A century with the Penn Museum’s Sphinx

In 1913, a massive piece of granite arrived in Philadelphia that forever changed the scope of the Penn Museum’s collection.

This was the arrival of the Sphinx, an approximately 15-ton single piece of red granite from Memphis, Egypt. The Sphinx—the largest such stone sculpture in the Western Hemisphere and the sixth largest in the world—caused a stir when it landed in the city. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from October of 1913, “Its coming was unheralded and street car motorists, taxicab chauffeurs and pedestrians stopped all work to see the strange, solid sphinx, oblivious to the furor it was causing.”

It also helped put the Penn Museum and its then-fledgling Egyptian collection on the map.

“It helped us begin the Egyptological program, both at the Museum and at the University itself, and established this as the center for Egyptology as it is today,” says David Silverman, curator-in-charge of the Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section and the Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr., Professor in the Department of Eastern Languages and Civilizations. “It anchored the Museum in a fantastic place.”

In celebration of the Sphinx and its arrival in Philadelphia, the Penn Museum is hosting a series of events throughout the month of October—from lectures and Egyptomania quizzo, to kid-friendly workshops and a Tutankhamun-themed Halloween event.

All of the fuss is fitting, since Silverman says the Sphinx is an extraordinary example of ancient Egyptian life and culture.

It bears the names of the Pharaoh Ramesses II and his son and successor, the Pharaoh Merenptah, both of whom reigned in Egypt’s 19th Dynasty (1292-1190 BCE).

Its arrival at the Museum can also be credited to two prominent figures in the world of archeology: Sir William M. Flinders Petrie, the renowned archaeologist who excavated the Sphinx, and Sara Yorke Stevenson, a driving force behind the founding of the Penn Museum and curator of the Egyptian and Mediterranean sections.

“[Stevenson] was instrumental in getting some of Philadelphia’s prominent residents who had been to Egypt to make donations to Penn so that she could accumulate a collection that would provide collections for people who did not have the means [to travel to Egypt],” says Silverman. “She went off to Egypt and became a good friend of Petrie.”

Because Penn had supported some of Petrie’s expeditions, he supplied the University with some of the objects he uncovered at the site, including the Sphinx.

Sphinx 1913

Charles Sheeler

The Sphinx at the Penn Museum circa 1915.

When Petrie found the Sphinx, it had been buried in sand for much of its post-pharonic history, which preserved the body and inscriptions. The face, however, was eroded, having been exposed to centuries of windblown sand.

The Sphinx was shipped from the site in Memphis across the ocean on a German steamship, and arrived in Philadelphia in early October of 1913. It sat at the Reading freight yard until it was transported to the Museum on Oct. 18, covered in burlap, on a flat bed wagon pulled by nine horses.

Upon its arrival at the Museum, it was hoisted over the wall by a team of workmen, and then placed on the lawn.

Silverman says the Sphinx stayed outside the Museum for years and was moved inside in 1916. The Coxe Memorial Wing, the present-day home of the Sphinx and other items in the Museum’s Egyptian collection, was not constructed until 1926.

One hundred years after its arrival in Philadelphia, the Sphinx still resonates with visitors, says Silverman. It not only bears a significant resemblance to the Great Sphinx of Giza, but its massive size makes the granite statue a unique and significant object of interest. It is also displayed at the Museum in context, with columns and other architectural elements from the Palace of Merenptah, excavated by Museum scholars in the early 20th century.

Though it cuts an imposing figure, sphinxs from Egypt were almost always positive images—unlike malevolent sphinxs that appeared in Greek culture, says Silverman.

“The Sphinx relates to the sun god, and it’s during this time that the religion of the sun god is at its peak,” he notes. “[A sphinx] is a way for the king to relate to the sun god.”

To celebrate the Sphinx in all of its splendor, join the Penn Museum for quizzo on Oct. 2, a Young Professionals Event on Oct. 11, a Halloween event on Oct. 17, a sleepover on Oct. 18, and workshop on Oct. 26. On Oct. 19—almost 100 years to the day that the Sphinx arrived at Penn—the Museum will host a “Hijinks with the Sphinx” event from 1 to 4 p.m., with Egypt-related pop culture, an obstacle course, an exclusive behind-the-scenes Sphinx history tour, and a lecture at 3:30.

For details on all events, go to www.penn.museum.

Originally published on September 12, 2013