In 2011, images sent back by a robot revealed hieroglyphs written in red paint and lines in the stone, causing a huge stir. Were these markings ‘graffiti’ or symbols of religious significance? Either way, it was the first time they’d been seen for over 4,500 years and it was all down to the efforts of an engineering team who sent in a tiny little robot, armed with a flexible, snakey camera.
But this is not the first discovery made by research-bots. Originally standing at 146.5 metres high, the Great Pyramid is thought to have been built for the pharaoh Khufu over a 10 to 20-year period that ended somewhere around 2560 BC.
The Great Pyramid had been known to contain three chambers – one at the base, which sits on the bedrock and supports the rest of the pyramid, plus the upper two Queen’s and King’s Chambers.
But inside the Queen’s Chamber are two tunnels – about 20 cm by 20 cm – blocked off by stone doors. No one knew what they were originally intended to do. One theory was that they led to a secret chamber. That’s when the robots were sent in.
According to Rowan Hooper at New Scientist, researchers tried several times to send little robots into the Great Pyramid to solve this mystery. In 1993, a robot made it 63 m up one of the tunnels, where it found a small pair of stone doors set with metal pins.
Pretty strange, given that metal has not yet been found in any other part of the Great Pyramid, so what function was it performing here? Door handles, perhaps? Or a key?
Then in 2002, another robot drilled into a stone block in the tunnel and found a small, strange empty chamber that ended with a large stone block.
Then, in 2011, a team of engineers led by Rob Richardson from the University of Leeds in the UK sent in the latest curious little robot to investigate further. That’s when it found the red hieroglyphs.
“Red-painted numbers and graffiti are very common around Giza,” added Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian from Harvard University and director of the Giza Archives at the Museum of Fine Arts in the US. “They are often masons’ or work-gangs’ marks, denoting numbers, dates or even the names of the gangs.”
The robot was also able to get its stretchy camera in and around the mysterious empty chamber to get a look at the back of the stone door for the first time and film parts of the metal pins that had never been seen before. According to the team, they had beautifully looped tips which suggest that they were ornamental, rather than functional, features.
Egyptologist Kate Spence from the University of Cambridge in the UK, who was not involved in the study, thinks it’s almost certain that these tunnels were made to be symbolic rather than functional. “The metal pins look like symbolic door handles, and the shafts from the Queen’s Chamber are oriented north-south, not east-west, so I strongly suspect that their function is symbolic and relates to the stars, not the sun,” she told New Scientist.
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