What is it?

This small Egyptian figure, carved out of red sandstone around 1800 BC, depicts a familiar mythical creature: the sphinx. It was perhaps a votive offering to the goddess Hathor; Egyptian hieroglyphs inscribed on the sphinx’s right shoulder read ‘beloved of Hathor, mistress of turquoise’.

The nose is broken, the head has been reattached, and, with a length of 23.7cm, this small sphinx is more unassuming than its monumental counterparts. Nonetheless, it still poses a riddle in the two inscriptions (painted since it was excavated), on the left and right of its base.

Where was it found, and when?

The sphinx was unearthed in 1904-1905 during the Egypt Exploration Fund’s excavations at Serabit el-Khadim on the west coast of the Sinai peninsula. The team was led by Flinders Petrie, who initially dated the object to the middle of the 18th Dynasty (1550-1295 BC) – a date that has since been revised.

Serabit el-Khadim was an ancient mining town, where semi-precious turquoise was extracted from the Middle Kingdom (2040-1750 BC) onwards. People from Canaan (a Semitic-speaking land to the east, covering what is now Lebanon and Israel) worked in the mines, in many cases as slaves captured by Egyptians in war. It was in the town’s Temple of Hathor, the goddess associated with turquoise, that the sphinx was found.

Why does it matter?

As well as Hathor’s hieroglyphs, the sphinx has two intriguing inscriptions on its base. These are written in a ‘Proto-Sinaitic’ script. The precise origins of the script remain uncertain, but the inscriptions bear witness to a key phase in the early development of alphabets in which symbols represent sounds. And so the sphinx gives us one of the oldest surviving examples of the first stages of the alphabet we use today. An ox-head (the second character from the left on the base) is a forerunner of the Latin alphabet’s letter A. Through various transformations by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Etruscans, the sign has become more abstract and changed orientation.

The script presented fewer than 30 symbols, which led Petrie to think that it was an unknown alphabet. Alan Gardiner then studied the inscriptions and noted similarities between some signs and some Egyptian hieroglyphs. Gardiner transcribed the inscription as ‘mahbalt’ (meaning ‘beloved of the Lady’), hinting that the writing on the sphinx essentially says the same thing in two different languages.

Other Proto-Siniatic inscriptions (dated to c.1700-1500 BC) have been recorded in Lebanon and Israel, suggesting the alphabet was a Canaanite invention. But earlier (c.1900- 1800 BC) examples have been found elsewhere in Egypt at the remote site Wadi al-Hol. Their discovery in 1993 led to a hypothesis that rather than originating from Canaanite miners working on the peripheries, the script might have been developed in Egypt in a military context involving Semitic mercenaries and Egyptian army scribes.

See for yourself

The sphinx – on loan from the British Museum – is on display at the British Library until 27 August as part of the exhibition Writing: making your mark, which explores the evolution of writing.

Image: The Trustees of the British Museum

This article appears in issue 95 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.