How Researchers Uncovered a Massive Void in the Great Pyramid of Giza

3D illustration showing an aerial view of the Khufu pyramid with the new “Big Void.” (ScanPyramids mission)

3D illustration showing an aerial view of the Khufu pyramid with the new “Big Void.” (ScanPyramids mission)

Some 4,500 years ago, the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu ordered the construction of a Great Pyramid to serve as his own personal gateway to enter the afterlife. Composed of three chambers—the King’s chamber, the Queen’s chamber, and an underground chamber—the resulting edifice was every bit as grand as its purpose. But for centuries, rumors have swirled that the 455-foot structure harbors more hidden nooks and passageways.

Researchers first tested the idea of these secret chambers in 1986. After detecting “microgravity anomalies” near the Queen’s chamber, they drilled into the adjacent corridor in hopes of discovering a secret addition. Yet no chamber was found, and later research dismissed the idea of a void—or at least, a void in that particular location.

Now new research appears to vindicate the rumors, suggesting that a massive hidden void is indeed tucked above one of the pyramid’s large passageways.

To be clear, the area is unlikely to be harboring any treasure. “These voids themselves do not alter what we know about Egyptian civilization,” says Mark Lehner, director of the Ancient Egypt Research Association and a member of a committee appointed to review the new findings. But they may help researchers better understand the momentous effort required to build the edifice.

The study, published this week in the journal Nature, comes from the project ScanPyramid, a multidisciplinary research team under the authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. For several years, the team has probed the Great Pyramid using an arsenal of the latest non-destructive technologies to seek cavities hidden among the millions of stone blocks that make up the structure. These techniques include infrared analysis, 3D modeling, and a technique known as muon detection, which relies on tiny particles created from the collision of cosmic radiation and atmospheric particles.

Think of muon detection as akin to taking an X-ray. Muons travel to Earth at a constant rate, zipping through solid objects like rock. But not all of those particles make it, so you’d expect to see more muons pass through regions of lower density or voids than through solid regions. To get a good reading, researchers set up detectors to collect the scattering of muons over long periods of time, from several angles.

In the last two years, using these methods, the team has announced the existence of several possible voids, including one above the northern entrance of the pyramid and one on the eastern side. But these previous voids were relatively small, and researchers were cautious about making too much of them, since they might just turn out to be random gaps in the structure.

By contrast, the latest void is the largest and most definitive the project has yet identified. Researchers are yet unsure of the exact boundaries of the space, if it contains multiple chambers or its exact orientation to the Grand Gallery. “What we are sure about is that this big void is there, that it is impressive, that it was not expected by, as far as I know, any kind of theory,” said Mehdi Tayoubi, co-founder of Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute, which runs ScanPyramids, in a Wednesday press briefing.

The first hints of the void’s existence came in the spring of 2016, from muon data collected using a special photographic film that can record the paths of these particles in three dimensions. The team had set up detectors within the Queen’s chamber, expecting to observe the overlying King’s chamber. “Our surprise was to see a big important line parallel to the Grand Gallery,” Tayoubi said in the briefing. “We understood at this time in 2016 that we had something very big and very important.”

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