Not since Sneferu - Pyramid building 101
This time, we are going to look at the top 10 pyramids of the world according to Ancient Aliens. I could not tell if the list is based on how significant evidence the pyramids are for extraterrestrial visitation or how cool they are. The episode would also become too long if we did the whole list simultaneously, so this will be a two-parter. You could also view it as a compilation episode of some great pyramids and one farm structure. We will spend most of our time in Mesoamerica and visit Peru and Greece. I think you'll really love this episode; we will even have a case where the Ancient Astronaut believers cite their sources, a real Christmas miracle here.
In Digging up Ancient Aliens, our host Fredrik uses his background in archaeology to discover what is genuine, fake, and somewhere in between in popular media, such as Ancient Aliens, Ancient Apocalypse, and many other places.
In this episode:
Djosers Step Pyramid
Imhotep - architect and god
Sneferu - the pyramid builder
Sources, resources and further reading suggestions
Hi, hello, and välkommen to Digging Up Ancient Aliens. This is the podcast where we examine strange claims about alternative history and ancient aliens in popular media. Do their claims hold water to an archeologist, or are there better explanations out there?
We are now on episode 53, and I am Fredrik, your guide into the world of pseudo-archaeology. We are continuing our examination of the top then pyramids of the world according to Ancient Aliens. This is based on episode 11 from season 19, so it's one of the brand-new episodes from the series. Last time, we looked at the bottom tier of the list, which included El Castillo, the Pyramids of Teotihuacan, the Sican Pyramids, El Mirador, and the supposed pyramid of Hellinikon.
While this episode will continue breaking down this list, it is separate, so you can jump straight in without wondering what's happening. So what will we talk about then? Well, we will learn about the evolution of Egyptian pyramids and busting several myths surrounding their construction. This time, we will focus mainly on the Djoser Step pyramid, then throw Ancient Aliens number four to the side, instead talking about the pyramid builder Sneferu. You'll see why I made this decision later, but it is an Ancient Egypt special—building up our knowledge to tackle the great pyramids of Giza later.
Do you want to learn more about the topics I talk about and where I get everything from? Well, check out the episode page to learn more about this.
A huge thanks to all the patrons who support this show. The Patreon bonus episode will drop here in mid-January and focus on "Chariots of the Gods" by Van Däniken. If you want to learn how to support the show, I'll tell you all about that later.
Now that we have finished our preparations, let's dig into the episode.
Djosers Step Pyramid
Welcome back to Egypt, where we will look at number five on the list. The oldest pyramid on the list is the step pyramid in Saqqara. It was built for the third dynastic ruler, Netjerikhet, or as he is often referred to, Djoser or Zoser. Djoser is the name most associated with the pharao today and even in later Egyptian writing. But this seems to originate from a mistranslation of the old records. Netjerikhet is the Horus name, translating to divine of body, which people would have used for this pharao. The confusion seems to originate from a phrase associated with the Horus name, Khenti-ta-djeser-nisut, or in English, "Blessed be the country of the sublime king." In later texts from the 18th dynasty, we start to see the name Djoser Netjerikhet when referring to this king. Worth remembering is that the Egyptian culture lasted for 3000 years, if not more. Many changes would have happened to the language during this time, and I think it's not too strange that a mistranslation might have occurred when scribes translated texts that at that time might have been 1000 years old. To avoid confusion, and save you from my pronounsiation, I'll use the name Djoser when speaking about this pharao.
To be honest, I would put this pyramid higher on the list, but the top five aren't too bad, I guess. What is alarming is the information we get from the Ancient Alien people and Ramy Romany, an Egyptologist unfortunately.
"Mainstream archaeologists suggest the pyramid was built as a tomb for King Djoser, but like all other Egyptian pyramids, there is no credible evidence that a body was ever entombed there."
So, this is a statement that we often see among alternative historians when they speak about the Egyptian pyramids, and it is both true and false. It is untrue that we have never found any human remains in pyramids. Carbon dating has shown that at least two pharaohs seem to have been found in their pyramids. Strouhal and Vyhnánek et al. could demonstrate that the remains found in the fifth dynasty rule Neferefre Isi's pyramid correspond with Neferefre's death. Djedkare Isesi, also from the fifth dynasty, is another example of a ruler that seem to have been found in their pyramid confirmed by carbon dating by the same team.
We should not forget the pyramid of King Unas of the fifth dynasty, constructed two hundred years after the Great Pyramid of Khufu. In addition to a few grave goods, being the first pyramid with the pyramid texts, Kung Una's name, we also found the remains of an individual in the sarcophagus. These are not carbon-dated yet, but due to the condition and other clues, they seem to be of the old kingdom and presumed to be Unas himself. Hopefully, tests will be allowed, and we can find out who this individual might be.
Regarding the pyramid of Djoser, human remains were found in the pyramid. Still, Strouhal et al. could show that this was a later burial and most likely not the remains of Djoser, unfortunately. But it's clear it was a tomb designed to be one from the beginning, as we will see in a moment. We also have texts from ancient visitors in the mortuary temple who talk about their visit to the grave. Firth and Quibell describe several of these comments in their book documenting the excavation of the complex. One scribe, Ahmoses from the 18th dynasty, wrote on the temple walls based on Nils Billing's translation, "I came to visit Djoser's temple and found it as if heaven was contained within it and the sun god rose within. He said: may pieces of ox, bird, and all good and pure things come to the Ka of Djoser, the righteous. May refreshing myrrh rain from heaven, may incense fall from above."
Not all were, however, impressed with the graffiti, and here's an opposing view again based on Billing's translation. "My heart becomes ill when I see these hands work. Like the creation of thoughtless women. Could it not have been someone here to stop them before entering this temple? What I see is scandalous! These are no writers enlightened by Toth!"
We can learn from the graffiti, both positive and those texts that are a bit more resentful, that the ancient Egyptians knew what this construction was. They knew this was the burial complex for the people of the 18th dynasty, ancient king Djoser. And this is a vast and intricate construction consisting of more things than just the pyramid. To better understand this site, we need to look back again at the history of burials in ancient Egypt.
Initially, we see simple graves dug down in the desert. The issue with these graves is that they are not permanent. The Egyptians would quickly have learned that this method of burials is not a way to eternity. So they dug down a room, later putting a mound above this grave. The mound would later evolve into what we know as a mastaba, named after the Arabic word for bench. These larger square structures were reserved primarily for the royalty but also more and more later the elite. These mastabas were designed to be almost like a house for the diciest. As with houses today, these structures could become large and have several rooms and chambers containing everything the one who had gone west would need in the afterlife. In ancient Egypt, death was associated with the West, so if someone was dead, you could refer to them as a Westerner; saying that they had gone west was an idiom, meaning a person had died.
As they grew, these royal mastabas became more complex and added funerary rites and architecture. For example, we start to see the mastabas being built with a perimeter wall and funerary enclosures for the pharao in separate locations. So there we have the evolution up until Djoser enters the scene. What Djoser and, most likely, Imhotep did was look at the previous buildings and realize that mudbricks are not eternal. They opened the stone and started building it in stone. At first, they just wanted an ordinary mastaba, which was the grave's first version. I like to picture Djoser looking at the mastaba taking form, saying to Imhotep, "I mean, it's big. But how about we extend it a little on the sides so everyone see how great I am." So the mastaba was extended on the sides, but Djoser was back again with Imhotep. "It's the bigger, but can't we extend it to cover the burials on the eastern side, then everyone will know how truly noble I am." So the mastaba was extended again, so we have three phases: M1, M2, and M3.
Again, it's just my imagination, but Djoser stands there looking at the work, leaning over to Imhotep, who is starting to look slightly annoyed. "It's wide, but it's not tall; what if nobody sees it?" So, the construction changed again. This time to a four-story pyramid. Was Djoser happy with this? Since it changed to a six-story step pyramid instead, Djoser had one last suggestion for Imhotep. I can picture Djoser standing there going, "It's big; could it be that it's too big?" But note here that only the outside of the grave changed, not the inside, which still consisted of an underground burial complex like the mastabas before. Ultimately, it's also just mastabas on top of different mastabas, creating a large, simple structure that can support its weight due to the design.
This burial also comes with other inventions, like incorporating the funerary complex with the burial complex. Djoser also added the site for his Heb sed festival so he could be rejuvenated in the afterlife. Heb Sed festival was celebrated on the king's 30th year on the throne to prove he was still fit to lead the country. It most likely originated from a time when the pharaoh was removed from power when he was too weak. We must remember that the king at this time was supposed to lead the army by himself and do everything needed in person. But by doing the Heb Seb festival, he could become young again. This ceremony included things like running, wrestling with young men, and other physical activities that, when completed, would give the king a new life.
While this is among the first large-scale projects in stone, it can still give us an idea of how they had done things before. Because while the construction was in stone, it was worked to resemble the materials they usually used in the buildings previously. For example, pillars were carved to look like reed or other organic material to give the impression of not being of stone but as things had been done until then.
There are even more innovations, such as a southern burial, that we will find in later constructions after this. We see one of the first human-size Ka statues in this complex depicting Djoser. Again, this is something we will discover later and show that this place was built for eternity; the pharaoh would not have a second death with all this in place. This statue is today located in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and it's a stern man who looks at us. I like the details in the statue and how they aimed for realism. You can even see that he seems to have had a thin mustache on the upper lip, giving the pharaoh a bit of character.
With all of this, it's quite evident that the pyramid was intended and used as a funerary complex. We can add hundreds of jars found with inscriptions that Djoser preserved in a room to show his ties to earlier kings. Nils Billing and other Egyptologists believe these jars were used in previous pharaohs' heb sed festivals. With the expansion of the M3 mastaba, Djoser decided to take care of these artifacts. These jars strengthen the idea that this was an evolution of the mastaba constructions on a new and more prominent level.
Djoser's successor, Sekhemkhet, also tried to build a step pyramid. With Imhotep as the vizier, we can see that this pyramid used the same method as Djoser. The difference is that Sekhemkhet died early and quickly, so only the first layer of the pyramid was completed. Based on the base's size, they likely attempted to create a larger construction than Djoser with seven layers. Sekhemkhet seemed to know what he wanted from the start and only ended up with a sort of mastaba due to the short reign. As with Djoser's step pyramid, this was constructed out of limestone, and each addition to the layers would lean 15 degrees inward. The burial chamber was underground, as was a costume, and would have had a mortuary complex similar to Djoser's. Even if this pyramid was never finished, we could still learn from it; for example, we can see how stones were roughly cut at the quarry and then dressed at the site.
Imhotep - architect and god
When it comes to the character of Imhotep, we get quite a lot of strange claims. One of the laziest is William Henry.
"Imhotep rose to the incredible status as the vizier, or wizard, to the pharaoh. This is where we get that word wizard from, vizier."
While it is correct that Imhotep was the vizier to Djoser, a role often given to someone in the extended family during this time, the word is a modern invention. In Ancient Egypt, the title was djat or tjati, a term we today translate to the Arabic phrase wazīr; translating to English, we would get minister or aide. The word wazīr literary translation is "to share the burden." It's not too far off to compare this position to a prime minister's. The role of the djat included control and responsibility over agriculture, finances, military, logistics, city planning, and religious affairs. The person having this title would undoubtedly have been one of the most influential persons in Egypt.
On the other hand, the word wizard originates from Middle English, and the earliest account we have of this word is from 1440, some 4100 years after the first preserved use of the title by the second dynasty pharao Nynetjer. The Middle English words are also just formed by the phrase wise with the suffix -ard added to it.
"He showed up into the life of the king out of nowhere, and then ascended into position so quickly, which is very uncommon in ancient Egypt.
What does that mean? What do you mean "out of nowhere"? Did he drop from the sky, or did he come from another land?
( laughs )
In Egyptian history, you can normally trace every position back to their parents. But Imhotep, nothing."
These are pretty strange comments from Ramy Romany, who is supposed to be an Egyptologist. As I mentioned, Imhotep became the vizier during the reign of Djoser and probably held this position during the reign of the following two pharaohs. We have very few contemporary accounts of Imhotep, limited to a few inscriptions of his names and titles. One can be found on the base of a statue that supposedly depicted pharao Djoser, which would have been considered a high honor. In this inscription, we learn that Imhotep was, among several titles, also the chief architect of the pharao, hence the idea that Imhotep was the creator of the stepped pyramid of Saqqara. Interestingly, we don't see a reference to Imhotep as a healer in these inscriptions, even though he would become one of the few who later got deified in ancient Egypt as a god of medicine.
That we don't find contemporary accounts of people living during the early dynastic period is not too strange. We must remember that Imhotep lived 4100 years ago, and documents from this era are scarce. People didn't generally pen their memoirs to be mass-printed either; if lucky, we can find a biography on the tomb's walls. However, Imhotep's grave is not yet discovered; we will return to this shortly.
There are texts and statues of Imhotep that come down to us from later periods. We have texts and traditions about Imhotep that date to the Middle Kingdom. While Imhotep was most likely a commoner, it was not as unusual as the alternative historians like to portray this rise, or in this case, Ramy Romany. We have other examples of people outside the royal extended family taking this place, such as Kagemni I, who was the vizier to Sneferu. Kagemni is also supposed to have been a wise man who wrote the wisdom text "The Instruction Addressed to Kagemni and His Brethren." However, this text is only preserved from the Middle Kingdom. Then there are vezirs like Werbauba and Niankhba, commoners who did not inherit the title. Now, there are examples of when the title seems to have been inherited, such as Akhethetep, who was the son of Ptahhotpe I. Ptahhotpe appears to have been one of those wise sages and might have penned the wisdom text "The Maxims of Ptahhotep." This book contained advice to young men on how to behave appropriately.
Imhotep is not the only commoner to have been deified either; we have Amenhotep, Hapu's son, who was also bestowed this honor. I don't want to sound as if I downplay Imhotep's contributions; he must have been a smart cookie. But we need to look at his achievements and contributions in relation to the other viziers and officials during the early dynastic period and the Old Kingdom in general. By doing this, we can better understand the society and how things came to be later in history. Imhotep might be the original author of the medical text we know today as the Edwin Smith Papyrus. Due to the nature of the text, it can be argued that it was written during the pyramid constructions or other large-scale construction projects. Most of the text deals with injuries one might succumb to during construction, such as broken limbs and the like. The advice is also quite good and would have, in some cases, been helpful. It's also written surprisingly scientifically with a title and description of the injuries, how to examine the condition, and how and if treatment should be carried out. There are cases where the author says the condition is too severe to treat, and there's nothing the doctor can do.
"Ancient astronaut theorists are hopeful that, if the tomb of Imhotep is ever discovered, it might be found to contain the remains of an otherworldly visitor."
Imhotep tomb has not yet been discovered, but there have been several attempts. Professor Walter Emery was one archaeologist who set out trying to find the tomb; Emery knew that Imhotep was allowed a tomb close to Djoser's pyramid in Saqqara and thought that he could use Imhotep's god status to find it. In later Egyptian history, as we mentioned before, Imhotep became a god; with this in mind, Emery thought that the tomb of Imhotep would be a logical pilgrim destination. Upon surveying the area, he noticed an abundance of prayers and thanks dedicated to Imhotep. Emery later came across a tomb where these prayers were plentiful. Inside, he would find droves of mummies of Ibis birds inside jars. The Ibis was a bird closely associated with the cult of Imhotep. Carefully, Emery excavated the tomb and then. Then Emery died, the excavation stopped, and nobody has picked it back up again. I'm not entirely sure why, but it would be of great interest to learn who the tomb belonged to. It might not have been related to Imhotep, just a tomb rumored to be the viziers and the pilgrims initially accepted it.
So again, we see how the pseudo-scientific crowd focuses on something that's not much of a mystery when we start to read about it while not giving much attention to the real mystery. Would it not be good television to hunt for the lost tomb of Imhotep, follow in the footsteps of Emery, and maybe contribute to our understanding of ancient Egypt? If I had the resources, The Hunt of Imhotep would be a documentary I'd like to make or watch if someone else did it. A real mystery that we can potentially solve. It's not a constructed enigma that is only mysterious if you have not picked up a history book.
Not since Sneferu
So we are now on the number four of the top ten pyramids according to Ancient Aliens. In this spot, we find the "hidden pyramids of China." Something that was highly unimpressive since they are even worse than the Bosnian pyramids. The story boils down to a pilot flying over China claiming to have seen a pyramid once. Then, a second pilot claimed to have seen a jade pyramid somewhere else; the issue is that nobody else had seen these before or after, and this was in areas still inhabited. The locals seem not to have an oral or written tradition of pyramids vanishing or not.
As there is insufficient evidence to validate the veracity of these stories, I suggest we utilize this moment to delve into the discussion of some pyramids that have been overlooked and were not included on the list. I'm talking about the pyramids of Sneferu. These buildings, especially the final red pyramid, deserve to be higher up on the list, but number four isn't terrible either.
Sneferu was quite the character and must have had quite the willpower. Because he would not build one pyramid, he made three during his lifetime. This pharaoh will also introduce the first true pyramid to the world. Sneferu was the founder of the fourth dynasty and inherited the throne from his father, Huni. The succession of the throne seems to have been smooth, so Sneferu could easily take control over a unified kingdom with a well-run and established state administration. While Sneferu's pyramids are what he might be most remembered for, he also waged successful wars in Nubia, bringing back wealth and glory for Egypt. He also extends the agricultural estates and husbandries internally throughout Egypt to increase the farm yield. This increase in food translated into a well-stocked treasury.
As royalty was supposed to do, Sneferu started to plan for the eternal afterlife and decided to build his first tomb in Meidum. If you visit this site today, you will be met with a pretty strange monument; it does not look like a pyramid but rather a lonesome tower guarding the desert. Around it, we can see blocks and rubble lying around as if the outer layers had just fallen off. The locals have given it the not-so-proud nickname "el-Haram el-kaddab" or "The false pyramid."
The poor state of the pyramid is most likely due to later vandalism and locals reusing the stone. During 1100 CE, Sheik Abu Mohammed Abdalla described the pyramid as having five steps. The three-level tower we see today was told by the Danish sea captain Frederik Norden, who visited the pyramid in 1737. Flinders Petrie noted that the locals were using the site as a quarry and that any Meidum villager of rank would use the stone as part of their tombs.
Now, some Egyptologists like Nils Billing suggest that Huni, Sneferus's father, built the early stages of the pyramid. Others like Miroslav Bárta Mark Lehner suggest that Sneferu built the whole pyramid and as evidence, only Sneferus's name appears on the pyramid and that the ancient name for the site is "Djed Sneferu" or "Sneferu endures."
The Meidum pyramid was originally planned to be a seven-step pyramid, but around step five, the plans were changed, and the pyramid was enlarged and intended to be nine steps. The pyramid's stones were inward-sloping, and combined with the slope, the design was intended to be an enormous step pyramid. The original step pyramid plan is not the only thing similar to Djoser's pyramid; we also find the enclosure and a southern burial at the site. An innovation was thought that the burial chamber was above ground and incorporated a corbel roof.
A corbelled roof is an engineering method where the stones in the roof are extended slightly beyond the layer below, gradually converging towards the top. The corbelled roof creates a sort of inverted pyramid inside the chamber and helps with the weight distribution; it redirects the force of the weight above down and to the side, helping create a self-supporting structure, and is, as we see, very durable.
But 15 years into Sneferus's reign, things changed. For some reason, he ordered the completed pyramid in Meidum to be abandoned. A new burial started to be constructed, this time in Dashur—a site about 40 kilometers from Meidum. Here, we will see a new architectural idea take form. Instead of the stepped pyramid, Sneferu aimed for a true pyramid with straight sides. The original base was supposed to be about 150 meters, but the builders changed the angle of the slope. A stepped pyramid usually has a 72-78 degree angle. At the bent pyramid, we will learn why it got this name shortly; the angle was changed to 58 degrees. This angle would prove to be one of the three significant issues with the pyramid. The second issue was that it was not built on a proper foundation; parts of the pyramid were on sand. If you make your pyramid on sand, you'll have a bad time, as Sneferus builders would learn. The third issue was that they still built as one would do a stepped pyramid with the stones leaning inward toward the center.
Due to excessive weight and pressure, the building has developed cracks in the burial chamber. If you were allowed to enter the chamber, you would be able to see how the builders attempted to reinforce it with massive cedar logs imported from Lebanon. Some changes were made to the construction; they extended the foundation by 40 meters and tried to reduce the angle to 55 degrees. This landlord special didn't work, and it became clear that the pyramid was beyond saving. But instead of just abandoning it altogether, Sneferu completes this structure. But they drastically change the angle to 43 degrees to save material, creating this noticeable bend.
By now, Sneferu had been on the throne for 30 years; time was running out, and he didn't have the burial he wanted yet. But instead of giving up and returning to Meidum Sneferu, attempt one last time. In the new attempt, the angle is gentler, only 43 degrees. They seem to have learned a lot from constructing the bent pyramid, and we don't see the same experimentation and mixing of various innovative ideas as before. This pyramid appears more planned and properly executed. Since time was running out, things needed to go well, and they did. We get our first true pyramid at last. The graffiti on the stones also helps us date the construction to start in the 30th year of Sneferus's reign. The mortuary complex is smaller now; I assume that this part had to take a backseat in the project. An exciting thing, however, is that during the construction of the North, or the Red Pyramid as it's also called. Sneferu returns to Meidun and his abandoned step pyramid and starts to fill out the steps to create a true pyramid. The reason for this is unclear, but it could be that Sneferu decided to have his secondary burial as earlier kings and wanted a more unified design.
It must have been quite the individual this Sneferu, but all this shows that it was humans who built the pyramids. We see how they experimented, made mistakes, and learned from these projects. You see how things evolve and how some things are becoming standard, such as a southern pyramid-like Djoser, and things that disappear, such as the Heb Seb enclosure. What we have examined here will be fundamental when speaking about Sneferus's son, Khufu, and the Great Pyramid of Giza. However, that will be something for next time when we discuss the last three pyramids on this top ten list.
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Until next time, keep shoveling that science!
Sources, resources, and further reading suggestions
Albrecht, F. and Feldmeier, R. eds., (2014). The Divine Father: Religious and Philosophical Concepts of Divine Parenthood in Antiquity. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.
Arnold, D. (2008). Building in Egypt : Pharaonic Stone Masonry. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Asante, M.K. (2000). The Egyptian philosophers: Ancient African Voices from Imhotep to Akhenaten. Chicago: African American Images.
Baker, R.F. and Baker, C.F. (2001). Ancient Egyptians : People of the Pyramids. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Barta, M. (2013). Journey to the West: the World of the Old Kingdom tombs. Praha: Univerzita Karlova.
Billing, N. (2011). Egyptens Pyramider: Evighetens Arkitektur i Forntid och Nutid. 2nd ed. Stockholm: Carlsson Bokförlag.
Gardiner, A.H. (1946). The Instruction Addressed to Kagemni and His Brethren. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 32, p.71. doi: 10.2307/3855418 .
Kuiper, K. ed., (2011). Ancient Egypt : from Prehistory to the Islamic Conquest. New York: Britannica Educational Pub. in Association with Rosen Educational Services.
Lehner, M. (2001). The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Snape, S. (2021). Ancient Egypt: the Definitive Visual History. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
Stocks, D.A. (2023). Experiments in Egyptian Archaeology. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Strouhal, E., Vyhnánek, L., Gaballah, M.F., Saunders, S.R., Woelfli, W., Bonani, G. and Němečková, A. (2001). Identification of Royal Skeletal Remains from Egyptian Pyramids. Anthropologie (1962-), [online] 39(1), pp.15–24. Available at: JSTOR
Strudwick, N. (1985). The Administration of Egypt in the Old Kingdom. [online] London: KPI. Available at: Harvard
Van de Mieroop, M. (2011). A History of Ancient Egypt. Chicester: Wiley.Wilkinson, R.H. (2000). The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson.
“Folie hatt” by Trallskruv
Lily of the woods by Sandra Marteleur