2008 has been a wonderful year for Egyptology. Many important discoveries have been made that contribute to our knowledge of Egyptian history and enhance our understanding of this fascinating culture. Let us begin the new year with a review of the discoveries that made the news in 2008.
Newly Discovered Pyramid at Saqqara
Perhaps the most compelling find of 2008 was the “missing pyramid” at Saqqara. The existence of this pyramid was recorded in 1842 by a German archaeologist, Karl Lepsius, but desert sands subsequently covered the site, making it impossible to locate. It was finally re-discovered by a team led by Zahi Hawass in 2008. The pyramid was originally named the “Headless Pyramid” by Lepsius, because only the lower portion of the structure remained, explaining why the site was so easily obscured by the encroaching sand, which had accumulated to a height of 25 feet.
Based on the style of the pyramid and the lid of a gray granite sarcophagus found in the burial chamber, Hawass has dated it to the Old Kingdom, specifically to the 5th Dynasty king Menkauhor, who reigned for only 8 years. In addition to the pyramid, the site also produced the remnants of a ceremonial procession road dating to the Ptolemaic period. These recent discoveries have only served to increase the archaeological significance of Saqqara, a site already famous as the location of the first pyramid in Egypt, the Step Pyramid of king Djoser.
Mummies with Malaria
Egyptian mummies have also recently provided evidence of the earliest known cases of malaria. In October, German researchers released the results of a study conducted on bone tissue from mummies. The study showed that malaria was present in two mummies from western Thebes dating between 1500 and 500 BCE. This is important because the only references to malaria in ancient Egypt came from the 5th century historian Herodotus and a few vague references in Egyptian papyri. The disease was first clinically described by Hippocrates in 400 BCE, but no evidence had been found to support its existence in Egypt at that early date. The discovery of malaria in these mummies not only proves the veracity of the historical accounts, but may also allow scientists to trace its development through history and enhance their understanding of the parasite, perhaps leading to better treatment methods.
Giza in the Spotlight
The pyramids of the Giza Plateau were the subject of another interesting study in 2008. Giulio Magli, a mathematician at Milan’s Polytechnic University, has proposed that the Great Pyramid of Khufu and that of his son, Khafre, were designed not as separate structures but as part of one great plan. The plan was initially Khufu’s, and the monuments were both intended to be part of his great mortuary complex. Magli’s theory is that Khafre later usurped the smaller of the two pyramids for his tomb. This theory is based upon geographical and astronomical observations. During the summer solstice, if one stands next to the sphinx facing the pyramids, the sun sets directly between the two pyramids of Khufu and Khafre. This essentially created a monumental representation of the hieroglyph aket, or horizon, comprised of two peaks surmounted by a sun disk. This would have been a potent symbol of Khufu’s power and connection with the sun.
In Egyptian sources, the Great Pyramid is referred to as akhet khufu, the horizon of Khufu. This symbolism would not have been possible were the pyramids built at different times; it only works if the two were planned as a single project. Magli has gathered more evidence to support his theory, and many experts agree with his findings.
(Giza Photos by Jorge Enriquez, F.R.C. from the December 2008 Rosicrucian Tour of Egypt.)
Some other important events in 2008 were the discovery of a 2,500-year-old Greek temple in Alexandria, and the announcement of plans to build the world’s first underwater museum in Alexandria at the site of Cleopatra’s palace. Though several important discoveries were made in 2008, some of the most compelling events were the announcements of new research and building projects that will give us a great deal to look forward to in the next year. 2009 promises to be an even more amazing year for Egyptology with the potential for great discoveries, and we can all anticipate an exciting new year!