Continuing Excavations at an Ancient Burial Site Last Touched in 1919

Mounds of sand from the pyramid. Photo courtesy of Geoff Emberling.

One of our major goals this season is to investigate the largest pyramid at the site, which was not excavated by George Reisner in 1919 (the last time an archaeologist worked on the burials at El Kurru). Reisner was, among many other things, the first to figure out the location of burial chambers under the pyramids in Sudan: The burials were reached by a staircase that began on the east side of the pyramid, and the burial chambers were located under the pyramid rather than inside it. This confusion led one notorious doctor, Giuseppe Ferlini, to destroy the tops of the pyramids at Meroe in a futile search for gold objects he thought might be hidden there. Reisner, however, used his knowledge of burial practices in Kush to systematically excavate most of the royal burials there, and he recorded them at a level that was exemplary for his time. He found that all the burials had been looted one or more times, but that enough artifacts remained to enable him to construct the first historical summary of ancient Kush, which we still use today.

When he got to Kurru Pyramid 1, Reisner worked off and on for several weeks just to clear out the huge staircase, which was more than 60 feet (20 meters) long and 25 feet (8 meters) deep cut entirely into the local sandstone. He then excavated the first of the burial chambers, which was about 20 feet (6 meters) long, and found it to be entirely empty. Reisner then began digging in the second chamber and found a hole in the ceiling that was evidence of a past rock fall. Ultimately, he determined it was too dangerous to continue excavation, and he stopped there. He likely made this decision because five of his workers died in the collapse of a pyramid staircase during excavation at the nearby site of Nuri.

Nacho structure
Constructing a support structure. Photo courtesy of Geoff Emberling.

Although Reisner had cleared the staircase and the first room under the pyramid, they had been filled in by rain-washed sand and silt. As a result, we had to work for two weeks to clear sand from the staircase and then for two weeks more to clear sand from the first chamber. After calculating the volume of sand, we estimate that we removed 100 tons of sand from the two rooms!

Our excavation of the first chamber revealed a significant detail not reported by Reisner: There were 12 holes cut into the floor in a pattern that suggests that they were for posts that could support a canopy, perhaps over the king’s coffin.

Our goal is to continue excavating the pyramid beyond the point reached by Reisner. We knew that this would require construction of a support structure, so we contacted an architect who had experience building support structures in the rock-cut tombs of Egypt. Ignacio Forcadell (known as “Nacho”) was a great addition to our team. He was able to construct these iron supports that should protect against further rock falls.

Now, work is underway to excavate the second room. Stay tuned!

NEXT: Discovering the Story Behind a Temple Devoted to the Cult of a Dead King