4,000-Year-Old Inscribed Obelisk Dedicated to Ancient Egyptian Queen Unearthed in Saqqara
The Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt has announced the exciting discovery of the upper part of an Old Kingdom granite obelisk that dates back to around 2,000 BC. The ancient monument, which once had a top covered with copper or golden foil to shine in the sunlight, contains inscriptions that name Queen Ankhnespepy II.
Dr. Mostafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, revealed that the obelisk was found during excavation work carried out by a Swiss-French Archaeological Mission from Geneva University at the funerary complex of Queen Ankhnespepy II at Saqqara necropolis, located about 30km (19mi) south of Cairo.
Archaeologists carrying out excavations at the Saqqara necropolis. Credit: Smithsonian
‘To Pierce the Sky’
The word ‘obelisk’ means ‘spit’ (a long rod used to skewer food for cooking) in ancient Greek, and was used by the ancient historian Herodotus to describe these monuments. The ancient Egyptians called these monoliths ‘tekhenu’, which translates as ‘to pierce the sky’. As many will already know, ancient Egyptian obelisks are tapering four-sided rectangular pillars with a pyramidon on the top. These were set on bases, and were typically constructed to commemorate an individual or an event, or to honor the gods.
The ancient Egyptians carved their obelisks from a single block of stone, almost always red granite. This type of rock is most notably found in Aswan, in the southern part of Egypt. In the granite quarries of Aswan, obelisks would be carved out of the bedrock, and then transported on the waters of the Nile River to their destinations, where they would then be erected.
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The obelisk from the Ramses II temple in Luxor, now in Place de la Concorde in Paris ( CC by SA 3.0 ). The newly-discovered royal obelisk would have looked similar to this one in its heyday, with a golden foil covering on top.
Fit for a Queen
The Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt has reported that the obelisk bears the name of Queen Ankhnespepy II and would have been built in her honor. Dr. Ayman Ashmawy, Head of the Ancient Egyptian Sector at the Ministry, said that the obelisk had been moved a little bit further away from its original location, which would have been at the entrance of the funerary complex of Queen Ankhnespepy II. Most of the necropolis was used as a quarry during the New Kingdom and Late Period, so the obelisk may have been dragged away by the stonecutters of those eras.
Queen Ankhnespepy II was one of the most important queens of the 6 th dynasty. She was the wife of King Pepy I (her name translates to “Her life belongs to Pepy”), as was her sister. Her sister bore a son with King Pepy I, Merenre Nemtyemsaf I, who Queen Ankhnespepy II married after King Pepy’s death.
When Merenre died, her own son with the King, Pepy II, inherited the throne at the age of 6 and Queen Ankhnespepy II became his regent, the effective ruler of the country.
Ankhnespepy II’s burial chamber was discovered in 1963, along with remains of a middle-aged woman inside a sarcophagus, which may well belong to the queen. In 1998, her pyramid was found and excavated, and contained the first known examples of the pyramid texts in a queen’s pyramid. The texts refer to her as a ‘queen mother’, hence the construction of her pyramid dates to the reign of her son. Now, adding to the string of discoveries, is the obelisk built in her honor.
Profile of Ankhnespepy II from her funerary temple. ( CC by SA 2.0 )
Largest Ever Obelisk Fragment from the Old Kingdom
The upper part of the fragment that has been unearthed is 2.5 meters (8.2 ft) long, making it the largest fragment of an obelisk from the Old Kingdom yet discovered.
“We can estimate that the full size of the obelisk was around five meters when it was intact,” said Professor Philippe Collombert, head of the archaeological mission.
The newly-discovered obelisk in Cairo, dedicated to an Old Kingdom Queen. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities
The obelisk has a small deflection at its peak, indicating that the pyramidion was covered in metal slabs, probably copper or gold.
There is an inscription on one side of the obelisk, with what seems to be the beginning of the titles and the name of Queen Ankhnespepy II.
Archaeologists are hoping that they may next uncover the bottom-half of the obelisk.
Top image: The newly-discovered obelisk in Cairo, dedicated to an Old Kingdom Queen. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities