This interview with Robert Shoch originally appeared in Issue 1 of our free online magazine SUB ROSA (PDF download).
In ancient Greek mythology, the Sphinx was a monster with the face of a woman, the chest and feet of a lion, and wings like a bird of prey. It would ask riddles of people who passed by, and if they could not answer, the Sphinx would eat them alive. Perhaps this ancient tale should be taken as fair warning that the Sphinx does not look kindly upon those who attempt to solve her mysteries.
Fast forward to June 1990, and Dr Robert Schoch – a young American geologist – stood before the Great Sphinx at Giza for the very first time, perhaps unaware of the academic uproar he was about to invoke. On that fateful morning, he walked up to the archaeological enigma seeking to answer a question posed by the author John Anthony West: “What is the true age of the Sphinx?” West had noticed that erosion marks on the ancient monument suggested water had played a part in its history, which appeared to argue against the orthodox dating of the Sphinx to around 2400 BCE, and the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Khafre.
Schoch studied the erosion patterns on the limestone body of the Sphinx, analysed sub-surface weathering patterns via seismic surveys, and compared the climatic history of the Giza area. His conclusion was stunning: the Great Sphinx was not only built before Khafre’s time, but that its origins must go back into the fog of pre-history, at the very least to 5000 BCE and perhaps even earlier.
Schopenhauer once wrote: “Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self evident.” For the last fifteen years, Robert Schoch has lived through the reality of Schopenhauer’s observation, although he’s still working on the third stage:
I diligently wrote papers on the subject and presented talks at geological and Egyptological conferences, and despite the animosity toward the implications of my analysis, the analysis itself stood up to scrutiny.
It might be fairer to say that Schoch is just getting a taste for the action though. Schoch maintains an incredible regime of writing, research and teaching – alongside his ‘alternative’ books Voyages of the Pyramid Builders and Pyramid Quest, he has also published scholarly works such as Horns, Tusks, & Flippers: The Evolution of Hoofed Mammals and Phylogeny Reconstruction in Paleontology, and he also holds down a lecturing position with Boston University. We managed to corner him for a few minutes though, and posed some riddles of our own to him. Thankfully, no post-riddle eating was required.
GT: The ‘Age of the Sphinx’ debate has been one of the great archaeological controversies over the past fifteen years. A lot of discussion has ensued since the water-weathering theory was first put forward. Could you update readers on where we are currently, and if your view has changed at all in response to contributions from other researchers, such as Gauri and Reader?
Schoch: Independently of my work, and independent of each other, the geologists David Coxill and Colin Reader have each confirmed my core hypothesis regarding the age of the Great Sphinx, namely that the earliest portion is older than the common modern Egyptological attribution to the reign of the pharaoh Khafre, circa 2500 B.C. Some of the critics continue to suggest ad hoc and geologically unfeasible and unrealistic scenarios to maintain the traditional dating, but as I discuss in the appendix to Voyages of the Pyramid Builders, their arguments are not sound in my opinion. The real issue is not if the Sphinx is older than Khafre, but how much older and the significance of this greater antiquity.
GT: Having said that, your theory remains controversial and is not accepted by most orthodox Egyptologists. Someone commented on MSNBC’s “Cosmic Log”, that if we can work out Martian history based on a robot’s observations, then surely a group of geologists should be able to figure out a consensus concerning the age of the Sphinx. Why do you think this hasn’t happened yet, and considering this – will it ever? How do you go about removing any shred of doubt about your findings?
Schoch: I would disagree with the basic premise of the question. Science, ultimately, is not an issue of consensus (although generally that comes along at some point), but a matter of gathering data and cogently analysing and interpreting it. At any given time, the majority can be wrong, or the majority can be right. It is the nature of science to doubt and question the accepted wisdom. Scientific “truth” is not arrived at by a committee recommendation. In the case of the Great Sphinx, whenever I have presented my data and analyses, most geologists have found it compelling, but I don’t expect them to publicly “endorse” it without pursuing their own field studies, and the typical geologist does not have the incentive, time, money, or interest for such. Egyptologists, on the other hand, with a vested interest in the status quo, continue to search for ad hoc alternative explanations to explain away the data. For my part, I plan to continue the research, gathering ever more data that bears on the age of the Great Sphinx.
GT: You mentioned the Sphinx update in the Appendix to Voyages of the Pyramid Builders – in the rest of this book you take a step away from the field of geology into some of the more controversial areas of archaeology, with a focus on pyramids. Has archaeology always been a topic of interest to yourself, or is it simply an outgrowth of your work with John Anthony West on the Sphinx at Giza?
Schoch: Archaeology and ancient civilizations have always been an interest of mine. I began studying ancient coins when I was twelve. I was involved in local archaeological digs in Virginia as a teenager. I used to skip classes during high school to walk a couple of blocks to the local public library and read Plato, Suetonius, Josephus, and other ancient writers. In college as an undergraduate I started with an interest in archaeology, but got sidetracked into anthropology and geology. I’ve never lost my interest in archaeology, however.
GT: The book looks at the distribution of ‘pyramid cultures’ around the world, and brings up many arguments for diffusionism – especially in regards to the New World (countering the standard Bering Land Bridge theory). Have you kept up to date with the latest work by Silvia Gonzalez and do you think that this provides solid supporting evidence for your own research?
Schoch: You are referring to the research by Silvia Gonzalez suggesting that at least some of the first Americans may have come from Australia (possibly via Polynesia and Japan). Based on the evidence as related in the media, I think she makes a good case. This is exciting material and I welcome her findings; yes, her work is certainly compatible with my research. More and more evidence is accumulating to support widespread transoceanic diffusion in ancient times.
GT: Do you worry that including structures such as Newgrange as ‘pyramid structures’ weakens the case put forward by Voyages of the Pyramid Builders, and perhaps leaves the book open to easy – or at least superficial – attack by skeptics?
Schoch: I think of it as a superficial attack by skeptics who will attack anyway. One thing I learned from the Sphinx controversy is that a certain ilk of skeptics (the “debunkers”) will attack whenever they feel their paradigms and the status quo are questioned. Concerning Newgrange specifically, if you look at what I actually say about it, and where I include discussion of Newgrange in the book (in a section titled “Pyramids or Not?”), I make it clear that I consider Newgrange and similar structures as not “core pyramids” per se, but structures related to the broader family of pyramid-like monuments. I would also comment that Newgrange and many other structures, including good true pyramids in Egypt, are today in such ruinous condition that it is easy to casually dismiss them as not pyramids but simply “mounds.”
GT: Moving to another archaeological controversy that you’ve been involved with, you’ve visited the enigmatic Yonaguni underwater site off the coast of Japan a number of times. What’s your current view on the structures there – artificial or natural?
Schoch: I believe that the Yonaguni structure is natural, with the slight possibility of some human use and possible subtle human modification of what is primarily a natural feature. There is independent evidence of ancient human habitation on Yonaguni Island, but that is a far cry from “proving” that the so-called Yonaguni Monument is an artificial human-made construct.
UT: While on the topic of Yonaguni, I was bemused when the controversial Horizon documentary (which attempted to debunk Atlantis theories, and in particular the work of Graham Hancock) used your testimony about Yonaguni to discredit Hancock’s theories, but at the same time ignored your geological expertise when it came to the Sphinx argument. Did this bother you at all?
Schoch: Sure it bothered me. It doesn’t quite strike me as “fair” and I had hoped for a more balanced approach on the part of Horizon.
GT: Dr Zahi Hawass has been quite outspoken in his criticism of your findings, which seems to present a large problem in ever getting new permits to do ‘real’ research on the Plateau. How do you see your relationship with Dr Hawass, and are you still able to access the Sphinx enclosure?
Schoch: I have met and spoken with Dr. Hawass many times, enjoying a meal and his company on more than a few occasions. He has never been particularly critical of me in person and we are on friendly terms, although he has certainly told me more than once that he disagrees with my analysis relative to the dating of the Sphinx. I consider his criticism to be directed primarily at the implications of my findings and at people who have taken my data and analysis and “run with it,” often to push an agenda that is not my agenda. On an informal basis, Dr. Hawass has never denied me access to the Sphinx enclosure. To bring in equipment and pursue formal studies, that is another matter, and not appropriate to discuss further here. I do not believe, however, that Dr. Hawass is trying to stifle research; rather, he has many considerations besides the purely scientific that he must take into account before he can approve of permits.
GT: In closing – is the possibility of more recent heavy rainfall an alternative option in explaining the erosion on the Sphinx? What about the quality of the limestone?
Schoch: The paleo-hydrology of the Giza Plateau has been elucidated by the work of geologist Colin Reader. We now know that the majority of water run-off, affecting the western and southern walls of the Sphinx enclosure, ended with the quarrying work that took place during the construction of the Great Pyramid, circa 2550 B.C. This means that the earliest portions of the Great Sphinx must predate the Great Pyramid. Therefore the traditional dating for the Sphinx, which places it after the Great Pyramid, is wrong. The question is not whether the Great Sphinx is older than the traditional dating, but how much older.
Yes, I am aware that it can still rain on the Giza Plateau, even with occasional flash floods (although quite rarely). However, in my assessment the extent and nature of the substantial surface weathering and erosion seen on the walls of the Sphinx enclosure and the body of the Sphinx is only compatible with an initial date for the quarrying of the core body of the Sphinx that is significantly older than the Fourth Dynasty.
This is the case even when we take into account the quality of the limestone here, which is not the finest for building purposes, but is not of as poor quality as some writers have suggested. I believe that the oldest portions of the Sphinx must date back to pre-dynastic times, although the Sphinx was repaired and reworked (including a re-carving of the head) in dynastic times. Corroborating the pre-dynastic dating, I stand by my analysis of the subsurface weathering under the floor of the Sphinx enclosure, which by my most conservative calibrations (that is, those that would give the youngest date for the initial carving) indicate a date well prior to dynastic times.
For more information and updates on the research of Dr Robert Schoch, visit his official website at http://www.robertschoch.net/.