Lecture by Dr. Yasser Elshayeb

​Egyptian Pharaohs: Using Science and Technology to Leverage Culture and Cultural Heritage

Over 110 AAFSW members and guests attended the fascinating lecture of Dr. Yasser Elshayeb from the University of Cairo, on Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at the Burns Auditorium in the George Marshall Center at the Department of State. The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) in coordination with the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Washington, DC were very proud to present this unique cultural international program.

Dr. Elshayeb emphasized that with the emergence of technologies in the first two decades of the 21st century, it became evident that the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) would be extended to the culture and cultural heritage domains. Throughout the world, there are many examples of this and many successes have been achieved, resulting in numerous success stories. Indeed, in his presentation, Dr. Elshayeb exposed how ICT may contribute to better knowledge of various cultures, how ICT may be used to disseminate and exchange information about cultural heritage sites, and probably draw a potential strategy for the contribution of ICT in the domain of cultural heritage.

Dr. Elshayeb explained the recent applications of technologies at the Giza Plateau in Egypt, where scientists from Egypt, Japan, France, and Canada were able to successfully employ cosmic rays in order to scan the internal structure of the great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), and were able to determine the existence of previously unknown voids within the pyramid. This work was the subject of a recent publication in “Nature.” [Nature: volume 552, pages 386–390 (21 December 2017)].

According to the letter’s publication in Nature, the Great Pyramid, or Khufu’s Pyramid, was built on the Giza plateau in Egypt during the fourth dynasty by the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), who reigned from 2509 BC to 2483 BC. Despite being one of the oldest and largest monuments on Earth, there is no consensus about how it was built. To understand its internal structure better, a team of scientists, including Dr. Elshayeb, imaged the pyramid using muons (on special films), which are by-products of cosmic rays that are only partially absorbed by stone. The resulting cosmic-ray muon radiography allowed the team of scientists to visualize the known and any unknown voids in the pyramid in a non-invasive way. In their letter to Nature, the team of scientists report the discovery of a large void (with a cross-section similar to that of the Grand Gallery and a minimum length of 30 meters) situated above the Grand Gallery. This constitutes the first major inner structure found in the Great Pyramid since the nineteenth century.

The void, named ScanPyramids’ Big Void (the ScanPyramid project started in 2016 – Muonography of the Pyramid), was first observed with nuclear emulsion films installed in the Queen’s chamber, then confirmed with scintillator hodoscopes set up in the same chamber and finally re-confirmed with gas detectors outside the pyramid. According to the letter’s publication in Nature, this large void has therefore been detected with high confidence by three different muon detection technologies and three independent analyses. These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of the internal structure of Khufu’s Pyramid. Although there is currently no information about the intended purpose of this void, these findings show how modern particle physics together with engineering research can shed new light on the world’s archaeological heritage. Dr. Elshayeb explained that these significant findings gave new momentum to the research that his team of scientists have been carrying out since 2016.

At the end of his presentation, Dr. Elshayeb indulged AAFSW members and guests with answering many of their questions. All of those present were delighted to try the wonderful Egyptian desserts offered by the Embassy of the Republic of Egypt during the reception that followed the presentation.

Joanna Athanasopoulos Owen, PhD
AAFSW President