To protect the King’s Chamber from tomb robbers, the ancient Egyptians created a plain but complex system of blocks and grooves inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.
That system is brought to life through computer animations in an upcoming episode of the Science Channel’s “Unearthed.” Egyptologist Mark Lehner explains the system for viewers in the episode, describing it as a “very primitive machine.”
Built for the pharaoh Khufu about 4,500 years ago, the Great Pyramid at Giza is considered a wonder of the ancient world.
Lehner is the director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), a group that has been excavating at Giza for more than 30 years.
Many scholars believe that the King’s Chamber housed the remains of the pharaoh Khufu (reign ca. 2551–2528 B.C.), the ruler who ordered the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The tallest pyramid ever constructed in Egypt, the Great Pyramid was considered to be a “wonder of the world” by ancient writers.
In addition to the King’s Chamber, the Great Pyramid contains two other large chambers, which are today called the Queen’s Chamber and the Subterranean Chamber.
To protect the pharaoh’s chamber, ancient Egyptians constructed a series of grooves and blocks that are hidden beneath the walls of the pyramid.
While scholars have known about this system since at least the 19th century, the TV show uses computer animations to present a reconstruction.
Just outside the entrance to the King’s Chamber (hidden within the Great Pyramid of Giza), workers carved out a set of grooves and fitted three huge granite slabs (red arrow) into them. Once the king’s mummy was safely inside the chamber, the workers dropped those down to block the entrance.
The animations show how blocks were dropped down grooves near the King’s Chamber after the pharaoh’s burial.
The system was sophisticated for its time, said Lehner, noting that it blocked off the entranceway to the King’s Chamber with giant blocks, making it harder for a thief to break in.
Even so, the machine did not protect Khufu’s tomb. Today, all that remains of Khufu’s burial is a red, granite sarcophagus.
The chamber was “probably already robbed of its contents sometime between the end of Khufu’s reign and the collapse of the Old Kingdom [around 2134 B.C.],” wrote Lehner in his book “The Complete Pyramids” (Thames and Hudson, 1997).
A few Egyptologists believe that Khufu may have outwitted the looters with another tactic, however. In addition to the security system, the pyramid also contains four small shafts: two that originate at the King’s Chamber and two more that originate at the Queen’s Chamber. Robot exploration of the shafts has revealed what may be three doorways with copper handles.
The ancient workers then fit three large granite blocks (bigger than the ones that fit into the grooves; red arrow) and slid them down a chute to block the entrance to the passageways below the King’s Chamber, essentially cutting off access to the so-called inner sanctum.
Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former antiquities minister, told Live Science in 2013 that he thinks the shafts lead ultimately to Khufu’s real burial chamber.
The sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber is simply a decoy, Hawass said, meant to fool looters into thinking that they had found Khufu’s burial.
“I really believe that Cheops’ [another name for Khufu] chamber is not discovered yet, and all three chambers were just to deceive the thieves, and the treasures of Khufu [are] still hidden inside the Great Pyramid,” Hawass told Live Science in 2013.
A project is currently underway to scan the Great Pyramid using a variety of technologies. Researchers in that project said they hope that if a hidden burial chamber exists, the scans will reveal it.