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'Google Earth pyramids' revisited

Google / DigitalGlobe / GeoEye

An intriguing site near an Egyptian town called Dimai consists of a large, square formation and smaller features.

Remember that researcher who thought she spotted previously undiscovered Egyptian pyramids in Google Earth imagery? It turns out that there really are some ruins in the picture, but they’re not pyramids.

That's the verdict of an Italian archaeologist who has been surveying the area around the present-day town of Dimai in Egypt's Fayoum Desert.

"The features in Google images are well-known since 1925, when they were surveyed by G. Caton-Thompson and E.W. Gardner," Paola Davoli, an Egyptologist at Italy's University of Salento and co-director of the Soknopaiou Nesos Project, told me in an email. "They are natural mounds surmounted by a building (the biggest one) and by dug wells (in the other cases). For sure they are not pyramids, but their date and use are still not known."

The Dimai formations have been a subject of interest for many years. "We [have] still not dug them, but they will be the objects of future study by the Soknopaiou Nesos Project," Davoli said.

For more than a decade, the project has been doing a territorial survey of the area around Dimai, which was known as Soknopaiou Nesos during the Greco-Roman period in Egypt. The city is thought to have been founded by Ptolemy II in the third century B.C., on a site that shows evidence of habitation going back to the Neolithic period. During its heyday, it was situated on the shore of a large freshwater lake, but the lake has shrunk and gone salty since ancient times.

Davoli said the prevailing view is that the structures might have been watchtowers, designed to look over "an agricultural area or a paleo-lake just in front of them to the east," or perhaps tombs.

Dan Billin, a former newspaper reporter in New Hampshire who turned us on to the Soknopaiou Nesos Project, cites multiple reports about the Dimai site. "Micol was correct to think that at least one of the anomalies she saw on Google Earth was a man-made feature," Billin wrote in an email. "What she didn't manage to discover, however, was that archaeologists already knew about it, and that it's surrounded by numerous other archaeological sites."

Bob Brier, an Egyptologist based at Long Island University's C.W. Post Campus, said in an email that Billin's evaluation of the site "sounds like a reasonable scenario."

Google Earth via Angela Micol

Several eroded features can be seen in this image of terrain about 12 miles from Abu Sidhum, a city on the Nile.

"Note, there is no mention of pyramids," Brier wrote.

The North Carolina researcher who started the fuss over the "Google Earth pyramids," Angela Micol, had pointed to another intriguing area of the Egyptian desert with four mounds and a large, triangular-shaped plateau, alongside the Nile in Upper Egypt, 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Abu Sidhum. The prevailing view is that those formations are not mounds or pyramids built by human hands, but are buttes carved by natural erosion.

Such formations are commonly seen in that part of the desert, James Harrell, professor emeritus of archaeological geology at the University of Toledo, told Life's Little Mysteries.

More mysteries from Egypt:

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.