Thursday, February 05, 2004

NEW TECHNOLOGY WATCH: "Muons May Unlock Secrets of Teotihuacan" (Physics Today, via Archaeology Magazine News). This isn't about ancient Judaism, but the technology, detecting surplus muons to find otherwise undetectable open spaces in large structures, could have archaeological applications anywhere. Excerpts:

Does the Pyramid of the Sun harbor any tombs? What might such tombs reveal about the society that two millennia ago built one of Mesoamerica's largest pyramids? In an experiment � la Luis Alvarez, who in the late 1960s concluded that there are no tombs in Egypt's Chephren pyramid, a collaboration of physicists and archaeologists hopes to glean answers to these questions by monitoring the passage of muons through the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, 50 kilometers northeast of Mexico City.


This spring, a detector in the tunnel will begin a year of muon counting. Created when cosmic protons hit the atmosphere, muons rain down uniformly and are absorbed when they interact with matter. In hunting for a tomb, the researchers are looking for a surplus of the charged particles. "If you find more muons than you expect, the difference is an indication that in that particular direction you have less matter," says Menchaca. "That is the secret of the technique." (See Physics Today, May 2003, page 19.) [The link requires a subscription to access.]


But teasing answers out of the data may be tricky. "What you can tell is where there is less density than you expect," says Menchaca. Such a spot might indeed be a tomb or other empty chamber. But it could be that the soil in the pyramid has settled over time to create caves. Or stone walls might surround a cave, canceling out any muon effect. Or a tomb's contents may have been stolen. "Another possibility," Menchaca says, "is a stone-filled tomb, which seems likely based on the recent findings in the Pyramid of the Moon. That would show up as a region with fewer muons than expected, rather than more. If we do find a compact localized region with more--or less--muons, we will perceive it as the end of work for my group. Once we understand the topology, we will pass things on to the archaeologists."

"If the Pyramid of the Sun has a void, a chamber, we will detect it with the muon experiment," says Manzanilla. "Then we will excavate."

I hope they find something.

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