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Pharoah's boat found in ancient pit.

Pharaoh's boat found in ancient pit

American and Egyptian investigators last month drilled into a large pit at the base of the Great Pyramid of Cheops and found the disassembled planks of a wooden boat that has been sealed inside for 4,600 years. The team also took samples of the air inside the pit, which are expected to reveal clues about the ancient atmosphere (SN: 9/12/87, p.172).

But the air may not be as pristine as the researchers had hoped. "It is unlikely that the air in the pit remained unchanged for 4,600 years,' says team member Pieter Tans, who is working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In 1954, archaeologists opened an identical neighboring pit and found a wooden boat that had survived the millennia in almost perfect condition. The original function of this boat and its newly discovered mate remains a point of debate. After opening the first pit, some experts had speculated that the boat was designed to carry the spirit of Cheops west with the setting sun. Others believe the boats were functional, and that one had transported the pharaoh's body to its resting place in the pyramid.

Coordinated by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) and the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society, the present project is a unique test of new, nondestructive techniques. Instead of opening the entire pit, the team spent two days drilling through a 63-inch limestone block that covered the pit. Through the 3 1/2-inch-diameter hole, they took air samples and inserted a miniature video camera and environmental probes while a specially designed air lock kept the outside air from contaminating the pit.

On a television monitor above the pit, the team watched as the camera revealed "the wooden planks of the ancient craft, covered by a mat and a sprinkling of fallen plaster,' says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University.

After photographing the pit and sampling the air, the team resealed the hole. This discovery is especially rewarding because it shows that artifacts . . . no longer need be removed from their natural sites to make them meaningful,' says Kamal Barakat of the EAO.

In planning the project, team members hoped to retrieve air samples from 4,600 years ago. If the pit has indeed remained sealed over the centuries, chemical analysis of this ancient air will help scientists determine whether concentrations of important trace gases, such as those implicated in the "greenhouse' effect, have risen in the meantime. However, according to Tans, "the limestone was extremely soft and porous, indicating that there might not be much ancient air in the pit.'

He adds that carbon-14 dating and other measurements will indicate more clearly whether the air is untainted.
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Author:Monastersky, Richard
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 7, 1987
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