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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur

The pyramid field of Dahshur is located along the western desert edge, 30 kilometers south of Cairo. The site includes two huge stone pyramids built by the Dynasty 4 king Snefru and three smaller Dynasty 12 brick pyramids that belonged to Amenemhat II, Senwosret III, and Amenemhat III. The five pyramids are separated by vast areas of desert that contain private mastaba tombs and burials, stone quarries, pyramid construction ramps, causeways, workers’ settlements, and other installations.

King Senwosret III (r. ca. 1878–1840 B.C.) was one of the most powerful and important rulers of ancient Egypt. Key developments in religion, political administration, and the arts took place during his reign. He built two funerary complexes, one in Abydos and the other at the north end of the Dahshur pyramid field. Unlike Old Kingdom pyramids, which were constructed entirely of stone, Senwosret III’s pyramid had a mud-brick core cased with limestone. In ancient times, the valuable limestone was removed by robbers, revealing the soft brick core. As a result of long exposure, the pyramid has now deteriorated to a 21-meter-high mound with a deep crater in the center; originally the pyramid was 62 meters high.

The Dahshur complex was constructed in two phases. The original complex, which more closely followed Old Kingdom prototypes, included the pyramid, a small pyramid temple to the east, and a stone inner enclosure wall. A second, outer enclosure wall made of brick surrounded six smaller pyramids built for the royal women and a seventh pyramid that served as the king’s subsidiary or ka pyramid. Later in the reign of Senwosret III, the pyramid complex was enlarged to the north and south, transforming the originally square ground plan into an elongated rectangle. The larger southern extension contained the huge South Temple that seems to have marked the appearance of a new building type in a royal pyramid complex, perhaps replacing or broadening the function of the traditional pyramid temple.

The plan of Senwosret III’s apartments under the pyramid closely follows those built by the kings of late Dynasty 5 and Dynasty 6. Senwosret III’s construction had a long entrance passage, antechamber, crypt, and a room to the side of the antechamber called a serdab by Egyptologists. An unusual feature is the placement of the pyramid entrance, which was not positioned in the north, as was traditional, but in the west. The walls of Senwosret III’s burial chambers were lined with beautifully finished white limestone, while the crypt was constructed of red granite that was whitewashed. Unlike some Old Kingdom pyramids, the walls were not inscribed with pyramid texts. The crypt contains a finely carved red granite sarcophagus embellished at the base with a pattern that replicates the form of an enclosure wall with palace facade paneling. The absence of any human remains in the tomb, as well as the cleanliness of the interior of the sarcophagus, suggests that Senwosret III was not buried in his tomb at Dahshur; instead, the king may have been interred in Abydos, where the king built another mortuary complex.

The king’s pyramid, the burial places of the royal women, and the private tombs surrounding the pyramid complex were plundered during the unstable period of Hyksos rule (ca. 1600 B.C.). The main destruction of the area occurred during the Ramesside Period (ca. 1295–1186 B.C.), when the pyramids and mastabas were quarried down to their foundations. From the Late Period onward, the ruined site was used for lower- and middle-class private burials; most of the tombs belong to the late Roman Period (ca. 200–350), though Christian burials have also been uncovered.

The first large-scale excavation of Senwosret III’s complex was carried out by the French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan (1857–1924) between 1894 and 1895. The Metropolitan Museum resumed excavation work at the site in 1990 and continues its work in yearly, three-month campaigns.