By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University
Horus Sekhemkhet was the successor to King Zoser, the founder of Egypt’s Third Dynasty. Horus Sekhemkhet’s pyramid and burial is unique in many ways. The pyramid not just offers valuable insights into early pyramid construction, but also creates an interesting mystery about his burial.
King Zoser’s Successor
Egyptologists, in their search for the ancient Pharaohs, have become aware of some truly fascinating accounts and none more so than the step pyramid of Horus Sekhemkhet, who was the second Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, during the Old Kingdom. He was the successor to Zoser, who founded the Third Dynasty.
Before delving further into the story of Sekhemkhet, one needs to be aware of the pyramid tradition among Pharaohs in the Old Kingdom of Egypt. The kings of the First Dynasty traditionally had dual burials at Abydos and Saqqara. They were buried in mastaba-like structures—rectangular enclosures made out of mud bricks, and not pyramids. King Zoser of the Third Dynasty was the first to be buried in a pyramid. The Pyramid of Zoser was also the first step pyramid, created by Zoser’s vizier and architect Imhotep. Zoser had a second burial as well, continuing the tradition of the kings of the First Dynasty. This second burial is just a couple of hundred yards to the south of the step pyramid.
This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
King Sekhemkhet continued this pyramid tradition and commissioned a step pyramid. Unfortunately, he died before the pyramid could be completed. The discovery of this incomplete pyramid, which was only a few meters high, was recorded in 1951. The misfortune of King Sekhemkhet proved to be a blessing for the historians. An unfinished monument is more interesting than a completed one, because it provides the opportunity to study how the structure was being built.
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Sekhemkhet’s Unfinished Pyramid
Sekhemkhet’s pyramid opened the doors for Egyptologists to discover a key element of the construction process. In fact, it can be termed as a quirk of the construction process.
The walls of the pyramid are still rough, which means that the stones weren’t finished at the quarry before being transported to the site of the pyramid. The walls were built first, with the surface still kind of rough. A workman then came in and worked at it with a chisel to give it the finishing touch.
This further highlighted the enormousness of the task the Ancient Egyptians undertook in building the pyramids. It would have been comparatively easier to finish the blocks to a uniform standard and then ship them to the site, as each block would be lighter and consequently the volume of stone to be shipped lower.
This isn’t the only unique aspect of Sekhemkhet’s pyramid. When excavators found the pyramid they discovered that the burial chamber was still sealed. This discovery sparked great interest, because it was the first completely intact burial chamber to have been identified after Tutankhamen’s tomb. The excavators inched deeper into the pyramid and opened the corridor leading to the burial chamber. They found artifacts such as gold bracelets, gold beads, a magical wand and various other items on the corridor floor.
When the moment of finally unsealing and opening the burial chamber arrived, every important dignitary in Egypt was invited, along with a large contingent of media personnel. The burial chamber was carefully opened, and a stone sarcophagus was found inside. This sarcophagus was still sealed.
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A sarcophagus is not the same as a coffin. Coffins are typically made of wood, whereas a sarcophagus is made of stone. The word sarcophagus (and its plural, sarcophagi) originate from Greek. When the Greek first arrived in Egypt and discovered these stone sarcophagi, they found badly preserved mummies inside, which had essentially turned into skeletons. This led to them calling these stone structures ‘flesh eaters’ or sarcophagi.
Remains of burnt plants were found on top of the sarcophagus. These are believed to be remains of a funerary wreath, which the Ancient Egyptians burned as an offering. The dignitaries and media contingent were waiting with great expectation for the final reveal of Horus Sekhemkhet’s mummy inside the sarcophagus.
The lid of the sarcophagus proved to be particularly challenging to open. It was located on the side of the sarcophagus, as opposed to the top. Eventually, and with extreme caution, the lid was opened only to reveal an empty sarcophagus.
Currently, there are two theories regarding why Horus Sekhemkhet’s sarcophagus was empty. The first theory suggests that Horus Sekhemkhet was simply following in the footsteps of King Djoser and the kings before him by having dual burials. This would mean that the incomplete pyramid was the King’s cenotaph, or the false burial site. The second theory suggests that King Sekhemkhet was wary of future tomb robbers and this incomplete step pyramid was an elaborate decoy; an attempt to throw them off the track.
The second theory is considerably less plausible than the first, because tomb robbers were typically the same men who built the tombs. They had the most in-depth knowledge about the pyramid. They also knew exactly what kind of gifts, jewelry and other treasures the king had stored inside the pyramid and exactly where they were stored. So, the men who built Sekhemkhet’s pyramid knew that he wasn’t inside the sarcophagus, so they left this pyramid alone. If this incomplete step pyramid is indeed a cenotaph, the actual burial site of Horus Sekhemkhet hasn’t been discovered yet.
Common Questions about the Search for Horus Sekhemkhet
King Sekhemkhet commissioned a step pyramid, but died before the pyramid could be completed. The discovery of this incomplete pyramid, in 1951 was a blessing for the historians. This was because the incomplete pyramid–that is, a pyramid which was still being built when it was abandoned–provided archaeologists the opportunity to study the method of construction.
The pyramid walls are still rough, which tells us that the stones weren’t cut to shape at the quarry before being transported to the site of the pyramid. The walls were built first, with the surface still kind of rough. A workman then came in and worked at it with a chisel to make it smooth.
When excavators found Sekhemkhet’s pyramid they discovered that the burial chamber was still sealed. This discovery sparked great interest among both archaeologists and the media, because it was the first completely intact burial chamber to have been located after Tutankhamen’s tomb.
There are two theories about Sekhemkhet’s sarcophagus being empty. The first is that this was the false burial site, and the pharaoh is actually buried elsewhere. The second theory is that the step pyramid was actually an elaborate decoy to throw tomb robbers off the scent.