Pyramid won't yield secrets

Robot peeks beyond door, finds only stone surface

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

— A toy train-sized robot opened one door of Egypt's Great Pyramid this morning, only to find another, leaving scientists and TV viewers alike scratching their heads.

The robot � dubbed the Pyramid Rover � took two hours to crawl through a narrow shaft, drilling through a door at the end and inserting a camera connected to a thin cable to see what was behind it.

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AP Photo

Gregg Landry, an engineer from the Boston firm iRobot, places a robot inside the shaft of the Great Pyramid in Cairo. The robot, which is the size and shape of a child's toy train, conducted a mission this morning that was televised live to an international audience. Drilling a hole through a door at the end of a shaft that explorers first discovered in the 19th century, the robot inserted a camera and found another stone door.

"It's another sealed door ... This is very important," said an excited Zahi Hawass, the director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, which along with engineers from the Boston firm iRobot and researchers from National Geographic spent a year planning for today's event.

Fox TV and the National Geographic Channel staged a live, two-hour broadcast, showing the robot inching along the 200-foot-long shaft, giving TV viewers and scientists alike a look at what was billed as the "Secret Chamber."

The footage showed a small, uncluttered space backed by a sheer stone vertical surface.

Hawass said the next job for researchers was to study the footage and plan for more inspections, which could take as long as 12 months.

During the broadcast, Hawass made another find by lifting the lid on a stone sarcophagus found in a tomb built near the Great Pyramid, revealing the intact skeleton apparently of a man dating back to the period of the pyramid's construction some 4,500 years ago.

From a chamber inside the pyramid, engineers controlled the robot's movement by sending instructions via cables. The sheer amount of surrounding stone made radio controls impractical.

The Great Pyramid, built 4,500 years ago by Khufu, also known as Cheops, has four shafts. It is the most magnificent of all Egypt's pyramids, formed by 2.3 million stone blocks, and has lost little of its original height of 481 feet and width of 756 feet.

For more than a century, archaeologists have wondered why such narrow shafts were built and what secrets they might hold.

Hawass said the shafts may have played symbolic roles in Khufu's religious philosophy. Khufu proclaimed himself Sun God during his life � pharaohs before him believed they became sun gods only after death � and he may have tried to reflect his ideas in the design of his pyramid.

The narrow shafts were not designed for human passage. Engineers from iRobot, benefitting from the experience of a German team that sent a robot as far as the door in 1993, have spent the last six months designing their $250,000 machine.

Khufu's pyramid has never yielded the treasures usually associated with pharaohs, perhaps because tomb robbers plundered it thousands of years ago. The pyramid has, however, long intrigued amateur and professional Egyptologists, who marvel at it as a feat of ancient engineering.