KING SEKHEMKHET AND HIS PYRAMID AT SAQQARA
BY ALAN WINSTON & JIMMY DUNN.
Almost everything we know about Sekhemkhet ("Powerful in Body"), we know because
of his unfinished (Buried) pyramid at Saqqara, and it seems to give us little
facts about his life. The only evidence outside of this tomb is a scene depicted
at Wadi Maghara in the Sinai which bears his name. It is a military scene,
classical in that it probably shows Sekhemkhet, with his raised mace, about to
smite his desert enemies. This relief actually shows a procession of Sekhemkhets.
In front of the smiting king, who is wearing the White Crown is a second depiction
of the king wearing the Red Crown, and in front of him, another of Sekhemkhet back
in the White Crown.
However, we are not really sure of much about this king. According to the Turin
King-list, Djoser's immediate successor was identified by his personal name
Djoser-Ti (Djoserty), and ruled for only six years. It now seems that most
Egyptologists believe Djoser-Ti and Sekhemkhet were one and the same person,
though some might still argue otherwise. His reign would have been from about 2649
until 2643 BC.
Judging from an inscription on his pyramid at Saqqara, and from its very design,
we can also tentatively guess that the great Imhotep survived Djoser, his
predecessor, and was again the mind behind the funerary complex works. Also,
because of his short reign, and particularly his truncated pyramid, many believe
he came to a sudden and unexpected death, though we have no idea what might have
The Buried Pyramid of Sekhemkhet
Another possible building project of Imhotep may have been the pyramid of
Sekhemkhet. Also located at Saqqara, it would be rather remarkable for this
pyramid to have been designed by anyone else, or to have belonged to someone other
then Sekhemkhet. In many ways, it duplicated elements from the Step Pyramid of
Sekhemkhet's step pyramid was perhaps first noticed by a young Egyptian
archaeologist named Zakaria Goneim while he was working at Saqqara excavating the
pyramid of Unas, just before World War II. When the war erupted, he set out that
period in Luxor, but afterwards returned to Saqqara to further investigate the
huge, rectangular structure barely visible beneath a sand dune. It was only about
one hundred meters to the southwest of the site Goneim had been working before the
war, and he could tell that it was roughly oriented north-south.
As he began to uncover the structure, he found that the four corners he had seen
beneath the sand dune were actually the walls of an enclosure, and inside were the
ruins of a previously unknown pyramid. Soon it was clear that this was a 3rd
Dynasty pyramid, because the facade of the perimeter wall, with its facade
ornamented with deep niches, was so very similar to the wall that Djoser had built
for his complex.
The pyramid was built upon an uneven rock surface, so the builders were forced to
level the terrain, building large terraces, of which some were more then ten
meters high. Why the king chose this site for his pyramid is a bit of a mystery,
though there are some nearby royal tombs from the 2nd Dynasty that may have lured
The perimeter wall was built in to phases. In the first phase, it was a much less
radical rectangle. Later it was extended south, and particularly north. With these
extensions, it was close to the size of Djoser/s complex. Like Djoser's complex,
it has rows of niches alternating in a regular intervals with false doors, though
there was probably only one real door in the entire complex, which has never been
found. The wall was cased in fine, white Tura limestone. The wall probably stood
about ten meters tall, with a walkway and sentry posts just as in the complex of
It has been difficult to determine whether the core was originally planned as six
or seven steps, but apparently, the pyramid itself was never completed, having
only reached a height of about 26 feet. It was built using the accretion layer
method with the stones laid inwards at a 15 degree slope. These stones were laid
at right angles to the incline. Since the pyramid was unfinished, there was never
any casing applied. The pyramid probably had a square floor plan, with sides about
119 meters in length. According to Lehner, if the pyramid was built in seven
steps, it would have been higher then Djoser's, rising some 70 meters (230 ft)
above its base.
An entrance to the pyramid was found in front of the north wall, leading into a
corridor that eventually communicated with the burial chamber. However, this
corridor was bisected by a vertical shaft that extended up into the masonry of the
pyramid itself. This was a type of security system also found in other Egyptian
tombs, specifically at Beit Khallaf, dating to this period. Within the shaft,
Goneim found the bones of various animals, including cattle, rams and gazelles,
that were doubtless offerings to the deceased. he also found 62 papyri from the
26th Dynasty written during the reign of Ahmose II. Below these were some seven
hundred stone vessels and remarkably a gold treasure cache from the 3rd Dynasty.
These artifacts included 21 bracelets, small mussel shells, and faience corals
covered with gold leaf. The items are, so far, the oldest gold ornamentation
discovered in Egypt. It was no doubt a part of Sekhemkhet's funerary goods, but
how it ended up at the bottom of the shaft rather then stolen with the rest of the
tomb's content remains a mystery.
About 47 meters before reaching the burial chamber, a U shaped passage leads off
to the east, and is lined with a series of narrow, long storage annexes. After the
entrance to this auxiliary passage, the main corridor continues. It was between
here, and the burial chamber that clay vessel stoppers were discovered bearing
Sekhemkhet's name, which is another reason why we attribute the pyramid to him.
The main corridor continues to descend down until reaching first a transverse
corridor, and then to the burial chamber just to the other side, some 100 feet
below the base of the pyramid. The burial chamber is lined up precisely with the
pyramid's vertical axis. The walls within this north-south oriented burial chamber
were left unfinished. Inside there apparently remains a highly polished alabaster
sarcophagus cut from a single stone. This is very rare, for the only other
alabaster we know of used in such a way was in the coffins of Queen Hetephere I,
of the 4th Dynasty, and Seti I, of the 19th Dynasty. It also had no cover, but
rather a sliding partition.
There is an interesting story related to this sarcophagus and its unique sliding
partition. When found, the partition to the sarcophagus was sealed, and even the
remains of what he believed to be dried flowers (later determined to be bark and
decomposed wood) lay atop it. Furthermore, Goneim also claims that the entrance to
the pyramid was blocked by an in tact wall. Goneim was sure he had discovered an
in tact sarcophagus still bearing the remains of its owner. Though he was warned
by other Egyptologists, notably Lauer, that the substructure had been robbed, he
nevertheless created a media sensation. he invited high state officials,
journalists, reporters and film teams to the opening. Then came the shock of an
He apparently managed to survive this embarrassment, for after all, he had made a
reasonably important discovery by finding the pyramid of Sekhemkhet. Many
Egyptology professionals throughout the world had considerable interest in what
was probably only the second pyramid built in Egypt.
Just outside of the entrance to the burial chamber, the transverse corridor leads
off the the right (westerly) and to the left, and then each makes a 90 degree tern
back to the south past the burial chamber. These galleries were also unfinished,
and may have been intended to lead to a larger mortuary apartment, similar to the
one in Djoser's complex.
Outside of the pyramid within the complex on the south, just as in the case of
Djoser's complex, there is also a symbolic south tomb. The superstructure of the
tomb consisted of a mastaba built of limestone blocks. It had an entrance on the
west side, also like Djoser's complex. From there, a long corridor descended to
the east, and like in the pyramid, was interrupted by a vertical shaft. Further
down the main corridor, though this tomb had probably not been meant for a burial,
the excavators found the fragments of a small coffin that had held the remains of
about a two year old child.
The burial chamber in the south tomb was small, but found within it were fragments
of thin gold leaf impressed with a pattern imitating reed matting. Also found were
animal bones and stone vessels.
Unfortunately, Goneim would never finish excavating the pyramid. Having achieved
some amount of fame, he went off to the United States on a lecture tour, and even
wrote a book about his discovery named The Buried Pyramid. The book was
successful, and even translated into different languages, but when he returned to
Egypt, everything fell apart. He was accused of smuggling a large, valuable vessel
that Quibell and Lauer had found two years earlier near in the Djoser complex out
of the country. There was no hard evidence, only accusations and slander, but it
devastated Goneim, who one must remember is also Egyptian. He was repeatedly
interrogated by the police.
It was his friend Lauer who attempted to finally help him. In 1957, he tracked the
missing vessel to a corner of the Egyptian Museum's depository. But like an
Egyptian tragedy, even as Lauer was hurrying back to Saqqara to redeem his friend,
Goneim was jumping into the Nile to commit suicide.
In fact, it was Lauer who returned to the site in about 1963 for a hurried search
for answers. It was he who discovered the south tomb, along with the south side of
the perimeter wall. But unfortunately, no one yet has excavated the mortuary
temple or the rest of the grounds. Many questions remain about this pyramid. For
example, was Sekhemkhet ever buried, here, and if he was not, what happened to
this king. The sealed sarcophagus seems to indicate, though not with certainty,
that it never held his remains. By all indications, he came to an abrupt end, if
we consider his attempted pyramid as evidence. In fact, most Egyptologist seem to
agree that he probably only ruled for about six years. Perhaps he died in some
remote expedition, his body never again seen. On the other hand, some future
excavation may give us real answers to these questions.