Bullshit memes #3: Sphinxes


The meme above and the topic of this post is many things, accurate is not one of them, and for me it is equally an insult to good taste, not to mention an insult to the general public's intelligence.  So I threw together a small ‘how to guide for pseudo-'scientists’' in retaliation, after coming across this travesty on a Facebook group. 

Basically: Dear pseudos, go away, do your homework, and then once you’ve got your information correct, come back and dazzle us with your genius.

And listen carefully: Rule number one of accurately identifying an object: don’t Google it, don’t use Pinterest, be a bit sceptical in Wiki … that shit is crazy.

This meme is from the whacky crew at Ancient Global Connections and while I was spoiled for choice among their abundant photoshop marvels that attempt to make spooky connections between ancient cultures, I chose a topic I was already working on and with images that were easy (for me) to identify. 

The post is specifically aimed at sphinxes: magical creatures with the bodies of lions and human heads from the ancient world.  And before we even go there, how original is it that many ancient cultures that knew the potential of fearsome lions and also knew what humans looked like thought that one up when wishing to express ideas about magical power? 

This is an Egyptian sphinx, I suspect most ppl could get this one right.  It is however late, from an obscure pharaoh of the 29th Dynasty, ca 390 BCE, Hakor (Hagar or Hakoris).  Photo by Christian Larrieu and © Louvre http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=28065&langue=fr

First get your terms correct,
Modern terms used in this monstrosity are, to put it delicately, not clear, nor are they consistent, without even mentioning the casual confusion between nouns and adjectives.  Decide whether you want to name city, culture, religion, empire or region and stick to it.  I understand that may involve more effort, but it will look smarter at the end. 

Oh and btw, Germany did not exist 40,000 years ago.  It was created about 150 years ago.  That is a number sadly lacking in the appropriate number of zeros.

Mesopotamia on the other hand is a word used to describe an entire region around two important rivers, and is inclusive of Syria, western Iran, Quwait, Iraq, and of ancient cultures from Sumer and Akkad to the Seleucids and Medes.  I suspect you used Mesopotamia to label one object out of laziness, when four objects in this crazy cocktail could be labelled ‘Mesopotamian’.

But really, get your terms correct, because at least four captions in this puppy are downright wrong.  Those small inlays from Nimrud in Iraq are not Assyrian, they are not even Neo-Assyrian, (pro tip: where you dig something out of the ground is not a guarantee of where it was made).  They were gifts or war spoils to a Neo-Assyrian king from their north-western neighbours. This is not even new news, we’ve known this since they were discovered in about 1850.

Shell inlay from Nimrud, the original photo has been flipped horizonutally.  But here is where it pays to know your shit.  The museum website says Neo-Assyrian because that is where it was found, but it is northern Syrian/Syro-Hittite, ca 800-700 BCE. Photo © Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/325087?searchField=All&sortBy=relevance&ft=nimrud&offset=20&rpp=20&pos=36

Then get off your bony arse and try to get your dates right
First up, awesomely big date differences achieve very little argument-wise; the Palaeolithic has absolutely no tangible connection to the first millennium BCE, without mentioning that the example given is not a sphinx.  It is a lion or a lion headed human figure.  A little figure of a lion standing upright, a gap of say 40,000 years and an entire continent prove nothing about cultural connections.

But it gets better … I’ll ignore the objects from the other side of the classical period, because they are not my area of expertise, (Burma, Celts, I mean what’s up with ‘Hindu’?.. see notes below), but let’s assume they are just as poorly labelled as their pals.

Seven sphinxes in the meme are roughly contemporary to each other (within a 300-400 year period) and from cultures that were all busily interacting with each other at the time, often living within kilometres of each other, or simply invading for lols …. amazing, they copied each other’s power symbols …. how meaningful.

The Greek, Egyptian and Persian sphinxes are all contemporary with that bunch of Persian kings who had their eyes on both Greece and Egypt … therefore we actually know they had connections… so that really does rule out spooky entirely ... if you are struggling to picture who, think Leonidas, Xerxes and the application of an unhealthy amount of baby oil.

Finally, adding insult to many injuries, two pairs of objects in this meme belong to the same culture and time ... oops 

Look guys, I fixed it!


Close
As with all of the shallow travesties that circulate on the low rent archaeology fan groups on Facebook, these memes achieve nothing, except perhaps to impress the (very) uninformed.  Fantastic creatures made from combining human and animal parts that were used in ancient art to symbolise power or the divine are seriously not unique to one culture, this practice is very characteristic of us as a species. 

And, as drawing artistic comparisons go, it is cute, but that is all it is.  Even without the farcical inaccuracies, the argument is so shallow even your average Victorian scholar in 1885 would have hesitated to promote it … E minus.

Finally, with regard to the ‘sphinx’, at best it could be claimed that Egypt really nailed this mythical figure in the 3rd millennium in the Near East, and in the early 2nd, the Middle Bronze Age, the basic symbol spread to their neighbours and this was then adopted and remodelled all over the shop to become the Greek and Roman figure.  But this is ‘at best’.  Its appearance in sundry unrelated cultures is not going to raise any excitement unless it is exactly the same sphinx and we can draw some sort of a line between them.

Truth is, you cannot arbitrarily take a bunch of loosely related images, showing a similar idea, but not the same characteristics, then bung them together and walk away believing you have proven connections between cultures when you basically haven’t got a clue what you are looking at.   

It honestly took me ten minutes to source the four objects that are not from in my area on the interweebs.  It is simply not that difficult... (and wtf guys, Ebay?).

Dear pseudos, go away, make more of an effort and get back to us.

Andrea Sinclair

Sphinxes from the palace of Darius I at Susa in Iran, ca 510 BCE.  Photo by Christian Larrieu and © Louvre, Paris  http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=12400&langue=fr

The objects indiscriminantly ripped off the web

(btw, some of the images from this meme are copyrighted to museum collections)

a) Syro-Hittite shell inlay from the Neo-Assyrian palace at Nimrud in Iraq, 800-700 BCE. Metropolitan Museum, New York.
b) Syro-Hittite stone column base from Samal/Zincirli, south-east Turkey, 800-700 BC. Museum of Oriental Antiquities, Istanbul.
c) Phoenician ivory inlay from the Neo-Assyrian palace at Nimrud in Iraq, 800-700 BCE. Metropolitan Museum, New York.
d) ‘Burma’, wooden statue that you can pick up on Ebay for around 900 US dollars … bargain.
e) Archaic Greek statue from Naxos, Greece, 560 BCE. Metropolitan Museum. New York.
f) Persian palace relief from Persepolis in Iran, 500-400 BCE, British Museum, London.
g) Persian palace relief from Susa in Iran, 510 BCE. Louvre, Paris.
h) Egyptian statue of king Hagar with modern faux inscription, Late Period/29th Dynasty, 390 BCE, Louvre, Paris. 
i) Upright leonine figure from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, European Palaeolithic (Aurignacian), 35,000 to 40,000 before the present. Ulm Museum.
j) Stone relief from the Sri Thenkalai Varadharaja Perumal Temple, in Thirubuvanai, India, 900-1000 Common Era.
k) Celtic-Iberian bronze coin from Castro, Spain (200-25 BCE). 


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