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Miniature Pyramids of Sudan

Archaeologists excavating on the banks of the Nile have uncovered a necropolis where hundreds of small pyramids once stood

July/August 2013




Nearly two thousand years after the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu marshaled armies of workers to build his 480-foot-tall Great Pyramid of Giza, the armies of Nubia (a region that is now in Sudan) invaded and occupied Egypt. It was 730 B.C. and, by then, the Egyptian pharaohs had long since abandoned the practice of erecting massive tombs. It was expensive to do so, and it had nearly bankrupted them. But the pyramids clearly fascinated the Nubian kings. They ruled Egypt during the 25th Dynasty, until they were ejected in 656 B.C., but Egypt’s influence on their own cultural practices was long-lasting. As ongoing archaeological work shows, the inhabitants of Nubia, particularly those in the kingdom of Meroe, found a way to imitate Egypt’s monuments. At the Meroitic royal cemetery, 80 radically downsized pyramids were constructed over the tombs of kings and queens. And now, new excavations at Sedeinga, a necropolis of the same era but 450 miles from Meroe, tell us that the practice of building diminutive pyramids trickled down from royals to the wealthy elite much more extensively than previously believed. Sedeinga contains a dense field of small pyramids, one just 30 inches across. “It is a crazy site,” says Vincent Francigny, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and codirector of the excavations at Sedeinga. “I’ve never seen a cemetery like this, with so many small monuments packed so closely together.”


meroe-sedeinga2Since a French explorer first described the cemetery at Meroe in the early nineteenth century, archaeologists have identified the remains of more than 220 royal pyramids in Sudan. Excavations show that early in the Meroitic period (ca. 300 B.C.–A.D. 350), pyramids were built exclusively for those of noble blood. “It would have been sacrilege to erect a pyramid for a nonroyal person,” says Francigny. But later in the kingdom’s history the taboo was relaxed somewhat, and a few wealthy people were allowed to erect monuments for themselves. But their pyramids never rivaled the royals’ in size. Royal or not, Nubians would have viewed the pyramids much as the ancient Egyptians did. For the pharaohs, pyramids were symbols of the sun, their massive, steep sides representing the angle of the sun’s rays reaching earth. The people of Meroe elaborated on this theme by adding capstones to their pyramids shaped in classic Egyptian forms, such as birds or lotuses emerging from solar discs.


In Meroe, two scripts were used that were also inspired by Egypt. But the Meroitic language was considered untranslatable until philologist Claude Rilly, who heads the French Archaeological Mission to Sudan, made some headway beginning in the 1990s. Fewer than 2,000 Meroitic inscriptions are known to exist, many of them funerary inscriptions. To continue his translation effort, Rilly needed more. But he had a problem: Rising waters from dam projects on the Nile over the past decade have inundated most of the recently discovered Meroitic-era cemeteries. The nonroyal cemetery of Sedeinga, which lies on the west bank of the Nile, not far from the Egyptian border, is one of the few already known sites left in Sudan where archaeologists can still excavate graves from the Meroitic period. Rilly and Francigny, an expert in Meroitic funerary monuments, reasoned that uncovering burials at Sedeinga could turn up all-important new inscriptions. This, in large part, is what led them to assemble a team to begin excavating at the site in 2009.