The Mystery of
Sekhemkhet's Pyramid

Sekhemkhet's Pyramid
© Photo copyright M. Zakaria Goneim

When Zakaria Goneim, a native Egyptologist, and his team excavated an outcropping of rubble masonry west of Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, they found a theretofore undiscovered, unfinished pyramid. In his book The Lost Pyramid (Rinehart & Company, 1956), Goneim wrote:

It might be thought that, since the building had been used as a quarry in later times, its existence was known until a comparatively recent date. Fortunately I was able to satisfy myself that the monument had been undisturbed for at least 3,000 years and probably for longer. Proof of this lay in the large number of later burials which my workmen found during the excavations, and as the earliest of these dated from the Nineteenth Dynasty (1349-1197 B.C.), and as some were found lying undisturbed above the buried pyramid itself, it is obvious that the walls we had uncovered had not been seen by human eyes since that remote epoch. [p. 64]

In January 1954, Goneim began his search for the pyramid entrance, certain that "no superstructure would have been built without beginning the substructure." Excavating the northern side, he first found the remains of a mortuary temple. Encouraged, he sought the entrance there, as the entrance to Djoser's pyramid was found in a like location. When this proved futile, he moved the work to the north. Finally, about 75 feet from the pyramid face, he found what appeared to be the entrance gallery.

My workmen and I were intensely excited. As we dug down into the sand and more and more of the trench became visible, it was clear that we were nearing the entrance to the pyramid substructure. The question which worried us was: "Would the entrance be found intact, or had the tomb robbers entered the pyramid before us?" [p. 91]

The gallery was blocked intermittently with thick masonry, and the gaps between filled with rubble. At length the doorway to the pyramid was uncovered. "To our extreme relief," Goneim wrote, "we found that the doorway was intact, sealed with masonry." The pyramid was opened on 9 March 1954. The door led into a high gallery cut into the bedrock, but within sixty feet they encountered a wall of rubble reaching from floor to ceiling. The team found a vertical shaft in the ceiling through which the rubble had been dropped; the mouth of the shaft above was buried in the pyramid superstructure. Goneim determined that the shaft had not been fully breached since the pyramid was built. The blockage of rubble in the corridor proved to be more than fifteen feet thick, but first the shaft had to be cleared so that the debris would not fall on the workers below. It was during the clearing of this shaft that a fatal accident occurred: one of the workers at the bottom of the partially cleared shaft was suffocated after he was buried when the rubble gave way beneath him. This stopped the work amid tales of a pyramid curse and exaggerated claims by the press that eighty men were killed when the "pyramid had entirely collapsed."

Excavation commenced anew a fortnight later, and the corridor beyond was found to be cracked and unstable, necessitating reinforcement with masonry and timber. Under a thick layer of clay at the bottom of the corridor beyond the blockage, the workers "found hundreds of stone vessels of many kinds, similar to those found in the subterranean galleries of Djoser's pyramid." They also found gold bracelets and armlets, a gold wand, and a cosmetic box of embossed gold in the shape of a scallop shell, all among bits of jewelry and beads and other toiletries. It was theorized that they likely had been in a wooden chest, long rotted away, that may have belonged to a lady of the king's household. This evidence, Goneim wrote, "provided us with a valuable clue to the fact that, in spite of its unfinished state, the pyramid had been used for burial." He brushed aside notions that the items had been abandoned by tomb robbers of antiquity:

My answer to such critics is this. The objects were found under a thick layer of clay. The stone bowls, dishes, etc., had been carefully arranged in layers with the clay above them as protection., and above this clay the builders had piled the huge stones of the blockage which had been thrown down the shaft to fill it. That blockage, I am convinced, had never been disturbed since the shaft was made by the pyramid builders. Therefore, the objects, including the gold jewelry, must have been left there deliberately, and not discarded by robbers. In any case, why would tomb robbers have left behind such valuable and easily portable objects as the golden bracelets and other trinkets, which had lain in a wooden casket, traces of which still remain? [p. 107]

Later, jars were found with clay seals bearing an imprint made with a cylinder seal. Upon them, Goneim read the name of a "hitherto unknown king," Sekhemkhet (this king had actually been known by another name, Djoser Tati). More than one hundred feet from the entrance, another door was breached that led into a gallery containing 120 storage magazines (16 more were later found). The entire complex was filled to about two thirds its height with rubble. Beyond this, some 236 feet distant from the pyramid entrance, a "seemingly impervious mass of rock" was encountered. Somewhat disheartened, and working beyond April, the usual end of the excavation season, work slowly progressed into the heart of the newly discovered and apparently undisturbed pyramid. On 31 May 1954, beyond ten feet of blockage, Goneim climbed into the darkness of a large vault accompanied by one of his lead workman, Hofni.

In the middle of a rough-cut chamber lay a magnificent sarcophagus of pale, golden, translucent alabaster. We moved toward it. My first thought was: "Is it intact?" Hurriedly, with my electric torch, I examined the top for the lid. But there was no lid; the top was of one piece with the rest. [p. 115]

alabaster coffer
© Photo copyright J.P. Lauer

The sarcophagus proved to have been carved from a single alabaster block, and the only opening was sliding panel at one end, slid into position from the top. The decayed remains of a wreath sat atop the sarcophagus (years later, analysis proved it to be bark and decomposed wood). The chamber, never completed, was surrounded by a complex of unfinished galleries. No entrance other than the excavated passage could be found. "At last," Goneim wrote, "I was able to satisfy myself beyond any shadow of a doubt that we were the first to enter the sarcophagus chamber since its makers left it." A close examination proved that the sliding door to the sarcophagus was sealed and bore no traces of tampering. For the first time in modern history, an intact royal burial had been discovered within a pyramid.

World press interest was high, and the find was compared to the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. Visitors were plentiful and Goneim found himself in the spotlight of publicity. The impending discovery of the royal mummy was eagerly anticipated by Egyptologists of the day. The press was first admitted on 17 June, at first ten at a time, but later as many as sixty as journalists lingered. Finally, preparations for the opening of the sarcophagus were complete, and on 26 June ropes were threaded through steel hooks inserted into two holes on top of the sliding panel as lights and cameras were placed into position. As a small party watched, crowbars were inserted into the crack beneath the sliding panel and workmen pulled mightily on the ropes. At first, the panel stuck fast. It was wedged tightly into position, sealed with gypsum plaster. But then it began to move, at first only an inch, but bit by bit, flakes of plaster dropping to the floor, it slid upward. Falling to his hands and knees, Goneim peered inside, eager to witness the culmination of his considerable efforts. The sarcophagus was empty.

Public interest immediately ceased with news headlines such as "Pharaoh Fiasco" and "They Dig for Three Years and Find Nothing." It was for Goneim "a bitter blow," and his name quickly faded into relative obscurity. He was later accused (falsely, it would turn out) of stealing antiquities and smuggling them out of the country, and as a result he suffered the humiliation of repeated police interrogation. Discredited and stripped of his duties, he drowned himself in the Nile in 1957.

Why would an undisturbed burial chamber contain a sealed but empty coffin? Shortly after opening the sarcophagus, Goneim had concluded:

... I feel fairly certain that the chamber I discovered beneath the new pyramid is another example of a "dummy tomb" or ritual burial. No other explanation will fit the facts, and unless other evidence is produced to contradict it, I shall continue to accept it. If this hypothesis is correct, it would explain why other kings of this remote period -- for example, Snofru -- built two tombs. [p. 153]

Jean-Phillipe Lauer, who made it his life's work to excavate Djoser's Step Pyramid complex, took over the excavation of the Sekhemkhet site in 1963. Four years later, he found a south tomb, looted and empty save for the mummy of a small boy. It was Lauer's opinion that the mummy of Sekhemkhet, along with the burial goods, was removed during the First Intermediate period, a time when many of the Old Kingdom pyramids were plundered. Most Egyptologists believe, however, that the chamber that Goneim discovered was never intended to be the burial place of Sekhemkhet. Where, then, is the king's mummy? It may have been in the ravaged south tomb, or it may remain yet undiscovered in a tomb somewhere beneath the desert sands.

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