Redating the Sphinx: Reflections on the Archaeology

by David P. Billington, Jr.

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The architectural and archaeological evidence for the age of the Sphinx is not conclusive either. But unlike the geology, it supports the conventional date of the monument.

The age of the facing stones. The controversy over the age of the Sphinx began with some uncertainty about the date of its earliest facing stones. Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass disagreed in separate publications over whether the Sphinx was covered with protective stone blocks at the time of its original carving, and in their joint writings they have not resolved their disagreement.

However, the views of both scholars might be reconciled. The existence of unweathered stone at the base of the monument, behind intact facing stone, supports the view of Hawass that the Sphinx builders protected the original monument with facing stone blocks. Ancient facing stone on the Sphinx tended to fall down during periods of neglect, though, exposing the weaker Member II strata. The stone blocks could have been re-applied to the monument during the New Kingdom, as Lehner described.

The Sphinx and Sphinx Temple. The original Sphinx and Sphinx Temple have been correlated to the same time because the stone to build the temple is similar in its horizontal banding to the limestone within the Sphinx enclosure. Strictly speaking, the horizontal banding does not exclude a source of similar limestone outside the enclosure, but it is not likely that the Egyptians would have built the temple from Member II stone quarried elsewhere. The original Sphinx and Sphinx Temple thus almost certainly date from the same time.

The alignment of the southern enclosure wall to the Khafra Causeway, and the integration of the causeway to the Khafra Valley Temple, further suggest that both Khafra structures preceded the Sphinx. This precedence is, however, disputed.

The Khafra Valley Temple enclosure wall. Reader accepted the Khafra Valley Temple as an Old Kingdom structure. His architectural case for an earlier Sphinx hinged on his view that the building of the Khafra Valley Temple could be reconciled with an interval of several centuries between the two stages in the building of the Sphinx Temple. The leading authority on the Sphinx Temple, Herbert Ricke, argued that a low-lying enclosure wall a fixed distance from the Khafra Valley Temple originally surrounded the temple, and that the Sphinx Temple was built only after a decision to dismantle or build over the enclosure wall's northern perimeter.[1]

There are two questions about this wall. The first is whether the remains on the south side of the Khafra Valley Temple are sufficiently complete to indicate the existence of an enclosure wall on that side. The second question is whether there is evidence to indicate that a wall originally enclosed the northern side, and if so, where.

The remains identified as a low enclosure wall on the south side of the Valley Temple (photographed here) are not complete. A section of wall parallel (and equal in length) to the south side of the temple stands. As the southwest corner turns north, there is a gap between the wall and the temple. As the southeast corner turns north, it falls short of the stone terrace in front of the temple. Taking account of missing links, however, the surviving remains on the south side seem sufficient to indicate that the Egyptians intended to build a low-lying wall on the south side and did so.

The remains of a northern enclosure wall are far less clear. Foundation stone exists at what could have been its northeast corner that resembles the stonework of the southeast corner. But a stone tentatively identified with a northwest corner (in the passageway between the Sphinx Temple and the Khafra Valley Temple) is too far to the east to be at a position symmetrical to the southwest corner. The present south wall of the Sphinx Temple may rest on the foundation track of a northern enclosure wall, but this track is not now visible.

Ricke did not overlay the location he gave to the enclosure wall on the northern side with either of the two stages that he identified in the construction of the Sphinx Temple. From his diagrams, however, it would appear that if a northeast corner of the enclosure wall was at a position symmetric to the southeast corner, it would have intercepted the southeast corner of the first-stage Sphinx Temple or would have been too close to make construction sense if the temple already existed (Fig. 10.1 below).[2]

Fig. 10.1. The plan of the Sphinx Temple, showing the extensions of the southern and northern walls from the original first-stage structure. Source: Herbert Ricke, "Der Harmachistempel des Chephren in Giseh," Beitraege zur Aegyptischen Bauforschung und Altertumskunde, Vol. 10 (Wiesbaden, 1970), p. 17. Inferred northeast corner of Khafra enclosure wall (in green) added.

If it was built, an enclosure wall on the northern side of the Khafra Valley Temple may not have had an angle exactly symmetric to the wall on the southern side. The north wall of the Valley Temple followed the oblique angle of the Khafra Causeway, and an enclosure wall along the north side of the temple might have followed this angle. But if a northern enclosure wall did so, or merely stood the same distance from the Khafra Valley Temple as the surviving southern enclosure wall, then it is unlikely that an earlier Sphinx Temple could have existed. It may also be asked if the Egyptians would have begun an enclosure wall on the south side of the temple unless there was space to complete it on the north side. The evidence for a northern enclosure wall needs, however, to be studied more thoroughly.

The larger Khafra context. A more direct question is the absolute date of the Khafra Valley Temple and the other Khafra structures. A multitude of radiocarbon samples taken from the Khafra Pyramid date the superstructure to the third millennium.[3] But the Khafra Mortuary and Valley Temples were not sampled for radiocarbon analysis, and proponents of an older Sphinx have proposed earlier dates for both. Colin Reader proposed that part of the Mortuary Temple may be older, and Robert Schoch agreed and suggested that the limestone of the Valley Temple may also be older.

The Mortuary Temple. Reader argued that the megalithic western portion of the Khafra Mortuary Temple may be Early Dynastic. The builders of the Khafra Pyramid had some range of freedom to site the foundations of the pyramid, since there is evidence that they cut part of the plateau to create a level surface. It is not therefore an improbable coincidence that they could have aligned the midpoint of the east face of the pyramid to a preexisting temple. But the Khufu Mortuary Temple is situated at the midpoint of the east face of the Khufu Pyramid, and Khufu presumably did not have the Khafra Pyramid as an example to follow for combining a pyramid and mortuary temple in this way. Although the Khafra Pyramid could have aligned to a preexisting temple, the pyramid sequence suggests alternatively that Khafra followed the example of Khufu in building a pyramid and then attaching his mortuary temple (both sections) at the midpoint of its eastern face.

The Valley Temple. The discovery of Khafra statues buried inside the Valley Temple is evidence that Khafra used the temple. Schoch believed that the limestone blocks in the temple formed an earlier core structure to which granite facing was added later by Khafra, who in Schoch's view renovated and re-used the structure. The temple was partly rebuilt after its modern excavation and much of the stone was put back in places from which it is believed to have fallen down. But if doorways with heavy limestone blocks above granite lintels are original, then it is unlikely that the granite was part of a later stage in the temple's construction. This evidence would not conclusively rule out an earlier date for both, but it would suggest that the temple needs to be considered as a whole.

The Khafra Causeway. The oblique angle of the southern wall of the Sphinx enclosure follows the Khafra Causeway and the argument for dating the Sphinx to Khafra assumes that the causeway preceded the Sphinx and thus dictated the angle of the southern wall. Rainer Stadelmann pointed out that the causeway could have followed an oblique angle because the Sphinx already existed and blocked a path more directly eastward. However, as part of his argument for dating the Sphinx to Khufu, Stadelmann accepted the conventional explanation of the causeway as a channel to convey the dead king's sarcophagus to his pyramid.[4]

Reader argued instead that the causeway (or an earlier pathway along its course) connected a space now occupied by the Khafra Valley Temple to an earlier portion of the Khafra Mortuary Temple. In Reader's view, the topography favored siting the latter to the northwest rather than due west of the Sphinx, giving a path to it an oblique angle.

Reader also pointed out that to be available for Khafra to use, the foundation of the causeway had to have survived the quarrying activity of Khufu on either side of it. Reader observed that the survival of the causeway ridge is unlikely to have been the accident that the conventional chronology requires it to have been. If Khufu had assembled his pyramid with a ramp extending from its south face, the ramp would have covered the western half of this foundation. Khufu also excavated a quarry north of the eastern half of the causeway (see Fig. 6.4) but it may have been Khafra who worked the quarry as far as the causeway itself. As a result, an irregular shelf of the plateau sufficient to carry the causeway in a straight line might have survived these operations by accident and might have been trimmed to its present shape by Khafra. But the survival of this shelf would still have been a remarkable coincidence and its survival by accident may certainly be questioned. Since Khufu's oldest son, Djedefra, did not build his pyramid at Giza, the existence of a Giza master plan is unclear.

The Sphinx head. The strongest artistic evidence dating the Sphinx is the headcloth on the statue, which clearly belongs to the Dynastic period, although there is some uncertainty as to which reign. The disproportion between the size of the head and the size of the body has been explained by the major fissure on the back, which could have caused the builders to extend the length of the statue so as to provide a larger and more stable mass to form its rear portion. However, in a 2008 documentary broadcast on British Channel 5, The Secrets of Egypt, Colin Reader argues with the support of a historical architect, Dr. Jonathan Foyle, that the disporportion between head and body is better explained by an originally larger head, that of a lioness. Dr. Foyle observes that the builders could have filled in the major fissure on the back of the Sphinx without having to extend the body as far back.

Critics of a recarved head have argued that recarving should have left a less weathered halo on the body to show the younger exposure. The elevation of the neck (above the sand level) would have exposed it to continuous erosion by wind-blown sand over the last 4500 years, and it is possible that a younger neck could have weathered to the same condition as an older main body. But a larger head would have covered part of the back of the Sphinx as well, and shifting sands would have eroded older and younger exposed surfaces on the back equally, presumably leaving a halo of difference intact. Whether the current headcloth on the Sphinx could have been contained in the head of a lion or lioness is also not clear. However, the reason for the head/body disproportion has not been settled.

John Anthony West and Detective Frank Domingo made a case that the jaw of the Sphinx differs from the jaw of the Khafra statue in the Cairo Museum. Whether this difference is merely one of perspective has been debated, but for Domingo's findings to be definitively challenged would require a contrary forensic analysis by another expert that has not occurred. An important question is whether there are other representations of Khafra with which the Sphinx head should also be compared. Available heads of Djedefra should also be examined to see if the Sphinx could represent him.

One final question about Giza is whether the present top surfaces of the Sphinx enclosure walls were as high as the original plateau. The Sphinx head may have been an outcrop above the plateau. But if the elevation of the plateau originally rose as high as the head, the case for dating the monument to a time prior to the more extensive excavations at Giza during the Fourth Dynasty would be much less plausible. It appears that the original elevation of the plateau around the Sphinx was no higher than the elevation of the present causeway.

Civilizational context. West and Schoch have been asked for evidence of a civilization in Egypt in late prehistoric times. West has suggested that a number of monuments in other parts of Egypt may be prehistoric, such as a lower level of stonework inside the Red Pyramid that appears to show water weathering indicative of an earlier core structure. These cases deserve closer study, but they would seem to imply a level of civilized life for which evidence in prehistoric times is otherwise lacking.

Two notes of caution are in order. First, it is not necessary to assume that only an advanced society with a high degree of centralization could have built the Sphinx. The society of Neolithic Britain did not have a complex social order but was nevertheless capable of hauling megalithic stones over long distances to build Stonehenge. A highly centralized civilization may not have been necessary to produce large monuments.

Second, there is a great deal that we still do not know about the origins of Egyptian civilization. Much of what remains of Predynastic and Neolithic Egypt may still be under Nile alluvium, particularly in the north.[5] About 100 km west of Abu Simbel is a stone calendar circle at Nabta Playa that dates to about 5000 BCE.[6] The stones at Nabta are only six feet tall and cannot be compared with the Sphinx and its temples in scale or worksmanship. But they are part of an emerging picture of a prehistoric culture that existed in what is now the Sahara desert to the west and south.[7] There is also recent evidence of larger Neolithic settlement (although not stonebuilding) in the Faiyum region just south of Giza.[8] A pattern of settled and semi-settled life appears to have existed in late prehistoric times closer to Giza than previously believed. However, it does not appear that the people of these times worked stone on a large scale. The problem of context does not arise for Reader's dating, which places the Sphinx in the Early Dynastic period.


1. For his outline of the enclosure wall, see Herbert Ricke, "Der Harmachistempel des Chephren in Giseh," Beitraege zur Aegyptischen Bauforschung und Altertumskunde, Vol. 10 (Wiesbaden, 1970), p. 5 and also pp. 4-6. Enclosure walls around other tombs and temples often did not enclose the space in back, only the sides and front. The enclosed space in front often varied in size but the space on each side was normally symmetrical. Ricke gave an outline of the Khafra temple enclosure wall with its north side at an oblique angle parallel to the finished Khafra Valley Temple. But other representations of the northeast corner of the wall show it as a right angle, symmetric to the southeast corner. See Mark Lehner, "The Sphinx," in Zahi Hawass, ed., The Treasures of the Pyramids (Vercelli, Italy: Barnes and Noble/White Star, 2003), pp. 176-177.

2. For diagrams of the first and second stages, see Herbert Ricke, "Der Harmachistempel des Chephren in Giseh," pp. 11, 17.

3. However, it should be noted that the second 1995 radiocarbon survey did not present its results in the terms of the 1984 study, so the results are not easily compared. West has proposed that the base of the Khafra Pyramid might be older than the superstructure but a case for redating the base needs to be developed.

4. See again Rainer Stadelmann, "The Great Sphinx of Giza," in Zahi Hawass, ed., Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century: Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists, Cairo, 2000 (American University in Cairo Press, Cairo and New York, 2003), pp. 464-469.

5. Kathryn A. Bard, "The Egyptian Predynastic: A Review of the Evidence," Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Fall 1994), pp. 265-288.

6. F. Wendorf and R. Schild, "Nabta Playa and its role in northeastern African prehistory," Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Vol. 17 (1998), pp. 97-123. For a summary, see also F. Wendorf et al., "Megaliths and neolithic astronomy in southern Egypt," Nature, No. 392 (1998), pp. 488-490.

7. Emma Young, "Pharaohs from the Stone Age," The New Scientist, Vol. No. 2586 (13 January 2007), pp. 5-9.

8. News reports on January 29, 2008, erroneously implied that the Neolithic settlement had evidence of limestone working. There will be further reports that describe more accurately what has been found. For a preliminary report, see here.

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