The Saqqara Bird

Saqqara Bird 2Here’s something that is more myth-conception (said with a lisp) than based on any real fact—the Ancient Egyptian plane.

What is the proof that such a thing could exist? Apparently someone back in 1898 found a sycamore wood, bird-shaped artifact while digging out the Pa-di-Imen tomb in Saqqara, Egypt.

It has been dated to 200 BCE, and is now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt. Room 22, if you are in the area. Special Register No. 6347, with the number 33109 written on the bottom of the port (left) wing. Or so I hear. I can’t confirm the numbers above.

That’s it in the photo above. It is known as the Saqqara Bird.

It measures:

  • Wingspan: 180-mm (7.08661-inches);
  • Body length: 142-mm (5.59055-inches);
  • Body Width: 24-mm (0.94488-inches);
  • Weight: 39.12-grams (1.3799-ounces).

If you were to find something like this, your initial instinct would be to wonder for whom this child’s toy was made or for what ancient ceremony it might have been used for.  I thought ‘toy’ .

You certainly wouldn’t mistake it for evidence that the ancient Egyptians were thinking of building an airplane.

But… what the heck – let’s find out some more.

To me, the bird looks like a falcon… because Horus, one of the great Egyptian gods was human-shaped with a falcon head. Horus was the Egyptian god of sun, war and protection.

While I do not believe there is evidence to support the fact that the ancient Egyptians ever practiced falconry, many mummified remains of falcons have been found in tombs… maybe it was cheaper to place a real bird in a necropolis than to purchase a carved one – for some people.

Toy? Perhaps it was a figurehead placed on a boat for a festival… or perhaps on a fishing boat… but why would they not also have found a boat with it?  Perhaps, perhaps not… it all depends on the level of finances made available to the deceased for preparation to the afterlife.

While the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities does not offer an answer as to the function of the bird, Khalil Messiha, Professor of Anatomy for the Artists at Helwan University (and member of the Royal Aeromodellars Club, Egypt, and the Egyptian Aeronautical club) thought it was proof that it is a model of an actual working aircraft.

BY the way… that is a REAL university – and an accredited one. As well, Messiha was a Fine Arts professor… so, perhaps he does know a thing or two about the shapes of things.

So… sometime in 1969 (I’m making the ‘toking a joint’ hand gesture here), Prock (professor doctor) Messiha was checking out the display at the museum… in fact, he was actually checking out a display the museum had labelled “bird figurines”.

Now… in Messiha’s defense, apparently MOST of the figurines were most definitely bird sculptures… but one caught his eye – the now so-called Saqqara Bird.

Saqqara Bird 1
He says that the model has physical characteristics NOT found on birds, but rather ARE found on airplanes… you know… like the modern ones we had in 1969 (which I would assume is the pinnacle of the ancient Egyptians progress in aviation – even though they did build the pyramids with a mixture of slave labor and magic – I say tongue in cheek.)

The key differences spotted by Messiha are kind of intriguing, though.

Look at the photo again. Look at the tail of the bird. It’s upright.

Have you ever seen a bird with a vertical tail? Now think about a modern airplane – that’s upright.

Messiha… crazy like a foxbat!

According to Messiha, (in Messiha, Khalil, Guirguis Messiha, Gamal Mokhtar, and Michael Frenchman. “African Experimental Aeronautics: A 2,000-Year-Old Model Glider” in Van Sertima, ed. Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, 1983, pp.92-99), he wrote, “One can note also that there is a Dihedral angle which is slightly unequal on both sides due to slight distortion of the wood, caused by the passage of time… The body is made of the same wood as the wing and has an aerofoil shape beautifully carved and smooth. Its nose is pyramidal in shape with one eye painted on its right surface.”

Messiha also says that there was no evidence of painted on feathers for a bird representation (heck, I have paint falling off my walls because seven years ago someone (my father) used the wrong type of paint on the wrong type of surface. He was painting the place to sell – and then my family and I moved in. I can live with the falling paint.)

Messiha does say that there is paint denoting eyes, and that there are “two faint reddish lines surrounding the belly under the grooves.

Please not that the peg underneath the Saqqara Bird model in the museum was added there by the museum for display purposes only.

Apparently Mussiha spotted that the wings on the Saqqara Bird model are set at an angle – like airplane wings with a slight downward arc towards each wingtip… and that since the carving lacked legs – as all birds have legs – it therefore was more representative of something non-bird-like…

As such… Messiha though this representation of a bird-like figure was perhaps more representative of the ancient Egyptians having the knowledge to construct some sort of as yet  unidentified flying object.

Wait… you don’t think a UFO helped build the pyramids, do you? Sigh.

At least Messiha didn’t go there.

He says he built a model of the Saqqara Bird – and rather than construct it of the lightweight sycamore wood he knew it was actually made from, he decided to use the even lighter form of balsa wood.

He built a wooden glider.

Messiha says his model – some six times larger than the original Ancient Egyptian Saqqara Bird model, and now fitted with an added horizontal tail plane stabilizer – was able to fly through the air for a few yards when thrown by hand.

Well… I want you to know that besides being able to throw a few verbal jabs, I can also sling non-aerodynamic-shaped objects like… I don’t know… a book, a crumpled wad of paper or even a rock many, many yards when thrown by my hand.

Messiha added that tailplane stabilizer to his model, because he actually believed it to be missing from the original Saqqara Bird model… apparently there is a flattening aspect back there, which he surmises must be for a missing stabilizer.

Wear a parachute for that leap of faith!

Is it just me or does it seem that anyone could become a professor because they wanted to? I myself state on LinkedIn that I am a CEO (of my blogs), because that’s simply what I decided to call myself. There’s nothing to stop me from adding the word “Ghostbuster” to my business cards, either. I’m just saying, is all.

So… Messiha says he was able to make his model of the Saqqara Bird fly. To him, this was proof-positive that the Saqqara Bird was a model of an Ancient Egyptian aircraft design – a glider, if you will.

Others heard of this success, but like any good scientific proof, the results must be able to be replicated.

One Martin Gregorie – a builder and designer of free flight gliders took up the challenge… and built another Saqqara Bird model of balsa wood.

The results, according to Gregorie: “The Saqqara Bird never flew. It is totally unstable without a tailplane… Even after a tailplane was fitted the glide performance was disappointing.

But that was just ONE test FOR flight, and ONE test AGAINST flight.

Apparently an aerodynamics expert named Simon Sanderson built and tested another Saqqara Bird model.

Without a tailplane – like the original Saqqara Bird model – Sanderson tested it in a wind tunnel.

Results: It produced “four times the glider’s own weight in lift.

Sanderson then added a stabilizing tailplane to the model and applied it all into a flight simulator. Virtual flight here.

So… he added in computer information to create wind streams and conditions representative of what they might have been in Egypt (ancient Egypt, I hope) and discovered that the VIRTUAL Saqqara Bird model flew… and flew quite well.

Over 2,000 years after the ancient Egyptians carved this mysterious bird, modern technology has proved beyond doubt that it could have flown,” states Sanderson.

My only question is why he did not add the tail stabilizer to his model and subject it to the wind tunnel.

It is intriguing… but hardly definitive.

Now… to be fair… it IS possible that the Saqqara Bird model is indeed a model of a very, very early airplane… but I’m saying that perhaps this model airplane was one that didn’t work… or didn’t work very well.

That’s the key here… how many airplanes were built in the early days of our acknowledged pioneering days of aviation that failed miserably? Hundreds? Thousands?

Maybe this Saqqara Bird model was just one Ancient Egyptian’s attempt to create a working toy glider or a forerunner of bigger things to come.

Perhaps because the model didn’t fly or fly well was reason enough not to continue the research.

Perhaps.

We all assume that everything we find in the ground or in a tomb must have been made by some great master artist – stupid people create things, too. It doesn’t mean it’s representative of an industry.

Perhaps the vertical tail was a cock-up. Perhaps it was done on purpose because the carver was being artistic rather than realistic.

I would be more impressed with everyone’s test results on gliding if they ALL built their models out of sycamore wood rather than balsa – and if it then glided well.

The Saqqara Bird – take from this story what you will. It really COULD have been someone’s attempt to make a glider (a toy one, even)… or it could simply have been a decoration for any number of things.

Start working on that time machine, and perhaps one day we’ll know for sure – just remember to take back ancient forms of money back with you and avoid stepping on any butterflies.

Oh – and thanks, Julien, for the heads-up.

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About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. Along with writing for a monthly industrial magazine, he also writes comic books and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. Along with the daily Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife blog, when he feels the hate, will also write another blog entitled: You Know What I Hate? He also works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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