Study suggests that nature played a role in the origins of the Great Sphinx

The Great Sphinx of Giza is a limestone statue of a reclining sphinx, a mythical creature characterised by the combination of a human head and a lion’s body.

The Great Sphinx is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt, standing on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile in Giza,

Based on archaeological evidence, the construction of the Great Sphinx dates back to approximately 2500 BC during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre, who oversaw the construction of the Second Pyramid at Giza.

Many mysteries enshroud the Great Sphinx, including its original appearance and the symbolism it was intended to convey. Surprisingly, there has been relatively little focus on the study of what the landscape was like before its creation and how the natural environment may have influenced its design.

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In a new study by researchers from New York University (NYU), scientists have replicated conditions that existed 4,500 years ago to demonstrate how wind moved against rock formations that could have shaped the monument.

“Our findings offer a possible ‘origin story’ for how Sphinx-like formations can come about from erosion,” explains Leif Ristroph, an associate professor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the senior author of the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Fluids. “Our laboratory experiments showed that surprisingly Sphinx-like shapes can, in fact, come from materials being eroded by fast flows.”

The study centred on duplicating yardangs, distinctive rock formations found in deserts formed by the accumulation of wind-blown dust and sand. According to the researchers, there is the possibility that the Great Sphinx may have initially started as a natural yardang, later enhanced and sculpted by humans into the iconic monument we know today.

Natural Yardangs – Image Credit : Shutterstock

To support this theory, the study authors from NYU’s Applied Mathematics Laboratory worked with soft clay mounds containing embedded less erodible material, simulating the landscape of northeastern Egypt where the Great Sphinx is located.

They then subjected these formations to a rapid-flowing water stream, mimicking the erosive action of wind, which gradually carved and reshaped them, eventually leading to the emergence of a structure resembling the Great Sphinx.

The harder or more resistant material within these mounds took on the role of forming the “head” of the lion, while various other features, including a sculpted “neck,” “paws” resting on the ground in front, and an arched “back,” began to take shape.

“Our results provide a simple origin theory for how Sphinx-like formations can come about from erosion,” observes Ristroph. “There are, in fact, yardangs in existence today that look like seated or lying animals, lending support to our conclusions.”


Header Image Credit : Shutterstock

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is an award winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education and the BCA Medal of Honour.

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