Ancient Egypt Research Associates

How old is the Lost City?

Ceramics near Great Pyramid at Giza

Pyramid-age ceramics

How do we know that the settlement located at the foot of the Giza Plateau belongs to the same period of time as when the Egyptians were building Khufu’s Great Pyramid and the other pyramids? Two kinds of evidence tell us that we are excavating a 4th Dynasty site (2575-2465 BC): ceramics and sealings.

The Giza Plateau Mapping Project specialists collect and analyze all cultural material that we retrieve from our excavations at the site. At last count (in 2002) our ceramics specialist, Ania Wodzinska, had processed over half a million pottery fragments, of which over 150,000 are diagnostic (fragments like rims, bases, and handles that allow us to determine the type of vessel).

Large pot, possibly used in bread production.

Large pot, possibly used in bread production.

Like all material culture—modern cars for example—ancient Egyptian pottery changed over time. Just as an automobile expert can easily tell the difference between a 1950s-era Ford from a 1990s-era Ford, pottery specialists who study Egyptian culture can tell an Old Kingdom beer jar from a Middle or New Kingdom beer jar.

And we do not need the entire vessel. Those who know automobiles can tell a particular model just from the fender, or a piece of the fender. So it is with pottery studies in archaeology.

With well over half a million pottery shards (or “sherds” as archaeologists say), if our site had been inhabited later than the 4th Dynasty, the pottery would be shouting this at us.

An ancient bread mold.

An ancient bread mold.

Instead the pottery almost all dates from the middle to the late 4th Dynasty, when the Egyptians were building the Second and Third Giza pyramids for pharaohs Khafre (2520-2494 BC) and Menkaure (2490-2472 BC).

We already know that bread molds comprise the majority of our ceramic corpus. But it is interesting to see the frequencies of different types of ceramics across the site. These patterns might tell us how the inhabitants used various parts of the site. We are creating a Geographic Information System database to help us study the distribution of artifacts and features.

The second most numerous ceramics on our site are crude red-ware jars. These are often called “beer jars” and are found throughout Egypt at ancient settlements and cemeteries.

Ancient beer jar.

Ancient beer jar.

The third most numerous ceramics we find are bowls. Of these, a type designated CD7 is particularly interesting, because it seems to be unique to Giza. Preliminary comparisons with pottery collected at other sites find few if any other examples of CD7 anywhere else in Egypt.

While their hemispherical body resembles Meidum-ware bowls (a type of red-coated and very well-polished vessel), the surface of the CD7 is covered with a white wash, a rare feature in Old Kingdom pottery.

These white carinated (having a ridge or bend) bowls were produced in large quantities, perhaps in one locality—Giza—during a very short span of time. There is no evidence for the production of such bowls either before or after the 4th Dynasty. Their occurrence was probably the result of the demand of the local community for vessels which could be used for a very specific purpose.

Bowl type CD7.

Bowl type CD7.

What was that purpose? Does it relate in any way to the special pyramid-building purpose of this entire community?

Numerous tomb scenes show carinated bowls used for food presentation and serving, eating, and drinking. Very often they were placed on stands and covered with a basketry lid. Occasionally, they could also be used as cooking pots or to serve food.

But the white carinated bowls seem rather to have been most suitable for daily food consumption.

With such a large body of ceramics, we would expect to find later Old Kingdom ceramics if they existed here. The only other Old Kingdom sherds that we have found have been in a later intrusive deposit in a cairn built over the Royal Administrative Building.

This ceramic evidence indicates that our site was occupied during the middle to late 4th Dynasty and then abandoned.


An inscribed royal sealing from the Lost City.

An inscribed royal sealing from the Lost City.

In Egypt’s 4th Dynasty, kings took four names. One of these, called the Horus name, identified the king as an incarnation of the falcon god of Kingship. This name can be a key to dating because it might have been in use only while the living king reigned. Other names taken by the king carried on in use after his death in the service to his pyramid temples and royal estates.

We have found the Horus names of Khafre and Menkaure on mud sealings at our site.

Mud sealings offer important clues to the past. These chunks of hard, dry mud, roughly the size of a rubber eraser, served as a kind of security system.

Using clay seals like more modern cultures used wax letter seals, ancient Egyptians would smear mud over the lids of storage pots, door fasteners, bags, and boxes in order to seal their contents and deter unauthorized opening.

A cylinder seal.

A cylinder seal.

The surface of the mud was often impressed with an inscribed stone cylinder. When the material being sealed belonged to the royal institutions, the pharaoh’s name would be etched on the cylinder seal and thus impressed on the mud.

Although using royal inscriptions to date both the sealing fragments and the feature in which they were found is tempting, it is not that straight forward.

The nomen, one of the king’s four names, was often incorporated into the name of the monarch’s pyramid or into the personal names of the people who served in the dead king’s cult. Seals with those names could date to well after the king’s death.

Since these institutions could function for centuries after the death of their founder, there is no guarantee that a name on a sealing was actually the name of the reigning king.

The Horus name, however, can be a key to dating. It almost never appears in the names of other people or institutions, and, therefore, can be used to date the seal that made the impression.

Yet, it is possible that a cylinder for impressing seals may have been used and reused long after that king had died. If this were true at Giza, we would expect to see in our collection not just the names of all the 4th Dynasty rulers, but also those of earlier kings. This, however, is not the case.

We would also expect to see the names of later kings in long-lived settlements and institutions like Menkaure’s mortuary settlement at Giza.

A sealing with the name of Khafre.

A sealing with the name of Khafre.

George Reisner, working in the early 20th century, found the names of 5th and 6th Dynasty pharaohs near a crucial doorway into the inner sanctuary of the upper temple of the Menkaure Pyramid. This shows the door had been sealed and reopened through many generations and many kings’ reigns.

We have found thousands of sealing fragments at the Lost City site. Out of hundreds that are inscribed, many have the legible royal names of Khafre (2520-2494 BC) and Menkaure (2490-2472 BC).

The remaining fragmentary inscriptions can be restored to one or the other of these kings. We have recognized no other royal names on our sealings.

The AERA team recovered more than 300 sealings in the first weeks of the 2005 field season alone. The inscriptions included:

  • 6 Ka-khet, (the Horus name of Menkaure).
  • 1 Ka-khet with a possible hem-netjer (priest).
  • 5 Wsr-jb (the Horus name of Khafre).
  • 2 with the title “royal scribe.”
  • 4 Khafre cartouches.
  • 3 with a figure of the king.
  • 2 more royal scribes.
  • 2 khenty (-she?) signs.

Of them, the most unusual sealing was fired, almost like a pot sherd. It measures about 5 cm x 3.5 cm (2 inches x 1.3 inches) and is inscribed with the name of Wsr-ib Khafre with the king wearing the red crown and holding a scepter.

Settlement longevity

The Lost City clearly did not last as long as the three-hundred-year span of Menkaure’s mortuary settlement attached to the front of his Valley Temple. In fact our pyramid-builders settlement had a relatively short life of two or three generations.

Despite deep deposits and rather complex reuse and rebuilding at our site, the material we have processed points to an occupation during the middle to late 4th Dynasty (2551-2472 BC).

During that time, the city was built, modified, and finally dismantled. It is as though the 4th Dynasty Egyptian state stepped down and left its footprint upon this site and moved on, revealing patterns of human resource and material organization in the passing.