For me, archaeology is not a just a job. It combines everything that I could want - imagination, intellect, action, and adventure.

— Zahi Hawass

Saving the Step Pyramid

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara dates back almost 5,000 years, to the reign of Djoser (2630-2611), the first king of Egypt’s 3rd Dynasty. The centuries have taken their natural toll on this remarkable monument, but in recent years the deterioration has accelerated with the rising water table and other changes to the environment. One year ago, the SCA initiated a major effort to save the Step Pyramid for future generations.

King Djoser’s architect, Imhotep, was a man of genius. To ensure that his king’s funerary complex would last for eternity, he designed it in stone. It was the first time that stone architecture was ever attempted on such a monumental scale. The pyramid itself began as a mastaba, a low, rectangular tomb building with sloping sides and a flat roof. Later, it was transformed into a pyramid by the expansion of the original mastaba and the addition of steps of decreasing size, on on top of the other. We know from ancient funerary texts that the Egyptians most likely saw it as a staircase by which the king could ascend to heaven. Below the pyramid a maze of underground galleries, shafts, and passages winds for a length of over 3 and a half miles. The buildings in the Step Pyramid complex are modeled on earlier architecture in wood and other perishable materials, translated into stone to last for eternity. The magnitude of Imhotep’s achievement was so great that during his lifetime, he was honored by having his name inscribed on a statue of Djoser. In later eras he was revered as a god.

Today, the Step Pyramid complex is visited by thousands of tourists every year. The relentless force of the desert wind over the millennia, combined with increasing underground moisture as the water table rises all over Egypt, have weakened this incredible monument. Jean Philippe Lauer, a French architect and Egyptologist who worked at Saqqara for over 70 years, did a great deal of restoration work in the complex. It was clear, however, that further action was needed, and that if we did not do something soon, there might be little left for visitors to enjoy within just a few decades.

In 2008, the SCA organized a major conservation effort, carried out by an all-Egyptian team. I appointed talented archaeologists, architects, and restorers, giving each of them a job description covering the duration of the project. Soil mechanic Dr. Hassan Fahmy of Cairo University joined the team, in order to help us understand and combat the environmental forces threatening the underground galleries and passages. Archaeology and conservation are complimentary aspects of the project, as we must understand the monument in order to develop the best plan for restoring it. I appointed Samir Abdel-Raouf to lead the team, and I have empowered him to make decisions and take strong actions to save the pyramid. I told him that when he is on the site, he is Zahi Hawass for this project! 

On the outside of the pyramid, the most important component of our work has been identifying and correcting areas of structural weakness where the stones have fallen or weathered away or been removed over the years. There are many places where missing stones had left hollows and overhangs, making the surrounding masonry vulnerable to collapse. The archaeological team has been excavating around the base of the pyramid, identifying the original stones that have fallen away from the structure. These stones are then carefully cleaned before being re-used to fill gaps in the body of the pyramid. Each one is given a unique identification number, and its new position is recorded in three dimensions.      

The team began their work on the western side of the pyramid. The first step was to develop and test an appropriate mortar to hold the replaced stones in their positions. A mixture of lime and sand was used in the original construction, and after careful study, it was decided that replicating this substance exactly would be the best solution. The mortar is mixed on-site as needed. After the initial work on the western side proved highly successful, the team moved on to tackle the challenges of reinforcing weak points on the other three sides of the monument.

As the work progresses, the archaeologists have been carefully mapping the pyramid and documenting the finds that they make. It is truly remarkable how, after centuries of exploration, a site like the Step Pyramid complex can continue to reveal secrets as it is re-excavated. One of the most interesting things that we have found is a previously unknown shaft near the northern end of the eastern face of the pyramid! 11 shafts arranged in a straight line along this side of the pyramid were known before our discovery. Each one ends in a long chamber - four of these chambers were used for burials, and the rest were used for the storage of beautiful stone vessels. I decided that the excavation of this shaft should wait until we have finished the conservation of the pyramid itself, as I believe that we must make ensuring the survival of Egypt’s monuments our first priority. It will be very interesting, however, to see what we find when we are finally ready to investigate this shaft!

Another fascinating thing that we have seen as we work to restore the pyramid is how in later periods of ancient Egyptian history, people would dig burial shafts into the body of the pyramid itself, so that their tombs would be part of this great monument. The restoration team has come across two such intrusive burials so far. We must study these burials carefully, as they pose their own threat to the stability of the pyramid. We would like to investigate them, but we must be very sure at the same time that we find a way to shore up the masonry around them.

Underneath the pyramid, in the maze of galleries and corridors, we are also clearing away centuries worth of debris, and working to strengthen the stone, diminishing the risk of cave-ins. This is extremely challenging work, as the rising water table has weakened the bedrock of the Saqqara plateau, and caused massive salt deposits on the walls of these underground tunnels. There are many interesting things underneath the Step Pyramid. Many of the walls were once decorated with blue faience tiles, which imitated the reed mat walls of early Egyptian buildings. Most of these tiles were stolen long ago, but some are still in their original places. There are also scenes of the king running the ritual race that renewed his power and authority during his heb-sed festival, which I believe he celebrated to mark the accomplishment of the many tasks that the gods expected the king to perform. There are many blocks in the tunnels, decorated with stars. We know that such stars were typical of the ceiling decoration of tombs, but what is interesting is that many of the ones that the SCA team has found are decorated on both sides - one side will have stars, and the other will have what appear to be placements for faience tiles. We do not know why this is, but we will continue to study the matter. One of the most interesting blocks that we have found under the Step Pyramid is inscribed with the serekh (a motif based on the shape of a palace building, which enclosed the name of a king) of Djoser. The name in the serekh is actually Netjerikhet - we know the king as Djoser only from sources dating to after his reign.This block also bears the names of two royal women. The passages under the Step Pyramid also continue to yield thousands of fragments of stone vessels, along with ancient baskets and ropes, in addition to materials left behind by Lauer’s workmen earlier in the 20th century.

Exploring the substructure of the Step Pyramid is a true adventure. I have made the descent into the tunnels and galleries over 100 times so far (some 30 times before the restoration work began), and each time, I am amazed at what I see. The passages are steep, narrow, and winding, and it is easy to become lost if you do not know your way. When I entered the maze of tunnels and galleries recently, I did enter the king’s burial chamber from below. It lies about 30 meters below ground level. The massive granite sarcophagus rests on six stone pillars, and it is possible to crawl through a passage in the debris, some 36 meters below the ground, to go beneath the sarcophagus. When I was young, I was afraid of the dark, and when I first crawled into the narrow space under the sarcophagus I remembered this feeling. I lay on my back on the floor of the tunnel, with my face almost touching the sarcophagus, and my heart was beating fast. The thrill of adventure, however, immediately made me forget any fear, and I was able to look in amazement at the achievement of the ancient workmen who were able to assemble the sarcophagus from huge pieces of granite.   
We are using a type of epoxy to strengthen the stone walls and ceilings under the Step Pyramid. We have also installed a system of dehumidifiers, and sensitive digital thermometers and hygrometers to record the temperature and humidity. These instruments are constantly recording, and we do monitor their readings carefully to be sure that the climate control system is working. I am so happy to be able to tell you that our work to save the Step Pyramid is progressing well. We will soon begin to shore up the ceiling of the burial chamber. I feel as though we are truly helping to cause the name of the great king Djoser and that of his architect, the genius Imhotep, to live for generations to come.   


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