Egypt: The Pyramid of Neferefre (Raneferef) at Abusir

About Egyptian Pyramids


by Alan Winston


Pyramid name of Neferefre tomb at Abusir


An examination of the Pyramid of Neferefre, long known as the Unfinished Pyramid in the pyramid field at Abusir, gives us considerable insight on how Egyptologists gather evidence in order to sort out Egyptian history.


This pyramid was known named The Pyramid which is divine of the Ba spirits Divine is Neferefre's power.


A view of the unfinished pyramid of Neferefre at Abusir in Egypt


This pyramid was examined by a number of early explorers, including Perring, Lepsius, de Morgan, Borchardt and others. While some of these thought it might be Neferefre's pyramid, others attributed it to Shepseskare. Others hesitated to make any identification of its owner. None of them thought that the intended owner's mummy occupied the unfinished pyramid. Actually, the pyramid looked much like a mastaba tomb, but it was square and not rectangular nor north-south oriented like mastabas. Indeed, because of its truncated shape, what had been planned as a pyramid became a bench-like structure which later priests called 'the primeval hill', a place of eternal birth, of life and resurrection.


A closer view of one of the corners of the unfinished pyramid of Neferefre at Abusir


Ludwig Borchardt, an experienced archaeologist and expert on pyramids, actually came within inches of discovering the true nature of the Unfinished Pyramid at the beginning of the 20th century. Wishing not to completely ignore the ruins on the western margin of the Abusir cemetery, he carried out trial diggings. He decided to dig a trench several meters down in a deep open ditch that ran from the north into the center of the monument. Here, in the case of a finished tomb, it would be natural to assume the existence of a passage leading to a burial chamber. However, he did not reach the passage or its remains, and this negative result confirmed to him the belief that this was a rough, unfinished structure consisting of no more than the lowest step of a pyramid core, with work never having started on substructure.


A view of the burial pit in the unfinished pyramid of Neferefre at Abusir in Egypt during its excavation


Unfortunately for Borchardt, had he continued his probe, digging perhaps one meter lower than the point where he gave up, he would have made two important finds under the rubble. Had he reached the bottom of the ditch, he would have discovered, still partly in situ, the huge blocks of red granite out of which was constructed the portcullis blocks in the passage giving access to the burial chamber, which would have evidenced the existence of a completed substructure. He would have also found a cursive inscription recorded in black on a block from the core of the structure containing the name of Neferefre. However, his negative findings consigned the Unfinished Pyramid to 70 years of archaeological oblivion. Finally, in the 1970s, the University of Prague did a systematic investigation, and by piecing together various clues, arrived at the conclusion that it was indeed Neferefre's pyramid, and that his mummy had in fact been buried in the pyramid.


First, they discovered that Neferefre's mortuary temple is specifically mentioned in a papyrus fragment found in the mortuary temple of Neferirkare. This document suggests at least that the mortuary temple of Neferefre was located in the Abusir area, and likely very near that of Neferirkare's complex.


The second clue was a limestone block found in the village of Abusir, which probably came from Neferirkare's mortuary temple. It revealed a partial scene depicting Neferirkare's family, which included, along with the king, his consort Khentkaues II and his eldest son, Neferre. We believe that Neferre, which means "Re is beautiful", probably later changed his name to Neferefre which means, "Re is his beauty".


The Unfinished Pyramid as it appeared prior to excavation


Finally, as the southeast corners of the Giza pyramids line up with each other and point to the ancient center of Heliopolis (the temple of Re and the famous center of the sun cult, Iunu), so too do the northwest corners of the main pyramids at Abusir. The first two pyramids on the line with Heliopolis at Abusir are those of Sahure and Neferirkare, with the unfinished pyramid being next. Therefore, it would seem that it belonged to the next king, who we believe to have been Neferefre. Other archaeological evidence has since strengthened the assumption that the pyramid is that of Neferefre.


The Czech team, now in the latter part of the 20th century, had a distinct technical advantage over Borchardt, They began their investigation using geophysical surveying, specifically with magnetometry. They needed no trench to do the initial work, for they were able to survey the front of the eastern wall of the structure from the surface. Their findings were both unambiguous and surprising, for the tests ascertained that under the sand lay a huge, highly articulated building of mud bricks, with a basic outline in the shape of the letter "T". This was the characteristic shape of mortuary temples in the 5th and 6th Dynasty.


The excavations that followed, with intervals between individual archaeological seasons, lasted throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and produced a number of unexpected, and in many respects, unique archaeological discoveries involving the technical construction of the complex, the status of a royal tomb of that period and the organization of the royal mortuary cult, among others.


Furthermore, the unfinished nature of this complex probably held off tomb robbers and stone thieves from doing as much damage as they might have (though they did considerable damage), while at the same time allowing archaeologists to examine many previously unexplained questions concerning the building of a pyramid.


We now know that the site was first leveled and that bearings were taken for the base of the future pyramid. Then, in the middle of the base a rectangular trench was dug, east-west in orientation, in which the underground parts of the royal tomb were to be constructed. Next, a deep ditch was dug down into the trench from the north, intended to be the initial excavation for the passage leading down to the underground chambers.


It was also possible for the archaeologists to determine from this structure's unfinished nature that work on the substructure was planned to commence shortly after the work on the masonry of the first, lowest step of the superstructure.


This superstructure provided some intriguing and significant surprises for archaeologists. It had long been believed that pyramid cores were built by arranging the stone masonry of the stepped core into a system of slanted layers, inclined at an angle of about 75 degrees, leaning on a central stone spindle around the vertical axis of the pyramid. Hence, the effect was of masonry arranged into a system of inner casings resembling the layers of an onion. Interestingly, this theory was proposed by Richard Lepsius, based on a study of Neferirkare's pyramid and others at Abusir. Borchardt, who investigated the three largest Abusir pyramids, embraced this theory.


However, the unfinished nature of this pyramid and the cleaning of thick layers of debris covering the remnants of the king's burial chamber appears to refute this earlier theory. Here, the outer face of the first step of the pyramid core was formed by a retaining wall made of huge blocks of dark gray limestone up to five meters long, which were well bound together with clay. These were stacked to make the first core step about seven meters high. In a similar fashion, there was an inner retaining wall build out of smaller blocks, and making up the walls of the rectangular trench destined for the substructure of the tomb. Between these two walls there was, however, no accretion layers, but rather pieces of small, poor-quality limestone, sometimes stuck together with clay mortar and sand, and sometimes packed dry. Sometimes, there was even little compartments built of rough stone lumps and filled with rubble mixed occasionally with fragments of mud bricks and potsherds.


It is logical that other large Abusir pyramids had been built in the same way. Granted, though this method is sloppier and not as safe from the standpoint of stability, it is also less demanding in terms of time and material. Of course, this also explains why the Absuir pyramids, now stripped of their outer casing of fine white limestone and their cores exposed to all manner of erosion from both humans and mother nature, now resemble formless heaps of stone. It is not necessarily true that all of Egypt's Pyramids were built in this fashion.


Beginning work on the substructure shortly after work commenced on the superstructure was a logical step considering the gabled roof of the substructure chambers, which originally was almost certainly planned by the pyramid's architect, as in earlier Abusir pyramids, to consist of three layers, each made up of huge limestone blocks. Apparently though, we presume that the premature death of the ruler forced the builders to reduce the number of layers.


Nevertheless, the procedure needed to construct the roof of the substructure required the presence of compact masonry on the sides so that the huge blocks of the gabled roof could be anchored. Hence, the gabled roof was at the foundation level of the pyramid.


The early death of the king, seemingly before even the construction of the descending corridor and the substructure, resulted in a drastic change in the original building project. All of the underground rooms were quickly finished, and the vacant space above the gabled roof of the king's funerary apartment was filled with lumps of stone and rubble arranged in diagonally running walls crossing over the pyramid's center. Now the first step of the core resembled a truncated pyramid, which was then faced with blocks of fine white limestone. The outer surface, which had a sloping angle of about 78 degrees, was carefully smoothed down, and now what had been planned on as a pyramid became an atypically square mastaba.


Papyrus fragments unearthed in the structure's mortuary temple evidence that his complex was referred to the "Mound" by those who built it and later served in the king's funerary cult. Interestingly, the top surface of it was covered with a layer of clay several centimeters thick, onto which coarse gravel collected from the surrounding desert was applied. Hence, the roof of the "Mound" merged with the desert.


Unfortunately, while it may have made the structure less attractive to stone thieves than some of the more visible pyramids, it also made it easier to quarry stone from the structure. The thieves simply dug down from above, and even set up a workshop on the terrace for breaking up the fine white limestone lining the inner rooms. The structure was probably first plundered during the First Intermediate Period, so it became an easy target for stone quarrying in later years. We know, for example, that stones from this pyramid were used in some nearby shaft tombs by the Persians late in Egypt's history, and stones continued to disappear down into the 19th century.


Ground plan of the unfinished pyramid of Neferefre at Abusir in Egypt

Ground plan of the unfinished pyramid of Neferefre at Abusir in Egypt


The entrance to this pyramid is in the middle of its north side, close to ground level. It curves slightly to the southeast before reaching the antechamber, and in the lower regions is lined with pink granite and sealed with the same material. The huge barrier block made of pink granite is unique in this pyramid. It has no parallel among the royal tombs of the pyramid age. Normally, the portcullis (the blocking stones) would slide vertically. However, in the Pyramid of Neferefre, an ingenious system of pairs of stones with lugs and holes was used. This system was perhaps designed and used because the builders of Neferefre's tomb were aware of the fact that the monument would be easy prey to thieves from above.


Past the barrier, the antechamber and burial chamber in this pyramid are aligned very precisely east-west. Both of these rooms are lined with fine white limestone.


Obviously only scant remains of the original content of the pyramid were found. But of considerable importance, along with fragments of a pink sarcophagus, four alabaster canopic jars, alabaster containers and offerings, parts of a mummy were also found, including the complete left hand. Anatomical investigation seems to indicate that the mummy belongs to a 20 to 23 year old man, and other evidence suggests that these remains are probably those of Neferefre.


Also, a collection of builders' marks and inscriptions found on the masonry of the monument is of great historical importance. For example, an inscription referencing "the year of the first cattle count," which would correspond approximately to the second regnal year of the king, is very significant. It is very probable that in this year, or shortly thereafter, Neferefre died.


A view of the remains  of Neferefre's mortuary temple at ABusir


After the death of Neferefre, his heir was faced with some difficult tasks, for it was he who would be responsible for completing the tomb and, as the new divine pharaoh, to prepare the burial of his predecessor. Normally, the mortuary cult of a pharaoh was established in a large temple built in front of the east face of his pyramid, but in the short time remaining before Neferefre's burial it was evidently impossible to construct a fully articulated complex planned on the basis of defined religious principles.


Hence, on the east side of the same foundation on which the pyramid is built a very small mortuary temple, with a north-south axis, was hastily constructed of smaller blocks of fine white limestone. It stood on a five meter wide part of the pyramid's base platform which had originally been created by two layers of huge limestone blocks as a foundation for the pyramid's smooth limestone casing.


Because of the ruined state of this temple, we can only guess at much of its design. During this phase of construction, the mortuary temple had a very simple, rectangular design. The entrance was by a stairway and ramp on the southeast. The nucleus of the temple consisted of an open vestibule just behind the entrance, where the priests carried out the essential purification rituals that were required prior to entering the temple proper, which consisted of three rooms.


Sme parts of the  mortuary temple remain surprisingly entact


The most important of these rooms, as well as the largest, was the offering hall. It was originally a very dark room, which almost certainly had a false door probably made of red granite embedded on its western wall, though no evidence of it can now be found. Before it a depression in the floor marks the spot where an altar once stood. It is likely that the two narrow rooms at the sides of the offering chamber originally held the funerary boat, and perhaps other cult items. These was also a foundation deposit discovered in a small shaft under the temple paving that yielded a small bull's head, a bird sacrificed during the ceremonies connected with the foundation of the temple and miniature, symbolic clay vessels along with gray clay to seal the vessels.


We really do not know with any certainty who build the original small temple. Close to this original temple were found two clay sealings engraved with the Horus name, Sekhemkhau, belonging to the probable king Shepseskare, who might have been Neferefre's successor (or predecessor). If he was, however, he probably only ruled for a few months, at most, and perhaps only for a few weeks.


We do know that Niuserre, Neferefre's probable brother, soon afterwards became king and was confronted with a number of difficult tasks. Luckily, he would rule Egypt for over thirty years, because he was faced with not only completing, at least provisionally, the tomb of his brother Neferefre, but also those of his father Neferirkare and his mother Khentkau II.


It was certainly Niuserre who, showing considerable improvisation and originality, extended and basically modified the design of the earlier mortuary temple. The result was a huge and architecturally unique tomb complex that in design conception has no parallel among other pyramid temples. Now, it was named "Divine are the souls of Neferefre."


Now, this larger temple built almost entirely of mudbrick and with a rectangular ground plan stretched along the whole eastern side of the Unfinished Pyramid. Though less durable than stone, the mudbrick was less expensive and building with it took less time.


The entrance to this new temple was through a portico with two four-stemmed lotus limestone columns and was located right in the middle of the east facade. In the center of this addition, between the columned entrance and the offering hall of the older temple were, in addition to the access passage, what we believe to have been five storage annexes. This was a unique arrangement as other pyramid temples would have provided for an entrance chamber, an open court and perhaps a sanctuary with five niches for the pharaoh's cult statues in this space. After damage due to a minor accidental fire in the western part of the temple, two wooden cult boats were ritually buried and sprinkled with sand in one of these chambers.


A fragment adorned with gods and pharaohs covered in gold leaf from Neferefre's complex


There was a group of ten, two-story storage magazines in the north section with five units each arranged on either side of a passage. This number of units was no accident, as the temple maintained a priesthood divided into five groups of phylai. A large number of papyri were found in these northern magazines. In addition, there were also somewhat mysterious fragments of frit tables and faience ornaments unearthed in these chambers. The frit tablets were adorned with images of gods and the pharaoh accompanied by hieroglyphic inscriptions that were encrusted with a white paste and covered with a thin layer of gold leaf. Originally, they may have been intended to adorn cult objects and wooden boxes holding the cult equipment. The faience ornaments, on the other hand, perhaps decorated the large wooden symbolic vessels used in temple ceremonies. Everyday and ceremonial pottery, flint knives and blades, vessels made of diorite, alabaster, gabbro (a type of volcanic rock), slate, limestone and basalt, along with other remains were also discovered in the storerooms. There were also clay seals with imprints of inscriptions from cylindrical seals. They are of enormous value, as they record various information on what was in the storerooms, who was responsible for it and what needed to be obtained or released. The discoveries from Neferefre's temple have more than doubled the number of seals dating from the Old Kingdom. They allow archaeologists to reconstruct with some precision the organization of the administration, economic relations, the mode of keeping accounts and many other aspects of historical importance.


An 80 cm striding     statue of Neferefre from his mortuary complex at Abusir


The southern part of the addition consists of a unique, east-west oriented hall with 20 six stemmed wooden lotus columns (though none of them have survived). We do believe that they were made of wood and then covered with a thin layer of stucco. This hypostyle hall was rectangular in design and divided up by four lines of five columns, aligned in the same east-west direction. These multicolored columns supported a flat wooden ceiling at a height of about four meters. Though nothing survives of the roof either, from remains of polychrome stucco discovered on the clay floor of the hall evidences that the ceiling was probably painted blue and adorned with gilded stars. This was the first hypostyle hall that we know of during the age of the pyramid builders. The hall probably served a religious function of which we are unaware.


Neferefre sitting on his throne holding a mace against his chest. The statue is made of rose colored limestone


About this hall were found fragments of statues of Neferefre, made of diorite, basalt, limestone, reddish quartzite and wood, and wooden figures of captive enemies, along with other cult objects. Among the statues were six relatively complete, though mostly broken statues of Neferefre. The most beautiful of these, was well as the smallest at about 35 centimeters high, was a rose-colored limestone statue unearthed in fragments and incomplete. It depicted the young pharaoh sitting on a throne and holding a mace, or hedj, the emblem of royal power to his chest. The king's head was originally adorned with a uraeus, and protected from behind by the outstretched wings of Horus, the falcon god. The largest statue made of the stone was about 80 centimeters high, though the largest statue of all was a life-size wooden one, though only fragments of it were unearthed. All of the statues display perfect workmanship in relation to the materials used and the actual depiction of the pharaoh. Now on permanent display in the Egyptian Antiquity Museum in Cairo, the represent the third largest collection of royal statuary from the Old Kingdom.


The small, wooden statues of the enemies of Egypt included those of Asians, Nubians and Libyans, kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs. These statues may have originally been situated on the royal throne or naos in which the statue of the pharaoh was located. Captured enemies kneeling before the pharaoh are a completely royal motif linked with the Ancient Egyptian concept the pharaohs ability to keep order in the universe.


The upper part of a statue of an Asiatic enemy


Southeast of the mortuary temple, another surprise was unearthed. While the name, "the Sanctuary of the Knife," had been known from contemporary written sources, archaeological evidence had been lacking. Here, though, for the first time, was discovered a slaughterhouse for sacrificial animals. Built in two phases, it had a rectangular, north-south oriented plan with rounded corners. There was a relatively wide entrance from the north where the animals, mostly cattle, but also wild goats, gazelles and others, were led into the area. In the northwest part of the slaughterhouse, these animals would then have been slaughtered using sharp, flint knives. There were chambers in the northeastern corner of the area where the meet would than been cut up on a wooden chopping block. The rest of "the Sanctuary of the Knife" consisted of storage rooms. A staircase to the top of the slaughterhouse suggests that the roof terrace also had a purpose. Here, the meat may have been dried out.


The slaughterhouse was unexpectedly large. However, written evidence from a papyrus fragment explains that, on the occasion of a ten day religious festival thirteen bulls would be killed daily to supply the needs of the mortuary cult, which clearly attests to the large number of people directly or indirectly involved in Neferefre's cult. This largely unproductive use of people and resources may also help to explain the cause of the economic, political and social decline of Ancient Egypt at the end of the Old Kingdom.


The slaughterhouse actually only served its intended purpose for a brief period of time. Even during the reign of Niuserre, when the temple was extended towards the east, Neferefre's mortuary cult was reorganized, and afterwards, the meat for the pharaoh's offering table was secured from elsewhere. At that time, "the Sanctuary of the Knife" simply became a large storage facility.


The last major building phase in the temple's development consisted of a new monumental entrance and a large open columned courtyard, at which point it acquired the characteristic "T" shape. At this point, the slaughterhouse became a part of the temple. The monumental entrance was situated on the east-west axis of the tomb complex, just as before. Its roof was likewise supported by a pair of six-stemmed columns of fine white limestone, though this time in the form of bundled papyrus stems. Of course, just like the lotus, the papyrus also had significant meaning to the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of resurrection, eternal life and permanent prosperity.


The new courtyard was influenced by religious beliefs, and it became an important place of royal mortuary cult ceremonies. Oriented in an east-west layout, it was rectangular, and around its sides was a flat wooden roof supported by 24 columns. Though none of the columns have survived, the circular imprint of the shafts on the few remaining limestone bases suggest that the columns were made of wood and probably made to resemble date palms, an ancient Egyptian symbol of fertility, abundance and peace.


No trace is left of the decorative theme adorning the walls of the courtyard, or of the altar, perhaps made of stone or alabaster, that likely stood in the northwest part of the courtyard and on which offerings were presented.


During the reign of Djedkare, housing for the priests was set up between the columns, and though they kept the cult alive, the existence of their housing inside the complex must have reduced the temple's status as well as accelerating its decay. Around the beginning of the 6th Dynasty during the reign of Teti, the entrance to "the Sanctuary of the Knife," along with this whole section of the complex was permanently walled up, and by the end of the same dynasty, under the reign of Pepi II, Neferefre's mortuary cult completely died out.


After good order was restored during the Middle Kingdom, the mortuary cults of Abusir, including that of Neferefre, were reestablished, but only for a short period of time. By the New Kingdom, the destruction of the complex began in earnest.


Pyramid Facts:


Height unfinished 7 m

Base 65.5 m

Slope 64o 30'

Dynasty 5

Satellite Pyramids (0)

Queens Pyramids (0)


See Also:







Reference Number

Abusir: Realm of Osiris

Verner, Miroslav


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 723 X

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Pyramids, The

Verner, Miroslav


Grove Press

ISBN 0-8021-1703-1