Scribal Spotlight: A Void in the Great Pyramid?

As part of our new series “Scribal Spotlight,” we take news items in the field and explore their wider relevance to our readers. This week’s spotlight shines on the recent announcement of the discovery of “a big void” in the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza is at the centre of a “new” discovery (authors’ photo)
Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza is at the centre of a “new” discovery (authors’ photo)

What is the discovery?

Last month, an international team of scholars from the Scan Pyramids Project published an article in Nature, where they explained their recent experiments within Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza. Their aim was to gain a better understanding of its internal structure and they are in fact studying a number of pyramids to achieve their goals. In their recent study, they used a number of complex methods, including cosmic-ray muon radiography, which measures the result of  interactions of cosmic rays with atoms of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. After the interactions, these muon particles make their way to Earth and are able to penetrate through matter. The scientists were able to measure this penetration using nuclear emulsion films through the pyramid’s stonework and examine their rates of absorption.

Side view of the pyramid with the position of the detectors (1)
Side view of the pyramid with the position of the detectors (1)

They detected  a large ‘void’ (their term!) above the Grand Gallery, which leads to the King’s Chamber. It measures ca. 30 m in length and its position has been revealed to be either horizontal or inclined. To avoid a misidentification, the team also used two further methods to confirm these results: (1) several layers of scintillator hodoscopes and (2) micro-pattern gas detectors (Micromegas).

The Scan Pyramids Project has also presented their findings with a video on YouTube:

 

How did the scholarly world react to the news?

In the Egyptological world, reactions have been steadily forthcoming. Most scholars welcomed these investigations, though cautioned that we ought to be careful with our interpretations of this new data. Some news outlets went so far as  to claim that “a new chamber” has been discovered (Toronto Star), while others have framed the study to fit with the stereotypical and perpetually unsolvable “mysteries of the pyramids” (BBC UK). For archaeologist David Anderson, “there is far too much association between archaeology and the occult in the public imagination. It’s not just Indy; every archaeologist in the movies is pursuing some occult or religiously powerful object. Overusing ‘mysterious’ simply pushes the public imagination further in this direction” (2). Michigan State University’s Ethan Watrall regards the nature of news articles as problematic as “all you see are secret chambers, hidden spaces, secret vaults… all of this language suggests a mystery where none probably exists” (2).

A 3D model of the pyramid with the void visible above the Grand Gallery (Photo: Scan Pyramids)
A 3D model of the pyramid with the void visible above the Grand Gallery (Photo: Scan Pyramids)

As regards the function of the ‘void’, scholarly interpretations vary. On one hand, archaeologist Mark Lehner, who charmingly asserted that “the great pyramid of Khufu is more Swiss cheese than cheddar” (8), thinks that the void “could be a kind of space that the builders left to protect the very narrow roof of the Grand Gallery from the weight of the pyramid” (3), an interpretation also supported by Egyptologist Aidan Dodson (4). Both scholars also agree that the likelihood of this “void” (if it is indeed an intentional chamber of some kind) is unlikely to contain any artefacts or burials. Harvard’s Peter der Manuelian concurs, adding that “the muons can’t tell us about chambers, form, size, or any possible objects, so it’s far too early to speculate. I know most people want to know about hidden chambers, grave goods, and the missing mummy of King Khufu. None of that is on the table at this point. But the fact that this void is so large warrants further non-invasive exploration” (5).

For others, the void is too far from the Grand Gallery to function as a relieving chamber as Colin Reader has suggested (4). What most scholars do agree on, however, is that further analysis of the new discovery is needed for accurate interpretation, and that this is another step into understanding how the pyramids were built. Fortunately, the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Enany announced this week that the team will be able to work on the project for another year (7).

The Scribes’ Take on the News

Quite naturally this news has espoused many diverse opinions on the matter of the ‘void’ and also rekindled the enthusiasm the public feels towards ancient Egyptian ‘mysteries.’ While we are fascinated by the application of muon tomography and other highly specialized methods to Egyptian archaeology, we eagerly await further publication of the results in a more detailed and conclusive manner. Despite their current work, they are still determining the exact nature and correct identification of the ‘void.’ While some aforementioned scholars have criticised the approach by most news outlets, we must also admit that a fair number of them were actually skeptical in reporting this find. In the end, Peter der Manuelian explained that “all we know is that we have a void, we have a cavity, and it’s huge, which means possibly intentional and certainly worthy of further exploration. In that sense it’s obviously frustrating. On the other hand, as an architectural discovery, something we didn’t know about the interior of the Great Pyramid, it’s absolutely big news” (6).

We absolutely agree – this discovery is big news! Nevertheless, as with the scintillating news earlier this year of GPR scans seemingly revealing hidden chambers in Tutankhamun’s tomb, news that fizzled out over the summer, we’re willing to withhold our enthusiasm while experts tackle the logistics of just how the ‘void’ can be further examined.


Notes

  1. After Morishima et al. 2017, figure 1, “Discovery of a big void in Khufu’s Pyramid by observation of cosmic-ray muons,” published in Nature on 2 Nov. 2017.
  2. After K. Killgrove, “What Archaeologists Want You To Know About The Great Pyramid Void,” published in Forbes on 4 Nov. 2017.
  3. After J. Amos, “’Big void’ identified in Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza,” published in the BBC on 2 Nov. 2017.
  4. After J. Marchant, “Cosmic-ray particles reveal secret chamber in Egypt’s Great Pyramid,” published in Nature on 6 Nov. 2017.
  5. After I. Sample, “Archaeologists discover mysterious void deep within Great Pyramid of Giza,” published in The Guardian, on 2 Nov. 2017.
  6. After N. Greenfieldboyce, “Scientists Say They’ve Found Hidden Space In Great Pyramid Of Giza,” published on NPR on 2 Nov. 2017.
  7. After El-Said, “Newly discovered void in Great Pyramid draws eyes to Egypt,” published in Daily News Egypt on 8 Nov. 2017.
  8. After St. Fleur, “Inside Giza’s Great Pyramid, Scientists Discover a Void,” published in NY Times on 2 Nov. 2017.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Frederick Pack says:

    Having climbed through the Great Pyramid as an amateur archaeologist, this is of great interest to me.
    Thank you for sharing unbiased knowledge.

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