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Space-age dig in ancient Egypt. An international team of scientists and archaeologists adapts today's technology to explore a 4,600-year-old pit near the Great Pyramid in Giza

By Jane Friedman / November 10, 1987


ARCHAEOLOGY entered the space age recently - when scientists and archaeologists peeked into a 4,600-year-old underground pit near the Great Pyramid of Giza. An 11-man team had spent two years preparing a revolutionary exploration technique: They bored a 31/2-inch hole into the limestone-capped pit, inserted probes and a mini-camera, and came out with pictures and 150 liters of potentially ancient air.

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All this was done without disturbing the site and its contents, which will remain untouched by human hands for the foreseeable future.

To the delight of Egyptologists, the film revealed a Pharaonic ship, similar to a 140-foot-long cedar craft excavated nearby more than 30 years ago and believed to be part of the ritual of transporting the Pharaoh's soul to the afterworld. Until now, the boat excavated in 1954 was the only full-size Pharaonic boat known to man.

The air sample will be analyzed in the United States. The Egyptians hope it will yield data on the best atmospheric environment for preserving ancient relics. That atmosphere presumably could be prepared before objects are actually brought out of the ground.

``This is a new addition to our archaeological heritage,'' said Ahmad Kadri, chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, after viewing a picture of the boat relayed from the pit onto a video monitor. He described the find as a ``4,600-year-old royal boat built for the Pharaoh Cheops,'' the best known of the rulers of ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom.

``The message,'' said Farouk el-Baz, a Boston University geologist who formerly directed lunar science planning and lunar exploration for NASA, ``is that the equipment exists for getting the information without destroying the site or disturbing its contents.'' The project had its origins in the desire of Egyptian officials to avoid the damage that has been part and parcel of traditional digs.

In 1954 the Egyptians excavated the first pit beside the Great Pyramid. It took them 10 years to fit the 650 dismantled pieces into a ship, oars and all, which they did in an open area covered by a corrugated tin roof. Finally, after 26 years the boat was moved into an air-conditioned museum at the site, but it had suffered significant damage.

So in 1985, when the Washington-based National Geographic Society asked if it could excavate the second pit, the Egyptians responded with a categorical no and sent Dr. Omar el-Arini, a representative of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, to Washington.

He proposed that National Geographic explore the pit without actually exposing it. National Geographic said yes and assembled the team.

The key member was Robert Moores, an employee of Black & Decker Corporation and an amateur Egyptologist. He developed a drill that would not use water or oil, or generate heat. In addition, it had to suck up the debris of drilling. No outside elements were to contaminate the sealed environment and no inside air - except the sample captured and removed - was to escape.

It took Mr. Moores two years to design and build the drill and an air lock to seal the pit when probes were fitted on.

National Geographic donated a mini-camera on a rod whose light source did not generate heat. Atmospheric scientist Pieter Tans contributed aluminum and stainless steel balloons to store the captured air.