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Robotic Exploration Yields No Solutions to Pyramid's Puzzle

October 27, 2002|Donna Bryson | Associated Press Writer

CAIRO, Egypt — A tiny robot's exploration of the Great Pyramid has captured imaginations around the world -- and renewed speculation about the ideas behind the pharaoh's enigmatic monument.

The robot's first find, broadcast live on international television in September from the heart of the pyramid that the pharaoh Khufu built more than 4,000 years ago, was "the hot topic the day after" on a Web site forum for experts on ancient Egypt, said Lorelei Corcoran, director of the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis.

Opening a stone door on a treasure worthy of King Tut might have made more compelling television, but experts say that for them, the robot's small step was exciting.

On TV, the robot pushed a small camera through a hole drilled in a stone door at the end of a narrow shaft inside the pyramid, revealing a cupboard-sized chamber. The day after the show, the robot began an untelevised crawl through another passage with a more difficult, zigzagging route. Several days later, it found the twin of the stone door in the first passage.

"I would think these additional details come only once every generation," said Dorothea Arnold, head of the Department of Egyptian Art at New York's Metropolitan Museum. "Isn't that something? This is new knowledge about one of the world's masterpieces."

Arnold said that writings from 400 to 600 years after the death of Khufu, also known as Cheops, show that ancient Egyptologists were already speculating about his philosophy and how it may have been expressed in the design of his pyramid.

"With every little detail, our thinking becomes more complex, and in that way brings us closer to reality," Arnold said.

The doors in the shafts -- one to the south and one to the north -- were each 211 feet from the starting point, a room-sized chamber within the pyramid. Both were carved of limestone to fit the 8-inch-square dimensions of the shafts. Each is adorned with what appear to be two brass handles resembling miniature knob-handled walking sticks.

The symmetry, "from a philosophical point of view and from an aesthetic point of view, is very Egyptian," said Corcoran, an art historian who specializes in the religious beliefs of ancient Egyptians.

The importance placed on balance and order -- a natural reaction then as now to the world's sometimes brutal uncertainties -- was so great in ancient Egypt that it was personified as the goddess Maat.

"Sometimes her name is translated as truth or justice, but it really means something like harmony or balance," Corcoran said.

The pyramid has two inner chambers -- each the starting point for a pair of shafts -- and a third chamber underneath. The robot dubbed the Pyramid Rover explored the two shafts leading from the lower of the two inner chambers.

The first door in the south shaft was discovered in 1993 by another robot. National Geographic, working with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, had commissioned the Boston firm iRobot to design and build the Pyramid Rover, benefiting from the design knowledge gained in the 1993 exploration.

The Pyramid Rover also found what may be a third stone door blocking the chamber found beyond the south shaft's first door. John Taylor, assistant keeper in the British Museum's Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, said the third "door" may instead be a dead end, evidence that the lower chamber had been intended as a burial chamber, then abandoned in favor of the higher chamber.

Why? An engineer could have decided that the first chamber was unstable, or a priest that it did not meet philosophical requirements.

The shafts had long been seen by some as passages for the pharaoh's soul, perhaps in the guise of a sun god who would emerge from the pyramid in the morning and return in the evening.

The discovery of stone doors that also could be seen as barriers does not necessarily undermine the theory that the shafts were intended as passageways.

David P. Silverman, the curator in charge of the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Egyptian collection, said the ancient Egyptians may have believed the pharaoh's soul had the power to pass through such barriers, which are often found in Egyptian tombs, he said.

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