© Ian Lawton and Chris Ogilvie-Herald 2002

[The following paper comprises sections taken from Chapter 3 ("Why Were The Pyramids Built?") and Appendix III ("The Great Pyramid's Security Features") of Giza: The Truth. It attempts to examine various peculiarities of the Great Pyramid that alternative researchers use to support the notion that the edifice is not primarily a tomb.]

The Great Pyramid in profile, looking west

High Level Chambers

The particular circumstances of the Great Pyramid cause significant complications for the pyramids-as-tombs theory. Although we have seen that many of its features which some of the alternative camp would have us believe are unique—its Grand Gallery, portcullis arrangement, alignment to the cardinal points, and so on—are not, the reason for this complication is its primary and genuinely unique feature: the fact that it has chambers high up in its superstructure. Although we have seen that the Meidum and Dashur Pyramids, and the Second Pyramid, have chambers which either butt into or are entirely enclosed by the superstructure, they are all at or near ground level. By contrast the Queen's and King's Chambers lie at about one-fifth and two-fifths of the height of the Great Pyramid respectively, and are accessed by a separate Ascending Passage which branches off from the normal Descending Passage.

Before we look at the implications of this for the pyramids-as-tombs theory, let us pause to consider a few general issues surrounding this layout. The question which is always raised by the alternative camp is: why did the builders go to so much trouble to implement such a difficult design? In answer, we know that contemporary tomb robbing was a major problem for these Old Kingdom kings, and at the start of his reign Khufu would have seen that many of his predecessors tombs had already been ransacked—including perhaps those of his father and mother. Having his architects design ingenious methods of concealed burial was therefore a major priority for a king who, above all else, needed to ensure that his body remained intact so that his spirit could live on in peace in the afterlife. The leading architects and masons themselves would by this time have become some of the most influential men in ancient Egyptian society, and would have been vying for the key posts in Khufu's entourage by coming up with ever more ingenious designs for his great monument. And while some of them would have been the experienced men who worked on the various evolutions of Sneferu's Pyramids, others would have been young and bursting with new ideas.

All this sounds pretty reasonable to us. However Alford and others raise another serious objection: Why did this process not continue in the subsequent generations? This is a hard one to answer, and as with so many of these issues requires primarily speculation, as unsatisfactory as that may be. The main piece of pertinent evidence we should consider is an analysis of the Great Pyramid by the French engineer Jean Kerisel. He made a detailed survey of the edifice in the early 1990's, and argues that the construction method was fatally flawed because the builders were attempting to use two types of stone with substantially differing levels of compressibility:[i]

It is perfectly possible to construct a pyramid of a height of 150m without incident in a homogenous material; the pyramid of Chephren is there as a witness. Much more difficult is to introduce a large internal space lined with rigid material within the pyramid; certain precautions must then be taken; one cannot mix the "hard" and the "soft" with impunity in something that is subject to strong pressures…

During the raising of the pyramid, the superstructure of the [King's] chamber, surrounded by nummulitic limestone masonry which contracted, emerged and efforts were concentrated on it: the [granite] roof of the chamber and that of the first of the upper floors fractured. Fine fractures of little depth at first, which then enlarged and deepened until they crossed some of the beams…

When informed of the first cracks, they would have been worried; this is proved by the fact that some of the fissures in the chamber and in several places in the upper chambers were filled in. But nobody could then penetrate into the upper chambers, as they were now bordered on their east and west gables by nummulitic limestone masonry. They therefore ordered a halt to the work in the central part, and the digging of a pit that allowed access to these chambers. And this [repair work] was done twice, since one finds fillings in two different plasters.

These backward steps enable us to see the scale of the disaster: support wedges in the worn-out roofs, the branches of a compass formed by the chevron-shaped roof spreading 4cm to the east and 2cm to the west. There is not really a more improper expression than that of "relieving chambers", so often used to describe what was piled up above the King's Chamber: on the contrary, they were heavily overloaded and, moreover, warped…

Cheops then ordered a lighter construction of the upper part of the pyramid, which recent gravimeter measurements show has a lesser density. Were the worries of Cheops shared by the clergy and dignitaries of his regime? Did the effort demanded seem disproportionate to the result? And is it not the moment to admit that the testimony of Herodotus concerning the exhaustion of the people and their loathing for the pharaoh is not, perhaps, pure fabrication?

The least that can be said is that the construction of the second part of the pyramid knew some very important incidents. Finally, we note that Cheop's successors took advantage of the lesson, since none of them ventured any more to insert a chamber of this type in the middle of the bulk of his pyramid.

This analysis contradicts Petrie's theory, which still has widespread credibility amongst Egyptologists, that the cement repairs were performed by the priests responsible for the maintenance of the edifice after the Pyramid was constructed, as a result of earthquakes; furthermore he suggests this is why the Well Shaft was dug, from the bottom up. However in our view this latter suggestion is entirely at odds with the known facts, as we will shortly see. As a result, we find Kerisel's analysis more compelling—even though both alternatives provide an answer as to when the passage to Davison's Chamber was built, and why. It is further supported if we conduct a similar analysis of the Queen's Chamber: of course this had a pent rather than a flat roof, and one might argue that the major stresses were taken by the King's Chamber above it anyway. But according to Kerisel's theories one of the major reasons why this chamber shows minimal signs of cracks would be that its lining is made from the same material as the surrounding core blocks—limestone. The question which immediately springs to mind is why didn't the subsequent generations of builders learn from this and continue to build chambers in the superstructure, but composed entirely of limestone? The answer is that they did not have the benefit of this analysis. Remember also that the effort involved in lifting the 50 to 70 tonne granite monoliths which formed the roofs of the King's and Relieving Chambers was of an entirely different order of magnitude from that of lifting the smaller and lighter limestone blocks. This had never been tried before. And if Kerisel is right, Khufu and his architects caused so much grief for his builders that none of his successors wanted to repeat the performance. After this step too far, the overwhelming urge to push forward the design barriers probably came to a dramatic halt.

There are important additional implications if this theory is correct. First, those who search ardently for additional chambers in the superstructure of other pyramids—as at least one scientific team has done in the Second Pyramid, as we will see later—are likely to be in for a disappointment. And second, those who search for additional chambers in the superstructure of the Great Pyramid itself are also likely to be disappointed, albeit that the logic for this is less secure.

Nevertheless, there is every indication that for a while size remained important for Khufu's successors. Although Djedefre's pyramid at Abu Roash was not planned on a particularly large scale, there is reason to suppose he may have been something of a usurper who may never have been assured of his position. In any case his pyramid was unfinished, and his reign was short. Khafre, on the other hand, built a monument almost equal in size to that of Khufu, albeit that he made sure that only the roof of his upper chamber poked into the superstructure. And Nebka, who Lehner suggests came next in line before Menkaure, seems to have planned a similarly huge edifice at Zawiyet el-Aryan, although this was again substantially incomplete due to his very short reign. Quite what it was that persuaded Menkaure and all subsequent kings to build considerably smaller pyramids remains a mystery. We can speculate that it was either due to economic factors, or changes in religious emphasis, or a combination of the two. But we cannot be sure. Does admitted uncertainty on this point invalidate the pyramids-as-tombs theory? Given the mass of other contextual evidence, we think not.

Empty Chambers?

The next issue that alternative researchers often raise is that no funerary accoutrements have ever been discovered inside the Great Pyramid, other than the empty and lidless coffer in the King's Chamber. We have already seen that contemporary looting was widespread in the other pyramids, but is the same true here?

When Were the Lower Reaches First Breached?

The Classical historians provide plenty of circumstantial evidence that the lower reaches of the Great Pyramid had been entered at least by their time, which was long before Mamun. Even if it was not particularly accessible in their day, as we have seen Herodotus mentions underground chambers, and Pliny the "well". Meanwhile Strabo—although he appears not to have visited Giza personally— mentions a "doorway" in the entrance (an issue we consider in detail shortly), and in so doing reveals something of the interior:[ii]

At a moderate height in one of the sides is a stone, which may be taken out; when that is removed, there is an oblique passage leading to the tomb.

Only Diodorus' account gives no clue that the interior might have been entered before—strangely mentioning the entrance to the Second but not that to the Great Pyramid, even though he may have actually visited the Plateau.[iii]

Although it is of course possible that these historians were only relating information that had been passed down from the time of the builders, we find this unlikely. And in any case there is hard evidence that the edifice had been entered before Mamun came to the Plateau, all of which we have already mentioned in passing: First, Mamun reported torch marks on the ceiling of the Subterranean Chamber. Second, Caviglia reported finding Latin characters on the same ceiling; we cannot be sure when these were daubed, but we know the Descending Passage had been blocked for some centuries before he cleared it, so these could well date to classical times. Third, Mamun reported being able to crawl back up the Descending Passage right to the original entrance without undue effort, and since we have postulated that it too would have been plugged for some distance with sealing blocks, these must have been removed previously.

Although this evidence strongly suggests that the lower reaches of the edifice had been entered in antiquity, possibly shortly after it was constructed and repeatedly thereafter, it does not prove that the upper reaches were breached before Mamun's time. Since it is only this which could overwhelmingly prove that the burial chamber was robbed—which would be why Mamun found it empty—and thereby provide support for the pyramids-as-tombs theory even in relation to the Great Pyramid, it is to this issue we must now turn.

When Were the Upper Reaches First Breached?

This is by far the most difficult element of the whole jigsaw of the Plateau to piece together. It requires the analysis of a multitude of different pieces of evidence, many of which conflict. Many researchers from both camps tend to skip over the details, especially those which do not fit their preferred explanation, and in truth we were tempted to join them due to the complexity of the analysis which must be undertaken. Nevertheless we must stick to our guns and attempt to present all the evidence without being selective, even if this makes the arguments more complex and leads to a less definitive conclusion.

The reasons for the complexity are primarily twofold: first, the uniqueness of the layout; and second, the lack of verifiable detail in accounts of Mamun's exploits. We are of the opinion that it is highly likely that Mamun was responsible for digging the intrusive tunnel which provided a second entrance into the Pyramid—or possibly even an exit to remove items that would not fit round the corner at the junction of the Ascending and Descending Passages.[iv] However, it is far more complex to judge whether he was also responsible for the tunnel which by-passes the granite plugs at the base of the Ascending Passage. And there is another crucial factor which affects our judgement: could the Well Shaft have been used to enter the upper reaches in early antiquity?

Let us take these in reverse order, and examine the Well Shaft first. In his The Great Pyramid, published in 1927, David Davidson (who as we have seen was a supporter of the "encoded timeline" theories promoted by Menzies, Smyth and Edgar) included a sketch which suggested that the block which had originally sealed the upper entrance to the shaft had been pushed out from below. Others have since relied on this analysis, but they are now in the minority. Apart from the physical improbability of attempting to dislodge a well-cemented and sizeable block from below in a cramped space, a close examination of the chisel marks on the topside of the blocks which surround the upper entrance to the shaft reveals that it was chiselled out from above.[v] This is a piece of evidence we would love to omit, because it would make this discussion a great deal easier. Many Egyptologists have suggested that the Upper Chambers were plundered in antiquity by robbers who knew about the Well Shaft and used it to gain access into the upper reaches, and this is a nice simple theory which makes perfect sense if it was not for this piece of evidence. To spell it out, if the block sealing the Well Shaft was removed from above there can only be two explanations:

* It is possible that the shaft was originally built in secret without official sanction. The workers would have bribed the foreman to allow them to build an escape route, but it would have to be kept secret. The entrance would have been sealed off, but when the plugging blocks had been released down the Ascending Passage they would have chiselled up the block sealing the shaft and escaped. However, there is no general precedent for the ancient Egyptian kings deliberately entombing their workers alive along with them. Consequently we must reluctantly turn to the alternative…

* The shaft was discovered only after the tunnel which by-passes the granite plugs in the Ascending Passage had been dug. Consequently whoever dug this tunnel was indeed the first person to enter the upper reaches of the edifice.

We cannot be sure of the accuracy of the accounts of Mamun's exploration. It is therefore possible that he did find a body in the King's Chamber, and a lid on the sarcophagus, and various other funerary ancillaries—as suggested by Hokm's account. However, if the pyramids-as-tombs theory is to remain vindicated in the Great Pyramid, we must examine the possibility that Mamun was not responsible for digging the by-pass tunnel. There are a number of possibilities which might point to this being the case:

* First, we have noted that the older accounts of Mamun's explorations are unreliable. Because of this both omissions therefrom and statements therein can be used to argue for and against any given point, with little solid justification. However it is worth postulating that while most of the accounts talk about him using fire and vinegar to tunnel the intrusive entrance, few of them mention the circumstances of the tunnelling to by-pass the plugs. Is it reasonable to suggest that the circumstances of the "miraculous" dislodging of the limestone block concealing the granite plugs—without which piece of fortune Mamun could never have discovered the Ascending Passage unless it was already by-passed—were embellishments to make a better story, which have grown to become part of pyramid folklore?

* Second, we have already seen that in the Arab historian Edrisi's first-hand account of entering the Pyramid he records having seen what could only be hieroglyphs on the Queen's Chamber ceiling. We have also already noted that his accounts are accurate and detailed in most respects. This is by no means definitive proof that the chamber had been entered in antiquity, but it certainly adds to the picture.

* Third, a large portion of the corner of the coffer in the Kings Chamber has been broken off. It is highly likely that this occurred as a result of someone trying to prize off the lid—the original existence of which is proved by some rarely mentioned evidence of fittings (see Appendix II)—rather than through the petty efforts of vandals or souvenir hunters. The implication of this is that either Mamun did find a lid on the coffer, and almost certainly prized it off himself, or someone else had been in there before him. Again, not definitive proof, but the arguments are building up.

* Fourth, there is similar rarely mentioned evidence that a "Bridge Slab" originally spanned the gap in the floor between the Ascending Passage and the Grand Gallery (this gap occasioned by the horizontal passage leading off to the Queen's Chamber), and also that the portcullis' in the King's Antechamber were originally in place—evidence that we will consider in detail shortly. None of the accounts of Mamun's exploration record him having to demolish these obstacles. Is this simple omission, or had they already been removed?

These points might start to swing the balance in favour of a pre-Mamun by-passing of the plugs. But we must now look at a further complicating issue: what happened to the debris resulting from the digging of the by-pass tunnel? The standard accounts suggest that Mamun explored the Subterranean Chamber first, then turned his attention to by-passing the Ascending Passage—and that the rubble from this operation was allowed to fall down the Descending Passage, thereby blocking it until Caviglia cleared it. Vyse's and other contemporary reports of Caviglia's work are likely to be more reliable than much of the other evidence we are currently considering, so we can assume that the Descending Passage was blocked when he found it. But by what? It is entirely possible that this was primarily the debris from the post-Mamun stripping of the casing stones, combined with the sand which would have blown in and accumulated once the edifice was opened up by him. This in turn allows for the possibility that the debris from the by-pass tunnel was entirely separate, and—although if intruders dug the tunnel they almost certainly would have let the debris fall down the Descending Passage—it could have been cleared long before by restorers. This in turn would have allowed the Subterranean Chamber to be visited, as we are fairly certain it was, by travellers in classical times.

Before attempting to draw any preliminary conclusions from all this, there is one further piece of evidence which we must review, albeit that once again it raises more questions than it answers.

The Denys of Telmahre Affair

Lehner, along with many others, quotes the observations of one Denys of Telmahre, described as a "Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch", who supposedly accompanied Mamun's party to Giza and, furthermore, recorded that the Great Pyramid was already open.[vi] They therefore suggest that Mamun did not dig the intrusive tunnels, only rediscovered and possibly enlarged them. Of course if this were true and as simple as it sounds, all our worries would be over. But, alas, it is not. In fact these are gross over-simplifications.

Perusal of Vyse's Operations reveals what Denys actually recorded. The first is a translation provided by Latif, as follows:[vii]

I have looked through an opening, fifty cubits deep, made in one of those buildings [the Giza Pyramids], and I found that it was constructed of wrought stones, disposed in regular layers.

This extract is backed up by a reproduction by Vyse, in French, of Denys' own account.[viii] Both clearly indicate that what Denys did was look into one of the pyramids on the Plateau—but he doesn't say which one. Furthermore, from his use of the word deep it would appear that he was looking into a passage which went down, not in horizontally. Finally, his description of "wrought stones disposed in regular layers" seems to confirm that he was looking into one of the original descending passages, not into the horizontal and forced entrance in the Great Pyramid. Since we stick with our view that the latter was forced by Mamun or a contemporary, logic dictates that the original Descending Passage in the Great Pyramid was concealed at this time. So Denys must have been looking into one of the descending passages in either the Second or the Third Pyramid.

Unless we have picked up entirely the wrong element of Denys' account, this tells us nothing whatsoever about the state of the Great Pyramid at the time of Denys' visit, and—even if it is true that he accompanied Mamun—of the latter's explorations.[ix]

Lehner mentions another account, that of Abu Szalt of Spain, which he suggests is sober and trustworthy. In Lehner's words: "He tells of Mamun's men uncovering an ascending passage. At its end was a quadrangular chamber containing a sarcophagus." This in itself does not tell us much, but Lehner then adds what appears to be a direct quote:[x]

The lid was forced open, but nothing was discovered excepting some bones completely decayed by time.

At the time of writing we have been unable to check this intriguing account further. In any case, whilst it may add support to the pyramids-as-tombs theory, as with all other reports of this age it cannot be regarded as definitive proof.

Buried Elsewhere?

For those of you who still believe that Mamun was the first to reach the King's Chamber and found an empty coffer, we present one final alternative, proposed by Wheeler and others:[xi] It is that, for fear of defilers, Khufu was not buried in the Great Pyramid at all, but elsewhere and in secret. Provided we accept the context that it was always intended as a funerary edifice, this latter explanation would still demand that he complete his pyramid, and conduct a false burial therein—including the lowering of the portcullis' and granite plugs, and the incorporation of the Well Shaft to allow the last workmen to escape. Clearly he was expected to erect a magnificent pyramid, as were all kings at the time. But the best way to preserve the anonymity of his resting place, and ensure his body remained intact to allow his spirit to continue in the afterlife, would be to be buried in an unmarked and deep shaft tomb. If he did execute this plan, it would have two likely preconditions: First, it would have to be kept incredibly secret. Literally only one or two of his most trusted advisers would have been informed. And second, given the unparalleled complexity of the interior of his pyramid, he would almost certainly have chosen this path only once the Great Pyramid's construction was either well under way or even nearing completion.

What could have led him Khufu to this drastic course of action? It is possible that the original tomb of Hetepheres—his father's wife if not his mother—had been ransacked, possibly at Dashur; (for more on Hetepheres' reburial, see Appendix II). If this were the case, almost certainly he himself ordered her re-burial in a deep unmarked shaft next to his pyramid, although he may not have been told that her mummy was already missing. Was this what forced him to change his mind, if indeed he did? Who knows.

Wheeler in fact goes further with his analysis, arguing that a number of factors point to the entire edifice being completed with a minimum of detail, and with some elements left incomplete. He singles out:[xii]

* The unfinished state of the Queen's Chamber and of the passage leading to it—both of which are valid observations but could be explained by replanning.

* The rough and apparently unfinished state of the exterior of the King's Chamber coffer—which ought to be the focal point of the edifice. This is probably the most valid of his observations.

* The fact that only three sealing plugs were used instead of the full complement of 25. Again, a valid but not conclusive argument.

* The supposed evidence that the three main portcullis' were never installed. On this point he is almost certainly mistaken, as we will shortly see.

Whilst we have some sympathy with Wheeler's extended argument, it clearly also has some flaws. In any case we can disagree with this extension without it affecting the validity of his basic "buried elsewhere" proposition. Is there any other evidence which backs up his basic theory? In fact, yes. Diodorus makes the following observation:[xiii]

Although the kings [Chemis/Khufu and Cephres/Khafre] designed these two for their sepulchres, yet it happened that neither of them were there buried. For the people, being incensed at them by the reason of the toil and labour they were put to, and the cruelty and oppression of their kings, threatened to drag their carcasses out of their graves, and pull them by piece-meal, and cast them to the dogs; and therefore both of them upon their beds commanded their servants to bury them in some obscure place.

Diodorus' account is not the best by any means, but this observation is a unique one—albeit that it links in with Herodotus' general comments regarding the unpopularity of both Khufu and Khafre. Could it have some basis in truth? Many Egyptologists also suspect that, for example, Djoser was buried in his "Southern Tomb" and not underneath his pyramid.

It is possible that all these early kings decided to be buried elsewhere. J.P. Lepre in particular presents a compelling argument that all early kings had two burial edifices, one in the north and one in the south, to represent the duality of their reign over both Upper and Lower Egypt. On this basis he suggests that the reason that so many coffers have been found empty, even when sealed, is that the pyramids in which they were found may have been merely cenotaphs connected with ritual practices. As a corollary he even suggests that, since most of these edifices are relatively speaking in the north, their real tombs may be found much farther to the south: in fact he suggests the old "twin cities" of Abydos and nearby Thinis (the latter being the ancient capital of Upper Egypt before the unification of the two lands by Menes) may hold a cache of hidden rock-tombs or shaft graves of Old Kingdom kings similar to the New Kingdom ones found more or less by accident in the Valley of the Kings as late as the 1920's.[xiv]

In our view the "burial elsewhere" theory is a perfectly valid alternative regarding the Great Pyramid, and possibly others. However it requires just as much speculation as the previous interpretations of when the upper reaches of the Great Pyramid were first breached. While we await further evidence which may one day come to light to sway the balance one way or another, in the meantime we leave you, the reader, to decide which is your preferred solution. Indeed you may decide, like us, that both have their merits and neither deserves to be singled out. This is not woolly-minded, merely an acceptance that on a few issues more than one theory has equal validity.

Security Features

We have already indicated that in order for us to be able to evaluate how and when the Great Pyramid may have been breached, we need to review the orthodox theories as to the security arrangements for its unique interior. This might also help us to evaluate the purpose of some of the more detailed features which might otherwise be regarded as unexplained enigmas—such as the regularly cut recesses in the Grand Gallery walls.

The Entrance

Starting at the outside, we have Strabo's supposed report of a hinged door-block. The original existence of this is normally taken for granted, but—although this is a point rarely picked up by the alternative camp—it begs the question as to why it would be necessary if the pyramid was only to be used once, as a tomb, before it was sealed up. The standard response is that it was required to allow the priests to enter the building to perform maintenance and inspections. However this argument runs directly contrary to the evidence which we have already reviewed, for example in relation to the Second and Third Pyramids, that the descending passages were sealed with blocks. Although we have no concrete evidence that this was also true of the Great Pyramid's Descending Passage, we should ask ourselves why, if context is king, the Great Pyramid should have been any different from its counterparts. Clearly the Ascending Passage was sealed with blocks, so why not the Descending Passage also?

Is there physical evidence for a hinged-block system? The casing stones around the original entrance have now been stripped, as have many of the core blocks behind them, so it is impossible to judge. However the huge double gables over the "inner" entrance, albeit that they were built for support rather than decoration, somehow do not appear to us consistent with the idea of a small hinged door. Meanwhile Egyptologists such as Petrie and more recently Lepre have conducted detailed analysis' of the way the "doors" might have worked, based primarily on the fact that the Bent Pyramid's western entrance apparently shows signs of just such a system.[xv] The blocks on either side of the entrance are reported to contain distinct sockets in which the hinges would have swivelled, while the floor—although now filled in—originally contained a deep recess which would have been necessary for the block to swivel inwards; (this is Lepre's reappraisal of Petrie's theory, which suggested, apparently incorrectly and based on Strabo's original description, that it would have swivelled outwards). Lepre also suggests that the Meidum Pyramid contains similar sockets. We can only say that we have been unable to inspect these entrances for ourselves. But even if Lepre's analysis is correct, at least in relation to the western entrance of the Bent Pyramid—which is unique in itself anyway—we are inclined to think that it does not carry over to the monuments on the Giza Plateau.

Let us now examine Strabo's account in more detail. It is by far the shortest and least detailed of those prepared in classical times. What is more the translation of his work which is normally reproduced is as follows: "A stone that may be taken out, which being raised up, there is a sloping passage".[xvi] However an original translation of Strabo's Geographica dating to 1857, which we consulted and have already reproduced, merely says: "…a stone, which may be taken out; when that is removed"—not "raised up". The translation of the original Greek is clearly important.

Edwards and Lehner both admit that if a hinged-door had existed in Strabo's time, it could only have been put in place long after the edifice had first been violated.[xvii] We were prepared to write this off as an unlikely theory which relies too heavily on Strabo's account until we considered the following. Whoever dug the intrusive entrance tunnel—and in our view it is highly likely that this was Mamun—was clearly unable to locate the original entrance. Furthermore, unlike the situation at the Second Pyramid, in this case the forced entry is below the real entry, so accumulated sand and debris cannot be the solution as to why the explorers could not locate it. For this reason, at whatever time this tunnel was created, the original entrance must have been cleverly concealed. This view is supported by the fact that reports of Mamun's exploration do not mention him fighting his way through insects, bats and their excreta in the various passages—a common feature of future explorers' accounts, which suggests that his entrance was the first to open the edifice up to vast numbers of such creatures. Since there is every reason to believe the edifice had been entered long before this, the original entrance used by all previous explorers cannot have been left open.

Therefore we can only surmise that someone—possibly Saite period restorers—had either fitted a hinged-block, or had accurately refitted the missing casing stones. The case for the former is enhanced by the fact that it is likely that the interiors of all the edifices were repeatedly entered at least in pre-Classical times, and in accepting this inevitability the development of such an entry mechanism may have proved less of an effort than continually refitting the casing blocks. It may even be argued that the priests at this time would have allowed restricted entry to the edifice for the important, initiated or wealthy—in just the same way as is now being proposed for the edifice to prevent it from rapid decline due to the incursion of thousands of tourists every year.

A Dummy Chamber?

The next point we should consider about security is that some Egyptologists have suggested that the Subterranean Chamber was deliberately built as a decoy, to prevent robbers from searching for the real chambers up in the superstructure. Given the emphasis that was placed on security, this is at first sight a plausible theory. However, we have already seen that there is persuasive evidence that this chamber has such an unfinished appearance because it was abandoned in favour of the higher chambers as part of a replanning exercise. Furthermore, if it were built as a decoy they would surely have finished it so it looked like a proper chamber. These two theories are mutually exclusive, and we are minded to stick with the latter.

The Plugging Blocks

We have already agreed with Vyse's suggestion that the Descending Passage was originally plugged with limestone sealing blocks, perhaps as far as its junction with the Ascending Passage. Moving on we have the granite plugs which block the bottom of this latter passage. We know that these would have been concealed by an angled limestone block in the roof of the Descending Passage, which would have been indistinguishable from the rest of the ceiling. Three of these blocks are still in position, and they are the ones that are by-passed by the additional intrusive tunnel. Two questions arise concerning these blocks. First, were they slid into place or built in situ? And second, how many of them were there originally? Furthermore these two questions are inter-related.

The most convenient theory is that they were slid into place, because this would explain the existence of the regular slots cut into the side ramps of the Grand Gallery—which Borchardt surmised were used to house wooden beams which held the plugs in place while they were being stored therein. It has been suggested that these blocks are such a tight fit in the Ascending Passage itself that there is no way they could have been slid down without snagging, and that consequently they must have been built in situ. However this is not as valid an argument as it at first appears, for a number of reasons:

* First, Lepre produces some highly important and rarely publicised measurements which show that the Ascending Passage is uniquely tapered, unlike all the other original passages in the pyramids which are always built with great precision to consistent dimensions.[xviii] Where it emerges into the Grand Gallery it measures 53 inches high by 42 inches wide; half way down it measures 48 by 41½ inches; and at the bottom (where the three plugs are now) it measures 47¼ by 38½ inches. In the few places where the passage is not worn away by visitors, it is clear that it too was originally finished with great precision, so we must conclude that this taper of 5¾ inches in height and 3½ inches in width over the 124 feet of its length is deliberate. The clearance remains sufficiently small that the blocks would still have been in grave danger of snagging as they neared the bottom, but a number of researchers have suggested that the process was assisted by a lubricating mortar—of which traces have been found.

* Second, the distance between the ramps on either side of the Grand Gallery is exactly the same as the width of the top of the Ascending Passage, suggesting it was deliberately designed to hold the plugging blocks.

* Third, Noel F. Wheeler, the Field Director of Reisner's Harvard-Boston Expedition, wrote a paper published in the periodical Antiquity in 1935 which again provides rarely publicised evidence:[xix] He noted that there are five pairs of holes in the walls at the base of the Grand Gallery, in the "gap" between the end of the Ascending Passage and the continuation of the sloping floor of the Gallery—this gap occasioned by the branching off of the horizontal passage which leads to the Queen's Chamber. He argues that these were used to locate wooden beams that supported a "Bridge Slab" which would have provided a continuation of the sloping floor. It would have been at least 17 feet long, thick enough to support the plugs as they slid down, and would also have effectively sealed off the passage to the Queen's Chamber—which shows no signs of having been itself sealed with plugs. Although no traces of this slab have ever been found—in our view because it was probably destroyed by robbers in early antiquity, after which the debris would have been cleared out by restorers—this would be a necessity for the "sliding plugs" theory to work. In support of this theory, there are 5 inch "lips" on each side of the gap against which the slab would have rested.

* Fourth, Borchardt's replanning evidence regarding the change in orientation of the blocks from which the Ascending Passage is formed precludes the possibility that the plugging blocks were placed in situ. Since he theorised that the lower section of the passage was originally solid masonry which was subsequently carved out, the plugs would still have had to be slid down it, albeit for a shorter distance.

* Fifth, Lehner notes that in the Bent Pyramid's small satellite there is a short ascending passage which may represent an admittedly far smaller-scale prototype for that in the Great Pyramid.[xx] At the point where it increases in height from the normal few feet, there is a notch in the wall which he believes may have been used to locate a wooden chock which, when pulled away by rope, would have released the plugging block or blocks it was supporting.

There is one additional feature of the Grand Gallery which we must examine: on each side a groove—about 7 inches high and 1 inch deep—has been cut into the third layer of corbelling along its entire length. Lepre suggests that this was used to locate a wooden platform, presumably accessed by a ladder at each end, which at this height would still be 6 feet wide, along which the funeral cortege would have progressed—thereby avoiding the plugging blocks housed below.[xxi] (Some Egyptologists have suggested that the blocks themselves were housed up on this platform, with the cortege passing below, but we find this an unlikely scenario which would require far greater complexity in getting the plugs down again; in addition the wooden boards might have had difficulty in supporting the weight of the blocks). In addition, at the top of the grooves there are rough chisel marks running along their entire lengths, from which Lepre argues that whatever was housed in the grooves was valuable to robbers and well worth the effort of removing. He therefore surmises that the platform may have comprised cedar panels inlaid with gold. Although this platform would have been somewhat higher than appears necessary, and although we are not entirely convinced by Lepre's explanation of the chisel marks, this theory appears the most plausible so far put forward.

Even though they accept that a funeral procession would only involve an inner wooden coffer while the granite one remained in situ, some alternative researchers have still argued against this theory by suggesting that this supposedly sombre and formal occasion could hardly be expected to be conducted while effectively negotiating an obstacle course. However we regard this argument as fatuous, since the processions which had to negotiate the cramped space and steep incline of the descending passages in all the other pyramids would have faced equally awkward conditions.

All of this seems to us to point towards the "sliding plugs" theory being the correct one. Furthermore it appears to offer a reasonable explanation for the otherwise enigmatic features of the Grand Gallery. Although in no way would we wish to denigrate the exquisite design and execution of this remarkable feature of the edifice, we are forced to conclude that it had a primarily functional rather than symbolic purpose.

We must now turn to the equally vexing question of how many blocks were actually used to seal the Ascending Passage. Given our preference for the "sliding plugs" theory, we know that there would have been provision to house about 25 of them in the Grand Gallery. We also know that the grooves for locating the chocks, and indeed for the overhead walkway, run along the entire length. But does this mean that this many were actually used? We know that the intrusive tunnel at the bottom of the Ascending Passage only by-passes the three which remain in situ. We can see no reason for previous intruders to have broken up a full 22 massive granite blocks from the top down. After all, what would be their motivation to perform such a mammoth task in the first place if they had already entered the upper chambers, and in any case why would they leave the last three in place? It is possible that additional limestone plugs were used, so that whoever performed the tunnelling got past the granite blocks and then continued on through these softer plugs themselves. However we find it more likely that only three blocks were ever used.

Given that the Gallery was clearly designed to house so many more, we must then ask why the change of plan came about, and indeed when. After all, the decision would have to have been reached at the latest before the roof of the Gallery was completed in order that the chosen number of plugs could be lowered into it, and yet after the first three corbels of the Gallery's walls had been completed with their various niches and grooves. As unsatisfactory as it is to indulge in mere speculation, we can only suggest that it was decided at this point that, in combination with the other security features discussed in this section, three plugs would be enough. This would certainly have saved significant time and effort, notwithstanding that short-cuts are not a regular feature of this edifice; (the other alternative, as we have already seen, is that Khufu decided at this point that he wanted to be buried elsewhere). Meanwhile we should note that the chisel marks indicate that it must have been decided that the possibly gold-inlaid walkway should still run the entire length of the Gallery.

The Portcullis System

We have already noted that the granite-lined King's Antechamber contains four sets of slots in the side walls for portcullis' to be lowered into position. We have also noted that this is a feature present in many of the other pyramids, although this particular arrangement is more complex than most. Each of the three main sets of slots is 3 feet deep and 21½ inches wide, while the northernmost slots only reach down to the level of the passage roof. Two granite slabs are still in situ in the latter, but a significant space remains above them. Since the west, south and east walls of the Antechamber itself, and the passage, are also lined with granite, we can assume that this was the material from which the portcullis' would have been made. The whole of this section of the interior was clearly intended to be extremely hard to break through.

Once again we must turn to the invaluable scholarship of Lepre to assist our understanding of this mechanism.[xxii] He indicates that there are three channels cut into the south wall of the antechamber, each about 3½ inches wide, which would have been required in order that the ropes used to lower the portcullis' into place would not snag between the slab and the wall. Although he points out that there is some doubt over the oft-touted possibility that wooden rollers may have been housed above the slots, around which the ropes would have operated, he suggests that the slabs in the northernmost slots would have acted as counterweights—thereby refuting the other oft-touted suggestion that the uppermost of them is missing. He also indicates that from the rear or northern side of the upper counterweight protrudes a semi-circular boss—although again he points out that it does not seem to be properly designed to act as a boss around which a rope could have been secured, and is forced to leave its true function as a matter for further study.

It is often suggested that no fragment of the three missing portcullis' has ever been found, and from this many alternative researchers—and even some Egyptologists—deduce that they were never even fitted. In the first instance, the continued presence of the counterweights—which are above the level of the passage and therefore would not obstruct the progress of an intruder—suggests to us that the portcullis' were originally in place but were broken up by the early robbers. Again we would suggest that, as with the "Bridge Slab", the debris from this operation would have been cleaned up by restorers. However, in addition to this evidence, Lepre produces a real coup de grace on the matter: he has matched the four blocks of fractured granite found in and around the edifice to the dimensions of the portcullis'.[xxiii]

In brief, each of the main slabs would have been a minimum of 4 feet high by 4 feet wide—probably more depending on the degree of overlap into the slots—and most significantly about 21 inches thick (to allow a tolerance of ½ inch in the slots). He examined the four blocks—one lies near the pit in the Subterranean Chamber, another in the niche in the west wall just before the entrance to this chamber, another in the Grotto in the Well Shaft, and another outside the original entrance—and established that whilst they were all less than 4 feet in height and width, they were all 21 inches thick! (Note that there is a loose block of granite in the King's Chamber, but this is known to come from the floor thereof and was therefore omitted from the analysis.) As if this were not sufficient evidence, he found that three of the four blocks have 3½ inch holes drilled in them—in fact the one in the pit has two, and the one near the entrance three. Furthermore, the holes in the latter are spaced 6½ inches apart. So he established that not only do the holes have the same diameter as the channels for the ropes in the south wall of the Antechamber, but they are also spaced the same distance apart. Although Lepre is unable to provide a foolproof explanation as to how these four fragments ended up in their present locations—he suggests a variety of high jinks by early visitors to the monument—nevertheless this strikes us as pretty convincing evidence that these are indeed fragments of the original portcullis'.

The Well Shaft

It is appropriate now to return to the question of who dug the enigmatic Well Shaft, and why. It has been suggested that it was dug by the earliest robbers, who needed a mechanism to get into the upper reaches of the edifice, and who knew the internal layout sufficiently to dig upwards from the bottom and still find the base of the Grand Gallery. However there are a number of factors which suggest that this analysis is incorrect. First, it is clear that the top end of the shaft was originally sealed by a block which fitted into the ramp in the west wall of the Grand Gallery, and clearly mere robbers would not have concealed their tunnel in this way. Second, it would be infinitely harder to excavate this tunnel upwards rather than downwards—it would require platforms, and the fragments of rock would continually fall into the workers' faces. Third, at the bottom the shaft continues a little below the level of the Descending Passage, which it would not do if it had been dug from there in the first place. Fourth, the top third of the shaft runs through the superstructure (the remainder through the bedrock), and the uppermost section of this was not tunnelled through the masonry but deliberately built into it during construction;[xxiv] (this would also support the replanning theory, in that the lower part of this top third would have been tunnelled through the masonry after it was decided to abandon the Subterranean Chamber). And fifth, any intruder who had discovered the upper reaches of the edifice by by-passing the granite plugs would have had no reason to then dig this additional shaft.

It is therefore almost certain that the Well Shaft was dug at the time the edifice was constructed. It is likely that its purpose was to provide the workers responsible for sliding the granite plugs into place at the foot of the Ascending Passage with a means of escape; after all, the distance involved and the weight of the plugs (even if there were only three) meant they would not have been able to release the chocks from beneath the passage "remotely" by rope. We can surmise that once the plugs had been released, they would have let themselves down into the shaft; and that once they were all out they would probably have hidden the bottom of the shaft with an appropriate block so that it would not be discovered.

It is perhaps enigmatic that the tunnel was designed to travel for such a long distance—several hundred feet—in a vertical and then southerly direction, when it could have been made far shorter either by travelling vertically down, or even better by sloping in a northerly direction at a respectable distance underneath the Ascending Passage. However Maragioglio and Rinaldi suggest that it was dug to provide additional ventilation for the Descending Passage and the Subterranean Chamber during their construction, and as an ancillary motive this might explain the lengthy course.


We have considered a great deal of detailed analysis in this paper, not all of it conclusive, but to reach a conclusion we must once again stand back from the detail and remind ourselves of the context. We have all the ancillary evidence from the other pyramids. We have the fact that all the pyramids, including the Great Pyramid, were clearly the focal point of funerary complexes. We have the fact that the Great Pyramid cannot be removed from the chronology. And we have the fact that it was sealed with plugs and portcullis' just like all the others, that its coffer was designed to take a lid, and that the Grand Gallery and its slots and grooves, and the Well Shaft, all had specific functions in a funerary edifice. Therefore, despite the detailed areas of uncertainty that remain, we stand by the theory that the Great Pyramid was primarily designed as a tomb for king Khufu.

The only other aspect of the Great Pyramid that we have not revisited in this analysis is the enigmatic "air" shafts in the King's and Queen's Chambers, which we consider in a later chapter. We believe that these almost certainly do have a symbolic rather than a practical function, but we are also of the view that acceptance of the important role played by symbolism and ritual in the pyramids is not mutually exclusive with the tombs theory.

Source References

[i] This is a taken from a translation of a paper entitled "The Pyramid of Cheops: Latest Research" written by Kerisel for the French Revue d'Egyptologie, No. 44, 1993, Section II. The section is entitled "The Origin of the Breaches in the Superimposed Roofs of the King's Chamber".

[ii] Strabo, Geographica, Vol. III, Book 17, Chapter 1, p. 249.

[iii] Diodorus Siculus, Histories, Book 1, Chapter 5, p. 66.

[iv] See the paper entitled "Tunnel Vision" by Ralph Ellis and Mark Foster at

[v] Noel F. Wheeler, "The Pyramids and their Purpose II: The Pyramid of Khufu", Antiquity, IX (1935), pp. 179–80. This view has been supported more recently by Maragioglio and Rinaldi.

[vi] See for example Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, Chapter II, p. 41.

[vii] Vyse, Operations, Vol. II, Appendix, p. 345.

[viii] Ibid., Vol. II, Appendix, p. 117, Note 2. The French reads: "Nous avons regarde par une ouverture, qui etoit faite dans l'un de ces edifices, et qui est profonde de cinquante coudees…"

[ix] A long discourse on this issue is presented by Vyse in ibid., Vol. II, Appendix, pp. 340–1, Note 8. It is written by M. De Sacy, and quotes a great many references which others might like to follow up. However surprisingly it appears to make exactly the same mistake in assuming Denys was referring to the Great Pyramid.

[x] Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, Chapter II, p. 41.

[xi] Noel F. Wheeler, "The Pyramids and their Purpose II: The Pyramid of Khufu", Antiquity, IX (1935), pp. 181–2.

[xii] Ibid., pp. 180–1.

[xiii] Diodorus Siculus, Histories, Book 1, Chapter 5, p. 66.

[xiv] Lepre, The Egyptian Pyramids, Chapter X, pp. 265–72.

[xv] Ibid., Chapter V, p. 72; his and Petrie's reconstructions are in Appendix B, pp. 293–5.

[xvi] For example, this is the version used by Petrie and reproduced by Lehner in The Complete Pyramids, Chapter II, p. 39.

[xvii] See ibid., Chapter II, p. 39 and Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt, Chapter 4, pp. 93–4.

[xviii] Lepre, The Egyptian Pyramids, Chapter V, p. 77.

[xix] Noel F. Wheeler, "The Pyramids and their Purpose II: The Pyramid of Khufu", Antiquity, IX (1935), p. 166.

[xx] Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, Chapter III, p. 104.

[xxi] Lepre, The Egyptian Pyramids, Chapter V, pp. 82–3.

[xxii] Ibid., Chapter V, pp. 86–89.

[xxiii] Ibid., Chapter V, pp. 89–92.

[xxiv] Ibid., Chapter V, p. 117.