Nearly 4,600 years ago a third dynasty pharaoh named Snefru launched one of the greatest construction projects in human history.
He decided, for reasons that are unknown to us, to build four pyramids scattered at different places across Egypt. He constructed two of them at Dashur (the Red and Bent pyramids), one at Meidum and another at a place called Seila. Together they used up more material than Khufu’s pyramid at Giza.
Casing stones were used to give them a smooth appearance – in other words make them into “true pyramids.” This was the first time in Egyptian history that this was done.
Today a team from Brigham Young University, in Utah, is investigating these pyramids, trying to figure out why Snefru would build four of them in the way he did.
One of the puzzles the team is trying to decipher involves a cemetery not far from the Seila Pyramid. It’s a 40 minute hike away and research indicates that it has an enormous number of mummies. “We estimate over a million bodies in this cemetery,” said Professor Kerry Muhlestein in an interview with Heritage Key. It’s “very very densely populated by mummies.”
Only a small percentage of them have been unearthed. “We’ve been digging there for 30 years and we could dig there for a hundred more and still have only done a small percentage,” said Muhlestein.
Results indicate that the cemetery was not in use during Snefru’s time. In fact the earliest burials appear to be from the Middle Kingdom – at least 600 years after the Seila pyramid was constructed. Furthermore most of the burials are even later than that.
“For the most part the cemetery is Graeco-Roman period, from the Ptolemaic era down to the end of the Byzantine era,” said Muhlestein. This period started when Alexander the Great entered Egypt in 332 BC.
So the question is why did so many people – who lived long after Snefru’s reign – choose to be buried so close to the Seila Pyramid?
A sacred place
Making this question more enticing is that this wasn’t just a local cemetery. People seem to have come some distance to be interned here.
“It’s such a huge cemetery it’s hard to account for where all these people would have lived – the population centres around there don’t seem to substantiate that many burials,” said Professor Muhlestein.
“Maybe these are people coming from a variety of communities, all around, being buried in this place. We’re not sure what would account for such a large number of burials.”
Could there be a connection to the pyramid? Despite the fact that it was built thousands of years before most of these people were buried? Muhlestein believes that it’s a real possibility – but one hard to prove unless textual evidence is found. “It probably is at least partially responsible for why there’s a cemetery there,” said Muhlestein.
“It seems very reasonable to suppose that the pyramid designated that as a sacred place,” he said. “Once that place is a sacred place it typically will remain a sacred place.”
A family of mummies
In early 2010 the Brigham Young team continued their work. The university has a program that lets students learn field techniques while excavating at the site.
It’s an interesting, and indeed fairly rare, opportunity for students. You won’t find too many field-schools, who accept undergraduates, operating in Egypt. Muhlestein said that they have had an excellent experience with this program and the most recent dig turned up, what appears to be, a family who lived at some point during the early/mid 1st millennium AD, when Christianity was widespread in Egypt.
They found an adult male and female buried close together with an infant at their feet and a toddler on their chest. “We think this might be a family but we’ll have to do some DNA analysis to know for sure,” said Muhlestein.
Each of them was buried with their head facing to the east, “this is probably indicative of the advent of Christianity,” said Muhlestein.
The family does not appear to have been very wealthy. They were mummified, but without all the chemical treatments seen in wealthier burials. “A poor man’s version of mummification,” is how Muhlestein described it.
The only grave goods the team found were palm branches. The mummies were covered with a layer of wrapping, which had ribbons on it, that had badly deteriorated.