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A cat with a human head.

A cat with a human head lays on its stomach with its back legs drawn up and its paws sitting next to its torso and front legs laid out in front of it. Its human head is carved in greater detail than its body. It is angled to the right so that the face is mostly in profile and one large round ear is visible. It seems to look slightly upward. It has hair or a headdress that starts right above its brows and drapes down to the ground. It is black and mostly polished.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Weight in the Form of a Crouching Sphinx
Tools and Equipment
Work Type
late 8th-early 7th century BCE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Europe
Geometric period to Orientalizing
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Cast, lost-wax process
3.3 x 3.3 x 6.9 cm (1 5/16 x 1 5/16 x 2 11/16 in.)
Technical Details

Chemical Composition: XRF data from Tracer
Alloy: Copper
Alloying Elements: copper
Other Elements: lead, iron, arsenic

K. Eremin, January 2014

Technical Observations: The sphinx was hollow cast using the lost-wax technique and subsequently filled with lead. The lead was identified by microchemical testing. The surface is worn; the patina is shiny brown and red, with pitted spots of green.

Carol Snow (submitted 2002)

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Friends of Art and Music at Harvard Fund
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
The sphinx reclines fully in majestic repose. Its massive head is out of proportion to the rest of its body. Its face, with prominent nose, staring eyes, summarily rendered lips, and pointed chin, is triangular. Its large ears project diagonally from the edge of the head. The front of the body is a single diagonal surface from which project two short forelegs ending in rounded paws with articulated claws. The haunches of the hind legs extend upward in rounded triangular projections. The feet of the hind legs project outward and also reveal individual claws. The sphinx has no tail. A rectangular cavity in the flat base of the sphinx contained a lead filling.

Sphinxes, male and female, have long been prominent members of the cast of imaginary composite creatures that populated the ancient Mediterranean imagination. The Egyptian sphinx, with a lion’s body and a male head, is the projection of the fierce fighting power of the pharaoh. This type of sphinx appears to be the inspiration for the small recumbent sphinx in the Harvard collection, 1949.11. The Hellenic sphinx, however, is always female, with a human head and a body that varies between feline and canine characteristics and usually has wings, such as 1950.137 (1). This type is first seen in ivories, wall paintings, and engraved gems of the Aegean mainland in the Late Bronze Age. It then migrates to the Near East, returning to the Greek repertoire during the seventh century BCE and later as a motif in the Orientalizing period. Female sphinxes, dangerous and unpredictable, are especially prominent as guardians of graves (2). The best-known sphinx in Greek mythology is the Theban sphinx who killed any passersby unable to answer her riddle, which was finally solved by Oedipus.

This small sphinx betrays its Egyptian inspiration in its repose and the massive forms of its head and body. It probably belongs to a group of zoomorphic bronze weights that turn up in sites and on shipwrecks all along the eastern Mediterranean littoral. Particularly close is a sphinx weight recovered from the Ulu Burun shipwreck off the southern coast of Turkey dating to c. 1300 BCE (3). However, the style of the Ulu Burun sphinx weight differs from that of the Harvard sphinx (4). G. M. A. Hanfmann’s date of c. 700 BCE is probably accurate. The weight itself appears to have North Syrian characteristics and recalls unfinished basalt sculptures from the quarry site at Yesemek. This sphinx, then, belongs to a long tradition of zoomorphic weights in the Eastern Mediterranean and adjacent Near Eastern cultures that probably begins in the early second millennium BCE and extends into the North Syrian and Neo-Assyrian Iron Age. However, it could well be much earlier and have been handed down for many years.


1. For Greek sphinxes and their Near Eastern antecedents, see J. M. Padgett, The Centaur’s Smile, exh. cat., Princeton University Art Museum (New Haven, 2003) 78-83 and 261-83; and A. Dessenne, Le Sphinx: Étude iconographique (Paris, 1957).

2. See E. Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley, 1979).

3. C. Pulak, “The Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun, Turkey: 1985 Campaign,” American Journal of Archaeology 92 (1988): 1-37, esp. 30-31, no. KW 468, fig. 37.

4. G. F. Bass, pers. comm.

David G. Mitten

Publication History

  • Jacqueline Chittenden and Charles Seltman, Greek Art: A Commemorative Catalogue of an Exhibition held in 1946 at the Royal Academy Burlington House in London, exh. cat., Faber & Faber Limited (London, 1947), p. 33, no. 122.
  • George M. A. Hanfmann, Greek Art and Life, An Exhibition Catalogue, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1950), no. 2.
  • George M. A. Hanfmann, "On Sphinxes", Archaeology (1953), Vol. 6, No. 4, 229-31, p. 299, ill.
  • David Gordon Mitten and Amy Brauer, Dialogue with Antiquity, The Curatorial Achievement of George M. A. Hanfmann, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1982), p. 16, no. 68.

Exhibition History

  • Greek Art and Life: From the Collections of the Fogg Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Private Lenders, Fogg Art Museum, 03/07/1950 - 04/15/1950
  • Dialogue with Antiquity: The Curatorial Achievement of George M.A. Hanfmann, Fogg Art Museum, 05/07/1982 - 06/26/1982

Subjects and Contexts

  • Ancient Bronzes

Related Works

Verification Level

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at