Sphinx-Age Debate Still Rages
In November of 1994, the first issue of Atlantis Rising was published. The cover story of that issue, “Breaking the Silence,” featured an interview with John Anthony West on the re-dating of the Great Sphinx. West and his colleague, Boston University geologist, Dr. Robert Schoch, had looked at the evidence of water weathering on the Sphinx and its surroundings and produced a powerful geological case that the monument must be, at a minimum, 7,000 years old, and is probably much older. The work of West and Schoch had caused a worldwide sensation and been featured in an NBC documentary, “The Mystery of the Sphinx.”
The debate which ensued has continued ever since, with the mainstream Egyptological establishment—despite acceptance by most geologists—hotly contesting the Sphinx’s greater antiquity. At stake, after all, is one of the most cherished notions of the current scientific paradigm, the idea that present civilization was born about 5,000 years ago and before that was only primitive darkness. For Atlantis Rising, committed to the idea that the roots of civilization go much deeper than is generally supposed, and that our forgotten ancient forebears possessed wisdom and knowledge beyond anything experienced since, the water erosion evidence at the Sphinx seemed some of the most important in recent memory.
In the years since, Schoch and West have produced much more evidence from Egypt to support their arguments, but mainstream archaeology has persisted that no civilization capable of building the Sphinx was operating 7,000 years ago, let alone 12,000 years ago. Now, however, recent discoveries in Turkey could upset some of the most basic premises in the conventional timeline for the rise of civilization—providing clear artifactual testimony of ancient advancement 12,000 years ago. Here now, in an Atlantis Rising exclusive, Robert Schoch looks once again at the case for a much older Great Sphinx and the new corroboration to be found in the ruins recently unearthed at Göbekli Tepe.—Editor
Based on my geological and seismic analyses, utilizing weathering and erosion patterns correlated with the paleoclimatology and subsurface features, the Great Sphinx at Giza, Egypt, goes back thousands of years earlier than the traditional Egyptological date of circa 2500 BC. For the better part of two decades I have advocated my “conservative” date of circa 7000 BC to 5000 BC, although not absolutely excluding the possibility that the Sphinx could be even older.
Should I reconsider my position? Is the Sphinx older than I first thought? Was I too timid in my dating? Why am I asking these questions? First, there are new developments beyond Egypt, including a very ancient site in Turkey known as Göbekli Tepe. Second, there has been a recent attack on my dating of the Great Sphinx. This forced me to re-evaluate my analysis, and led me to conclude that, if anything, I may have underestimated the age.
The Sphinx as an Island?
The body of the Sphinx sits largely below ground level, in an area that is commonly referred to as the Sphinx Enclosure or the Sphinx pit. Over the years, various authors have suggested that the Sphinx Enclosure was filled with water. Perhaps the Sphinx was essentially in the middle of a giant fountain, or the Sphinx stood island-like surrounded by a moat. Recently, there has been a revival of such ideas. I considered such notions carefully as far back as 1990. Moat theories are not compatible with the actual evidence of Giza (see sidebar on page 70).
For many years, the Great Sphinx seemed to be an island in a different sense. The Sphinx, if indeed it dated so far back, appeared alone, isolated, with no solid context so very long ago. But now this has all changed. Enter evidence from other quarters that high culture dates back at least 12,000 years.
When I first publicized my re-dating of the Sphinx, one of the accusations repeatedly hurled by the establishment amounted to this: It is impossible for the Sphinx (more correctly the proto-Sphinx, since it has been reworked, repaired, and the head re-carved) to be so old, since people back then did not possess the social and organizational capability to undertake such a massive project. Megalithic stone constructions date back about 5,000 years ago, not 7,000 or more years ago as I had the temerity to suggest. I was challenged to name anything so old that was comparable to the Sphinx. I duly noted that very ancient and sophisticated remains have been found as such sites as Jericho and Çatal Hüyük, but admittedly these examples do not include megalithic constructions comparable to the Great Sphinx. The Sphinx seemed to sit in splendid isolation, with no cultural context. What I would have given for a good example of megalithic structures securely dated to 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. Now I have it!
Located in modern Turkey, just north of the border with Syria, Göbekli Tepe (the name means hill with a belly or navel) has yielded dozens of carved limestone megaliths, many of which date back to the extraordinarily early period of 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. Klaus Schmidt (German Archaeological Institute) has been heading the excavation team since 1994, and there is no doubt as to the importance, authenticity, and dating (based on radiocarbon) of Göbekli Tepe. This is a discovery made by mainstream academics.
Göbekli Tepe boggles the imagination. The date is incredibly early, even earlier than my “conservative” estimate for the date of the Great Sphinx. Göbekli Tepe dates back to the end of the last Ice Age. The T-shaped monolithic megaliths are in the range of two to seven meters (six-and-a-half to twenty-three feet) high (the latter is the height of an unfinished megalith left where it was being quarried), and weigh ten tons, or more each. Sculpted onto their surfaces are a variety of animals, including snakes, boars, foxes, vultures, spiders, scorpions, a centipede, and a three-dimensional figure that has been interpreted as a lion. The megaliths excavated thus far were originally erected in four distinct stone circles, ranging from ten to thirty meters in diameter. Based on geophysical surveys, the entire site may cover three dozen hectares (about 90 acres) and contains another twenty or so stone circles. This is a huge complex!
The True Garden of Eden?
What do we make of Göbekli Tepe? It has been hailed as the world’s oldest temple and the original Garden of Eden.
Based on the known evidence, the site was not permanently inhabited; no living areas have been found. Numerous animal bones suggest feasting and/or animal sacrifices. Perhaps this was a meeting place, a site where different clans and tribes gathered to celebrate. Did each of the approximately two dozen stone circles belong to a different tribe?
Some suggest that the T-shaped pillars represent stylized human figures. The general consensus, not to say it is correct, is that Göbekli Tepe was a religious site, a very ancient temple, a holy and sacred spot, a series of shrines, a pilgrimage site. When I look at the carvings of animals, I think of shamans with their animal totems and guides. Birds appear abundantly at Göbekli Tepe, traditional symbols of the spirit or soul. Vultures in particular may represent birds that carried away the dead, and human bones found in association with Göbekli Tepe have been suggested as indications of a death cult. Some of the human bones appear to have been unburied, perhaps left to be scavenged by wild animals as was done in various later cultures (Tibet is an example). Could they even represent human sacrifices? Or was this a site of ancestor worship?
Göbekli Tepe has been hailed in some circles as figuratively, if not literally, the Biblical Garden of Eden. Like the fabled Eden, it lies between the northern portions of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Although it is a bleak, barren, desert landscape now, 12,000 years ago Göbekli Tepe was an area of abundant plant and animal life, a huntergatherer’s paradise. Göbekli Tepe is also an area where early domestication and agriculture took place, more or less contemporaneously with the use of the structures over several thousand years. The traditional view is that erecting a complex on the order of Göbekli Tepe would have required a sedentary, organized, labor force; and this would only be possible after domestication and agriculture were well established. But perhaps it was the other way around. Did the gathering of large numbers of people at Göbekli Tepe cause depletion of the local natural resources, and essentially force the development of agriculture? Early farming may have been disadvantageous compared to gathering and hunting in a paradise. Farming was time-consuming, back-breaking labor that yielded relatively poor nutrition. As God said to Adam, after he ate the forbidden fruit that the serpent convinced Eve to taste, “Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life.” (The Jerusalem Bible translation) And there are snakes, serpents, carved on some of the pillars of Göbekli Tepe.
Ancient Knowledge Purposefully Buried?
When I consider Göbekli Tepe, the first thing that comes to mind is that this was a center of knowledge, which of course is not incompatible with a religious site. Could the positions of the monoliths, and the specific carvings on their surfaces, encode information? Obvious suggestions are that the various stone circles were calendrical or astronomical. Might constellations be depicted or encoded in the carved reliefs or positions of the megaliths? Are there significant alignments among the stones? Did each circle refer to a different topic or branch of ancient knowledge?
Göbekli Tepe was built, used, and added to for a couple of thousand years. My interpretation is that there were three main phases. First, the beautiful T-shaped stone pillars were erected and carved. Typically about a dozen such pillars were erected in a circle or oval, and two more stood in the center. Based on the roughened top surfaces that they bear, the pillars may have supported some kind of roof or superstructure. Second, relatively crude stone walls were built between the outer pillars forming enclosures. These walls abut up against, and in some cases appear to cover or hide, the carved reliefs on the pillars. I sense that the site was being converted into some kind of defensive structure. Finally, about 10,000 years ago, the entire complex was intentionally buried under tons of rock and earth.
Why the different uses of the site? Why the eventual abandonment and burial? Had the temple, the sacred ground, come to the end of its life cycle? Was it ritually de-sanctified, decommissioned? Or did the people of Göbekli Tepe turn from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and in the process abandon their old ways, their old gods? Or did the people suffer natural catastrophes? 12,000 to 10,000 years ago the last glacial period came to an end, sea levels were rising, climates were fluctuating, and some believe the poles were shifting and that comets were bombarding our planet. In the wake of calamity, did the people of Göbekli Tepe first attempt to fortify their structures and then realizing that it was futile, bury them and flee? Did they hope to return again to uncover their monuments?
A Sphinx Older than the Great Sphinx?
Göbekli Tepe is apparently not an isolated phenomenon. Nevali Çori is a site only a few miles away, and it dates to a slightly later period than Göbekli Tepe. The site is now flooded and inaccessible, but T-shaped pillars and carvings (though smaller than at Göbekli Tepe) were found there. At a site known as Kortik Tepe (Korpiktepe), near the Tigris River about 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of Göbekli Tepe, thousands of stone pots and various sculptures wereburied in graves about 11,500 years ago. Vecihi Özkaya, director of the dig, has been quoted as saying, while pointing to a sculpture depicting an animal half-human, half-lion, “Look at this . . . It’s a sphinx, thousands of years before Egypt. Southeastern Turkey, northern Syria—this region saw the wedding night of our civilization.”
Well, maybe it is an 11,500-year-old Sphinx, but that doesn’t mean it is older than the Great Sphinx of Egypt. Perhaps the opposite is true.
Was the Great Sphinx Surrounded By a Moat?
According to Robert Temple, a moat theory explains the water weathering of the Sphinx without hypothesizing that it dates back to an earlier period of more rainfall than the present. I will not address his hypotheses, which I do not find persuasive, that the Sphinx was the jackal [wild dog] Anubis and the face seen on the Sphinx is that of the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Amenemhet II, though I note the original Sphinx has been reworked and the head re-carved. The human-lion hybrid concept is very old; an ivory figurine found in a German cave, dated to 30,000 years ago, combines a human body with a lion’s head.
While in Egypt recently (March 2009) I looked at the Great Sphinx with fresh eyes. I will summarize half a dozen points.
1) The Sphinx Temple (built out of blocks removed from the Sphinx Enclosure when the body of the Sphinx was initially carved) and the Valley Temple to the south show heavy precipitation-induced weathering on their core blocks. These limestone temples were subsequently refurbished with Aswan granite facings during the Old Kingdom. The moat theory cannot explain the nature of the very ancient weathering seen under the Old Kingdom granite veneer.
2) Much heavier surface erosion occurs on the western end of the Sphinx Enclosure, tapering off dramatically toward the eastern end. This is due to ancient rains and the paleohydrology of the area. This erosion is not compatible with pooled water in the enclosure.
3) The highest levels of the middle member strata, seen in the Sphinx Enclosure on the western end, are most severely eroded, as expected from rain. If the moat theory were true, then the lower strata on the eastern end of the Sphinx Enclosure would be most heavily eroded (caused by water being brought in via canals from the Nile), but the opposite is seen.
4) Seismic data demonstrating the depth of weathering below the floor of the Sphinx Enclosure, based on my analyses (calibrated very conservatively), gives a minimum age of at least 7,000 years ago for the core body of the Sphinx. Standing water in the Sphinx Enclosure would not accelerate the depth of weathering below the floor of the enclosure.
5) The vertical fissures observed in the walls of the Sphinx Enclosure show diagnostic signs of having been formed by precipitation and water runoff. They do not show any characteristics that are diagnostic or even suggestive of having been formed by artificial dredging of the Sphinx Enclosure, as Robert Temple suggests.
6) Assuming the argument that the Sphinx sat in a pool, either the water level around the Sphinx was the same as that of the surrounding water table, or the walls and floor of the pool were sealed up and watertight (and any artificial walls, such as on the eastern end, were strong enough to withstand the water pressure). The ancient water table was well below the level of the floor of the Sphinx Enclosure (or else the Sphinx Temple would have been flooded). The Sphinx Enclosure, if simply carved from the bedrock (as all the evidence suggests) would not have held a deep pool of standing water. The bedrock in the enclosure is highly faulted, and characterized by a karst morphology that would leak like a sieve. The enclosure would need to be fully sealed up (with mortar or cement, perhaps), and there is no evidence of such sealing. If the enclosure had been sealed in such a manner, this would not be compatible with the dredging theory for the vertical fissures. Furthermore, chambers and tunnels under the Sphinx would have been flooded from above if the Sphinx had been sitting in a pool of water, unless the Sphinx Enclosure had been watertight.
Robert M. Schoch, a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. He is best known for his re-dating of the Great Sphinx of Egypt. His latest book is The Parapsychology Revolution (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008). Website: www.robertschoch.com