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Boat and beetle beside the pyramids.

Boat and beetle beside the pyramids

When a joint Egyptian and American team last October drilled into the ancient pit beside the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, one of their big hopes was to obtain samples of 4,600-year-old air, dating back to when the pit was sealed during the time of the pharaohs. (SN: 9/12/87, p.172; 11/7/87, p.295). That hope was dashed when a video camera lowered into the pit showed a live beetle crawling on the decaying timbers of a disassembled wooden boat.

After extensive testing of samples taken from the pit, researchers determined that desert air from outside is constantly mixing with air inside the pit. The age of the inside air is between two months and a year, says Pieter Tans from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was a member of the team. "From our standpoint, scientifically, it was a complete bust," says Tans.

From the archaeological perspective, however, the project was a success, says Farouk El-Baz, head of the remote-sensing department at Boston University. Funded by the National Geographic Society and the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, the project members probed the inside of the pit with $300,000 worth of high-tech equipment that would not disturb its contents. The gadgets included ground-penetrating radar, special drills, miniature remote-controlled cameras and an air lock to keep outside air from contaminating the pit (in case the pit had been hermetically sealed.) El-Baz believes this type of equipment may be useful in future archaelogical projects in Egypt, Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere.

The project also confirmed that an ancient boat is resting in the pit. In 1954, the first such boat was found in almost perfect condition in a nearly identical neighboring pit. Egyptian archaeologists removed the wooden pieces and reassembled this 142-foot-long craft, which is now in a museum near the pyramid. At present the Egyptian government has no plans to remove the second boat, which appears to have decayed more than the first. After taking air samples, the team photographed the chamber, inserted temperature and humidity gauges and resealed the hole.

The air samples revealed that the pit contains almost double the amount of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere. This gas is produced by organic decay, which has eaten away about 4 tons of wood, or 10 percent of the boat's weight.

Outside air, which feeds the decay, apparently enters the chamber through the porous limestone walls and ceiling. Because air can travel through the rock, Tans does not believe either pit was ever hermetically sealed, and he cannot explain why the wood of the first boat survived the centuries so well.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 2, 1988
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