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