Nature 408, 320-324 (16 November 2000) | doi:10.1038/35042510; Received 17 July 2000; Accepted 19 September 2000

Ancient Egyptian chronology and the astronomical orientation of pyramids

Kate Spence

  1. Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA, UK

Correspondence to: Kate Spence Correspondence should be addressed to K.S. (e-mail: Email:


The ancient Egyptian pyramids at Giza have never been accurately dated, although we know that they were built approximately around the middle of the third millennium BC. The chronologies of this period have been reconstructed from surviving lists of kings and the lengths of their reigns, but the lists are rare, seldom complete and contain known inconsistencies and errors. As a result, the existing chronologies for that period (the Old Kingdom) can be considered accurate only to about plusminus100 years, a figure that radiocarbon dating cannot at present improve. Here I use trends in the orientation of Old Kingdom pyramids to demonstrate that the Egyptians aligned them to north by using the simultaneous transit of two circumpolar stars. Modelling the precession of these stars yields a date for the start of construction of the Great Pyramid that is accurate to plusminus5 yr, thereby providing an anchor for the Old Kingdom chronologies.