Pyramid of Cheops (Model)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

A visitor to Monticello in the winter of 1823, Jane Blair Smith, describes an extraordinary object in Thomas Jefferson's domestic museum collection that was displayed in the Entrance Hall of Monticello. It was a scale reproduction of Cheops' (pronounced Kee-ahps) Great Pyramid at Giza [1](c. 2675 B.C.E.) in Egypt and a gift from the French writer and Middle Eastern explorer Constantin-Francois de Chasseboeuf (Comte de Volney) in 1802. Jefferson provides further evidence for its existence and its location in his art inventory of Monticello produced 1809-1815.

Unfortunately, the original historical artifact that was an essential component of Jefferson's museum at Monticello is lost to us. There are but a few known mentions of the pyramid by visitors to Monticello. It is primarily from Smith's contemporary account that one is able to accurately place the object's original location in the Entrance Hall as well as some aspects of its appearance and size. Of additional interest is the distinct impression that it made on this one visitor and others. Reconstructing Jefferson's lost pyramid model and how and why it came to be placed in such a remarkable context is an essential part of interpreting the Entrance Hall as a whole.

The reconstruction of the model pyramid for Monticello's Entrance Hall has been based almost exclusively on information garnered from primary sources. Smith's identification of the pyramid as that of Cheops at Giza, the location of the pyramid on the mantelpiece, and its relative size based on its placement confer much information but leave the material components open to conjecture. Based on the European trend and taste for cork models of ancient ruins in the 18th-19th centuries, the new model has been constructed in the antique phelloplastik technique revived by German artist and architectural historian Dieter Coellen of Cologne, Germany. Experiments and preliminary models of the pyramid built by the Curatorial Assistant at Monticello have indicated the high probability of a 1:1100 scale model. After placing a model of this size in a base large enough to accommodate the sand of the desert as indicated by Smith, the pyramid projects slightly from the mantelpiece. The reconstruction differs from Jefferson's original in materials only.

The pyramid model has been placed on the mantelpiece in the southwest corner of the Entrance Hall as part of the permanent collection. It is possible that Jefferson may have juxtaposed the model with Arrowsmith's map of Africa and the sculpture of Ariadne (which he once mistook for Cleopatra), in effect creating an "Egyptian Corner."


  1. This article is based on L. Summers Williford, Monticello Research Report, Undated.