Legible Three: Levels of Legibility

The hieroglyphics above are a late Old Kingdom decree (Sixth Dynasty) for rituals at one of Sneferu’s pyramids (fourth Dynasty) at Dashur

A Rough Chronological outline of pyramids and hieroglyphics

  1. The first hieroglyphic sentence dates from around 2700 BCE
  2. The first and really most amazing pyramid complex is the Step Pyramid of Djoser – “Djoser” being more of a functional idea than the actual name of the king for whom it was built since “Djoser” means “Holy” – the start of the Third Dynasty in around 2675 BCE, not long after the first legible sentence.  However, there are no ritual texts in this vast complex, but some aspects of the underground “underworld” ritual machinery might have been on King Unis’s mind when he built his pyramid (with the first pyramid texts in it) right next to the enclosure wall of Step Pyramid at the end of the Fifth Dynasty over 300 years later in about 2300 BCE
  3. Meanwhile the system of Hieroglyphic signs is evolving from an early point with many purely logographic signs (ie signs where the sign is the word and the thing symbolized at the same time) through a reduction in logographic signs to a more stable, more phonetic system by the time a little before the first pyramid texts (so reduction in logographic signs from say 3250 BCE down to the onset of sign stability at around 2600 BCE (beginning of the Third Dynasty)  with a peak in the number and instability of signs at around 2900 BCE (mid First Dynasty).  So it took about 600 years for the sign system used in hieroglyphics to settle down into a complete writing system, by which time there was already a more cursive ‘hieratic’ form available for informal daily use.  The only writing originally in the whole Step Pyramid complex is brush painted in cursive hieratic on the stone jars collected from earlier sites and included in the underground treasuries.
  4. Fourth Dynasty 2625 to 2500  BCE – six gigantic pyramids (The big three at Giza and Sneferu’s  vast total in three pyramids which were greater in total volume than the Great Pyramid:  the Red, the Bent and the Pyramid at Meidum) in slightly over 100 years.  No texts in the pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty.
  5. Linguistically – Early Old Egyptian is seen by James P. Allen as extending through all of the Pyramid Texts of Dynasties Five and Six
  6. Fifth Dynasty 2500 to 2350 BCE, no texts in the first half-dozen small pyramids
  7. Unis about 2325 – last king of the Fifth Dynasty and the first Pyramid Texts (around 300 spells) about 400 years after the hieroglyphic system stabilizes.
  8. Sixth Dynasty 2350 to 2200 BCE, about a dozen small pyramids (including several for queens) all with increasingly elaborate and abundant Pyramid Texts with many more (up to almost 1000) mostly new spells than what was written in the first Pyramid Texts in Unis’ pyramid.  
  9. End of the Old Kingdom 2200 BCE, ( and no more early Old Egyptian Pyramid Texts)
  10. After that, similar ritual texts were generally associated with the afterlife. Moreover, the ritual importance of Old Kingdom sites continued.  Just as the Step Pyramid accumulated objects from earlier sites and the Pyramid of Unis associated itself with the Step Pyramid, so later Egyptians, even in the Old Kingdom left signs of the ritual importance of Old Kingdom sites (such as King Pepi I’s decree ensuring ritual offerings at Sneferu’s Dashur pyramid complex).  Later some of the Pyramid texts were quoted in burial contexts, where they must have looked very archaic in linguistic terms.

Early Hieroglyphic changes


James P. Allen’s The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts 2nd ed Society of Biblical Literature 2015

Mark Lehner’s The Complete Pyramids  Thames and Hudson, 1997

John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt, Vols 1 and 2, St. Martin’s 2012 and 2016