A limestone sphinx bearing a cheeky grin has been unearthed in southern Egypt, the country’s Tourism and Antiquities Ministry has announced. Discovered at the Hathor Temple some 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Cairo, the cheery relic was accompanied by a Roman-era stone slab engraved with demotic and hieroglyphic inscriptions which are yet to be deciphered.
The ministry describes the sphinx as having “a smiley face and two dimples,” adding that the statue may be a stylized representation of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Egyptologists are currently working to translate the accompanying text in the hope of confirming the identity of the individual immortalized in stone.
A sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a human, the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle. Considered evil and treacherous in Greek mythology, sphinxes are thought to be somewhat more benevolent in the Egyptian tradition.
In both ancient cultures, sphinxes were considered guardians and were often represented at the entrances to temples, palaces or other important buildings. The Hathor Temple, where the beaming statue was found, was once home to a celestial map known as the Dendera Zodiac, which is now housed at the Louvre in Paris.
Emperor Claudius – or Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, to give him his full handle – was the fourth Roman Emperor and ruled in the first century CE. Thought to have had a disability such as cerebral palsy and possible Tourette’s syndrome, the ancient sovereign overcame the odds and is remembered as one of Rome’s greatest military leaders.
Best known for overseeing the Roman conquest of Britain, Claudius also masterminded the Empire’s expansion into North Africa and the Middle East, so statues celebrating his greatness are perhaps to be expected in Egypt. Aside from his marauding escapades, Claudius is also famous for his eventual demise at the hands of his scheming wife Agrippina, who arranged to have the Emperor poisoned so that her son, Nero, could ascend to the throne.
The discovery of the sphinx caps an exciting week of announcements for Egypt’s Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, and follows the discovery of a hidden passage inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. And while the newly-unearthed smiling figure may be miniscule in comparison to the enormous sphinx that guards the famous pyramid, the clues it harbors could help us expand our knowledge of the ancient world.