Discovery of sphinx in northern China tomb presents something of a riddle
The sphinx is a famous icon from ancient Egypt of 5,000 years ago, but a statue of one has been excavated in China dating back more than 1,000 years. The marble sphinx, which has western features, is in good condition and was discovered in a tomb in a cemetery along with carvings and bronze, iron and pottery artifacts.
The sphinx was found with eight other carvings, including a warrior, lion, camel and horse in Guyuan City in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The sphinx stands 36 centimeters (14.2 inches) high and has little damage except to the face. The name of the deceased man, who was interred with his wife’s remains, was Liu Jun, Shanhai Daily says.
A sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion and was known across Eurasia in ancient times and into the present, though apparently they were rare in northern China.
Archaeologists have been excavating a small cemetery of 29 graves dating to the Tang Dynasty of 618 to 907. They are preparing the area for construction of a water plant. The archaeologists have found 150 funerary items in the graves.
“The style of carvings had features from the west and are considered rare for ancient Chinese tombs during that period,” Fan Jun of Ningxia Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute’s excavation team, told the Shanghai Daily. He added that white marble was rare in north China.
The Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt (Photo by Barcex/Wikimedia Commons)
While there are sphinxes in south and southeast Asia, this find in northern China seems to be somewhat of an anomaly. Lions’ prehistoric range didn’t even include northern China. This says something about the influence of the Great Silk Road, which Ningxia was near. The excavations in the cemetery will help researchers understand freight transport during the Tang Dynasty.
Prehistoric range of the lion in red (Map by Tommyknocker/Wikimedia Commons)
The sphinx was known to the Greeks and Assyrians from early antiquity. While in Greece the sphinx was female, in Egypt and Assyria it was male. And while the Greece sphinx was considered malevolent, the Egyptian sphinx was considered benevolent. Both were guardians of temples.
A Greek sphinx from Delphi of about the sixth century BC; scholars say ancient Greek writings and art influenced Asian peoples, who came up with their own versions of sphinxes (Photo by Tetraktys/Wikimedia Commons)
The sphinx is known as far east as Thailand and Burma, and the traditions and stories of the mythical beast are still alive today. In India sphinxes are called purushamriga for “man beast” or naravirala for “man cat” in Sanskrit. Scholars think Asian sphinxes were influenced by ancient Greek writings at a time when Buddhism underwent Hellenistic influences.
Throughout history sphinxes also have been depicted and had legends told about them in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Europe.
Legends say sphinxes require travelers to answer riddles correctly before allowing them to pass. The sphinx at Delphi was said to have asked the most famous riddle in history: What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night? The answer was a human, as a crawling baby, a walking child and adult, and an elderly person with a cane.
Featured image: The marble sphinx was found in a Chinese grave dating back more than 1,000 years. (Shanghai Daily photo)
By: Mark Miller