Smiling Sphinx Statue Unearthed in Egypt

Researchers suspect the Roman-era limestone figure may depict the emperor Claudius

Researcher using a brush to dust off a statue of a sphinx
The sphinx has a "slight smile," according to archaeologist Mamdouh Al-Damati. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

Archaeologists have discovered a small, Roman-era sphinx statue, Egypt’s tourism and antiquities ministry announced this week. 

Made of limestone, the artifact was found during excavations of the Dendera Temple, which is situated next to the Nile River in the Qena province. Experts think it may be a depiction of Claudius, the Roman emperor who ruled from 41 to 54 C.E. 

The Roman Empire controlled ancient Egypt for more than 600 years, from 30 B.C.E. to around 642 C.E. However, many Roman emperors—including Claudius—never actually visited.

Sphinxes in ancient Egypt often represented royalty or power. The newly discovered statue has “royal features” and a “slight smile,” complete with two dimples, says excavation leader Mamdouh Al-Damati, an archaeologist at Ain Shams University and the former minister of antiquities, in a translated statement. He also notes the remnants of red and yellow color on the sphinx’s face.

On top of its head, the sphinx also has a nemes, a traditional striped cloth headdress that ancient Egyptian pharaohs wore, reports CNN’s Nadeen Ebrahim. The tip of the headdress is shaped like a cobra, a feature known as a uraeus.

At the site, researchers first discovered a limestone shrine with two levels and steep sloping floors. Inside, they found a water-storage basin made from red brick.

Statue of sphinx inside a rectangular hole dug out of the ground
Archaeologists discovered the sphinx while cleaning a water-storage basin they found inside a shrine. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

They stumbled upon the sphinx while they were carefully cleaning the basin, according to the tourism and antiquities ministry. Below the sphinx was a stone slab covered in hieroglyphics and script, though no translations have been made, reports Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar.

Per Live Science’s Owen Jarus, the researchers compared the sphinx’s face to depictions of Roman emperors, concluding that Claudius was likely the best match. Still, they say that more research is needed, and other experts not involved in the project also expressed uncertainty.

“The photos are a little small for me to confirm if it is Claudius or not, but I can see a Claudian aspect to the image,” says Eric Varner, an art historian at Emory University, to Live Science. The publication also notes that the basin dates to the Byzantine era, some 500 years after Claudius’ reign. 

If the newly discovered sphinx does indeed pay homage to Claudius, archaeologists wouldn’t be too surprised. In the past, researchers discovered a sphinx-like sandstone bust that resembled the Roman emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79 C.E.; they also unearthed a carving that showed Claudius as an Egyptian pharaoh at the Temple of Isis.

Staring with magnetic and radar scans, researchers began their exploration in mid-February. Now, they plan to continue their work at the Temple of Horus and the Isis Gate in hopes of finding a road that links the two sites.

Mahmoud El-Meteini, president of Ain Shams University, says that the ongoing excavations will “add a lot to the history of Egyptian civilization in the Greek and Roman ages,” per a statement from the university.

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