The Age of the Sphinx
It stands guard over the Great Pyramids of Khufu, this massive stone titan, one of the single most recognizable creations of the ancient world. As such a popular icon, Egypt's Great Sphinx is sure to draw all manner of attention, both scholarly and otherwise. Astrologists assert that it's positioned with some sort of cosmic significance. Others have claimed it hides a vast hall of records in catacombs beneath it, or that a system of tunnels connects it with the pyramids. But the most popular of all the myths about the Sphinx is that it is far older — perhaps by thousands of years — than archaeological and historical evidence shows. And it's this particular dubious claim, tirelessly promoted as fact by television's pseudohistory channels, that is where we shall direct our skeptical eye today.
The basic facts of the Great Sphinx are as follows. It represents a chimera, the head of a man on the body of a reclining lion. It's 73 meters long and 20 meters high, and it was carved in place from a hill of existing limestone bedrock. It's located as if it's guarding the three Great Pyramids of Khufu on the Giza plateau, like you have to get past it if you want to go to the pyramids. It's facing due east, with the three pyramids behind it to its west. As the slope rises behind it up to the pyramids, the ground had to be excavated around its rear end to create a level platform where it sits; and the slope falls away in front of it, with its forepaws more or less at ground level. Strata of different limestone types are visible in it: generally lighter colored, softer limestone, and darker colored harder limestone. The head is mostly made of the harder limestone, which is why it's better preserved than much of the body, which is pretty eroded. The rock quarried away from the Sphinx was used in the adjacent pyramids and other structures. The face of the Sphinx is generally agreed to depict Khafra, the pharaoh who built the second largest of the three great pyramids, and son of Khufu, who built the largest.
It's also useful to take a quick overview of the ancient Egyptians throughout the time frame in question. About 2500 BCE, when the pyramids were being built, a tremendous amount of archaeological evidence was left behind by the builders. We find housing for a huge number of workers, we find inequality in that housing and in burials, suggesting social hierarchies; and all the infrastructure needed to support tens of thousands of workers. Multiple lines of evidence firmly date the time these facilities were in use, including radiocarbon testing of charcoal from the bake ovens and forges.
We also have excellent archaeological evidence for the older cultures that preceded Egypt's dynastic period. These included the Naqada culture of c.4400-3000 BCE which did a lot of trading, then the Badarian culture which overlapped and preceded them a bit which focused on agriculture and fishing, and the Merimde neolithic culture. Prior to that, Nile sediment buried most older sites, but we can infer much about those people from the other cultures nearby whose archaeological evidence survived. Most notable of these would be the Faiyum A culture, with substantial evidence going back as far as 6000 BCE and less evidence going back to around 9000 BCE. The Faiyum A people farmed and foraged. Their technologies included arrowheads and weaving. They were still thousands of years away from the great monuments built by the pharaohs, and of course they existed in far smaller numbers.
The history of people in what is today Egypt — from way back in neolithic ages through today, and especially including the periods when the pyramids and other great works were constructed — is one those areas of study where we have data that's rock solid (no pun intended). There is no meaningful uncertainty on any substantial part of it. The major events, such as the construction of the Sphinx, are nailed down pretty thoroughly. Thus, at its heart, the question of the age of the Sphinx is the debate between science and pseudoscience. Among the entire body of archaeologists, geologists, and especially Egyptologists, there is no significant doubt over the date of the Sphinx's construction: about 2500 BCE. The idea that it is much older — dating from some 5 to 10 thousand years ago — is held by a few non-experts whose numbers you can count on the fingers of one hand. It is not a "competing theory".
I have argued in the past that science should not debate pseudoscience, because doing so lends a false sense of credibility to the pseudoscience. The very existence of a debate suggests to laypeople that there are two competing perspectives worthy of open comparison. This is untrue, and it misinforms the laypeople. Better, I have argued, to allow the pseudoscientists to languish in obscurity without the benefit of a platform legitimized by those representing what actual research shows. However, in this case, the pseudoscientists have been given the world's largest and most influential platform to promote their falsehoods: network television. In 1993, a TV movie narrated by Charlton Heston titled The Mystery of the Sphinx: New Scientific Evidence promoted the claim of geology professor Robert Schoch as the newest archaeological discovery, even throwing in an Apollo astronaut to lend credibility: Edgar Mitchell, the New Age spiritualist who believed in every sort of paranormal woo. Schoch's IMDb page shows over a dozen appearances since then on every major science and history network, continuing through the present day. Since the popular media has tried so aggressively to promote this fringe claim that has no legitimate support as an up & coming mainstream view — or at least as a competing perspective — it's probably warranted to break my usual rule, and drop a fact bomb on the pseudohistorians.
Schoch was not the first to propose an earlier age for the Sphinx, but he was quite representative of them. The first was French alchemist and mystic René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz. His work was followed by science fiction author John Anthony West, who first brought in Schoch and was featured in the original Charlton Heston documentary alongside him. Schoch was best known for various alternative historical claims — including ancient aliens and paranormal interpretations of ancient civilizations — so he was the ideal person for West to find scholarly-looking support for a Sphinx theory that contradicted the consensus view. Their basic claim is that the amount of erosion on the walls surrounding the Sphinx — where the ground level had been excavated down to create a flat platform for the Sphinx to lay on — is much greater than other places in Giza, which can only be explained by it having been exposed to the elements for thousands of years more.
This erosion is real. Behind the Sphinx, on the wall behind it to its west leading uphill toward the pyramid, are weathered channels as much as three feet deep. Conventionally, we understand such weathering to be the result of sandblasting: the desert winds combined with the native sand, and varying softness of the limestone. Schoch and West, however, believe these are best explained by flowing water during a climatic period prior to the construction of the pyramids in which there was much greater rainfall. We have very good paleoclimatology data for that region, so Shoch — who does accept some sciences even while he makes up his own versions of others — placed the Sphinx's construction in the Neolithic Subpluvial, or African humid period, when Northern Africa was much wetter than today. This period began some 14,500 years ago and ended about 5,500 years ago. Based on his own analysis of the erosion, Schoch put the Sphinx's construction between 7000 BCE and 5000 BCE, while West stuck with Schwaller de Lubicz's earlier date of 10,500 BCE, as put forth in Schwaller de Lubicz's book Sacred Science.
It's also important to note that the Giza Plateau is high ground. While the Sphinx is indeed slightly downslope from the pyramids, the whole area is a summit. It's not a place where water flows to. Thus, any suggestion that rivers of rainwater were ever rushing past the Sphinx is geographically nonsensical.
Furthermore, essentially all other geologists besides Schoch contend that there is no reason to introduce water erosion. The pattern of erosion on rock depends not upon what's doing the eroding, but upon the characteristics and hardness of the rock itself. Looking at eroded limestone strata on the Sphinx, it's not possible to tell what did the weathering: water or wind. One geologist responding to Schoch's claim, August Matthusen, wrote:
There are a number of perfectly plausible ways that such dramatic weathering might be found on the Sphinx's deep west wall and not other places on the plateau. Salt crystal exfoliation is the one you're most likely to read about. Another method, proposed in 1995 by Gauri et. al., lays the blame on the excavation itself:
To make their theory workable, West and Schoch and other proponents of the old Sphinx — including ancient advanced civilization theorist Graham Hancock — propose the existence of an earlier advanced civilization that preceded Egypt. The problem with this is that we know the history of the people in the region, as we discussed earlier, and they did not include large, advanced societies that appeared, built a Sphinx, then vanished. In his book Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology, Dr. Ken Feder addressed this contradiction with the evidence:
So not only is the old Sphinx theory completely unnecessary to explain the weathering, the changes to history needed to make it work are radically incompatible with all the archaeological and historical evidence.
And yet we have a huge problem. That problem is not with the evidence we have, it's with the version of it that is presented. Try doing a Google search for the age of the Sphinx, and you'll find the search results are grossly disproportionately in favor of articles touting a non-existent "controversy" or "new evidence suggests the Sphinx is much older than scientists thought". Nobody ever publishes an article or makes a TV show to state a simple fact we already know; instead they trumpet the sensationalism of the wild new claim. Even basic informational articles, like one I found on history.com and another on encyclopedia.com, now give essentially equal time to the science and the pseudoscience, presenting them as two equally valid perspectives on which scientists are divided, as if they're still trying to work it out. Now a layperson, interested in learning about the Sphinx, is at least as likely to get misinformation as the truth. This is what happens when a handful of fringe theorists get amplified by irresponsible major media outlets. It's why we must always remain vigilant, and always be skeptical.
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