Saturday, July 03, 2010

Shooting Down the Saqqara Bird

Ever heard of the Saqqara Bird? Discovered in 1898, it's an Egyptian artifact believed to be about 2,000 years old. Made of sycamore wood, the bird may have been a ceremonial object, a toy, or even some kind of weather vane, but a lack of historical references to the bird means that we may never know exactly what it was intended for. The bird is a fun historical footnote, a minor mystery whose true purpose may never be known, but it doesn't represent anything earth-shattering...or does it? Anything remotely unexplained in archaeology serves as a lightning rod for crackpot theories, and the Saqqara Bird is no exception. For many years alternative history enthusiasts have been making some pretty incredible claims about the Saqqara Bird.

The Saqqara Bird in all its glory.

One of the hallmarks of the alternative history crowd is the idea that ancient civilizations possessed incredibly advanced technologies that were somehow "lost" to later generations. Pseudohistorians like Erich von Daniken and David Hatcher Childress have become famous by spouting falderal about ancient astronauts, long-lost super technology, and futuristic civilizations that have somehow vanished without a trace. Likewise, ancient Egypt, which boasted numerous legitimate scientific and engineering accomplishments, has long stoked the imaginations of kooks as diverse as Sylvia Browne and Richard Hoagland. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the Saqqara bird, wth its ancient Egyptian origin and tantalizing airplane-like shape, has been the subject of many far-fetched theories.

Specifically, there's no small number of folks out there who'd have you believe that the Saqqara Bird is a functional glider, or perhaps even a prototype model for a full-scale airplane. Nearest I can tell, the first person to claim that the bird was a model/prototype aircraft was Dr. Dawoud Khalil Messiha back in 1969, but the claim may have been most famously made by Hunter Havelin Adams III in the notoriously specious essay African and African American Contributions to Science and Technology. 1 On pages 52 and 53 of this essay, Adams claims
The ancient Egyptian model looks contemporary and bears a strong resemblances to the American Hercules transport aircraft...[Although the glider] could sail through the air for a considerable distance with only a slight hand thrust it definitely was not a toy. It was a model for a full-scale glider! ...[Another source claims that] Egyptians used their early planes for travel, expeditions, and recreation!
Wait...what? The Saqqara Bird looks like a Hercules C-130? A Hercules C-130 is 97 feet long, and has four 4,300 horsepower engines. The Saqqara Bird is about seven inches long and doesn't even have a horizontal stabilizer on its tail. It looks like a modern plane only in the sense that it has wings. I'm also curious to know who Mr. Adams' source can make bold assertions about how the ancient Egyptians used their airplanes when we have nothing in the way of evidence that they had airplanes to begin with.

The History Channel, as part of it's continuing plan to completely discredit itself, recently ran an episode of the show "Ancient Discoveries" which purported to prove that the Saqqara Bird was capable of flight. Have a look.

Wow - those guys put a model of the bird through a wind tunnel AND a computer simulation and they say it can fly! That's conclusive proof, right? Wrong. Watch the video again and pay attention - these guys aren't testing the Saqqara Bird, they're testing a balsa wood model fitted with a large horizontal tail surface. The real bird has no horizontal tail at all and is made from sycamore, which is something like three times as dense as balsa wood. The real conclusion here is that if the Saqqara Bird was made of different material and actually shaped like an airplane, it could fly. How much does that prove?

This is Big Fluffy Puss-Puss, and he can fly...
Or he could, if only he were shaped like this:

More to the point, a few years ago model airplane enthusiast Martin Gregorie tested the flight capabilities of a model of the Saqqara Bird and his results were far less less enthusiastic. Unlike our friends with the History Channel, Gregorie notes that the original bird's wings are of unequal length and are not level with the rest of the body and the vertical tail is actually set at an angle. 2 Take a look at this picture and see for yourself. In order to get a more thorough picture of the bird's potential capabilities, Gregorie experimented with various slightly different configurations for the object's wing and tail structures. He fashioned two wings for his model, one that was curved like the original bird's (which he calls a "scale wing") and one which was flat. He also created two horizontal tail surfaces, a "scale tail" shaped like the wings of the original bird, and a "big tail" that was flat and, er, big. He also experimented with adding additional ballast to the model.

Gregorie's conclusion when launching the model without an added tail surface was as follows:
The model will not fly without a tail...The result is always a pitch up if the model is launched at its gliding speed and a pitch down if launched faster, followed by a tumbling motion. Adding ballast to the nose to move the balance point forward has no effect.
He found that the "scale wing" (which, as you'll recall, closely mimics the wing of the original bird) is somewhat less effective than the flat wing at sustaining a glide, noting that "the scale wing section is rather inefficient and the anhedral built into it makes the model laterally unstable." Directly refuting the earlier claim that "the model could soar through the air with only a slight hand thrust" Gregorie states that:
Even unballasted, the model's flying speed is fairly high. It does not soar and cannot be launched "with a slight jerk of the hand"...Attempts to do so merely result in the model flopping to the ground in a level attitude. It needs a full-arm launch at a fairly high speed to fly at all.
His final conclusion consists of three simple bullet points and reads thusly:
  • The performance of this model proves conclusively that the Saqqara Bird never flew. It is totally unstable without a tailplane. A cursory inspection of the photos shows that it never had one.
  • Even after a tailplane was fitted the glide performance was disappointing. The Saqqara Bird was certainly never a test piece for a low speed, cargo carrying aircraft.
  • The model makes an excellent weather vane. It points directly and steadily into the wind and does not veer from side to side.
I imagine the History Channel couldn't sell as many advertisements for a show talking about how the ancient Egyptians made awesome weather vanes as they could for a show claiming that they soared above the pyramids in fully functional gliders that we've no other archaeological evidence of. The fact of the matter is that the Saqqara Bird cannot fly. It also cannot be jury-rigged to fly without significant changes to the design of the wings and tail and the addition of a horizontal tail surface that nothing save wishful thinking impels us to believe it originally had.

Saying that the Saqqara Bird could possibly have been an ancient weather vane may not be nearly as exciting as claiming that it was the prototype for an Egyptian airplane, but it's almost certainly closer to the truth

1.) The Adams essay is especially troubling because it was distributed to schoolchildren as part of a series of essays about African and African-American history. An extreme Afro-centrist, Adams was willing to throw legitimate African-American scientific contributions under the bus in favor of grandiose pseudohistorical nonsense. See this Skeptical Inquirer article to a full discussion of Adams' bizarre claims.

2.) Gregorie notes that the unequal length of the wings may be due to breakage and subsequent reassembly of the bird.


Jay said...

But, but, but...

Surely you can see that it had the basic characteristics of an airplane - a body, wing...ish things, and a tail...ish thing. Certainly that proves beyond all doubt that it was really a model airplane.

A friend who used to fly F4s told me once that if you put a big enough engine on anything, you can make it fly. Looks like the Saqqara Bird would need a pretty big one.

Good post.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Ultimately I think the fairest and most viscerally satisfying way to decide if the bird could glide or not would just be to wing the thing as hard as possible and see what happens.

Unfortunately I doubt the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities would be game.

Jay said...

If you were to actually perform such a test, the True Believers would argue that the bird wasn't made of the right materials, but if it were built to the right scale out of the right materials it would work. Or that you didn't have the ancient Egyptian Mojo Power Source that it needs. Or that it's Tuesday.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I think the most illustrative thing about the whole affair is that you really never hear actual Egyptologists talking about the bird as anything other than a curiosity,

bite me said...

There are notches on the tail for a rear stabilizer that had obviously fallen off. There would be no purpose for those notches unless something was to be attached at that point.

And as for the weight if the object you assumption makes you look like an ass. Just because it is made of a heavy wood does not mean that whatever it was representing was made of the same material. Look at toys today, Think a toy metal Space Shuttle is ready for flight. This blog is retarded...

Skippy the Skeptic said...

So your argument is that the bird may be an inaccurate representation of another item or vehicle that actually flew...but how does that help us? By that logic, any even vaguely bird-like artifact anywhere could be an inaccurate model of some kind of unknown vehicle. Are you willing to endorse that proposition?

mexi said...

Seems that you supply a whole bunch of Poppycock!!

mexi said...

Oh you moderate too! Classic!

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Care to elucidate?

oolong2 said...

"It reminds me of a modern plane so that MUST be what it is... ...Egyptians must have been flying everywhere and ALIENS must have shown them how to do it!"

That has got to be one of the absurd things I've ever seen. Shame on you History Channel.

The notch on the back could have held a ribbon, a piece of string, or a nut cracker for all we know.

I actually laughed out loud when they tried to compare that thing to a modern glider.

Actually my first reaction was that maybe the person who made it started out by making a fish and then changed his mind and put wings on it ;-)

Anonymous said...

This blog is some pretty solid trolling. The kind only an angry atheist could pull off.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Yeah, clearly only the most hardcore, foaming at the mouth atheist would dare deny that the ancient Egyptians flew around in wooden C-130 cargo jets....

mexi said...

This blog is and looks like it will always contain nothing but horse-shit nonsense!

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Try making an argument or maybe some sort of point...

Katrina Kelsey said...

I am not an atheist, and I am open to all possibilities, but I think that we are underestimating our ancestors. These people had a lot of time on their hands. They did not have modern-day distractions. They were not primative neanderthals, as we like to imagine ancient cilvilations were. They are capable of complex thought. They had more than enough time to figure out principals of gliding with enough trial and error.
I, personally, think that this was a children's toy. It was probably the youth of acient Egypt's answer to our modern-day paper airplanes.

I saw the History Channel program and I thought that this one was interesting, but pretty far-fetched. Why do our ancestors have to be portrayed as idoits who weren't able to do anything without ET's help? I am not convinced ETs helped make the Saqqara Bird. Did ETs give us the plans so that we could make our first gliders, too?

Thanks, Skippy, for giving us some of the background that the History totally neglected in their program.

Ian Chattan said...

The Saqqara 'Bird' is a bird/fish stemming from Isis a double question. Is it a bird? Is it a fish?

Woman Isis is depicted as a bird but can also be a fish, or Carpé diem, from the sea of creation callled the Sea of the Nun.

All part of the riddle.

Is RA El?

As with the riddle of the Sphinx as man gets weaker and weaker the more legs he has.

Hence 7 billion people/fish have 14 billion legs.

Also sheep or simply dogs, etc.

Jésu from J'ai su = I have known.

It is really closest to a flying fish as it has a vertical tail.

Uncle G. said...

According to Wikipedia, there are 64 (known) species of flying fish all around the world. Are we the only two who see the resemblance?
This could explain some South American artifacts, too.
And what about the differences between the "real thing" and these sculptures? Maybe this is how an artist would imagine a flying fish if he never saw one...

Anonymous said...

I thought the point of the whole thing was that it has a modern aerodynamic shape including the body, tail, probably a horizontal stabilizer affixed atop the vertical stabilizer, and wing positioning and characteristics... In other words, the wings possess the needed curved top surface from anterior to posterior surface as well as a flatter bottom... This is huge! Meaning they understood the principle of LAMINAR FLOW. Which people know is the real "scientific aspect" of this piece... Until the Wright bros. discovered this they didnt have much of a chance of achieving lift... Doubtfully a glider as much as an early autocad model. But didnt i hear they found an i-pad in the vicinity as well?

alonzomoralez said...

Didn't the Columbians have a gold model of plane, and this was made into a real model which flew?

Unknown said...

its probably a childrens toy. They could launch it with a stick like an atlatl and watch it glide.

Unknown said...

Alonzomoralez is right! In Columbia they did find ancient artifacts that were made of pure gold. They had both main wings and rear elevators on the tail. When larger scale models were made and tested, they flew very well without any addition attachments. They were not imitations of birds, either, because they had low wing configurations. No bird or animal that flies has a low wing configuration. However, the Columbia case is not what we are talking about but use that case as ballast in your skepticism of ancient knowledge. Open your mind a bit. In fact, why don't you "shoot down" something like that? We will see if you have any balls or if you just like to pick the low hanging fruit like a sissy!

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Hi Dean,

When you talk about the golden models from Colombia, I assume that you're talking about the famous Tolima "fighter jets". Given that very similar figurines from the same region and period depict elaborately stylized animals (there are some especially beautiful jaguar figurines), I think it's fair to approach the "fighter jets" from a similar perspective.

Obviously, that forces us to ask the question of what kind of animal could possibly match the description of the "fighter jets", with their low-mounted wings and vertical tails with horizontal "stabilizers" attached. Furthermore, we would need to be thinking of a kind of animal that exists in South America and so could be known to the people who created the figures.

My bet would be a fish of some kind, possibly any of the freshwater "armored" catfish which are common to the region. Looking at an armored catfish from above, we see that the pectoral fins assume a delta wing-like appearance, and the distal fins take on the appearance of "stabilizer".

That to me seems like a more reasonable interpretation of the artifacts available to us than stretching our logic to turn them into representations of ancient aircraft that we have no other evidence for the existence of.

Love and peace,

Nicking Hamster said...

The thing about the Saqqara bird is that it is lovely.Its head looks like a swift, its tail like a weathervane. If they were made and sold, I'd buy one.

Rabbit said...

There isn't any reason to limiy the interpretations to bird or flying machine. As such this article is no better than any other I have read, regarding either theory. For one thing the vertical tail fails, as a bird model. However far more convincing to me is the possibility it is a flying fish, which would have been well known to the region. Their tails are usually horizontal also, but can twist and I've seen them vertical sometimes as they maneuver. FRankly though it has as much for as against it as a bird, fish or flying machine. Stringently asserting it must be one and not another is poor science and based on flawed assumptions all the way.