The pyramids are the single most powerful symbol of ancient Egypt. They have engaged people's imagination for millennia and have influenced architectural forms from Meroitic civilisation in the Sudan to Las Vegas, prompting many theories of what they signify, who built them - aliens, for example - and how they were built. Yet for half a century the only reliable and widely available study of them was I. E .S. Edwards's The Pyramids of Egypt, continuously revised until its author's death in 1996.
Mark Lehner's The Complete Pyramids seeks in part to replace Edwards. His work, which incorporates fieldwork even from 1997, is broad in approach and exploits modern book design to include more than 500 illustrations while focusing on the mid-third millennium bc.
Lehner pursues the implications of his title with determination. The two not-quite-consistent computer simulations of the plateau at Giza with the three great pyramids of Khufu, Chephren, and Mycerinus do not bring the material to life as one might hope. But the variety of complementary presentations is impressive.
The book starts by giving background on the pyramids' context in ancient society, related religious conceptions, and the history of exploration. The conclusion studies how the pyramids were built and their funerary cults maintained, describing ethnoarchaeological simulations of construction and of the feeding of the work-force. The book centres on a "whole pyramid catalogue'', a historical and interpretive survey of which a third is devoted to the fourth dynasty, when true pyramid form was defined and when the largest examples were constructed at Dahshur and Giza. Lehner's approach reacts in part to the wilder theories of origins and datings that continue to be proposed. He also mobilises social and archaeological theory for the relatively unfamiliar purpose of interpreting colossal monuments. He models an actors' perspective, in which the early pyramids were sited on almost virgin ground and modified their settings by the quarrying of stone for their cores, as well as through their massive forms. Drawing on his own research on technical and organisational aspects of the Giza pyramids, he demonstrates how they could be constructed with the technology of their time, both in accuracy of surveying - which we still do not quite understand - and in the size of the undertaking, which might have employed thousands of workers throughout a king's reign.
We cannot comprehend fully the motivation that led to investing much of Egypt's resources in building monuments on this scale for the king and for his entourage, who were buried in the large tombs surrounding the pyramids. This focus on the ruling group has parallels - generally uncomfortable ones - in other civilisations and may be best seen as an extravagant deviation from normal practices that can arise in almost any period of strength and centralisation.
Centralisation can be seen from other perspectives. For the fourth dynasty perhaps only one provincial site has produced evidence of elite activity: the provinces must have supplied resources to the centre, but they were drained of significance. Lehner discusses the agricultural estates that formed endowments for the cult at pyramids and suggests that such foundations were part of the country's internal colonisation and state-building. This is problematic, because the country had been unified and exploited economically for centuries before pyramids were built. The estates, which supported maintenance rather than construction, may have been reorganisations of land-holdings as much as new settlements, and they continued to be created in the late third millennium.
The pattern of pyramid building and the consummate craftsmanship of the finest works embody preoccupations that were surely not economic or even only religious. Stylistic variation shows that they were aesthetic as well as funerary objects. Lehner does not focus on that particular aspect, but he has successfully integrated many approaches to them and his work stimulates renewed thought.
John Baines is professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford.
The Complete Pyramids
Author - Mark Lehner
ISBN - 0 500 05084 8
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.95
Pages - 256