The Old Kingdom

The Pyramids of the Old Kingdom

Known as the “Age of the Pyramids,” the Old Kingdom was characterized by revolutionary advancements in architecture.

Learning Objectives

Describe the layout and function of the Pyramids of Giza

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Old Kingdom (2686 BC–2182 BC) was a period of political stability and economic prosperity, during which great tombs were built for Egyptian Kings in the form of pyramids .
  • Early Egyptians built mastabas  to mark the tombs of their deceased. The first king to launch a major pyramid building project was King Djoser, who built his famous “Step Pyramid” at Saqqara.
  • The Pyramids of Giza are the greatest architectural achievement of the time and include three pyramid structures and the Great Sphinx monument.
  • While we know that the stone for the pyramids was quarried, transported, and cut from the nearby Nile , we still cannot be sure just how the massive stones were then put into place.

Key Terms

  • mastaba:A rectangular structure with a flat top and slightly sloping sides, built during Ancient Egyptian times above tombs that were situated on flat land.
  • sphinx:A creature with the head of a human and the body of an animal (commonly a lion).
  • limestone:An abundant rock of marine and freshwater sediments, primarily composed of calcite (CaCO₃); it occurs in a variety of forms, both crystalline and amorphous.
  • quarry:To obtain (mine) stone from an excavation pit, usually by blasting, cutting, or digging.
  • Pyramid Texts:A collection of spells to assure the resurrection of the deceased and protect the Pharaoh from various malignant influences.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt existed from the third through the sixth Dynasties (2686 BC–2182 BC). A period of political stability and economic prosperity, it is characterized by revolutionary advancements in royal funerary architecture. Both Egyptian society and the economy were greatly impacted by the organization of major state-sponsored building projects, which focused on building tombs for their kings. These tombs were built in the form of great pyramids, and for this reason, the Old Kingdom is frequently referred to as the “Age of the Pyramids.”

Evolution of the Mastaba

During the Old Kingdom, royal mastabas eventually developed into rock-cut “step pyramids” and then “true pyramids,” although non-royal use of mastabas continued to be used for more than a thousand years. As the pyramids were constructed for the kings, mastabas for lesser royals were constructed around them. The interior walls of the tombs were decorated with scenes of daily life and funerary rituals . Because of the riches included in graves, tombs were a tempting site for grave-robbers. The increasing size of the pyramids is in part credited to protecting the valuables within, and many other tombs were built into rock cliffs in an attempt to thwart grave robbers.

Cut-away plan and underground chambers of mastaba.

Mastaba schematic: Inside the mastaba, a deep chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stone or bricks. Over time these tomb chambers sank more deeply and were connected by stairs. The above-ground structure had space for a small chapel to which priests and family members could bring offerings for the soul of the deceased.

Color photograph depicts flat-roofed, rectangular structure with inward sloping sides, constructed out of mud-bricks.

Example of a Mastaba: Royal mastabas were used to mark burial sites of many important Egyptians.

Djoser’s “Step Pyramid”

The first king to launch a major pyramid building project was King Djoser, who ruled in the 3rd Dynasty. He built his famous “Step Pyramid” at Saqqara, not far from the capital city of Memphis (near modern-day Cairo). In the following dynasties, the pyramid design changed from the “step” pyramid to a true pyramid shape as kings continued to build tombs for their kings. Among these, the Pyramids of Giza are considered the greatest architectural achievement of the time.

Photo depicts a tiered mud-brick pyramid in background with a woman posing in the foreground.

Step Pyramid at Saqqara: Djoser’s step pyramid was the first of the great pyramids built during the Old Kingdom in Eqypt. Unlike later pyramids, it used a step design that is easily recognized.

The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza, also known as the Giza Necropolis , are one of the oldest remaining wonders of the world. The Necropolis includes three pyramid complexes: the Great Pyramid (built by King Khufu of the 4th Dynasty); the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre (buit by Khufu’s son); and the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure.

Photo depicts three pyramid structures.

The Pyramids of Giza: This view shows all three pyramid structures: the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure.

The Necropolis also includes several cemeteries, a workers’ village, an industrial complex, and a massive sculpture known as the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx is a limestone statue of a reclining sphinx—a mythical creature with a lion’s body and a human head. It is commonly believed that the head is that of King Khafra, who ruled during the 4th dynasty. It is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 241 ft long, 63 ft wide, and 66.34 ft high.

Photo depicts excavated sphinx statue.

Albumen print of the Sphinx of Giza, partially excavated, with two pyramids in background: The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest monolith statue in the world and was believed to have been built for King Khafra during the 4th Dynasty.

We still do not know exactly how the huge and impressive stone monuments were built. Most of the stone for the interior seems to have been quarried immediately to the south of the construction site. The smooth exterior of the pyramid, however, was made of a fine grade of white limestone that was quarried from the other side of the Nile River. These exterior blocks had to be carefully cut, transported by river barge to Giza, and dragged up ramps to the construction site. Theorists disagree as to the method by which the stones were then put into place and how possible the method was. It’s also possible that the architects developed their techniques over time.

The sides of all three of the Giza pyramids were astronomically oriented to the north-south and east-west within a small fraction of a degree. To ensure that the pyramid remained symmetrical, the exterior casing stones all had to be equal in height and width. Workers might have marked all the blocks to indicate the angle of the pyramid wall and trimmed the surfaces carefully so that the blocks fit together.

The work of quarrying, moving, setting, and sculpting the huge amount of stone used to build the pyramids might have been accomplished by several thousand skilled workers and unskilled laborers. Evidence from the tombs indicates that a workforce of 10,000 laborers working in three-month shifts took around 30 years to build a single pyramid.

Mummification and Burial Ritual

In order to preserve the body and, therefore, the soul of the deceased, Egyptians used the process of mummification. This involved removing the internal organs, wrapping the body in linen, and burying the mummy in a rectangular stone sarcophagus or wooden coffin. Because it was believed that the deceased would continue his or her earthly life in the afterlife, accommodations were made to ensure this transition. The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony was a ritual involving the symbolic animation of a mummy by magically opening its mouth so that it could breathe, speak, eat, and drink in the afterlife.

Many mummies were provided with some form of funerary literature, often consisting of spells and instructions for navigating the afterlife. During the Old Kingdom, only the pharaoh had access to this material, which scholars refer to as the Pyramid Texts . The Pyramid Texts are a collection of spells to assure the royal resurrection and protect the pharaoh from various malignant influences.

Sculpture of the Old Kingdom

Egyptian artisans during the Old Kingdom perfected the art of sculpting and carving intricate relief decoration out of stone.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the role of ka statues and funerary art in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Egyptian sculpture took the form of statues (which were often life-sized) and reliefs (which were carved into blocks of stone). Many sculptures were painted using natural minerals.
  • Sculptures from the Old Kingdom are characteristically more natural in style than their predecessors.
  • Sculptures, such as the ka statues , often served as funerary art , accompanying the deceased in burial tombs with the intention of preserving life after death.
  • Reserve heads, found in the tombs of commoners, might have served as an equivalent of the ka statue, but the exact purpose remains a matter of debate. The Great Sphinx , located among the Pyramids of Giza, is the largest monolith statue in the world.

Key Terms

  • Ka statue:A type of ancient Egyptian statue intended to provide a resting place for the ka, or spirit, of the person after death. The ancient Egyptians believed the ka (or life-force), along with the physical body, name, ba (personality or soul), and šwt (shadow) made up the five aspects of a person.
  • funerary art:Any work of art forming, or placed in, a repository for the remains of the dead (such as a tomb).
  • ochre:An earth pigment containing silica, aluminum, and ferric oxide.
  • monolith:A large single block of stone used in architecture and sculpture.

Egyptian sculptors created the first life-sized statues and fine reliefs in stone, copper, and wood. They perfected the art of carving intricate relief decoration and produced detailed images of animals, plants, and even landscapes, recording the essential elements of their world for eternity in scenes painted and carved on the walls of temples and tombs. Kings used reliefs to record victories in battle, royal decrees, and religious scenes, and sculptures of kings, goddesses, and gods were common as well. Sculptures from the Old Kingdom are characteristically more natural in style than their predecessors. Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, images of people shifted toward formalized nude figures with long bodies and large eyes.

Sculpture depicts a frontal view three figures. A male figure in the middle wears tall cone-shaped headpiece. He wears only a loincloth. He is flanked by two nude female figures.

Egyptian sculpture of the Old Kingdom: This sculpture was created in the Fourth Dynasty, and represents the goddess Hathor, King Menkaure, and the goddess Bat.

The Great Sphinx, located among the Pyramids of Giza, is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 241 feet long, 63 feet wide, and 66.34 feet high. Carved out of limestone , it represents a mythical creature known as a sphinx, with a lion’s body and a human head. It is commonly believed that the head of the Great Sphinx is that of the Fourth Dynasty (2680-2565 BCE) pharaoh Khafre, whose pyramid stands directly behind the giant sculpture.

Full color photograph depicts the Sphinx of Giza, described above.

The Great Sphinx of Giza: The Great Sphinx, located among the Pyramids of Giza, is the largest monolith statue in the world.

While most sculptures were made of stone, wood was sometimes used as a cheap and easily carved substitute. Paints were obtained from minerals such as iron ores (red and yellow ochres), copper ores (blue and green), soot or charcoal (black), and limestone (white). Paints could be mixed with gum arabic as a binder and pressed into cakes, which could be moistened with water when needed.

By the Fourth Dynasty, the idea of the ka statue was firmly established. Typically made of wood or stone, these statues were placed in tombs as a resting place for the ka, or spirit, of the person after death. Other sculptural works served as funerary art, accompanying the deceased in burial tombs with the intention of preserving life after death. Strict conventions that changed very little over the course of Egyptian history were intended to convey the timeless and non-aging quality of the figure’s ka.

Statue depicts the pharaoh Hor from the waist up. Behind him, two upraised arms top his head, forming the hieroglyphic sign for his name.

Ka statue of Horawibra

The Fourth Dynasty also witnessed the production of so-called “reserve heads,” plain and hairless naturalistic busts found primarily in non-royal tombs. Each head bears a striking individuality despite many common features, leading to the argument that they were portraits. Some scholars believe that they were intended as the commoners’ equivalent of ka statues, although the exact purpose remains a matter of debate.

Bust depicts two human heads. They appear to be bald, signaling that they are commoners rather than pharaohs.

Reserve heads (c. 26th century BCE): These individualized busts might have been the commoners’ equivalent of the ka statue, but the exact purpose remains unknown.

Very strict conventions governed the crafting of deity figures, and these rules were followed so strictly that over three thousand years, the appearance of statues changed very little. For example, the sky god (Horus) was to be represented with a falcon’s head, while the god of funeral rites (Anubis) was to be always shown with a jackal’s head.

In addition to funerary art, Egyptians surrounded themselves with objects to enhance their lives in this world, producing cosmetic vessels and finely carved and inlaid furniture. Over time, Egyptian artists adopted a limited repertoire of standard types and established a formal artistic canon that would define Egyptian art for more than 3,000 years while remaining flexible enough to allow for subtle variation and innovation.