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Side view of the Saqqara bird

The Saqqara Bird: Did the Ancient Egyptians Know How to Fly?

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The pride of flying too close to the sun was a costly endeavor for Icarus. Mythology says he fled Crete on wings of feathers and wax built by his father Daedalus, of King Minos’ labyrinth fame. His story should have been a warning to mankind so that it would not challenge the will of the gods, but it was not... fortunately.

A hundred years ago, the adventure of flying began with the Wright brothers and their dual propeller glider with a gasoline engine. From that moment on, man crowned a dream dating back to the minds of his ancestors. Leonardo da Vinci’s plans were certainly a precursor of flight, with his drawings of sails, gliders, and propellers, however, we find references to flying machines, or devices that could somehow allow our ancestors to fly, in many mythologies of the past. These are only legends, right?

Saqqara bird, front view.

Saqqara bird, front view. ( Public Domain )

The Saqqara Glider – An Out of Place Artifact?

There are, however, a number of archaeological finds, so-called OOPARTs (Out of Place Artifacts), which are very controversial (and equally as interesting), that can help us understand the extent of ancient advanced technology. One of these finds is certainly the so-called "Saqqara glider".

At the end of the XIX century, an archaeological expedition found a bird-shaped artifact among other objects in a Saqqara tomb dating back to 200 BC. It is made of sycamore maple wood (a consecrated tree linked to the goddess Hathor and a symbol of immortality) and a cloth with the word ‘Pa-di-Imen’, “iAmon's gift”.

Exhibited in Room 22 of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, inventory no. 6347, it is one of the most controversial archaeological findings. With a length of about 14 cm (5.51 inches) and a wingspan of 18 cm (7.09 inches), what at first sight reminds us of a glider is an object that does not weigh more than 40 grams (1.41 oz.)

Apart from the beak and the eyes, which point to the representation of a hawk - the emblem of the god Horus, what we find curious is the tail (squared, strangely upright, and supposedly with a sunken part that could accommodate “ something”), the wings (opened but without the slightest curvature, they thin towards the ends and have been snapped inside a groove) and the lack of feet.

Relief of Horus in the temple of Seti I in Abydos.

Relief of Horus in the temple of Seti I in Abydos. (Rhys Davenport/ CC BY 2.0 )

The artifact, which may be influenced by an artist's extreme stylization, does not have any kind of carvings to represent the feathers of a hypothetical bird; however, we cannot rule out that this peculiarity originated from paint that is almost completely disappeared. It could be a ritual object, a toy, or a weather vane to be placed on sacred boats to indicate the direction of the wind; this last hypothesis would be confirmed in some reliefs from the New Kingdom, found in the Khonsu Temple.

Egyptian traveling boat being rowed.

Egyptian traveling boat being rowed. ( CC0)

Attempting to Make the Plane of the Pharaoh Fly

The first to think differently was Khalil Messiha, professor of artistic anatomy at the University of Helwan, who seemed to recognize in the unusual bird the scale model of a glider, albeit lacking in the tail. He had the audacity to write it down and since then the artifact is called, wrongly or rightly, the Saqqara glider or plane of the pharaoh. In the seventies of the last century, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture put together a commission to shed light on the mystery, and the experts agreed on the uniqueness of the piece - claiming it was not a simple toy but a model that could have aerodynamic value.

Martin Gregorie, a designer and manufacturer of gliders, took the trouble to reproduce the aircraft, but could not actually manage to make it fly because of its instability. The naturalist-biologist Ivan Terence Sanderson had a completely different outcome during his simulation. By modifying the model and using balsa wood instead of sycamore, he proved he could make it fly with just a slight push - even making it glide. As always, lights and shadows exist and do not allow one to express peremptory judgments. It is undeniable that this discovery, of which we do not fully understand the function, is a symbol of a sacred bird for Egyptian mythology, but it also represents flight - a prerogative of the gods.

Four views of the Saqqara bird model in the National Air and Space Museum.

Four views of the Saqqara bird model in the National Air and Space Museum. ( Thomas Van Hare )

Perhaps that missing piece at the back of the plane of the pharaoh could reasonably be the tail of the plane (controlling stability and balance), that governs rotation and allows for take-off, ascent, and descent in aircraft. Deities were described as having a bird’s appearance and were associated with natural events like thunder or lightning. Did the ancient Egyptians know how to fly?

Top Image: Side view of the Saqqara bird. Source: Dawoudk/ CC BY SA 3.0

By Massimo Bonasorte

Dr Massimo Bonasorte  is the founder and publisher of the magazine  Veritas Arcana  .

Comments

This is a hand launch model (probably a copy of a better one that did fly), the give away is the vertical stabiliser, birds don’t have them! So if its trying to emulate a bird, the creator can’t see what a birds tail looks like, unlikely! You can get away without a horizontal stabiliser as shown (but it is a balancing act, literally - tricky), however you’re not going to get into straight gliding flight without a vertical stabiliser, period! You find this out quickly experimentally, throw it. Someone is purposefully trying to get this model to fly. It doesn’t look too far off viable, it looks like she’ll go nose up (from just looking at the distribution of weight, gliding is largely about the art of balancing upon air – all forces resolved at equilibrium glide airspeed), you either need to add some weight on the nose or reduce the thickness of the paddle and she’ll fly. The centre of gravity needs to be directly below the aerodynamic centre of the wing (actually the overall body, but around the quarter chord point of the aerofoil wing - leading to trailing edge, would be a good place to start) for a given pitch angle with a small angle of attack, it’s not as complicated as it sounds, finesse the fineness of the tail, does it fly better, repeat until she does.
It makes no difference whether its made out of sycamore, or balsa or for that matter anything else for the same overall form, the c of g needs to be under the wing, the only difference the material makes is weight, the heavier, the quicker along the same glide path (all other things being equal). Quadruple the weight, twice the airspeed.
Aviation didn’t start with the Wrights (not to belittling their achievement in any way) they demonstrate POWERED steady level flight, but it wasn’t a glider. Cayley, demonstrated all the main principle of a modern day aircraft nearly a 100 years before this, Cambered lifting wing (actually shown above), stabilisers (shown above) , weight shift (balanced weight distribution - needed to get this model gliding) and control surfaces (that this model doesn’t have), then it all went wrong, the pilot (coachman) went across the border to Lancashire (shacking head) and setup what became BAE Systems! You had manned gliding around 300 years before demonstrated in spain (fixed wing –Moorish polymath) and a bad tower jump - (1 in 3 sink rate) 500 years before this (a monk with the iconic [useless] unflappable wings, you need a fixed wing: arms can’t support the wing loading for any duration– your weight). Rockets around this same time in China (1000 AD) a returning blade (propeller) before this. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo-copter (read the section on flying cars), looks like the Chinese adepts had a glider up from the account and describe Icarus’s fate too! The state knew this was possible, they used prisons to explore the issues of man lifting kites (more a death sentence for those that they wanted to get rid of that the court had not instructed to be executed but imprisoned), they traded with the Minoans over the silk road, there is an interesting written record of this. A steam propelled Pigeon around 300BC in Greece. I think Icarus and Daedalus might have made a basic weight-shift glider, IF they started with hand launched models to learn the principles. You could build one of these in a few hours with Minoan build techniques and materials, by the end of the weekend you’ll be gliding nicely. Then build a bigger scaled one and start on the side of the hill (short runs – rather than the binary results from jumping off a tower that usually results in broken legs and risk of breaking your back) until you learn basic weight shift flight control, then pick up a thermal and head east (then north to Troy) and escape! It is not difficult to build aircraft, it is everything else that is more difficult, Dedalus would not have had this issue, he was likely to have had access to Palace workshops, Minos would probably even let them try, Man can’t fly, then maybe he did and Minos realised his mistake, who could build this could build almost anything, he went after finding Dedalus. Before anyone tries to reproduce this speak with the FAA, CAA or your aviation authority and join a glider club!!! It’s much easier to build an aircraft than many think, regulation is there for a reason, it keeps everyone safe, they will let you try if you follow the rules and it doesn’t put other air users, people or property at risk! Address the Bull, let its power fling you where you want to be – the other side!
Icarus was accredited with inventing sails (probably why Minos wouldn’t let them go to Troy [a breakaway colony – in some senses a rival but still a cousin trading partner – from there you could get passage anywhere] which seems to be where they wanted to go and were heading towards). Minoans had flax linen and amazing garment construction techniques – check out the bull leaping ivory lady she had a supportive sports bra although brazen, notice how well they constructed everything. The secret to the sail was probably not only the sail itself to fly across the sea but the coatings to increase vessel surface speed and preserve it, crickey they even had [invented] white composite (rounded bodied) ship hulls: layers of flax, pine resin and limestone powder to make them white with a much reduced thickness wooden wall: more manoverability, speed and seaworthy to intercept [foreign] plain wooden hulls to levy duty, with some badass Marines (Carians) to board and enforce, if they repel run over the hull and sink the wooden hull. The white composite hulls would not be out of place in a modern day marina (invented in 1950 apparently – see Floatilla Fresco that suggests before 1500 BC would be closer to the mark), they didn’t just dominate trade they had sway over every mainland warring state bar the Egyptians, they control the flow of money of the day: metal and components of Bronze (tin and copper) that drove technological and economic development in the region; tools and weapons, all the ideas and commodities of the day came through their ports.
They build super light-weight figure of eight shields from cane (wicker) that they exported to everyone that had something useful to exchange. Although I think that Daedalus is probably a role (e.g. Minos master craftsmen that instructed the palace workshops – the fingers!), they all clearly observed nature, more adapting it for their own purposes, like a nice round hydrodynamic hull that can carry significant cargo from observing dolphins that wizz about (everyone was in rafts before this and this isn’t going to get you across the med, safely). Would these people notice that a bird wing is chambered and they circled around the sunny side of hills to obtain altitude? Probably, they could build whatever they wanted and in many respects did, they were at the cusp of a pre-industrial society, then Thera erupted bring in a regional dark age. However before this, could a bloke that can figure out how to thread a conch shell (thread glued to an ant and honey at the other end) work out how to get a basic glider working, yeap. Minos’s ploy to find ingenious inventor.
Wicker naturally forms a good elliptical fixed wing without really trying (good planform that they may not of realised but could observe from nature), introduce cross member (ribs) between the leading and trailing edge and the skin is forced into a chamber to generate lift and it goes further confirming what can be observed in nature, add a wicker hoop section below and leather straps to reposition yourself to orientate the airframe (banking roll and pitch control - its all you need), keep it simple.
I want to settle this debate (or at least whether it is technical viable with materials and construction method of the time) and build a hand launch model and see what the sink rate is (I’ve got the aerolinen on order it was used to for the first [presumed] aircraft skin). Icarus fabled flight lost control at the island of Icaria (named after him), you need to do a lot of island hopping to get this far from Crete and you can only pick up thermals on sun facing hills at islands. The legs are circa 50 kilometers between islands there aren’t any thermal at sea, its flat! A trainer glider of today has a sink rate of 30 to 1, lets assume its not as good, say 20 to 1, you need to obtain 2.5 kilometers altitude and more if you’re going into a head wind to get to the next island, but you have about 80kms line of sight to the horizon so you can see the next island. He’s wings didn’t melt (this is more likely a reference to the coating of the sail) – its 8 degrees centigrade colder at this altitude compared to ground, he went too high and blanked out if the mythology is based on an actual account. In theory you need oxygen above about 4kms (e.g. needed if going into a head wind), he was warned not to go too high (remember this is reported by others that had no practical flight experience, Daedalus could have informed others but they are not likely to understand it and a little of this account may have been preserved in oral accounts and later Greek written accounts – a lot gets lost with Chinese whispers over a millennia). It was preserved because it is significant.
The question really should be what’s the sink rate, build the model, add a mannequin and then we would know if the aircraft is technically viable or not! My moneys is on it is. Minoan tech was as good as it gets, all these natural materials are superb, wicker baskets are used today for hot air balloons baskets, they aren’t half tough and absorb impact energy, fine weave linen about 300 gsm (light – as strong in tension as good as glass fibre), about 500gsm with resin to wetout and seal. Wing span about 6-8m span x 1m chord, 4kg + wicker frame, called it 10kg all up with some sheeting between the ankles to knee (probably extended backwards with stilts and you have control surfaces, just like a bird that would be a good place to start), that’s as light as a modern-day hand glider and will have a much better sink rate, substantially higher aspect ratio wing and flight surfaces - bonus. The Minoans had advanced tech, like steam to open doors and lifelike figurines that moved by themselves by the reported record, you know, hot and cold running water to buildings, flushing toilets, aqueducts, hypercoarse, transparent hazy windows, etc, they were damn good engineers. Sounds viable to me. This isn’t a blackbird hammering down at Mach 3.4 – damn I wish I’d ask one of the last pilots what it can really do with the governors taken out).
Unlike a modern day aircraft, this is a simple airframe developed in about 6 months + another 6 months of airwork and tweaking (translation to ground to air will be tricky – like learning to pop up on a surf board) and if you have access to palace workshops and you control the frame by moving your weight about. What are you going to do otherwise, the Wanax has instructed every port to not give you passage anywhere! There is a practical need to innovate, to escape Crete. Once an aircraft is know to work, what is every Minoan teenager that wants to apprentice in technical disciplines going to do when they know it’s possible to fly, they are going to have a go at building a model, fly it and you get apprenticed, which may explain what this is doing in an Egyptian tomb! Do you recon a merchant can acquire more gold by exchange because an elite wants this little hand launch marvel ! Probably, the merchants are going to be happy, but the guys with the gold can’t make one that flies, so the merchant can charge whatever he wants. The above is probably a copy of a working model (they will likely break on hard impact after repeated use, and the white hulls only come once a year). The example is likely a copy of the original.
That vertical stabiliser will make sense to everyone in aerospace. If the model has a hole in the bottom I’d buy the weathervane argument , but has it got one? If not, why have they stripped out all the unnecessary other bird features/appendages like legs, and why is it such a lovely refined streamlined form, it looks to be the result of many iterations to gradually improving on the last, but they don’t fly as well as the original – odd that. Those that copy rarely understand the underlying principles. Don’t take my word for it, build one, Wisdoms mother was Practice. I will be so impressed if anyone can get it flying well without a vertical stabiliser (bird don’t have them, but they don’t need them, they have articulated flight surfaces to constantly respond, which you don’t have with a rigid model), call it a hunch a model will not glide straight and true without this ‘unnatural’ but very practical vertical paddle! It is interesting to note that it is exactly how the Minoans and everyone that copied them steered ships with a paddle(s) at the rear to keep the ships bearing! What I describe is how Minoan ships construction and their military technology (that they closely guarded to preserve for economic advantage and goals).
Materials know to Minoans: Flax linen cloth (aerolinen used to bind books about $50/m2), pine resin (glue - $100/kg), beeswax ($500/kg), wicker - giant reeds ($100/bundle), bronze staples used for shields - use wire ($1/m), binding (linen thread will be close to what they had that can be used as tow or for binding), leather for strapping probably goat – nappa (they probably sold shoes to everyone – definitely expensive lightweight shields), wood (Cypress, Beech are likely – by their furniture design it was as finely crafted as Chippendales with similarly good joinery!). The material for a model $90! An artist mannequin $10. Go fly! Share the sink rate (with me)!!!

This has the making of a bird ! The weigh is not aligned with the aerodynamic centre. I wonder who could fettle, add appendage or weight into a flight, by trial or error? You are assuming it’s a polished item! It might be a test for those curious to try after observing a demonstration. I would not assume that you need a horizontal stabiliser you don’t but is tricky. Those who can trim the bird could do many things and there is not a single solution, there are many. Fingers and the art of balance (upon air) or to thread a shell.

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