The ancient Egyptians created a simple yet elaborate system of blocks and grooves within the Great Pyramid of Giza to protect the King's Chamber from tomb robbers.
In an upcoming episode of the Science Channel's "Unearthed," that system comes to life via computer animations. In the episode, Egyptologist Mark Lehner describes the system for viewers, calling it a "very primitive machine." Lehner leads Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), a team that has been excavating at Giza for about 30 years.
Many scholars believe that the King's Chamber housed the remains of the pharaoh Khufu (reign ca. 2551–2528 B.C.), the ruler who ordered the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The tallest pyramid ever constructed in Egypt, the Great Pyramid was considered to be a "wonder of the world" by ancient writers. In addition to the King's Chamber, the Great Pyramid contains two other large chambers, which are today called the Queen's Chamber and the Subterranean Chamber.
What those two chambers were used for is unclear.
To protect the pharaoh's chamber, ancient Egyptians constructed a series of grooves and blocks that are hidden beneath the walls of the pyramid. While scholars have known about this system since at least the 19th century, the TV show uses computer animations to present a reconstruction. The animations show how blocks were dropped down grooves near the King's Chamber after the pharaoh' burial. [See the Reconstruction of the 'Primitive Machine' in the Great Pyramid]
The system was sophisticated for its time, said Lehner, noting that it blocked off the entranceway to the King's Chamber with giant blocks, making it harder for a thief to break in.
Even so, the machine did not protect Khufu's tomb. Today, all that remains of Khufu's burial is a red, granite sarcophagus. The chamber was "probably already robbed of its contents sometime between the end of Khufu's reign and the collapse of the Old Kingdom [around 2134 B.C.]," wrote Lehner in his book "The Complete Pyramids" (Thames and Hudson, 1997).
A few Egyptologists believe that Khufu may have outwitted the looters with another tactic, however. In addition to the security system, the pyramid also contains four small shafts: two that originate at the King's Chamber and two more that originate at the Queen's Chamber. Robot exploration of the shafts has revealed what may be three doorways with copper handles.
Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, Egypt's former antiquities minister, told Live Science in 2013 that he thinks the shafts lead ultimately to Khufu's real burial chamber. The sarcophagus in the King's Chamber is simply a decoy, Hawass said, meant to fool looters into thinking that they had found Khufu's burial.
"I really believe that Cheops' [another name for Khufu] chamber is not discovered yet, and all three chambers were just to deceive the thieves, and the treasures of Khufu [are] still hidden inside the Great Pyramid," Hawass told Live Science in 2013. A project is currently underway to scan the Great Pyramid using a variety of technologies. Researchers in that project said they hope that if a hidden burial chamber exists, the scans will reveal it.
The episode of "Unearthed" that shows the system used to defend the King's Chamber will air Tuesday (July 12) on the Science Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern time.
Original article on Live Science.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.