Monday, April 27, 2009

Book Review: Egyptian Pyramids and Mastaba Tombs

Egyptian Pyramids and Mastaba Tombs
Philip Watson
Shire Egyptology
Published 2008
64 pages

This is an informal review of one of several books that I have just been given in the Shire Egyptology series. As reviews go it is somewhat lengthy, as it is based on the notes I made whilst I was reading the book.

The author, Peter Watson, is Head of Collections Management at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, having studied at Liverpool University's School of Oriental Studies where he graduated in 1975.

The book opens with a Table of Contents and a chronology of Egypt from the Predynastic through to the Graeco-Roman periods, showing the date ranges and the names of the pharaohs, where known.

Chapter 1 introduces the topic. The focus of the book is on the earliest established forms of burial structures - mastabas and pyramids. There is a brief explanation of the development of tombs during prehistoric times. Watson also gives a short summary of how mortuary chapels were managed on an ongoing basis.

Chapter 2 looks at First and Second Dynasty mastaba tombs. Watson concentrates on First Dynasty tombs due to a lack of comparable data from the Second Dynasty. Two cemeteries are discussed - Saqqara and Abydos. The main components of the mastaba tombs, including the architecture, decoration, furnishings and grave goods are described. Early mastaba tombs are probably the burial structures that are least well known by the general public so it is good to see a discussion of them which gives a good insight into how elaborate they were. The best known of these early examples is probably mastaba 3504 at Saqqara, with its inlaid gold work, pottery vessels and c.300 bull's heads modeled in clay with real horns set on a low bench. This example alone provides a good example of how rich some of these tombs were in both content and symbolism. It becomes very clear that this was a world where elaborate funerary requirements were very much in evidence long before the more famous pyramids. Other tombs are described, giving an insight into how innovations were made to the architecture to combat tomb robbers. At mastaba 3038 the stepped superstructure may have been an early precursor of the step pyramid design. At Abydos the royal tombs of the First Dynasty are notable for subsidiary burials and demonstrate an increasing elaboration of design and construction and the invention of brick built funerary palaces with panelled walls which seem to perform the same role as superstructures at Saqqara. Watson concludes the chapter with a discussion of where royal personages were actually buried, due to the confusion of the dual importance of Saqqara and Abydos.

Chapter 3 looks at the Third Dynasty, a new era of Egyptian funerary tradition established with the multi phased step pyramid of Djoser and his architect Imhotep. This is not only the first known pyramid but also the first to be built in stone. The chapter looks at how the step pyramid was developed from a mastaba tomb in several phases until the final form was completed and faced with Tura limestone. All elements of the superstructure, substructures, pyramid contents and decoration and the associated elements that make up the pyramid complex are described. Although most of Chapter 3 is devoted to the step pyramid Watson touches on other Third Dynasty royal tombs which he compares to the complex of Djoser, finishing with the pyramid of Huni at Meidum.

The longest chapter, Chapter 4, is devoted to the great era of pyramid construction, the highlight of which was the construction of the three royal pyramids on the Giza plateau. The development process that leads to the Great Pyramid begins with Snefru the first king of the Fourth Dynasty. As well as finishing the pyramid of Huni Snefru built two pyramids for himself at Dashur. The Red Pyramid is not discussed but Watson highlights the main points of interest in the Bent Pyramid, named for the change in incline, for which many reasons have been suggested and are discussed here. Another unique feature is the presence of two substructures reached via separate entrances in the north and west faces . A simple mortuary temple, subsidiary pyramid and a causeway leading to a valley temple are the beginnings of a template for future pyramids. The pyramid of Snefru's successor Khufu at Giza, the Great Pyramid, is described in depth together with all its internal and ancillary structures. The next pyramid to be built was built not at Giza but Abu Roash but was followed by the construction of the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, next to the Great Pyramid. Again, these are well described, picking out points of interest like the surviving red granite courses and the internal change in design in the pyramid of Menkaure. Menkaure's successor abandoned the pyramid form in favour of a mastaba. Watson mentions that pyramids were given names from the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty and details these.

Chapter 5 looks at the pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. These pyramids were much less ambitious in terms of engineering, scale and architectural integrity. Watson describes some of the reasons that have been given for why this change occurred. He emphasises that even though pyramids may have become less monumental, the reverse is true of mortuary temples which appear to have become more important than in the Fourth Dynasty. Although the first king of the Fifth Dynasty, Userkaf, built a pyramid at Saqqara the next four were built to the north of the ancient necropolis at Abusir. According to Watson the decoration of Sahure's pyramid surpassed that of any previous royal tomb. It survives in fragments but although it is described there are sadly no photographs in the book to show some of these images. The Abusir necropolis is not described in any details although there are photographs, plans and some cross section diagrams of some of the pyramids. In the late Fifth and Sixth Dynasties burials were once again moved to Saqqara. The pyramid of the last pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas, is notable mainly for its two vast boat pits, the decorated causeway and for the earliest known pyramid texts which were inscribed in the burial chamber. Watson gives a short overview of what the pyramid texts were for and some of the subjects. The pyramids of the Sixth Dynasty are mentioned but not described in any detail, with only the complex of Pepi II highlighted.

In Chapter 6 Watson leaves the royal tombs and looks instead at the mastaba tombs of the nobles and officials. Watson usefully reminds the reader of the main components of the First and Second Dynasty mastabas in the Memphite area before discussing the developments of the Third Dynasty. The main innovations in the early Third Dynasty were the reduction in the number of subterranean rooms until, in most cases, only one large chamber was deemed necessary, and the addition of stone for specific features like lintels and door jambs. The concept of the offering chapel evolved in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties with an increasing number of subsidiary rooms being added so that mastaba structures became mortuary chapels. Watson draws parallels between the development of private and royal tombs. Decoration also evolved from the Fourth Dynasty onwards and by the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties some remarkably accomplished examples were produced. Watson goes on to put mastaba tombs into the context of mastaba fields.

Chapter 7 goes straight to the Middle Kingdom, explaining that the First Intermediate pyramids constructed were insignificant during this time of economic collapse. In the Middle Kingdom the earliest kings of the Eleventh Dynasty built their tombs near Luxor and at Dra Abu el-Naga in the form of rock cut tombs with 60ft pyramids on top - a nod to the past. In the mid Eleventh Dynasty Mentuhotep I built an innovative mortuary temple with an integral tomb and valley temple, which was later overshadowed by that of Hatshepsut. This is described in detail, with a site plan. It is thought to have been topped with either a mastaba or pyramid structure, another nod to the past. Larger pyramids were built by later kings of the Middle Kingdom inlcuding Amenemhat I, Sesostris I and Amenemhat II, all of whom introduced new innovations in pyramid building. At the end of the chapter Watson mentions, very briefly, the Second Intermediate pyramids and the late revival of the Twenty Fifth Dynasty by the Nubian pharaohs in Napata.

Chapter 8 looks at the materials and methods of tomb construction. The three pages of this chapter look at what was achieved with the limited technology and the available materials, and how this might have been done. A lot of the discussion about methods of construction is, as Watson points out, purely hypothetical but the details are well described.

The book ends with a list of museums to visit, a short list of further reading and a map of the main locations mentioned in the text and the index. The text is accompanied by many photographs, diagrams and site plans all of which serve to help clarify the topics under discussion.

I enjoyed this book very much. I have only a few comments which I think might be useful to people wanting to know whether this is the book for them.

For a start at 64 pages this is a short book. The topic, covers over a 1000 years of development not just in architecture, grave goods and decoration but in politics and religious ideas. The scope includes both royal and private tombs. This is an awful lot to pack into one small book. My few frustrations begin and end with the fact that the topic seems to be too big for the book. For example one of the interesting developments is the relationship between burial site, mortuary temple and valley temple in royal tombs - but although the change in the relationship is mentioned no real explanation is given for why this happened. The Fifth and Sixth Dynasty tombs are described only briefly and I found that a shame because this is a particularly fascinating period of Old Kingdom development. Another topic that I would have liked to see expanded, which was mentioned only briefly in the introduction, is how these vast complexes were administered and maintained by family, friends and officials. Finally I think that readers who are new to the subject, who can be reasonably assumed to be amongst the potential purchasers of this book, would have appreciated a short description of terms like valley temple, mortuary temple and mastaba field in the introduction.

I think that trying to cover both royal and private tombs in a book of this size was a bit of a stretch and that it would have been better to have divided the two topics into two separate books. This would have allowed for more information about some of the lesser known royal sites to be explored, and for non-royal sites like Helwan to be brought into the conversations.

Having said that I really enjoyed this book and was very impressed at the amount of information that the author managed to pack into 64 pages. It is an excellent overview of pyramid and mastaba building and development and includes many facts and figures that may not be common knowledge. This is a great introductory text with good photographs and illustrations.

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