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Will They Find Pharaoh or Geraldo?

Tonight, archeologists and robotocists try to open a long-closed door on 'Pyramids Live: Secret Chambers Revealed.'

September 16, 2002|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hidden passageways are the lifeblood of archeological fiction. In books and movies, overlooked hallways and hidden doors always open onto mysterious shrines or fabulous riches, sometimes both.

Tonight, the Fox network will try to capture some of that mystique when a group of archeologists and robotocists will attempt to look behind a mysterious door hidden deep within the Great Pyramid of Giza. The program will be broadcast live in the East, but tape-delayed here.

Although the team is hoping for a unique perspective on the builders of the pyramid and some onlookers think the opening might reveal the mummy of the Pharaoh Khufu, it is not clear whether the team will find statuary and treasures or an empty chamber reminiscent of Al Capone's vault, famously opened live on television by Geraldo Rivera.

"It's a total crap shoot," said archeologist Mark Lehner, one of the program's hosts.

The narrow shaft projects upward from the lower chamber, or Queen's Chamber, inside the pyramid, built about 4,500 years ago. Archeologists at the turn of the last century plumbed the shaft with pipes and concluded that it ended after about nine feet.

In 1993, however, German robotocist Rudolf Gantenbrink sent his own tank-like robot into the shaft and found that it did not end, but veered upward at a 45-degree angle. Most of the shaft was composed of the same rough-hewn local limestone from which the entire pyramid is constructed.

But about five feet from the end of the passage, the texture changed abruptly. The remainder was lined with highly polished white Turah limestone, which has been used in the entryways to chambers in other tombs. And at the end was what appeared to be a sliding door, made of the same Turah limestone with tongue-and-groove fittings on the side that suggest it can be raised and lowered.

This "door" has two corroded copper fittings in the center; a piece of one fitting has broken off and was found lying in front of the stone. A small gap is present at the base of the stone, but the camera on the original robot could not peer though it.

Now, Dave Barrett of iRobot, Inc. has developed a shoebox-sized robot that he hopes will finally solve the mystery of the passageway. The robot has sticky rubberized tracks on top and bottom that will allow it to pass quickly through the tunnel carrying one of six different instrument packages, including ground-penetrating radar, an ultrasonic thickness sensor, a metal conductivity sensor and, of course, a fiber-optic camera.

On tonight's telecast, the team will attempt to determine how thick the stone door is, whether there is a chamber behind it and, if there is, what is in it.

While that's going on, the two-hour show will have plenty of other entertainment. Archeologist Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's antiquities department, recently discovered a granite sarcophagus in the graveyard where the pyramid's builders are interred. The 4,500-year-old coffin is inscribed with the grand title "Overseer of the Administrative District."

Hawass will open the sarcophagus for the first time during the telecast.

The program will also feature film of Lehner's ongoing excavations near the pyramid. His digs have revealed what he called an "extensive urban complex" covering an area the size of eight football fields.

That "city" is composed of "great blocks" separated by paved city streets with drains down the middle. The blocks, each 100 yards wide and 150 yards deep, are most likely barracks or dormitories for the workers who built the pyramids. The blocks are flanked by several bakeries and breweries, which provided food and drink for the workers--who were not slaves, by the way, but farmers spending periods of public service.

Garbage dumps suggest that the workers ate well, he added, with "massive amounts of meat consumption," including cattle, sheep and goats.

To the east of all this, he added, "there is a maze of small chambers, houses, courtyards, granaries, etc. This is a more natural-looking town, probably for the more permanent residents"--the architects and overseers who managed the construction of the pyramids.

"National Geographic Channel Presents Pyramids Live: Secret Chambers Revealed" will be shown at 8 tonight on KTTV, Channel 11.

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