The Saqqara Bird


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1899, somewhere in the Memphis Necropolis close to Saqqara, Egypt,  a few workmen were digging. They were excavating a Mastaba, covered by the desert sand. After a while one of the workmen noticed something, a sealed entrance to the tomb. It seems to still be sealed. They shout to gain the attention from Mr Loret, the leader of the excavation. Together they broke the seal and opened the tomb. Inside were wonderous things but one little wooden bird was put to the side and nearly forgotten. It wasn’t until Khalil Messiha saw the item at the Egyptian Museum it would start to take off.

Hi I’m Fredrik and I’m the host of archeologists and UFOs. What you just heard is my artistic rendering on how today's item was found. This is the podcast where we cover artifacts and ideas from ancient aliens and see if they are true or not. Today we will talk about the Saqqara bird, a little wooden statue where little research has been done but many claims have been made about it. Some believe that this is evidence that the ancient Egyptians did know how to fly. 

What we do know is that the bird is made out of wood and is 18 cm long. It has inventarie numbers JE 33109, SR 4/ 6347. It was excavated by Victor Loret during 1899 but unfortunately we don’t have a more exact date on when it was found. The item was discovered in the Memphis Necropolis close to Saqqara, the location is unfortunately not noted in The Registration Collection Management and Documentation Department at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It’s not mentioned in Lorets own notes for 1899 either. Leaving us to wonder exactly where Loret found it. But today you would be able to find it in room 22 at the Egyptian museum in Cairo.

Saqqara bird at Egyptian Museum
The Saqqara Bird as displayed in Cairo at the Egyptian Museum. Photo By Dawoudk - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, The Saqqara artifact

I have seen references to a Pad-di-imen or amun but it is based on an article in Egypt Travel Magazine number 153 from 1973. Except that number 153 was published in 1969 and that the magazine does not seem to have been published in the 70's. So my suspicion is that this article does not exist, but if you dear listeners happen to have it, feel free to send it to me. Prove me wrong on this point.

But from the style and context we’re quite sure it’s from the Ptolemaic period in Egypt. So it’s from somewhere between 305 BCE and 30 CE with the death of Cleopetra the seventh. The ptolemaic period is the last dynasty of what we might call the classical Egypt. The Ptolemaic dynasty started after the death of Alexander the Great and one of his generals, Ptolemy I Soter, seized power in Egypt.

So we know very little but where do all of these claims come from? It started with Khalil Messiha, he was a physician and a dowser. Apart from his interest in new age methods of finding things he was a flight enthusiast. One day at the Egyptian Museum he spotted this little wooden bird and thought “hey, that looks quite aerodynamic”. Exactly when this happened is as with a lot in this story unclear. But he did go on to publish an article in 1991 called  "Aeronautics: African Experimental Aeronautics: A 2000-Year Old Model Glider". Messiha does say that this wooden bird is a model of a glider.

Looking at it, sure it looks somewhat aerodynamic, but at the same point so do statues in general of birds. But people who believe that this would represent a glider point towards the horizontal tail. Birds usually don’t have a horizontal tail, they have a vertical tail. Why you might ask? It’s so a horizontal stabilizer with flaps can go there. According to the proponents it’s broken off. But if you were to look closely you would notice that it does have a small dent. But on top of the tail, if you look closely, is a smooth surface. So the stabilizer was not carved out on the top. The Egyptian woodwork would have used plugs as for the wings so I don’t think anything went on to the tail.

Let’s humor the sailplane theory. How would it be launched? Today the most common way to launch a sailplane today is with another airplane. But the proponents at least don’t think they had engines back then, so how? Well, the main idea seems to be that they used a catapult. But then we have another issue, from what I find it seems as if they mean a trebuchet. Sure, there was a trebuchet-like catapult in china from the 4th century BCE. But they seem to not have been popular in the mediterranean until the Byzantine empire. 

But let’s assume then they would use a greek catapult for this, it would be fitting for the ptolemaic dating of the bird. These catapults were not that big but some sources say that they could throw projectiles up toward 250 kg. So could it hearl an early glider plane? Depending on material, maybe? But I don’t believe it would have been pleasant or efficient. It would probably just have been a tug on the rope and the plane moved a few meters. That might be a reason why you can’t find examples of gliders launched with this method. Some proponents bring up the winch launch method and bungee cord method.

But for the vinch method it’s usually left out that it needs an engine that’s quite powerful. So what they then do is to add a rope to the vinch and the plane and then quickly pull it preferably against the wind to get a higher launch. The bungee method then?

It was somewhat used in the early days and some still use it today even if it’s rare. For it to work you stand on the top of a large hill, you fasten an elastic bungee cord to a hook on the plane. Then you lock the wheels of the glider and then four people pull the cord back. On a signal the wheels are freed and the plane shouts out like an arrow. This should also be made with a strong headwind to get some extra lift. The downside is that with the bungy method you don’t fly weary far. We also don’t have any evidence that the ancient Egyptians made or had knowledge about rubber or access to it.

It’s good to know that the prevailing wind pattern in Egypt is north to south. This is maybe most visible in depictions of boats on the Nile. If you look at a drawing you can see if the boat is traveling south or north by the presence of sails. No sail but ours means the boat is going north, sails and no oars means it’s heading south. 

Then we get to maybe the most important part. Is it really aerodynamically shaped? Well again, if you create a bird it will to some extent by default be aerodynamic. Just as a paper plane will somewhat fly.

But all the different “studies” on how aerodynamic the bird really is usually have to admit that they have changed a few things on the bird.  It’s the same when you can see it in different documentaries where they put it in wind tunnels. Usually the wings are shaped more as modern plane wings and it’s a bit more streamlined. So this part doesn't really hold up either.

The proponents haven’t really shown how this little 18 cm statue would really be a scale model of a plane. Or what they would have used these for? It would have had a really limited range and uses. It could have been used as part of a religious ritual but then I think we would have seen more documentation of it from the ancient egyptians.

But what was the bird made for then? To be honest we don’t know, a local variation of Horus is one theory. Maybe it was a toy that was dear to the owner of the tomb? We do know that they tended to put in things that the deceased would have used for in the afterlife. Maybe it was an avid falconeer? To be honest, we don’t know and maybe we'll never know for sure. But if it’s something we can be sure of is that this is not evidence for gliders in ancient egypt. 

Did you like this episode? Please leave a review on your podcast player! If you want to hear more of me you should check out our sistershow “Digging Up Ancient Aliens” where we watch the TV-series and break down the claims in a long form format. We often have fun guests like Blake Smith from monstertalk, dr Bill Farley from videogame archeology or dr. Tine Rassalle. 

Until next time, stay curious.    

References

EGYPT TRAVEL MAGAZINE. N. 153. 1969 [online] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20220315131110/https://www.abebooks.co.uk/EGYPT-TRAVEL-MAGAZINE-N-153-1969/22713710816/bd [Accessed 23 May 2022].

Eric William Marsden (1999). Greek and Roman artillery : historical development. London: Sandpiper Books.

Faa.gov. (2022). Glider Handbook | Federal Aviation Administration. [online] Available at: https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/handbooks_manuals/aviation/glider_handbook .

Loret, V. (1899). Fouilles dans la nécropole memphite: (1897 - 1899). [online] Cairo: IMPBIMERIB NATIONALE. Available at: https://doi.org/10.11588/diglit.3716#0002.

Piacentini, P., Orsenigo, Christian & Quirke, Stephen, 2005. The Valley of the Kings rediscovered : the Victor Loret excavation journals (1898-1899) and other manuscripts / Patrizia Piacentini, Christian Orsenigo ; translated by Stephen Quirke., Milano: Università€ degli studi di Milano.

The Registration Collection Management and Documentation Department (2022). Information regarding object in collection. [E-mail] About object JE 33109, SR 4/ 6347.

Wooden bird. c.a. 305-30 BCE. [Wooden statue]. At Egyptian Museum Kairo. JE 33109, SR 4/ 6347