The great Sphinx of Egypt, one of the world's most famous and enigmatic monuments, may be thousands of years older than archaeologists have believed, says Boston University geologist Robert Schoch, who did a novel analysis of its ancient stone.
Schoch reaches his controversial conclusions by saying that the Sphinx shows signs of extensive weathering apparently caused by rainfall. Such weathering, which indicates a much wetter climate than exists today, is not found on the pyramids or any other monuments on the Giza plain, Schoch said.
This redating of the Sphinx would make it by far the oldest monument in Egypt, millennia older than the pyramids that overlook it.
Many archaeologists who specialize in the study of ancient Egypt, however, are very skeptical of Schoch's conclusions.
Schoch will present his findings today at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in San Diego.
"The dramatic weathering we found on the body of the Sphinx is not seen on other structures in the immediate vicinity," Schoch said, "even though many of them appear to have been cut or built from very similar or identical limestones and are supposed to have been built during the same period."
The Sphinx, a lion's body with a man's head, is primarily carved out of solid limestone bedrock, with parts of its legs and outer body encased in limestone blocks. It stands 66 feet tall at the head and is 240 feet long.
Most Egyptologists say the Sphinx was built during the reign of the pharaoh Khafre, also known as Chefren, who built the second-largest of the pyramids that stand behind the Sphinx. Khafre reigned about 2500 B.C., but Schoch believes the Sphinx was built between 5000 and 7000 B.C., perhaps earlier.
"That's ridiculous," said Peter Lacovara, assistant curator of the Egyptian department at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "Thousands of scholars working for hundreds of years" have studied this topic, he said, and "the chronology is pretty well worked out. There are no big surprises in store for us."
Lanny Bell, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago who did research in Egypt for more than 20 years, is also skeptical. In an interview, he said "It wasn't until maybe 100 years or so before" the date traditionally assigned to the Sphinx "that the Egyptians were capable of erecting large monuments."
Conceding that Schoch brings a new perspective to the question, Bell said "Egyptologists aren't geologists," but added, "We are certainly willing to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, but I'm not willing to admit that we've lost 1,500 years or more in our chronology."