Lost Artifacts of the Great Pyramid: The Mysterious Case of the Dixon Relics
There is a certain perception of the Great Pyramid as an utterly void arrangement of empty halls and chambers, strangely bereft of artifacts and inscriptions that might offer clues to its construction. In 1992, however, German engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink and his team offered modern-day viewers their first glimpse of metal artifacts original to the Great Pyramid by sending a compact rover into the southern shaft of the Queen’s Chamber.
The rover’s endoscopic camera revealed a limestone block, a ‘door’ equipped with a pair of copper fixtures or pins whose purpose is still being debated. The pins, however, are not the only pieces of metal to have been found inside the Great Pyramid that are thought to be original to the structure. Indeed, when nineteenth-century British explorer and civil engineer Waynman Dixon first identified the northern and southern shafts of the Queen’s Chamber in 1872, he also discovered a trio of unusual, seemingly unrelated artifacts. These have become known as the Dixon Relics.
Hook and granite ball recovered in the Great Pyramid by Dixon and Grant in 1872. (F l a n k e r / Public Domain )
In 1872, after Dixon and his colleague Dr. James Grant chiseled their way into the sealed Queen’s Chamber shafts, they inserted a rod into the northern shaft. Like its southern counterpart, the northern shaft passes seven feet into the wall before slanting upward. Dixon’s probe managed to loosen three objects among rubble in the shaft: a bronze grappling hook, a granite ball, and a short rod described as ‘cedar-like’ by Dixon.
The objects were taken back to Britain, where their discovery incited a great deal of interest before they eventually disappeared from record. For nearly a century, as it was later learned by researcher Robert Bauval , the relics remained in the possession of the Dixon family, and in 1972, Dixon’s great-granddaughter offered the artifacts to the British Museum, where they once more disappeared, only to resurface again in 1993 through the arduous efforts of Bauval. The cedar rod, however, remains inexplicably missing.
Queen’s Chamber shaft where the Dixon relics were discovered. (Bakha~commonswiki / Public Domain )
What Are the Dixon Relics?
The remote location of the artifacts within the pyramid would seem to leave little doubt that they were placed at the time of the pyramid’s construction . What exactly were the objects, then, and what were they doing in the shaft? Nineteenth-century pyramid researcher Charles Piazzi Smyth, Dixon’s friend and correspondent, speculated in 1877 that the objects were crude tools inadvertently dropped into the shaft by enslaved pyramid builders (though we now know that slaves were not involved in the pyramid’s construction).
An article in Nature from the year of the discovery proposed that the granite ball was a standard Egyptian mina weight ball that, bearing a rough concavity on one side, was repurposed as a hammer, and that the cedar rod, scored with file marks, may have originally been attached to the bronze hook to form a tool. For nineteenth-century explorers, speculation did not persist much further.
Dixon relic - bronze hook found inside Queen’s Chamber shaft. (Nature, Vol 7 / Public Domain )
Dixon relic - fragment of cedar rod found inside Queen’s Chamber shaft. (Nature, Vol 7 / Public Domain )
The resurfacing of the artifacts in the 1990s incited new theories relating to the artifacts. Some modern-day researchers began to suggest that the objects were not lost as residual scraps of the pyramid’s construction but purposefully placed with ritualistic precision by priests or architects. Citing Czech Egyptologist Dr. Zbyněk Žába and Dr. I. E. S. Edwards of Oxford University, Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert suggested in their groundbreaking work The Orion Mystery that the bronze hook resembles a pesh-en-kef (pesesh-kef, elsewhere) device used in the wepet-er (opening of the mouth) funerary ritual that would release the deceased king’s jaw and allow him to eat, drink, and breathe in the afterlife.
This ritual, furthermore, is mirrored in the northern shaft’s alignment toward the constellation of Ursa Minor. As Bauval and Gilbert contended in a later article, Ursa Minor’s companion Ursa Major is associated with the ‘opening of the mouth’ ritual in the Pyramid Texts, in which a tool resembling the constellation, an adze, is used by Horus to open the mouth of the deceased pharaoh. Is there a link, then, between the tool found in the northern shaft and the tool in the sky?
The most compelling connection would seem to be the adze itself, the tool regularly used in conjunction with the pesh-en-kef throughout the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony. Not only was the adze shaped like the constellations Ursa Major, or the ‘thigh’, and Ursa Minor, but the Egyptian word khepesh, akin to pesh-en-kef, refers to the leg of an ox (the hieroglyphic reversal of khepesh also refers to strength or power, the qualities bestowed upon the deceased person by the pesh-en-kef during the ‘opening’ ceremony).
An 11th-dynasty relief now in Louvre, pictured below, depicts the butchered thigh of an ox with the obvious fishtail-like shape of the pesh-en-kef, suggesting that the fishtail pesh-en-kef, the ritualistic adze, and the ‘thigh’ constellation in the northern sky bear an extensive and complex connection. An adze companion to the Dixon hook, however, has not yet been discovered in the shaft.
Abkaou receiving gifts, 11 th dynasty, Louvre Museum. (Rama / BY-SA 2.0 FR )
The pesh-en-kef theory is not without questions. One might ask, as Egyptologist Stefan Bergdoll does in his extensive study on the Dixon artifacts, why a pesh-en-kef device of clearly atypical workmanship would be placed within the shaft when others, like the exquisite model in the photograph below, existed from the early dynasties of the Old Kingdom. One might speculate that the Dixon object could be a far more ancient—and thus precious—pesh-en-kef device that was left inside the pyramid for preservation as well as ritual, but we have examples of these devices from Predynastic times that are made of stone and do not closely resemble the metal Dixon hook.
These early flint devices were sharpened and used to cut the umbilical cord during childbirth, and it is from these fishtail devices that the stylized pesh-en-kef of the Old Kingdom developed for the religious purposes of ‘cutting’ or releasing a spirit from its body after death. Despite the general similarity of shape, neither the Predynastic flint devices nor the later stone pesh-en-kef devices are identical to the Dixon hook, but there is another key function attributed to the fishtail tools of Egypt: astronomical observation.
Model of the ‘opening of the mouth’ ritual equipment. (Pharos / Public Domain )
Crichton E. M. Miller, who has written extensively on the astronomical significance of the Dixon artifacts using as a basis the work of Dr. Zbyněk Žába, believes that the bronze grappling hook may have been used alongside the granite ball to form the master craftsman’s plumb line tool capable of surveying, timekeeping, navigating, and taking astronomical measurements used to align the pyramid itself.
In 1956, Dr. Žába became the first to draw a connection between the pesh-en-kef double-hook shape and the Egyptian astronomical device known as the merkhet, the ‘instrument of knowing’ that incorporated a dovetailed sighting device with a plumb bob, rod, and line. He showed how a merkhet could be used to align a temple or pyramid to the pole stars, and he contended that the shape of the pesh-en-kef devices of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic eras were remarkably applicable for use as sighting tools and could be interpreted as early forms of the later V-shaped sighting tool called a bay.
If the Dixon relics indeed formed a merkhet, this would explain the lack of stylization of the Dixon hook in comparison to the pesh-en-kef devices of the day. Furthermore, this would make the Dixon hook not an idealized model, but the actual sighting tool used in conjunction with the other pieces to align the pyramid to the pole stars, as Bauval and Gilbert originally suggested. If this is true, the tool would have consequently possessed some form of ritualistic significance, which could explain its placement in the northern shaft.
Ultimately, the exact nature of the dovetail shape shared between the pesh-en-kef and the sighting devices of the Old Kingdom is not clear. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the Dixon tool may have been astronomical in nature, and any ritualistic connection to funerary ceremonies was secondary to its original function as an astronomical or surveying device.
Are the Dixon Relics Tools of Construction?
On a more practical level, it must also be noted that the metal hook could bear some association to the metal pins found fixed in Gantenbrink’s door . Because the tool was found in the sealed airshaft—perhaps originally at the foot of the door before slipping down the shaft—it is therefore realistic to speculate that the tool had something to do with the pieces fixed in the door.
The pins, however, are too far apart to accommodate both wings of the grappling hook, but one cannot help but wonder if the hook attached to its wooden pole was used in some capacity to position or reposition Gantenbrink’s door during the pyramid’s construction. This possible function of the tool has also been mentioned by Bergdoll, who suggested that two similar poles with attached grappling hooks may have been used together to position the blocks identified by Gantenbrink.
Bergdoll also identified other ancient Egyptian metal hook-like objects resembling the one found by Dixon—one, for instance, is questionably referred to as a ‘buckle’ and resides in the British Museum —but while these comparable objects attest to the antiquity of Dixon’s hook, they add little to our current understanding the functionality of the objects.
Queen’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid where the Dixon relics were found. (Bakha~commonswiki / Public Domain )
Foundation Rituals and Building Traditions
Because the presence of the materials in the shaft is as unique as the shafts themselves are among pyramid architecture, establishing an exact precedent in Egyptian culture for the location of the artifacts is challenging. The ritual interment of special tools, however, was not unheard of in Egyptian building practice.
The tradition of foundation deposits, dating to the earliest dynastic times, could offer a bit of clarification when examining artifacts linked to sacred structures, as noted by Dr. Eiddon Edwards in a 1993 Independent article when the Dixon relics were rediscovered.
Foundation rituals were used to dedicate and consecrate structures, particularly sacred structures like temples, and could incorporate anything from the ritual purification of the ground to cord-stretching ceremonies. Among these rituals was a tradition of burying special objects at the corners or axes of the building, a custom that spanned much of the ancient world, from Early Dynastic Mesopotamia to Hellenistic Greece. Egyptian deposits often consisted of amulets, pottery, food offerings, tablets, and, remarkably, model tools—some even ceremonially broken before burial.
Carpenter’s Adze from a Foundation Deposit - Hatshepsut’s Temple. (Pharos / Public Domain )
Model Adze 1479 –1458 BC. (Pharos / Public Domain )
Contrary to their name, foundation deposits were not always located at the foundations of buildings in the ancient world. While Egyptian deposits were typically positioned beneath the building, there are some instances elsewhere in the ancient world of deposits made above ground, within the structure itself, such as in Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian temples. It must be mentioned, however, that Egyptian foundation rituals themselves were generally completed before construction took place. By their nature, stretching the cord, ‘hacking the earth’ (breaking ground), and scattering the ground with special gypsum powder—as Rameses II is depicted as doing before the construction of his temple to Amun—required impending, not initiated, construction.
The burial of objects likewise necessitated pre-construction interment. The deposits found beneath the 12th-dynasty Lisht pyramid , for instance, which included the bones of a sacrificial ox, were placed at each of the four corners of the pyramid before being sealed with limestone blocks that would become the corner blocks of the pyramid’s platform.
Indeed, even the modern-day equivalent of these rituals, the ‘breaking of the ground’ ceremony used by modern builders, occurs in advance of the commencement of major construction projects. Yet due to their location within the pyramid’s structure, the Dixon relics would have required the foundational ceremony to occur mid-construction or post-construction in order to place them within the Queen’s Chamber shaft where they were later discovered, which would seem to violate regular Egyptian pre-construction tradition. If the relics are a part of a so-called foundation deposit, it is an atypical one. Ritualistically broken tools, then (assuming that the cedar rod was, indeed, intentionally broken) suggest another kind of building tradition, one which calls to mind the idea of a master craftsman, upon completion of his work, ceremonially breaking his tools in order to formally bring his work to a close.
Egypt’s former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs Dr. Zahi Hawass wrote in a 2003 article that the artifacts could have indeed been placed toward the end of construction, as it is not known with absolute certainty if the Queen’s Chamber shafts were completely sealed or indeed led to an exit that might have allowed for the external insertion of artifacts from outside the pyramid.
Interestingly, Miller, who believes that the Dixon artifacts may have been surveying tools belonging to Great Pyramid’s chief architect, has also suggested that the tools were placed within the shaft to maintain the secrecy of Egyptian astronomical and architectural knowledge. The broken tools and their possible post-construction placement would seem to add a measure of backing to some of Miller’s ideas.
If true, the pyramid researcher Piazzi Smyth would have been mistaken in his original assessment, and the objects would have belonged not to the “hodmen of profane Egypt,” as he wrote in 1880, but to the very minds that produced the Great Pyramid. Whether or not foundation rituals, as they are currently understood by Egyptologists, bear any association with the Dixon objects is difficult to say, but they do shed light on the Egyptians’ recognition of the religious importance of building tools in the ceremonial dedication of structures.
Illustrations of sketches made by John Dixon showing the Dixon relics. (Harper’s Weekly / Public Domain )
Unanswered Questions About the Dixon Relics
Outside of their original purpose, the Dixon relics hold substantial implications for researchers. As the only organic artifact discovered thus far inside the Great Pyramid (excluding the red ochre relieving chamber cartouche and the exterior mortar used in the 1984 and 1995 dating studies, discussed in a 1999 Archaeology article), the wooden rod has drawn the special attention of researchers. If the rod were located, it could be subjected to radiocarbon dating which would provide an estimate of the when the rod was constructed and placed inside the shaft.
For some researchers, this means dating the interior of the pyramid itself. Dr. Zahi Hawass, in the aforementioned 2003 article discussing the relics, questioned the notion that dating the rod would provide a construction date of the pyramid, as the artifacts, in his view, could have possibly been inserted at any time following construction.
The story persists, however. Gantenbrink’s study of the southern airshaft in the 1990s showed what appear to be further artifacts left unrecovered, the rest of the ‘rubble’, perhaps, mentioned by Dixon. Interestingly, one of these is a wooden rod that John DeSalvo of the Great Pyramid of Giza Research Association believes to be the remainder of the wooden rod left by Dixon in the channel.
As reported in a 2002 article, Robert Bauval has traced the rod’s last location to the Marischal Museum in Aberdeen, Scotland, where Dixon’s colleague Dr. Grant is said to have delivered the artifacts. Today, the granite ball and hook remain on display in the British Museum, while the rod is still lost. For many, the case of the Dixon relics is still open, and their ongoing mystery remains a little-known, intriguing component of pyramid research.
Top image: Giza pyramids where the Dixon relics were discovered . Source: kanuman / Adobe.
By Morgan Smith
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