For centuries, historians and archaeologists have explored the mysteries of the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. Who or what did it originally depict? What was its true name? However, less attention has been paid to a fundamental question – what was the landscape like when the ancient Egyptians first started building this instantly recognizable structure, and did the natural environment play a role in its formation?

A team of scientists from New York University recently conducted an experiment to recreate the conditions from 4,500 years ago when the Sphinx was constructed. Their goal was to show how wind erosion may have initially formed one of the most iconic statues in the world.

The researchers, led by Leif Ristroph, an associate professor at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, sought to test the idea that similar formations to the Sphinx can arise from erosion alone. To replicate the terrain in northeast Egypt near the Sphinx, they took lumps of soft clay with harder, more erosion-resistant material embedded inside.

They then washed these clay mounds with a fast-moving stream of water, simulating wind erosion. Over time, the flowing water carved and remodeled the mounds into a Sphinx-like shape. The harder material became the “head” of the lion-bodied statue. Other features also developed, such as a hollowed-out “neck”, front-placed “paws”, and an arched “back”.

Ristroph says their lab experiments demonstrated that the Sphinx’s unusual form could truly come from rapidly eroded geological materials. Yardangs, oddly-shaped rock formations found in deserts from wind and sand erosion, provided further evidence. Today, some yardangs even resemble seated or reclining animals.

The research offers a simple theory for how Sphinx-like structures may arise through natural forces. It also provides insight into geology. The mounds weren’t uniform in composition – variances in hardness caused the flows to be diverted, shaping unexpected forms.

This experiment provides possible answers to longstanding questions about the Sphinx’s origins. Its appearance may have originally stemmed from the natural landscape, later to be refined by ancient Egyptians. So while its mysteries still intrigue, science is shedding new light on how our planet’s elements can sculpt one of its most enigmatic landmarks.


New York University

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