About Egyptian Pyramids
By Allen Winston
There are, in Egypt and Nubia, some 300 pyramids that were built over a period of about 3,000 years. Most of these were excavated in a period of just over three decades near the turn of the 20th century. This was an explosive period of Egyptian excavation which arose after the tight control of Egypt's first Director of Antiquities, Auguste Mariette. The period of his reign as the world's leading Egyptologist is sometimes referred to as Mariette's Monopoly, but after his death in 1881, Egypt experienced a resurgence of activity by Egyptologists from not only Egypt, but Germany, France, Britain and the United States.
When Gaston Maspero took over as Director of Antiquities he began granting concessions to scholars who directed large clearing operations funded by foreign institutions and benefactors, while still other Egyptologists continued to work as employees of the Antiquities Service.
Maspero took particular interest in the young Flinders Petrie, an "insistent exponent of controlled method" and of the importance of digging for information. Petrie respected all the details of ancient material culture, not just the fabulous architecture and art objects. As George Reisner, Director of the Harvard-Boston Expedition once stated:
"The excavator is a destroyer; and the object which he destroys is a part of the record of man's history which can never be replaced or made good. he must approach field work with a full consciousness of that fact. The only possible justification for his proceeding is that he endeavor to obtain from the ancient site which he destroys all the historical evidence which it contains".
Nevertheless, this was a period of great expeditions that used huge numbers of diggers and basket carriers, as well as miniature railways, to move enormous accumulations of sand and debris from the pyramid complexes and there environs. The quality of these large scale expeditions varied. Unfortunately much was destroyed during the period for ever, but much was also retrieved. Some expedition leaders developed specialties that are today considered integral parts of any archaeological dig.
For example, Ludwig Borchardt, a German leader, pioneered architectural documentation and interpretation, while the American, George Reisner, developed stratigraphy as he made advances in archaeological photography. He also developed a comprehensive system of site and artifact documentation. Both Reisner and Petrie trained many young archaeologists, many of whom went on to direct their own excavations and become familiar names to future generations.
This was an exciting period for pyramid discovery. At Giza, Reisner was clearing the complete profile of Menkaure's pyramid, unearthing the royal statuary, the temples and the workers village. At the same time, he was working with Hermann Junker to clear the great mastaba fields on the east, west and south of Khufu's pyramid. Between 1909 and 1910, the Germans uncovered the temples of Khafre's pyramid, and in 1926, Emile Baraize began to clear the Sphinx and most of its temple for the Antiquities Service, which was still under French direction. Selim Hassan, one of the most famous early Egyptian Egyptologists, working for Cairo University, mounted an expedition equal in scale to those of his foreign colleagues, that cleared the mastabas and rock-cut tombs of the Central Fields between the Sphinx and Khafre's pyramid.
But work was taking place all about the pyramid fields, At Saqqara, C.M. Firth and J.P. Lauer were working on many different elements of Djoser's Step Pyramid Complex. At Abusir, the Germans under Borchardt were clearing the great 5th Dynasty pyramid complexes and the sun temple of Niuserre, while the Americans were uncovering the 12th Dynasty pyramid temples and cemeteries at Lisht. Between 1916 and 1918, Reisner also excavated in Nubia (the modern Sudan), at sites such as Meroe, Napata and Nuri, which were the capitals of the Nubian rulers of the 25th Dynasty and their successors down to the 4th century AD.
However, by the late 1930s, this frenzy of archaeological activity began to wane. In 1932, Reisner began to loose his sight, though he continued operations at Harvard Camp, dictating books and directing minor clearing operations that were necessary for his reports on the mastaba field. Between 1924 and 1928, Borchardt was carrying out only small-scale operations, compared to his previous activities, at Saqqara, Abu Ghurob and Meidum, while at Giza he participated in J.R. Coles survey of Khufu's pyramid.
There were a number of factors that actually lead to this decline of archaeological work. Of course, there was the age factor of the great expedition leaders. They were growing old, but at the same time, there was a new attitude in the Antiquities Service towards foreign institutions brought on by a growing nationalism. Of course, by the late 1930s, there was also turmoil in Europe that culminated in the Second World War, which put a halt to Pyramid and other archaeological work as a whole. After the war, people such as Walter Emery and Jean-Philippe Lauer picked up where they left off, but on a much different scale.
This is not to say that work of considerable importance did not follow. For example, Walter Emery's work established much of the background to our understanding of pyramid building, and considerable work, and even extensive discoveries continue on today, even at locations such as Giza.
The Great Expeditions to Pyramids and Other Sites