Redating the Sphinx: The Sphinx Debate of 2000

by David P. Billington, Jr.

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In 1999, the writers Ian Lawton and Chris Ogilvie-Herald published Giza: The Truth, a skeptical examination of the main alternative claims about the history and archaeology of Giza. The book prompted an online debate over the Sphinx and related topics.

Ian Lawton and Chris Ogilvie-Herald, Giza: The Truth (London: Virgin Books, 1999), 573 pp. For the Sphinx, see pp. 292-320.

In the seventh chapter of their book, Lawton and Ogilvie-Herald gave their own summary of the evidence and arguments on each side of the Sphinx age controversy, concluding that the case for an earlier Sphinx was unproven. Given the uncertainty over rates of weathering, the authors observed, the diminished rainfall in historic times might have been sufficient to erode the monument and its walls. They also observed that if salt exfoliation could produce spheroidal weathering on exposed rock strata criss-crossed with fractures, rainfall might not be necessary to explain the features cited as the strongest evidence of runoff erosion.

West and Schoch had proposed that the Khafra Valley Temple was built in two stages: the first was a building of limestone core blocks contemporary with an earlier Sphinx, while the second under Khafra added granite facing stones. Lawton and Ogilvie-Herald observed on a visit to Giza, however, that granite lintels at several locations in the temple stood below very heavy limestone blocks, suggesting that the granite blocks were not added later but were part of the original walls.

In a first edition of their book, Lawton and Ogilvie-Herald were not aware of the findings of Colin Reader, who read their book and brought his views to their attention. A revised edition of Giza: The Truth took these into account, particularly the lateral difference in weathering that can be observed along the walls inside the enclosure. Although they continued to regard Giza as a Fourth Dynasty site, the authors concluded that the Sphinx might be older by a few centuries.

The Debate

Ian Lawton hosted an online debate in early 2000 between many of the principals in controversies over ancient Egypt. Three of the principals in the Sphinx controversy, Colin Reader, Robert Schoch, and James Harrell, joined Lawton and Ogilvie-Herald in a series of exchanges on Lawton's website (scroll down the linked page to "Age of the Sphinx"). Several other interested observers made smaller contributions.

Colin Reader, Khufu Knew the Sphinx (January 2000).

Colin Reader began the online debate by restating the views in his first paper on the Sphinx.

Robert M. Schoch, Comments (February 2000).

Schoch took the occasion to reply to criticisms of the previous six years. Against Gauri, Schoch cited Reader's examination of rock inside the enclosure to reinforce his earlier observation that differences in lateral weathering cannot be explained by salt exfoliation alone. Schoch also cited Coxill's article and disputed the claim that ancient and modern weathering conditions were essentially the same.

In response to Harrell, Schoch added that wet sand in the Sphinx enclosure, if it was a cause of erosion, should have eroded the toolmarks that can still be seen on the portals of the 26th Dynasty tombs cut into the western enclosure wall. Nor can wet sand account for the lateral intensification of weathering along the southern wall.

In reply to questions about the mechanisms that could have caused the subsurface rock to weather, Schoch clarified the nature of the subsurface weathering. He observed that the weathering had occurred from proximity to the air and not, as many had thought, from rain or from the upward seepage of ground or floodwater. The weathering involved changes in the mineralogical and petrological characteristics of the subsurface rock and could have continued under sand as well as when the floor was open.

In response to Reader's more conservative date, Schoch expressed doubt that the depth of erosion to the walls could have occurred in just a few centuries. Mudbrick mastabas at Saqqara that were unquestionably exposed to rain should have eroded if there was enough rain after 3000 BCE to erode the Sphinx enclosure. Schoch asked Reader to address the evidence of the subsurface soundings, and he pointed to the discovery of a prehistoric stone circle at Nabta Playa, in the desert of western Egypt, as evidence of a possible social context for the time of his redating.

J. A. Harrell, Comments on the Geological Evidence for the Sphinx's Age (March 2000).

In his contribution to the debate, James Harrell withdrew his earlier support for the influence of Nile flooding at Giza. Floodwaters would not have reached the Sphinx frequently enough to have wetted the sand. But Harrell reaffirmed his argument for weathering under sand wetted by rainfall. He also asserted that rainwater falling on the quarries behind the Sphinx could have penetrated the sand and then drained laterally, under the sand and through intact rock, to weather the western enclosure walls from the inside out.

Harrell also noted that the survival of the ridge on which the Khafra Causeway stands may have been part of a Fourth Dynasty plan. It was not necessarily evidence of development earlier than Khufu.

Colin Reader, Further Considerations on the Age of the Sphinx (March 2000).

In a follow-up contribution, Reader addressed Schoch by agreeing that direct rainfall was probably not significant enough in the third millennium to wash away the mastabas at Saqqara that were exposed to rain. But the mastabas at Saqqara stood on high ground and would not have experienced runoff in the early centuries of the third millennium. What was necessary to cause erosion to the Sphinx enclosure, in Reader's view, was the collection of rainwater over the plateau and its movement as runoff. He observed that several centuries of such runoff could have been enough to erode the enclosure walls.

Reader pointed out that the stone calendar circle at Nabta Playa was only four meters in diameter and cannot be taken as evidence of the stoneworking skills evident on the Sphinx and its temple. Predynastic remains closer to Giza do not appear until after 4000 BCE. There was no clear evidence that the stoneworking culture of Jericho had spread to Egypt. Available evidence suggests that the people living in the Nile valley before 5000 BCE were simple hunter-gatherers.

Addressing Harrell, Reader pointed out that if drainage of rainwater below the sand occurred laterally, the two 26th Dynasty tombs in the western wall of the Sphinx enclosure should have eroded as heavily as the walls themselves. They did not. Reader noted that Giza was abandoned by Khufu's eldest son, Djedefra, who built his funerary complex at Abu Rowash. A master plan for Giza in the Fourth Dynasty is therefore unclear.

Additional Points

Schoch, Reader, Lawton, and Ogilvie-Herald also debated the source of the megalithic core blocks in the Khafra Valley Temple. If they had been excavated from the Sphinx enclosure above the layer from which the blocks in the Sphinx Temple were taken, the Valley Temple would have preceded the Sphinx Temple. Schoch thought that an older limestone core of the Khafra Valley Temple could have been built from this enclosure stone. Lawton and Ogilvie-Herald pointed out that the source of the limestone core blocks in the Khafra Valley Temple was uncertain, unlike the source of the core blocks in the Sphinx Temple. Reader suggested that the source was a quarry to the immediate southwest of the Sphinx.

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