About Egyptian Pyramids
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston
True pyramids (at least the larger ones), as opposed to step pyramids in Egypt were topped by a special stone called a pyramidion, or sometimes a capstone, which was itself a miniature pyramid. It brought the pyramid structure to a point at the same angle and the same proportions as the main body. Actually, the ancient Egyptian word for the pyramidion, which could also sit atop the apex of an obelisk, was ben-benet, named for the sacred ben-ben stone kept in the temple of Heliopolis, the oldest center of the sun cult in Egypt.
During the Old Kingdom, they were usually made of diorite, granite or a very fine limestone which was then covered in gold or electrum. By the Middle Kingdom and the end of the Pyramid Age, they were usually made of granite and inscribed with texts and symbols.
Few, if any pyramidions have actually been found sitting atop a pyramid, though a number of them have been unearthed over the years. The oldest pyramidion to date ever discovered was found by Rainer Stadelmann in 1982 in the area of the Red Pyramid of Sneferu at Dahshur. The Red Pyramid is actually the oldest example of a successful, true pyramid. Its pyramidion was made of fine, white Tura limestone and is uninscribed and undecorated, as were the pyramids of that time. It was discovered in fragments and has now been reconstructed. It stood about three quarters of a meter high and is now on a stand located on the east side of the Red Pyramid at Dahshur.
The second oldest pyramidion was only recently (in 1991) discovered by Dr. Zahi Hawass east of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, near the also recently discovered satellite pyramid of Khufu which it once surmounted. It was actually found to the south of the satellite pyramid, and though its top and base had been destroyed, it has also been reconstructed and is now set up just to the north of the satellite pyramid of Khufu.
The only other 4th Dynasty pyramidion was discovered near one of the subsidiary pyramids of Menkaure, but only the square base of it was preserved. The lower surface of it is smooth but pierced with holes that could have been used to secure it to the pyramid. While the base of this pyramidion is made of limestone, some scholars believe that the upper part was made of a different type of stone, since it was apparently originally made in two pieces.
Pyramidions were also used during the 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. A relief found within the pyramid complex of Djedkare Isesi at South Saqqara shows that his pyramid once had a pyramidion. One scene depicts King Isesi standing with a staff in his hand. In front of him is an inscription that reads: "Following the pyramidion to the pyramid of Isesi". However, this pyramidion has never been found. The Czech expedition under the direction of Mirsolav Verner did find a fragment of a basalt pyramidion from the pyramid of Khentkaus II at Abusir, a consort of Neferirkare, that was originally covered with metal that may have either been copper or gold.
Blocks discovered in the causeway of the pyramid complex of Sahure at Abusir, also recently discovered while preparing the site for tourist access, are decorated with scenes depicting the installation of the pyramidion. One unique scene shows the pyramidion being dragged toward the pyramid. Though the scene is only partial, workmen pull a rope that was connected to the pyramidion. In this scene, part of the sledge is visible on which the pyramidion rested, as well as the workmen who pull the sledge and pour water in front of the runners to reduce friction with the ground.
Other scenes show the celebrations that surrounded the installation of the pyramidion. One can only imagine the jubilation that took place upon the completion of these huge structures that took so much time and manpower to build. Entertainers, musicians, singers and dancers were clearly an important part of the king's entourage, and a part of the celebration of the pyramidion. However, it is even likely, considering the significance of finishing the king's pyramid, that celebrations occurred throughout Egypt.
It is also clear from these scenes that an expedition was sent into the desert to quarry special stone for the pyramidion. The presence of the group of emaciated nomads, who are apparently being brought to the royal court to be tried for attacking the quarrying party, shows that the area into which the quarrymen ventured was barren and desolate, inhabited only by wandering tribes. These scenes also indicate the importance of the king's search for a special stone for his pyramidion. A military escort was even sent along to protect the quarry expedition.
In 1996, while carrying out excavations at Saqqara in the pyramid complex of Teti, the first king of Egypt's 6th Dynasty, a pyramidion originally discovered by Firth and Gunn in 1930 near the southeast corner of the pyramid of Queen Iput I was rediscovered. Queen Iput I was one of Teti's wives. It was found lying in the area between the pyramid temples of that queen and another, Khuit. Though it was uninscribed and its top was destroyed, it is made of polished limestone and has a rectangular base. It stand 47 centimeters tall. While Zahi Hawass believes that this is indeed the pyramidion for Queen Iput I, others have suggested that it might be part of an obelisk.
Recently, other pyramidions have been discovered, or rediscovered at Saqqara. For example, one was found in the storage building used by Firth and Gunn, but the original excavators of the complex of Teti failed to publish this find, so it came as a surprise to the modern investigators. The surface of this pyramidion is polished and is pierced with three holes. In this case, the holes are believed to have been used to attach a plating of electrum to the pyramidion. Two additional pyramidions were also discovered in the area of the Teti complex in 1992-93. Both of these were made of limestone. One has a square base and is unpolished, with broken edges. The other is 46 centimeters high and has a base of 53 by 37 centimeters. A French team also recently found fragments of a pyramidion at South Saqqara belonging to the subsidiary pyramid of Queen Meritetes, who was the wife of Pepi I (6th Dynasty).
There is also evidence of a pyramidion connected with the subsidiary pyramid of Queen Wedjebten, a wife of Pepi II, though it has never been located. Her pyramid is located on the northeast corner of Pepi II's primary pyramid, where an inscribed block was found by Jequier in his 1925-1926 excavations. The text includes a phrase that can be translated as, "pyramidion of electrum".
Several pyramidions have also been discovered that date to the Middle Kingdom. Fragments of pyramidions made of red granite have been found near two of the queens' pyramids in the complex of Senusret I, who was the second king of Egypt's 12th Dynasty. His complex is located at Lisht. There is also a black granite pyramidion, with a band of hieroglyphs running around its base and the image of wings and a sun disk protecting the eyes, names and titles of the king, which came from Amenemhet III's pyramid at Dahshur. It was found in excellent condition, and may never actually have been set at the apex of the pyramid itself, since Amenemhet III left Dahshur and built a second pyramid at Hawara. The inscriptions on the capstone can be read as, "Amenemhet beholds the perfection of Re". This is one of many indications that the true pyramids were seen as symbols of the sun.
The reconstructed pyramidion of Khendjer
There were also many fragments of a black granite pyramidion discovered that belonged to the 13th Dynasty king, Khendjer, near his complex at South Saqqara. These were covered in hieroglyphics and the pyramidion has now been reconstructed. Two additional pyramidions of black granite were unearthed at South Saqqara. They have been associated with an unfinished and unattributed pyramid of the Middle Kingdom. Both were uninscribed. One was polished, while the other was left rough. Significantly, the fact that they were discovered on the site of an unfinished pyramid suggests that they were brought to the site very early in its construction process.
Pyramidions were also found for some of the small non-royal pyramid superstructures of the New Kingdom and later times.