Scientists use space radiation to map the interior of the Great Pyramids

Called cosmic-ray muon radiography, the method could help to uncover the mysteries of archaeological sites the world over.
Chris Young
The Great Pyramids
The Great Pyramids

StockByM / iStock 

A team of scientists used cosmic radiation to map previously unexplored corridors in Khufu's Pyramid that was discovered in 2016.

A new paper published in the journal Nature Communications details how scientists explored the corridor structure without entering the pyramid itself.

It shows how technologies that were originally developed for space can help to enrich our knowledge of our own planet and even explore the history of our species.

The scientists behind the new paper explained that their new method could help to improve our understanding of how the Great Pyramids were built. The findings, in particular, may help to improve our understanding of the role of the Chevron structures observed on Khufu's Pyramid, also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The construction of the Great Pyramids is one of the great mysteries of history, with the incredibly heavy materials used leading to outlandish theories about aliens.

Though the pyramids have existed for millennia, we know little about what's inside the ancient structures. This is largely due to the fact that many of their passages are blocked off, and archaeologists fear that forcibly opening those passages could damage historical artifacts inside.

Mapping an ancient structure with cosmic radiation

Khufu's Pyramid was built roughly 4,500 years ago, and today, it still stands as one of the largest archaeological monuments in the world. In 2016 and 2017, a series of new voids were discovered inside the pyramid. These included a so-called "Big Void" and a corridor-shaped structure that are housed just behind the Chevron structures on the north-facing side of the pyramid. These structures were named the North Face Corridor. Little was known about these structures until now.

The scientists used a technique called cosmic-ray muon radiography to measure the size, shape, and location of the North Face Corridor within Khufu's Pyramid.

Scientists use space radiation to map the interior of the Great Pyramids
A cross-section of Khufu's Pyramid.

Using this method, the scientists were able to determine that the corridor measures roughly 29 feet (9 m) in length, and it also contains a transverse section of about 6 feet by 6 feet (2 m by 2 m).

The method uses special sensors to detect cosmic radiation passing through the pyramid, allowing the researchers to map the interior of the pyramid accurately. In simple terms, hollow, empty spaces like corridors allow more cosmic radiation to pass through. Therefore, a precise calculation of the radiation detected allows for an accurate 3D map of the interior.

Study abstract:

Khufu’s Pyramid is one of the largest archaeological monuments all over the world, which still holds many mysteries. In 2016 and 2017, the ScanPyramids team reported on several discoveries of previously unknown voids by cosmic-ray muon radiography, that is a non-destructive technique ideal for the investigation of large-scale structures. Among these discoveries, a corridor-shaped structure has been observed behind the so-called Chevron zone on the North face, with a length of at least 5 meters. A dedicated study of this structure was thus necessary to better understand its function in relation with the enigmatic architectural role of this Chevron. Here we report on new measurements of excellent sensitivity obtained with nuclear emulsion films from Nagoya University and gaseous detectors from CEA, revealing a structure of about 9 m length with a transverse section of about 2.0 m by 2.0 m.

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