The 12.5-ton sphinx at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia has surely witnessed a great deal during its life, which spans 3 millennia of history. But it hasn’t seen the sun for a long time; the massive red granite lion-man dedicated to Pharaoh Ramses II has ruled over the museum’s Lower Egypt Gallery since it was moved to that spot in 1926. On Wednesday, however, the museum undertook the epic task of relocating the sphinx to a prime spot outdoors in its newly redesigned entrance hall, a feat of ingenuity and effort reminiscent of the kind that it took to first build the monuments of Ancient Egypt.
Moving the iconic statue—which is the largest sphinx in the western hemisphere—takes more than a dolly and a few burly movers. The carving was first 3-D scanned to determine its weight and density to make sure the hulking beast could be properly rigged. A safe, manageable 250-foot route was then mapped that took the sphinx through doorways, out a second-story window, through a courtyard, and back through another window on the other side, Brian Houghton, the museum’s building engineer, tells WHYY’s Peter Crimmins.
All that planning came together on Wednesday. David Murrell of Philadelphia magazine watched as the mighty sphinx moved through the museum in three phases. Most impressive, he reported, the sphinx actually floated most of the way to its new throne. The engineers, wearing safety-yellow t-shirts emblazoned with “#MoveTheSphinx” levitated the granite block using four air-dollies, which blew with enough force that the block hovered a few inches above the ground. Crew members then pushed and pulled it down a specially constructed ramp system that could support its weight.
Onlookers could watch the move via a livestream on Facebook and a GoPro strapped to the sphinx's back captured the view from the beast’s perspective. Lucky visitors at the museum also witnessed the move. “I saw it!” shouted one little boy watching from the second floor, reports Murrell. “I saw its butt!”
So how did the sphinx end up in a Philadelphia museum in the first place? According to a press release, archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie excavated the sphinx in the Temple of the God Ptah in the ancient city of Memphis in 1912. When the archaeologist first encountered the sphinx, its weathered head and shoulders were sticking out of the sand, but the rest of it remained perfectly preserved under the surface.
Petrie asked Penn, one of his backers, if it wanted the statue. The museum agreed, and the massive block of granite was wrapped in burlap and shipped overseas. (According to Philly’s Murrell Penn, Petrie had obtained permission to dig and export the sphinx, though he notes that the people giving approval were colonial authorities. Penn reports the present-day Egyptian government has not called for its repatriation.)
When the sphinx reached Philadelphia, the block was too heavy to unload on the docks, so the ship moved upriver to Port Richmond where a crane unloaded it onto a railcar at the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company cargo terminal. The sphinx finally reached the museum via horse-drawn wagon on October 19, 1913, causing a distraction during the middle of a Penn versus Brown football game happening just across the street. It was displayed in the museum courtyard for three years until concerns about the impact of Philly’s weather on the carving led officials to move it inside. In 1926, it reached its spot in the Lower Egypt Gallery, where it’s stayed until now.
While the 11-foot-long sphinx is nowhere close to the size of the Great Sphinx of Giza, it’s still unbelievably heavy. Putting its 25,000 pounds of weight in terms the average Philadelphian can understand, museum director Julian Siggers tells CBS that’s about “12 Liberty Bells, 87 Philadelphia Phanatics and 64,000 cheesesteaks.”