Unearthed (2016–…): Season 6, Episode 10 - Hunt for the First Pyramid - full transcript

A strange site called Saqqara is home to Egypt's very first pyramid, and here, experts use cutting-edge tech to reveal why the ancient Egyptians started building pyramids and if the ...

Saqqara, egypt...

An ancient royal necropolis

Over 5,000 years old.

11 royal pyramids
are buried in the sands here,

More than any other site
in egypt,

Including the first pyramid
ever built.

It is a site so huge,

Only a tiny fraction
has been explored.

Most of its secrets
remain hidden.

For investigators,
it is a treasure trove.

Now archaeologists
dig deep underground

To uncover tombs that have not
seen the light of day

In over 4 millennia...

...Revealing how egypt rises
to be the greatest power

Of the ancient world.

It was not only
building a king's tomb

But building a society.

To solve
the mysteries of saqqara,

We'll blow open
the oldest-ever pyramid.

We'll dive deep into
the royal tomb hidden below it

And explore an extraordinary
animal catacomb

To unearth the secrets of this
ancient city of the dead.

EP - 10 - Hunt for the First Pyramid

20 miles south of cairo
lies saqqara...

...An ancient burial site.

Under its sandy landscape

Lie the remains of egypt's
first pharaohs.

Egyptian tombs allow us
to reconstruct egyptian society,

Egyptian history,
egyptian beliefs.

Today, it is one of the
most important archaeological sites

In the world.

2,500 acres of sand

Preserve the remains
of funerary monuments

Spanning 3,000 years
of egyptian history.

Mastabas, huge rectangular
mud brick structures,

Are the giant tombstones
of high officials.

Alongside them are pyramids,

The final resting place of the
early kings and queens of egypt.

And towering over them all
is the first pyramid ever built,

The immense step pyramid
of djoser.

What do these gigantic monuments
reveal about the formation

Of the greatest civilization
in the ancient world?

Egyptologist aidan dodson
has been working at saqqara

For over 30 years.

He wants to know if the earliest
monuments here provide clues

To how egypt first
becomes a nation.

The leap in size and quality
of royal tombs

Is a reflection of what's
going on in egypt at that time.

Aidan begins his investigation

With egypt's first pyramid,

The step pyramid of djoser.

It's 4,500 years old

And the first
large-scale building

To be made entirely of stone.

It is a prototype later
used by pharaohs for millennia,

Forever changing
egypt's landscape.

It's clearly a mark of
and a monument

To the glory of the king.

Aidan wants to know
who orders this massive construction.

He examines this small temple
in front of the pyramid

In the search for an answer.

In here
we've got a statue of djoser,

The builder of the pyramid.

Djoser's reign was regarded
as something special,

A game changer in what it means
to be a pharaoh of egypt.

In ancient egyptian belief,

The spirit of the pharaoh
lives on after death.

But it needs a home.

Aidan believes that king djoser

Builds this mammoth construction

So that his eternal soul
can live in it forever.

But why does he build it
on such a colossal scale?

A clue lies with one of
saqqara's earliest structures.

What we've got here actually
is the last remains

Of the mastaba
of queen herneith,

Who dates from 2800, 2900 b.C.

In its full glory,
herneith's mastaba

Is 125 feet long,

53 feet wide, and 10 feet tall.

If a queen
of 200, 300 years earlier

Could have something like this,
a king is going to want

Something really,
really special.

Before the reign
of djoser, egypt is divided

And rife with social unrest.

But when he takes the throne
in the 27th century b.C.,

Egypt is at peace, prosperous,
and united into one nation.

So a powerful pharaoh must have
a magnificent monument.

Djoser needs to make a step
change in size and technology

To be able to mark himself out

As the beginning
of a great new era.

But the decision to
build a structure of this size

Comes with many challenges.

You've got a whole range of new
skill sets which are required,

A whole lot of people

Who probably haven't worked
together at that kind of level.

The entire society is
mobilized to build the pyramid.

Djoser forges a nation-state

To satisfy
his personal ambition.

How does he build it?

This 200-foot-tall pyramid

Preserves its history within
like an immense russian doll.

First, djoser builds
a square mastaba

200 feet long and 26 feet tall.

But he wants more.

He extends on all sides,
but it's still not enough.

So instead, it becomes the base
for the first-ever pyramid,

Four stacked mastabas

Towering 140 feet
above the ground.

He builds around it
and adds two more levels

Completing the iconic
six-step pyramid.

How does djoser ensure
that it survives forever?

Today, aidan has
a rare opportunity.

He has been given unique access

To examine the oldest section
of the pyramid.

Aidan notices that from the
earliest stages of construction,

Each layer of stone tilts

Towards the center
of the monument.

If you do a spot check
pretty well everywhere,

That basic angle
seems to be constant throughout.

Aidan believes that the pyramid
is built with tilted stones

Because of the unevenness
of the landscape but saqqara.

How does this method of building

Ensure its long-term stability?

The pyramids at nearby giza
stand on flat ground.

And horizontal blocks transmit

The pyramids' weight
straight down.

But the site for djoser's
pyramid is rocky and uneven.

So blocks placed on the ground

Would follow its curvature,
creating weaknesses.

Instead, djoser tilts
the stones inwards

So they support the weight
of the pyramid.

You've got a building which is
fundamentally holding itself up.

And the very fact
it has stood like this

For 4,500 years

Is a tribute
to the fact that is the case.

Djoser's pyramid still stands
as the centerpiece of saqqara,

Its colossal size
a testament to egypt's might.

In the scale of his ambition,

Djoser wanted not only to build
himself a monument

But also a monument
to the newly unified egypt

As a way of showing
what egypt could do.

Deep beneath his pyramid,

Djoser carves a massive
maze of tunnels

Snaking for almost 4 miles.

What can new clues inside
this huge subterranean structure

Reveal about the pharaoh's
boundless ambition?

And 3 miles away.
A newly discovered tomb

Shows a cataclysmic revolution
is already stirring.

What happens to this mighty
ancient civilization?

Djoser mobilizes
the whole population of egypt

To build his pyramid.

It gives the newly
unified country

A new national purpose.

But the pyramid is only
the beginning of the story.

The pyramid itself is solid.
But beneath it,

A massive network of tunnels
runs through the bedrock.

A central shaft leads
to the pharaoh's tomb.

But around it
are more than 3 1/2 miles

Of hallways, chambers,
and galleries.

This is djoser's
underground palace.

In total,
there are over 400 rooms

Full of goods
for the pharaoh's afterlife.

What can these huge tunnels

Reveal about djoser's
extraordinary ambition?

Archaeologist adel kelany
has spent decades

Investigating the ancient
burial sites of egypt.

He has special access to explore

Deep inside this extraordinary
labyrinth of tunnels.

Adel believes these tunnels
hold vital clues

About how djoser's
engineers excavate.

Adel discovers this underground
structure is carved

Through the hardest layers
of limestone.

This ensures the tunnels
will not collapse.

But it takes a lot of time
to dig through.

So djoser's men
work around the clock.

They need to finish
before the pharaoh dies.

But they can only go as fast
as the tools they're using.

Adel closely scours the walls

For traces of these
ancient tools.

These ancient marks are evidence
of the pharaoh's grand plan.

But it demands enormous
resources from his kingdom.

At a limestone quarry,
adel and his team of masons

Investigate how long it takes

To carve through
the hardest layers of rock.

Their tools are made of copper,
like in ancient times.

The masons begin to carve.

In the heat, the work
is hard and slow.

Adel discovers
that his workmen carve

Just over 1 inch per hour.

But djoser's tunnels
are almost 4 miles long

And carved by a small
specialized team

Of a few dozen masons.

Djoser's huge
underground structure

Takes an astonishing
2 decades to complete.

For the work to carry on
without interruption,

The pharaoh requires
a constant supply of copper

For the chisels,

Copper that egypt doesn't have.

To solve this problem.

Djoser turns his kingdom
into a military powerhouse.

Djoser conquers
neighboring sinai,

Rich in copper ore.

He sends mining expeditions
to the mountains there

And starts extracting.

His workers build a vast complex
of furnaces to smelt the ore

And cast it into huge ingots

Ready for transport
to the red sea.

Boats take the ingots to egypt.

Then donkeys haul them 150 miles

Across the desert to saqqara.

Here, the egyptians melt

And recast the ingots
into small chisels...

...Millions and millions
of them.

To build his underground palace
and gigantic pyramid,

Djoser expands his kingdom

Into one of the world's
greatest powers.

By the time he dies,
both the pyramid

And the tunnels are complete.

But can the tomb of the pharaoh

Reveal what happens to
his powerful new nation-state?

Only 3,000 feet away,

New clues buried deep inside
an extraordinary catacomb

Tell of cataclysmic changes
sweeping across egypt.

What can they reveal
about this powerhouse

Of the ancient world?

The giant step pyramid
of saqqara.

Towering 200 feet,

When it's built 4,500 years ago,

It is the tallest building
in the world,

Built by the pharaoh djoser

As a final resting place
for his eternal soul.

The pharaoh's tomb is placed
deep beneath the pyramid,

At the bottom of
a 90-foot vertical shaft,

Sealed by a huge
3-ton granite plug.

Inside lies djoser's
mummified body.

The ceiling of
his funerary chamber

Is made from limestone blocks

With five pointed stars
in relief.

So even deep underground,
djoser could see the night sky

Where his soul is free to fly.

Archaeologist adel kelany

Investigates the tunnels
under the step pyramid.

He hunts for its deepest point,

The burial chamber
of king djoser.

He wants to find out what
becomes of the mighty pharaoh

After he dies.

When it's finished,

This antechamber is filled
with precious objects

For the pharaoh's use
in the afterlife.

Adel arrives
at the burial chamber.

He inspects the granite slabs

That are part of djoser's
huge sarcophagus.

The granite is badly damaged.

The black spots
are traces of fire.

All this destruction
points to one thing...

...Tomb raiders.

But the sarcophagus is at
the bottom of a 90-foot shaft,

Under a huge pyramid.

How do robbers get here?

Teams of workers lay the body
inside the tomb

And then carefully lever in

The heavy granite plug
that seals it.

They drop over 2,500 tons
of rubble

Into the shaft

And seal all other entrances
with rocks.

But the pyramid
is a beacon for looters.

They spend months
digging tunnels of their own

To reach the tomb.

They light fires to weaken
the granite sarcophagus

And plug that seals it.

They break in
and steal everything they can.

Djoser's is mummified body
is gone,

But amazingly,
archaeologists recover...

A foot.

Robbers tear apart
the pharaoh's mummy,

Looking for jewels.

Only this left foot
is found intact.

This desecration of djoser

Means egypt is at
a crisis point.

The pharaohs
are losing their power.

At saqqara,

A striking new archaeological
discovery reveals

A dramatic revolution
taking hold of ancient egypt.

Can this mighty
civilization survive?


Where egypt's pharaohs
are buried for centuries.

Today, their many tombs
lie hidden under the sands...

...Spread over 4 square miles.

This huge site
remains mostly unexplored.

Now experts are
trying to find out

How the building
of these royal monuments

Transforms egypt forever.

In may 2019, archaeologists
working at saqqara

Make a groundbreaking discovery.

The team digs beneath
the sunken ruins

Of a huge stone mastaba.

What they find
reveals the beginning

Of a cataclysmic revolution

That will shatter the kingdom.

Beneath a stone mastaba,

Archaeologists uncover
a spectacular burial complex.

Its passageways
are intricately decorated.

At the end,
a storage room full of jars

Containing food to nourish
the spirit of the deceased.

And next door, an impressive
limestone sarcophagus

Fills the chamber wall to wall.

This tomb is fit for a pharaoh.

But there's no royal pyramid
above it.

Why is the owner of this tomb
buried like a king?

Archaeologist mohamed megahed

Leads the team who uncovers
this astonishing tomb.

For the first time,
cameras follow him inside.

Amazingly, everything remains
just as it was

When the tomb was sealed

Almost 4,500 years ago.

On the walls, there is a wealth

Of previously unknown
information about egypt.

Mohamed's incredible discovery

Reveals a dramatic
battle for power

Within egypt's ruling elite.

This tomb is a copy
of the pharaoh's architecture.

It's also filled with
inscriptions and decorations

Usually reserved
for royal tombs.

Mohamed investigates
what they represent.

Close to the ceiling,
mohamed discovers

An extraordinary detail.

The hieroglyphs show that khuwy
is a powerful court official,

A close adviser
to the pharaoh djedkare isesi,

Who reigns in 2400 b.C.

300 years have passed

Since djoser and the building
of his gigantic pyramid.

Now the pharaoh's officials
are buried like kings.

What can this tomb reveal about
the officials' rise in power?

Mohamed decodes more clues.

These colors are made
from gemstones

Imported from all over
the ancient world

And locked away
in the pharaoh's storerooms

So only his artists
can use them.

Mohamed believes this ancient
mark is made by a royal artist.

Only they are allowed to paint
with these colors.

The mighty pharaoh
is helping his official

Create a tomb as lavish as his.

The power balance
between the pharaoh

And his high officials
is shifting.

Once the supreme ruler
of the kingdom,

The builder
of majestic pyramids,

Worshipped as a god...

...The pharaoh is now dependent
on officials.

He cannot govern without them.

But mohamed makes an even
more striking discovery

Inside the tomb.

It's an extraordinary find,
one that reveals

That the right to be mummified

No longer is exclusively
for pharaohs.

Khuwy is part of
a new social class of officials

That are now extremely wealthy
and powerful.

Before 2200 b.C.,

Egypt enjoys a golden age
of peace and prosperity

Under the rule of pharaohs
like djoser.

But gradually,
officials like khuwy

Claim more power for themselves

And rule over their own
provinces directly.

Then droughts hit,
and the nile floods fail,

Bringing famine and poverty.

The pharaohs lose all control.

The age of the great
pyramid builders is over,

And egypt falls into a dark age.

In the centuries after djoser

And the building
of the step pyramid,

The pharaohs' officials gain
unprecedented wealth and power,

Leading to the fall
of egypt's first great kingdom.

So what happens to
a royal necropolis like saqqara?

Strange discoveries reveal
how the site becomes the home

To one of egypt's
most mysterious cults.

Does this huge burial site
for bulls hold clues

About egypt's later kingdoms?

Saqqara's days
as the resting place

For egypt's pharaohs
draws to a close.

Around about 2200 b.C.,

Saqqara ceases to be
a royal burial place.

However, it remains the place

Of one of the most crucial
cults in egypt.

A mysterious cult
now takes center stage

In egyptian society.

Clues to the cult lie buried
beneath the desert sand.

Almost 3,000 feet
from the pyramid of djoser

Beneath the ground
lies the serapeum,

A vast gallery
of finely carved tunnels

With huge vaulted chambers
on either side.

Each chamber holds
a gigantic sarcophagus

As big as two family cars
stacked together.

Inside each sarcophagus

Are the intricately
mummified remains of a bull.

Almost 30 bulls
are buried in these vaults.

What can
this strange cult reveal

About dramatic changes
in egypt's history?

Egyptologist aidan dodson

inside the serapeum.

Today, he has
a rare opportunity.

He's been given access
to its oldest part,

Built in 1400 b.C.

It is here that the first bulls
are buried.

Oh, wow.

That is interesting.

You've got the prince there,

His name quite clearly
next to him.

That huge foot is his father,
ramses ii.

Ramses ii
is the most powerful pharaoh

In egyptian history.

Inscriptions here reveal that he
and his son extend the serapeum.

That royal patronage of the cult

Is probably a legitimization
of the whole egyptian monarchy.

Ramses is devoted
to the cult of the bull.

It's a way of identifying
with his subjects.

It is also a way

Of establishing
his control over them.

Egyptians revere
the bulls buried here

As incarnations of ptah,
the god of creation.

Each bull is identified
by very specific features.

He must be black and white

With a triangular mark
on the forehead,

A crescent moon on the side,

And a long-haired tail
parted in two.

The sacred animal
is taken to memphis,

The capital
of early ancient egypt,

Where worshippers visit him
for good luck

And to learn their fortunes.

When the bull dies,

It is brought
to saqqara for burial.

And egyptians search
for a new bull

As the incarnation of ptah.

Aidan investigates
another part of the serapeum

To see what it can reveal
about egypt's turbulent history.

He's got access
to a restricted area

Built 400 years after ramses.

And here's a huge
granite sarcophagus.

High up on its lid,
aidan find evidence

That egypt and its pharaohs
have been conquered.

It's very, very
rough hieroglyphs,

Very, very difficult to read.

But what it is is the epitaph
of a bull that died

And was buried under
the persian king cambyses.

In the 6th century b.C.,

Egypt falls to a new
imperial superpower...

...The persians.

The foreign rulers
maintain the cult.

The sacred bulls are mummified

And buried intact
in giant granite sarcophagi.

Every time a bull died,
the vaults were extended

By another one
of these great niches.

And this then continued on
generation after generation.

In the newest part
of the serapeum,

Aidan discovers another key
inscription on a sarcophagus.

It reveals the egyptians
are fighting back

Against the persians.

What I'm seeing here
is another part

Of the persian story.

The king who installed
this bull's burial here

Was a native egyptian ruler.

When this bull is buried,

An egyptian king
is sitting on the throne.

This inscription tells us
something we don't really know

From any other source...
That egyptians were still

Fighting back
against the persian invaders.

The egyptians take
back control over their lands.

But it doesn't last.

Aidan heads towards the end
of the serapeum.

The tomb of the last bull shows
that after the persians,

The greeks now control egypt.

This great stone box here

Will have had a bull
interred in it

Some point during the reign
of the great cleopatra.

Cleopatra is a pharaoh
of greek origin.

She reigns from 51 to 30 b.C.,

When she is defeated
by the roman emperor augustus.

Her defeat means the end
of egyptian nationhood...

...And the end of the cult
of the sacred bull.

Augustus despised the idea
of sacred animals.

And, therefore,
from this point onwards,

The serapeum is closed
and finished.

The 3,000-year-old cult

Comes to an end
under roman rule.

It mirrors the fall
of the great kingdom of egypt.

But saqqara carries on
as a necropolis.

What can it reveal
about the last age

Of ancient egyptian

The royal necropolis of saqqara

Spans the entire history
of ancient egypt,

From its rise into
a mighty nation in 3000 b.C.

Until roman times.

But what happens to egypt
after the fall of the pharaohs?

Archaeologist hana vymazalová

Has spent almost a decade
digging at saqqara.

She is looking for clues to
the last age of ancient egypt

Next to the collapsed pyramids
of early royals

And unearths
a simple burial pit.

Next to it,
there are hundreds more.

Who are these people?

Why are they buried on the
same site as egypt's pharaohs?

Hana analyses one of the bodies
removed from these pits.

Many clues remain
on the preserved tissue.

Hana believes these people
come from humble backgrounds.

They are probably
local villagers.

After the fall of the pharaohs,

Egyptians are living
under foreign rule,

So they choose to be buried
near their greatest kings,

At the site
of their first pyramid

And glorious past.


Once a royal necropolis,

Becomes a burial site
accessible to all.

Commoners are buried
alongside ancient rulers...

Hoping for an afterlife
that is uniquely egyptian.

Saqqara stands as a monument

To the entire history
of ancient egypt.

It begins as a necropolis
of mud-brick mastabas.

But the ambition of one pharaoh
to build bigger and bigger

Means the world's first pyramid
emerges from its sands.

Now saqqara bears the scars
of kingdoms falling,

Rising, changing,

And holds the secrets of
a mighty ancient civilization.