On December 29, 1835, a British traveler arrived in Alexandria on a voyage of pleasure and curiosity. At a glance, there was little to distinguish Colonel Richard William Howard Vyse from the hundreds of other well-heeled European tourists who came to Egypt each year to view the legacies of the ancients. A landed gentleman of high standing, he had over the course of his 51 years enjoyed a distinguished military career and spent more than a decade in Parliament. Now, as a devoutly religious man, he was come to the Middle East not least to contemplate whatever leavings of “the mighty works of the Shepherd Kings” might impose themselves upon his sight and/or his imagination.

Then as now, the Giza Plateau was a necessary stop for any pleasure traveler to Egypt. Accordingly, Vyse came there for the first time on February 13, 1836. Much later, he would describe the scene on the plateau on a morning much like that on which he first viewed the Pyramids of Giza:

The morning was cold and foggy, and at first every object, even the gigantic pyramids, were totally obscured; but as the atmosphere cleared up, the scene became singularly beautiful. The picturesque forms of the women and children carrying baskets upon their heads, the finely broken foreground extending to the rocks at the Southern Dyke, and the enormous masses of the ruined temple on the rising ground before the Second Pyramid were in the finest breadth of light and shade. For a time the lofty apex of the Second Pyramid shone alone in the clear blue sky, (like the top-gallant sails of a ship of war,) far above the clouds that shrouded its mighty bulk, which by degrees slowly appeared in all its grandeur; and soon afterwards the southern front of the Great Pyramid, glittering with the morning sunbeams,  was displayed in full majesty as the light vapours melted away from its enormous space.

Pre-eminent in dimensions and antiquity over all other buildings in the world, [the pyramids] are alike admirable for the excellence of their masonry, the skill and science displayed in their construction, and the imposing majesty of their simple forms.

Vyse was shocked to learn that passages and chambers had been discovered in only a tiny part of the total interior space of the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre, and that no entrance of any sort to the Pyramid of Menkaure was known to exist. It struck his practical mind as inconceivable that the builders of these immense structures wouldn’t have made some greater use of their interiors. “I came to the conclusion,” he would later write, “that they contained many apartments yet unopened, as well on account of their vast magnitude, as also of the small space occupied by those already discovered.” An interest in revealing more of their theorized apartments was forming, although as yet it remained an idle one.

The interest started to become less idle ten days later, when Vyse met up with someone back in Alexandria who shared his conviction that there was much more to the pyramids than had yet been discovered. That someone was none other than Giovanni Caviglia.

Now 65 years old but as hearty and energetic as ever, the Italian seafarer hadn’t been idle since his exploits of 1817 on the Giza Plateau. In 1820, having fully recovered from the ophthalmia which had driven him away before, he had made another extended stay there, focusing his attention once again on the Pyramid of Khufu and the Sphinx.

Still looking for undiscovered spaces inside the former, he examined two channels, far too small to admit a man, which were cut into the northern and southern walls of the pyramid’s central King’s Chamber. He pushed a long, semi-flexible “rope” of palm branches some 120 feet (36.5 meters) into one of them before it was stopped, either by some obstruction or by a too-sharp bend in the channel. He would have dearly liked to enlarge the channel, but he was stopped by the granite walls of the King’s Chamber, which weren’t easily penetrated with the tools and manpower he could collect at this inconvenient location.

He worked instead for a while in the so-called “Davison’s Chamber” above the King’s Chamber, which he was certain must lead onto further spaces. But, in the course of weeks of crude attempts to force his way into such spaces, involving sledgehammers and even the occasional gunpowder blast, he succeeded only in mutilating what had already been discovered.

His efforts around the Sphinx were at least somewhat more productive. Having cleared and then reburied the great beast’s front in 1817, Caviglia had his workers excavate along the length of its right side in 1820, uncovering much more of the Roman-era retaining wall around the monument, along with what he believed to be traces of what had once been a water-filled canal leading up to it.

The Giza Plateau remained always close to Caviglia’s heart, but he had difficulty securing permission to work there again following the death of his patron Henry Salt. So, he went elsewhere. In the years between 1820 and 1836, he made more significant discoveries at other sites in Egypt, including a colossal statue of Ramses II at Memphis that was fit to rival in magnificence the bust of the same pharaoh which had so famously been found by Giovanni Belzoni just a few years earlier.

Vyse and Caviglia thus found much to talk about at their first meeting. In addition to their specific interest in the Giza Plateau, they were united by an unstinting faith in the literal truth of the Bible, accompanied by a rather metaphysical view of human history in general. They still suspected the monuments on the plateau to be the work of a much older civilization than that which had made the tombs and treasures scattered elsewhere in Egypt — a mysterious civilization of “mighty strangers who had possession of Egypt at a very remote period,” possibly even before the Biblical Flood. For “we know from sacred history,” wrote Vyse, “that science flourished before the deluge.” He was inclined almost to worship the pyramid builders, who had known already of “the resurrection of the body — a belief which could only have had its origin in divine revelation.”

Vyse soon left Alexandria again for an extended tour of Syria and Anatolia, the former lands of Judea and Jesus Christ. But when he returned to the city in the fall, he resumed his discussions with Caviglia. On November 2, 1836, a gentleman’s agreement was reached: Vyse and two other wealthy Britons of his acquaintance, working with Henry Salt’s successor Patrick Campbell, would secure permission for and fund another expedition by Caviglia to the Giza Plateau, with the primary goals of reaching any spaces still hidden inside the Pyramid of Khufu and of finding an entrance into the Pyramid of Menkaure. Vyse intended to leave the actual work entirely in the hands of Caviglia. “I had not the remotest idea of engaging in any operations at the Pyramids,” he would later insist.

Thus, while Caviglia departed for the Giza Plateau, Vyse started on another lengthy journey of his own, this time to other historical sites in Egypt. But when he stopped by to take stock of proceedings on the plateau in late January of 1837, he was sorely disappointed by Caviglia’s lack of progress. According at least to Vyse’s later account, the latter hadn’t done much of anything to advance the expedition’s two major goals, but was instead busying himself with the smaller tombs scattered across the plateau. Perhaps not coincidentally, the mummies which were often found within these structures were choice collectibles, fetching a high price on the private antiquities market. Following a series of arguments, after each of which the Italian only seemed to grow more obstinately determined to pursue his own agenda, Vyse and his partners summarily fired him. If Caviglia couldn’t get the job done, said Vyse, he’d just do it himself.

Caviglia’s own later account of his inglorious dismissal would be rather different. Upon coming to the Giza Plateau and seeing him on the verge of major discoveries, Caviglia claimed, Vyse elected to fire him in order to grab the credit for himself.

The truth of the matter is impossible to determine definitively. It is true that,  even in his own book on his activities in Egypt, Vyse comes across as a less than genial personality. A century after his death, the popular historian Leonard Cottrell would deftly characterize him as “somewhat deficient in humour, and — one suspects — rather a martinet.” His reverence for the people who built the pyramids being matched only by his contempt for those who lived in Egypt in his own time, he regarded the men who labored for him as little better than slaves, and apparently treated them accordingly. Certainly his writings about them read almost like a caricature of colonialism at its most ugly and arrogant: “Their own idleness, dishonesty, and ignorance has plunged them into a state of misery, which Christianity and its attendant blessings alone can effectually relieve.”

On the other hand, circumstantial evidence does seem to support Vyse’s version of events better than it does Caviglia’s. While the former would indeed make major discoveries on the Giza Plateau that year, doing so would require significant time and effort. Given this, the notion that Caviglia was himself already on the verge of such things seems, at best, a stretch.

Regardless, Caviglia’s decades-long second career in Egyptian antiquities hunting ended on this discordant and anticlimactic note. With him having made an enemy of the well-connected Colonel Vyse, permission to dig on behalf of the British Crown in Egypt wouldn’t be forthcoming again. And besides, he was getting old. He would die in 1845 in Paris as a frustrated and disgruntled man, who felt he had never received the credit that was his due.

Meanwhile, free of his obdurate Italian and thus free to see his expedition through as he wished, Vyse proceeded to attack the Giza Plateau on many fronts. What his efforts lacked in subtlety, they made up for in energy. Indeed, his techniques often smacked more of heavy industry than archaeology. In a fruitless quest for a theorized southern entrance to the Pyramid of Khufu, his workers scooped away much of the sand that still surrounded it. Pursuing Herodotus’s story that Khufu was actually buried on an island in an underground sea beneath his pyramid, they drilled a deep hole inside the subterranean chamber Caviglia had discovered in 1817. Looking for chambers hidden inside the Sphinx, they sank a shaft so far into the beast’s right shoulder that there was some fear that its head might fall off; when the shaft broke instead of the Sphinx, Vyse elected to leave it there, an old war wound to remind the creature forevermore of its British violator.

John Shae Perring’s sketch of the Pyramid of Khufu. To compensate for the poor quality of this reproduction, I’ve marked in color the three important new discoveries made by him and Vyse: the two “air channels” ascending out of the King’s Chamber to the pyramid’s surface (marked in red), a second human-accessible entrance to the pyramid in the form of Al Mamun’s Hole below the planned entrance (marked in green), and the additional series of four chambers above Davison’s Chamber (circled in blue). With those additions, the plan of the Pyramid of Khufu’s interior was, at least as far as we know today, complete. (Public Domain)

Thankfully, several of Vyse’s other areas of inquiry yielded more than pointless destruction. His closest partner became a much younger British civil engineer named John Shae Perring, who conducted the first careful survey of the Giza Plateau since the time of Napoleon’s savants. On February 12, 1837 — just two days after Vyse took over  from Caviglia — Perring discovered a narrow channel entering the Pyramid of Khufu from high up on its northern face. Both men immediately suspected that this might be the terminus of the channel which began in the northern wall of the King’s Chamber, but they could only probe it as deep as 37 feet (11.3 meters) from the outside before encountering some sort of obstruction.

They therefore attacked it with boring rods — drills mounted on the end of long, flexible shafts. The work, conducted from a precarious perch more than 100 feet (30 meters) above the ground, was tedious and exhausting. But at last, two months later, the drill bit emerged in the King’s Chamber. To confirm that the channel didn’t pass through any larger chambers along the way, they poured water into it from outside. Sure enough, the water trickled slowly down into the King’s Chamber.

With this behind them, the obvious next step was to look for the outlet of the second channel on the southern side of the pyramid, roughly in the same position where they had found the northern channel. Their search quickly bore fruit. Clearing this channel proved to be easier than expected; it was blocked only by a single large stone. Once that had been removed, it too was revealed to pass all the way through to the King’s Chamber. “An immediate rush of air took place,” wrote Vyse, “and we had the satisfaction of finding that the ventilation of the King’s Chamber was perfectly restored, and that the air within it was cool and fresh.” Indeed, it seemed obvious to him that the channels existed for the purpose of ventilation. To this day, they’re still typically referred to as the pyramid’s “air channels.”

The air channels weren’t the only new opening which Vyse and Perring found on the exterior surface of the Pyramid of Khufu. Digging down into the ramp of sand and rubble which led up to the pyramid’s main entrance, they found a second, forced entrance some distance below it, large enough to admit a man. After clearing the tunnel onto which it led of debris and proceeding up its length, they emerged near the junction of the descending and ascending passages inside the pyramid; the tunnel’s terminus had been so choked with debris that it hadn’t been noticed by centuries worth of visitors who had explored the pyramid via the planned entrance.

Vyse connected this tunnel with a one-sentence anecdote from One Thousand and One Nights, the Arabic book of legends. It involved a caliph named Al-Mamun, and must probably have taken place around AD 820: “Al-Mamun, attempting to pull down the Pyramids, expended his mint of money, but succeeded only in opening up a small tunnel in one of them, wherein it is said he found treasure to the exact amount of the monies he had spent in the works, neither more nor less; whereat he marvelled and taking what he found there, desisted from his determination.” To this day, the forced tunnel, which now serves as the tourist entrance to the Pyramid of Khufu, is known as “Al-Mamun’s Hole.”

Another discovery in the Pyramid of Khufu was even more exciting. Like Caviglia, Vyse was convinced that there was more to find around the seemingly purposeless Davison’s Chamber than had yet been uncovered, and wasn’t hesitant to use the most brutal methods — i.e., gunpowder — to get at it. Accordingly, the sound of repeated explosions echoed up and down the passages inside the pyramid for days on end.

A sketch of the stress-relieving chambers found above the King’s Chamber. (Public Domain)

Whereas Caviglia had tried to break through the walls of the chamber in his tireless hunt for secret doors and hidden passageways, Vyse turned his attention upward after noticing a crack in one corner of the ceiling, through which he was able to thrust a thin reed a considerable distance. After blasting the crack open wide enough to admit a candle on the end of a rod, he “had the mortification of finding that it was a chamber of construction, like that below it.” He redoubled his blasting efforts, and two days later was able to slither up through the enlarged opening into another chamber.

The floor was unequal, as it was composed of the reverse of the blocks of granite, that formed the ceiling of Davison’s Chamber. It was entirely empty, excepting one piece of stone thrown into it by blasting. Not an insect or a bat appeared, nor the traces of any living animal. There had not been, indeed, any doorway or entrance. This chamber, in fact, like Davison’s, was merely a vacancy, or chamber of construction, to take off the weight of the building from the King’s Chamber.

Vyse’s theory about the purpose of the space was astute, being the one still held to by modern Egyptologists. As such, it’s evidence of an amazingly sophisticated understanding of structural engineering. This Vyse well appreciated.

What he perhaps failed to appreciate sufficiently was what was evidenced by the lack of the bat guano, rubble, and human detritus that was to be found everywhere else inside the Pyramid of Khufu: he was most likely the first person to stand in this space since the original builders of the pyramid had sealed it up behind them, untold millennia before. The vast majority of the ancient Egyptian buildings and tombs which adventurers, antiquarians, and treasure seekers entered during and immediately before Vyse’s time had been tramped through by veritable generations of plunderers since their construction. This chamber, though, was that rarest thing in Egyptology: a space in exactly the state its original builders had left it in. The only pity was that, being that it was a utilitarian piece of structural engineering, they had left nothing whatsoever behind in it. Being both a patriotic Briton and a thoroughgoing man of his time, Vyse christened the place “Wellington’s Chamber,” after the hero of the Napoleonic Wars, and scrawled the name on its wall.

Wellington’s Chamber wasn’t the last of its type. An examination of its ceiling, followed by yet more blasting, opened up a third stress-relieving chamber, which Vyse christened “Nelson’s Chamber” after the other great British war hero of the era. It was much the same as the others, but bore on its walls markings in red paint or ink — the first definitively ancient Egyptian writing to be found anywhere inside the pyramid. Rather than ceremonial hieroglyphs, the writing appeared to be hurried graffiti, the scribblings of the ordinary men who had worked here so long ago.

Above Nelson’s Chamber was a fourth specimen of the type, which Vyse, having run out of recent war heroes, named “Lady Arbuthnot’s Chamber,” in tribute to an aristocratic lady who was visiting Egypt at the time and came out to the Giza Plateau to view Vyse’s progress. A fifth and final stress-relieving chamber, which Vyse dubbed “Campbell’s Chamber” after the current British consul general to Egypt, lay above it.

This last chamber was of a somewhat different character. It sported a high vaulted roof instead of a flat ceiling. (This was somewhat ominous to look at, showing signs of beginning to buckle under the strain of holding up thousands of tons of stone over thousands of years.) And here were other poignant traces of the builders of old. Holes had been cut into the floor, apparently for the temporary supports that had been used to hold up the roof during construction. And here the graffiti the workers had left behind was even more distinct.

Such were Vyse’s major discoveries at the Pyramid of Khufu — discoveries which served to complete the plan of the pyramid that we still know today. At the Pyramid of Khafre, meanwhile, he did his posterity the same service: he completed the work begun by Giovanni Belzoni almost two decades before by digging out and opening up the lower of the pyramid’s two entrances.

A recent photograph of the vertical gash in the northern face of the Pyramid of Menkaure. (Daniel Mayer)
Perring’s sketch of the Pyramid of Menkaure, showing both the tunnel which Vyse’s workers dug out of it to no avail and the actual, planned entrance which was belatedly discovered. (Public Domain)

Vyse’s most exciting work of all, however, took place at the oft-ignored Pyramid of Menkaure, the smallest by far of the great trio and the only one which had yet to reveal any interior spaces. As convinced as ever that such spaces must exist, he decided to use his typical method of accessing them: quarrying and blasting his way inside by main force. By way of a shortcut, he began at a huge, ugly vertical gash in the pyramid’s northern face, according to local legend the product of an ultimately unsuccessful effort during the 12th century AD to tear it down completely and harvest its stone.

Dealing with all of the difficulties Belzoni’s men had encountered during their similar efforts at the Pyramid of Khafre, along with the additional risks that attended to the use of gunpowder in such a confined space, the workers pushed inward inch by excruciating inch, day by excruciating day, without encountering any interruption in the solid rock face before them. After several weeks, having reached all the way to the rough middle of the pyramid, Vyse directed their efforts straight downward, a decision predicated on the knowledge that the same course of digging would have intersected with that which lay inside each of the other two pyramids.

The digging now became still more difficult and dangerous. The workers had first to crawl down a horizontal tunnel of some 60 feet (18 meters) in length, then descend via rope into a vertical shaft that would eventually reach 80 feet (24 meters) in depth. Once there, they set the latest gunpowder charge in place and hightailed it back up the rope. Then, following each blast, the rubble it left behind had to be hauled away to make room for the next one.

This heavy labor continued for a full two months more, at the end of which Vyse concluded that they had reached the level of the pyramid’s base — all still without encountering any interior spaces. His journal entry from this day reveals his extreme frustration, combined with a dogged, almost petulant determination to settle the question of what lies within the pyramid one way or another, even if he has to all but demolish it in the process: “I was resolved to examine every part of the pavement, and even to take down the face of the building; in short, to leave no expedient untried, with whatever expense of money or time it might be attended, to find the mysterious entrance.”

Luckily for posterity, it wouldn’t come to outright demolition. Vyse belatedly directed some of his workers to begin doing what they should have been doing at the outset: clearing away the sand and debris piled up high against the pyramid’s northern face, looking for an entrance somewhere below it — i.e., in the same place where entrances existed to the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre. On July 29, 1837, their efforts were rewarded. They uncovered a small but surprisingly obvious entryway, one which wasn’t filled with anything like the quantity of debris with which Belzoni had had to contend inside the entrance to the Pyramid of Khafre. After the centuries of speculation about whether an entrance to the Pyramid of Menkaure existed at all, and after the months of labor spent blasting a pointless tunnel through the middle of the pyramid, the real entrance had proved almost comically easy to reveal.

For once, the gravity of the occasion wasn’t lost on Vyse. He dismissed his workers from the scene and “returned full of expectation to the mysterious entrance, impatient to examine what had excited the curiosity, and had hitherto been supposed to have eluded the researches of all explorers, and of which no tradition or account, antient [sic] or modern, was known to exist.” This was to be the crowning glory of his six months of furious activity on the Giza Plateau.

A sketch of the entrance to the Pyramid of Menkaure. (Public Domain)
A closer view of the Pyramid of Menkaure’s interior, as seen from the side, facing west. The sepulchral chamber is not visible in this view. Note the bottom of Vyse’s forced tunnel at the extreme left, above the large apartment. Had his workers continued to dig downward after reaching the level of the pyramid’s base, they would have finally come to it. (Public Domain)
A closer view of the Pyramid of Menkaure’s interior, as seen from above. Here we can see the sepulchral chamber below the large apartment. (Public Domain)

With torch held before him, Vyse proceeded down a steeply descending passage, so cramped that he was forced to stoop uncomfortably. It continued well below the level of the pyramid’s base. (It would soon become clear that, had Vyse’s workers continued to dig down vertically from above, they must eventually have emerged into the spaces he was soon to explore.) The walls were rough, as if the passage had been hurriedly cut, in marked contrast to many of the spaces inside the other two pyramids. Amidst the rubble around him were the leavings of the last people to penetrate the passage, presumably long, long ago: pottery fragments, a piece of stick, part of an old basket, a coarse rag.

Unfortunately, the rubble from which the passage had been so blessedly free in its initial length became more and more dense as he continued, until it blocked his way entirely. Further exploration would have to wait until after Vyse’s long-suffering Egyptian workers had cleared the passage.

On August 1, with that task accomplished, Vyse, Perring, and three British dignitaries up from Cairo for the occasion made their way down the passage once again. They emerged into what Vyse dubbed an “anteroom,” of a much more finished character than the entering passage. The walls were still partially covered with their original coating of white plaster, and had been carved with a simple decorative pattern — the first purely decorative element anyone had ever found inside one of the three great pyramids.

The middle of the anteroom was filled up by two great granite slabs, over which the men had to scramble in order to move through the room. Observing the rubble that covered the floor to a considerable depth, Vyse theorized that more slabs must have once filled the chamber, blocking off the doorways completely, but had been broken apart by earlier generations of robbers who had sought, like these latest arrivals, to gain entrance to the pyramid’s inner sanctum.

Beyond the anteroom was a space that had plainly once contained a series of three granite portcullises, much like the ones discovered inside the Pyramid of Khafre. These ones, though, had long since been shattered, leaving behind only the grooves on which they had once slid and the space above into which they had once been retracted.

Beyond the portcullises, the passage continued to what Vyse dubbed the “large apartment,” a cavernous, high-ceilinged chamber, more than 46 feet (14 meters) in length, more than 12 feet (3.7 meters) in width, and 16 feet (4.9 meters) in height. It too had an unusually decorative character: traces of a motif in pink plaster still clung to the ceiling, and a pilaster-framed space with a raised floor was carved out of the western wall, as if to display some treasure. Indeed, it looked like nothing so much as the logical place of honor for a sarcophagus, yet no such thing was present. Vyse pondered one of Herodotus’s anecdotes, that “the body of an inferior person was sometimes placed in the ostensible sepulchre to prevent any further inquiry after the principal tomb.” He theorized that this was “an expedient which seemed to have been contemplated, but not actually put in practice in this instance; for not a vestige of a sarcophagus was to be discovered, which must have been the case if one had been introduced, as the communications, particularly through the anteroom, had not been sufficiently cleared for its removal” by tomb robbers.

An opening could be seen high up on the northern wall, directly above the one by which the men had just entered. This  marked the beginning of another passage, which ran back toward the north. After managing to climb up to it, the men made their way up its ascending length, only to learn that it was a blind alley leading nowhere.

This sketch shows the relationship of Menkaure’s sepulchral chamber to the large apartment above it. (Public Domain)

There was, however, a third exit from the large apartment. A depression in the floor of the chamber revealed itself to be the beginning of a descending passage that passed under the framed dais where Vyse theorized the decoy sarcophagus ought to have been. The passage was largely plugged up with rubble, rubbish, and the ubiquitous pyramidal bat guano, but with much filthy labor the men cleared its length of everything but several more great slabs of granite similar to those in the anteroom. They managed to climb and crawl over these thanks to earlier tomb robbers, who had cut enough space for doing so out of the ceiling. The passage’s far end bore traces of another shattered portcullis, then opened out at last into the space the men had been seeking. This was clearly the real sepulchral chamber.

It had been badly ransacked by the tomb robbers of old, who had scooped blocks out of the floor and cut great chunks out of the walls in search of hidden treasure; they had even left some of their tools behind them. Yet at least some of the chamber’s original magnificence remained. From the majestic vaulted roof to the fine flooring, this was by far the most impressively worked space inside the pyramid. But, as with the sepulchral chambers inside the other two great pyramids, the only markings on the walls were in Arabic rather than ancient Egyptian, seeming to consist mostly of proper names. (The tradition of carving one’s name inside the monuments of ancient Egypt wasn’t an invention of Europeans.)

The sarcophagus stood against one wall, minus its lid and the mummy it must once have held. Even in its present incomplete state, its fine workmanship was evident. It was made of blue basalt, polished to a fine shade of brown, with delicate filigrees carved into its surface. But, unsurprisingly in light of the many tomb robbers who had so clearly been here before, it was the only original object left in the sepulchral chamber.

Exploring the large apartment inside the Pyramid of Menkaure. (Public Domain)

Returning to the large apartment for more methodical exploration, the men made several more interesting discoveries. They found a fourth exit, this one a narrow tunnel bored into the western wall behind the pilaster-framed dais. It led to an irregular space that plainly had the vaulted roof of the sepulchral chamber as its floor, and probably was intended to relieve pressure on the ceiling of that chamber, just as the similar spaces above the King’s Chamber inside the Pyramid of Khufu.

Sifting through the debris inside the large apartment, the men found most of the lid to the sarcophagus from down below, along with fragments of the mummy case that would once have rested inside it. Inscribed on some of the fragments were hieroglyphs, the first of their kind to be found anywhere inside one of the great pyramids, excepting only the graffiti Vyse had so recently found above the King’s Chamber in the Pyramid of Khufu. Even more excitingly, they found bone fragments from a human: ribs, vertebrae, legs, feet.  Could these be the remains of the legendary pharaoh himself? “It would seem that,” Vyse speculated, “as the sarcophagus could not be removed, the wooden case containing the body had been brought into the large apartment for examination” by the earlier tomb robbers.

And that was all that was to be found inside the Pyramid of Menkaure. Vyse had to acknowledge that his theory that the pyramids must be positively riddled with hidden chambers had been mistaken. Indeed, it would appear that only the Pyramid of Khufu contained anything at all much above the level of its base. To a man of his mindset, there seemed little left to be done on the Giza Plateau after opening the Pyramid of Menkaure. And so, he scarcely paused for breath before leaving for home on August 7, 1837. He left it to several officials attached to the British consul general’s office to tidy up, as best they could, the chaos his blasting and smashing had left behind.

As it happened, they didn’t evince any more delicacy than had Vyse. They decided to remove the sarcophagus from the Pyramid of Menkaure by any means necessary. This proved no small undertaking, requiring a great deal more gunpowder blasting in the narrow spaces inside the pyramid, with all of the attendant mutilation.

A year later, the sarcophagus was loaded onto a merchant ship in Alexandria that was bound for London. But the ship sank off the coast of Spain. The sarcophagus, if Vyse’s descriptions and illustrations are to be believed the finest of the three that were once to be found within the great pyramids, remains at the bottom of the ocean to this day — an ironic fate for a treasure born amidst the arid desert sands, which survived millennia of greedy tomb robbers only to arrive at this unlikely final resting place. Still, the less than two centuries that have elapsed since its loss are like as nothing in its immense lifetime. Perhaps someday it will be recovered, and the next chapter in its story will be written.

Richard William Howard Vyse never returned to Egypt, but rather busied himself back in England with writing a three-volume chronicle of his exploits on the Giza Plateau, and with prosecuting his feud with Giovanni Caviglia via letters to the gentlemanly periodicals of the time. He also continued his military career, rising to the rank of major general by the time of his death in 1853.

For archaeologists of just a few decades later, much less of today, Vyse’s activities on the Giza Plateau — cutting, boring, tunneling, and blowing things up more or less indiscriminately — would come to read like a horror story. The record of his mutilations remains everywhere on the plateau today. But, in his defense, he was only the product of his era, and his full-frontal assaults on the pyramids did uncover much that had long lain hidden.

Thanks to the efforts of Caviglia, Belzoni, and Vyse, the three great pyramids now lay open to all, a situation unprecedented in history. Yet, while the pyramids had all been fully explored, they were still far from being  fully understood. Now it was time for the scholars — for the first generation of Egyptologists truly worthy of the name — to come forward and begin to make sense of it all.

(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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11 Comments for "Chapter 8: Menkaure and the Colonel"

  • Sam L-L

    “With those additions, the plan of the Pyramid of Khufu’s interior was, at least as far as we know today, complete.”

    Modern imaging techniques used by the ScanPyramids project appear to have discovered another large empty space above the Grand Gallery in 2017:

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yeah… unless and until we manage to actually enter the space, I’m not sure we can really label it a part of the pyramid’s established *plan*. I hope someone will find a way to do so. Certainly no one wants to return to the gunpowder-blasting days of Vyse, but it strikes me as reasonable to consider boring a very small, minimally invasive shaft and sending a robot explorer in to establish whether this is just some sort of construction anomaly, a stress-relieving chamber for the Grand Gallery, or — and this is unlikely but at least theoretically possible — something even more interesting.

  • Mike

    It’s always been my hope that the wreck of the Beatrice with the sarcophagus will be found. Vyse gives the only clue of its possible position, saying the ship had left Leghorn (Livorno) and was ‘supposed to have been lost off Carthagena’ in south-west Spain.The wreck was recorded by Lloyds of London in their ‘Loss and Casualty Book’.

    Thursday, 31st January 1839: “Beatrice, Wichelo, [the skipper of the vessel], sailed from Alexandria 20th Sept. & from Malta, 13th October for Liverpool, & has not since been heard of”.

    I’ve never heard anything about any survivors. However, in June 1839 the British Museum was paid £148 10s. 0d. in insurance for the loss of the sarcophagus.

    The pictures of the sarcophagus suggest it was something quite extraordinary – quite unlike the very plain sarcophagus of Khufu. In 2008, Dr Zahi Hawass announced that they had narrowed the position down to near Cartagena and that an underwater survey would be conducted: “I will seek a formula for co-operation with the Spanish Government and we will agree to return the sarcophagus to Egypt.” AFAIK, nothing happened and the the Beatrice is a tiny target in an enormous and deep ocean.

  • xxx

    Slight typo: “first generation Egyptologists” should be “first generation of Egyptologists”.

    Excellent article, as always!

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Bojan

    Hi Jimmy,

    I was searching online for more information about Cornel Vyse and one of the results was this website. I read all 8 chapters, and I can say that this will be a very nice book.

    Also, I would like to ask you if you can add information about second (actually the first) discovery that is made by Cornel Vyse and his team. It’s an IRON plate, extracted from the masonry at the exit point of the southern shaft, one that targets Orion belt. Now, the plate is in the British Museum.

    • Jimmy Maher


      I’m afraid no discovery like that is described by Vyse in his own lengthy journal of his time at the Giza Plateau. I’d encourage you to look to primary sources first when doing in-depth research on these topics, as there are a lot of untrustworthy secondary sources. (Present company hopefully excepted.)

      • Bojan

        Thanks, I will.
        Do you know is it available online?

      • Bojan

        Below is the link for the artifact in the British Museum

        I just get his books and I will try to find the record about this discovery.

        • Jimmy Maher

          My apologies. I gave you shorter shrift than I ought to have. Your mention of “targeting Orion’s belt” made me assume this was a claim of the “alternative” Egyptologists. Vyse tends to be a particular nexus of dubious conspiracy theories from this school. But the find you describe is in fact real, and, further, is in fact mentioned by Vyse in his journal.

          In the entry for May 26, 1837, he writes the following:

          Mr. Hill discovered a piece of iron in an inner joint, near the mouth of the southern air-channel, which is probably the oldest piece of wrought iron known. It has been sent to the British museum.

          This find, if it dated from the time of the pyramid’s construction, would be highly significant, as the beginning of the Iron Age in the Near East has been generally dated to around 1200 BC, some 1300 years after the Pyramid of Khufu was constructed. In 1989, an academic tean made up of El Sayad, El Gayar, and M.P. Jones were allowed to analyze a corner of the iron plate, and stated in their resulting article for The Historical Metallurgy Journal that they did indeed believe it to be as ancient as the pyramid. However, four years later P.T. Craddock and J. Lang did a second analysis for the same journal, and came to a markedly different conclusion: that the plate was actually “post-Medieval” in origin — this despite the fact that Vyse and his colleagues believed the position in which they found it meant that it “must have been left in the joint during the building of the Pyramid, and that it could not have been inserted afterwards.”

          These two radically different conclusions are certainly interesting, but the complete lack of any other wrought iron of similar antiquity does make one rather lean toward it being Vyse and company who were mistaken rather than Craddock and Lang. Still, it doesn’t look like any further research on the artifact itself has been done since 1993. It would definitely seem a topic ripe for revisiting with all of the latest tools of material analysis.

          The three volumes of Vyse’s journals are all available on (The finding of the iron plate is described near the end of the first.) The Historical Metallurgy Journal is also available online, but must be purchased if you don’t have access through a university or library: (The articles in question are found in volumes 23.2 and 27.2.)

          If you learn anything else of note, by all means check back in! Now you’ve captured my interest as well. 😉


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