The Giza plateau is of great scientific interest because of the presence of the famous three great pyramids of Egypt, including the two largest of all the ancient Egyptian civilization, that of Khufu and Khafra. One of the most interesting curiosities is to discover how the ancient Egyptians were able to build them, when at the time they had virtually none of the technologies you have today. But just as interesting is to understand the different explorations of which they were the object, and not only those of the Giza plateau.
The Great Pyramid of Giza was for a long time the focal point of all explorations in Egypt. Not that the other sites were not interesting, but this one was the most explored, probably because it was the largest of the pyramids in the country.
The question then is, from when did the first explorers attempt to unravel the secrets of the pyramids, and what were their aims?
From antiquity to the fifteenth century: The plunder
This is obvious, but the first to have tried to break the secrets of the pyramids of Egypt was not made for the purpose of scientific exploration but looting.
The looting of antiquity
They imagined, with good reason, that the pyramids contained riches and wanted to monopolize them, it was above all grave robbers who were the first to enter these monuments. The very first did it from the first intermediate period, that is to say in the twentieth century BC. This very short period in the history of Egyptian civilization (barely 19 years) marks the end of the ancient empire and the beginning of the dislocation of royal authority. Without administration, without authoritarian and centralized power, the Egyptians were tempted to enter the pyramids to recover what they contained. One can imagine the audacity they had to show to go, knowing the importance given by their (not so distant) ancestors to these royal tombs.
We have no formal evidence, but it seems obvious that the pyramids were looted several times during antiquity, especially during these intermediate periods (there were 3)
Thereafter time did its work, the pyramids accused their ages, they became damaged. The sand began to cover their approaches and the entrances of the pyramids became inaccessible. The Egyptians themselves forgot where they were, and began the Saite and then Arabic eras of the history of Egypt. We are then in the ninth century
This is where the caliph Abdullah Ma'moun arrives.
The caliph Abdullah Ma'moun
It is exactly in 820 that the caliph Abdullah Ma'moun tries to enter the great pyramid of Khufu, persuaded to find great wealth . He knows, at this moment, that the entrance to the pyramid is on the North face, but he does not know where exactly. Then he pierces another entrance (which will be wider than the normal entrance), a little closer to the ground. This new gallery will end in the great gallery of the pyramid, which he could explore at his leisure ... but without finding any treasure, of course.
When the caliph Al-Ma'moun came to Egypt he gave the order to open the Great Pyramid. After unheard-of sorrows and considerable fatigue, we reached the interior of the pyramid, which was found all strewn with steep pits and ramps. The passage was perilous. Finally, at the end, was a cubic chamber of about 8 cubits on the side. In the middle of the room was a marble vat, closed with a lid, which was removed, and there was found in the vat only a corpse corrupted by the length of the centuries. Al 'Ma'mun then ordered not to open another pyramid, the expense made for the opening of this breach being, as far as we can assure, extraordinarily considerable.
1st century: The Greek explorers
Note some exceptions in the list of looters of ancient pyramids: We have testimonies of ancient Greeks who made trips to Egypt and described the pyramids with, often, little precision, but their testimonies are often interesting. For example, we have Strabon and Herodotus, who have made such stories.
The exploration of Strabo is one of the earliest texts that has come down to us, it dates from a little after the birth of Christ. Around the year 30 the geographer Strabon wrote in his book" Geography ":
The Great Pyramid has at some height on one of its faces a stone which can be removed and which, when raised, gives access to a sloping gallery to the foundations.
This gallery actually exists, but it was long masked. Very narrow, its entrance is about 15 m above the ground. It was the original entrance to the pyramid.
From the fifteenth to the 1940s: Understanding
From the fifteenth century a scientific consciousness emerged in the European communities. The visit of the pyramids of Egypt is no longer made for purposes of plunder but more in the search for knowledge. It corresponds to the arrival of the Renaissance in Europe, a period that will focus on discoveries. It must be known that the historical context was favorable, America was going to be discovered, the great explorations of the World were going to be launched, and the scientific curiosity began to override the religious prohibitions. We are entering a new era, and the pyramids of Egypt will be a goal of discovery rather than looting.
15th century: Breydenbach
We find a first name in the fifteenth century, that of the German Breydenbach, who visited the pyramids in 1486 and made a story. He had successors but the first real explorations came with the English mathematician John Greaves by profession. This explorer managed to enter the Great Pyramid of Giza but could not access the underground chambers of which he did not know the presence. He owes the discovery of the "well of thieves", at the foot of the great gallery he translated into text in a book published in 1646, "Pyramidographia".
1765 : Nathaniel Davidson
In 1765 an English traveler named Davison discovers a small room above the King's room, digging a branch from the ceiling of the large gallery. This is one of the discharge chambers, which he is the first to uncover. The other dumping chambers were discovered much later by the scientists of the Napoleonic expedition.
Early nineteenth: The scientists of Napoleon
The history of Egypt tells us that the Emperor Napoleon made a military expedition to Egypt in the early nineteenth century. But for once in world military history, the emperor brought with him many scientists whose goal was to collect as much information as possible about this forgotten ancient civilization. It was the first time that a real scientific process was undertaken to explore the pyramids of Egypt.
So we have to admit, sometimes the methods used were ... intrusive. Thus one of the three pyramids annexes of the funerary complex of Menkaure was dismantled to understand how it was built ... fortunately the military companion was a fiasco, the scientists could not finish their work and this pyramid is still there, nowadays, otherwise it would simply no longer exist! Much of the discoveries made by Napoleon were recorded in a book, "Description of Egypt". This book quickly became a reference in the field.
From this period, we remember the many sketchbooks filled by Napoleon's draftsmen, as well as maps made by cartographers. The fashion of ancient Egypt developed in France, the early nineteenth century was the period of "Egyptomania". Each person a little high-placed wanted his small cabinet of curiosities based on Egyptian relics. Fashion was to discover these curious statues, papyrus, all of which are, of course, very poorly preserved, which means that many of these pieces have disappeared today, alas.
The Napoleonic campaign resulted in giving the Europeans confidence to explore Egypt, and it was from there that their scientific explorations really began.
1816 : Giovanni Battista Caviglia
Giovanni Battista Caviglia was Italian, as the name suggests. He was one of the nineteenth-century explorers of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, in which he entered in 1816. He was able to clear the well of thieves and was the first to enter the underground chamber.
1818 : Giovanni Belzoni
Belzoni was also Italian. He is known to have explored in 1818 the pyramid of Khafra which he reached the two underground chambers. He was able to do it thanks to the intervention of Caviglia who, two years earlier, had worked on this pyramid and found both entries. His work was therefore a continuation of that of his colleague, but that does not remove anything to the feat.
Belzoni had a bad surprise when he entered the burial chamber, since he found Arabic inscriptions whose translations were "Mohamed Ahmed opened it" and "King Ali Mahomet was present", which proved to him that was not the first to explore these funeral rooms ...
1835 : The Colonel Richard W.H. Vyse
70 years after Davidson and 20 years after Caviglia, in 1835, Colonel Vyse opened a breach upwards from the branch of Davidson, he then discovered the other 4 discharge chambers. To force the openings he does not hesitate to use gunpowder, which obviously damages the inside of the pyramid. It is also Vyse who discovers and opens the two ducts which leave the room of the King and continue to the outside. These two openings, which were thought to be air vents, are in fact related to cosmic considerations.
Colonel Wyse wrote the results of his research in books. These books are still, today, reference books on Egypt pyramids.
1872 : Exploration of W. Dixon
Waynman Dixon was an Englishman hired by a certain Piazzi Smyth to study the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
In 1872 W. Dixon discovered in the Queen's chamber the starting point of two internal ducts to the pyramid, the famous stellar ducts, a first exploration of which will be made only from 1993 by R. Gantenbrink.
1880 : Cartography of Petrie
William Matthew Flinders Petrie is nowadays considered one of the fathers of modern archeology. He was called to work on the Giza Plateau to accurately measure all the buildings therein, and to map the plateau.
He was a pioneer in many areas: Using photography, X-rays for archeology, the first professor of British Egyptology, etc.
1902 to 1903 : James E. Quibell
James E. Quibell is an English archaeologist hired by Lorenzo Cow Covington to search the West Cemetery. These excavations focused on the mastabas hill, 1.5 km south of the pyramids. The result was the discovery of 39 tombs, some dating back to the 2nd and 3rd dynasties. These excavations came back to those undertaken not Montague Ballard at the end of the nineteenth century on the same site, but the lack of professionalism of the latter has made no major discovery came out. Worse still, Ballard, not knowing the methods of modern archeology, damaged some sites by studying them. Besides, he never published anything, proving his amateurism.
James Quibell did the digs again, but in a more professional way. He also worked on the great pyramid from which he cleared the stellar ducts.
1903 : Cutting in concessions
At the beginning of the twentieth century a problem arose: There were so many requests for studies of monuments that it was necessary to organize to share the work that was not lacking, however archaeological techniques improving. It must also be said that the more we advanced in the discovery of the pyramids, the more we extended the research to interesting areas but which, until then, had not yet been excavated.
It should also be noted that this method of research by geographical areas has not changed since, and this is still how archaeologists work on the site. And do not think that the Giza plateau is totally studied, it's wrong! Even today, many areas are still waiting for excavations.
But to return to the early nineteenth century, the problem of the number of archaeologists making excavation requests arose. In 1903, the director of the Egyptian Antiquities Department made the decision to grant multiple concessions. The Giza Necropolis was therefore divided into several areas allocated to archaeologists by request.
The Khufu pyramid and its eastern cemetery were given to the Italian Ernesto Schiapparelli, while the Austrian Georg Steindorff obtained the pyramid of Khafra and its high temple, the tombs of the southern face of the pyramid of Khufu and the mastabas of the central reservation. The American George Andrew Reisner obtained the grant of the Pyramid of Menkaure and its temples. These three nations also shared the West cemetery by band stretching from East to West: the Italians took the South band, the Austrians the central band and the Americans the North band.
This division continued until the end of the excavations, between the years 1925 and 1940. In 1911 Steindorff abandoned his concession to the German Hermann Junker, who was dispossessed of it after the defeat of Germany during World War I. It was the Egyptian Selim Hassan who took it back until 1925.
1940 to the present day: Modern archeology
Since the Second World War, the Giza Plateau has been the subject of various excavation campaigns, but it was from 1980 that it received a renewed interest. Various global teams came to the site to search with modern equipment.
It is indeed the quality of the material and the knowledge of ancient Egypt that makes all the difference between excavations carried out in the nineteenth century and recent excavations. The French, Japanese and Egyptian teams regularly take part in successive campaigns, unveiling more and more objects, discovering new concepts unknown until then.
The main recent discoveries are the existence of the village of workers, corresponding to the workers' city of the Giza plateau. It was used mainly during the construction of the pyramid of Khafra and that of Menkaure (well, all their funerary complexes). The excavations proved that these monuments were built by workers and not slaves, they were paid and well fed to ensure the quality of work. We are far from the image of a slave ship whipped as we have thought for a long time.
The other major discovery was the fantastic solar boat found in the pits at the foot of the Khufu pyramid. It happened in 1987. You should know that in 1947 a first boat was found, it had been assembled by the Egyptian Antiquities Service which built a museum to present to the public. This second boat was discovered by a team of Japanese archaeologist. She is currently rewinding lessons before her exhibition in an Egyptian museum still not decided.
As we can see, the excavations of the Giza necropolis are far from over.