The archaeologically fertile grounds of Egypt have spawned a discovery that dwarves even its Great Pyramid of Giza when it comes to longevity.
Excavators in the south of the country have unearthed a step pyramid that was built 4,600 years ago.
This would make it a few years older than the Giza pyramid, which was built during a 10 to 20-year period finishing about 2560 BC.
Researchers knew of the older pyramid's existence.
But it stayed buried below a dense layer of sand until archaeologists began excavation works four years ago.
The discovery adds to Egypt's seemingly non-stop conveyor belt of cultural sites and natural treasures. Few come bigger than Cairo's Egyptian Museum. It perennially delights holidaymakers on group tours, who benefit from the country's all-year sunshine, with its welter of Tutankhamen treasures.
The step pyramid archaeologists recently gave their initial findings to a Toronto symposium by the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities.
They were headed by Gregory Marouard, a research associate at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.
The step pyramid was originally 13 metres (43 feet) high - but is today around a third of the size.
The blocks it was made from have been pillaged across its centuries-long existence.
It is one of seven "provincial" pyramids constructed over central and southern Egypt by either the Pharaoh Huni (reign c. 2635-2610 BC) or Snefru (reign c. 2610-2590 BC).
Neither has internal chambers as they were not meant for burial.
So why were they built?
Scientists are not certain. But the most likely scenario is that they were used as symbolic monuments strewn across Egypt as confirmation of the pharaohs' divine powers.
Hieroglyphic graffiti was found on the pyramid's walls.
Images include those of a book roll, a seated man, a four-legged animal and a bird.
The pyramid was apparently discarded around the same time the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza started under Pharaoh Khufu.
All of the country's resources were supposedly poured into the Giza pyramid project, while smaller pyramids were left neglected.
The findings are published in LiveScience.
Copyright Press Association 2014
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