Thanks to breakthroughs in science, new information about the Great Pyramid at Giza could soon be revealed.
Question: At which famous landmark did a shot of cosmic rays reveal a whole lot of nothing—which might actually mean something big if science could figure it out?
Answer: The Great Pyramid at Giza
It has long been a belief of the tinfoil hat set that ancient Egypt’s wonders are the handiwork of aliens. So perhaps it’s fitting that the biggest recent discovery about the Great Pyramid at Giza came from a source straight out of sci-fi: cosmic rays from space.
The 4,500-year-old pyramid has preserved most of its mysteries for millennia. While three chambers had previously been mapped by robots, most of the site is still undiscovered. In the past, scientists had tried using ground-penetrating radar and gravity readings to gain further insight into the monument’s interior, but to little avail.
The breakthrough came when Japanese scientists tried muon radiography. Muons are the high-energy particles that result when radiation from the depths of space enter our atmosphere (as in “cosmic rays”). In a procedure where mapmaking-meets-imaging, researchers were able to assess the interior without moving any of the stonework. And what they found was astounding: a void the length of two tractor trailer trucks laid end to end.
Was it a ritual chamber? A ceremonial hallway? One leading theory is that because the void appears to slope upward into the heart of the chamber at a peak height of 230 feet, it may well be the first evidence of a ramp that could explain how builders were able to get huge, heavy stones into place. The ramp theory has always been just one of several scientific speculations, so the size and angle of the void is exciting for the proponents of that claim.
Nonetheless, no one can say for sure. While muons were able to illuminate a mystery, scientists aren’t able to solve it.
More Egypt Mysteries—Solved and Unsolved
- MYSTERY: THE UNEXPLAINED KNEES In the Valley of the Queens, the final resting place of Queen Nefertari was discovered in 1904. But the 3,200-year-old crypt was a mess. It had been pillaged and plundered, and desert flooding had washed objects from elsewhere into it. Among the jumbled items were a pair of mummified legs from the knees down. If they were the Queen’s, why only keep her legs? If they washed in, where from? Could they belong to one of the grave robbers? Scientists dug in. X-rays gave age (40-60), height (taller than the average Egyptian woman), and status (revealing these were clearly the knees of someone who led a life of leisure). Chemical tests revealed the embalming practices of the Ramses II era. And radio carbon dating agreed with the timing. Together it was clear: every detail fits Nefertari. So where’s the rest of her? No one is sure, but a going theory is that she was split up and carried away as part of grave robbers’ spoils. Status: Partly solved.
- MYSTERY: THE TEENY TINY COFFIN A century ago, archaeologists brought a tiny coffin, not even 18 inches long, from Giza to Cambridge, England, for study. But then no one dared open it, so it sat in a museum for the next hundred years. Since it was generally accepted that it was too small for an infant, speculation was that it was a jar of organs, a practice not uncommon for Egypt (though the container was not typically a coffin). Curious to see if they were right—and perhaps if they could infer whose organs these might be—scientists in 2016 used cutting edge CT scans to reveal the contents. To their surprise, it was a fetus, roughly 14 weeks along. It is the youngest mummy ever found. Status: Solved.
- MYSTERY: THE SECRET DOORS In 1993, a robot sent inside the Queen’s Chambers of the Great Pyramid found a small door in the southern shaft. What did it lead to? It would take eight more years and require another robot to get a glimpse past the door … only to find another door that looked just like it. In 2010, a more modern robot was able to photograph the space before the second door: there were unexplained ochre paintings and rows of fresh scratches. Who had been inside and how did they get in? A hieroglyph expert examining the paintings said they were the marks of an ancient Egyptian mason, like a brand to identify his work. The scratches—tantalizing though they seemed—were from the previous robot and only seemed fresh because the chamber had been untouched by outside elements for nine years. But what does the second door lead to? Until the next advance in robotics, no one can day. Status: Partly solved.
- MYSTERY: THE DEATH OF TUT While Tutankhamun is arguably the pharaoh most well-known to laypeople, the mystery of the boy king’s death long divided experts. It is true that DNA analysis showed the presence of malaria, but this does not seem to account for his death. One clue was that his tomb contained 130 walking sticks, which suggests a chronic condition of some sort. CT scans revealed that he did indeed have a rare bone disorder, Köhler disease, which deformed his left foot. But Köhler disease doesn’t kill youth. X-rays, however, revealed that one of Tut’s knees was broken so badly that it tore the skin, an injury that would have led to massive loss of blood. In this theory, his bone disorder led to an accidental injury from which he bled to death. Considering that all signs show he died suddenly while in otherwise average health, this notion fits, but there is no official record of the injury. Status: Mostly solved.
- MYSTERY: THE CHILDREN’S SHOES OF LUXOR Among the most unusual finds at Luxor was a jar containing an odd number of shoes. Two pairs of the shoes were children’s. One pair was adult-sized and showed evidence of limping. And the lone spare shoe, for an adult, was tied to the others. Beyond the strangeness of immortalizing shoes, they weren’t sandals, the Egyptian footwear of that time, and they were made of all leather, meaning they were very expensive. Were they imported as a status symbol or were they the footwear of a foreign family who emigrated to Egypt? No science yet exists to paint a clear portrait of who might have filled a pair of shoes, and unless that changes, this case will remain open. Status: Unsolved.
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