National Geographic
Emerging Explorer

Yukinori Kawae

Archaeologist and Egyptologist

Picture of Yukinori Kawae

Photograph by Hiromichi Matono

Using modern technology to examine ancient mysteries in Egypt’s pyramids

A TV documentary inspired a young Yukinori Kawae to become an archaeologist; now he is the one on screen, appearing in Japanese programs and giving talks about Egyptian archaeology and the history of ancient Egypt.

Working with the nonprofit Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) and the Czech Institute of Egyptology, and at Nagoya University, Kawae is leading an interdisciplinary approach to archaeology that incorporates computer science, 3D data surveys, and other new technology to help decode the mysteries of how and why the monuments were built.

Kawae recently published Excavating the Pyramid Town, the first book in Japanese about AERA’s excavations and survey work at the Giza Plateau. The book addresses three longstanding questions about the Giza Pyramids: who built them, how did they do it, and why? He hopes that his book, and his work, will help inspire Japanese interest in Egypt. —By Christina Nunez

“More than 30 years later, I’m now studying strange unexplored spaces in the Great Pyramid—not just to the west, but across the monument. So I’m facing the questions Jean-Patrice Goidin and Gilles Dormion presented.”

—Yukinori Kawae

How did you become interested in Egypt and archaeology?

When I was a junior high school student, I watched a TV documentary in Japanese about the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Two French architects, Jean-Patrice Goidin and Gilles Dormion, mentioned on the program that it’s very strange that all the known chambers and corridors of the Great Pyramid are not distributed on the north-south center line but off to the east. They believed there must be a hidden space to the west.

More than 30 years later, I’m now studying strange unexplored spaces in the Great Pyramid—not just to the west, but across the monument. So I’m facing the questions Jean-Patrice Goidin and Gilles Dormion presented. It is a curious turn of fate for me.


How did you then become an archaeologist?

When I was a high school student, I learned hieroglyphics and ancient Egyptian history, but it was a bit boring for a high school student [laughs]. I moved after high school to Egypt because I wanted to physically see the monuments—not just on TV, not from a book. At first I wanted to go just as a backpacker, but then I began working as a tour guide to make a living. After that I had an opportunity to get a scholarship at the American University in Cairo [and get a B.A. in Egyptology].


That’s remarkable. You moved there straight out of high school? Not speaking Arabic?

Yes. When I talked to my parents about it, my parents said OK, just go. They didn’t know about Egypt at all, but they just said, if you want, you can go. It’s very fortunate for me that my parents never said no. I really appreciate their decision.

I did learn Arabic, but my Arabic is still not so good. I can communicate with people, of course, but my Arabic is poor.

Picture of Yukinori Kawae

Photograph by Manami Yahata

What do you think 3D surveys can help us learn that we don’t already know?

The most important thing is to separate data acquisition from data interpretation. Archaeology traditionally has used line drawing to document sites. But line drawing is actually archaeological interpretation, not raw data. Of course we need both, but I think we should not mix them up.


What do you see for yourself in the next few years?

I still want to continue to collect 3D data from the Old Kingdom pyramids and make it available on the Internet for everybody—not just for archaeological people, not just in books.

My team takes a multidisciplinary approach. I have been collaborating with computer scientists and mathematicians for the acquisition of 3D geometric data. Now I want to start collaborating with physical scientists to get information about inside the pyramids. From the outside, I want to get information about the surface of the pyramids using 3D surveys. From the inside, I want to explore the structure and degree of density of blocks using muography [a noninvasive technique that uses radiology to detect muons, or cosmic particles, to see inside the pyramids.] It’s state-of-the-art technology that’s very new in the field of Egyptology.


Who, or what, has influenced you?

I learned a lot from Dr. Mark Lehner, the director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates. I studied Egyptology at university, but Egyptology is actually different from archaeology. I studied hieroglyphics, but never learned how to excavate, or how to record the monuments, at university. I learned almost everything about archaeology from him and from his team.

Also I’ve been strongly influenced by Master Shogen Okabayashi, the founder of Hakuho-ryu Aiki Budo, a classic Japanese martial art. I’ve practiced martial arts since I was 15 years old. I always try to achieve a balance between cultural and martial arts. It’s a way of surviving lightly. He taught us that we should take each step lightly, with balance, guided in the moment by what we are passionate about.

And finally, of course, my parents. They always gave me love and generosity. They always had confidence in me.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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