The Great Pyramid's "Air Shafts"

While shafts in the King's Chamber had been described as early as 1610, the shafts in the Queen's Chamber were not discovered until 1872. In that year, Waynman Dixon and his friend Dr. Grant found a crack in the south wall of the Queen's Chamber. After pushing a long wire into the crack, indicating that a void was behind it, Dixon hired a carpenter named Bill Grundy to cut through the wall. A rectangular channel, 8.6 inches wide and 8 inches high, was found leading 7 feet into the pyramid before turning upward at about a 32 angle. With the two similar shafts of the King's Chamber in mind, Dixon measured a like position on the north wall, and Grundy chiseled away and, as expected, found the opening of a similar channel. The men lit fires inside the shafts in an attempt to find where they led. The smoke stagnated in the northern shaft but disappeared into the southern shaft. No smoke was seen to exit the pyramid on the outside. Three artifacts were discovered inside the shafts: a small bronze grapnel hook, a bit of cedar-like wood, and a "grey-granite, or green-stone" ball weighing 8.325 grains thought to be an Egyptian "mina" weight ball.

Shafts and passages
of the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Shafts & passages

The Shafts of the Queen's Chamber Described

The openings of both shafts are located at the same level in the chamber, at the joint at the top of the second course of granite wall-stone; the ceilings of the shafts are level with the joint.

The northern shaft runs horizontally for just over six feet (76"), then turns upward at a mean angle of 37 28'. The shaft terminates about 20 feet short of the outside of the pyramid. The total length of the northern shaft is about 240 feet and rises at an angle of 38 for the majority of its length.

The southern shaft also runs horizontally for just over six feet (80"), then turns upward at a mean angle of 38 28'. The total length of the southern shaft is about 250 feet and, as its northern counterpart, ascends at an angle of 38 for the majority of its length and comes to an end about 20 feet short of the outside of the pyramid.

(Read about recent explorations of the Queen's Chamber shafts here.)

The Shafts of the King's Chamber Described

The openings of both shafts are located at roughly the same level in the chamber, at the joint at the top of the first course of granite wall-stone. The northern opening is slightly lower, its ceiling being level with the joint, while the floor of the southern opening is roughly level with the joint.

The northern shaft is rectangular, about 7 inches wide by 5 inches high, a shape it maintains throughout its length. The shaft begins on the horizontal for about 6 feet then takes a series of four bends. While maintaining its general upward angle, it shifts first to the north-northwest then back to north, then to north-northeast, and finally back to true north. It has been speculated by some that this unexplained semicircular diversion might have been necessary to avoid some heretofore undiscovered feature of the pyramid. The total length of the northern shaft is about 235 feet and rises at an angle of 31 (with a variation of between 30 43' and 32 4') for the majority of its length.

Though the first eight feet of the northern shaft is intact, the next thirty or so feet have been excavated by treasure seekers, presumably following the direction of the shaft in search of treasure. The breach to the shaft was made in the west wall of the short passage leading from the antechamber to the King's Chamber. A modern iron grate today guards the mouth of this breach.

The southern shaft is different in appearance. Its mouth is larger, about 18" wide by 24" high. The dimensions are reduced to about 12" by 18" within a few feet, and then narrows yet more to about 8" by 12". The shape is not rectangular, as is the northern shaft, but has a dome shape where it enters the chamber, with a narrow floor, the angle of the walls being slightly obtuse, and a dome-shaped ceiling. The shaft is horizontal and true south for about 6 feet. At the first bend, its shape changes to an oval, and continues thusly for about 8 feet. Its orientation also changes slightly from true south to south-southwest. At the second bend its shape changes yet again to a rectangle, with a height greater than its width. It retains this shape for the 160 feet to the outside of the pyramid where it emerges at the 101st course of stone. It also changes directions once again at the second bend to a more severe south-southwest diversion. The total length of the southern shaft is about 175 feet and ascends at an angle of 45 (with a variation of between 44 26' and 45 30') for the majority of its length.

The Function of the Shafts

When Sandys described the Great Pyramid in 1610, he wrote of the shafts:

In the walls, on each side of the upper room, there are two holes, one opposite to another, their ends not discernable, nor big enough to be crept into -- sooty within, and made, as they say, by a flame of fire which darted through it.

Greaves also wrote of the King's Chamber shafts in 1638. Considering the presence of the lampblack inside, he concluded that the shafts had been intended as receptacles for an "eternal lamp." In 1692, M. Maillet wrote that the shafts served as means of communication for those who were buried alive with the dead king. Not only did the shafts provide air, he reasoned, but they also provides a passage for food which was placed in boxes and pulled through by rope.

By the 20th century, the shafts were presumed to have been designed to provide ventilation. That view has slowly been changing, however. I.E.S. Edwards wrote, "The object of these shafts is not known with certainty; they may have been designed for the ventilation of the chamber or for some religious purpose which is still open to conjecture." (The Pyramids of Egypt, 1961, p. 126.) Ahmed Fakhry wrote, "They are usually referred to as 'air channels,' but most Egyptologists believe that they had a religious significance related to the soul of the king." (The Pyramids, 1969, p. 118.) More recently, Mark Lehner wrote:

A symbolic function should also be attributed to the so-called "air-shafts," which had nothing to do with conducting air. No other pyramid contains chambers and passages so high in the body of masonry as Khufu's and so the builders provided the King's Chamber with small model passages to allow the king's spirit to ascend to the stars. (The Complete Pyramids, 1997, p. 114)

There are many reasons why it is not likely that the shafts were meant for ventilation. The complex angles of the shafts necessitated the piercing of many courses of stone, a daunting logistical challenge during design and construction. Horizontal shafts would have been much easier to build: shafts carved through a single course of stone. One might well wonder why ventilation would be needed at all! No other known pyramid builder made such provisions; even workers in rock-cut tombs managed on the air provided solely by the entrance passage. When the bulk of work on the King's Chamber was being done, ambient air was plentiful as the ceiling had not yet been put in place. The chamber was finished as the superstructure rose.

There are also, however, reasons why it is not likely that the shafts were meant to serve as "launching ramps" for the king's ka. When, in 1964, Alexander Badawy and Virginia Trimble determined that the shafts are "aimed" at certain "imperishable" circumpolar stars and at the constellation of Orion, the function of the shafts as cultic features seemed certain. But the ka did not require a physical means of egress from a tomb -- false doors served this purpose quite nicely both before and after Khufu's reign. The passage that ascends to the entrance of the pyramid is also directed at the circumpolar stars in the manner of previous pyramids. The northern shafts for such a use would have been a needless and bothersome redundancy, although admittedly the Egyptians were not adverse to redundancies.

That fact that no other pyramid in Egypt is known to posses similar shafts as those of the Great Pyramid is problematic. If the shafts were so important for either ventilation or as passages for the king's ka, then why were they omitted in other funerary structures? It is obvious that the builders of Khufu's pyramid went to a jolly lot of trouble to incorporate the shafts into the design of the pyramid, but the true reason why still remains a mystery.

Catchpenny Mysteries © copyright 2000 by Larry Orcutt.