Egypt's most celebrated archaeologist has challenged the tantalising claims of a BBC documentary airing tomorrow night that satellites have discovered 17 pyramids buried in the Nile Delta using infra-red technology.
"This is completely wrong information. Any archaeologist will deny this completely," Zahi Hawass, Egypt's minister of state for antiquities, said yesterday in an interview from Cairo.
American "space archaeologists" also say that their satellite survey of Egypt found more than 1,000 tombs and 3,000 ancient settlements, covered by countless layers of sediment deposited over the ages by Nile river floodwaters.
Robert Littman, an Egyptologist at the University of Hawaii and a member of the Governing Board of the Archaeological Institute of America, said the discoveries are highly significant.
"There are 138 known pyramids in Egypt plus these 17 more that have been discovered. That is increasing the number by 15 per cent overnight. It's huge," he said.
The space probe was led by Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama, whose pioneering work is being hailed as a revolutionary breakthrough in pinpointing archaeological sites for excavation.
Her team spent more than a year poring over Nasa and commercial satellite imagery of Egypt's Nile Delta.
Some of the infra-red imagery, taken 690 kilometres above Earth, shows the ghostly outlines of entire street plans of ancient towns.
"All of a sudden, these images jump out at you," Ms Parcak told reporters. "It's almost like you've got Superman or Superwoman X-ray vision and you're able to look at the world a little differently."
In a BBC documentary, Egypt's Lost Cities, to be broadcast tomorrow night, she jokes: "Indiana Jones is old school, we've moved on from Indy … sorry Harrison Ford."
But Mr Hawass, a grizzled, charismatic figure in his mid-60s who himself sports a fedora-like hat and the sartorial style of Indiana Jones, vehemently disagrees.
"The only thing that can tell us the facts is excavation," he said.
Mr Hawass insists that he values the new technology, agreeing that it can reveal sites invisible at ground level.
Aerial photography led him to the landmark discovery several years ago of the tombs of the workers who built the great pyramids of Giza on the outskirts of Cairo. The resulting research showed that these labourers were well-treated peasants conscripted on a rotating, part-time basis, undermining Hollywood's stereotype of them as whip-driven slaves.
Experts say there is not much that can be spotted from a satellite that cannot be seen from an aeroplane. But satellites have the advantage of being able to survey remote areas that are costly and difficult for aircraft to reach.
The new technique will also help, among other things, to protect Egypt's antiquities from looters, archaeologists say.
Mr Hawass argues that his dispute is not with the technology, which he praises in the BBC documentary, but with what he maintains are premature conclusions the US team made from unverified satellite imagery.
"To announce the discovery of 17 pyramids shows how people are not careful enough … You have to wait for the conclusion to come from excavation," he said, speaking for the first time about the documentary to The National. Otherwise tombs or temples could be mistaken for pyramids, he added. "You have to be very careful in interpreting satellite imagery."
BBC cameras followed Ms Parcak, who admits to having been inspired by the mythical movie-hero Indiana Jones as a child, on her "nervous" journey when she travelled to Egypt to see if excavations could confirm what her technology appeared to show under the surface.
"To excavate a pyramid is the dream of every archaeologist," she said.
Ms Parcak has acknowledged that structures which look like pyramids from space could instead be elite tombs, and that excavation is the key to verifying her initial finds.
The BBC's website reported that initial trial excavations have already authenticated some of these, "including two suspected pyramids".
Mr Hawass said the space imagery had helped locate the base of only one previously unknown pyramid just south of Cairo. It is situated among three known pyramids near Saqqara, famed for its so-called "step" pyramids which predate the pyramids of Giza.
"We do not yet know who this pyramid was for. We have to excavate more," Mr Hawass said. "The idea of 17 newly discovered pyramids is completely wrong."
His reservations are unlikely to dampen Ms Parcak's enthusiasm. Her "Eureka" moment came not from sighting a potential pyramid but during the excavation of a 3,000-year-old house at Tanis, an archaeological site in the Nile Delta made famous in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones blockbuster.
"The structure matched the satellite imagery almost perfectly," Ms Parcak said. "That was real validation of the technology … I could step back and look at everything that we'd found and I couldn't believe we could locate so many sites all over Egypt."
On this point, Mr Hawass agrees fully with the "space archaeologists".
He has long said that only 30 per cent of Egypt's ancient treasures - from the pyramids to Luxor and the splendours of Tutankhamun's tomb - have yet been found.