A 2,200 Ancient Egyptian Glider? Here’s What You Need to Know About the Saqqara Bird
Okay, so it’s not an actual real-life bird and therefore not a true “cryptid” per se, but the Saqqara Bird is nonetheless an interesting and mysterious artifact from the ancient past with many possible and opposing explanations.
The Saqqara Bird is a small wooden figurine that was excavated in 1898 from a tomb in Saqqara, Egypt.
It’s estimated to be about 2,200 years old and is shaped something like what we’d recognize as a modern-day aeroplane with the head of a bird.
It’s a controversial piece because it’s prompted some people to speculate that the ancient Egyptians may have understood the processes of aerodynamics and that the Saqqara Bird may have been a scale model of an actual working aircraft or glider of some type.
Mainstream researchers chalk the artifact up to nothing more than a carving of an actual bird that takes on some of the characteristics of a glider by coincidence, a child’s toy, a boomerang, or an early weather vane.
However, Dr. Khalil Messiha published a paper in 1991 called African Experimental Aeronautics: A 2,000-Year-Old Model Glider wherein he detailed the following:
“The wing is made of one piece of wood, and its span is exactly 18 cms. The part of the body is the thickest—8 millimetres. Then it tapers in thickness towards the tips. 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 “Dihedral angle” in this case refers to the same principle used in modern-day aircraft to achieve lift. Here’s the diagram from Dr. Messiha’s paper.
The supposed missing tailplane has been somewhat of a point of contention as it can’t be certain that the Saqqara Bird did indeed have a tailplane at one time. Without a tailplane, though, it’d lack the aerodynamic stability needed to fly correctly.
To prove that the Saqqara Bird was capable of flight, Messiha wrote,
“I have already made a similar balsa wood model, and added the tailplane (which I suppose was lost) and was not astonished to find that it could sail in the air for a few yards when thrown by hand.”
However, in 2002, glider designer Martin Gregorie built a similar model out of balsa wood (shown below) and noted that the Saqqara Bird “is totally unstable without a tailplane” and “Even after a tailplane was fitted the glide performance was disappointing.”
Gregorie finishes with, “In my opinion the Saqqara Bird was probably made as a child’s toy or a weather vane. As such it is an interesting artifact and is certainly not an example of Pharaonic High-tech or ancient lost knowledge.”
Ah, but wait. There’s more. The History Channel recently did a piece on the Saqqara Bird, tapping aerodynamics expert Simon Sanderson to build a replica of the artifact.
Sanderson tested the replica in a wind tunnel without a tailplane (it was held in place by cables for stability) and found that it produced “four times the glider’s own weight in lift.”
He then took the model and the corresponding wind tunnel data to Liverpool University and subjected it to a flight simulator meant to replicate “the same trials as a modern fighter jet.”
A stabilizing tailplane similar to the one in the above photo was added to Sanderson’s model and when flown in conditions meant to mimic the air streams and conditions in Egypt, the Saqqara Bird actually 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,” according to the History Channel piece.