Guest Blogger Andrew Collins on the Giza Caves Discovery

Back on August 5 I blogged about Andrew Collins’ discovery of caves under the Giza Plateau and Zahi Hawass’ apoplectic response to the news. Dr. Hawass recently posted a lengthier response on his website. The response was less hysterical than his inital reaction, but not completely coherent. To explain why that’s the case, Andrew Collins has graciously responded to my request to be a guest blogger on PaleoBabble to elaborate on the discovery and the ensuing response from Zahi Hawass.

Andrew Collins Responds to Dr. Hawass’s Dismissal of His Cave Discoveries at Giza

Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has made public his opinions regarding our claims to have uncovered a cave underworld at Giza that is not known to have been recorded in modern times. See “Collins’ Cave Discovery.”

I feel it necessary to respond fully to Dr. Hawass, especially since he sends out a rather distorted message regarding our discoveries, our knowledge of the caves, and the background to the caves themselves.

Saying that he is simply responding to internet stories on this subject, he begins by posting a satellite image that indicates the precise location in the plateau’s northern cliff-face of the rock-cut sepulchre we refer to as the Tomb of the Birds (since it has no formal designation), in which the caves are to be found. Here in 1837 Col. Howard Vyse and British engineer John Shae Perring discovered mummified birds and animals. Exactly 20 years earlier British diplomat and explorer Henry Salt, in the company of Italian sea-caption and explorer Giovanni Caviglia, had, according to Salt’s memoirs, published in 2007, entered the same tomb and penetrated “catacombs” for a distance of “several hundred yards” before coming upon a “spacious chamber”, which connected with three others of equal size, from which went various “labyrinthick” passages, one of which Caviglia explored for “300 feet further”.

To our knowledge, the tomb was not connected with Salt and Caviglia’s own exploration of what is quite clearly the same site until my colleague, the Egyptological researcher, Nigel Skinner Simpson, examined Salt’s memoirs following their publication in 2007. Using Salt’s plan of the plateau, and the British diplomat’s written account of his investigations on the plateau, Skinner-Simpson worked out the entrance to the lost catacombs. The editors of the newly-published memoir, Patricia Usick and Deborah Manley, had concluded that they were to be found in cemetery G1600, some distance northeast of the Tomb of the Birds. Thus to our knowledge it was Skinner-Simpson who first identified the whereabouts of the entrance to Salt and Caviglia’s catacombs.

Andrew Collins looks down at the caves

Andrew Collins looks down at the caves

On March 3rd, 2008, we entered the Tomb of the Birds and discovered the entrance into what could only be Salt and Caviglia’s cave tunnels. These were explored for a estimated distance of 100-120 meters, even though we were aware that Salt had recorded that they continued for at least “several hundred yards”. We returned on three further occasions to the caves in March and April 2008.

Tomb of the birds

Tomb of the birds

Dr. Hawass now states that he knew all about the connection between the tomb and the “catacombs” explored by Salt and Caviglia in 1817, and that the matter is fully recorded. However, I suspect that he only became aware of the connection in April 2009 when I presented him with a copy of the report of our findings to date (Collins and Skinner-Simpson, 2008). Indeed, our findings had been presented to him with site photos as early as October the previous year, at which time he made it clear that to his knowledge no one had ever investigated the tomb.

Dr. Hawass now tells us in his blog that, in his opinion, Skinner-Simpson and I are mistaken in our claims to have found a cave complex, and that “I can say that there is no underground cave complex at this site … When they [Salt and Caviglia] explored it, they called it a catacomb because it contains some tunnels and corridors cut deep into the rock. Anyone who enters this tomb may feel they are in a maze corridor because of the multiple tunnels, and it seems more than its 35 meters long.”

Dr. Hawass is wrong here. He is not taking into account the existence of the natural caves, which exit the tomb for at least the 100-120 meters, and arguably the “several hundred yards” that Salt reported that he and Caviglia reached before coming upon the four spacious chambers. Remember also that Caviglia journeyed “300 feet further” in one direction, and that clearly they never reached the end of the tunnels, which arguably extend even further beneath the pyramid field.

Dr. Hawass goes on to state that: “Scholars have many resources they can consult about sites in Egypt and the finds from them. For example, we have a book the public should know about called Porter and Moss: A Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings, which contains information about all the sites in Egypt and what has been found there, including the site of Giza. If you consult this resource, it will tell you that this “cave” is a rock-cut tomb that was found and opened in 1816-1817 by Henry Salt.”

The book that Dr. Hawass refers to here is: B. Porter, R. Moss, and J. Málek. A Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings. 2nd edition. III Memphis, Part 1. Abû Rawâsh to Abûsîr (revised and augmented by Jaromîr Málek), OUP, 1974. It contains a list of all documented tombs at Giza, complete with reports of their description, clearance and inscriptions.

The Tomb of the Birds does not appear in Porter and Moss. Neither is there any reference to Vyse and Perring’s excavations here, or Salt and Caviglia’s explorations of the “catacombs”. We have examined Porter and Moss again just to make sure we have not overlooked this information, but can confirm that there is no mention of Vyse and Perring’s activities in connection with the Tomb of the Birds.

Indeed, we are unaware of any modern source for either the Tomb of the Birds or the caves which they conceal. Recently, we have used the photographic search tool at to check again for references. This tool is a superb resource that lets you mouse over the Giza plateau and brings up references to just about everything that has ever been written about a location as you pass over it with links. The Tomb of the Birds area is a complete blank, i.e. nothing in the huge archive at refers to it.

We have been looking also at the standard reference works (Hassan, Junker, Reisner, Lepsius, etc.) and continue to do so. A new source is Reisner’s unpublished material which is now coming up at The bottom line is that we have done what we can to find modern references to the Tomb of the Birds without success.

As regards Dr Hawass’s suggestion that the tomb “has been explored and reported by many scholars”, if such reports do exist, then we would be more than happy to receive copies, and update our findings and conclusions accordingly.

The information offered by Dr. Hawass to the effect that American Egyptologist George Reisner used the Tomb of the Birds as a storeroom during his excavations at Giza in the 1910s to 1920s is intriguing, and we look forward to learning more.

Dr Hawass’s statement that we have simply become confused by the maze-like layout of the tomb, and in doing so have labelled it a cave complex is simply not correct. Firstly, the tomb itself is relatively basic in its construction. After entry via a massive, deep-cut façade, you come upon a double lobed anteroom, with two worn, square-cut pillars. This leads you into a north-south corridor, at the rear of which is a raised area cut out of the living rock, with an east-west altar or bed-like platform carved out of the back wall. On the left before you reach the raised area is a large room, as described by Dr. Hawass, and on the right is a small opening in the rock into a large cave chamber, which Dr. Hawass refers to as “leading to a descending passage.” Although entirely natural, the room has been partially hewn to give it a more rectilinear appearance. A large natural cave compartment can be found in its northwest corner, while a small hole on the south side of this enormous compartment leads into a cave tunnel that we travelled for some considerable distance. It is here that Salt and Caviglia, and arguably even Vyse and Perring, came in the early nineteenth century. There is no confusion here, we entered a natural cave system that permeates the limestone bedrock of the plateau’s Moqattam formation.

cave walls

cave walls

Dr. Hawass states that the tomb and, by virtue of this, the caves have “recently been re-explored by my office, the Supreme Council of Antiquities.” If this is correct, and certainly our own interest in the tomb in March-April 2008 prompted a newfound interest in them by SCA officials, then we await further news of their findings on this fascinating subject.

Dr. Hawass goes on: “Andrew Collins and Nigel Skinner-Simpson came to Egypt in order to rediscover the tomb. They thought that they were the first to fully explore the tomb although it had been found almost two centuries ago and has been explored and reported by many scholars.”

It would be naïve to imply that we were the first to “rediscover the tomb”, as it is clearly visible in the northern face of the plateau’s Moqattam formation. Moreover, we openly acknowledge that Salt and Caviglia in 1817, and Vyse and Perring in 1837, came here (although it is unclear just how much the cave system the latter explored). We simply came here to check whether the tomb did indeed lead into a system of natural caves.

In conclusion, Dr. Hawass is of the opinion that the tomb was cut during the Graeco-Roman Period, and was used for the burial of sacred animals, similar to the bird and animal cemeteries at Saqqara and Tuna el-Gebel. I agree that the site was indeed the focus of a local bird cult, and it might even be the lost raptor cemetery known to have existed at Giza, and alluded to in the book Divine Creatures by Dr Salima Ikram (2005). Such bird cults flourished initially during the Late Period, and continued to expand during Graeco-Roman times. Thus the Tomb of the Birds could belong to either period. However, there is every possibility that the rock-cut structure might easily have served an earlier function, and was simply converted at some later point into a bird cemetery, honouring a local bird deity. Even if the tomb was constructed in Graeco-Roman times, there is no reason to conclude that the natural caves were not previously accessible to the outside world.

Dr. Hawass makes it clear that: “These burials of sacred animals are well known in Egyptological literature, and were made for the purpose of offering to the gods, they have nothing to do with the idea of a lost civilization or other unscientific ideas that people come up with and circulate on the Internet.”

We are quite aware of the purpose of bird cemeteries, and would not use this, or the existence of the caves, to prove the existence of a lost civilization. What I will state, however, is that the caves perhaps form part of an interconnected cave system that GPR work has suggested exist in the eastern part of the plateau (see Abbas et al, 2006), and that the “several hundred yards” travelled by Salt and Caviglia has to have taken them somewhere. It is my suspicion that the underlying northwest-southeast orientation of the plateau’s Moqattam formation will have directed them into the vicinity of the Second Pyramid, where the four chambers Salt and Caviglia entered, along with the “labyrinthick” passages that continued into the darkness, might still await discovery.

Finally, Dr. Hawass asks that “people who wish to learn more about the Giza tombs will consult academic sources, for example books published by scholars such as myself and not rely on unsupported Internet accounts.” I would concur with such sentiments, and it is academic sources that myself and Nigel Skinner-Simpson have repeatedly consulted since the beginning of our interest in the Tomb of the Birds, which began in 2006 when I first became aware of Vyse and Perring’s own investigations here. However, despite repeatedly scouring academic libraries in both Cairo and London, we have been unable to locate any information on this site.

Thus, we can say that although Dr. Hawass states that this is simply a rock-cut tomb and no caves are to be found here, our own photographic evidence appears to tell a different story.

A response to statements made by Dr. Hawass in his website article “Collins Cave Controversy”

Dr. Hawass mentions the standard reference work Porter and Moss and says it contains information on all the sites in Egypt and what has been found at those sites. I was of course aware of this work and have a searchable electronic copy of Vol.III Memphis Part 1 which covers the Giza plateau area. It is a work I refer to constantly and it was my first port of call years ago when I first wanted to know more about the tomb. I would be most grateful if Dr. Hawass could cite a full reference as to where in this volume it mentions Salt’s discovery of the rock-cut tomb, as I have never been able to find any mention of it.

I was also aware that Vyse and Perring visited the tomb in 1837. Perring indicated the tomb on the frontispiece map in Vyse “Operations Carried On At Gizeh Vol. 1″ and also in greater detail on the map in his own work “The Pyramids Of Gizeh From Actual Survey And Admeasurement” published in parts between 1839-42. The only written record I have been able to locate is Vyse’s entry for the 3rd May 1837 (see “Operations Vol.1″ page 238).

When I visited the tomb in March and April 2008 I noted a number of rectangular niches cut in the walls The niches suggested that the tomb had been used at some point for sacred animal burials so on my return to England I examined the Egypt Exploration Society publication “The Falcon Complex and Catacomb – The Archaeological Report” (part of the Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara) for the purpose of making comparisons. I came to the conclusion then that the tomb likely dated from the late or greco-roman period and had been used for sacred animal burials. To try to obtain further confirmation I contacted Dr. Salima Ikram, asking if she knew where the animal necropolises (for cats and raptors) believed to exist at Giza were. Dr. Ikram replied that only a few mummies were found and the precise location is unknown as it was in an early 19th century traveller’s account. I cannot help wondering if Dr. Ikram was thinking of Vyse given his journal account, but it is interesting to think that the ‘lost’ animal necropolis might have been relocated.

Dr. Hawass writes that Mr. Collins and I thought we were the first to fully explore the tomb. Neither Mr. Collins or myself have ever made such a claim. Dr. Hawass writes that the tomb has been explored and reported by many scholars yet I cannot find a single reference to the tomb in the Porter and Moss reference cited above. The only references I have found are in the works of Salt, Vyse and Perring. I was unable to find any mention of the tomb in Lepsius, Reisner (published), or Junker to name but three of the major expeditions that have worked in the Western Cemetery. I would still very much like to hear of other references to the tomb.

Mr. Collins and I were in no doubt that the front part of the tomb has been visited in modern times for the reasons cited by Dr. Hawass. What was in doubt and the cause of our interest was the extent to which the rear or “cave” section of the tomb has been examined in modern times given the extremely unpleasant environment within, and that there appears to be a possible continuation at the furthest point reached.

In April 2009, Mr. Collins personally gave Dr. Hawass a fully referenced report written by Mr. Collins and myself which contained Salt’s account, Vyse’s account, extracts from Perring’s folio plan, Salt’s plan, overhead photography, and even a plan from Porter and Moss to show how cemetery G1600 could not be the location described by Salt. Mr. Collins also gave Dr. Hawass a number of photographs. Dr. Hawass said to Mr. Collins that the tomb was known and that he would email him details of the relevant reports. No details were received after that contact. I understand that Mr. Collins emailed Dr. Hawass on two further occasions requesting the information but received no reply.

It should be clear from the above that standard resources were consulted. From what Dr. Hawass has written about the tomb being reported by many scholars and from what he said to Mr. Collins it would seem that he was in a position to provide academic references for the tomb but for whatever reason he chose not to do so which is regrettable.


Nigel Skinner-Simpson, Andrew Collins

Further reading

Abbas, el-Sayed, Shaaban and Abdel-Hafez, “Uncovering The Pyramids—Giza Plateau In A Search For Archaeological Relics By Utilizing Ground Penetrating Radar” NJG, Special Issue 2006, pp. 1-16.

Collins, Andrew, Beneath the Pyramids, Fourth Dimension Press, Virginia Beach, VA, 2009.

Collins and Skinner-Simpson, “The Giza Catacombs—A Possible Entrance Identified,” pre-publication, 2008.

Halls Esq., J. J., The Life And Correspondence of Henry Salt, Richard Bentley, London, 1834.

Ikram, Salima, Divine Creatures, Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt, American University, Cairo, 2005.

Perring, John Shae, The Pyramids of Gizeh, from Actual Survey and Admeasurement. Illustrated by notes and references to the several plans, with sketches taken on the spot, by E. J. Andrews, 3 parts in one vol., James Fraser, London, 1839-42.

Smith, H.S., and S. Davies, The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara: The Falcon Complex and Catacomb: The Archaeological Report, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2005.

Usick, Patricia, and Deborah Manley, The Sphinx Revealed—A Forgotten Record of Pioneering Excavations, British Museum Press, London, 2007.

Vyse, Col. R.W. Howard, Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837, 3 vols., James Fraser, London, 1840.

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