Archaeologists Plan on Using Cosmic Ray Muons to Peer Inside the Pyramids

The ScanPyramids project plans on using muon tomography to unravel the 4500-year-old mystery of how pyramids were made.

Pyramids, the final resting places for ancient Egyptian pharaohs and queens, are pretty awesome to look at. But what's just as fascinating for archaeologists, engineers, and the public is getting to the bottom of a 4500-year-old mystery: how were they built?

In an attempt to answer that question, a team of researchers from Egypt, Canada, France, and Japan have joined forces under the aegis of the ScanPyramids Project, which is supported by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

The one-year project will kick off in November 2016, and aims to use everything from drone-mounted scanners, thermal imaging, and radiography to both produce a 3D model of the Khufu and Khafre's pyramids on the Giza plateau and the Bent and Red pyramids at the Dahshur necropolis, and to peer non-invasively inside them.

"We want to use these technologies to look through the stones and see if we can find rooms and secret passages behind the walls and inside the pyramids," Mehdi Tayoubi, founder of the French arts heritage non-profit HIP, told me.

The researchers will use muon tomography—powered by cosmic ray muons, subatomic particles that can penetrate almost anything—to see inside the pyramids. The tech was refined by researchers from Nagoya University in central Japan and the Japanese KEK particle physics research institute following the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disaster on 11 March 2011. In Japan, it has already been used to look inside volcanoes and nuclear reactors.

Over the decades, several efforts have been made to uncover what's inside the pyramids as well as understand how they were built. In 1986, a non-invasive microgravimetry survey was conducted by a team sponsored by the EDF Foundation to measure the different density of the materials inside the pyramid, said Tayoubi. In 1999, French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin used 3D modelling to identify a construction anomaly, which gave rise to the "spiral structure"—a theory that suggested that pyramids were made from the inside.

Tayoubi explained that back then, researchers were able to find these spiralling structures inside the pyramids, but they were unable to say what exactly these anomalous structures were. "We still don't have an answer for what that structure is," noted Tayoubi.

Render of thermal imaging's use to detect different temperatures inside the pyramid. Image: HIP Institute

In the following year, a team of Japanese researchers from Waseda University used ground-penetrating radars inside the corridors leading up to the queen's chamber in the Great Pyramid. The trick now, said Tayoubi, was to combine research forces and advance the usage of new and different technologies in heritage projects.

"When the Japanese team come to Egypt with their muon technology, they will meet with new challenges that will require them to find answers to new questions," said Tayoubi, noting that the project aimed both to advance innovations in tech, and unravel the mysteries of how Egypt's pyramids were built.

"I want the team to be in a humble position, as many people have tried before to work out the mystery of the pyramids, but we're really excited [about using these technologies]. If we find something, it's going to allow us to understand how the pyramids were built—this is one of the greatest mysteries," said Tayoubi.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that the 1986 microgravimetry survey was conducted by Jean Pierre Houdin. A team sponsored by the EDF Foundation conducted the survey, whose results Houdin later used in his own analysis.