During the last few months of 2015 Egypt made international headlines, but not always in a positive way. Indeed, the stories ranged from the tragic to the archaeologically titillating—and it is the latter that I will focus on here. First, however, let me mention the tragic.
In October a Russian passenger plane which had taken off from the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea, headed for St. Petersburg, went down over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 persons on board. Investigators soon came to the conclusion that this was an act of terrorism; someone with access to the plane’s baggage compartment had planted a bomb just before the Airbus took off. For the past several years, tourism has been heavily depressed in Egypt—a serious issue for a country where tourism comprises a major aspect of the economy—and the Sinai incident only served to further erode the reputation of Egypt as a hospitable place to visit.
To help revamp its image and hopefully attract more tourists, Egypt needed some good old-fashioned archaeological excitement—and it got it through two new projects applying modern noninvasive techniques to two of the most famous monuments of antiquity: The Great Pyramid and the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The Scan Pyramids project was officially launched on October 25, 2015, under the authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, coordinated by Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and the French HIP (Heritage, Innovation, Preservation) Institute, assisted by the Université Laval of Quebec and Nagoya University of Japan. The proposed work of the mission, which is expected to last at least through the year 2016, is to study the Great Pyramid (pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu, Cheops) and Second Pyramid (Khafre, Chephren) at Giza (conventionally dated to the middle and late twenty-sixth century BC respectively—dates cited depend on the chronology used, and even experts disagree among themselves) and the North (Red) Pyramid and South (Bent) Pyramid at Dahshur (both conventionally attributed to the pharaoh Snefru, early twenty-sixth century BC) using noninvasive techniques: infrared and modulated thermography, muons detection (muons radiography), and photogrammetry combined with laser scanning.
Thermography is, in the simplest sense, looking at temperature differences, variations in infrared waves (energy, heat), emitted by different materials or from different surfaces. Modulated thermography is a variation that takes into account the long-term heating up and cooling down of a structure, for instance over the daylight versus nighttime cycle, or the annual seasonal cycle. Such techniques can be applied to a modern building to determine where there are heat losses due to poor insulation, cracks, or openings. In the case of the pyramids, temperature anomalies could indicate the location of cavities or chambers behind the rocks.
Muons detection utilizes subatomic particles, muons, which are similar to electrons, although heavier and much shorter lived (with a half-life of about 2.2 millionths of a second). Muons are formed in the upper layers of our atmosphere when cosmic rays hit the nuclei of atoms. The muons rain down, traveling at close to the speed of light, at a rate of about 10,000 per square meters per minute. The muons can penetrate through many meters of rock before they are attenuated or stopped. Muon detectors set up around and/or in a pyramid can collect information regarding the relative accumulation and geometry of the arriving muons. Like an X-ray image, more or less dense regions in the structure can be determined. If these techniques are carried out successfully over the coming year, the known chambers and passages of the pyramids so analyzed should be evident, and there is a high probability that any comparable low-density regions will represent previously unknown chambers and passages.
Interestingly, muon detection techniques are not new. Essentially the same method was applied to the Second Pyramid in the late 1960s by a team led by Luis W. Alvarez (recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1968, for his work in elementary particle physics). That group investigated 19 percent of the volume of the Second Pyramid without finding any unknown chambers. Now, half a century later and using much more sophisticated and sensitive equipment, the Scan Pyramids project is set to analyze the entire Second Pyramid as well as the three other pyramids mentioned above. Personally, I eagerly await their results.
The planned photogrammetry will utilize drones to fly over Giza and Dahshur, taking numerous images from different angles, which can then be used to create detailed three-dimensional reconstructions of the areas showing not only the pyramids but all of the other monuments, features, and topographic details. The expected resolution for the reconstruction is five centimeters (two inches) overall and an amazing one centimeter (0.4 inch) resolution in selected regions (such as on the surfaces of the pyramids or other human-made structures). At this level features may become evident that have not been noticed previously, such as traces of ramps, building foundations, and pathways that are “invisible” to the eye at ground level and too small to be detected on currently available aerial and satellite photographs. Furthermore, the completed photogrammetric reconstructions will record the current states of Giza and Dahshur, providing reference points for the future as changes inevitably occur. Complementing the basic photogrammetry, detailed laser scanning is planned for selected areas where photogrammetry is not possible or is impractical, such as inside some of the monuments.
Even though the Scan Pyramids project only began in late October, using special infrared imaging cameras designed for thermal scanning, by November ninth a press conference was held at the base of the Great Pyramid announcing that a thermal anomaly had been found which was possibly suggestive of an unknown “secret chamber.” Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty (Mamduh al-Damati) pointed out an anomaly on the eastern side of the Great Pyramid at approximately ground level where several adjacent stones showed temperature differences relative to the stones around them. Furthermore, according to El-Damaty, “there is something like a small passage in the ground that you can see, leading up to the pyramids ground, reaching an area with a different temperature. What will be behind it?” This is all very tantalizing and was fodder for positive headlines regarding Egypt in the wake of the tragedy on the Sinai less than a week-and-a-half earlier, but how significant is it?
In my assessment, given my background in geology, geophysics, and various noninvasive techniques, the data is certainly interesting, but it is not definitive. There are many different, possible explanations for the anomaly. Yes, it could be a hidden and previously unknown chamber, but it could also be simply a difference in the thermal properties of the three blocks (perhaps quarried from a different area than the surrounding blocks), or it could be indicative of cracks and fractures behind the blocks (either the blocks showing the anomaly, or the blocks on either side) that result in differential heating and cooling of one area versus another. It is also conceivable that perhaps it is a cavity, but not one original to the Great Pyramid. The pyramids have served for thousands of years as a source of stone to build later structures; and there have also been numerous attempts to probe their secrets, and perhaps find a treasure trove, through penetration via tunnels. I wonder if the “small passage in the ground” that El-Damaty linked to the thermal anomaly is just such a later tunneling effort. No matter what it represents, the anomaly is worthy of further investigation.
Tomb of Tutankhamun—or Is It Nefertiti?
Although only a relatively minor pharaoh in the turbulent aftermath of the reign of the “monotheistic” heretic Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV—who prior to changing his name, ruled circa 1353/1351–1336/1334 BC—attempted to install a new religion based on the Aten or Sun in the form of the solar disk whose rays may have represented the spirit of Aten, a universal god or deity), Tutankhamun gained worldwide attention when his nearly intact tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, on the West Bank across from Luxor, in 1922. He was apparently a son of Akhenaten, although the identity of his mother is subject to debate, Tutankhamun (popularly known as “King Tut”) held the throne circa 1332–1323 BC. Today the iconic golden mask, sarcophagus, and other exquisite items interred with Tutankhamun form one of the most popular exhibits in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Over the years interest in Tutankhamun, his tomb, and his times has not abated. One recent development has been the recording of all of the details of Tutankhamun’s tomb using high-definition 3D (three-dimensional) scanners by the Madrid based organization Factum Arte. From this data, a facsimile reproduction of Tutankhamun’s tomb was installed and opened to the public in 2014 near Howard Carter’s house on the West Bank. The idea behind this is to have the facsimile, which is indistinguishable from the original to the average eye, take the brunt of tourist visits while preserving the original tomb for posterity.
Based on his analyses of the data collected by Factum Arte, on July 23, 2015, Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves (Amarna Royal Tombs Project) published a paper offering a radical new interpretation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Utilizing the high-resolution scans, Reeves identified what he believes are traces of two doorways or entrances hidden behind the current walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, one in the western wall that he speculates may lead to a hidden storage room, and one in the northern wall that may lead to another, earlier, tomb.
Reviewing his analyses carefully, I am convinced that Reeves is correct that there are two secret doors concealed in the walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. In September of 2015 Reeves was in Cairo and Luxor making the case to fellow Egyptologists and officials in the Ministry of Antiquities. He was successful in his persuasion, such that various radar and infrared technologies were utilized in the burial chamber; and on November 28 it was officially announced by the Ministry and its head, Mamdouh el-Damaty, that it is “90 percent sure” there is a hidden chamber or chambers behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The next step, presumably, is to somehow physically probe (perhaps drill through a wall and insert a small camera) or excavate, but this will be difficult (although certainly not impossible) without causing damage to Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. As I write this, to my knowledge no such actions have been initiated.
The big question is, who could be in the tomb beyond Tutankhamun’s? Reeves builds a compelling case that it might be none other than Queen Nefertiti, the Royal Wife and chief consort of Akhenaten. According to his research and analyses, the original tomb’s design includes features (such as an L-shaped corridor that turns to the right rather than the left) indicating it was originally designed for a queen. Piecing together the clues culled from many sources, Reeves argues that Nefertiti was promoted from a Great Royal Wife to co-regent in the sixteenth year of Akhenaten’s reign, and after the latter’s death assumed full control of Egypt as a pharaoh in her own right. As co-regent and then full pharaoh she was known as Neferneferuaten and ultimately as Smenkhkare, and after her very short independent reign (which may have lasted only a few months, Reeves speculates), she disappeared (presumably she died; perhaps killed) and was succeeded by Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun was only a young boy, around nine or ten years old, when he ascended to the throne of Egypt; it was not anticipated that his life would end unexpectedly a decade later (exactly how he died, whether from disease, a chariot accident, murder, or some other cause, has been the source of much speculation).
At the time of Tutankhamun’s death no royal tomb had been prepared for him so, according to Reeves’s theory, Nefertiti’s tomb was modified to receive a second royal burial. Furthermore, many of the objects found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, perhaps 80% or more, were not originally intended for him, but rather were reused items from earlier reigns (perhaps taken from various royal storage areas). Even the famous gold mask may have been an earlier piece reused for Tutankhamun (and thus does not accurately depict the pharaoh over whose mummy it was placed).
However, there is no agreement on who might be in the burial chamber beyond Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus. El-Damaty is on record as suggesting that it could be Kiya, a secondary wife of Akhenaten who, some speculate, may have been the mother of Tutankhamun. Ultimately we will not know for certain until the newly discovered chamber is physically entered—but when this might happen is uncertain.
Although he is no longer in power, at least officially, former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass had to get in on the Tutankhamun action, even if only as a naysayer. In a December 27 article published on the website of the U.K.’s Independent, Hawass called Reeves’s theory “baseless” and furthermore stated it was “born dead” because drilling or other invasive techniques that might corroborate the theory will also damage Tutankhamun’s tomb, and that will never be allowed. I cannot help but think that if Hawass had come up with the same theory while he was in power, he would have been probing and drilling into the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb without hesitation.
A New Era in Egyptian Archaeology
Whether or not the announcements concerning possible hidden chambers in the Great Pyramid and Tutankhamun’s tomb were released purposefully as positive publicity (probably in large part as an attempt to bolster the flagging tourism industry) to offset negative news coming out of the country, these are exciting times for archaeology in Egypt. I am hopeful that under the current Ministry of Antiquities real progress may be made in revealing ancient secrets and solving millennia-old puzzles. Perhaps it will even be possible to continue the work on the Great Sphinx, such as exploring the chamber under the left paw that geophysicist Thomas Dobecki and I located a quarter century ago using seismic techniques—research that has been on hold ever since. I look forward to future developments.
Robert M. Schoch, full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale. Best known for re-dating the Great Sphinx, he is the author of Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, and many other books. Website: http://www.robertschoch.com.