Part of an ancient Egyptian king's unique sphinx was unveiled at a dig in northern Israel on Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported, as researchers struggled to understand just how the unexpected artifact ended up there.
The small broken granite sphinx -- including the paws and some of the mythical creature's forearms -- is displayed at the Tel Hazor archaeological site in the Galilee, and is the first such find in the region.
The discovery marks the first time ever that researchers have found a statue dedicated to Egyptian ruler Mycerinus (also known as Menkaure) who ruled circa 2,500 B.C.E. and was the builder of one of the three Giza pyramids, according to the report.
"This is the only monumental Egyptian statue ever found in the Levant, today's Israel, Lebanon, Syria," Amnon Ben-Tor, an archaeology professor at the Hebrew University in charge of the Tel Hazor dig, told AFP.
"It is also the only sphinx of this particular king known, not even in Egypt was a sphinx of that particular king found," according to Ben-Tor, who said that besides Mycerinus' name, carved in hieroglyphics between the forearms, there are symbols reading "beloved by the divine souls of Heliopolis."
"This is the temple in which the sphinx was originally placed," Ben-Tor said of Heliopolis, an ancient city that lies north of today's Cairo.
Tel Hazor, which Ben-Tor calls "the most important archaeological site in this country," was the capital of southern Canaan, founded circa 2,700 B.C.E. and at its peak covered around 200 acres and was home to some 20,000 Canaanites. It was destroyed in the 13th century B.C.E.
"Following a gap of some 150 years, it was resettled in the 11th century B.C.E. by the Israelites, who continuously occupied it until 732 B.C.E.," when it was destroyed by the Assyrians, Ben-Tor told AFP.
He said the statue was about 50 centimeters (20 inches) long, and the entire statue was 150 centimeters (60 inches) long and half a meter (20 inches) high.
How, when and why it reached Tel Hazor remains a mystery.
"That it arrived in the days of Mycerinus himself is unlikely, since there were absolutely no relations between Egypt and this part of the world then," Ben-Tor told AFP. "Egypt maintained relations with Lebanon, especially via the ancient port of Byblos, to import cedar wood via the Mediterranean, so they skipped [what is today northern Israel]," he said.
Another option is that the statue was part of the plunders of the Canaanites, who in the late 17th and early 16th century B.C.E. ruled lower Egypt, Ben-Tor said.
"Egyptian records tell us that those foreign rulers ... plundered and desecrated the local temples and did all kinds of terrible things, and it is possible that some of this looting included a statue like this one," he said.
But Ben-Tor believes the most likely way the sphinx reached Tel Hazor was as a gift sent by a later Egyptian ruler.
"The third option is that it arrived in Hazor some time after the New Kingdom started in 1,550 B.C.E., during which Egypt ruled Canaan, and maintained close relations with the local rulers, who were left on their thrones," he told AFP. "In such a case it's possible the statue was sent by the Egyptian ruler to king of Hazor, the most important ruler in this region."
Shlomit Blecher, who manages the Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael Yadin, was the archaeologist who actually unearthed the finding in August 2012.
The statue's incrustation was meticulously removed over a period of many months by the excavation's restorer before the intricate carvings and hieroglyphics were fully visible.
"It was the last hour of the last day of the dig," she told AFP of the moment of the find. "We all leapt with joy and happiness, everyone was thrilled. We hope the other pieces are here and that we find them in the near days."