The Great Sphinx of Giza might have originally had the face of a lion and could be much older than previously thought, archaeologists have claimed.
Until now its origins have been one of history's most enigmatic mysteries, but a new study suggests that the icon did not have the face of a pharaoh.
The Sphinx is a statue of a reclining lion with a human head, which stands on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile River, near Cairo.
It is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 241 feet long, 20 feet wide and 65 feet high.
Commonly believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians in the 3rd millennium BC, it is the earliest known monumental sculpture.
Using the data retrieved by experts, visual effects artists have created digital images showing the Sphinx as it could have looked before the time of the pyramids.
English geologist Colin Reader said the Sphinx was not only older than previously thought, but may have originally had an entirely different face.
Egyptologists who have studied the Sphinx over the last two hundred years have long argued that it was built soon after the first pyramid - around 4,500 years ago.
But Mr Reader's study has found that rainwater erosion on the Sphinx’s enclosure appears to be consistent with the monument being created before the Great Pyramid in Giza.
A sunken palace on the Giza plateau provides further evidence that there was activity in the area before the building of the pyramids, Mr Reader said.
Its style implies that it is older than the other tombs at the site. Mr Reader said the tomb would have been adapted and embellished by later inhabitants of the area.
Researchers also discovered that the Sphinx’s body and head were disproportionate, suggesting it was not originally a pharaoh.
Historical architect Dr Jonathan Foyle, who worked with Mr Reader on the project, said the head and body were massively out of proportion.
He said the reason for this could be that the Sphinx originally had an entirely different head - that of a lion.
According to this theory, the statue was later re-carved to be modelled on Khufu.
To early Egyptians the lion was a much more potent symbol of power than the human face.
Given that the monument already has the body of a lion it makes sense to the experts that it also originally had the face of a lion.
During Egypt’s early history lions inhabited the wilds of Giza and surrounding areas.
Colin Reader and Dr Jonathan Foyle's findings are part of a documentary called The Secrets of Egypt: Sphinx to be screened on Five at 8pm, Thursday.
The Great Sphinx is thought by most Egyptologists to represent the likeness of King Khafra.
It is also belived by others that Djadefre, the elder brother of Khafra, built the Sphinx to honor his father Khufu.
This would place the time of construction somewhere between 2550 BC and 2450 BC.
However the limited evidence linking the Sphinx to Khafra is circumstantial and somewhat ambiguous.
Geologist Robert Schoch concluded that the Sphinx must be much older than currently believed after an investigation in the 1990s.
Schoch has argued that the particular weathering found on the body of the Sphinx and surrounding 'ditch' the monument was carved from, displays features that can only be caused from prolonged water erosion.
Egypt’s last time period where there was a significant amount of rainfall ended during the late 4th to early 3rd millennium BC.
Schoch claims the amount of water erosion the Sphinx has experienced indicates a construction date no later than the 6th millennium BC or 5th millennium BC, at least two thousand years before the widely accepted construction date and 1,500 years prior to the accepted date for the beginning of Egyptian civilisation.
English geologist Colin Reader concludes that the Sphinx is only several hundred years older than the traditionally accepted date believing the Sphinx to be a product of the Early Dynastic period.
Independently, geologist David Coxill has also come forward to confirm in principle Schoch’s findings, but like Reader has taken a more conservative approach to the dating of the Sphinx.
Both Schoch and Reader base their conclusions not only on the Sphinx and surrounding enclosure, but have also taken into account other weathering features found on the Giza plateau from monuments such as the Sphinx Temple which are known to be consistent with the time period the Sphinx was constructed.
Because these conclusions require a re-dating of the Sphinx to an earlier time before the construction of large monuments, this theory has not been accepted by mainstream Egyptologists.