Zawyet Sultan: a pyramid in context

Archaeology of a provincial capital. Project directors: Richard Bussmann, Cologne University, and Gianluca Miniaci, Pisa University.

Zawyet Sultan is a village near the modern city of el-Minya in Middle Egypt. A vast archaeological site sprawls South of the village with settlement remains and cemeteries dating from the predynastic to the early Islamic period.

The most prominent feature of the site is a small pyramid built in the early Old Kingdom. This and six similar pyramids scattered across Upper and Middle Egypt were symbols of royal authority during a period of increased efforts by the ancient Egyptian state to colonize the provincial hinterland.


Pyramid in context

However, the local context of the pyramids is badly explored. This project co-directed by Dr Richard Bussmann (Cologne University) and Dr Gianluca Miniaci (Pisa University) attempts to clarify how the pyramid of Zawyet Sultan is embedded in the local topography and the spatial organisation of the site.

Clearing of the surface around the pyramid in 2017 showed that the outer casing rests directly on the desert rock towards the mountain. In the trenches opened along the lateral sides of the pyramid, up to two layers of foundation blocks came to light, whereas the desert rock was not reached at the side facing the river. Apparently, the surface of the desert rock drops significantly below the pyramid. The local topography was probably more relevant for the orientation of the pyramid than alignment with the cardinal directions or with the river Nile.


Southeast corner of pyramid


Lateral side of pyramid

Roman settlement remains cover large parts of the main site. Below them, burial shafts of the Pharaonic period become visible. They were excavated by Raymond Weill a hundred years ago but poorly described. In 2015, we recorded the location of over one hundred shafts with a hand-held GPS device. Interestingly, no shafts are located in the lower area of the site and around the pyramid. This suggests that the settlement of the Old Kingdom stretched along the river, and the pyramid seems to have been kept free from secondary occupation.


Mohamed Fawzy and Cristina Alù record the location of shafts with GPS device.

Some shaft tombs, located in the Southern part of the main site, can be dated to the early Old Kingdom judging from the associated surface pottery. They indicate that the settlement might have extended near this area at the period when the pyramid was built.


Shaft of the early Old Kingdom


Pottery of early Old Kingdom near shaft

The rock tombs of Zawyet Sultan belong to the local governors of the late Old Kingdom. They are largely destroyed today and are covered with stone blocks, some of which carrying decoration from the original walls of the tomb. We began clearing and measuring the tomb of Khunes to understand the architecture and inscriptions of the tomb that shed light on the local history of Zawyet Sultan at a time when the pyramid was perhaps still in use.


Tomb of Khunes


Gianluca Miniaci offers training to Egyptian inspector Mohamed Fawzy


Saving a decorated block from shafts in tomb of Khnues

We are grateful to the EES for funding the project and making two successful seasons at Zawyet Sultan possible. The results are promising and raise many exciting questions for future research!

Further reading

Bussmann, R., Miniaci, G., el-Bakry, A., Tiribilli, E. 2016. The pyramid, town and cemeteries of Zawyet Sultan. Egyptian Archaeology 48: 38-41.

Marchand, S., Bussmann, R., el-Bakry, A., Miniaci, G., Vanthuyne, B. 2016. Zawiyet Sultan: a pottery survey. Bulletin de liaison de la céramique égyptienne 26: 169-190.

Bussmann, R. in press. The Old Kingdom at Zawyet Sultan – review and update. In Piacentini, P., Orsenigo, C. (eds.), Art and Archaeology of the Old Kingdom. Proceedings of the conference in Milan.

Bussmann, R. in press. Die Pyramide von Zawyet Sultan: lokale Perspektiven. SOKAR 36.

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