Historians and archaeologists have, over centuries, explored the mysteries behind the Great Sphinx of Giza: What did it originally look like? What was it designed to represent? What was its original name? But less attention has been paid to a foundational, and controversial, question: What was the terrain the Ancient Egyptians came across when they began to build this instantly recognizable structure—and did these natural surroundings have a hand in its formation?
To address these questions, which have been raised on occasion by others, a team of New York University scientists replicated conditions that existed 4,500 years ago—when the Sphinx was built—to show how wind moved against rock formations in possibly first shaping one of the most recognizable statues in the world.
“Our findings offer a possible ‘origin story’ for how Sphinx-like formations can come about from erosion,” explains Leif Ristroph, an associate professor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the senior author of the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Fluids. “Our laboratory experiments showed that surprisingly Sphinx-like shapes can, in fact, come from materials being eroded by fast flows.”