Sphinx Statue
© Photo from the journal Mediterranean Archaeology and ArchaeometryAfter puzzling experts for over 100 years, an inscription on an ancient sphinx has now been deciphered, according to a new study.
A message etched into an ancient sphinx has proven to be, well, sphinx-like. The "mysterious" inscription has long been an enigma, puzzling scholars for over a century.

But now, it's finally been deciphered, revealing a brief, but "unusual" poem, according to a study published Dec. 30 in the journal Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry.

Dating to the third century, the bronze sphinx statue originated from Dacia, a Roman province that largely corresponds to modern-day Romania.

Taking the form of a winged lion, "the sphinx was perceived by the original creators and users of the artifact as a representation of a mythical deity that they honored and worshiped," Peter Revesz, the study author and professor at the University of Nebraska, told McClatchy News.

After being discovered in the 19th century, the statue was stolen from a European count sometime around 1848, Revesz said.

While it was never recovered, a detailed drawing of the sphinx remained. In the drawing, the inscription — composed of a handful of characters — can be seen on the base of the statue. For decades, scholars examined the drawing, attempting to decode the inscription. However, they were unsuccessful, perhaps because — in an "unusual" break from ancient norms — it reads from left to right.

"The characters may seem mysterious at first," Revesz said, but "once the mirroring is noticed, the characters become easily recognizable as Greek alphabet letters, a few of them being in a more archaic form."

After examining ancient alphabets, Revesz determined the message to be a proto-Hungarian poem written with Greek letters. Translated into English, it reads: "Lo, behold, worship: here is the holy lion," which can be perceived as a command to venerate the sphinx.

The decoded poem is noteworthy because "the sphinx cult was not part of the mainstream ancient Roman mythology which features the Roman gods and goddesses that many people today are familiar with," Revesz said.

"It is unique that this sphinx statue provides some record of a minority religion within the Roman empire, for which records are much scarcer," Revesz added.

Depictions of the deity first cropped up in Egypt and parts of the Middle East in the third century B.C. and were later found throughout the broader Mediterranean world, according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

The text is also abnormal as it is written as a metric poem, whereas most inscriptions at the time were written in prose.

"By using these poetic features, the scribe chose a specific text that was also carefully and artfully constructed," Revesz said.