Redating the Sphinx: Tentative Conclusions

by David P. Billington, Jr.

Page 11 of 12
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John Anthony West and Robert Schoch first made their case for an older Sphinx in 1992, and their 1993 television presentation has appeared from time to time since then in reruns. Colin Reader's case has received more limited publicity since 1998. Technical debate over the age of the Sphinx peaked in 2000-2001, although discussion has continued in various online forums.

Some tentative conclusions are now possible:

Geology. The case for an older Sphinx rests primarily on geological evidence that calls into question the traditional chronology of the site. Erosion of the statue most likely took place in the open during periods of neglect. The only extended period of such exposure occurred before the current arid regime set in, c. 2100 BCE. If the Sphinx was carved in 2500 BCE, nearly all of the erosion occurred in the four centuries that followed.

The Sphinx does not show the depth of erosion that can be seen on the opposite southern or western enclosure walls. This fact might be explained if the monument had been faced with protective stone during periods when it was maintained. But the enclosure walls are more deeply eroded in the western half of the enclosure than in the eastern half, and the eastern walls were not faced.

The discrepancy in the erosion of the walls does not appear to be explained by an unequal distribution of fractures (although the distribution needs further study), nor by other natural differences in the rock. Nor does any atmospheric cause seem the likely reason; in such a small area, atmospheric forces should have acted on all of the rock in the same way. Surface runoff from the west would seem to be implicated, and the excavations to the west make it unlikely that runoff entered the enclosure after Khafra. The enclosure walls seem to point to excavation of the enclosure some time before excavation of the quarries to the west.

Proponents of an earlier Sphinx are divided, though, over how early the Sphinx was excavated. Reader dates the Sphinx to the period of earliest known Egyptian building in stone. A prehistoric date rests primarily on the subsurface results that Schoch obtained. To evaluate the latter, the north-south dip of the plateau at the site needs to be established, although Schoch's findings will likely remain in dispute until core samples determine whether the subsurface rock is in fact weathered.

Archaeology. In contrast to the geology, archaeology and architecture tend to support the traditional date. The present head of the statue is clearly Dynastic and the idea that it was recarved is open to doubt. The existence of a wall along the north side of the Khafra Valley Temple is not beyond question but the remains of a wall along the south side of the temple imply that a northern enclosure wall was intended, if not built. The Sphinx Temple and thus the Sphinx are unlikely to have predated the Khafra Valley Temple if an enclosure wall originally surrounded (or was intended to surround) the latter.

The three large Giza Pyramids have been dated by radiocarbon evidence to the third millennium BCE, and the arguments for disaggregating and backdating the Khafra temples and the causeway are not as strong as the case for backdating the Sphinx and its enclosure. A prehistoric social context is not as distant from Giza as once thought, but major stoneworking by prehistoric Egyptians has yet to be confirmed.

Larger Meanings. At present, a pre-Old Kingdom date for the Sphinx seems unlikely to be accepted by mainstream scholars unless (1) there is greater consensus among geologists that the enclosure and its subsurface cannot be reconciled with the conventional dates of their exposure, or (2) evidence emerges of a stone-building culture nearby in the time period claimed for the monument. John Anthony West has pledged to return to the site with a panel of geologists to examine more closely the findings of Schoch and Reader and the arguments of their critics. Zahi Hawass has offered to appoint some members of the panel to lend it mainstream credibility. It is to be hoped that this panel can be formed and funded to carry out its work before too much longer.

West's original motive for investigating an earlier Sphinx was to provoke scholars to consider the intangible aspects of ancient Egypt in a different light. Schwaller de Lubicz was attacked for superimposing his own ideas on Egyptian remains, but he claimed only to have rediscovered Pythagorean relationships encoded in Egyptian architecture and art, and classical legend attributed Pythagorean knowledge to Egypt. Pythagorean legend also ascribed mystical as well as mathematical meanings to this knowledge, and Schwaller argued that to know ancient Egypt required understanding both.

West believed that evidence of a prehistoric culture capable of building large stone monuments, if it could be proved, would create a new openness to unconventional interpretations of Egyptian thought. West's efforts to backdate the Sphinx are thus not without irony, for in order to make a case for seeing the intangible side of Egyptian culture in a new way, he has invoked one of the hardest of material sciences, geology.

The Sphinx age controversy has been an unwelcome distraction to mainstream scholars. However, it has focused attention on the geological and environmental history of the monument, which has been neglected by conservation research focused on present-day conditions. Protecting the monuments at Giza is an urgent world priority and the mechanisms causing deterioration in the past as well as in the present must be understood. If the Sphinx and other endangered monuments still possess any undiscovered knowledge, we need to recover it while there is still time.

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