Egyptian engineering in the Early Dynastic period: The sites of Saqqara and Helwan

Angela La Loggia

Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

Well before the Pyramid Age, the Egyptians built monumental structures as is demonstrated by the massive mud brick tombs and funerary enclosures of the Dynasty 1 and 2 kings at Abydos, and the mastabas in the contemporary elite cemetery at Saqqara. Timber in this early period was most often used to roof the sub- and superstructures, whilst some tomb owners also utilised this material for the lining of their burial chambers. A few of these tombs incorporated stone in their structures, such as the granite pavement in the tomb of King Den (Dynasty 1), the limestone blocks lining the burial chamber of King Khasekhemwy (Dynasty 2), and the stone roofing of the Dynasty 1 Tombs 3507, 2185 and 3121 at Saqqara.

Early Dynastic officials and lower classes at Helwan, located on the east bank of the Nile, features monolithic limestone slabs, which were used to line, pave and roof some of the tombs. Although less than 0.5% of the more than 10,000 tombs so far excavated contained stone, the Helwan tombs are exceptional in their use of stone in this period. It was, however, the humble mud brick that was the most commonly used building material of the Early Dynastic period. The massive mud brick structures built at this time not only show impressive architectural skill, but also demonstrate the high degree of proficiency of the early builders, which are constructed based on engineered designs that are centred on rational mathematical analysis of the loads and strengths of the materials used in the structure, ancient Egyptian building methods were based on empirical design, which was determined by practical and experimental limits of heights and wall thicknesses, standing walls, and the roofing. The engineering analysis ultimately aims to demonstrate that these structures were not built ad hoc, but were constructed with a significant level of expertise, ingenuity and resourcefulness at this early period in Egyptian history.

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To reference this article we suggest:

La Loggia, L. 2009. Egyptian engineering in the Early Dynastic period: The sites of Saqqara and Helwan. BMSAES 13: 175­–96. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/online_journals/bmsaes/issue_13/laloggia.aspx

Contact the author

angela.laloggia@boral.com.au