Mysterious hidden chamber discovered in Egypt's Great Pyramid

Last Updated Nov 3, 2017 8:38 AM EDT

CAIRO -- Scientists have found a hidden chamber in Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza, the first such discovery in the structure since the 19th century and one likely to spark a new surge of interest in the pharaohs. 

In an article published in the journal Nature on Thursday, an international team said the 30-meter void deep within the pyramid is situated above the structure's Grand Gallery, and has a similar cross-section. The purpose of the chamber is unclear, and it's not yet known whether it was built with a function in mind. 

Experts say that builders often incorporated cavities in the pyramids to relieve stress from the overlying stone and avoid collapse, BBC News reports.

The scientists made the discovery using cosmic-ray imaging, recording the behavior of subatomic particles called muons that penetrate the rock similar to X-rays, only much deeper. Their paper was peer-reviewed before appearing in Nature, an international, interdisciplinary journal of science. 

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The location of the newly discovered chamber in the Great Pyramid.

BBC News

The pyramid is also known as Khufu's Pyramid for its builder, a 4th Dynasty pharaoh who reigned from 2509 to 2483 B.C. Visitors to the pyramid, on the outskirts of Cairo, can walk, hunched over, up a long tunnel to reach the Grand Gallery. The newly discovered chamber does not appear to be connected to any known internal passages. 

Scientists involved in the scanning called the find a "breakthrough" that highlighted the usefulness of modern particle physics in archaeology. 

"This is a premier," said Mehdi Tayoubi, a co-founder of the ScanPyramids project and president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute. "It could be composed of one or several structures... maybe it could be another Grand Gallery. It could be a chamber, it could be a lot of things." 

"It was hidden, I think, since the construction of the pyramid," he added. 

The pyramids at Giza, the last surviving wonder of the ancient world, have captivated visitors since they were built as royal burial chambers 4,500 years ago. Experts are still divided over how they were constructed, so even relatively minor discoveries generate great interest. 

Regardless of its purpose, CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti says the newly discovered chamber may help re-energize Egypt's crumbling tourism industry.

Antiquities-driven tourism is "absolutely an important part of the Egyptian economy," explains National Geographic science reporter Michael Greshko. 

Vigliotti reports that 14.7 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010, but with political upheaval after a 2011 uprising, and the bombing of a passenger plane in 2015, that number dropped to 5.4 million last year.

"There was optimism among Egyptian tourism officials that discoveries like these would spawn interest," said Greshko. "I'd be willing to bet they're hoping so."

FILE PHOTO: A group of camels and horses stand idle in front of the Great Pyramids awaiting tourists in Giza

A group of camels and horses stand idle in front of the Great Pyramids awaiting tourists in Giza, Egypt on March 29, 2017.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany / REUTERS

Late last year thermal scanning identified a major anomaly in the Great Pyramid -- three adjacent stones at its base which registered higher temperatures than others, stoking imaginations worldwide. 

Speculation that King Tutankhamun's tomb contains additional antechambers stoked interest in recent years, before scans by ground-penetrating radar and other tools came up empty, raising doubts about the claim. 

The muon scan is accomplished by planting special plates inside and around the pyramid to collect data on the particles, which rain down from the earth's atmosphere. They pass through empty spaces but can be absorbed or deflected by harder surfaces, allowing scientists to study their trajectories and discern what is stone and what is not. Several plates were used to triangulate the void discovered in the Great Pyramid. 

Tayoubi said the team plans to work with others to come up with hypotheses about the area. 

"The good news is that the void is there, and it's very big," he said.