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 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). The Sphinx was buried in sand for much of its post-pharonic history, which preserved the body and inscriptions. The face is eroded.

Its arrival at the Museum can 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.

The Sphinx was shipped from Memphis on a German steamship, and arrived in Philadelphia in early October of 1913. 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.

One hundred years after its arrival in Philadelphia, the Sphinx still resonates with visitors, 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 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.

Sphinxs from Egypt, he explains, were almost always positive images—unlike malevolent sphinxs that appeared in Greek culture.

“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.”

Text by Heather A. Davis
Photos courtesy of Penn Museum