It is in Egypt that Graham Hancock’s search for his ‘lost civilisation’ begins, with his support for a controversial attempt to redate the Great Sphinx of Giza. Boston geologist weathering on the Sphinx was to become a major element in its redating, as he identified the main factor in the considerable weathering over most of the body as precipitation. Given that the rainfall of Egypt has remained at a low (if variable) level in historic times, Schoch suggested that the weathering ought to have occurred at a date considerably earlier than the conventional date of the monument, c 2530 BCE. Schoch’s preferred date was the Neolithic Subpluvial of 7000-5000 BCE for the weathering, meaning that the Sphinx would have to be at least 2,500 years older than conventional Egyptologists believe.

The Great Sphinx of Giza in 1988

The Great Sphinx of Giza in 1988

However, Hancock would like to push the date back yet further and he does so via a few poorly disguised falsifications. He claims that the Sphinx is a symbol of Leo and that, because it is facing precisely due east, it was designed to face the rising sun when it was in the constellation of Leo at the vernal equinox. He does not explain why this should be the case and presents no evidence to show that the Egyptians ever regarded the Great Sphinx as a symbol of the constellation Leo (indeed, he fails to demonstrate that they even recognised a constellation the same as Leo). However, according to Hancock, the sun rose in Leo at the vernal equinox between 10,970 and 8830 BCE.

Hancock also believes that the three principal pyramids at Giza were built to represent the stars of Orion’s belt. The belt of Orion also reached its lowest point in the sky during this time, although Hancock fails to explain why this might be considered important. By combining these two elements of astronomical non-data he dates the layout of the whole complex to c 10,450 BCE. This is fully eight thousand years older than the conventional dating. It is worth noting, incidentally, that by this point, the three principal pyramids of the Giza plateau – those of Khufu, Kha‘efrē‘ and Menkaurē‘ (Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus in their Latinised Greek forms) – have also been redated to this remote period.

The Valley Temple that occupies a site immediately south of the Sphinx is next drawn into the argument. Hancock points to the stark simplicity of the temple, with its square sectioned columns, lack of inscriptions or reliefs and its construction techniques and suggests that it cannot be contemporary with the certainly Fourth Dynasty mastaba tombs scattered across the plateau. These tombs show greater architectural elaboration and were profusely decorated. In his view, the Valley Temple must be immeasurably older and therefore contemporary with his redated Sphinx. He does not justify his equation of ‘simple’ decoration with an earlier date and he ignores the evidence of archaeological dating.

To the rear of the New Kingdom temple at Abydos is a structure that Hancock has compared with Kha‘efrē‘’s Valley Temple at Giza (due to some architectural similarities). The Osireion – Shrine of Osiris – has square sectioned pillars devoid of bas reliefs and hieroglyphic inscriptions, like the Valley Temple, to be sure, but it does have inscriptions on walls and lintels that name Seti I (Pharaoh c 1290-1279 BCE), who is known to have been the founder of the main temple at Abydos. Hancock prefers to regard these inscriptions as later impositions – not an impossible hypothesis. However, he goes far beyond what can be deduced by ordinary archaeological means and assumes (for the consistency of his unique chronology) the temple to be earlier than known Egyptian civilisation.

Problems with the early dating

Around 10,450 BCE, when Hancock proposes that the Great Sphinx (and, by implication, the Valley Temple of Kha‘efrē‘’s pyramid and the Osireion at Abydos were built) the Western Desert was still in its period of greatest aridity. Even in the Nile valley, rainfall was minimal. This would have made life difficult for humans. During what is known as the Late Palaeolithic Alluviation, beginning before 20,000 BP and lasting until about 10,500 BCE, the Nile brought less water than today. This was caused by two main factors: firstly, the world-wide dryness caused by the ‘locking up’ of water in the huge ice caps of the Pleistocene glaciation and secondly, because the White Nile did not drain into the Nile valley at this time, its northward path blocked by sand dunes in the Sudd. At the same time, the slower river carried more sediment, which built up the floodplain until it was some 25-30 m higher than today. The river was sluggish and would have flowed in numerous braided channels. As the ice caps shrank after c 10,500 BC, an increase in rainfall at the headwaters of the Blue Nile in East Africa, combined with the White Nile breaking through the dunes in the Sudd, led to a brief period of exceptionally high floods, known to geologists as the ‘Wild Nile’. This increased flow, probably starting c 10,000 BCE, eroded the sediments that had accumulated during the previous eight thousand years. Within a few centuries, the Nile had become a powerful stream, flowing in a single deeply incised channel, with a narrow floodplain that was prone to heavy flooding. Nevertheless, rainfall in the Nile valley itself remained low until about 9000 BCE, making settled life in the valley difficult.

These unfavourable climatic conditions virtually preclude the use of the Nile valley by the remnants of Hancock’s ‘lost civilisation’; hunter gatherers would have found few plants or animals to exploit, while farmland would have devastated by frequent floods and the shifting of the numerous braided river channels. Population levels would have been small and communities necessarily mobile. Moreover, the sites of the Great Sphinx, the Valley Temple and the Osireion were covered by a considerable depth of alluvial deposits at this time; if they had been built in the eleventh millennium BCE, they would have been at the bottom of pits 25 to 30 m deep! This geological evidence makes archaeological questions irrelevant. It is difficult to see how a society capable of building monuments designed to be permanent could have flourished in such an environment and why, in such an unstable landscape, they would seek or expect to build permanent monuments.