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Egypt: Researchers seeking secrets in Great Pyramid of Giza

Julia Hitz
March 6, 2023

A German researcher told DW how the ScanPyramids team found the secret chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza. The team is seeking more hidden secrets.

Oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Pyramids of Giza.
The Pyramids of GizaImage: Matej Kastelic/Zoonar/picture alliance

Last week, Egyptian antiquities authorities announced the discovery of a hidden chamber inside the 4,500-year-old Pyramid of Khufu — formerly known as the Pyramid of Cheops — or the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Located just outside Cairo, the Pyramid of Khufu — named after the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh who had it built in the early 26th century BC — is one of the three constructions that make up the Giza pyramid complex.

The recently announced discovery was credited to scientists from the ScanPyramids project. Initiated in 2015, the international project employs — among others — infrared thermography, ultrasound and 3D simulations to study structures in a non-invasive manner. That led them to finding the sealed-off chamber above the main entrance to the pyramid.

The more than 80 researchers of the ScanPyramids team, led by Egyptian antiquities specialist Zahi Hawass, are seeking to unravel further mysteries of the pyramid.

Hidden corridor discovered in Egypt’s Great Pyramid

More in store

Before the discovery, three main chambers within the pyramid were already known and could be visited: the Subterranean Chamber, the Queen's Chamber and the King's Chamber, containing the king's empty sarcophagus.

Yet it had been suspected since 2017 that there might be two more large cavities inside.

The basis for the new discovery of the hidden chamber was measurements with muon tomography, a 3D-imaging technique of large-volume objects using cosmic rays. But how to get to them.

That's where professor Christian Grosse from the Technical University of Munich — and a leading member of the ScanPyramids project — comes in.

His field of research is so-called nondestructive testing by methods such as radar and ultrasound. "The pyramids are part of the World Cultural Heritage. That's why we have to be particularly careful during research so that no damage occurs," Grosse told DW.

Grosse (3rd from right), ScanPyramids researchers, wearing vests in front of monument
Christian Grosse (third from right) with the team of ScanPyramids researchersImage: ScanPyramids

Radar and ultrasound measuring devices could not only be used nondestructively, but in some cases even without contact, he pointed out.

During the investigations of the pyramid, it turned out that one of the presumed cavities was very close to the surface, only 40 centimeters (16 inches) away.

With a small endoscope of 6 millimeters (0.2 inches) in diameter, which was produced in Japan, researchers were able to access a tiny passage, leading them to discover a large corridor that is not accessible from outside the structure. It is calculated to be nine meters long and two meters wide (29.5 x 6.5 feet).

Small sculptures in close-up found in Giza, Egypt, in January 2023
New artifacts discovered in the historical Saqqara region, in Giza, Egypt, in JanuaryImage: Mohamed El-Shahed/AA/picture alliance

Excitement in archaeology

"Everyone is very excited," Grosse said. Now, it is up to researchers to interpret the discovery and continue their own investigations.

"We at ScanPyramids are a team mostly of scientists and engineers," Grosse said. "Our job is first to find things, to provide a tool for archaeologists and Egyptologists to make such discoveries. We leave the interpretation of the data to these professionals."

ScanPyramids is revolutionizing archaeological research. They are laying the foundations for finding reliable answers to ancient mysteries. "I see incredible potential here," says Christian Grosse, "using techniques like this has never been done before in archaeology. We've now shown that our concept is not only promising, but that it's producing real results."

Similar investigations are already underway at the other two pyramids on the Giza Plateau. It will be interesting to see what further explorations of the pyramids' inner workings will uncover.

Paintings of people working, interacting, inside a tomb, south of Cairo, in January, 2023.
A tomb south of Cairo revealed this colored painting, displayed in January 2023Image: Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

World's oldest wonder

Even the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Great Pyramid of Giza, which has captivated generations of researchers ever since.

It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one to remain largely intact. Surviving the test of time, for millennia (until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1899) it was the tallest structure in the world.

Today, the pyramids are the most important historical attractions of Egypt.

Even if the mystery of how the ancient Egyptians built the immense pyramids with the many tons of heavy blocks some 4,500 years ago remains unsolved for the time being, the measurements of the ScanPyramids team help to better understand the history of the construction and the internal structure of the pyramid.

This article was adapted from German by Louisa Schaefer.