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For 100 years, lion-man sleeps in Penn Museum

PHILADELPHIA — When the University of Pennsylvania's 15-ton stone sphinx was brought to Philadelphia from the ruins of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, its much-anticipated delivery was delayed by, among other things, the 1913 World Series.

"Once it arrived in Philadelphia, because the World Series had started, they couldn't get dock workers to unload it," said Alessandro Pezzati, archivist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the sphinx's home for the last century.

After the Athletics beat the New York Giants by four games to one, the sphinx was delivered to the university, where it generated much buzz.

"A lot of newspapers up and down the East Coast covered it, and visitors from up and down the East Coast came to see it," said Jennifer Wegner, an Egyptologist and associate curator of the museum's Egyptian section.

This month, the museum is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its ownership of the 3,200-year-old sculpture — the largest Egyptian sphinx in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth-largest outside Egypt.

Wegner and her husband, Josef, an Egyptologist and associate curator of the museum's Egyptian section, are working on a book, tentatively titled "The Sphinx That Traveled to Philadelphia: The Story of the Colossal Sphinx in the Penn Museum."

Carved from red granite, the sculpture of a lion's body with the featureless head of a man is almost 13 feet long, more than 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It is the centerpiece of the museum's Coxe Egyptian Wing.

Jennifer Wegner, an authority on Egyptian hieroglyphs, said the sphinx bears the names of Pharaohs Ramses II (the Great) and his son Merenptah, who both reigned from 1292 to 1190 B.C.

The sphinx was excavated in Memphis in 1912 by the British archaeologist Sir W.M. Flinders Petrie in the area of the Palace of Merenptah. It was offered to the museum under an agreement with the Egyptian Antiquities Service in return for museum support of the excavation and was brought to Philadelphia a year later on a German freighter, designated "undesirable cargo" because of its weight. Josef Wegner said it cost about $800 to ship the sphinx to Philadelphia.

When it arrived in South Philadelphia, it was so large it could not be unloaded there. So it was ferried up the Delaware to Port Richmond, where it was lifted by crane and placed on a rail car.

"It cost just as much to get it here from the dock as it did to bring it from Egypt," Josef Wegner said.

The sphinx's face had been obliterated by blowing sand during the centuries it spent buried up to its shoulders in the desert, he said. Its body is intact.

The sphinx also endured the elements in Philadelphia. For its first three years in the city, the ancient sculpture was kept outdoors in the museum's courtyard while its indoor home was being prepared.

Photos from the time show the patient lion-man incongruously bedecked with a thick blanket of snow.

The Wegners, who have worked extensively in Egypt, also are collectors of sphinx-related kitsch, which will be displayed at the museum during the month of special events.

"We have everything from liquor decanters in the shape of sphinxes, to candlestick holders and a cookie jar," Jennifer Wegner said, plus sneakers with images of sphinxes, sphinx-related toys, and a Cleopatra Barbie doll. "I'm not allowed on eBay anymore," she confessed.

"Ancient Egypt is something that has captured the imagination of the public for centuries," Jennifer Wegner said. "And the sphinx is one of the highlights of the museum. I don't think the sphinx has ever diminished in popularity here."

For 100 years, lion-man sleeps in Penn Museum 10/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 18, 2013 6:55pm]
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