Sep. 4, 2012 at 4:57 PM ET
The place that went viral last month as the potential site of a mysterious Egyptian pyramid looks more like a series of mounds on the surface of Mars when you see it up close. Three weeks after the Dimai archaeological site burst into the spotlight, it's become a lot less mysterious — but there are still secrets to uncover.
The site has been familiar to Egyptologists since the 1920s: It's thought to have been the locale for a desert settlement going back to Egypt's Ptolemaic era, when Greek and Roman influences were on the ascendance. Did these mounds serve as watchtowers, or tombs, or well sites? That's what the Soknopaiou Nesos Project wants to find out. One of the project's directors, Egyptologist Paola Davoli of Italy's University of Salento in Lecce, filled me in about the current state of her group's research last week.
"For sure they are not pyramids, but their date and use are still not known," she told me in an email.
Since last week's exchange, Davoli has sent me these pictures of the site, taken during a 2006 survey.
Davoli has also been in touch with Angela Micol, the North Carolina researcher who turned the spotlight on Dimai last month via her Google Earth Anomalies website. Based on the satellite imagery, Micol suggested that the mounds might represent eroded pyramids. The up-close pictures make the formations look more like piles of rocky rubble. The largest one appears to have the ruins of a square building or walls on its summit, but it'll take a full-blown excavation to unravel the mystery.
"Since the sites haven't been excavated so far, I don't see how anyone could say it's not a pyramid," Micol told me today. "The potential that it still is a pyramid is very plausible. I wouldn't throw it out."
However, Micol acknowledged that her experience is more in the line of architecture and scoping out satellite imagery for unusual features — which she said she's been doing for 10 years. "I really want to help archaeologists — that's my dream, that's my goal," she said. "I had no idea that this was going to go viral. I was shocked. I just wanted to help."
Now she's hoping to stay in contact with the experts on Egyptology, to find out more about Dimai as well as another site about 90 miles (144 kilometers) away, known as Abu Sidhum. Micol marveled over a triangle-shaped feature in the satellite imagery that she thought might represent the remnants of a pyramid. Geologists say the 190-meter-wide (625-foot-wide) feature at Abu Sidhum is merely a naturally formed butte, and one expert has been quoted as complaining that Micol appeared to be "one of the so-called 'pyridiots' who see pyramids everywhere."
Micol was stung by the criticism but still thinks the site is worth investigating further. "I'm not saying that it's artificial," she said. "I'm saying that we don't know."
She's been in contact with researchers in Egypt about the Abu Sidhum site — and she's hearing that there may be some follow-up reports on the way. "It's looking very good," she said.
In any case, there's a reason why they call it "ground truth": Checking the imagery from orbit may be a good way to find anomalies, but it takes closer inspection by experts on the scene to get at the truth behind the anomalies.
"There are still people that prefer to think that scientists do not want to say the truth on antiquities," Davoli observed in an email. What do you think? Do these pictures ease your mind about the Google Earth anomalies, or do you suspect that someone's hiding the truth? Feel free to let me know in your comments below.
More orbital anomalies:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.