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  Science > Archaeology
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Ancient Egyptian Chambers Explored

One of the mysteries of Egypt's Great Pyramid deepened early last September when archaeologists penetrated a 4,500-year-old blocked shaft only to find another stone blocking their way.

During Pyramids Live: Secret Chambers Revealed, presented by the National Geographic Channel, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass used a robot to peer into a narrow shaft that opens into the queen's chamber of the Great Pyramid. Within the shaft Hawass found another stone block, possibly a door.

"What we have seen tonight is totally unique within the world of Egyptology," Hawass said. "There is nothing to compare it to, as these passages are not in any other pyramids, with or without doors. The presence of a second door only deepens the intrigue surrounding the Great Pyramid."

During the live television broadcast, Hawass also opened a sealed sarcophagus in a tomb nearby. Inside he found the undisturbed skeleton of a top pyramid builders' village official.

"Something Important Is Hidden There"

The Great Pyramid shaft has been blocked for centuries by a chunk of limestone that has copper handles and may have been wedged into the shaft by pyramid builders after they used it as a polishing tool.

On September 10th, with Hawass and television viewers watching, the robot sent a camera through a small hole drilled in the block only to encounter another stone blocking the way.

Hawass, head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, was excited nonetheless.

"We can see another sealed door," he said over the shrieks of his team members and television crew crowded into the chamber. "It looks to me like it is sealing something. It seems that something important is hidden there.

"This is one of the first major discoveries in the Great Pyramid in some 130 years, and now what we need is time for further analysis," he said.

Archaeologists had speculated that the shaft might contain valuable artifacts such as papyrus, builders' tools, or perhaps even a statue of Pharaoh Khufu, the pyramid's builder. Or, they knew, it might have contained nothing at all.

For Hawass, solving the mystery was important no matter what the investigation uncovers. "I would just like to reveal what's behind it," he said. "If nothing, it's fine with me."

Skeleton in Sarcophagus

During the live broadcast, which aired in the United States on Fox Television, Hawass also visited the recently discovered village of the pyramid builders, less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) away from the Great Pyramid.

There, he opened the sealed sarcophagus of a man identified by hieroglyphics as Ny Swt Wsrt, believed to be the overseer of the pyramid builders' village. Inside they found a skeleton, lying on its side and facing east—the direction of the rising sun.

"The skull is completely preserved," Hawass said in a preliminary examination. "This man is resting beautifully."

During the time of the pyramid builders, mummification was rare and still in experimental stages.

No artifacts were immediately visible in the sarcophagus. The bones will be carefully photographed, removed, and x-rayed, providing answers about when and how the man died.

The discovery is important because the skeleton is that of a common man, not a king or nobleman. At more than 4,000 years old, Ny Swt Wsrt's coffin is also the oldest intact sarcophagus ever found by modern archaeologists.

"I've been excavating in this cemetery for ten years and I have not found anything intact like this," Hawass said. "This man looks to be very important because of the construction of the tomb, because of the way that they wrote his title—the overseer of the administrative district or the mayor of the city of the pyramid builders."

The tomb of the overseer is one of many exciting recent finds in the pyramid builders' village, south of the Sphinx.

Archaeologist Mark Lehner, director of the Giza Plateau Mapping Project, believes that as many as 20,000 people moved in and out of the village while building the pyramids. Dormitory-style buildings appear to have held sleeping quarters for as many as 2,000 people. Diggers also have found evidence of copper-making and cooking facilities.

"All the evidence points to a very large lost city of the Pyramids that hadn't been known before we started working," said Lehner.

Mysterious Shaft

In Khufu's Great Pyramid, Hawass' team set up camp in the erroneously named queen's chamber. (The room may never have been used, and its function remains unknown.)

Inside the chamber are two shafts. Scholars aren't sure about the purpose of these shafts, which were unique to pyramids built during the Old Kingdom period (2575 to 2150 B.C.), but one theory is that they were built as passageways for the pharaohs' journey to the afterlife.

"It's thought that the so-called air shafts are really conduits for the king's soul," said Lehner.

The first modern investigation of the shaft in the queen's chamber occurred in the 1990s, when archaeologist Rudolf Gantenbrink sent a robot into the passageway. The machine was blocked by the stone after traveling 213 feet (65 meters) into the shaft.

Further hampering the exploration, the interior of the shaft is only 8 inches by 8 inches (20 centimeters by 20 centimeters) and the shaft bends in several places.

Before the television broadcast, measuring apparatus on the robot, similar to those used to search for World Trade Center survivors, found the block was only 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) thick, encouraging the suggestion that it might in fact have been a door leading to another chamber or hidden treasures.

Did Hawass, Lehner, and the television crew know in advance what they would find?

Before the broadcast, executive producer John Bredar said even the research and production teams were in the dark. "It's do-or-die that night," he said. "We don't know exactly what's going to happen."

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An engineer watches a video monitor as the pyramid rover begins to explore the Great Pyramid.

Inside the sarcophagus of a man identified as Ny Swt Wsrt, overseer of the pyramid builders' village, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass found an intact skeleton believed to be 4,500 years old.

Inside The Great Pyramid

Zahi Hawass, left, and National Geographic Channel host Jay Schadler examine the contents of the sarcophagus containing what may be the remains of Ny Swt Wsrt.

Remains inside the sarcophagus of a man identified as Ny Swt Wsrt, overseer of the pyramid builders' village. The intact skeleton is believed to be 4,500 years old.

A custom-built, state-of-the-art robot nicknamed the "Pyramid Rover," equipped with fiber-optic lenses, high-resolution cameras, and what developers believe is the world's smallest ground-penetrating radar, approaches a limestone block in the shaft of the queen's chamber in the Great Pyramid.

After penetrating the limestone block the first images are beamed to the world on live television. But what lies beyond the block is what looks like another stone, covered with cracks.

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