Sphinx water erosion hypothesis
The Sphinx water erosion hypothesis contends that the main type of weathering evident on the enclosure walls of the Great Sphinx was caused by prolonged and extensive rainfall that would have predated the time of Djedefre and Khafre, the Pharaohs credited by most modern Egyptologists with building the Great Sphinx and Second Pyramid at Giza around 2500 BC. Egyptologists, geologists and others have rejected the water erosion hypothesis and the idea of an older Sphinx, offering various alternative explanations for the cause and date of the erosion.
The water erosion hypothesis
R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, a French mystic and alternative Egyptologist, first claimed evidence of water erosion on the walls of the Sphinx enclosure in the 1950s. John Anthony West, an author and alternative Egyptologist, investigated Schwaller de Lubicz's ideas further and, in 1989, sought the opinion of Robert M. Schoch, a geologist and associate professor of natural science at the College of General Studies at Boston University.
From his investigation of the enclosure's geology, Schoch concluded the main type of weathering evident on the Sphinx enclosure walls was caused by prolonged and extensive rainfall. According to Schoch, the area has experienced a mean annual rainfall of approximately one inch (2.5 cm) since the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2134 BC), such that, since Egypt's last period of significant rainfall ended between the late fourth and early 3rd millennium BC, the Sphinx's construction must date to the 6th millennium BC or 5th millennium BC.
Schoch further notes the same heavy precipitation-induced weathering as seen on the walls of the Sphinx enclosure is also found on the core blocks of the Sphinx and Valley Temples, both known to have been originally constructed from blocks taken from the Sphinx enclosure when the body was carved. Though the presence of extensive 4th Dynasty repair work to the Sphinx and associated temples is acknowledged by such Egyptologists as Lehner and Hawass, Schoch contends: "Therefore if the granite facing is covering deeply weathered limestone, the original limestone structures must predate by a considerable degree the granite facing. Obviously, if the limestone cores (originating from the Sphinx ditch) of the temples predate the granite ashlars (granite facings), and the granite ashlars are attributable to Khafre of the Fourth Dynasty, then the Great Sphinx was built prior to the reign of Khafre."
Colin Reader, a British geologist, agrees that the suggested evidence of weathering indicates prolonged water erosion. Reader found, inter alia, that the flow of rainwater causing the weathering had been stemmed by the construction of 'Khufu's quarries', which lie directly "upstream" of the Sphinx enclosure, and therefore concludes that the Sphinx must predate the reign of Khufu (2589–2566 BC), and certainly Khafra, by several hundred years. Reader, however, disagrees with Schoch's palaeometeorological estimates, and instead concludes that the Sphinx dates to the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150–2686 BC).
Similarly, David Coxill, a geologist working independently of both Schoch and Reader, has concluded from the evidence of weathering in the enclosure that "[t]he Sphinx is at least 5,000 years old and pre-dates dynastic times [before 3100 BC]."
Response of Egyptologists and archaeologists
Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of state for antiquities affairs and secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, was asked in an interview on the PBS series NOVA if it was possible that a more ancient civilization might have sculpted the Sphinx. Hawass replied: "Of course it is not possible for one reason …. No single artifact, no single inscription, or pottery, or anything has been found until now, in any place to predate the Egyptian civilization more than 5,000 years ago." This reasoning and conclusion was supported in a similar NOVA interview by Mark Lehner, another senior Egyptologist. Other archaeologists who have made similar criticisms include Kenneth Feder.
A different argument used by Egyptologists to ascribe the Sphinx to Khafra is the "context" theory, which notes that the Sphinx is located in the context of the funerary complex surrounding the Second Pyramid, which is traditionally connected with Khafra. Apart from the Causeway, the Pyramid and the Sphinx, the complex also includes the Sphinx Temple and the Valley Temple, both of which display the same architectural style, with 100-tonne stone blocks quarried out of the Sphinx enclosure. A diorite statue of Khafre, which was discovered buried upside down along with other debris in the Valley Temple, is claimed as support for the Khafra theory. Reader agrees that the Sphinx Temple and Valley Temple are closely associated with the Sphinx, as is the Causeway and even part of the Khafra Mortuary Temple, but suggests this evidence merely indicates these structures also predate Khafra and does not link the Sphinx in any way to Khafra. Rainer Stadelmann, former director of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo suggests Khufu, Khafre's father, was the builder of the Sphinx  and contends Khafra's Causeway was built to conform to a pre-existing structure which he concludes, given its location, could only have been the Sphinx.
Hawass (an Egyptologist, not a geologist) points to the poor quality of much of the Giza limestone as the basis for the significant erosion levels. He has concluded, from the present-day rapid rate of erosion on the Member II surface of the Sphinx, that "[t]he eleven hundred years between Khafre and the first major restoration in the Eighteenth Dynasty, or even half this time, would have been more than enough to erode the Member II into the deep recesses behind Phase I restoration masonry". However Schoch states that other structures and surfaces on the Giza Plateau are made from the same band of limestone as the Sphinx enclosure, but they do not show the same erosion as the walls of the Sphinx enclosure.
Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist and curator at the M. C. Carlos Museum in Emory University, assigns "some of the erosional features" on the enclosure walls to quarrying activities rather than weathering, and states that other wear and tear on the Sphinx itself is due to groundwater percolation and wind erosion.
Response of other geologists
Various geologists have proposed alternative explanations for the evidence of weathering in the Sphinx enclosure.
One of the alternative erosion mechanisms proposed is called haloclasty. Moisture on limestone will dissolve salts, which are then carried by percolating moisture into the spaces inside the porous limestone. When the moisture dries the salt crystallises, and the expanding crystals cause a fine layer of surface limestone to flake off. It is accepted by Schoch et al. that this mechanism is evident in many places on the Giza Plateau. One proponent of the haloclasty process is Dr James A. Harrell of the University of Toledo, who advocates that the deep erosion crevices were caused by the haloclasty process being driven by moisture in the sand that covered the carved rock for much of the time since it was exposed by quarrying. Lal Gauri et al. also favour the haloclasty process to explain the erosion features, but have theorised that the weathering was driven by moisture deriving from atmospheric precipitation such as dew.
Analysis of the Sphinx's bedrock by the Getty Conservation Institute (1990-1992) concluded that "Continual salt crystallization, which has a destructive effect on the stone, would explain at least some of the deterioration of the Sphinx."
Haloclasty is rejected as an explanation for the vertical erosion features by Schoch et al. because it doesn’t explain all the visible evidence, namely that the water erosion features are not evenly distributed, being concentrated in those areas that would have been particularly exposed to running water, whereas the haloclasty process should have operated evenly on all exposed limestone surfaces. Similarly, Schoch points out that the alternative explanations do not account for the absence of similar weathering patterns on other rock surfaces in the Giza pyramid complex which were cut from the same limestone beds.
Reader, who agrees that the Sphinx predates Khafra but prefers a construction date within the Early Dynastic Period, points to the tombs dug into the enclosure walls during Dynasty XXVI (c. 600 BC), and notes that the entrances of the tombs have weathered so lightly that original chisel marks are still clearly visible. He points out that if the weathering on the enclosure walls (up to a metre deep in places) had been created by any of the proposed alternative causes of erosion, the tomb entrances would have been weathered much more severely.
It is also agreed that wind erosion has played a significant role in eroding the Sphinx. Schoch states that wind erosion forms distinctive horizontal bands, whereas the water erosion features are clearly vertical.
Response of climatologists
Recent studies by German climatologists Rudolph Kuper and Stefan Kröpelin, of the University of Cologne suggest the change from a wet to a much drier climate may have come to an end around 3,500-1,500 B.C., which is as much as 500 years later than currently thought. Egyptologist Mark Lehner believes this climate change may have been responsible for the severe weathering found on the Sphinx and other sites of the 4th Dynasty. After studying sediment samples in the Nile Valley, Judith Bunbury, a geologist at the University of Cambridge, concluded that climate change in the Giza region may have begun early in the Old Kingdom, with desert sands arriving in force late in the era.
Schoch, however, points out that mudbrick mastabas on the Saqqara plateau about 20 km away, indisputably dated to Dynasties I and II, have survived relatively undamaged, which he believes indicates that no heavy rainfall has occurred in the region since the Early Dynastic Period, and nor was any heavy rain anticipated by those Early Dynastic Period communities who built those structures.
Reader replied to this, stating that they "were built on an area of high ground and do not lie within any natural catchment. These tombs will not, therefore, have been exposed to any significant run-off." He concludes that "the fact that they are not significantly degraded, as Schoch has pointed out, demonstrates that rainfall itself has not been a significant agent of degradation in Egypt."
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sphinx water erosion hypothesis.|
- An academic article arguing the case for water erosion evidence[dead link]
- A skeptical appreciation of the hypothesis
- Sphinx photo gallery