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.
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.
It took the team two days, drilling one inch at a time, to pierce one of the 40 limestone slabs covering the pit and penetrate it.
Despite guarantees that no change would come to the internal environment of the pit, the scientists admitted they had no way of preventing the last inch or so of limestone dust, pulverized as they broke through, from dropping into the pit.
But controversy and criticism dissipated in the pre-dawn moonlight two weeks ago as the archaeologists inserted the camera into the pit. The excitement was like the old days when archaeologists hauled up shards and stones, not photographs.
Wilbur Garrett, editor of National Geographic magazine, described the moment when the light illuminated stacks of wood inside the pit: ``We had the moon smiling down on the entire operation. It was like a moon launch, but we were launching down.''
At first sniff, Dr. Tans said, the air smelled ``stale.'' Because limestone rock is porous and the air pressure inside the pit was the same as that outside, he guessed the air inside was not millennia old. Nevertheless, Tans will test the air for Freons (gases introduced by man in the last 50 years) and for methane (a byproduct of life). He will also carbon-date the air.
Although the air is not ancient, Dr. Baz says it still can serve as a model for the preservation of future finds.
``If the air had allowed oxidation,'' he said, ``there wouldn't have been a single plank left. It would have been powder.''
But if the scientists are eager to begin their tests, the greatest excitement still surrounds the find itself, saved for 4,600 years by some kind of amazing grace.
At first view, the archaeologists said they could see bits of ancient mortar that had fallen onto the boat from the sealed roof. The planks were dismantled and there were reed mats on top of them. No oars could be discerned.
Some archaeologists at the site speculated that together the two boats would form the complete ritual for transporting the soul of King Cheops to eternity, with the first boat representing the voyage through daylight and the second the voyage through night. But Kadri refused to debunk a second theory, which holds that the boats were used to transport the Pharaoh's body down the Nile to his resting place, the Great Pyramid.
Archaeologists did not conceal their desire to bring the boat up, sniff and feel it, and assemble it, rather than just peer at it on a blurry video set. Earlier, officials had said that the most important goal was to analyze the air and test the technology, that the experiment was vital even if the pit was empty.
But Egypt had not exacted a commitment for further work from National Geographic. And the society, which spent $250,000 on the project, says it has no more cash to spare.
If the Egyptians do decide to remove this ancient relic from its ancient tomb, they will be able to prepare a home and an environment in which it can be preserved.
``It's the first time that we see the relic before we bring it out,'' said Dr. Shawki Nahla, an archaeologist with the Antiquities Organization. ``We have time to think, to assemble our people, to build a museum.''