New Sphinx riddle. Hi-tech probes may solve ancient mystery
Cairo — A TEAM of Japanese scientists has confirmed that a newly discovered underground cavity near the 4,500-year-old Sphinx and not far from the Great Pyramid of G^iza contains stone objects from antiquity. The team first discovered the underground cavity - about six feet east of the Sphinx - in March while surveying the area with an electromagnetic scanner that beamed sound waves into the ground. Confirmation came last month after the team ran its data through a computer in Tokyo. The number of objects in the cavity has not been determined.
The discovery enhances the mystery surrounding the Sphinx - a combination of a human head and a lion's body - but also raises the possibility of an archaeological find that could shed new light on the Pharaohs, their rituals, and their technology.
For millenia, the Sphinx - a representation of King Kephren - and the 400-foot-high Pyramid - the massive sepulcher of his father, King Khufu - have mystified archaeologists and laymen alike and fueled their imagination.
The two structures are recognized to be masterpieces of construction and indicate extensive knowledge of mathematics and engineering among the ancient Egyptians.
According to Herodotus, the Greek writer, the Pyramid was built by 100,000 men over a 20-year period using thousands of stones. It is the only surviving example of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World.
The Sphinx - said to symbolize the intellectual and physical powers of the Pharaoh - was carved out of a limestone mound.
Little more is known about either structure.
This newest discovery places Egyptian officials in a quandary: whether to unearth the objects and risk disturbing the site or to refrain in the interest of preservation.
In more than 4000 years, the Sphinx has undergone several attempts at restoration. Nevertheless, it is clearly weather-beaten. Most recently, Egypt restored its paws. Its beard - which officials here contend would protect and support its chin - is in the British Museum.
So the decision on how to deal with the new find could be crucial to the future of this fragile monument.
``Inside the Sphinx there is definitely something,'' says Kamal Barakat, general manager of restoration in the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, a division of the Ministry of Culture.
``We can open and detect it without any problems,'' Dr. Barakat says.
But Nasr Iskander, general director of conservation at the EAO, says, ``making decisions for very difficult things like this is not easy.''
In order to reach a consensus with broad international backing, Egypt is calling for an international symposium, which would take place in Cairo next October.
All archaeologists interested in the Pharaonic period are invited. But Barakat mentioned that Egypt would welcome the participation of the J. Paul Getty Trust of Los Angeles, the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Geographic Society.
The symposium will discuss not only how to deal with the Sphinx but also the dilemma surrounding the Great Pyramid.
The Japanese team, from Waseda University, found two cavities behind the walls of what is supposed to be the queen's chamber.
The discovery is tantalizing because the funereal treasure of King Khufu has never been found. Archaeologists and laymen like to imagine that great golden treasure, like that of King Tutankhamen (discovered in the 1920s), still exists somewhere inside the Pyramid in a hidden chamber.
Detection of the new chambers has reminded archaeologists, however, that their knowledge of the construction of the Pyramid is scant. They are afraid to drill into it without more information.
Egyptian officials currently believe that the best course of action is to drill a small hole into the cavity near the Sphinx and insert a camera through it. The camera would relay a picture of the objects, which are not believed to be royal treasure but perhaps granite tools. Once the contents of the cavity are identified, the archaeologists could decide whether or not to excavate.
The technique, proposed by the National Geographic Society, was initially intended as a way of peeking into what is believed to be an ancient boat pit on the same G^iza plateau. Archaeologists are almost certain the 12-foot-deep pit contains a wooden boat for transporting the king to the afterlife.
The technique of drilling and inserting a camera was designed in order to photograph the boat and snatch a sample of the 4000 year-old air inside the pit, all without an exchange of air between the pit and the 20th century environment outside.
The experiment was set for October. But now, Egyptian officials want to try it first on the cavity near the Sphinx and the granite objects, which, unlike wood, do not decompose.
The Japanese study, which confirmed a wood and rope object inside the pit, came amid a flurry of renewed international interest in the Pyramid and the Sphinx.
Last August, a French team said it had detected, using ultrasonic equipment, two hidden chambers in the Pyramid. The Egyptians let the team drill but they hit sand. The French discovery fueled Pyramid mania among scientists, many of whom descended on Cairo with their detectors.
The Japanese, who arrived on the heels of the French, apparently brought more sophisticated equipment. They said they detected not only the two chambers and the cavity near the Sphinx but also an underground tunnel near the Pyramid. One modern day mystery unfolded when their equipment broke down because of ``unknown causes'' during tests inside the Pyramid. According to the Japanese, this prevented an accurate computer readout on the cavities behind the queen's chamber.
The Egyptians - who initially viewed all the brouhaha with skepticism and a degree of amusement - are taking the projects seriously now. They hope the symposium will yield broad support for a plan of action.
``We want all these people to sit together and discuss,'' says Mr. Iskander.
How scanner seeks inner secrets of the Sphinx
The machine used by the Japanese scientists to detect the stone objects is called an electromagnetic scanner or underground radar. It emits electromagnetic - or radar - rays on a wavelength of 450 megaherz.
The machine itself weighs about 130 pounds, and when it is moved along a surface - either a wall or the ground - it must be carried by at least two men.
The scanner surveys the area behind the surface or below it by sending out waves. The waves are reflected back and their characteristics depend on what the initial waves hit.
``Depending on the strength and direction of the reflected waves,'' says Kamal Barakat, ``we can determine how far away they hit a medium and the nature of it.''
If the waves coming back are intense, then they have hit a hard medium, he said. If they are of low frequency, then the medium hit could be, for example, wood.
If the initial waves hit no surfaces, says Dr. Barakat, then no waves are reflected back. The waves returned are registered on magnetic tape, and the data are in the end entered into a computer.
There are limits, however, to the technology. The results are not conclusive because the scanner's range is only 10 meters (about 33 feet) each way. Inside the Great Pyramid, because of the humidity, the waves penetrated only five meters (about 16 feet).
The Japanese are hoping to improve the equipment so that the waves can travel farther. Then, the experiments inside the pyramid will be repeated.