You couldn’t be more wrong if you thought that everything that needed to be archaeologically known about ancient Egypt has already been unearthed. Continuing studies and novel research tools keep throwing up new secrets about this intriguing civilization that thrived thousands of years ago.
In a new study published in the journal NATURE, researchers have used muon detectors to confirm the existence of a large and seemingly inaccessible void, about 30 meters long, deep within Khufu’s pyramid in Giza.
While research leaders, Mehdi Tayoubi from the HIP Institute in France and Kunihiro Morishima from Nagoya University in Japan, are convinced that the void is a deliberate architectural feature within the pyramid and not an accidental development over the 4,500-year existence of Khufu’s pyramid, they are reluctant to call it a hidden chamber, yet. Further research would be necessary to come to any defendable conclusion.
When cosmic rays from space come in contact with atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere, particles known as muons are produced, which rain down on earth at the rate of around 10,000 muons per square meter of the planet’s surface every minute.
The technology used to identify these high-energy cosmic particles is called muography. It involves the use of sensors designed to track and map these high-energy particles. In 2015, physicist Morishima and his research team placed a series of these detectors inside the Queen’s chamber to capture muons passing through Khufu’s pyramid from above.
While muons possess the capability to penetrate solid objects, not all of them pass through. A substantial amount of the muons get absorbed by the objects they encounter, including the stone blocks of the Giza pyramids.
Therefore, an area within the pyramid that shows a higher concentration of muons as compared to its surroundings would indicate the presence of a void – the less dense areas of these particles denoting solid objects that they were not able to penetrate.
Kathlyn M. Cooney, an Associate Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art & Architecture at the University of California Los Angeles, is not ruling out the possibility of a hidden chamber, although she agrees it’s too early to speculate, and at this point, one should not read too much into the findings.
“It would be extraordinary to find potential materials [such as] funerary items and treasures that are almost 5,000 years old,” Cooney says rather hopefully.
Egyptologist Aidan Dodson at the University of Bristol, UK, on the other hand, has categorically dismissed the likelihood of finding any treasure trove in the newly-discovered void saying “there’s zero chance of hidden burial chambers,” because Khufu’s pyramid already has a known burial chamber with a sarcophagus in it.
In his view, the mysterious void is potentially a “relieving chamber” designed to minimise the load of masonry bearing down on the Grand Gallery just like the one above the King’s chamber. A similar “relieving chamber” is also seen in the pyramid of Khufu’s father, Sneferu, at Meidum.
However, Colin Reader – an independent geologist and engineer based in Liverpool, UK, who has studied Egyptian pyramids – does not agree with Dodson’s theory. His line of reasoning is that the discovered void is too far from the Grand Gallery to serve the purpose of a “relieving chamber.” He is more inclined to the likelihood of the void leading to another higher chamber just as the Grand Gallery leads to the King’s chamber. “You would want to investigate and rule that out,” is what he says.
Well, the theories don’t end here. While Egyptologist Robert Brier and French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin agree with the relieving chamber logic, they are of the opinion that the new space is part of a huge counterweight system higher up to protect the Grand Gallery.
It goes without saying that further research and extensive muon scans of the pyramid from different positions, both within and outside of the structure, is absolutely imperative for more conclusive and irrefutable evidence, as pointed out by the researchers at the press conference.
“If an exploration has to be imagined, a good starting place would be from the suspected corridor at the North Face,” explained the researchers at yesterday’s press conference. “But for the moment there is no discussion about that — this is not our responsibility. But because we are engineers, and because we love innovation, we asked Jean-Baptiste to join our team…and we’re currently in the thinking and design process.”
However, as Cooney rightly suggests, getting past excessive the bureaucracy and red tape surrounding the Egyptian antiquities ministry would be a far bigger challenge for the research team.
“When you claim something like this, and even when you’ve got great science behind you, the Egyptians still have control over their national patrimony,” she told GIZMODO.
“Ultimately, it’ll be up to them as to how they’ll want [the pyramid] investigated and analyzed as the archaeologists move forward,” adding that the non- Egyptian researchers would have to work under an Egyptian setup, like it or not.
“We need to stop rushing archaeological discoveries that don’t need to be rushed and push scientists to make declarations about discoveries that aren’t yet proven,” she cautioned.
“It’s important to remember the old adage, ‘archaeology is destructive,’ and realize that the next generation will be able to do it better,” she added.
If nothing else, the discovery will lead to deep insights into the methodology and technique involved in building the oldest and largest of the Giza pyramids, experts feel.