Modern Archaeological techniques have revealed a void hidden for over 4,000 years deep within the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Aoife Muckian explores.
Archaeologists have announced their discovery of a large void within the Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as Khufu’s Pyramid. The find was described as an “exciting new discovery, and potentially a major contribution to our knowledge about the Great Pyramid” by Peter Der Manuelian, Professor of Egyptology and Director of the Harvard Scientific Museum. The existence of this void has sparked renewed curiosity about the Egyptian pyramids.
The Great Pyramid of Giza was built during the prosperous fourth dynasty in ancient Egypt under the command of the Pharaoh Khufu, who reigned between the years 2509 to 2483 BC. Standing at almost 500 feet (approximately the height of a thirty-storey skyscraper), it is thought to have been the tallest man-made structure in the world until the construction of Lincoln’s Cathedral in England in the 14th Century AD. It is known that there are at least three chambers inside the structure; the King’s chamber in which the sarcophagus built to contain the Pharaoh Khufu sits, a chamber at the base of the pyramid, and the Queen’s chamber.
The pyramid was constructed from granite and limestone, however the way in which it was built is a subject of much debate and uncertainty. Some academics have suggested that a ramp system was used in order to move the blocks for its construction. Others have suggested that it was built from the inside out using spiralling tunnels. The researchers in this study hope that the use of modern particle physics techniques will shed some light on the inner structure of the pyramids, and perhaps on the way in which they were built.
The type of particle physics these researchers used to examine the structure is known as muon radiography. Muons are very fast-moving subatomic particles. They are created when cosmic rays (high-energy atomic fragments) collide with atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Each minute, approximately 10,000 muons fall on a square metre of the Earth’s surface. Muons are much heavier than subatomic particles like electrons. This allows them to move through metres of stone without being absorbed, making them a valuable tool for exploring dense structures.
Muon detectors can function much like x-rays do for the human body. Structures with higher densities absorb more x-rays than less dense structures. The difference in absorption rates can be used to create an image, with denser areas appearing darker, and sparser areas appearing lighter.
“Muon detectors can function much like x-rays do for the human body.”
The researchers in this study put muon detectors in various chambers within the Great Pyramid, and recorded the data they collected for over a year. By noting which directions greater amounts of muons came from, they were able to triangulate a “void” in the pyramid above the grand gallery. In the pyramids, more muons reach the detectors if they pass through a void. This creates a lighter patch in the image in this location. In the 1960s, muon imaging was used to search for hidden chambers in another pyramid, but the search was in vain.
This attempt was more succesful and found a void that appears to be eight metres high, over one metre wide, and thirty metres long. Researchers are keen to use the word “void” to describe their discovery, as less-neutral terms such as “chamber” or “corridor” imply that its purpose is known. Aidan Dobson, an Egyptologist at Bristol University, has dismissed the idea that this void will turn out to contain hidden treasures. He has said there is “zero chance of hidden burial chambers.” Instead he proposes that the chamber may be what is described as a “relieving” chamber. This is a structure intended to reduce the weight-load of the masonry on the Grand Gallery’s architecture. Other pyramids in Egypt have similar kinds of chambers that were built for this purpose.
“The void appears to be eight metres high, over a metre wide, and thirty metres long.”
Colin Reader, an independent geologist and engineer in the UK has suggested, however, that the Grand Gallery and the void are too far apart from each other for the void to act as a mechanism to relieve its weight. Instead, he speculates that the void might be another corridor like the Grand Gallery, which may lead to a higher, undiscovered chamber. Medhi Tayoubi, president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute in Paris, has considered the possibility of the structure being a “second Grand Gallery.”
Currently the team of researchers behind this discovery have said they are “agnostic” about the many theories that are circulating. For now, they aim to continue to use particle physics to find out more about the void, and to see if there are more like it.