5 Striking Discoveries Made Beneath Ancient Egypt’s First-Ever Pyramid

Archaeologists say that beneath Djoser's Step Pyramid, the ancient builders quarried out more than 5.7 kilometers of shafts, tunnels, and chambers creating an unmatched subterranean superstructure.

Egypt’s First Pyramid was a revolutionary structure. It changed ancient Egypt in more ways than one, kick-starting a megalithic construction fever that would remain present in Egypt for thousands of years, reaching its peak with the completion of the Great Pyramid of Khufu around 2,560 BC.

The pyramid as a stone structure was a giant leap forward in construction skills in ancient Egypt.

The giant pyramid appeared suddenly, an out of nowhere during the 3rd dynasty reign of Pharaoh Djoser who constructed the first pyramid in stone.

But mainstream Egyptologists say that the origins of pyramids can be traced back even further back in time to the ancient pit graves that were built in ancient Egypt during the predynastic period. These graves were structures like pits covered by simple mounds of sand and gravel.

But construction skills evolved, techniques grew in sophistication, and the ancient Egyptians would eventually, during the threshold of the first dynasty around 2,900 BC, construct graves for their rulers and the ruling elite made out of neat mudbrick boxes, that were essentially built into the desert.

These new tombs were essentially divided into several rooms just like a house, resulting in various different chambers.

In time, these structures would continue developing. Eventually, the tombs of the early kings of Egypt followed the very same patter although with much greater complexity.

The ancient builders would also survey the land where the tombs were built, evidence of which are the first two dynasties of ancient Egypt, and the tombs that were built far out in the desert, near the high cliffs of Abydos.

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Precisely these pit and mound graves with their rectangular courts defined by walls made of mudbrick are considered the architectural antecedents of pyramids.

The royal pit and mound graves would grow to a monumental size in time, although they were not as near as massive as the scale of monuments that would suddenly emerge in the third dynasty reign of Pharaoh Djoser.

The Pyramid that was built by Djoser’s Royal Vizier and architect Imhotep was an unexpected result of what many scholars define as an architectural evolution in ancient Egyptian culture.

Although perhaps unexpected, the Step pyramid would eventually redefine not only the ancient Egyptian engineering and archaic rural capabilities but would come to play a crucial role in the development of the ancient Egyptian society, in terms of economy, religion, and trade.

To build the pyramids that would follow after Djoser, the Egyptian society evolved allowing a greater workforce to become available, creating numerous working opportunities, and demanding a great agricultural development that would lay down the foundations that were needed to build the Great Pyramid of Giza not long after.

A stunning view of the The Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara. Shutterstock.
A stunning view of The Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara. Shutterstock.

The first pyramid

It was Djoser’s stone pyramid that would kick-start the classic pyramid-building age in the old Kingdom, encompassing Egpyts 4th, 5th and 6th dynasties. According to Lehner, according to one chronology of ancient Egypt, only sixty years passed between the successful construction of the Step Pyramid of Djoser and the beginning of the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

If true, this would mean that someone would have been a child when the Pyramid of Djoser was completed and lived to see, in old age, the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, when Egyptian pyramid-building skills reached their peak.

During several centuries, the ancient Egyptians would erect massive pyramids which mainstream scholars maintain were used as tombs for the kings of Egypt.

Some of them succeeded, some of them failed with only rubble remaining of their once glorious scenery.

But the Step pyramid of Djoser was special, not only because it was the first monumental stone structure of ancient Egypt, but because of its complexity.

But the first stone pyramid of Egypt was part of a complex that was equally stunning and perhaps correspondingly sophisticated.

Prior to Djoser, the most used material for “monumental” building in ancient Egypt was mudbrick.

Then came Imhotep, Chancellor and Great Seer of the sun god Ra, Royal architect and Vizier who built the pyramid of Djoser and its equally stunning enclosure, erecting a massive limestone wall, 10.5 meters high, stretching out across 1,645 meters, covering an area of 15 hectares, roughly the size of small town during the 3rd century BC.

The entire Step Pyramid complex was built featuring several functional and “fake” buildings, with pavilions to the south and the north, intricately carved facades, large tumuli and terraces shrines, chapels and life-sized statues of the Pharaoh. The centerpiece, however, was the imposing step Pyramid, constructed of six steps rising sixty meters towards the sky. The pyramid alone was made out of 330,400 cubic meters of clay and stone.

Djoser’s Pyramid was built progressively in different stages where it evolved from its initial square-mastaba shape into its final six-step pyramid. The core of Djoser’s pyramid was made out of roughly shaped stones, and a fine limestone casing, with a layer of pacing in between. This technique, explains Lehner, was also used in the building process of mastabas. But the pyramid was built with one important difference: the builders no longer used horizontal beds and instead built the pyramid in accretions leaning inwards.

And just as the step pyramid, Egyptologists argue the entire pyramid complex was built in different stages, where the early development of the pyramid complex started off simple and small, until it was eventually developed into a sophisticated, town-sized enclosure with pyramids, temples, and plazas.

Complex above, even more so below

And while the entire pyramid complex was a magnificent, never-before-attempted building process in Egypt, what lies beneath it is equally if not more unbelievable.

The interior of Djoser’s Pyramid as well as what lies beneath it is worth of every praise.

Archeologists have discovered that Djoser’s above-ground elements are just one small part of the story. Beneath the Step pyramid lies a gigantic superstructure built on a scale previously unknown to Egypt where the builders quarried and removed more than 5.7 kilometers of material in order to create shafts, tunnels, chambers, complex galleries, and magazines.

The superstructure beneath the Pyramid of Djoser is a wonder of its own.

The underground world constructed beneath Djoser’s Step pyramid composed of complex passages and chambers is widely recognized as one of the most sophisticated and largest under any pyramid.

Although unparalleled, the only precedent is the royal underground galleries not far from the Djoser Complex, which is assigned to Hotepsekhemwy. Egyptologists argue that the western galleries of Djoser’s underground world seem to be aligned with Hotepsekhemwy ‘s.

Beneath the pyramid of Djoser is a central corridor which runs for more than 365 meters and connects no less than 400 rooms beneath the surface.

The rooms and other features beneath the surface encompass the most complex network of tunnels and shafts the ancient Egyptians would ever create below a pyramid.

In other words, what the ancient Egyptians created beneath Djoser’s pyramid can be compared to an underground city built above a massive pyramid complex. The network of structures below the surface is worthy of every praise.

1858 photography of the north side. In the background, the Pyramid of Djoser. Public Domain.
1858 photography of the north side. In the background, the Pyramid of Djoser. Public Domain.

Unparalleled, unprecedented, unbelievable.

The underground complex built beneath the pyramid remained unmatched even after the ancient Egyptians reached their peak in pyramid building.

Within the intricate network of tunnels, rising towards the pyramid, the ancient builders created the so-called Central Shaft, seven meters square and twenty-eight meters deep, dug for the Pharaoh’s burial chamber, above which they placed retaining walls which kept it open through the mastaba beneath the pyramid’s five upper steps.

Djoser’s final resting place was an intricately carved vault made out of four courses of well-dressed granite blocks, with a cylindrical opening towards the north end of the chamber.

Despite the fact that Djoser’s remains were never discovered inside his burial chamber, Egyptologists argue that once the Pharaoh’s mummified remains were placed inside the chamber, the entrance was blocked off with a granite stone weighing around 3.5 tons.

The stone had four groves that were sued to guide the ropes that were used to lower it. This “defense” mechanism proved to be no match for looters, researchers suggest, since the chamber was found to be completely empty.

The ancient Egyptians would eventually build a massive underground palace for the king before the first steps of the pyramid were in place.

According to archeologists, before the mastaba evolved into the pyramid, the ancient builders were busy digging and excavating passages around the central shaft. Working to the north, west, and south, they tunneled long armatures ending in intricate, transverse galleries from which they would fashion crude 90-degree magazines.

The workers built a stairway leading from the descending corridor towards a series of turns and passages, eventually ending in the eastern chamber which was exquisitely decorated with limestone.

The eastern shafts and galleries beneath the pyramid are equally stunning. Work on the superstructure was started before the mastaba was turned into a pyramid. There, the builders created eleven vertical shafts from the bottom of which extensive galleries were built leading to the west. Nine of these galleries were used as tombs, say, archeologists.

Inside, two intact sarcophagi were found. Gallery II is puzzling. Inside it, a hip-bone of an 18-year-old female was discovered. Curiously, radiocarbon dating revealed that the female hipbone dates generations before Djoser’s time adding mystery to the purpose of the underground structure.

The remaining galleries, VI to IX revealed a massive collection of around 40,000 stone vessels. It is believed that many of these vessels were actually located at different tombs in the past, as some of them have been found to date back to the 1st dynasty.

All-in-all, the massive superstructure built beneath the Pyramid of Djoser is unparalleled in more than one way: primarily because of its size and complexity, and then because of the many artifacts discovered inside it.

Resumed, here are 5 striking discoveries found beneath the Step Pyramid of Djoser

  1. No one would have expected that beneath Egypt’s first pyramid lay the remains of a massive superstructure with countless tunnels, chambers, cavities, and magazines.
  2. For thousands of years, no one pyramid was built with the complexity of underground chambers like the Pyramid of Djoser.
  3. Rather than a discovery, it is fascinating to find that although the superstructure beneath the pyramid was worthy of a god let alone a Pharaoh, the remains of Djoser have never been discovered.
  4. What archeologists did find were around 40,000 vessels with many inscriptions revealed that most of them were not indented for Djoser, but for his royal ancestors. This gives us an impression that the Step Pyramid was not a complex meant to tell a story in the future, but one that acted as a repository to the past.
  5. The female hipbone discovered beneath the pyramid adds further mystery to an already puzzling superstructure. What is the hipbone of an 18-year-old female, dating to generations before Djoser, doing beneath his royal pyramid?