Jane Blair Smith, a visitor to Monticello in the winter of 1823, described an extraordinary object in Thomas Jefferson's Entrance Hall. Projecting "over the mantel," Smith wrote, "was a model of the Pyramid of Cheops, the base so contrived as to contain a portion of the sand & pebble of the desert!"1 The model was a scale reproduction of Cheops's (pronounced Kee-ahps)Great Pyramid at Giza(c. 2675 B.C.E.) in Egypt. It was a gift to Jefferson from the French writer and Middle Eastern explorer Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf (Comte de Volney) in 1802.2 Jefferson provides further evidence for its existence and its location in his art inventory of Monticello produced in 1809-1815.
Unfortunately, the original historical artifact that was an essential component of Jefferson's Entrance Hall "museum" is lost to us. There are but a few known mentions of the pyramid by visitors to Monticello. It is primarily from Smith's account that one is able to determine the object's original location, as well as some aspects of its appearance and size. Of additional interest is the distinct impression that it made on Smith and other visitors. Reconstructing Jefferson's lost pyramid model, and understanding 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 modern reconstruction of the model pyramid is 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 Cöllen of Cologne. Experiments and preliminary models of the pyramid built by Monticello's Curatorial Assistant have indicated the high probability of a 1:1100 scale model. After placing a model of this size on 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."
2. Volney to Jefferson, [June 25, 1801], in PTJ, 34:454. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Jefferson to Volney, April 20, 1802, in PTJ, 37:295. Transcription available at Founders Online.