Few monuments capture the public imagination quite like pyramids. These feats of engineering teach us about cultures that lived long before us — not just their art and innovations, but their everyday lives.
Just how old is the earliest pyramid? How did Egyptians start building their iconic smooth-sided pyramids? What are we still discovering within them? From the towering Great Pyramids of Giza to the complex stepped pyramids of Mesoamerica, these seven facts reveal just how mind-blowing pyramids really are.
In Egypt, these triumphs of architecture — reserved for royal tombs — were the main buildings of larger complexes. Typically, the complex also included an attached mortuary temple with shrines, an open courtyard, and chapels, staffed in perpetuity, with an offering table.
Ancient Egyptians also buried pits full of boats around these monuments to help ensure smooth sailing into the afterlife. One of the more impressive boats was uncovered in 1954 next to the Great Pyramid of Khufu — sometimes referred to as just the Great Pyramid. The 144-foot-long, 4,600-year-old ship was buried in more than 1,200 pieces stashed underneath stone blocks.
Building pyramids as large as the Great Pyramids of Giza was a major undertaking, and required a lot of labor — especially the Great Pyramid of Khufu which, at 481 feet high, was the tallest building in the world for thousands of years. (The date of its construction is debated, but may have begun around 2550 BCE.)
Archaeologists have uncovered two "towns" around the Great Pyramids that not only housed pyramid-builders, but bakers, carpenters, weavers, stoneworkers, and others that supported day-to-day life. Some lived in family dwellings with their own courtyards and kitchens, while others, likely itinerant workers, slept in something more like a barracks. There is so much we don’t know about these areas, but one thing’s for sure: Based on animal bones and pottery found around the site, everyone there was very well-fed… and had plenty of beer to drink.
Djoser’s Step Pyramid, built sometime between 2667 and 2648 BCE, is considered the oldest pyramid, although it doesn’t have the smooth sides we associate with Egyptian pyramids today. Previously, pharaohs had been buried underneath mastabas — structures that look like single plateaus. The Step Pyramid stacked multiple mastabas on top of one another, creating the tapered effect. It’s located Saqqara, a necropolis about 15 miles south of Cairo.
We picture pyramids now as immense buildings of sandy-colored stone, but when they were originally constructed, they were adorned in polished limestone. These casing stones needed to be individually cut to a specific angle and sanded until they shone. Many of these outer layers were knocked loose by an earthquake or dismantled for building other things.
Until the mid-20th century, many archaeologists viewed these sites as extensions of Egypt, rather than part of a unique cultural heritage. But Sudan’s pyramids, most of them located in Meroe, are much smaller and steeper, surrounded by their own collections of chapels and monuments, and are unique to Nubian culture.
For what it’s worth, Egyptian-style pyramids are all over the place, including Italy and Greece. Pyramids more broadly, however, take many different forms.
In ancient Mesoamerica, a region spanning from much of modern-day Mexico through most of Central America, peoples such as the Inca, Aztec, Maya, and Olmec had their own style of pyramid dating back to about 1000 BCE — and they built a lot of them. Unlike Egypt, they weren’t used exclusively for tombs.
The most well-known Mesoamerican pyramids are the ones in Teotihuacan, an Aztec city near present-day Mexico City. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest of the structures, and nearby Pyramid of the Moon were both constructed by putting rubble inside a set of retaining walls, building adobe brick around it, then casing in limestone. The Pyramid of the Sun hides an extra secret: another pyramid, accessible through a cave underneath. These pyramids were built between 1 and 200 CE, although the pyramid inside the cave is even older.
The Great Pyramid in La Venta, an ancient Olmec civilization by present-day Tabasco, Mexico, is much different: It’s essentially a mountain made of clay. Later Olmec pyramids were also earth mounds, only faced with stone in a stepped structure.
The largest pyramid on the planet by volume, not height, is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, or Tlachihualtepetl, in Mexico. It dates back to around 200 BCE, and is essentially six pyramids on top of one another. Later civilizations expanded on previous construction, taking care to preserve the original work. It’s made of adobe bricks and, whether accidentally or through a deliberate effort from the locals, eventually became covered in foliage and was later abandoned. When Spanish invaders, led by Hernan Cortez, came through, murdered 3,000 people, and destroyed more visible structures, they thought Tlachihualtepetl was part of the natural topography and let it be.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu, the tallest of the Great Pyramids, has been the topic of rigorous study for more than a thousand years — but we’re still finding out what’s inside, including whole new chambers. The Scan Pyramids project, a collaboration between Egyptian, French, and Japanese research institutions that started in 2015, uses updated cosmic ray technology for a noninvasive peek inside.
So far, they’ve found two previously unidentified areas: a corridor on the north face of the pyramid and a “big void” above the Grand Gallery. The void is at least 100 feet long and has a similar cross-section as the Grand Gallery, which connects various areas of the pyramid, including the burial chamber.
A team of American researchers hopes to use even more advanced technology to try to get a full three-dimensional image of the big void. Whether it’s a structural element or a whole new chamber, it could provide a wealth of information on how the pyramids were built.