Response in 'Archaeology Magazine' to Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner


by Robert M. Schoch

            In their critique of my research on the age of the Great Sphinx (ARCHAEOLOGY, September/October 1994); Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner direct their attack primarily toward a popular television show, The Mystery of the Sphinx, which was never intended to take the place of the serious articles I have published on the subject.

            I do not know who was responsible for carving out the core body of the Sphinx. However, carving the core need not have been beyond the capabilities of the Neolithic peoples who inhabited the area. I am familiar with the works by Thomas Aigner and K. Lal Gauri on the stratigraphy of the Sphinx enclosure. These contributions, however, do not fully explain the weathering profiles seen on these rocks. The work of geologists M.M. El Aref and E. Refai, and my own work, supplements Aigner and Gauri's studies and demonstrates that various types of weathering and erosion can be observed on the Giza Plateau, each type being dominated to varying degrees by different weathering/erosional agents: rainfall or wind. El Aref and Refai have independently confirmed water weathering in the Sphinx enclosure. These features can only be the result of the significantly wetter climatic regime that occurred in the region during predynastic times. The seismic studies that Thomas Dobecki and I pursued in the Sphinx enclosure support these conclusions and allow one to confidently propose a minimum age for the oldest portion of the core body of the Sphinx.

            Much of the Hawass-Lehner argument for a younger Sphinx hinges on the assertion that its present style and rate of weathering and erosion are representative of its past weathering. They state "ancient and modern weathering on the Sphinx are, for the most part, the same ball game." They discuss how soft the limestone is in some places and the flaking of the stone to produce "giant potato chips" without realizing that these superficial weathering features are due to modern-day pollution, acid deposition, salt deposited by rising water tables from the adjacent village, the damming of the Nile, and so forth. Arguably the Sphinx has suffered more during the past century than it did during the previous 5,000+ years.

            The limestones of the Giza Plateau are criss crossed with fractures or joints, and these joints date back millions of years. However, the joints are not opened up as fissures everywhere on the Giza Plateau. Fissures such as those on the Sphinx enclosure wall can only be produced by water, primarily precipitation, and do bear on the age of the Sphinx. This is dramatically illustrated on the eastern portion of the southern wall of the enclosure where the fissures are much less extreme; here the wall has not taken the brunt of the runoff. Hawass and Lehner do not distinguish between naturally occurring joints and fissures developed only through weathering processes.

            I have used the 4th Dynasty tomb of Debehen as a convenient illustration of classic wind weathering/erosion (which has occurred since Old Kingdom times) versus the precipitation-induced weathering/erosion (predating Old Kingdom times) observed in the Sphinx enclosure. The hypothesis of an older Sphinx does not solely rely on comparing this tomb to weathering profiles in the Sphinx enclosure. Rather, the wind weathering seen at Debehen is typical of the weathering that predominates on much of the Giza Plateau as compared to that seen in the Sphinx enclosure. Of course I am aware that it still rains on the Giza Plateau (about an inch a year), and slight amounts of rain weathering are found elsewhere on the plateau, but not to the degree and extent seen in the Sphinx enclosure.  Hawass and Lehner try, unconvincingly, to dismiss my data as a function of differences in the "rate at which one layer grades into another" at the Sphinx enclosure and the tomb of Debehen, thus producing "angularity" versus "roundness of weathered rock profiles." Yet they fail to demonstrate that the layers grade into one another differently in these different areas or how such differences, if they existed, could account for the major discrepancies seen in the weathering profiles of the different areas under consideration.

            Despite the objections of Hawass and Lehner, I stand by my correlation that the tomb of Debehen is carved from the Secepet Member (Member II) of the Mokattam Formation, as is the majority of the core body of the Sphinx. Lithologically the rocks are comparable. Furthermore, although they are virtually flat lying in a few isolated areas, overall the rocks of the Giza Plateau dip about 5-10 degrees to the southeast and strike NE-SW; the rocks of Debehen to the west-southwest of the Sphinx should be about 100 feet higher in elevation than the same member in the Sphinx enclosure. Given that the tomb and the Sphinx are less than 500 yards from each other, it is valid to compare the weathering and erosional features of the two areas. The fact that the tomb of Debehen is today "higher and drier" can be taken into account when comparing weathering profiles, and has little bearing on the ancient weathering agents that have been a focus of my research.

            Hawass and Lehner disagree with my analysis of the two-stage construction of the Sphinx and Valley Temples, asserting that the limestone and granite were emplaced at the same time. Yet, they do not offer any evidence for their assertion other than an analogy between the construction of Menkaure's Pyramid (which has granite facing limestone) and the Sphinx Temple. I have studied both Menkaure's Pyramid and the Sphinx Temple on site and I do not believe that construction details are comparable. 

            I never meant to imply that the walls of the Sphinx enclosure were originally absolutely vertical. In a published illustration I show them at an approximately 80 degree angle before being weathered. However, the fact remains that even taking such a small slope into account the harder layers at the top of the section have been in general eroded back further than softer layers lower in the section, thus corroborating the hypothesis of an older Sphinx.

            Regarding the western wall of the Sphinx enclosure and the drainage channel along the north side of the Khafre causeway, Hawass and Lehner have no proof as to the origin of the channel; it is a mere assertion that it originated during the time of Khafre. Second, the western end of the Sphinx enclosure actually has two "walls," one higher (carved in the Setepet Member [Member II]) and farther west than the other (the lower wall is carved in the Rosetau Member [Member I]). The higher "back wall" farthest to the west does indeed show rain weathering and dates back to pre-Old Kingdom times. Seismic studies indicate that the lower "back wall," set directly behind the rump of the Sphinx, was excavated much later, probably in Khafre's time.

            In sum, Hawass and Lehner have failed to discredit the data that support the hypothesis of an older Sphinx. I remain convinced that the core body of the Sphinx dates back to approximately 5000 B.C. or earlier.





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