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Cosmic Science

Egypt opens up the next archaeological frontier

Nearly a century after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb focused the world’s attention on Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, archaeologists are turning the spotlight to Saqqara, a site that’s separated by hundreds of miles and centuries of time.

This weekend, antiquities officials formally unveiled 59 decorated coffins, or sarcophagi, with untouched mummies inside them. Mostafa Waziri, the general director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told NBC News that the find reminded him of King Tutankhamun’s tomb — which was found almost intact in 1922.

Saqqara is best known as the site of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which was built around 2650 B.C.E. and is considered the oldest surviving pyramid in Egypt. The newly unveiled sarcophagi, however, come from a much later time, around 600 B.C.E.

To put the timing in context, the Pyramids of Giza were built about a century after the Pyramid of Djoser, in the 2560 B.C.E time frame. King Tutankhamun reigned from 1332 to 1323 B.C.E., and Saqqara’s coffins were buried more than seven centuries after Tut.

The wooden sarcophagi were found stacked in three burial shafts that go about 40 feet deep. They’re colorfully painted, and scores of statuettes and other artifacts were buried along with the mummies. One 14-inch-tall statuette, inlaid with red agate, turquoise and lapis lazuli, represents the Egyptian god Nefertam and is said to be inscribed with the name of its owner, a priest called Badi Amun.

Two of the sarcophagi were opened during Saturday’s unveiling in Saqqara. “We found that the two mummies bear the name and the title of the family,” Khaled El-Anany, Egypt’s minister of tourism and antiquities, told reporters.

Waziri said the sarcophagi and the artifacts would be transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum, the massive gallery that’s under construction in Cairo and due to have its formal opening next year.

And there’s likely to be more mummies to come. El-Anany said dozens more sarcophagi could be unearthed at the site. “This is not the end of the discovery — this is only the beginning,” he said.

Saqqara, which is about 20 miles south of modern-day Cairo, could well become a high-profile stop for Egyptology enthusiasts. This April, Egyptian authorities completed a 14-year-long renovation project at the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara and reopened it to the public — unfortunately, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Egyptian officials see archaeo-tourism as a key contributor to the country’s economic recovery in the post-pandemic era. For evidence, you need look no further than the fact that the antiquities ministry has added “tourism” to its official title.

Saqqara’s finds will keep documentary filmmakers and on-screen archaeologists busy as well: The Smithsonian Channel has already announced it’ll be airing a four-part series about the sarcophagi next year, with “Tomb Hunters” as the working title.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

I’ve been an Egyptology fan for decades, and seeing the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit in Seattle still ranks among my top museum experiences more than 40 years after the fact. The mysteries of Tut’s tomb continue to stir the soul nearly a century after its discovery. But there’s much more to ancient Egyptian history than Tut and Cleopatra.

“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” by renowned Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, is a must-read when it comes to the history of the world’s first nation-state. Wilkinson goes all the way back to before the beginning, stressing how the Nile gave rise to civilization and sustained it over the course of millennia.

"The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt"
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson (Random House / Cover design by Victoria Allen)

Wilkinson’s account of the twists and turns of pharaonic rule — including the creation of a ruling elite, the exercise of absolute authority and the role of religion — could well get you thinking about the lessons for our own age. And if you ever get to Egypt to see the ancient sites and Cairo’s new Grand Egyptian Museum, this book could serve as a guide to the meaning behind the monuments.

For all these reasons, I’m making “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” October’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Over the course of the past 18 years, the CLUB Club has recognized books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to become available at your library or secondhand book store.

Past selections have included other tales of bygone civilizations, ranging from “Everyday Life in New Testament Times” to “The Year 1000” to “1491.” But the CLUB Club also highlights tales of sci-fi civilizations, including Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight” (for September) and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (for August).

Check out the backlist, and if you have recommendations for future CLUB Club selections, pass them along in your comments.

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GeekWire

Black sarcophagus opened … and it’s a soggy mess

Opening the sarcophagus
Egyptian experts open an ancient sarcophagus in Alexandria. (Ministry of Antiquities via Facebook)

Egyptian archaeologists say they’ve opened up a mysterious black sarcophagus found during excavations in Alexandria, and although they didn’t uncover the evil curse that some feared, they did uncover an evil-looking mess.

The coffin was “filled with sewage which leaked through the grove in this area, plus three skeletons,” Mostafa Waziri, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, reported today in an Arabic-language Facebook update.

Photos showed the bones sitting in a pool of dark muck.

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GeekWire

Radar scans rule out hidden rooms in Tut’s tomb

Scanning Tut's tomb
Experts scan the walls of King Tutankhamun’s tomb with ground-penetrating radar. (Egypt Ministry of Antiquities Photo via Facebook)

Ground-penetrating radar scans have failed to confirm any hints that King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the KIngs contains a hidden chamber.

The announcement from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities brought a disappointing end to a scientific investigation that began more than two years ago, after British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves put forth the claim.

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GeekWire

Physicists detect Big Void in Egypt’s Great Pyramid

Pyramid cutaway
A cutaway view of the Pyramid of Khufu shows the location of the “Big Void” as well as a corridor close to the pyramid’s north face. Click on the image for a larger view. (ScanPyramids Illustration)

An international team of researchers has detected a mysterious, previously unknown void deep inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid that may be as large as an art gallery space.

The anomalous space, known as the ScanPyramids Big Void, showed up on imagery produced by tracking concentrations of subatomic particles called muons as they zoomed through the pyramid’s stones.

“We don’t know if this Big Void is made by one structure, or several successive structures,” said Mehdi Tayoubi, president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute and co-founder of the ScanPyramids campaign. “What we are sure about is that this Big Void is there, that it is impressive [and] that it was not expected, as far as I know, by any kind of theory.”

Tayoubi and his colleagues report the discovery in a paper published online today by the journal Nature.

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GeekWire

Solar Impulse gets its pyramid photo op in Egypt

Solar Impulse over pyramids
The Solar Impulse 2 airplane sails over Egypt’s Great Pyramids. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

After a photo op with the Great Pyramids, the Solar Impulse 2 airplane touched down in Egypt for the last layover in its 16-month, round-the-world odyssey.

Solar Impulse pilot and co-founder Andre Borschberg finished up his final turn at the controls with a sun-drenched landing at Cairo International Airport at 7:14 a.m. Wednesday (10:14 p.m. PT Tuesday), almost 49 hours after he took off from Seville in Spain.

“It’s fantastic to have this team, and to be able to do what we do with this spirit – it’s super,” Borschberg told the mission control team in Monaco via a cockpit radio connection.

Now it’s up to his fellow founder, Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer Bertrand Piccard, to close the 22,000-mile loop and pilot the solar-powered plane to Abu Dhabi, the place where the journey began in March 2015.

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GeekWire

Radar hints at hidden chambers in Tut’s tomb

Image: Tut's tomb scanned
Japanese radar expert Hirokatsu Watanabe scans the walls of King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. (Credit: National Geographic Channel via YouTube)

Radar scans have turned up fresh evidence of hidden chambers beyond the walls of King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities reported today.

The scans were supervised by Japanese radar specialist Hirokatsu Watanabe on Thursday and Friday. They add to the evidence from thermal infrared imaging and a close examination of the chamber’s northern and western walls. Egyptian officials gave the go-ahead for the scans to check out archaeologist Nicholas Reeves’ claimthat the 3,300-year-old tomb was originally meant for Tut’s stepmother, Nefertiti, and retrofitted after the boy-king’s untimely death.

In a Facebook posting, the ministry said the preliminary readings “reveal a vacancy behind the northern wall of the tomb, which strongly indicates the existence of a new burial chamber.” Further analysis will be required over the next month, but the ministry said there was hope that “an enormous archaeological discovery will be declared soon.”

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GeekWire

Heat scan spots anomaly in Great Pyramid

Image: Pyramid scan
A computer animation shows how infrared scanning can produce heat maps of the exteriors of Egypt’s pyramids (Credit: ScanPyramids.org)

Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities says thermal scanning has turned up anomalies inside the pyramids of Giza, including a “particularly impressive one” on the eastern side of the biggest monument. The report comes just days after the ministry said a similar scan found temperature anomalies in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, hundreds of miles to the south.

Empty space doesn’t hold heat as well as rock or soil, so heat anomalies provide clues to structural features beneath or beyond the surface being scanned. They could point to hidden chambers or passages at the ancient sites. However, the anomalies also could be due to less spectacular differences in structure or composition – for example, fractures in the underlying rock.

When infrared cameras scanned the interior of Tut’s burial chamber, in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, the ministry said anomalies were found along the northern and western walls. That meshes with other evidence suggesting that yet another burial chamber – perhaps that of Tut’s mother, Nefertiti – lies beyond the walls.

Meanwhile, just outside Cairo, the international Scan Pyramids team took infrared readings of the Giza pyramids’ exteriors at sunrise, when the morning sun was starting to heat up the monuments; and at sunset, when the pyramids were cooling down. The ministry said scientists found intriguing anomalies in the cycle of heating and cooling, and singled out a temperature variation at the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops).

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GeekWire

Scan hints at hidden chamber in Tut’s tomb

Infrared imaging conducted inside King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt has raised hopes that it has a hidden chamber, which would be in line with archaeologist Nicholas Reeves’ recently published suggestions that another royal burial chamber could be discovered there. And there’s more to come.

Image: Eldamaty with camera
Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty holds an infrared camera that can scan the walls of King Tutakhamun’s tomb for temperature differences. (Credit: MInistry of Antiquities via Facebook)

Could the chamber have been built for Queen Nefertiti, thought to be Tut’s mother? Or for Kiya, a lesser wife of Tut’s father, Akhenaten? Could there be intact remains and 3,300-year-old treasures inside, as there were when Tutakhamun was discovered almost exactly 93 years ago in 1922?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves: So far, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has said only that a preliminary analysis of the infrared scans “indicates the presence of an area different in its temperature than the other parts of the northern wall.”

Further scans will be needed to confirm the results and pinpoint the area of temperature difference, the ministry said. But if the effect is confirmed, it could be caused by an open space behind the wall, which wouldn’t hold heat as well as the solid rock or soil surrounding other parts of the tomb.

That would be consistent with Reeves’ claim that there’s a continuation of Tut’s tomb lying beyond the boy-king’s burial chamber as it’s seen today, a space “containing the undisturbed burial of the tomb’s original owner – Nefertiti.” He said another hidden storeroom may lie beyond the western wail.

Reeves, who’s director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project and senior archaeologist with the University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition, made his claims on the basis ofFactum Arte’s recent high-resolution images of the chamber’s walls. He said the images appeared to show the “ghosts” of hitherto-unrecognized doorways that had been covered over. When he published his paper on the subject this summer, it sounded like the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie. But the infrared scanning project’s initial results add weight to Reeves’ hypothesis.

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Forbes

Egypt plans cosmic-ray pyramid scans

Bent Pyramid
The Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, is slated to be the first target for the Scan Pyramids project in Egypt. (Credit: Coralie Carlson / AP)

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out: The international project to scan Egypt’s pyramids for hidden chambers, using cosmic rays, is gearing up for its launch this weekend.

The scientists behind the Scan Pyramids effort will install sensitive detectors to map the pyramids’ structure by studying how the cosmic rays that continually zap our planet skitter through the stones. Similar techniques have been used recently to look inside ancient pyramids in Mexico and Belize, as well as theruined reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear site.

“The survey will be implemented through invasive – though non-destructive – scanning techniques using cosmic rays in cooperation with scientists and experts from Japan, France and Canada,” Egypt’s antiquities minister, Mamdouh Eldamaty, told Ahram Online. Ahram Online and Le Figaro reportedthat Eldamaty would announce the project’s official launch on Sunday.

Get the full story on Forbes.com.