What Lies at the End of the
Queen's Chamber Shafts?

The Shafts

The existence of the so-called "air shafts" in the King's Chamber had been known for a very long time, but the similar shafts of the Queen's Chamber were not discovered until 1872, as they were capped at both ends. Waynman Dixon and his team, investigating a crack in the south wall of the Queen's Chamber, made a cut through the wall that revealed a rectangular channel similar to that found in the King's Chamber. Suspecting a twin shaft on the north wall, another cut was made that confirmed those suspicions. Smoke was released into both shafts, but no exit was indicated.

The explorers: Upuaut 2 (left) and Pyramid Rover (right).
Upuaut 2 Pyramid Rover
Photo left © copyright Rudolf Gantenbrink 1999; photo right © copyright National Geographic Television and Film

In 1993, German engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink sent a robot of his design, Upuaut-2, up the southern shaft. Gantenbrink recorded what the robot found on 22 March:

At 11.05 a.m., at 59 meters, Upuaut-2 approaches a stone slab, which blocks the shaft! In our video inspection of all four shafts so far, a total of about 180 meters, we have seen only blocks made of local limestone. But the final block before the slab is definitely carved from lighter-colored limestone, probably originating from the Mocatam Mountains about 30 km from the Giza Plateau, on the other side of the Nile. This was the material the builders used for the higher-quality casing stones of the pyramid's exterior, and for the chamber systems. The workmanship of the last block in front of the slab is also much higher than anything we have seen in any of the shafts so far.

As we approach the slab, we can see two dark streaks on it, which upon closer inspection turn out to be copper fittings. And there is something else. The face of the inspector sitting next to me at the monitor has become chalk white. He draws my attention to two round, white marks on the copper fittings. "These are seals, these are seals!" he exclaims, visibly shaken. "We must stop work immediately and inform our chairman."

Subsequently it has come to be known, perhaps unfortunately, as "The Door." This popular name of course implies that the slab actually serves the function of a door, leading to – well, who knows what? But until we can peer behind it, or perhaps even open it, we will never know for sure what it really is and what it meant to the builders of Cheops. So for the time being, it might be more appropriate to refer to it simply as the "USO" – the Unidentified Stone Object.

A few days later, Gantenbrink attempted a similar survey of the northern shaft, but the attempt was abandoned. "The temptation is great to send Upuaut around the sharp bend at 18 meters," he wrote. "But, since our short guide rods have suddenly turned up missing, the danger is too great that the robot might get stuck and not be able to return."

The end of the shafts: southern (left) and northern (right).
southern slab northern slab
Photo left © copyright Rudolf Gantenbrink 1999; photo right © copyright National Geographic Television and Film

In 2002, another robot, the Pyramid Rover designed by iRobot of Boston, was sent to the end of the southern shaft to investigate further. The robot drilled a 3/4-inch hole in the slab and, on 17 September, a miniature fiber-optic camera was inserted to reveal a rough-hewn blocking stone lying 7 inches beyond the original southern shaft slab. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said “There was a space, a void and then what appears to be another ‘door’ which was quite distinct and showed some chisel marks. It looks to me like it is sealing something. It seems that something important is hidden there.”

Beyond the southern slab.
robot probe beyond the slab beyond the slab
Photos © copyright National Geographic Television and Film

On 18 September, the Rover was sent up the northern shaft, this time off-the-air. Navigation was difficult due to four sharp bends. Another "stone partition, or door" at the end of the shaft, again with two copper fittings, was discovered. Zahi Hawass said the south shaft's first slab and the slab just discovered in the northern shaft were the same distance (211 feet) from the Queen's Chamber. The robot did not drill through the slab of the northern shaft in its latest probe, but Hawass said that this was in the planning stage.

That the slabs at the end of both shafts act as doors, either practically or symbolically, is debatable, but one cannot argue against the uniqueness of the copper fittings on the slabs. Are they really meant to be handles? And handles or not, what possible purpose might they serve?

Speculation on the two slabs is still in the early stages. Hawass has theorized that they were to serve the ascending soul of the deceased king. Funerary texts, he said, speak of the pharaoh's soul encountering a series of doors before reaching the rewards of afterlife. The late I.E.S. Edwards quipped that a chamber behind the slab might serve as a serdab from which a statue of Khufu would be found to gaze. In his book The Pyramids, Miroslav Verner wrote:

The films [made by Upuaut 2] revealed that the shaft ended with a small limestone slab in which two heavily corroded pieces of copper had been inserted. This discovery led to a series of hypotheses as to what might be hidden behind the slab. One theory suggested that behind the entrance there might be a chamber with a statue of the king. It is unlikely, however, that any space would be accessible through so narrow a shaft. Moreover, the end of the shaft is only about six meters from the outer surface of the pyramid. [p. 200]

Mark Lehner simply refers to the slab as a "plugging block with two copper pins." Rainer Stadelmann said, "The door is just a blocking stone; it doesn't block the entrance to something. It simply seals off a corridor." Later he added, "These copper fittings are magical instruments which the king can take, or the soul of the king can take, when it ascends. It uses them to open these blocks and pass through the stones to the sky." That the slabs serve as false doors is possible, as these features are common to Egyptian tombs, but none are known to have been fitted with handles. Zahi Hawass said that because some ancient texts speak of the soul navigating a series of doors guarded by snakes, the brass "handles" on the slabs could represent stylized snakes.

Calling the latest discovery "an exciting thing," Dieter Arnold said, "Don't expect that I can tell you what's behind the stone. We're all stunned. We have no parallel." Stadelmann commented that "It might be possible that there is, let's say, a papyrus or something behind these stones, but there's no place for much more." Kate Spence said she thought the slab was likely a structural blockage that was added to plug the shaft when it was abandoned by the pyramid’s architects. “I suspect it’s been put there to stop rubble falling down the shaft,” she said. John Taylor, assistant keeper of the British Museum's Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, said the third "door" may be a dead end, further evidence that the Queen's Chamber was abandoned in favor of the King's Chamber as the actual burial location for Khufu. Dr Aidan Dodson has speculated on what lies beyond the stone behind the slab. He said, "It won't be anything spectacular. My view is that the limestone is damp and cracked and all that is on the other side is the main body of the pyramid."

What lies at the end of the Queen's Chamber shafts? Limestone slabs bearing copper fittings whose purpose remains a mystery. What lies beyond these slabs? Very likely simply the end of the shafts.

Catchpenny Mysteries © copyright 2002 by Larry Orcutt.