Egyp­tol­o­gists go high tech to un­lock an­cient mys­ter­ies

'It is im­por­tant to have sci­ence in ar­chae­ol­ogy'

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

From the Giza pyra­mids to the pharaonic tombs of Luxor, Egypt's an­cient mon­u­ments are hold­ing onto mys­ter­ies which re­searchers now aim to un­ravel with cut­ting edge tech­nol­ogy. For more than 200 years since Napoleon Bon­a­parte landed in Egypt with a ret­inue of schol­ars who laid the ground­work for mod­ern Egyp­tol­ogy, ex­perts have used sci­ence to un­lock the se­crets of the coun­try's an­cient trea­sures. In the 21st cen­tury, the sci­en­tists have been us­ing elec­tronic de­vices and chem­i­cal test­ing to date arte­facts.

Chem­i­cal test­ing still re­quires small sam­ples, but ad­vanced tech­niques com­ing into use are meant to be non-in­va­sive so as not to dam­age the an­cient relics. Scan Pyra­mids is among the most am­bi­tious of the projects to de­mys­tify the Khufu Pyra­mid near Cairo, the only sur­viv­ing mon­u­ment from the an­cient Seven Won­ders of the World. It has em­ployed in­frared ther­mog­ra­phy and muog­ra­phy-a tech­nique that records im­ages us­ing muon par­ti­cles-in its quest. The project had an­nounced last Oc­to­ber that the mas­sive pyra­mid may con­tain undis­cov­ered re­cesses.

"All the de­vices we put in place are de­signed to find where the cav­ity is lo­cated. We know there is one, but we're try­ing to find out where," said Me­hdi Tay­oubi, pres­i­dent of the HIP In­sti­tute head­ing the Scan Pyra­mids project. The muon de­vices in­clude chem­i­cal emul­sion in­stru­ments from Ja­pan's Univer­sity of Nagoya, elec­tronic sen­sors from the KEK Ja­panese Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory, and muon tele­scopes from the French Atomic En­ergy Com­mis­sion. The re­sults are then com­pared with in­frared and 3D im­ages.

Some ar­chae­ol­o­gists have pinned hopes on the so­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy to lo­cate the burial place of the le­gendary queen Ne­fer­titi. The wife of King Akhen­aten, who ini­ti­ated a monothe­is­tic cult in an­cient Egypt, Ne­fer­titi re­mains an enigma, best known for a bust de­pict­ing her that is now on ex­hi­bi­tion in Berlin's Neues Mu­seum. A British Egyp­tol­o­gist, Ni­cholas Reeves, be­lieved her re­mains were hid­den in a se­cret cham­ber in the tomb of Tu­tankhamun, in the south­ern Val­ley of the Kings.

In 2015, ar­chae­ol­o­gists scanned the tomb with radar hop­ing for clues. Both Reeves's the­ory and the in­con­clu­sive re­sults have been dis­missed by other Egyp­tol­o­gists. One of them, for­mer an­tiq­ui­ties min­is­ter Zahi Hawass, said that an adept of the sun god Aton would never have been al­lowed to be buried in the Val­ley of the Kings.

Map­ping out an­cient dy­nas­ties

The ex­cite­ment over the pos­si­ble dis­cov­ery has died down since the in­con­clu­sive re­sults, but a team from Po­litec­nico Univer­sity in Turin, Italy, in­tends to give it an­other shot. This time they will em­ploy to­mog­ra­phy-a method used in med­i­cal scans-and mag­ne­tom­e­try, which mea­sures mag­netic fields. Nei­ther the Po­litec­nico team nor the an­tiq­ui­ties min­istry has been in­clined to dis­cuss the fresh at­tempt, pos­si­bly put off by the an­ti­cli­mac­tic me­dia frenzy over the pre­vi­ous bid. Else­where, Egyp­tol­o­gists are un­der­tak­ing a project to nail down the chronol­ogy of Egypt's an­cient dy­nas­ties more pre­cisely.

The French In­sti­tute of East­ern Ar­chae­ol­ogy (IFAO) in Cairo has a dat­ing lab­o­ra­tory that the re­searchers are putting to use for the project. "The chronol­ogy of an­cient Egypt is not clearly de­fined. We use a rel­a­tive chronol­ogy," said Anita Quiles, head of re­search at the IFAO. "We re­fer to reigns and dy­nas­ties but we do not know ex­actly the dates," she said. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which in­volves chem­i­cal test­ing, is ex­pected to take sev­eral years.

But Egyp­tol­o­gists say that sci­ence can­not re­place ar­chae­ol­o­gists and their work on the ground. "It is im­por­tant to have sci­ence in ar­chae­ol­ogy," said Hawass. "But it is very im­por­tant not to let sci­en­tists an­nounce any de­tails about what they found un­less it has been seen by Egyp­tol­o­gists." — AFP

French Anita Quiles, a re­searcher in the French In­sti­tute of East­ern Ar­chae­ol­ogy (IFAO) in Cairo, stands near lo­cal staff at a dat­ing lab­o­ra­tory in­side the in­sti­tute.

A view of the French In­sti­tute of East­ern Ar­chae­ol­ogy (IFAO) in Cairo.

Egypt’s for­mer an­tiq­ui­ties min­is­ter Zahi Hawass gives an in­ter­view with AFP at his of­fice in Cairo. — AFP pho­tos

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