Can cosmic particles in pyramids solve the mystery of how they were built?

Researchers will try a technology used to peer inside volcanoes to find hidden chambers in pyramids.

Coralie Carlson/AP/File
Tourists as they leave the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, in 2011. An international heritage research group says scientists will begin analyzing radiographic muons, particles produced through cosmic rays' collision with Earth's atmosphere, collected at the ancient Bent Pyramid built by the Pharaoh Snefru.

Scientists from a variety of disciplines working together in Egypt to solve the 4,500-year-old mystery of how the ancient pyramids were built, will soon begin analyzing how cosmic particles are absorbed by the walls of the Bent Pyramid to determine if it has hidden chambers.

By using a technology called muon tomography, a scanning process often used to detect nuclear contraband in cargo and to see inside volcanoes to try to predict eruptions, scientists will scan the Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo. The pyramid, named so because of an engineering failure that left it somewhat crooked, was built by Pharaoh Snefru, founder of the 4th Dynasty, in about 2,600 BC.

"For the construction of the pyramids, there is no single theory that is 100 percent proven or checked; they are all theories and hypotheses," said Hany Helal, vice president and co-founder of the nonprofit Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute, a partner in the project.

"What we are trying to do with the new technology,” Dr. Helal told the Associated Press, “we would like to either confirm or change or upgrade or modify the hypotheses that we have on how the pyramids were constructed."

The institute, along with a team from Egypt, France, Canada and Japan is unleashing an arsenal of cutting-edge technologies from different areas of science to discover new clues about the construction of four pyramids, including Bent and the Red pyramids in Dahshur, and Khufu’s Pyramid and Khafre’s Pyramid at Giza, right outside of Cairo.

Khufu, built as a tomb by around 2,560 BC, is the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that still stands. Built by the son of Snefru, it occupies 13 acres and is thought to contain more than 2 million stone blocks that weigh from 2 to 30 tons each, according to The History Channel.

“How was it possible to construct such a wonder in only 25 years?” wrote researchers in a summary of their year-long project, led by Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities, called Scan Pyramids.

“Our goal is to make our contribution and to prepare, in humility, the path for future scientific research missions,” they wrote.

To do this, the international team will use several advanced technologies to look for possible hidden chambers without harming the pyramids, and to build 3-D models of the exteriors of the structures.

In the next month, they’ll use muon detectors placed inside the Bent Pyramid to observe the rate at which these ghostly elementary particles accumulate. They hope to be able to spot void areas in the pyramids – perhaps chambers that the muons passed into without any problem – by contrasting them with denser areas, like walls, where more muons should get absorbed or deflected.  

"Even if we find one square meter void somewhere, it will bring new questions and hypotheses and maybe it will help solve the definitive questions," Mehdi Tayoubi, president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute, told the AP.

The muon detector work will be supplemented by thermal imaging of the pyramids, which will be used to create temperature maps of their surface. Colder spots on the maps imply a draft coming from beneath that could result from a hidden chamber beyond the wall.

Finally, says the team in its project summary, drones will take dozens of pictures of the pyramids, from different points and angles, that will be constructed into 3-D models that might help researchers identify levels, slopes and possibly traces of ancient ramps of construction paths.

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