16 Reasons Why Egypt's Pyramids were Tombs

I often get asked, "how can you be sure that the pyramids were built as royal tombs?" Here are the reasons I can give (I'll add more as I remember them...)

Khafre's Pyramid at night, Giza. Photo: Garry Shaw
1) The ancient Egyptians say that the pyramids were tombs: The Harper's Song of Antef (date uncertain, though perhaps composed during the 1st Intermediate Period) refers to "the gods who existed before, who rest in their pyramids (mrw), and the blessed nobles, likewise buried in their pyramids (mrw)." Thus, pyramids were places of burial.

2) Royal pyramids are usually surrounded by a cemetery. Sarcophagi are found within pyramids. Rich Egyptians were buried in sarcophagi, as evidenced within many tombs. The presence of sarcophagi within pyramids thus suggests a mortuary purpose.

3) In the New Kingdom, private burials at Thebes often came in three parts: 1) the burial proper, beneath the ground; 2) a chapel where visitors could leave offerings; and 3) above the chapel, a pyramid, associated with the solar cult. Burials are thus associated with pyramids.

4) The Abu Sir papyri mention priests serving in a mortuary cult conducted in the temples beside the Abu Sir pyramids.
As priests offered to dead kings in the large temples immediately beside pyramids, it would seem likely (given the above points), that the king was buried inside. Royal mortuary temples beside pyramids are thus the royal equivalent of offering chapels in private tombs. It must always be remembered that the pyramids cannot be studied in isolation: each was part of a larger complex of buildings dedicated to the cult of the dead king.
5) Beyond the Abu Sir Papyri, the names and titles of many individuals working in the mortuary cults of various Old Kingdom pyramid temples are known. For example:

6) King Menkaure of the 4th Dynasty ordered a tomb be built for the courtier Debehen during a visit to see the construction of his pyramid. This courtier's tomb is in Giza. 

The Pyramid Texts of King Pepi I, Saqqara.
Photo: Garry Shaw
7) The pyramid texts are there to help the king reach his afterlife. They are written on the inside of the chambers beneath the late 5th and 6th Dynasty pyramids, even on the walls of the burial chamber around the sarcophagus. These texts bear the name of the king who is being helped into the afterlife. 

8) Pyramids' names are associated with kings. This is not an absolute proof of them being tombs, but at least it re-enforces their royal connection. Khufu's pyramid was "Akhet Khufu" - "Khufu's Horizon". The horizon was a place of transition. Papyri fragments from Wadi el-Jarf mention fine limestone blocks being sent from the Tura quarries to "Akhet Khufu". 

9) Although the only inscriptions known in the 4th Dynasty Giza pyramids are in places that weren't meant to be seen, the associated temples outside were inscribed and decorated. It was not a common practice in the 4th Dynasty for burial chambers/shafts of the elite to be decorated either, only the chapels used by the priests. Thus, it seems that royal burial practice was no different, unless wooden frames with hangings (both perishable) were originally placed around the chambers (something I mention in my book The Pharaoh). Incidentally, king's names, including Khufu's, have been found written in red ink on blocks, as part of inscriptions designating which work crews dragged which blocks, e.g. "The Crew 'The pure ones of Khufu'". 

The Step Pyramid of King Djoser, Saqqara.
Photo: Garry Shaw
10) Djoser's Pyramid at Saqqara, which predates those at Giza, contains scenes that show the king performing ritual acts in the tunnels beneath the pyramid; these scenes also mention the king's name. There is also a massive burial vault beneath the pyramid itself. Djoser's pyramid - the first in history - began life as a large mastaba-tomb, which was added to over the course of the king's reign; whatever reason motivated these changes, the evolution from mastaba to pyramid occurred under Djoser. 

11) The Great Pyramid was the result of a approx. 100 years of architectural evolution and experimentation. Khufu's father, Sneferu, built three large pyramids, each different, whilst attempting to make a true, flat-sided pyramid.

12) Because the pyramids had been robbed by the time of the 26th Dynasty, the kings of this period renewed these burials by interring new coffins inscribed for the dead kings e.g. this one for Menkaure: 
Sometimes new bodies were placed inside pyramids too - lots of bone fragments were found beneath the Step Pyramid of Djoser, for example. These later restorations explain why some Old Kingdom pyramids had sealed sarcophagi when discovered, yet were empty - they had been resealed. Being covered in gold and jewellery, any royal body would have been an obvious target for ancient looters, similarly explaining why the bodies themselves haven't survived.

13) In the Old Kingdom, kings did not supply resources to the temples of the gods across Egypt, instead they channelled their resources into the royal tomb building project. During the 4th Dynasty - when the Giza Pyramids were built - this went towards the pyramid itself; under the 5th and 6th dynasties, resources were focused on the associated pyramid temples and their decoration, rather than the pyramids themselves. This is why they are smaller.
The Great Sphinx, with the pyramid of Khufu in the
background. Giza. Photo: Garry Shaw. 
14) Some people argue that the ink inscriptions of Khufu's name in the relieving chambers above the King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid are forgeries, put there after the pyramid was completed or by the chamber's discoverer; this, however, is physically impossible due to the location of many of these inscriptions, particularly those between blocks. This, when combined with other evidence presented here, shows that the Great Pyramid was built under Khufu and most probably had the same function as all other known pyramids.

15) It is sometimes argued that no corpse has ever been found buried within a pyramid. This is, however, not the case. For the recently discovered remains of a queen, see:
Also, quoting from my book, The Pharaoh, Life at Court and on Campaign, regarding early examples of royal mummies:
"Fragments of bodies were found in Old Kingdom pyramids, but it is unclear whether these are the remains of kings or later intrusive internments; a well preserved mummy, sometimes cited as being that of King Merenre, was found near the royal sarcophagus in the Pyramid of Merenre at South Saqqara, while a single canopic jar in the burial chamber of Pepi I was found to still contain the king’s tightly wrapped internal organs."
Although I hedge my bets here regarding Merenre (he might be 18th Dynasty), many Egyptologists do often cite the mummy as being that of the king. Take a look at the mummy for yourself at the Imhotep Museum in Saqqara. It is also quite possible that pieces of the original royal bodies are among the assorted remains from different periods found in the various Old Kingdom pyramids. Finally, given that the oldest pyramids are roughly 4,500 years old and have been robbed repeatedly, should we really expect them to still contain their original occupants? 

16) Some argue that the pyramids are nothing but cenotaphs, but given the above points and the absence of any other likely royal tombs from these periods, it would seem unlikely.