saqqara is:

“…difficult since the only inscriptions and relief decoration consists of six scenes placed in the underground corridors.”

Lehner (1997, 9) reminds us that the “complete pyramid” played many roles, these include:

“…massive labour project; baker and brewer for hundreds of consumers; colonizer of Egyptian provinces; employer of farmers, herdsmen and craftsmen of all kinds; temple and ritual centre at the core of the Egyptian state; reliquary of a king; embodiment of light and shadow; …the union of heaven and earth; and encapsulating the mystery of death and rebirth.” However, when looking at the complex, a number of themes can be quickly collated together for further consideration and discussion. These themes could broadly encompass the following areas: Economy and Administration; Religious Rituals and Funerary Practices;


Unlike the pyramid and complex of Khufu / Cheops at Giza, the Djoser complex does not appear to have any associated connection with any obvious celestial cosmology or show signs of absolute mathematical precision simply because the Step Pyramid would appear to have been built in a “trial and error” fashion. There appears to be signs of modification and re-adjustment during the construction of the pyramid. However, what was learnt from the experiences of constructing the Step Pyramid would appear to have been passed on to those responsible for subsequent pyramid designs, concepts and constructions.

The Old Kingdom Economy and Administration

From the outset, one can see that the Djoser Complex is very expansive and intricate, both above ground as well as underground. It would not be hard to imagine this as a high status complex that could only be made possible by a stable and vibrant economy with a tireless workforce. It would be erroneous of us to underestimate the considerable effort and expertise necessary to construct this complex. Malek (2000, 101-102) argues that:

“The number of professional builders required must have been large, especially if one takes into account all those involved in the quarrying and transport of stone blocks, the construction of approach ramps needed by the builders, and all the logistics, such as provision of food, water, and other necessities, the maintenance of tools and many other related tasks.”

The pyramid were also known as “pious foundations” because of the enormous gathering of people, lands and produce that were for the “sustenance, upkeep and service of a tomb, temple or pyramid” (Lehner 1997, 9). Because of this intense manufacturing, preparation, production and distribution of goods and wealth, the pyramid was seen as a commercial centre for economic activity, or as Lehner (1997, 9) describes it an “economic engine”.


Unlike the popular mythology perpetuated by Hollywood, the Egyptian economy was not one based on a slave labour force. A large section of the labour force required for pyramid building would have had to be diverted from agricultural tasks and food production. This in turn would have placed a considerable burden on the existing resources. It may have provided a powerful catalyst to increase efforts in improving agricultural production, developing an efficient way of tax collection, improve the administration and governance of the country as well as looking towards additional sources of revenue and manpower (Malek 2000, 102). Although no other forms of long-distance trade were known before the 6th Dynasty; it has been noted that the name of Djoser, amongst others, can be found in the rock inscriptions at the turquoise and copper mines of Wadi Maghara in the Sinai peninsula (Malek 2000, 105). It would, therefore, not be hard to imagine that Djoser and those of his court were not averse to trading outside of Egypt, especially if they were seeking to employ materials for constructing the pyramid and the surrounding complex.

Religious Rituals and Funerary Practices of the Old Kingdom

The pyramid with its temples, tombs and underground vaults and chambers represent the ancient Egyptians unique expression of death. Death, for the Egyptians, did not mean the end, but the transformation of life’s natural cycle. Grimal (1992, 105) suggests that for the Egyptians, they saw each human individual as being made up of five elements. The shadow (the non-corporeal duplicate of each of the forms assumed in a lifetime), the akh, the ka, the ba and the name (the process of naming an individual was seen as an act of creation. Not only did it determine the appearance and fate of that person, but also determined all behaviour regarding death.) They made a ritualistic process and ceremony out of the concept of death so that the living could celebrate and commemorate its meaning, and to look towards their own life eternity.


Regarding the notion and concept of rituals, Shaffer (1998, 18-20) offers no fewer than eighteen different explanations towards its very nature. Whereas, Hendry (1999, 66), a social anthropologist, offers a more succinct definition for ritual:

“…behaviour prescribed by society in which individuals have little choice about their actions.” The nature of ritual lies at the very heart of Egyptian religion. Rituals were seen as something more than an instrument of the king’s power for validating his position within society. As Shafer (1998, 21) explains:

“…rituals were themselves a form of power that permitted and facilitated the revision and renewal of relationships between the gods, the king, the dead, and the living…”

The currency of the ritual was the symbol. A symbol may relate to or be represented by an object; an activity; a need; a relationship; some dynamic; a word; a value; a norm, a belief; a gesture; a point in time; a particular place or some kind of configuration (Shafer 1998, 19). Rituals relied on the necessity of daily gifts or offerings, the range of offerings could be quite diverse going by what has been listed and recorded on temple walls. These could include anything from bread of different kinds, different types of beers, various meats, fruits and vegetables to oils, incense, perfumes, cloths and jewellery (Shafer 1998, 23). Most offerings expressed the eternal gratitude of the king and all of Egypt for the god’s past generosities. Indeed, most offerings could be interpreted as, or symbolise, the very things that the king and Egypt sought in return, Shafer (1998, 23) suggests the following:

“…life, stability, prosperity, health, joy, food, and, in the case of the king, sovereignty, divine status, and millions of years. In short, most offerings symbolised life and order.”


The journey begins with life in the form of the body (khet or iru), when the body dies it becomes the corpse (khat). It is then transformed into a mummy (sah). As Lehner (1997, 22) explains:

“Mummification was not so much the preservation of the body as it had been during life, but the transfiguration of the corpse into a new body ‘filled with magic’, a simulacrum or statue in wrappings and resin.”

So life everlasting begins the journey from the tomb through the underworld. The life force (ka) leaves the body first, followed after burial by the soul (ba). Horus leads the

ba through doorways of fire and cobras into the hall of Judgement. It is here that Anubis weighs the deceased heart (site of the conscience) against the feather of ma’at (or things as they should be). Osiris and other gods watch as judges. If the heart is too heavy or too light, a monster devours it. Thus, rendering the deceased into a perpetual coma. If the heart balances, the winged ba and the ka reunite to form a spirit (akh) which emerges into Osiris’ realm. The akh can now re-enter the living world and enjoy its pleasures. Now living a way of life that has been portrayed on the tomb walls for centuries. The success of an ancient Egyptian in the Afterlife depended on the burial rites and later offering rituals in the tomb. For the king, the pyramid was the place for ascension and transformation. Furthermore, his ka stood at the head of all living and dead subjects (Lehner 1997, 24). This was particularly important in the Old Kingdom, when only the king’s pyramid was inscribed with funerary text. If the subjects took care of their king’s ka, they in turn were looking after their own life force.

Conclusion What has become clear is that the pyramid was not just a building or tomb to rest the king’s body. The pyramid sat at the very epicentre of Egyptian culture, economy and community. It brought into focus the very reason for the Egyptian citizens existence, to serve and celebrate the king, the State and, ultimately, the gods. It stood as a reminder of their mortality, thus becoming a monument of immortality. The pyramids unique message continues to reverberate across the generations and time. 8|Page


Figure 1: Map of the Saqqara complex and surrounding towns

Figure 2: Djoser’s Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara


Figure 3: Profile View of the Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara

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Bibliography Arnold, D.,


“Royal Cult Complexes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms”, In: Shafer, B.E. (ed).,Temples of Ancient Egypt, p. 31-85

London: I.B. Tauris Publishers.

Gardiner, A.,


Egypt of the Pharaohs.

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Grimal, N.,


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Hendry, J.,


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Kemp, B.,


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Malek, J.,


“The Old Kingdom (c.2686-2125 BC)”, In: Shaw, I. (ed)., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, p. 89-117

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Renfrew, C. and Bahn, P.G.,


Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practices. 3rd ed.

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“Temples, Priests, and Rituals: An Overview”, In: Shafer, B.E. (ed).,Temples of Ancient Egypt, p. 1-30

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Zivie, A.,


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Illustrations 1

Map of the Saqqara complex and surrounding towns. "Death on the Nile", National Geographic, 202 (4), 8. Available from:


Djoser’s Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara: The Complete Pyramid by Lehner (1997, 84-85)


Profile View of the Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara: The Complete Pyramid by Lehner (1997, 87)


Plan View of the Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara: “Royal Cult Complexes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms” by Arnold (1997, 87), In: Shafer, B.E. (ed).,Temples of Ancient Egypt


Hawass, Z.,


The Plateau [online].

Cairo: Dr Z. Hawass Available from: http://www.guardians. net/hawass/ [Accessed: 16 November 2002]

Raven, M., Vugts, M. and van Walsem, R.,


Saqqara Online [online].

Leiden: University of Leiden Available from:

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[Accessed: 16 November 2002]



The Pyramids [online].

London: BBC Available from: history/programmes/py ramid/ [Accessed: 16 November 2002]

Willard. P.,


Egypt: Secrets of an Ancient World [online].

Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society Available from: http://www.nationalge / [Accessed: 16 November 2002]

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What can be deduced about ancient Egyptians from either the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara?  

The Egyptian pyramids still continue to tantalise and enchant the “sophisticated” modern archaeologist and lay person alike, such has become...

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