Thursday, August 19, 2010

Robot to Uncover Pyramid of Giza's Secrets

    Robot to Uncover Pyramid of Giza's Secrets
  • Scientists are preparing to send a robot into a mysterious shaft in the Great Pyramid of Giza. The robot could uncover artifacts, mummies and clues to the pyramid's baffling construction.
  • Scientists are preparing to send a robot into a mysterious shaft in the Great Pyramid of Giza. The robot could uncover artifacts, mummies and clues to the pyramid's baffling construction.

    Built over 4,500 years ago, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest wonder of the ancient world. Constructed under the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu, the pyramid remains one of the most mysterious and celebrated structures of the ancient world. One debated aspect of the pyramid is its construction. Some scholars say that slaves were used, others argue for paid workers; some say that the huge stones were carried from quarries, while others insist that ramps were used. Some people even theorize that extra-terrestrial aliens helped build the pyramid.

    The Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest manmade structure for over 3,000 years (source: Nina Aldin Thune).

    In 1872, the Great Pyramid of Giza became even more mysterious when Waynman Dixon, a British engineer, discovered two shafts in one of the pyramid's sections, called the Queen's Chamber. While similar passageways had been discovered in the King's Chamber, the exits of those shafts had been found on the exterior of the pyramid, and scholars assumed they were egresses for the soul. The Queen's Chamber shafts, on the other hand, had no apparent exits. Their purpose and contents were unclear.

    Over a century later, in 1992, scientists set out to explore the shafts using a small robot. The mystery deepened when the robot encountered a limestone door with two copper handles. No doors had been found in the King's Chamber shafts, so the function of this door was unknown to scholars. It was not until 2002 that another robot was sent into the shaft to drill through this first door. The robot's camera revealed a remarkable discovery: another door. Unlike the first door, the second door has many cracks and, according to Zahi Hawas, a well-known Egyptologist, it seems to be screening or covering something. In a blog post, Hawas proclaimed, "The mystery of the doors is one of the most exciting puzzles in Egyptology today."

    That puzzle may soon be solved. Sponsored by Leeds University, a team of researchers, engineers and archaeologists has created a high-tech robot to explore the shafts in the Queen's Chamber. The robot has been nicknamed Djedi, after the magician who helped Pharaoh Khufu create the pyramid's plans. Djedi is equipped with the tools to explore the shafts while creating minimal amount of damage.

    The Djedi team discusses their findings with Egyptologist Zahi Hawas (source: Meghan Strong).

    The robot has a small coring drill that will be able to bore a small hole into the second door. Djedi is outfitted with two means of exploring beyond this hole. First, it has an endoscope-like "snake camera" that is capable of fitting through small spaces and seeing around corners. Djedi also has a miniature robot, called a "beetle," that can navigate holes as small as 20mm to further explore confined spaces. Djedi has several observational tools, including a tiny ultrasound device to determine the thickness and condition of stone, a precision compass, and an inclinometer to record the orientation of the shafts.

    The Djedi robot has been specially designed to navigate the narrow passages of the shaft and drill through the mysterious limestone door (source: Sandro Vannini).

    What could be hiding behind the door? While artifacts of Egyptian life and religion are likely, Hawas has proposed a more sensational find. "Could it be possible," he writes, "that these doors are evidence that Khufu's burial chamber might still be hidden somewhere inside his pyramid?" Since Khufu's mummy has never been found, its discovery could be one of the most thrilling archaeological finds in modern history.

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