Fragment of the beard of the Great Sphinx

From Giza, Egypt
Perhaps New Kingdom, 14th century BC

Together with the nearby pyramids, the Great Sphinx at Giza is one of the great symbols of ancient Egypt. It is generally attributed to Khafre, the king who built the second pyramid. It was carved out of local limestone, which was probably left over from rock used for construction of the 'Great Pyramid' of Khufu (Greek: Kheops), Khafre's father.

The British Museum has this small fragment - about one-thirtieth in total - of the Great Sphinx's beard. It was presented by Giovanni Battista Caviglia, who excavated at Giza in 1817 and cleared parts of the Sphinx, which was then buried in sand up to the neck. His expenses were covered by Henry Salt (British Consul-General) and other British businessmen, with an agreement that finds be presented to The British Museum. This was done according to a directive of Mohammed Ali Pasha, who was at that time virtually the ruler of Egypt.

Caviglia found a number of fragments of the beard and the tip of the uraeus between the paws of the Sphinx, and left other parts of the beard in the sand. When the Sphinx was cleared in 1925-26 some other fragments were removed to the Cairo Museum.

The sphinx takes the form of a lion's body with a royal head, symbolizing the immense power of the king. The fragment shows the beard to have been of the plaited, 'divine' type, depicted on gods and the dead, rather than kings and the living (see an example on the sarcophagus of Sasobek, also in The British Museum). However, it is doubtful whether it would have had a beard when first carved in about 2550 BC; it was probably added during restoration work in the Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1550-1295 BC), and fell off in antiquity. It has sometimes been suggested that damage to the face was caused during the late eighteenth century by Napoleon's troops. In fact an early fifteenth-century Arab historian reported that the face had been disfigured in his time. Seventeenth- and mid-eighteenth-century drawings, made before the French expedition to Egypt, appear to support his report.

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More information

Bibliography

M. Lehner, The complete pyramids (London, Thames and Hudson, 1998)

Z. Hawas, The secrets of the Sphinx (Cairo, 1998)

G. Hart, Pharaohs and pyramids (London, Dorling Kindersley in association with the British Museum, 1991)

Dimensions

Length: 78.700 cm

Museum number

EA 58

YCA69364

Gift of Giovanni Battista Caviglia

Location

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