That’s the science behind the Non-invasive Archaeometry Using Muons project. It’s an international partnership between a half-dozen universities, including UVA, and the Exploring the Great Pyramids project.
The UVA portion of the project, led by physics professor Craig Dukes, is particularly focused on designing a detector to record cosmic-ray muons passing through the pyramid to scan the interior for hidden voids.
Researchers have been working on the detector’s design since 2016 and are now in the process of raising funds for the Exploring the Great Pyramids project and building a prototype for El Castillo. The prototype will first be tested at Fermilab, a particle physics and accelerator laboratory in Batavia, Illinois.
Dukes invited Roberts to work on the pyramid project after he heard about her work as an undergraduate researcher on other Fermilab projects.
“I had prior experience fabricating, testing and analyzing data for cosmic-ray detectors through UVA’s High Energy Physics Laboratory, so I was excited to accept Professor Dukes’ offer to join this interesting project,” Roberts said.
Together, the two applied for a grant from the Jefferson Trust – a donor-led initiative of the UVA Alumni Association – to work on the project in Chichén Itzá, once one of the largest Maya cities. That funding was approved in early 2022 and Roberts and Dukes traveled to Mexico over spring break. Their goal was to complete a series of preliminary measurements needed to construct the detector.
From Space to Ancient History
The detector will harness the power of cosmic-ray muons, which Dukes said are particularly suitable because they are very energetic. That means they can easily pass through large masses and penetrate roughly 100 feet of limestone.
“It is effectively like taking a very detailed X-ray of the pyramid,” Dukes said. “And, importantly, it is noninvasive. It does not damage the structure in any way.”
A similar project called Scan Pyramids discovered a previously unknown chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Now, Dukes and his team hope to build on that work by creating an even more powerful detector with greater resolution to place inside El Castillo. Eventually, the team hopes to place detectors at the base of the Great Pyramid and others in Egypt. It will scan both external and internal structures and create a tomographic, or three-dimensional, image.