Redating the Sphinx: Archaeological Criticisms

by David P. Billington, Jr.

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Scholars specializing in the archaeology and culture of ancient Egypt reacted skeptically to the claim of an earlier Sphinx.[1] There is no clear textual evidence linking the Sphinx to Khafra. But in several articles and other publications, several scholars presented indirect evidence and arguments in favor of Khafra as the builder and attacked the case for redating the monument to late prehistory. These scholars did not agree with each other on important details, but all tried to affirm a Fourth Dynasty origin of the Sphinx.

The Khafra and Old Kingdom Context

After the 1993 "Mystery of the Sphinx" program, the two leading authorities on the Sphinx, Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner, wrote several articles in response. These pointed to architectural and other artifactual evidence linking the monument and its temples to the rest of the Giza site and to the period of the Fourth Dynasty. Hawass and Lehner also cited Gauri's argument to explain the erosion observed by Schoch and West.

Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner, "The Sphinx: Who Built It and Why?" Archaeology, Vol. 47, No. 5 (September/October 1994), pp. 30-41.

Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner "Remnants of a Lost Civilization?" Archaeology, Vol. 47, No. 5 (September/October 1994), pp. 44-47.

Dr. Zahi Hawass supervises the Giza monuments as Egypt's Under-Secretary of State for Antiquities. Dr. Mark Lehner is now the director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The authors pointed to architectural evidence that connects the Sphinx to the Khafra funerary complex. The core blocks of the Sphinx Temple have horizontal stratification lines or bands identical to the Member II bedrock of the Sphinx enclosure and it is likely that the temple was built of blocks excavated from the enclosure. The Sphinx and Sphinx Temple therefore date from the same time. The source of the blocks used to build the Khafra Valley Temple is not clear. However, the Sphinx Temple and the Khafra Valley Temple both rest on the same excavated level below the enclosure floor.

The southern wall of the Sphinx enclosure follows the Khafra Causeway and suggests (from the oblique angle of the southern wall) that excavation of the enclosure occurred after the causeway had been built or laid out. The causeway connects the Khafra Valley Temple to the Khafra Mortuary Temple on the east side of the Khafra Pyramid. The Mortuary Temple divides into a western half and an eastern half, and the western half has a center court nearly identical to the center court of the Sphinx Temple.

Recent archaeological excavation in the Sphinx enclosure has also pointed to a Fourth Dynasty origin. Some Old Kingdom pottery fragments were found under a core block that was abandoned before its placement in the Sphinx Temple, and other Old Kingdom remains were found inside the enclosure in places only recently cleared.

In their article, Hawass and Lehner were not certain that the original Sphinx was fully covered with facing stones. In other publications, Hawass took the view that the Sphinx was covered with facing stone at the time of its original carving, while Lehner argued that any masonry blocks of Old Kingdom origin may have been taken from the Khafra Causeway and re-used to cover the Sphinx in the New Kingdom. In their joint article, the two authors seem to have compromised, acknowledging (on page 38) that the body may have had facing stone applied at the time of its original carving, but adding that the extent of the facing was unclear.

The Sphinx site was abandoned before work on the northern terrace wall was complete. Hawass and Lehner pointed to a section of the northern terrace wall inside the enclosure (east of the major fissure) that appears to have been flattened so that the workmen could isolate humps for later removal.

In their second article, responding more directly to the "Mystery of the Sphinx" program, Hawass and Lehner pointed out that no archaeological evidence exists of a civilization in the Nile valley before 4000 BCE. The two authors restated Gauri's argument that salt exfoliation from daily atmospheric condensation was the principal mechanism that weathered the Sphinx and its enclosure walls. The authors traced rock faces outside the Sphinx enclosure to argue that Debehen's Tomb belonged to a higher and more durable layer of bedrock. They also observed that the western wall of the Sphinx enclosure was as eroded as the southern wall, which in their view was inconsistent with the claim that the rear of the enclosure was excavated later than the front and sides.

Robert M. Schoch, Letter to the Editor, Archaeology, (January-February 1995), pp. 10-12.

In a response to Hawass and Lehner, Schoch noted that the television program did not contain the more complete information and argument in his published work. It was not the western wall as shown in the "Mystery of the Sphinx" program but the terrace shelf below it that Schoch believed Khafra had cut back to make room for the passage behind the Sphinx.

Schoch pointed out that Gauri's explanation of salt exfoliation did not account for the lateral distribution of weathering in the enclosure, in which the western wall and the western portion of the southern wall were more heavily eroded than the eastern portion of the southern wall. Runoff from the plateau to the west was a better explanation of this erosion.

Mark Lehner, "Notes and Photographs on the West-Schoch Sphinx Hypothesis," KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Fall 1994), pp. 40-48.

In a follow-up article in KMT, Lehner faulted Schoch and West for not taking into account relevant archaeological scholarship on Giza and for not properly identifying or documenting other examples of tombs and structures that they cited as evidence of unweathered rock. In the "Mystery of the Sphinx" program, for example, West cited an unidentified First Dynasty mastaba (tomb) at Saqqara, near Giza. The mastaba was a mud-brick structure that should have washed away if significant amounts of rain had fallen on Giza in the third millennium BCE. Lehner pointed out that the mastaba may have been one over which a later tomb had been built, protecting it until its excavation in the twentieth century.

Lehner disputed an earlier date for the Khafra Valley Temple, arguing that the granite facing stone in the temple was not a later addition to already-eroded limestone walls. The Menkaura Mortuary Temple has evidence of limestone core blocks and granite facing in which the process of setting both the core block and facing was incomplete. Lehner argued that the Egyptians typically set the granite and the limestone blocks at the same time.

John Anthony West, Letter to the Editor, KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 3-6.

In a letter to KMT, West observed that the attribution of the Sphinx to Khafra is circumstantial. West mentioned several Old Kingdom tombs at Giza by name as examples that should display more weathering if the same forces acted on them as acted on the Sphinx.

Responding to the continued controversy over Debehen's Tomb, West cited a BBC Timewatch documentary on the age of the Sphinx, broadcast on November 27, 1994. The documentary cited an Egyptian geologist, not identified on the program, who gave the BBC his opinion that the rock face of Debehen's Tomb was comparable to the rock in the Sphinx enclosure. West identified the geologist, a former official with the Egyptian Geological Survey.

Zahi Hawass, The Secrets of the Sphinx: Restoration Past and Present (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998), 34 pp.

In a 1998 booklet on the restoration history of the Sphinx, Dr. Hawass observed that his workers had found unweathered rock at the base of the Sphinx after removing a large facing block that had protected the stone for millennia:

"At the very base of the Sphinx," he wrote (page 10), "where we have been able to examine the mother rock closely, there are extremely large Tura-quality limestone blocks that cover the bedrock and form a casing. Since the hard part of the mother rock could not have weathered after the casing was applied, its rough surface underneath these large blocks must have been left as we see it by the original Sphinx builders."

Hawass did not identify or illustrate the location of this rock, although he seemed to refer to the Member I rock along a rear side of the monument. If concealed by the casing stone, the unweathered body rock would not have been visible to Lehner during his 1979 survey and would be evidence that the monument was at least partially faced at the time of its original carving. Hawass identified the facing stone as well as the body rock with the Old Kingdom (page 12).

Hawass also devoted several pages to restating his criticism of West and Schoch. In the second half of his booklet, and on his website, Dr. Hawass described the restoration history of the Sphinx.

The Giza Radiocarbon Studies

Radiological findings at Giza in the 1980s and 1990s, although not conclusive for the Sphinx site, have a bearing on the possible age of the monument. Surprisingly, neither side in the Sphinx controversy brought these findings into the debate.

Herbert Haas, James Devine, Robert Wenke, Mark Lehner, Willy Wolfli, and Georg Bonani, "Radiocarbon chronology and the historical calendar in Egypt," in Chronologies du Proche Orient/Chronologies in the Near East, eds. Olivier Aurenche, Jacques Evin, Francis Hours, BAR International Series, 379 (ii) (Oxford, 1987), pp. 585-606.

In 1984, a team of scholars gathered mortar samples from stone structures at Giza for a radiocarbon dating survey. The 1987 report of the survey found a significant discrepancy between the conventional dates of the Giza pyramids and the dates found by radiocarbon testing. On average, the structures at Giza were found to be about four centuries older than their conventional dates. Two samples taken from the mortar of the Sphinx Temple gave radiocarbon dates of 2746 BCE (+/- 171 years) and 2085 BCE (+/- 314 years). These dates were anomalous and received no publicity at the time. They prompted survey members to return in 1995 to gather samples for a second survey.

Robert Wenke, et. al., "Dating the Pyramids," Archaeology, Vol. 52, No. 5 (September-October 1999), pp. 26-33.

Georges Bonani, Herbert Haas, Zahi Hawass, Mark Lehner, Shawki Nakhla, John Nolan, Robert Wenke, and Willy Wolfli, "Radiocarbon Dates of Old and Middle Kingdom Monuments in Egypt," Radiocarbon, Vol. 43, No. 3 (2001), pp. 1297-1320.

Mark Lehner, "How Old are the Pyramids?" Ancient Egypt Research Associates, 2005.

The second survey, reported in 1999 and more fully in 2001, found on average that the Giza structures were only two centuries older than their conventional dates. The authors of the second survey attributed the older dates to the Egyptian use of "old wood" (or recycled wood) in the charcoal used to make the mortar for the structures. The younger sample dates were not explained. The 1995 survey took no new samples from the Sphinx Temple.

The original samples from the Sphinx Temple may have been later intrusions and cannot rule out a pre-Khafra date. But none of the dates for the Sphinx Temple or for Giza as a whole corroborate a prehistoric age.


1. For newspaper reports of scholarly reaction, see The Los Angeles Times, 23 October 1991, p. A18; The Boston Globe, 23 October 1991, p. 8; and The New York Times, 9 February 1992, p. 16.

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