At the beginning of the 1990s, a chance event suddenly brought the queen's chamber to the world's attention. Since accretions caused by the solidifying of visitors' breath had built up, the interior of Khufu's pyramid had begun to show signs of degradation. The first thing to be done was improve ventilation, and so it was decided to install air ducts.
It was of course known that unclogging the shafts of thousands of years of debris would not be enough to give them the function of air shafts—a function not attributed to them by the ancient Egyptians builders, but only by some Egyptologists. The idea was to make use of the existing shafts and pump air in, using a forced ventilation system. The work was entrusted to a German engineer, Rudolf Gantenbrinck, who cleaned out the shafts with the use of a rope-tied robot and then installed the ventilators. During the exploration—which was facilitated by using the exits of the shafts on the faces of the pyramid to operate the robot, though to work safely on the side of the pyramid, 80 meters up and with a gradient of over 52 degrees, Gantenbrinck had to rely on his mountaineering skills—a camera fitted on the robot enabled numerous observations to be made of how the building work had progressed; for example, in some cases badly finished blocks were carelessly tossed aside, especially in the northern shaft. Little did they imagine that a German engineer, 4500 years later, would discover their mistakes.
When the task was complete, Gantenbrinck proposed exploring the lower shafts as well. For this venture he devised and created a special climbing robot. He appropriately called it Upuaut, from the name of one of the
Egyptian deities who acted as guides in the underworld and, believe me, never was a name more appropriate.
The exploration began with the northern shaft, and the surprises started coming fast. Far from being abandoned, the shaft was usable for 16 meters, but beyond that point Upuaut was unable to pass through; an iron probe— undoubtedly left by Dixon; see below—and a wooden stick that might have dated from the time of the construction were seen via camera at ground level.
Then, at the beginning of March 1993, Upuaut was moved to the lower southern shaft, and began slowly to ascend. At a certain point the robot passed the level corresponding to the beginning of the grand gallery, showing (as if there was still any need) that the queen's chamber project had not been abandoned while work was underway, because work was still being done on the shafts of the lower chamber while the building of the king's chamber was being planned.
The robot penetrated the very core of the most magnificent monument in the world, and on March 22, 1993, at about 60 meters from the entrance in the chamber, Upuaut began to advance along a stretch of shaft built out of
fine limestone blocks, the same as that used for the outer casing. After proceeding another 5 meters into the bowels of the Great Pyramid, its path was blocked by a slab (also of fine limestone), fitted with two copper handles.
What you would call a slab with two handles that closes off a shaft? I would call it a door, but Gantenbrinck called it an "unidentified stone object'' (USO) in his account. Perhaps this humorous touch was related to the fact that the event was something of a clamorous fiasco for the academic world. Consider that the Great Pyramid is the most celebrated monument in history. Volumes have been written about how and when and why it was built. It is the ancient Egyptians' most staggering achievement, together with the Sphinx—the symbol of ancient Egypt. It must be the most dissected and probed monument in the world, and the subject of study by generations of Egyptologists of all nationalities.
Yet nobody except an amateur researcher, Morton Edgar, in the 1920s, had ever thought about passing a flexible cable into the lower shafts to ascertain how long they were.
After Gantenbrinck's discovery no scientific paper or report ever appeared. The only information available is on Gantenbrinck's Website (Gantenbrinck 1999). Otherwise, anyone who wanted to know what lay behind the door (just millions of people) had to be resigned to a long wait. Gantenbrinck's exploration was interrupted and the door had to wait another 10 years until a new robot was able to reach it in an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic in September 2002.
But the 2002 exploration suffered a number of setbacks. Once the new robot had been positioned in front of the door, the team tried to open it by pushing it, but without success (actually it is a sliding portcullis). In the efforts to push it, one of the handles broke. Possibly feeling under pressure, since the explorers had announced that they would open the door live on TV on a specific date, with countdowns on their Website, they made the questionable decision to drill into the slab. On the night of September 17, 2002, on a live worldwide broadcast, a fiber-optic camera fitted to the front of the robot was slipped through a hole in the slab, only to reveal, in the dramatic last thirty seconds of the broadcast, that what lurked on the other side of Gantenbrinck's door was ... nothing.
The shaft continues for a few dozen centimeters before being blocked again by what Professor Zahi Hawass, head of Egyptian antiquities, on live TV called a new door; it is actually a limestone slab that looks quite roughcast, more like the back than the front of a door. A few days later, the group announced that it had also explored the northern shaft and revealed images of a door resembling the one discovered by Gantenbrinck, this time
with both its handles intact. It appears to have been found at a distance from the mouth of northern shaft that would match the arrangement in the southern shaft (some blurred marks, possibly hieroglyphics, were noted on the new door).
To date (April 2008), no further details and no scientific report have emerged regarding the second exploration, and we await a third probe of both shafts.
In any case, the presence of copper handles on the doors would seem to indicate that rooms might yet be discovered. We might even chance upon the funerary chamber of the pharaoh, dead before the completion of the pyramid and entombed in this impenetrable lair, as Professor Hawass has suggested. The 2002 exploration showed us the little empty space lying beyond the first south door, but just the front wall, not the ceiling. It might be possible then, that the shaft comes out into a room but that the access to the shaft from the room is located in the ceiling. Let's hope that all the scientific data relating to the 2002 National Geographic investigation will be reported. We await the answers to these questions:
1. How are the handles on the other side, the inside, of the Gantenbrinck door arranged? Do we really see two handles or could they be the rear part of a single handle on the other side?
2. How is the northern shaft structured after the bend that Upuaut was unable to negotiate? Are there interesting conclusions to be drawn from the inner structure of the building, given that the shaft passes extremely close to the grand gallery? What is the gradient of the final part?
3. At what height inside the pyramid's core is the door of the north shaft to be found? At the same height as the other?
4. Have the items (in particular, the wooden stick) of the northern shaft been recovered?
Was this article helpful?