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Ancient Architects #History and Archaeology

The Robot, The Dentist and the Pyramid

Back in 2011, scientists developed a robot that has successfully navigated the delicate, labyrinth shafts of the Great Pyramid - in an attempt to solve one of the big mysteries in Egyptian archaeology.

They brought together cutting edge robotics with ancient history, and it features in this documentary, ‘The Robot, The Dentist and The Pyramid’, where we follow a group of research engineers involving the University of Leeds who accepted a challenge to build a robot capable of exploring inside the pyramid. 

The lightweight robot had to get into a shaft that is just 20 cm by 20 cm, smaller than a sheet of A4 paper, and manoeuvre along its 60 metre length. The challenge was to survey and film what was inside – and crucially, not cause any damage.

The film reveals intricate hieroglyphics or workers marks that had never been seen before. To coincide with the release of the film, the scientists have made available all nine hours of the video so it can be studied by archaeologists and ancient historians. These are linked above.

The Great Pyramid, the focus of their work, is the biggest and oldest of the three pyramids that stand on the outskirts of Cairo in Egypt. It is believed to have been built around 4,500 years ago. Over the years, various archaeological teams have explored the pyramid, reaching what is known as the Queen’s Chamber.

Those archaeological digs found, hidden behind a false wall, a narrow shaft that climbed at a 40-degree angle up into the pyramid. But those earlier explorers had caused damage trying to get into the shaft. Jump forward to 2010 and Rob Richardson, Professor of Robotics at Leeds, is the technical lead of an expedition to explore the inside of the pyramid.

He and a small group of colleagues had accepted a challenge thrown down by Hong Kong dentist and inventor Dr Tze Chuen Ng to design and build a robot that could survey the shaft and not cause any damage to the pyramid. Developing the robot took five years. 

The meticulous design paid off. The robot was able to get inside the shaft and record exclusive footage of the inside. About 50 metres along the shaft – several metres before what we think is the end – there is a stone put in place to block further access. We do not know what it is blocking access to. We were able to get a camera past the stone – it revealed a small chamber with intricate symbols painted onto the floor.

Given the artwork, it is likely the shaft served a bigger purpose than an air shaft. But what that purpose is remains a mystery. 

The project to understand the Great Pyramid was cut short because of growing security problems in Egypt. Professor Richardson commissioned independent filmmaker William Westaway to use the video that had been captured to make a film about the project and here it is exclusively on the Ancient Architects channel.

This content is the property of Rokethouse Films.

Director: William Westaway

Producer: Tom Czaban

Sound: Will Berridge and Charlie Hernadez

Camera and Electricity: Geoffroy Duval

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