How old are the pyramids? One of the many intriguing questions in the Ancient World. Art, History, and Archaeology are subject matters that focus on expanding the knowledge of the tangible and intangible heritage of the world.
To know answers to questions like – were Egyptian pyramids the oldest? Can the Giza Pyramids be labelled as the oldest? What do radiocarbon dates reflect for the pyramids of Egypt? and so forth, we need to look at the perspective from these broad areas.
How old are the pyramids in the world (pyramid building of Ancient times)
A pyramid can be defined as a structure that has a rectangular base, rising to an apex or triangular point. A literal translation would be a Greek word meaning ‘wheaten cake’. Pyramids span across Egypt, Ethiopia, Asia, America, Greece, and the Pacific Islands.
To know how old are the pyramids in the world, we must examine their origin. Despite the popular belief of the ‘Great pyramid’ being unique, the shape of a pyramid was inspired by ‘ziggurats’ – a mud-brick structure found in Ancient Mesopotamia and the classical world.
Basic types of a Pyramid
1) Step pyramid
A rectangular superstructure with a flat top, in which a shaft extends down to the burial chamber below it, is usually made of mud-brick or stone.
2) Blunted/false pyramid
It’s referred to as bent because of two slopes – the lower being more steeper than the upper portion. Later on, a continuous slope was made, with masonry and limestone to create a ‘true pyramid.’
These were the basic types, further developed in many places. However, pyramid construction in itself has a huge history; it comes from the meaning attached to the structure to the needs of the society. To answer how old are the pyramids requires examining the individual structures.
How old are the Pyramids – it’s Facts and Usages
1) Pyramids were mainly built as tombs for the royals due to the Egyptian belief in an afterlife. So, a lumpsum amount of money was used by the government for these structures.
2) Actual pyramids built were part of a complex consisting of halls, a courtyard, and temples.
3) Pyramids as tombs were used both as a burial place and an offering place.
4) The workforce (slaves) for the pyramids came forth willingly rather than forcefully. They were even offered food.
5) The stone that went into making the pyramids weighed almost 10 tonnes (even more than an elephant)
To read more fascinating facts about Pyramids (most of the oldest ones), click here.
How old are the pyramids: according to historical dates (Giza pyramids aren’t the first)
Historical Chronology means the order of the past arranged in a proper timeline, collaborating various sources. It majorly helps in determining how old are the pyramids. We have provided below a list of the oldest pyramids in the world.
Pyramid of Djoser
- Believed to be the oldest pyramid in the world, Djoser/Zoser’s pyramid, located in Saqqara Necropolis (Egypt), dates back to c. 2630 B.C. (approximately 4,650 years ago). His pyramid certainly answers the question of how old are the pyramids, going back many decades.
- The pyramid was built for King Djoser, the second ruler from Egypt’s Third Dynasty (c.2670 – 2613 B.C.). This structure is the first pyramid of the Early old Kingdom.
- Like all the great pyramid builders, the credit for designing this pyramid goes to Architect Imhotep, Djoser’s chief minister. He was widely knowledgeable, covering the roles of a priest to a mathematician. It was Imhotep’s efforts and the idea of building a unique monument by stacking stones of smaller sizes ascending to the top, producing the first pyramid structure.
- Djoser’s Pyramid is also the oldest step – pyramid constructed of stone, with a flat top. But, the shape is similar to that of the Giza pyramids, which also shows the legacy of the structure.
- The origin for this step – pyramid lies in burying the dead beneath the ground, later developing into brick monuments called Mastabas( also used as the Old Kingdom Tomb chapels). It was the shape used by Imhotep to design the pyramid.
- The pyramid lies in the center of a walled complex consisting of temples, priest houses, and administrative buildings.
- Despite it being one of the tallest structures of that time, rising to almost 204 feet compared to nearby pyramids, it is significantly smaller in size. It reopened in 2020 after a restoration project that lasted for 14 years.
- In Caral, the ancient city of Supe Valley, Peru (South America), lie a set of pyramids built c.2600 B.C. (almost 4,600 years ago). How old are the pyramids can be determined by studying this structure as well, as it falls close to the previous one.
- The pyramids were stumbled upon firstly by Max Uhle, a German archaeologist, in 1905, during a study of Ancient Peruvian culture. However, only in the 1970s were the pyramids discovered, as Uhle thought these were just large hills.
- Around 1993, Ruth Shady, the Peruvian archaeologist, with her students, began a survey of two years at Supe Valley that identified eighteen separate settlements, which hinted signs towards the same ancient culture.
- Between 1996 – 2001, The ‘Caral Archaeological Project’ was launched (funded by the National Geographic Society). It confirms Caral to be the first city of America. With the help of Shady’s long project, six pyramids were found, with recessed circular courts, stone architecture, and large mounts, within the city complex.
- These can be assumed to be the second pyramid constructed. However, the radiocarbon dates confirmed the city to be much older. So, there is a possibility that they might predate the Djoser Pyramid until further research confirms otherwise.
- Located on the West Bank of Nile Valley, to the South of Memphis, lies the Meidum Pyramid. The Pyramid age is c. 2600 B.C., considered the second pyramid, in Egypt. How old are the pyramids can be explained through this monument as it was built close to the earlier ones.
- The pyramid builders of this monument vary: Huni, the Last-king of the third dynasty, is taken to be its builder, although his name does not occur near the structure.
- As suggested through archaeological research, King Sneferu might have built this structure during his 15th year but later abandoned it for a new cemetery at Dashur.
- His connection to the Pyramid also stems from the fact that he ordered the rebuilding of the original Step Pyramid to a True one, making him the most productive among the pyramid builders of Egypt. Whether this process was completed or not is unknown.
- Inside this pyramid, lies a room, unknown in previous ones. The pyramid builders also used the ‘corbelling technique,’ so the overall structure does not push down to the ground-level burial chamber. Within the complex also lies a chapel and another smaller pyramid.
- Due to the original shape of pyramid denoting traditions of the 3rd dynasty in Egypt, but the building technique and surrounding structures showing those of the Old Kingdom, it is taken as a transition between these periods.
- The current condition of this Pyramid is just the remains of a tower with three steps, reasons may vary, but it is assumed that the structure collapsed eventually.
- This Old kingdom pyramid was built by one of the Egyptian kings – Sneferu (Khufu’s father), located in Dahshur (Cairo), on the west bank of Nile Valley, c. 2600 B.C (roughly 4,600 years ago). To know how old are the pyramids, we also need to look at one of the Kings who could have built multiple ones around the same time period.
- It is commonly referred to as the ‘Southern Shining Pyramid’ as well.
- The monument’s shape is irregular as the blocks made of limestone, wrongly calculated, had different inclinations for both the top and bottom portions. Considered Sneferu’s second pyramid, he wanted to create a development in Egyptian architecture.
- Within the pyramid complex lies a satellite pyramid, temples, and Causeway.
- Another interesting fact about the Pyramid is that it is well known for its tuna limestone polish in the entire area and a smooth side with a step pyramid’s design.
- Located in Dashur (Cairo), the pyramid was built by Sneferu. It is considered the first true pyramid of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, with one of the largest bases among all pyramids. It was built roughly around 4,500 years ago. The king’s buildings activities help us explain how old are the pyramids.
- ‘Red’ comes from the material used for its core – reddish limestone.
- Other terms used are ‘Northern/Shining Pyramid’. Inscribed casing stones are also found, which helped in determining the dates of materials constructed as well.
- Within the complex lies Old Kingdom’s first capstone and a mortuary temple. The site remains open, frequently less visited.
- Both of Sneferu’s pyramids could have been completed with very little gap between them, probably falling under the category of the third pyramid in Egypt.
Giza’s Great Pyramid
- One of the seven wonders of the world, the Great pyramid belonged to almost 4,500 years ago (c. 2500 B.C.), located in Giza, Egypt. It was built by tens of thousands of skilled workers. If we want to know how old are the pyramids, we cannot miss the only seven wonders of the world standing.
- The Giza pyramids were a successive set of Pyramids. Khufu’s great pyramid was the first to be built among the giant stone pyramids, around c. 2550 B.C. It is the largest Great pyramid, with lakhs of stone blocks used for its construction. Another term used for the Great Pyramid is – ‘Horizon of Khufu’ due to its correct astrological alignment.
- The Great Pyramid follows the pattern of its predecessor for both inner and outer layouts. There might have been a capstone at the top of the pyramid – ‘Pyramidion.’
- Within the Giza pyramid complex, structures of the Great Pyramid remain a mystery – from an unfinished chamber to the ‘air shafts.’
- Other interesting buildings within the Great Pyramid are the Grand Gallery, King’s Chamber (made entirely of Granite), and boat and stone pits (probably indicating belief in the afterlife).
- Among the Giza pyramids, the second of the giant stone pyramids to be built was that of Pharaoh Khafre around c. 2520 B.C.
- Though smaller in size, it can be considered one of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, as Khafre chose a bedrock foundation to create the illusion of being taller than his father’s pyramid. This group of pyramids itself is iconic, which cannot be missed on how old are the pyramids.
- The Giza pyramids builders probably used casing stones on the outside, the remains of which are found in this monument. Within the interior is found a burial chamber and mortuary temple.
- In complex, there’s the Khafre’s valley temple with interesting finds like the King’s sculpture with Upper and Lowe Egypt emblems and the Great Sphinx (the first colossal sculpture of Egypt, carved from bedrock collected in Giza Plateau). To know more unknown facts about the Sphinx, click here.
- The last of the Giza pyramids lies in the Nile Valley. This great pyramid dates to c.2490 B.C., constructed by Pharaoh Menkaure (of the fourth dynasty). Compared to the other two, this third pyramid lies under the category of smaller pyramids. Despite its size, it needs to be looked at to solve how old are the pyramids.
- The pyramid’s complex had intricate structures like chambers with decorative panels and large niches. Granite Blocks are used to line the burial chambers.
- Other findings are the king’s Mortuary and valley temples, which also revealed many statues of him, showing his social and economic standing.
- These complete pyramids stand as testimony to Egyptian civilization’s, specifically the Old Kingdom, architectural evolution.
Other Egyptian Pyramids
We have sufficiently covered monuments that answer the question of how old are the pyramids, highlighting the shift from the old kingdom tomb chapels to the early Old kingdom in Egypt. There were many Middle Kingdom pyramids of Ancient Egyptians that we must take into account to resolve how old are the pyramids:
1) Pyramid Complexes of Amenemhet I and Senwosret I (belonging to the twelfth dynasty of the middle kingdom), probably built around c. 1900 B.C. They built it near Memphis, reflecting practices of the Old Kingdom as well.
2) Middle kingdom pyramid builders consistently, from the reign of Amenemhet II to Amenemhet III, tried to apply the practices of the Old kingdom Pyramid builders as certain structures were similar to that of Djoser.
Overall, Egypt’s large pyramids revealed ample about the old kingdom society and polity.
How old are the Egyptian pyramids: according to radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating means determining the estimated age of organic material by measuring the amount of carbon isotope or C-14 that remains in its sample. It is a popular dating method used in Archaeology or the study of the past. It is particularly useful for determining how old are the pyramids, however accurate as possible.
A pyramid’s age through Radiocarbon dating
1) Primarily, the method used by archaeologists is through the specific pyramids placed in the timeline of Egyptian Architecture and the material culture, with usually a gap of 3,000 years.
2) The cemeteries found in tombs surrounding any pyramid help, as they have ample evidence of organic material from human bodies to wood.
3) Previous radiocarbon dates can also be determined through pottery (an organic material), as similar kinds and shapes, spanning over two to three pyramids, might help in knowing the structure’s broader date.
4) Radiocarbon dating can also be attempted directly on the pyramids, as the outer portion made of limestone is mostly not found in many of the buildings, so the core material becomes visible, some even containing charcoal, wood, and reed, between gaps of the stone used.
Rough Timeline of Egyptian Pyramids
According to Archaeologists, radiocarbon dates reflect the origin of pyramids to have started in the Old Kingdom of Egypt. One of the first attempts of radiocarbon dating was made by the team of Willard F. Libby on an acacia wood of Djoser’s pyramid found during the third dynasty.
In a 1984 project of the Ancient Egypt research associates, along with the Koch pyramids radiocarbon project, revealed the following:
1)In the third to fifth dynasty -Old Kingdom of Egypt monuments, despite certain differences, the radiocarbon dates confirmed by Egyptologists show The Great Pyramid was from the historical era studied by them.
2) The samples collected from this radiocarbon project were insufficient to conclude at least a possibility of Old Kingdom’s proper chronology.
In the 1994 – 1995 radiocarbon project, done by the Ancient Egypt research associates and David H. Koch Foundation, through the dates obtained, a timeline of Egyptian pyramids was made:
1) Saqqara Tombs (c.2900 B.C.)
2) Djoser Pyramid (c. 2600 B.C.)
3) Giza Pyramids (c.2500 B.C.)
4) 5th – 6th dynasty pyramids (c. 2300 B.C.)
5) Middle Kingdom Pyramids (c. 2000 B.C.)
The samples used to determine the historical dates also revealed two largely intact bakeries; due to their ash and charcoal deposits, dating became easier.
This list, when further compared, with the Cambridge Ancient History dates of kings showed significant discrepancies between the previous radiocarbon dates and the latest one – at the least by 200 – 300 years.
A comparison was also made between the 1984 and 1995 findings. And the results to determine how old are the pyramids are given below:
- Between both of the Koch pyramids radiocarbon project, dates for Khufu’s great pyramid and that of Khufu’s son Khafre differed greatly as compared to those of Djoser and Menkaure Pyramids.
- The dates from the 1995 Koch pyramids radiocarbon project varied with each monument; for instance, Pharaoh Khufu had a wide range for almost 400 years.
- The radiocarbon dates also confirmed the first dynasty tomb at North Saqqara and some of the Middle Kingdom.
Radiocarbon dating problems:
However, radiocarbon dating also comes with certain problems in general Egyptian Chronology:
1) Firstly lies the problem of Multiple old wood effects:
a) Radiocarbon dates can only determine when the old wood decayed, not the last usage of the old wood. There might be a possibility of the old wood just lying around due to the climate of Egypt, so the efforts to obtain pinpoint age estimates through the old wood become null, and it gets in the way of knowing how old are the pyramids.
b) As the rings of tree matter in getting accurate dates, and since there might be both old wood and younger parts. This might hint towards Old kingdom deforestation, or maybe the pyramid builders consistently exploited the vegetation. The actual reason is tough to determine, obstructing knowing how old are the pyramids.
So, due to the extensive use of wood in Egypt, pyramid dates differ by centuries, as the dating between the old wood burnt and the radiocarbon dates of the charcoal remains shows a huge gap. The irony is that, to obtain pinpoint age estimates of the constructed pyramid; we need majorly cut wood during the process.
2) The significant discrepancies between the middle kingdom radiocarbon dates and old kingdom radiocarbon dates is that in the latter, due to the inhabitants reusing their own settlement debris, the results obtained were quite problematic. Inaccurate radiocarbon dates stem from a larger wood consumption in the Old Kingdom. This poses a problem in determining how old are the pyramids.
The Koch pyramids radiocarbon project not only revealed the age of pyramids but was useful in gaining information about the site formation processes, the environmental impact, and ancient industry. The data from the Cambridge Ancient History dates of kings, Ancient Egypt Research Associates study, and David H. Koch (along with Desert Research Institute, Harvard Botanical Museum, and other organizations) project reveal certain conclusions on how old are the pyramids:
1) Reed material was used significantly in the first dynasty tombs of North Saqqara
2) Eight calibrated dates from the Pyramid of Senwosret II had a difference of 103 – 78 years with the Cambridge Ancient History dates of his reign.
Conclusion on how old are the pyramids?
As seen above, arriving at a historical chronology of how old are the pyramids, through dating is a complicated process. Despite the availability of material from stone tools to largely intact bakeries, the historical era studied can be tough to coincide with the pyramid constructing dates. These can be due to various factors like the multiple old wood effects, natives’ own settlement debris, site formation processes, insufficient ancient industry materials, and so forth.
Despite the problems, there exists at least a possibility of accurate results through Archaeological methods used to determine a specific pyramid age. As we have seen in this article, the historical dates are useful in knowing how old are the pyramids.
We also need to understand that these pyramids are the result of the King’s initiative and those who helped in building it, like the tens of thousands of workers in Giza, which stands now in front of us as marvelous creations.
Although there have been many new pyramids built after the ones mentioned herein other countries, the older ones set a benchmark that still defines the Architecture of building pyramids. How old are the pyramids can actually be known by researching them thoroughly.
This article helps answer the questions of how old are the pyramids by providing examples of some of the oldest ones present and reveals what is confirmed through archaeological studies.
Liked this article? For more interesting information on fascinating locations, click here.