In 1945, the Egyptian archaeologist Abdel Moneim Abu Bakr came across a water-filled shaft inside a small tunnel that runs north-south under the causeway of Khafre at Giza. He explored it sufficiently to learn that it incorporated a number of chambers, but he never excavated or published it. For many years, the shaft had served as a swimming hole and as a source of drinking water for local workmen - it was filled with groundwater to such a high level that no archaeologist was able to excavate it.
The shaft's purpose remained a mystery, although many New Age enthusiasts learned of the it and spread rumors that it hid a secret network of tunnels leading to the Great Pyramid or perhaps to the Sphinx. In the summer of 1999, I decided that it was time to take on the challenge of excavating this shaft to determine its true function and put the speculation to rest.
It was a great challenge to reduce the water level in the shaft to a point where we could work inside. The high water table in the area was the source of the problem. We asked an engineer named Esmail Osman to bring in the machinery needed to pump the water out. Working inside the shaft while the equipment was running was one of the greatest challenges of my life as an archaeologist. The constant noise made it difficult to think, and the machinery was so loud that I almost lost my hearing! We were very worried that pumping out the water would destabilize the shaft, possibly causing it to collapse. I insisted that plaster strips marked with the date be placed across even the smallest crack in the walls. If the cracks began to expand, the plaster would break, and we would know to begin structural interventions right away.
What we discovered as we pumped out the water and excavated the shaft was truly amazing. We found that the first segment of the shaft, almost 10 meters deep, leads to a single chamber about 8.6 by 3.6 meters in size. When we entered this chamber, it was empty. A second vertical shaft in the northern part of the chamber leads down for another 13.25 meters, ending in a 6.8 by 3.5 meter chamber, surrounded by six smaller side-chambers and a recess from which yet another shaft descended. Three of the side-chambers contained stone sarcophagi in the style of the 26th Dynasty, and two of the sarcophagi contained human bones. We also found shabtis and fragments of Late Period pottery in this level. In addition to the side-chambers, there is a recess in the southeastern corner of the main chamber, from which a third vertical shaft descends. After about 8 meters, this last shaft ends in a chamber about 9 meters square.
The final chamber is the most interesting of all. Much of it is taken up by a rectangular emplacement in the center, carved from the living rock with the remains of a square pillar at each corner. The space left between the walls of the chamber and the emplacement in the center forms a kind of channel. The channel is broken at the entrance to the chamber, where the floor has been left at a higher level to connect it with the emplacement. This gives the channel the shape of the hieroglyphic sign pr, meaning “house.” In the center of the emplacement, there is a large sarcophagus made of black basalt. The sarcophagus contained the remains of a skeleton, along with several amulets dating to the Late Period. We were surprised to find that there was also some red polished pottery with traces of white paint, which probably dates to the 6th Dynasty.
There is no evidence that the shaft was ever used for a royal burial. It is my belief that it was intended as a symbolic tomb for Osiris, the god of the underworld. The channel surrounding the emplacement in the lowest level seems to have been deliberately designed so that groundwater would fill it, making the emplacement in the center into a sort of island. This configuration could represent the primeval waters of Nun, which covered the world at the time of creation, with the island in the center representing the first mound of earth to emerge. The water further symbolizes the connection of Osiris to fertility and rebirth. The emplacement with a large sarcophagus in the center and a pillar at each corner (perhaps representing the four sacred legs of the god as described in later texts) is very similar to the configuration of the Osireion of Seti I at Abydos
, another symbolic tomb for Osiris. The burials dating to the Late Period probably reflect the desire of the Egyptians to be close to the god of the underworld in death.
I believe that the Osiris Shaft is what the Greek author Herodotus
, the “father of history,” was talking about when he said that Khufu was buried on an island in an underground chamber, located in the shadow of the Great Pyramid and fed by a canal from the Nile. Herodotus must have been describing the Osiris Shaft, although he was incorrect about its date and function. The Osiris Shaft seems to be a good deal later than the reign of Khufu, as the earliest artifacts found inside date to Dynasty 6, with most of the finds of a much later date. As I have noted, through my excavations I was able to determine that it probably represents a symbolic tomb for the god Osiris, not a royal tomb as Herodotus maintained.
One interesting feature of the Osiris Shaft is a narrow tunnel that extends from the northwest corner of the lowest level. This tunnel is only large enough to admit a young child at its entrance, and further along, it becomes filled with mud. In 1999, I sent a boy into the tunnel to explore it. He was able to go only 5 meters before it became too narrow for even his slight frame. In the November of 2008, television producer Richard Reisz supplied the SCA with an endoscopic camera to continue the exploration of this small tunnel. The team who carried out this effort were able to insert the endoscope only 10 meters into the tunnel before the mud inside made it impossible to go further. In December, the team returned with two self-propelled “rovers” equipped with cameras, which were able to travel further into the tunnel. At about 6.5 meters, the team discovered a branch that split off the tunnel. They were able to send the camera 10.5 meters into this branch before it became too narrow and muddy for the rovers to go any further. The team also found that the main tunnel continues to a total length of about 21 meters, where it seems to end, although it was impossible to determine this with certainty. I have been in touch with a Japanese team who plan to bring in an even more advanced robot, which should be able to continue past the points where the earlier machines were forced to stop. On Thursday, June 9th, 2009, we will begin the work of sending the new robot into the tunnel in the hope of finding out where it leads. Hopefully, we will be able to find out why it was carved out of the rock so deep underground. Solving this mystery will truly be an amazing adventure, and I hope that you will enjoy learning the answer to the secret of the Osiris shaft along with me and my team!