The Big Void

An Astonishing New Discovery in the Great Pyramid Raises Troubling Questions for 'Egyptology'

During the first week of November 2017, an announcement made headlines around the world—a previously unknown major “void” (a hollow or chamber) had been discovered in the Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau of Egypt. Often referred to as the Khufu Pyramid, after its reputed builder the pharaoh Khufu who ruled Egypt during the late twenty-sixth century BCE, no new significant rooms or chambers had been found in the Great Pyramid since the first half of the nineteenth century when the explorer Richard William Howard Vyse (1784–1865) discovered the so-called “relieving chambers” (also known as “relief chambers” or “chambers of construction”) above the King’s Chamber. But the chambers Howard Vyse discovered are miniscule compared to the void that was announced in November 2017. The newly discovered void is estimated to be over 30 meters long and similar in cross section to the Grand Gallery (which reaches 8.6 meters high, over 2 meters wide at its maximum, and is nearly 48 meters long). This newly located “Big Void,” as its discoverers refer to it, is located above and parallel (in a north-south direction) to the Grand Gallery. The Grand Gallery slopes at an angle of just over 26 degrees above the horizontal; the Big Void may either slope at approximately the same angle, or it may be closer to horizontal. [As a side note, the dating of the Great Pyramid is controversial. Traditional Egyptologists date it to the reign of Khufu, as stated above, but its origins may go back to a period thousands of years earlier; see the discussion in my 2017 book co-authored with Robert Bauval, Origins of the Sphinx.]

The Big Void was discovered by the ScanPyramids project, established in 2015 under the authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, coordinated by Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and the French HIP (Heritage, Innovation, and Preservation) Institute, assisted by the Université Laval of Quebec (Canada), Nagoya University of Japan, KEK (High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, Tsukuba, Japan), and CEA/Irfu (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission / Institute of Research into the Fundamental Laws of the Universe). The void was discovered using muons detection (also known as muons radiography, or muography). This technique of “seeing” into solid rock utilizes subatomic particles known as 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 meter 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. The scientists of the ScanPyramids project used three, different muon detection systems inside and outside of the Great Pyramid, and in all three cases they recorded the Big Void in the same location above the Grand Gallery. Due to the “coarseness” and limitations of the technology, the exact orientation of the Big Void in the vertical plane could not be determined; that is, it might be angled like the Grand Gallery, or it might be horizontal. Furthermore, it might be a single tunnel-like chamber, or it might be a series of closely spaced chambers.

After rigorous peer review and screening, the announcement of the discovery of the Big Void was published on November 2, 2017, in the British journal Nature (“Discovery of a big void in Khufu’s Pyramid by observation of cosmic-ray muons,” by Kunihiro Morishima and thirty-three co-authors from Japan, France, and Egypt).

Even as the discovery of the Big Void was being announced by the scientists of ScanPyramids, Egyptian authorities were belittling and denouncing it, turning what is rightfully an incredible advancement in our knowledge and understanding of the Great Pyramid into an opportunity to assert their authority. The infamous Zahi Hawass, former Minister of Antiquities of Egypt, now chair of a committee in the Ministry ostensibly overseeing the ScanPyramids project, insisted that the Big Void was not a discovery at all. Hawass stated that the scientists of ScanPyramids “showed us [the oversight committee] their conclusions, and we informed them this is not a discovery”… “The pyramid is full of voids and that does not mean there is a secret chamber or a new discovery.” The American Egyptologist Mark Lehner, also a member of the oversight committee, added “The great pyramid of Khufu is more Swiss cheese than cheddar.” While the outer casing and internal passages and chambers are composed of and covered or lined with fitted stone, the internal bulk masonry of the pyramid is riddled with various gaps that can be up to several meters wide and are filled with “globs of mortar and small pieces of stone,” according to Lehner. “These voids themselves do not alter what we know about Egyptian civilization,” Lehner insisted. (Hawass and Lehner quoted from articles that appeared in a number of media outlets, including Phys.org and NYTimes.com.)

While he was making pronouncements regarding the significance, or insignificance, of the ScanPyramids discovery, it was evident that Lehner was not actually familiar with the data and its interpretation. In particular, Lehner assumed that the Big Void is inclined at the same angle as the Grand Gallery, and thus suggested that it was nothing of particular importance, stating “At that angle, it doesn’t make much sense for it to be a chamber that would contain artifacts, burials, and objects and that sort of thing.” However, if he had been familiar with the actual data and its interpretation, he would have known that the Big Void might be oriented at an angle, as is the Grand Gallery, or it might be horizontal and level. The muon-based data collected thus far allows both interpretations. Furthermore, just because a chamber is oriented at an angle, why should this mean it is probably insignificant and unimportant? Is the Grand Gallery, which is oriented at an angle, insignificant?

Ratcheting up the rhetoric, through the social media platform of Facebook, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri of the Ministry of Antiquities officially stated not only “that the existence of several void spaces inside the pyramid is not a new thing. Egyptologists and scholars knew about it several years ago,” but also that the ScanPyramids scientists “should not [have] rushed to publish their findings in [the] media at that [this] stage of their research because it requires more research and it is to [too] early to say that there was [is] a new discovery.” One has to wonder when there will be enough research to satisfy the Egyptian authorities. Furthermore, if “Egyptologists and scholars knew about it [the Big Void] several years ago,” then why would the Egyptian authorities object to and disagree with the apparently confirmatory data gathered by the scientists of ScanPyramids? It all makes little sense, unless perhaps the Egyptian authorities are trying to hide something. Or do the Egyptologists simply resent outsiders who might either know or discover something that they missed? To acknowledge new discoveries by outsiders might, in the minds of the Egyptologists, threaten their status and authority. Perhaps indicative of such deep emotional resentment, Secretary General Waziri declared that the scientists of ScanPyramids “should not use propagandist terms such as ‘new discovery;’ and ‘a giant void’.” I find it rather curious that the announcement of newly acquired data and knowledge as a “new discovery” is somehow viewed as “propaganda” by the Egyptian authorities. And if a possible cavity that is some 30 meters long cannot be described succinctly as “a giant void” (or “Big Void”) without risking the accusation of being involved with “propaganda” (perhaps against the Egyptologists and Egyptian authorities), then what words dare one use?

Expressing his bitterness toward outsiders, Egyptian Egyptologist Reda Abdel Haleem publicly (on Facebook) called for the Ministry “to suspend this mission [the ScanPyramids project]”, a most unscientific approach—but as I discuss below, most Egyptologists are not scientists. Fortunately, the Ministry of Antiquities and its committee did not go quite so far; on Facebook they wrote:

“The committee agreed on the continuation of the research project under [the] condition to follow the scientific steps which first start with publishing the findings of their research in a scientific journal in order to be presented and discussed internationally among specialists and Egyptologists to evaluate it. And this [is] what has happened as the project team published their findings in Nature, the international science journal.”

Furthermore, it was stated:

“The Ministry of Antiquities is waiting to [for] the scientific responses on the findings from Egyptologists and specialists in this field especially the international scientific committee as well as organizing a scientific forum to present, review, and discuss the project’s find [findings].”

As a trained scientist with a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics who has devoted much of his professional career to studying the ancient monuments of Egypt, including the Great Pyramid (my book about the Great Pyramid, Pyramid Quest, was first published in 2005), I believe I am one of the well-qualified “specialists in this field,” and I have a response for the Ministry of Antiquities. The scientists of the ScanPyramids project are doing excellent work, their approach and data are sound, their methods are non-invasive and thus not detrimental to the Great Pyramid, and they have indeed made a significant “new discovery” in their identification of the Big Void. Their work should not be dismissed or belittled as “propaganda.”

Regarding exactly what the Big Void represents, we cannot be certain without gathering more data. Perhaps it is a single large and finely finished chamber, comparable to the Grand Gallery. Or, perhaps, it is a series of smaller chambers purposefully left in a relatively rough (that is, without finely dressed blocks lining their walls) state. Such rough chambers may have been intended solely to relieve the stress of the weight of the rock above the Grand Gallery, analogous to one suggested function of the relieving chambers above the King’s Chamber. Of course, even if merely rough-hewn chambers intended only as part of the internal architecture of the Great Pyramid and never meant to be entered, these chambers might contain inscriptions or other valuable information, as do the relieving chambers above the King’s Chamber where, among other crude hieroglyphic inscriptions painted on the rough stone surfaces, is found a cartouche of the pharaoh Khufu. Based on my personal inspection of the cartouche, I accept it as genuinely ancient, although not indicative of the origins of the Great Pyramid, as it may have been added later. Some researchers contest that the cartouche and associated inscriptions may be nineteenth century forgeries. It will be very interesting indeed to find out whether or not the Big Void contains any inscriptions. Initially, I would agree with the approach of pursuing further noninvasive techniques to define the Big Void more precisely in terms of its exact location and orientation. Ultimately, I hope that it can be drilled into and a camera inserted to image the interior.

It is not always clear to me why the Egyptian authorities, and certain non-Egyptians working with them, continually want to downplay, politicize, and even dismiss or totally deny the discoveries of well-trained scientists and experts. There seems to be a pattern that if something is not “discovered” by the card-carrying Egyptian Egyptologists or their close associates, then it must not be real—or if the reality of the discovery cannot be denied, then it must not be significant and/or it was known all along. I certainly have experienced this personally when it comes to the chamber under the left paw of the Great Sphinx that Thomas Dobecki and I located using seismic techniques in the early 1990s (see discussion in Origins of the Sphinx). To this day I have not been allowed to continue this research, despite the mounting evidence that not only is the chamber there but, furthermore, based on deciphered hieroglyphic inscriptions, that it is an ancient archive, a library, or a Hall of Records. (See Atlantis Rising #126.) What unimaginable secrets might be hidden beneath the Sphinx?

One of the issues seems to be that Egyptologists do not welcome the contributions of outsiders to their field. The majority of Egyptologists are (based on my experiences and observations) openly hostile toward any non-Egyptologists—especially scientists such as physicists, geophysicists, geologists, chemists, astronomers, and so on—who dare apply their expertise to Egyptological subject matter. Much of the problem may be that most Egyptologists are not scientists. Egyptology is traditionally more akin to such fields as art history, social history, linguistics, and the like. Many people have the mistaken idea that all Egyptologists are archaeologists, and archaeologists are scientists. The truth is that some (but not all) Egyptologists do carry out excavations and utilize archaeological techniques, and thus can genuinely be referred to as archaeologists, but it is debatable whether or not archaeologists should be referred to as scientists, or if it is often more a matter of archaeologists utilizing systematic techniques that on a superficial level appear “scientific” along with bringing in undoubted scientific expertise when it is useful to them (for instance, sending samples to laboratories manned by specialists—undoubted scientists—for radiocarbon dating). Here I will contend that many archaeologists, and certainly most Egyptologists, are not scientists. This is not to say that their fields of study are not scholarly, or are not legitimate academic pursuits but, rather, to delineate distinctions among various disciplines (I have great respect for many of my university colleagues who are historians, for instance, or philosophers, or ethicists, and so on, even though they are not scientists.)

As non-scientists, the Egyptologists all too often resent it when scientists overturn some of their most cherished notions, such as that the Great Pyramid is so well known that there is nothing of real significance to still be discovered in the structure, or that the Great Sphinx is older than the traditional Egyptological date, and that there is a chamber located under the Sphinx. To add insult to injury, in many cases the Egyptologists do not fully understand the technical details behind the discoveries made by scientists. I suspect that many Egyptologists have a sort of inferiority complex, in a way believing that they should be scientists but forced to face the realization that they are not.

The Great Pyramid belongs to all of humanity. It is not only a wonder of the world—arguably, perhaps along with the Great Sphinx, one of the most significant surviving monuments from antiquity—but also part of our collective global heritage. Research on the Great Pyramid, as long as it does not damage the structure, by any and all legitimate and qualified researchers should be allowed to proceed unhindered.

 

Robert M. Schoch, Director of the Institute for the Study of the Origins of Civilization at Boston University, a full-time faculty member at B.U.’s College of General Studies, and an Honorary Professor at the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. 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

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.