Published on May 7, 2015
By Thomas Van Hare
In 1898, the famed “Egyptologists” of old uncovered the tomb of Pa-di-Imen at Saqqara, Egypt. As with every great discovery of that era (and most since!), the tomb find was replete with artifacts, painted walls, mummies and all of the goods and worldly belongings that were left behind to aid the deceased in the afterlife.
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Yet there, amidst the usual tools, arts, pottery, and more, the archaeologists found a small wooden carved bird. It rested gently on a table of sorts laid there by unknown hands 2,200 years ago in approximately 200 BC. The little wooden bird was nearly perfectly symmetrical, weighing a shade more than 39 grams (a bit less than 1.4 ounces). Further, it was observed that the bird model had been meticulously carved from the wood of a sycamore tree. A wing, carved separately and fitted into a groove on the top of the fuselage, measured in span exactly 180 mm (7.1 inches).
Amazingly, the wings were beautifully crafted, complete with a modern airfoil shape and reversal dihedral (also known as anhedral, meaning that the wings drooped toward the tips, rather than rising slightly as is common in modern airplanes). The fuselage tapered perfectly, its form so aerodynamic that when seen from above, it shares the shape of a modern Cirrus SR20 plane. To the mind of the 1898 archaeologist, given that the Wright Brothers’ first flight was still five years in the future, the little bird was simply categorized as a representation of an actual bird, though left without decoration.
Strangely, unlike any known bird, the tail was rotated 90 degrees to the vertical, as if forming a rudder. As a result, if one were to try to fly it, or think of it as a bird, the design lacks the pitch stabilization that derives from a horizontal stabilizer, making actual flight impossible. Unless….
The Case of the Missing Tail
In 1969, Dr. Khalil Messiha, a Professor of Anatomy for the Artists at Helwan University in Egypt, came across the model amidst a display of sculptures of birds in a display case at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. As a member of both the Royal Aeromodellers Club and Egyptian Aeronautical Club, he saw it as something different than the other bird models with which it was displayed. To him, it carried the unmistakable characteristics of a model airplane.
Additionally, Prof. Messiha noted that the little wooden bird was markedly different from the other carved birds on display. Those were more accurate if stylized representations of actual birds. The Saqqara Bird, as he quickly dubbed it, was unlike the other. It had no feet nor painted or carved feathers. It carried no decoration of any kind except a small eye painted on the right side.
Applying a modernist’s mind to the questions of archaeology (always a dangerously seductive practice), he surmised that the decorations had been left off the bird because they would have been useless aerodynamically, bringing unnecessary weight. He examined the tail closely, noting the absence of the much-needed horizontal stabilizer. Undeterred, he surmised that the flat bottom of the vertical fin had once been the attachment point of a horizontal stabilizer, even if there was no physical evidence of it (later writers would incorrectly claim grooves and other evidence of a tail). He proclaimed that the critical piece of the tail must have been lost at some point. Armed with his unabashedly modern theories, he raised the question of the Saqqara Bird with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and asked for an investigation.
Models and Proofs
Naturally, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture found little more in its investigation. The matter required more evaluation and creativity if Prof. Messiha was to prove his point. And thus, he embarked on his own set of tests.
Not satisfied with the confidence that a like model, if built with the added tail and the correct balance, would be airworthy, Prof. Messiha decided to build one himself. Naturally, he found that with the necessary modifications that his modern knowledge brought to the challenge, the model he built flew perfectly well, if for only a few meters when thrown by hand. Others later built similar balsa models and found that they too flew reasonably well, so long as the center of gravity (CG, or balance point) fell about 1/3 of the way back along the chord of the wing.
The question of balance in the original model, however, was never evaluated fully, though it seems likely that even with the wider fuselage toward the nose, the CG would have fallen somewhere behind the trailing edge of the wing, making flight impossible. When adding the claimed “missing tail”, the balance point would have fallen even further aft. In other words, models built along the same plan require weights to bring the balance point far enough forward to achieve flight.
Despite this, Prof. Messiha armed himself with the knowledge that his modern-made model with its added tail could indeed fly.
The Claim of Egypt as First in Flight
Prof. Messiha went on to make a most outlandish claim that the original Saqqara Bird was indeed exactly that — a flying model aeroplane. To support his claim, Prof. Messiha pointed out that many Egyptian tombs contained small models of things that the recently departed (and mummified) might need in the afterlife. Models of chariots, ships, people, buildings, temples, and other items were frequently found when tombs were excavated. It didn’t take much for him to equate one model with the other and make the statement that the Saqqara Bird was in fact a model of the real thing — and therefore, it could be an Egyptian Aeroplane in miniature.
Prof. Messiha’s claim, as wild as it may seem, was quickly picked up by the popular press. Soon, books and articles were written claiming that the Wright Brothers had been preceded into the air by the Pharaohs, that the Egyptians had once soared over the pyramids and looked down on the Nile, and so forth. Prof. Messiha himself added fuel to the fire with his claim that with enough digging around Saqqara, the remains of the great glider itself might yet be found — in full size and in all its grandeur!
The Obvious Flaws in the Claim
Whatever the truth of it might be, what we can say is that “one + apples does not equal clouds”. The scientific method is far more demanding than making leaps of faith and imagination without physical evidence. While it is possible that one day a full-size Egyptian flying machine might be dug from the sands of Saqqara, until then, physical evidence is lacking.
Furthermore, the logical progression involved with Prof. Messiha’s conclusions is flawed. The entire matter calls for a huge leap of faith. For instance, one clear piece of flawed logic is that just because models of real chariots and ships et al are found in tombs then the Saqqara Bird must be a model of a real glider. On review, not everything found in a tomb is a model — in fact, most things are not models at all.
Likewise, the claim of the missing tail seems awkward too, as wouldn’t the tail have been found in the original excavation and notes kept to reflect that point? Certainly mistakes happen, but this critical one seems too hopeful to be true. Researching the provenance of the Saqqara Bird is also somewhat problematic — the museum records that it was found by a French archaeologist named “Lauret”, rather than a British one. That is perhaps a misspelling of Victor Loret, who excavated at Saqqara in 1898 and uncovered the tomb of Khuit, one of the wives of the Pharaoh Teti from the Sixth Dynasty, but then again, maybe not. As for the “Tomb of Pa-di-Imen”, that too is somewhat hard to track down.
As for the center of gravity falling behind the wing? Certainly it could be that the Saqqara Bird was a model of the real thing and hence hadn’t really been designed to fly. Perhaps, one could claim, the Saqqara Bird was a stylized representation of the real Egyptian flying machine…. However, if that is the case, then we’re not much nearer to knowing just what the Egyptians may have flown in the first place!
Ultimately, if we apply to science the same lax rules as Prof. Messiha has, then the Saqqara Bird could just as easily be a small representation of an unknown huge gold statue of a long-forgotten Egyptian Bird Goddess, n’est pas? It seems equally likely that the many paintings of the broad-winged Goddess Isis could be reinterpreted as evidence that the Egyptians invented wingsuits! Finally, it doesn’t help the case that Prof. Messiha is also a self-proclaimed dowser and parapsychologist, quasi-scientific fields that are seen as more than a little questionable.
Some of those who have since experimented and developed flying models based on the Saqqara Bird have reported some good results — yet one deserves special mention: Martin Gregorie, and it is well worth visiting his article on the subject. Among his conclusions shedding serious doubt on the Saqqara Bird’s place is in aviation history is this phrase: “it flies more like a brick with fins than an aircraft.”
Others have taken a more reasonably defensible stance, though still one heavily steeped in modernism and guesswork. The most widely accepted theory is that the Saqqara Bird was once a child’s toy. Presumably, however, this would also likely mean that a child, having observed the flight of birds, would likely throw it in hopes that it too would fly, thus making it a model airplane glider after all.
Still others claimed the Saqqara Bird to be a weather vane, as such, they note that it might have been quite useful in measuring the direction of the wind. This claim has even less hope of basis in reality — the Saqqara Bird has no holes on the nose for mounting to a string and seems hardly big enough to catch sufficient wind to lift itself from its position hanging vertically from a pole. If the wind was really blowing, then a weather vane would seem hardly necessary! Where does the idea of weather vanes in ancient Egypt come from? Did they have those? Did they need them?
And why haven’t we found more weather vanes? Or more child’s airplane toys?
Of Crackpots and Aliens
It seems like with every passing year a new theory emerges as to the real purpose of the Saqqara Bird. One web author intoned her theory with the same seriousness of faith that buoys the UFOologists in the quietly whispered hope that mankind will be saved by aliens one day soon. The Saqqara Bird, she wrote, was left behind by the same ancient aliens who taught the Egyptians how to build the pyramids.
OK, it might sound preposterous, but we all have to admit that such claims do tug on the imagination. If one links the two, it isn’t hard to imagine Cleopatra inspecting her kingdom and armies from above, having launched herself in the Saqqara Glider from atop one of her pyramids! And what better reason to build a pyramid than to have a proper launch pad? If the wind blows just right, it would rise up the pyramid’s side and create lift….
It all seems like hogwash. The Cleopatra bit might make a good illustrated children’s story.
Ultimately, it seems more likely that the Egyptians did not achieve flight. Indeed, if they had, surely the concept would not have been so easily forgotten in succeeding generations. Surely too the Romans would have written of it in their encounters with the Egyptians. Likewise, amidst the hundreds of Egyptian paintings, countless papyrus documents, and massive records trove that give us a window into ancient Egypt, there is no mention whatsoever of a flying machine. The Flying Priests of Ra Horakhty would have deserved mention, and wouldn’t they have been equated with the very gods themselves? Yet they do not fly — somehow! And if they did, why not a priestly airshow complete with aerobatics? (OK, now, I’m joking.)
Anyway, these simple points should convince even the most hopeful believer of the hopelessness of the case of the Saqqara Glider, though it does not. Rather, it seems that the dream of finding an intact Egyptian glider buried in the sands will be with us for a long time to come.
We can say one more thing with some confidence — the Saqqara Bird might well be a flying model or more likely a copy of one. To imagine that this small carved piece of wood is meant as an actual representation of a bird seems equally strange. It is a falcon-shape, like several of the popular gods of Egypt. Equally, to imagine that it was made so perfectly symmetrical and left undecorated is bizarre. Finally, to imagine that this carved, undecorated bird was valued so much as to be left behind in a tomb forms quite a quandary.
To the modern mind, the Saqqara Bird beckons to be thrown — but would an ancient Egyptian also have seen it that way? Would a Pharaoh’s daughter have tried her hand at tossing the diminutive glider across the sands? It seems a likely scenario. However, the likely outcome of each such flight would be a dented nose, something that is notably absent on the original.
Probably we’ll never know.
A Final Word
Today, the Saqqara Bird can be seen in Room 22 of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The sycamore wood is aged and fragile, discolored to a dirty tan-brown that testifies to its age. After nearly 2,200 years, it is mounted on a post. A small hole has been drilled into the bottom so that it could be propped up for easier viewing. Underneath the wing, the archivists have scrawled a number to track its place in the collection. Otherwise, it is undamaged — except for the “missing tail”, if you believe that.
Displayed as it is, the Saqqara Bird appears today as if it is in flight. Flight is its undeniably natural position. It is meant to be a bird. Yet whether the Saqqara Bird was intended as a child’s toy, an overly small and too heavy weather vane, or a model of a larger design — or what? — that may never be known. We are all left in wonder, just as every child looks to the skies with that same wonder and asks a simple question: Can you tell me again how those airplanes fly?
Aviation is an amazing thing.
Is there anyone who has and wouldn’t mind sharing an .stl file for 3D printing of the Saqqara Bird? If so, let us know and we’ll publish it here with credit to you as the designer!