Scientists have found a hidden chamber in Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza, in what would be the first such discovery in the structure since the 19th century and one likely to spark a new surge of interest in the pharaohs.
In an article published in the journal Nature, an international team said the 30 metre void deep within the pyramid is situated above the structure’s Grand Gallery, and has a similar cross-section.
The purpose of the space is unclear, and it is not yet known whether it was built with a function in mind or if it is merely a gap in the pyramid’s architecture. Some experts say such empty spaces have been known for years.
“This is a premier,” said Mehdi Tayoubi, a co-founder of the ScanPyramids project and president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute. “It could be composed of one or several structures... maybe it could be another Grand Gallery. It could be a chamber, it could be a lot of things.”
The scientists made the discovery using cosmic-ray imaging, recording the behaviour of subatomic particles called muons that penetrate the rock similar to X-rays, only much deeper.
Egypt’s former antiquities minister and famed archaeologist Zahi Hawass, who has been testing scanning methods and heads the government’s oversight panel for the new techniques, said that the area in question has been known of for years and thus does not constitute a discovery. He has long downplayed the usefulness of scans of ancient sites.
“The Great Pyramid is full of voids. We have to be careful how results are presented to the public,” he said, adding that one problem facing the international team is that it did not have an Egyptologist as a member.
He said the chamber was likely empty space builders used to construct the rooms below.
“In order to construct the Grand Gallery, you had to have a hollow, or a big void in order to access it – you cannot build it without such a space,” he said. “Large voids exist between the stones and may have been left as construction gaps.”
The pyramid is also known as Khufu’s Pyramid for its builder, a fourth dynasty pharaoh who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BC.
Visitors to the pyramid, on the outskirts of Cairo, can walk, hunched over, up a long tunnel to reach the Grand Gallery. The space announced by the scanning team does not appear to be connected to any known internal passages.
Scientists involved in the scanning called the find a “breakthrough” that highlighted the usefulness of modern particle physics in archaeology.
“It was hidden, I think, since the construction of the pyramid,” Tayoubi added.
The Great Pyramid, the last surviving wonder of the ancient world, has captivated visitors since it was built as a royal burial chamber some 4,500 years ago.
Experts are still divided over how it and other pyramids were constructed, so even relatively minor discoveries generate great interest.
Late last year, for example, thermal scanning identified a major anomaly in the Great Pyramid – three adjacent stones at its base which registered higher temperatures than others.