SAQQARA, Egypt – Archaeologists have discovered a new pyramid under the sands of Saqqara, an ancient burial site that has yielded a string of unearthed pyramids in recent years but remains largely unexplored.
The 4,300-year-old monument most likely belonged to the queen mother of the founder of Egypt's 6th Dynasty, and was built several hundred years after the famed Great Pyramids of Giza, antiquities chief Zahi Hawass told reporters in announcing the find Tuesday.
The discovery is part of the sprawling necropolis and burial site of the rulers of ancient Memphis, the capital of Egypt's Old Kingdom, about 12 miles south of Giza.
All that remains of the pyramid is a 16-foot-tall structure that had been buried under 65 feet of sand.
"There was so much sand dumped here that no one had any idea there was something buried underneath," said Hawass.
Hawass' team had been excavating at the location for two years, but only determined two months ago that the structure, with sides about 72 feet long, was the base of a pyramid. The pyramid is the 118th discovered so far in Egypt, and the 12th to be found in Saqqara. Most are in ruins; only about a dozen pyramids remain intact across the country.
Archaeologists also found parts of the pyramid's white limestone casing — believed to have once covered the entire structure — which enabled them to calculate that the complete pyramid was once 45 feet high.
"To find a new pyramid is always exciting," said Hawass. "And this one is magical. It belonged to a queen."
Hawass said he believes the pyramid belonged to Queen Sesheshet, who is thought to have played a significant role in establishing the 6th Dynasty and uniting two branches of the feuding royal family. Her son, Teti, ruled for about a dozen years until his likely assassination, in a sign of the turbulent times.
The pyramids of Teti's two wives, discovered 100 years ago and in 1994 respectively, lie next to it, part of a burial complex alongside the collapsed pyramid of Teti himself.
The Egyptian team is still digging and is two weeks from entering the burial chamber inside the pyramid, where Hawass hopes they will find proof of its owner — a sarcophagus or at least an inscription of the queen, he said.
Finding more than that is unlikely, as robbers in antiquity looted the pyramid, he said, pointing to a gaping shaft on the structure's top, a testament of the plunder.
On Tuesday, workers wearing white turbans and dust-covered robes scurried back and forth, carrying large rocks and bags heaped with sand away from the site.
Using an air brush, one worker cleaned sand from stunning hieroglyphic details on the white limestone casing, while archaeologists studied the inscriptions and students drew blueprints of the pyramid's base.
Dieter Wildung, a leading Egyptologist and head of Berlin's Egyptian Museum, said it was common in the Old Kingdom for kings to build pyramids for their queens and mothers next to their own.
"Hawass is likely right" that the pyramid belonged to Sesheshet, said Wildung, who was not involved in the dig. "These parallel situations give a very strong argument in favor of his interpretation."
But Joe Wegner, an associate professor of Egyptian archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania who has been involved in other expeditions at Saqqara, cautioned that until "inscriptional confirmation is found, it's still an educated guess" that the pyramid is Sesheshet's.
Although evidence of the queen's existence was found elsewhere in Egypt in inscriptions and a papyrus document — a medical prescription to strengthen the queen's thinning hair — the site of her burial was not known.
The find is important because it adds to the understanding of the 6th Dynasty, which reigned from 2,322 B.C. to 2,151 B.C. It was the last dynasty of the Old Kingdom, which spanned the third millennium B.C. and whose achievements are considered the first peak of pharaonic civilization.
Saqqara is most famous for the Step Pyramid of King Djoser, built in the 27th century B.C.
Excavations have been going on here for about 150 years, uncovering a vast Old Kingdom necropolis of pyramids, tombs and funerary complexes, as well as tombs dating from the New Kingdom about 1,000 years later.
Still, only about a third of the Saqqara complex has been explored so far, with recent digging turning up a number of key finds.
The last new pyramid, found here three years ago, is thought to belong to the wife of Teti's successor, Pepi I.
In June, Hawass' team unveiled a "rediscovery" at Saqqara — a pyramid believed to have been built by King Menkauhor, an obscure pharaoh whose pyramid was first discovered in 1842 but was later buried in sand.