June 27, 2012

A Clue at Meidum Pyramid Part 6

Another conclusion derived from our evidence answers a much wider question of pyramid construction which has been much debated in the past. It concerns the problem of that stage in building operation when the outer casing was laid on and when it was dressed. Although, as we now know, the mantle of E3 had never reached its full intended height, the casing at the lower part had been both laid and smoothed from the very beginning. The same argument, of course, applies to the casing of the underlying step pyramids E, and E2. This is of particular interest in the case of E2, which, as now appears certain, was never completed.

Ancient Egypt Pyramids
Turning now to the structural reasons for the collapse of the monument, something has to be said about the stability conditions governing a large building such as a pyramid. There is little chance that the mere weight of the monument, large as it is, will by itself cause its collapse. This is, of course, attested to by the success with which Zoser’s Step Pyramid and all the other great pyramids have withstood both constructional inadequacies as well as the ravages of millennia. In fact, they have proved to be remarkably stable structures, in spite of their immense size. The pressure exerted by its own weight at the base of a pyramid, such as that at Meidum, amounts to about 25 kg/cm2 (25 atmospheres). This is high for a descends at a gradient slightly steeper than i in 2 for about 60 m. At its end there is a horizontal corridor of 10 m. length, from the end of which a vertical shaft, 6| m. high and just wide enough to climb through, rises to the floor of the tomb chamber. The chamber itself was clearly left unfinished. The large limestone slabs forming the corbelled roof are perfectly fitted together but have remained undressed, and the wooden bulks, used during construction, were never removed. Comparison with the beautifully finished interiors of mastaba 17 and the Red Pyramid leaves no doubt that work on the tomb chamber of the Meidum pyramid was interrupted before completion.

The sudden abandoning of the Meidum site is also demonstrated by the considerable number of mastabas, built for courtiers, which were never occupied or were left unfinished. It is significant that no tombs of mortuary priests, who usually liked to be buried close to the pyramid complex which they served, have been found at Meidum. On the other hand, there are a number of tombs of such priests at the Dahshur sites.

While all the evidence cited so far indicates that the disaster occurred during the third building phase of the monument, we have so far not discussed the stage which the outer mantle (E3) had reached when the building collapsed. Traces of mortar can be seen adhering to the smooth walls of steps 5 and 6 - that means, practically to the full height of the remaining core. This shows that the outer mantle was at least 60 m. high, and the question arises whether it had extended further. Since the top of the edifice is missing, this might appear an insoluble problem but here we are fortunately helped by a chance observation recorded in 1899 by A. Robert of the Egyptian Survey Department. He ascended the top of the structure to set up a marker - a pole with a flag attached - to serve as a reference point. On this occasion he not only noted some Greek and hieroglyphic graffiti but also found that the highest existing step, the seventh, was never completed.

Before discussing the reasons for structural failure, we will first examine the effect of Robert’s observation on the accepted ideas about the Meidum pyramid. It has so far been generally believed that the two successive step pyramids (E! and E2) were fully completed before the next building phase was embarked upon. This theory was based mainly on the smoothly dressed surfaces of Ej and E2 and on the provision made for the entrances of both these phases. Since the upper part of E, is completely enclosed in the present remains of E2, nothing can be said about the final stage of {his first step pyramid. However, we now know that the second step pyramid (E2) was never completed, which clearly means that the decision to transform the monument into true pyramidal shape was taken before E2 was finished. In that case the architect would have waited for the mantle of E3 to reach the present height of E2 before proceeding to the construction of the apex. The premature collapse clearly did not allow for this plan to be pursued and the whole pyramid complex at Meidum was abandoned.

In this context we should also remember the unfinished state of the tomb chamber. If either E, or E3 was ever considered as a completed sepulchral monument, the slabs in the tomb chamber would have been dressed. Instead, we must now assume that there was never an inactive interval between plans Els E2 and E3. Each of these two changes must have been decided upon at a time when the previous phases were still building. There are technological implications of this overlap of constructional phases to which we shall return later. For the Egyptologist the main interest in this conclusion lies in the fact that there never existed a completed step pyramid tomb at Meidum in which a burial was likely to have taken place before the monument was changed into a true pyramid.

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