Uncovering Egypt’s past: ND native, Egyptologist’s team finds storehouse of Pharaoh

Dr. Mark Lehner, right, North Dakota native and renowned Egyptologist, discusses the silo building with one of the excavators. Photo from AERA.

North Dakota native and anthropologist Dr. Mark Lehner’s archaeological research in Egypt for several decades has turned up countless finds in uncovering the mysteries of the Giza Plateau, including the Great Sphinx.

Most recently, Lehner and his team uncovered a storehouse of Pharaoh that fed the pyramid builders. Initially, it was believed to be a palace where the king lived.

Lehner is director and president of Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Inc. (AERA) based in Boston, Massachusetts. His work has included mapping the Great Sphinx and discovering a major part of the “Lost City of the Pyramids” at Giza. The “Lost City of the Pyramids” is a large settlement where people lived and worked while constructing the Giza pyramids.

Lehner was in Minot last week to visit family and friends. He also gave a lecture on May 3 as part of the “Discoveries Set in Stone” archaeology conference at Minot State University.

Lehner also was featured in the first episode of National Geographic’s 10-part series, “Lost Treasures of Egypt,” which premiered May 2.

Just to the east of the silo court on the other side of the wide stone wall in this photo, more of what was called the Eastern Town was discovered. . Photo from AERA.

The National Geographic episode, filmed in 2022, focuses on the discovery of a royal palace and harbor that operated as the nerve center for the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

“It was the investigation of a large – really huge – royal building, with the hypothesis it was a palace, possibly dating back to Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid,” said Lehner, while in Minot. “The other two pyramids were built by Khafre (second pyramid) and Menkaure (third pyramid). Most of what we find dates to these guys.

“After we completed clearing the whole of the building it turned out to be a true storehouse of Pharaoh that fed the pyramid builders and not a palace, as in where the king lived,” Lehner said. “But the building and the greater site was certainly part of a wider palace city. We know this from the Wadi al-Jarf papyri (ancient documentation) that Khufu’s palace lay to the north of our site.”

Lehner said the filmmakers wanted to stick to the idea it was Khufu’s palace because they filmed them working and produced the film before the whole excavation was completed. The filming was done in 2022 and the uncovering of the whole building was in 2023.

To explain a storehouse of Pharaoh, Lehner referred to a scene in the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” in which Charleston Heston, who played Moses, orders the granaries be opened to people.

Silo court is a partially exposed structure with large partially subterranean grain silos. Photo from AERA.

“Big beehive granaries were smashed open and the grain poured out so the people could properly be fed,” Lehner said.

He said they are finding a series of huge round silos at the site. “They’re like grain storage silos in my own state here in North Dakota,” he said.

Lehner said he has done extensive research on grain storage.

“I had to get interested in it because we had like 30 of these silos. We found the whole building and we found the whole series of circles in the ground and then we excavated some of them. What were the floors like? One of the floors was kind of flat but then it kind of slopes down,” he said.

“So that became the real story – it’s the storehouse of Pharaoh,” he said. “For sure, it’s part of a bigger palace city and the building could date back to Khufu and be in a part of his palace but it’s where they stored the grain.”

Silo court is a partially exposed structure with large partially subterranean grain silos. Photo from AERA.

He said one of the last things they really hadn’t understood was this royal building because they only had about 25 meters of it and the rest was under a modern soccer field.

“For 20 years, we couldn’t excavate it because the local townspeople were given the rights to this soccer field. Thanks to our colleagues in the Ministry of Antiquities who recognized the value of our site for its heritage, permission came for us to move the soccer field,” he said. Permission was given about three years ago.

Where the palace is located is under a very densely built-over area of modern Giza – modern Cairo.

“But the government is relocating people and it might be possible to excavate Khufu’s palace in the future,” he said.

North Dakota ties

Lehner retains his ties to North Dakota and Minot. His brother, David, lives in Minot. Their other siblings are Dan of California, Steve of Arizona and Lois of Colorado.

“My ties to North Dakota are very strong,” he said. His mother’s side of his family homesteaded in the Minot area. His father’s side of the family also lived in North Dakota.

“Minot has always been kind of a hometown even when we were living in Jamestown. My grandfather’s farm was here and the farm was like a second home, not only for us but for my cousins,” he said.

Lehner was born in Fargo and lived in Jamestown, Connecticut and California before his family moved to Minot in 1965 when his dad became minister of First Congregational Church. He graduated from Minot High School and attended Minot State University for a year, then transferred to the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. He left college to go on a hitchhiking trip, ending up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, at the headquarters of the Edgar Cayce Foundation – the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE). Lehner had become interested in the work of Edgar Cayce, an American psychic.

“This interest in ancient Egypt grew when I went on a Cayce youth tour and we went to points in Egypt, Israel, but also points in Europe, where we visited so-called psychics. I was keen to go back so I applied to be a year abroad student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), and lo and behold, I was accepted,” he said.

He majored in anthropology for that year – 1973 – and stayed on to earn his B.A. in anthropology at AUC.

He continued to stay in Egypt for 13 years, of which he said, “I spent every waking moment I could on the Giza Plateau. The story that I went there with didn’t add up against what I call ‘bedrock reality,’ or as they say in NASA, ‘ground truth.’ Ground truthing is when you actually land somebody on the moon so I was ground truthing my ideas and they weren’t panning out. I was seeing there was a lot of information at the pyramids and the Sphinx that nobody had really recognized or known.”

Lehner, who was very good at surveying and always had a good hand at being artistic, started freelancing, joining expeditions and other sites in Egypt. He worked for American, Egyptian, British, French and German archaeological projects.

“My view changed. I experienced what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance, which is where the ideas that you have there’s a conflict with some kind of evidence. This was 40, 50 years ago because I’ve been in Egypt 50 years.

“Over my entire life I have had an interest in why people believe things,” he said. He said he has a library on belief systems and how they work.

“Even to this day I’m reading new books by cognitive scientists and philosophers on belief systems. I stopped believing in the reality of these Casey ideas that took me there,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lehner was mapping the Great Sphinx. Since he had worked on numerous archeological projects, the director of the American Research Center in Egypt, a consortium of leading universities and museums doing work in Egypt, agreed to support him.

“I spent three years at the Great Sphinx mapping it stone by stone, and that was my breakout project. For me, the Sphinx was a key that led to a wider and wider interest in the whole plateau. I realized there were no really good maps and topical surveys so I started something called the Giza Plateau Mapping Project. An understanding of the whole plateau led to an idea of how (and) where the pyramids are situated, where the big ramps to build them went out to the quarries,” he said. “And then I started thinking out there beyond the quarries you should find where all the people lived. How are they housed? How are they fed?

The excavating began there.”

Lehner founded the Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Inc. (AERA) in 1985.

He went to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and finished his Ph.D in 1990 but before he was finished, he was hired at the University of Chicago.

“There was so much new information to be gleaned from the traditional archaeological and anthropological point of view that the real Egyptians built the pyramids and makes it all the more wondrous and fascinating,” he said.

– See Part 2 in the Saturday-Sunday, May 18-19 edition of The Minot Daily News.


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