Researchers work near the 4,600-year-old pyramid uncovered at Tell Edfu in Egypt (Courtesy Tell Edfu Project at The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute). Archaeologists working near Edfu, a city in southern Egypt, fought back the rolling tide of modern development to preserve a rare archaeological site. And the effort has paid off: Beneath this heap of sand, at a site called Tell Edfu, researchers have uncovered a 4,600-year-old step pyramid — one of the earliest pyramids yet found. The new find predates the more massive Great Pyramid of Giza by decades. It stands just 16 feet tall today, but it probably towered more than 40 feet before weathering and pillaging diminished its stature. The structure is one of seven nearly identical “provincial” pyramids constructed by either the pharaoh Huni (reign ca. 2635-2610 B.C.) or Sneferu (reign ca. 2610-2590 B.C.). The provincial pyramids don’t contain burial chambers, and researchers think they may have been symbols reinforcing the power of the king in southern provinces. Results of the excavation were recently presented at a symposium held in Toronto by the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, LiveScience reports.
Despite its advanced stage of wear, the pyramid contains some fascinating features. Archaeologists discovered remnants of an installation where offerings were made, and ancient graffiti carved on the outer walls. The inscriptions were located near remains of babies and children buried at the foot of the pyramid. However the hieroglyphics are thought to have appeared long after the pyramid's construction, indicating that these burials weren't the structure's initial purpose. "These are mostly private and rough inscriptions, and certainly dedicated to the child/babies' burials located right under these inscriptions at the foot of the pyramid," lead archaeologist Gregory Marouard told LiveScience.
Whatever the pyramid's purpose, it wasn't in use long. Researchers believe the site was abandoned just 50 years after its construction, during the reign of Khufu. Rather than allocate resources to the seven smaller pyramids, researcher believe, Khufu focused attention on construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Archaeologists have long known about the pyramid’s existence, but excavation didn’t begin until 2010. The first reference to the Edfu pyramid dates back to 1894 when Egyptologist Georges Lengrain identified a “false” pyramid near the entrance of the Edfu-Kharga caravan road. Archaeologists say their next step is to focus on conserving the historically significant site — and, they promise, to publish the results of their ongoing analysis of Tell Edfu.