Saturday,23 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Saturday,23 March, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A new discovery?

Is the newly uncovered void inside the Great Pyramid at Giza really a new discovery, asks Nevine El-Aref  


Great Pyramid (3D)

When the Fourth-Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu decided to build the Great Pyramid as his gateway to eternity, he did not realise that the architecture of his burial place would perplex Egyptologists and scientists for centuries afterwards, placing them before a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

Today after 45 centuries the mystery of the Pyramids lives on, and the architecture of the Great Pyramid of Khufu still conceals its secrets. Scholars have long carried out scientific and archaeological research on the structure, but nobody has managed to solve all its mysteries.

Khufu Great Pyramid void chamber room muon scan

Two years ago, a team of French, Canadian, Japanese and Egyptian scientists initiated the ScanPyramids Project in an attempt to solve such riddles and better understand the pyramid’s internal structure with the help of modern non-invasive technology including muons and infra-red scanning.

But it seems that the curse of the Pharaohs continues to spread its spells. Earlier this week when the ScanPyramids team announced the discovery of “a giant void space” above the Great Pyramid’s internal Grand Gallery that they described “as being as big as an Airbus with 200 passengers on board”, the scientific committee assigned by the Ministry of Antiquities to review the team’s findings objected to them.

“It is a very big void space above the Grand Galley roughly 30 metres long,” ScanPyramids deputy coordinator Yasser Al-Shayeb told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said that the team did not know whether the void was horizontal or inclined or made by one structure or several successive ones.

A new discovery

“We don’t have any architectural interpretations for the space, and the role and purpose of its construction are unknown. What we are pretty sure of is that it is a void space filled with air and not with small or big stones or funerary collections as some have claimed,” Al-Shayeb said.

He added that the space could not be a chamber because it is a long passage that runs in parallel with the Grand Gallery and the chamber should be of a rectangular or square shape. It could also not be a crack in the pyramid’s inner masonry because it is four metres wide and a crack could not exceed 40cm.

He told the Weekly that the void space was first observed through nuclear emulsion films installed in the queen’s chamber of the pyramid by Nagoya University physicist Kunihiro Morishima from Japan, and then confirmed with a scintillator hodoscope set up in the same chamber by a team from the Japanese High Energy Accelerator Research Organisation (KEK) and reconfirmed with gas detectors outside the pyramid carried out by the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA).

“This large void has therefore been detected with a high degree of confidence by three different muon detection technologies and three independent analyses. These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of Khufu’s Pyramid and its internal structure,” Al-Shayeb said.

“We are working to scientific purposes and not to archaeological ones, using new non-invasive technology to explore the pyramid and to be able to scan it to see beneath the rock to reach results in a purely scientific way,” Al-Shayeb told the Weekly, adding that the findings had been published in one of the world’s most important scientific journals, Nature, as requested by the archaeological committee assigned by the Ministry of Antiquities led by Egyptian Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, American Egyptologist Mark Lehner and Czech Egyptologist Murslav Barta.

A new discovery

However, “the void space does not modify what we already know about the inner structure of the pyramid. Previous research had shown that the ancient Egyptians most likely constructed gaps in their Pyramids, which made the void the team found nothing special, or new,” Lehner told the Weekly.

He said that although he accepted the findings and that the voids may look like solid structures composed of perfectly fitted blocks, in reality because the ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids’ outer casing and passageways with strong stone, the core of the structures had many gaps filled with mortar and small pieces of stones. These random gaps could be as big as four metres across.

Al-Shayeb thinks the new “giant void” is not filled with stones, but is a large space filled with air and is mostly empty. Lehner believes it could be a weight-relieving space between the roof of the Grand Gallery and the mass of the pyramid’s core.

“Four similar weight-relieving voids are found on top of the king’s chamber to distribute the weight of the pyramid down, just like the tented roof on a house in America that distributes the rain to either side,” Lehner told the Weekly.

For his part, Hawass said the recent find was “not a new discovery”.

He told the Weekly that Egyptologist Dieter Arnold had already written in his book Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry that construction gaps in the Pyramid of Khufu are present above the entrance to the descending corridor and by implication, the whole passage system, which would include the Grand Gallery.

Other expeditions from Berkeley and Stanford in the US, Japan and France had used resistivity surveys in the past, and these had always shown possible voids inside the pyramid, he said.

“We have to be very careful about the word ‘void’ because the Great Pyramid is full of voids,” Hawass said. The base of the pyramid is part of a solid rock formation about eight metres in height that was transported from a quarry in the form of large stones making up the pyramid’s core. The stones are different in sizes, with some of them smaller than others. Hence, the internal core structure shows great irregularities, unlike the fine stone masonry of the pyramid’s outer casing and platform, he said.

 None of the core stones of Khufu’s Pyramid are modular in size or shape. “Large gaps always exist between stones. Also the builders may have left larger voids and spaces as intentional construction gaps. A void does not mean a room, far less a secret room,” Hawass said, adding that the ScanPyramids expedition was a scientific mission and not one searching for hidden passages, chambers or treasures.

In October last year, ScanPyramids had presented a video of its work showing the location of a geometric reconstruction of an unknown passage behind the “chevrons” above the descending passage. This reconstruction of a passage was a pure hypothesis to explain an anomaly, however, Hawass said. The ScanPyramids project could not define the shape, size, or exact position of the void, so there was a need to be careful about how the results were presented to the public.

“We are not against any new discovery, but we, as a scientific committee, are responsible for explaining to non-Egyptologists the purpose and methods of construction of the Great Pyramid. ScanPyramids should continue their work, but they have to use a proper scientific approach. We are happy that their paper has been published because we asked them to do so as part of their scientific research project. We are now going to publish a paper on our opinion of this work,” Hawass concluded.

“I wish every day that we could stumble upon a new discovery,” Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany said, commenting on the newly found void space. He described it as a “revelation” that had brought the world’s attention to Egypt.

He thanked the team for their work and for turning the world’s attention to Egypt.

“Since taking office, I have given special attention to the research team working on the ScanPyramids project so that we can have a deeper understanding of the inner structure of the pyramid,” El-Enany said.

He added that the team was a global one working under the umbrella of the Ministry of Antiquities and the supervision of Hani Hilal, former minister of higher education, and includes researchers from France, Japan and Canada. He said that the scientific committee assigned by the ministry to review the findings of the project had asked the research team to publish their conclusions in a prestigious international journal to make clear the credibility of the research and open discussion among scientists and Egyptologists across the world.

“The mission will continue its work for another year, and we hope they will solve the long-lasting enigma of the pyramid’s structure,” he said.

“This is not the end of the project. This is only one step among others to come,” Al-Shayeb told the Weekly, adding that the ministry committee had approved the work for another year for the team to continue a wider muons analysis in the Grand Gallery.

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