Pyramids - Enormous Ancient Symbols of Power

Why Did Ancient Societies Blow Their Budgets Building Pointy Things?

The Pyramids at Giza, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cairo, Egypt, North Africa, Africa
The Pyramids at Giza, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cairo, Egypt, North Africa, Africa. Gavin Hellier / Getty Images

A pyramid is a type of huge ancient building and a member of the class of structures known as public or monumental architecture. A pyramid is a mass of stone or earth with a rectangular base and steeply sloping sides that meet in a point at the top. The form varies--some are smooth-sided, some have stepped sides, some are pointed on the top and some are truncated, with a flat platform topped by a temple.

The purpose of pyramids varies across the cultures who made them--some contained high-status burials, others elevated a temple and its elite residents well above the hoi polloi to demonstrate their superiority and allow community-wide communication. Why elites gathered the resources to built huge monumental pyramids is not simple: more about that later.

So, Who Built the Pyramids?

Pyramids are found in several cultures around the world. The most famous are those in Egypt, where the tradition of the construction of masonry pyramids as tombs began in the Old Kingdom (2686-2160 BC). In the Americas, monumental earthen structures called pyramids by archaeologists were constructed as early as the Caral-Supe society (2600-2000 BC) in Peru, similar in age to those of the ancient Egyptian, but, of course, totally separate cultural innovations.

Later American societies who built pointy- or platform-topped, slope-sided stone or earthen pyramids include the Olmec, Moche, and Maya; there's also an argument to be made that the earthen Mississippian mounds such as Cahokia of southeastern North America should be classed as pyramids.

Etymology

While scholars are not in total agreement, the word "pyramid" is apparently from the Latin "pyramis", a word which refers specifically to the Egyptian pyramids. Pyramis (which is apparently unrelated to the old Mesopotamian tragic myth of Pyramus and Thisbe) in turn is derived from the original Greek word "puramid".

Interestingly, puramid means "cake made out of roasted wheat".

One theory for why the Greeks used "puramid" to refer to the Egyptian pyramids is that they were making a joke, that the cake had a pyramid shape and slighting the Egyptian technological capabilities. Another is that the shape of the cakes was (more or less) a marketing device, the cakes simply made to look like the pyramids and were named after them.

Math and Hieroglyphs

Another possibility is that pyramid is an alteration of the original Egyptian hieroglyph for pyramid--MR, sometimes written as mer, mir, or pimar. See the discussions in Swartzman, Romer, and Harper, among lots of others.

In any case, the word pyramid was at some point also assigned to the pyramid geometric shape (or possibly vice versa), which is basically a polyhedron made up of connected polygons, such that the sloping sides of a pyramid are triangles.

So, Why Build a Pyramid?

While we don't have any way of knowing for sure why the pyramids were built, we have lots of educated guesses. The most basic is as propaganda. Pyramids can be seen as a visual expression of the political power of a ruler, one who at a minimum had the ability to arrange to have an extremely skilled architect plan such a massive monument and to have laborers mine the stone and construct it to specifications.

Pyramids are often explicit references to mountains, the elite person reconstructing and reconfiguring the natural landscape in a way that no other monumental architecture really can. Pyramids may have been built to impress the citizenry or the political enemies inside or outside the society. They may even have fulfilled a role empowering non-elites, who may have seen the structures as proof that their leaders were able to protect them.

Pyramids as burial places--not all pyramids had burials--may also have been commemorative constructions that brought continuity to a society in the form of ancestor worship: the king is always with us. Pyramids may also have been the stage on which social drama could occur. As the visual focus of large numbers of people, pyramids may have been designed to define, separate, include, or exclude segments of the society.

What are Pyramids?

Like other forms of monumental architecture, pyramid construction holds clues to what the purpose might be. Pyramids are of a size and quality of construction that greatly exceeds what is required by practical needs--after all, who needs a pyramid?

Societies which build pyramids invariably are those based on ranked classes, orders or estates; the pyramids are often not built just on a lavish scale, they are carefully planned to suit a particular astronomical orientation and geometrical perfection. They are symbols of permanence in a world where lives are short; they are a visual symbol of power in a world where power is transitory.

Some Examples

Egypt

Central America

South America

North America

Sources

This article is part of the About.com guide to something or other, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology

  • Harper D. 2001-2016. Pyramid: Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed 25 December 2016.
  • Moore JD. 1996. Architecture and Power in the Ancient Andes: The Archaeology of Public Buildings. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Osborne JF. 2014. Approaching Monumentality in Archaeology. Albany: SUNY Press.
  • Pluckhahn TJ, Thompson VD, and Rink WJ. 2016. Evidence for Stepped Pyramids of Shell in the Woodland Period of Eastern North America. American Antiquity 81(2):345-363.