June 28, 2012

A Clue at Meidum Pyramid Part 8

Whether the slip of the mantle was aided by the poor foundation of E3 is not clear since, except for the two small clearances mentioned above, the rest of the casing is completely covered with debris. It may be significant, however, that the diagram given by Rowe shows the casing at the north clearance to have sagged heavily. Any decision on this point will have to wait until the rubbish can be cleared from the base of the pyramid, and this would require very extensive work. Such clearance may also be interesting for a different reason. If, as seems likely, the disaster took place very rapidly, equipment, and even bodies, may be buried underneath the rubble. They might furnish valuable information, having been left undisturbed since the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty.

Ancient Egypt Pyramids
The average size of the fragments visible in the debris indicates that the material coming down from the higher reaches of the building had been broken up rather thoroughly. This is not surprising in view of the irregular shape of the building blocks, and it may also be due to the poor quality of the local limestone. As to the latter, Rowe states that many of the tombs surrounding the Meidum pyramid have fallen in because of the softness of the stone. One of the causes triggering off the catastrophe may have been a heavy rainstorm, such as occurs occasionally in Lower Egypt. In fact, most of the Old Kingdom buildings show provision to cope with large amounts of rainwater; but during the laying on of the outer mantle, the Meidum structure would have been completely unprotected. As is well-known from natural landslides, water can act as a dangerous lubricant; it certainly did so in the case of the Aberfan minetip. Owing to the softness and the irregular shape of the limestone building blocks, most of the rapidly descending material was quickly ground down into a rubble of fairly small pebbles. Their average size is clearly visible in those carts of the debris from which the blown sand has been cleared during excavation. This rubble cascading down the sides of the pyramid had the dynamic properties of a fluid rather than that of large-scale solid debris. In fact, it exhibited the well-known characteristics of plastic flow, behaving very much like a stream of treacle. This means that it would not destroy the stelae or the temple at the foot of the building but rather flow around and over them. Any large packing blocks that remained unbroken did not hurtle down but were carried engulfed in the stream of rubble, like crumbs in treacle. When first excavating the temple, Petrie found such blocks deeply embedded in the rubble.

By far the best illustration of the flow of rubble is provided by the aerial photographs of the Meidum site. They show how the debris spread out from the ruin in all directions until it finally came to rest as a result of its own internal friction. The blown sand held by the rubble provides excellent contrast with the darker surrounding soil. In particular the picture taken directly overhead reveals the circular area around the monument to which the flow extended.

Plastic flow of this kind seems to have menaced the pyramid of Pepi II four centuries later. It was a badly built edifice constructed of small stones bonded with mud, and overlaid with a limestone casing. The base of this pyramid, after its construction had proceeded to an advanced stage, was then surrounded by a massive dyke of 8 m. thickness which dammed it in completely. It appears that lateral forces must have developed in its poor construction to such an extent that they threatened to flatten out the building. Another case of plastic flow occurred fairly recently when excavators removed the stone covering from some sections of the large Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in Mexico. The core of the structure, built of adobe brick and clay, began to flow after heavy rain, and rapid emergency action had to be taken to save the edifice. Because of their enormous mass, pyramids are especially prone to this type of destruction by plastic flow which never became dangerous in later, and very much lighter, buildings.

Finally, we have to examine what happened to the Meidum pyramid between the fatal day of its catastrophic collapse and the present time. A number of attempts have been made to reconstruct its history, all of them based on the idea of the gradual destruction of a perfect building by stone robbers. Maragioglio and Rinaldi have tried to trace this decay through the height of inscriptions on the walls of the monument, starting with the hieroglyphic and Greek graffiti near the present top of the core. This is, of course, at variance with our own deduction that the pyramid collapsed while still under construction. Their conclusion also ignores the tendency of tourists to carve their initials, not necessarily at the contemporary level but at the highest point to which they had climbed. Equally misleading is the frequently repeated statement that five steps of the structure still existed in Napoleon’s time. It is based on an ambiguity in translation of Denon’s famous account into the English language. The French gradin means ‘tier’ rather than ‘step’, and Denon’s own drawing leaves little doubt that he referred to the separation due to the ‘rough bands’ on the smooth core. His sketch of the Meidum pyramid was based on observations from a distance by means of binoculars. It gives a very faithful picture of the pyramid core as we see it today, but he was not as accurate as Norden or Perring in sketching the wide distribution of the debris.

Denon was the first to comment on the large hole in the north face which is now about 10 m. above the height of the debris but which he thought could then be reached from the rubble. However, it has to be recalled again that his observation was made from a distance and Robert comments on steps which the local fellahin had cut into the north wall to reach this hole. They are clearly visible today and enable the local population to harvest from the cavity bats’ dung which is valued for its curative properties. The villagers told Robert that neither in their, nor in their forefathers’ memory, had anyone ever scaled the pyramid to a greater height.

Another frequently quoted account of five still existing steps is that of Sheikh Abu-Mohammad Abdallah who visited Meidum in II17-19 and whose observation was recorded by Makrisi in the fourteenth century. It is to be noted, however, that the Arabic word used by Makrisi translates correctly as ‘storeys’ and not as ‘steps’. Small remnants of a third step of E2 may possibly have existed after the disaster close to the present core. The aerial photographs indicate that this is the only place from which stones appear to have been removed by the fellahin and archaeologists, and it comprises only a very small section of the ruin.

The most reliable information of the history of the debris is provided by Wainwright’s excavation in 1910. He found two figures of the Twenty-second Dynasty ‘in the highest part of the rubbish, just below the present surface, showing the rubbish to

have been practically as high in the xxn dynasty as it is today’. He, and later Rowe, found a number of intrusive burials in the debris, presumably of roughly the same date or later. Summing up all this evidence, we must conclude that the Meidum site presents today much the same aspect as it did 3,000 years ago.

Going back still further towards the day of the pyramid’s collapse and its abandonment, we are hampered by the fact that, except for the corners of Es, the entrance and the mortuary temple, the base of the building is still completely covered by debris. Almost certainly the tomb chamber and the temple were entered during the First Intermediate Period; Petrie found in the corridor some pieces of a destroyed wooden coffin of plain style, possibly an early intrusive burial. The paved floor of the tomb chamber has been torn up and a hole cut into one of the walls, and this damage, as well as beams and pieces of ancient rope found by Maspero, indicate the activity of thieves.

As mentioned earlier, the roof slabs of the tomb chamber had never been dressed and it seems unlikely that the chamber ever contained a stone sarcophagus. Access to it from the corridor is by the vertical shaft described earlier, which enters the floor of the chamber and is only 117x85 cm. wide. A sarcophagus would have had to be placed in the chamber at the time when this was being built and it could not have left the chamber by the narrow shaft, except if broken into pieces. Apart from the fact that such destruction would be useless, no granite fragments were found, either in the chamber itself or anywhere in the corridor.

The mortuary temple, first uncovered and investigated by Petrie, was thoroughly excavated by Rowe, and from his work the following sequence of events emerges. First of all, after the disaster the little building served as a habitation of shepherds, as is shown by a fireplace and animal dung and also by a grain silo constructed outside the temple door. Graffiti on the temple walls indicate that it was visited by tourists down to the Seventeenth or Twentieth Dynasty when somebody was buried in it and the doorway was bricked up. Still later graffiti indicate that the outer court must have been accessible after the burial but it appears from Wainwright’s excavation that it had become covered with sand and debris at the time of the Twenty-second Dynasty.

It is quite impossible to say whether the temple was cleared immediately after the catastrophe or during the First Intermediate Period, or whether it was spared in the original avalanche. Whereas scientific analysis has no difficulty in determining the causes of

the collapse and its final result, it is unable to give evidence on the immediate state of the structure after the initial disaster. The debris may have settled in its ultimate state straight away but it is also quite possible that for some time parts of the masonry re- ; mained in a precarious position at higher levels only to crash down eventually - perhaps again after heavy rains. Regarding the geometry of the building and the wide spread of the rubble, our own opinion is that the temple was engulfed instantaneously and subse- i quently dug out again. Such an operation would not have been too difficult, as was shown by Petrie who, in 1891, accomplished this task with only twenty-five men in under two months.

Not much useful indication about the state of the ruin can be gleaned from the graffiti at the temple and the pyramid entrance appended by tourists of the Eighteenth Dynasty, more than 1,200 years after the catastrophe. One of these, the ‘son of Amen-mesu, Scribe and Ritualist of the deceased King Tutmose 1’, said that he ‘came to see the beautiful temple of the Horus Snofru. He found it as though heaven were within it and the sun rising in it.’ These words mean nothing since they are a standard phrase used by tourists on ruins all over Egypt at that time. However, it is interesting that the scribe mentioned Snofru as the owner of the building although this attribution cannot, after the enormous lapse of time since the erection of the pyramid, be regarded as conclusive.

Summarising the observations described in this chapter, we conclude that the heavily ruined state of the Meidum pyramid cannot be attributed to the activities of stone robbers, but that the building collapsed during the third phase of its construction. This collapse occurred as a sudden catastrophe and can be traced to a number of design faults. When the disaster took place, the outer pyramid mantle (E3) had reached a height of about 60 m., and not only this third phase but also the underlying step pyramid (E2) was never completed.

The Meidum structure was only the second monument which had attained a considerable height and one may wonder why a catastrophe of such colossal dimension did not discourage the architects of the Old Kingdom from erecting further edifices of enormous size. The answer to this question is simple. When the Meidum pyramid collapsed in its final building phase, the next pyramid, planned on more than twice as large a scale, had already reached a height of 50 m. at Dahshur.

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