Image of the Goddess: between Matriarchy and Patriarchy

On the threshold of the Neolithic, the hunter slowly turns into a farmer and breeder (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). This is a special period in the development of the matriarchal system (Ibid.). The forces of nature continue to play a major role in human life, yet the new lifestyle changes its spiritual approach (Ibid.). Moon worship is replaced by solar cult but it is still closely related to female aspects and so responsible for factors influencing land fertility and annual harvests, which are highly significant to Neolithic society (Ibid.). The cycle process and persistence of nature flows from its divine matrix (Ibid.). Mother Earth supports life, is responsible for death, but also guarantees rebirth (Ibid.).

Neolithic face of Magna Mater

In the Paleolithic, the dark, hidden uterus corresponded to cave sanctuaries (see Figurines of the Stone Age: Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic), and in the Neolithic it was identified with the earth itself – the eternal parent (Jabłońska 2010). Magna Mater managed vegetation, nature, and her fertility originated in the ground which, as the humans observed, gave birth to all forms of life without interruption (Ibid.). The Neolithic likewise saw a similarity between the growth of humans and plants, with the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (Ibid.).

Seated “goddess” of Çatalhöyük, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey (the sixth millennium BC). Neolithic Magna Mater was usually enthroned and flanked by two animals. In this representation, she is giving birth to a child.

While naturalistic cave art fades away with the end of the Paleolithic world of the hunter-gatherer, the image of the Mother-Goddess stubbornly repeats the well-established pattern: exaggeratedly lush shapes with lack of care for facial features, arms and legs, as if the essence of femininity was limited to the heaviness of a figure distorted by motherhood (Nougier 1898:39). Such domestic female figurines still had a right to exist, as does life that awoke in Mother Earth’s womb (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48).

Goddess in the first cities

In the Neolithic Age, when the first cities were sprouting, goddess worship was not only common, but it clearly flourished and gained importance (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48). This is evidenced by the finds of numerous figurines of the goddess – mother in the houses of the first urban settlements, such as the Anatolian Çatalhöyük or Hacilar (Ibid.:25-48). The place where religious rituals were performed was apparently a part of the house adapted for these purposes, most often decorated with geometric patterns and heads of bulls, animals dedicated to the goddess (Ibid.:25-48). In the museum reconstruction of the home sanctuary in Çatalhöyük, a plaster relief of the Mother Goddess is displayed, surrounded by bull heads (Ibid.:25-48). The local statuettes were most often carved in stone, made of burnt clay, and later also of terracotta, and although they resembled the Great Mother of the Paleolithic, the Neolithic female figurines were distinguished by the multitude of representations (Ibid.:25-48).

Restoration of a typical interior of Catal Höyük dwelling with the bulls’ heads – a possible symbol of the Neolithic goddess. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey.

They were depicted in a standing or sitting position; once they resembled a young girl, another time a giving birth mother, and finally an old woman (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48, 183; Żak-Bucholc 2005). These three views allude to the three aspects of the goddess and at the same time to the three stages of a woman’s life; the Virgin is the first image of the triple goddess, the second is the Mother, and the third is the Old Woman (Ibid.). In this way, the goddess figure makers probably wanted to emphasize the sacred cycle of life and death (Ibid.). Since the Neolithic times, various forms of the image of the Mother-Goddess had slowly emerged, and iconographic figurative groups were formed (Ibid.). In this way, the original idea had been subject to further modifications over time, which took place within the great ancient cultures (Ibid.).

Mother enthroned

One of the famous iconographic groups is the enthroned Goddess and Lady of the Animals (Żak-Bucholc 2005). The oldest example of such a divine position is represented by a figure found in Çatalhöyük (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Now preserved at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, the Mother Goddess dates from the sixth millennium BC (Ibid.). As the one of the most important artifacts, she is enthroned among the rich collections of other Neolithic female figurines in the museum (Ibid.). Like the Palaeolithic Venus, the image of the Çatalhöyük mother goddess is characterized by generous body shapes and slightly delineated facial features, with a high forehead, headgear or single roller hairstyle (Ibid.). The heads of the two leopards are flanking her throne (Ibid.). Between the legs of the figure, at the level of the throne, a small, oval form is visible (Ibid.). Possibly, it is the baby’s head that emerges from the mother’s womb (Ibid.). Accordingly, the clay figurine of the goddess represents a woman giving birth (Ibid.). The second of the three stages of a woman’s life – motherhood – refers directly to the cult of life, fertility, and the very idea of ​​Magna Mater (Ibid.).

Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey”. In: “Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük. Photo by Dilmen N. (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Another figurine illustrating motherhood is a terracotta statue of a mother with a child in her arms, which also dates back to the sixth millennium and comes from the Hacilar area (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Unfortunately, the baby’s head has not survived to our times (Ibid.). The mother was caught in a sitting position; her posture seems very natural and relaxed, as if it came from the joy of having a baby and holding it in her arms (Ibid.).

Lady of the Animals

The image of the goddess sitting on a throne, or standing upright – the position similar to a pole or column – and surrounded on both sides by sacred animals, is probably a prototype of the representations of the later Animal Goddess – Artemis of Ephesus (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). In the Neolithic and Bronze Age, votive objects of a zoomorphic character were usually offered to the goddess; these were most often terracotta vessels, statuettes or frescoes depicting leopards, bulls, wild boars, deer, bears and birds (Ibid.).

Goddess on the Mountain

Yet another reference to the Throne of the Lady of Animals theme can be a plastic depiction of a female figure standing on a small pedestal or a hill, with animals, often lions facing her (Żak-Bucholc 2005).

Throne Room in Knossos (Minoans; the Bronze Age). If the Throne was once occupied by a Priestess, it may have been symbolically meant for a mountain peak, which was the seat of the goddess.

This iconographic group is known as the Mountain Goddess, and the mountain the goddess stands on can be interpreted as a form of a throne (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Often the embodiment of the goddess was the Throne itself, flanked by animals, which is best depicted in the Throne Room of the Minoan Knossos – assuming, however, that the throne belonged not to the king Minos but to a priestess (Ibid.; see Lady of the Labyrinth).

Female column flanked by beasts

Another form of representing a goddess is a column or pillar, most often with a pair of lions (lioness) on either side of it. Such depictions of a deity are typical of the Hittites (Żak-Bucholc 2005). One of the best examples of the representation of the Goddess as a column, however, is the Lion Gate in Mycenae (Ibid.).

Detail photo of the Lion Gate in Mycenae, Argolis, Greece. The goddess is played by a column flanked by two lions/lioness. Photo by Van der Crabben J. (2012). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

In Minoan art, the most typical is in turn the image of the Goddess as a woman holding writhing serpents in both hands (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Regardless of the accompanying animals of Magna Mater, the iconographic group described above shows the Lady ruling over the forces of Nature, who is therefore responsible for maintaining harmony in the Universe (Ibid.)

Woman supporting her breasts

Another form of depicting a goddess is a woman supporting her breasts, precisely a female figure with her hands under her breasts or crossed on the breasts, or with her hands supporting them (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005).

Twin goddess supporting breasts. Çatalhöyük, 6000-5500 BC. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara. Photo: Zde (1999). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Such representations date back to the Neolithic age and appear in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005). This iconographic type shows the goddess who feeds the world, who provides nourishment to creation as its mother and protector (Ibid.). In ancient Egyptian mythology, the milk of the goddess Hathor, often pictured as a divine cow, is provided with the pharaoh himself (Ibid.). This group also includes Minoan images of a goddess with bare breasts, or some of the Anatolian figurines exhibited in the Museum of Ankara, such as the Neolithic figurine of the so-called Twin Goddess with two heads and bodies, but with only one pair of arms, the left of which supports two pairs of breasts (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:30).

Lady of the Moon, Sun and the Earth

In the Neolithic, the goddess’ pietism was still associated with the sky; next to the moon, the sun’s disk becomes the main attribute of a woman (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30). Such devotion was intertwined with the telluric cults associated with the earthly sphere (Ibid.). Both cults seemed to penetrate and complement each other; the Sun is the growth force of all seed that draws life-giving juices from the Earth, that blooms, bears fruit, shrinks and dies to be reborn (Ibid.). This is how the cycle of life and death takes place, for which the cult of the Great Mother is responsible (Ibid.).

Shu supporting the sky goddess Nut arched above. Photo by British Museum. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

No wonder that among the peoples of Bronze Age Anatolia, the chthonic deity of the mother-woman was represented in writing with an ideographic sign denoting a solar deity (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). In the mythology of the ancient civilizations of the fertile Crescent and Egypt, the divine shield of the Sun traverses the heavens to finally extinguish and be reborn from the womb of Mother Earth; hence the object of worship was also mentioned in Anatolian texts as “the underground sun” or “the sun in the water” (Popko 1980: 26-29, 63-73; Nougier 1989:39-40; Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33).

The bow of Nut

The most beautiful illustration of beliefs about the rebirth of the Sun is the ancient Egyptian image of the Heavens’ Goddess, Nut (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:170; Karaszewski 2011; Żak-Bucholc 2003;2005). The wife of the telluric deity and the mother of the superior gods of Egypt was usually depicted in art as a woman whose body, bent into a bow, formed the vault of heavens, but at the same time marked the underground path of the sun (Ibid.). The personification of Nut thus combines the earthly element with the sky; according to Heliopolitan beliefs, during the day the goddess touches the earth only with the tips of her hands and fingers, creating a sphere of air, but when the sun approached the west, her body could completely fuse with the earth (Ibid.). Nut swallowed them, which brought night, and every morning at dawn the goddess again gave birth to the Sun, which emerged from between her thighs, giving rise to a new day (Ibid.). The repeating cycle of death and rebirth of the solar disk echoes Stone Age beliefs of mankind (Ibid.). The body of Nut, dotted with stars and arched, resembles a crescent, which brings to mind the Palaeolithic lunar cult (Ibid.). Another image of Nut emphasizes even more the connection of ancient Egyptian beliefs with the beliefs of the original hunter-gatherers; keeping in mind the sacred dimension of the horned animals (Ibid.). It is not surprising that Nut or Hathor were also imagined as the Heavenly Cow, on whose back the sun traversed the sky. In this view, the spouse of the goddess Nut was represented as Taurus (Ibid.).

The sky goddess Nut depicted as a heavenly cow. Photo by King Vegita (2006). Source:: “Nut (goddess)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the Hittite mythology of Anatolia, which is heavily influenced by Mesopotamian myths, it is typical to divide the deities into “lower” – telluric or underground, and “upper” – uranic, related to the sky sphere (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). As patriarchy progressed, most solar deities become masculine, yet female sun deities often had a superior function (Ibid.). They usually combined the element of heaven and earth, hence the association of the goddess with the Earth’s sun. According to Anatolian texts, the Earth’s Sun was based in the land of the dead as it descended into the abyss of the earth at the end of the day (Ibid.). The concept of the relationship of the Sun with the underworld reveals a dual image of the Mother Goddess, perhaps frozen in the image of the Twin Goddess of Çatalhöyük (Ibid.).

Lady of Hatti

Apart from the Egyptian Nut, the solar goddess, also known the Lady of Hatti, had a similar character (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). During the Hittite period, the goddess became one of the main deities of the pantheon (Ibid.). She was called “Queen of Heaven and Earth, mistress of the kings and queens of the country of Hatti” (Kapełuś 2008:46). In the Mesopotamian pantheon, the same title was borne by the Sumerian goddess Inanna, with whom the Semitic goddess Ishtar was identified (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33).

Nut swallows the Sun. Photo by Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)  (1976). Source: “Nut (goddess)” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The main attributes of such goddesses were the animals flanking them; most often they were lions, other times horned animals, or owls and lions (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33). The goddess herself is usually depicted naked, standing, with a tiara on her head (Ibid.). Her arms covered with wings are most often raised upwards, and her feet end in claws (Ibid.). The silhouette of a woman is based on zoomorphic pedestals which brings to mind the iconographic type of the enthroned goddess discussed above, whose majesty is nature (Ibid.). A similar image of the goddess is a visualization of the original idea of ​​belief related to the power of Magna Mater over the Element (Ibid.). The symbol of the goddess was a star, which gives her the character of uranium deities (Ibid.). Yet it was also the Lady of the Earth; in one of the myths in the Akkadian version, Ishtar, as a solar deity, descends into the underworld to also take over the land of the dead. In turn, Inanna went underground in the fall to return in the spring. Her return heralded the rebirth of nature (Ibid.).

Warrior and the dragon

Around the fifth millennium BC, with the emergence of breeding and pastoralism and the rise of the first cities, patriarchy prevailed in Asia, Europe and the Middle East (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The goddess then takes on the characteristics typical of men; Ishtar is the goddess of love, but on the other hand, she is an armed warrior and a cruel lover (Ibid.). The masculine principle dominates the pantheon of ancient deities; the goddess ceases to be the lady of the universe (Ibid.). From then on, power is unevenly distributed between female and male deities (Ibid.).

Minoan goddess/priestess/votaries with snakes. Knossos. (Minoans, the Bronze Age). Typical depiction of the Lady of Animals with chthonic powers. Both figures hold snakes and the one on the right additionally has got a lion/lioness on her head.

The latter play a superior role (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The aforementioned victorious fight between god – warrior and dragon is the best illustration of the collapse of matriarchy (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the cult of the Great Mother has survived to historical times (Ibid.). Successive incarnations of Magna Mater proliferate in ancient cultures. In Mesopotamia the Great Mother is known as Inanna and Ishtar, in Egypt – Isis and Hathor. The Hittite Kubaba, known as the Phrygian Iron Age Cybele, became one of the many divine designs of the Mother-Goddess of the Neolithic (Ibid.). The features of the latter were inherited by Artemis of Ephesus (Ibid.). We also find the Great Mother in the Greeks in the form of Demeter or Gaia. There are many examples (Ibid.). The Catholic Church raised Mary to a pedestal; she was granted the status of the Eternal Virgin, Immaculate, Assumed, Second after God, Mother of God and all creatures (Ibid.).

From patriarchy to matriarchy

The subject of the work is relatively difficult to analyse in detail due to its breadth and territorial scope (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31). It combines such diverse scientific disciplines as archaeology, anthropology, religious studies, cultural studies and art history (Ibid.:31). So far, there have been many scientific works on the subject of the Mother Goddess, her iconographic representations in art or on the matriarchy itself (Ibid.:31). Nevertheless, learning about the religious practices of the lunar or solar cult, which are connected with the image of the goddess in art, requires further, thorough research (Ibid.:31). Most of the readings on the topic are based on more or less credible theories and are still looking for evidence to support them. The theme of Mother Goddess worship goes back to the Upper Paleolithic, an era studied solely through archaeological excavations and artifact interpretations. Therefore, an important key to the matriarchal culture of the Stone Age are the depictions of deities supplemented by a written source, created only by people living already in the patriarchy.

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Drenowska-Rymarz O., Wygnańska Z. (2008) ”Ludy Mezopotamii”. In: Mitologie Świata. Rzeczpospolita Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa.

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Longing for a Better Life: Double-Levelled Notion of An Idyllic Image of the Late Middle Ages

“Illusion is a refuge for everyone, not just for royal dukes. It softens life’s cruelties and smooths the sharp edges. The calendar cycles offer a sustaining image of pattern, order, and attainable achievement, to counter the confusions and disappointments in real life in the real world. For this reason, its little pictures continued to be welcome for centuries, long after they had grown detached from any teaching program and dwindled into decoration. In this afterglow they lived on as ornamental details, reassuring and endearingly familiar. […] As time rolled by, the calendar most needed labour for society, in any month of any year, was no longer to instruct but, instead, to charm, to comfort, and to cheer.”

Henisch 1999

The Fabulous Middle Ages

Of all numerous miniatures made for the Duke Jean de Berry, those of the calendar cycle are distinguished by art history as the most renowned illuminations ever made (Henisch 1999:26; see Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: Squared Humanity inscribed in the Cycle of God). The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry seems to be a suitably luxurious title for the most fabulous Middle Ages ever painted: gentry play, happy peasants’ toil – the rich man’s view (Beckett 1996). And that’s the Duke of Berry actually was (Ibid.). Although, the Limbourg brothers painted what was requested by their powerful and rich commissioner, their miniatures seem to have a double levelled meaning in each case (Ibid.). The ability to look truly and without any fixed ideas of what is fitting is what makes great paintings (Ibid.).

April detail: engagement scene. Limbourg Brothers. Source: Gazzola A. (2017-2018). In: Fashion History Timeline.

“The animated little scenes offer delightful glimpses of everyday activity and for this very reason have often been used as illustrations of daily life in the medieval world” (Henisch 1999:vii). They show the world of feudal society, including contemporary clothes, splendours of the rich and everyday labours of peasants marked with the rhythm of passing time of the successive months of the year (Battistini 2005:47). Simultaneously, “their surface-realism is deceptive [and all idyllic images of the medieval calendar served to style and discipline] the unwieldy, unsatisfactory complexities of life, to create an image more beguiling and beautiful than any attempted re-creation of reality itself” (Henisch 1999:vii). In the idealized picture of contemporary society of the calendar, peasants’ rural labours, such as ploughing, sowing, haymaking and harvesting, grape picking, or wood collecting in winter, continuously interlace with a represented side by side allegorical picture of a medieval aristocracy and their favourite amusements: feasts, tournaments, courtship, nuptials, and hunting with a falcon (Battistini 2005:47). Two strikingly different worlds co-exist there in full accordance complementing one another.

Hierarchy of medieval life

The miniatures capture a hierarchical idea of the world characteristic of the Late Middle Ages: on medieval calendar pages every man, every creature and thing seem to have been placed as said by the divine will and order (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). The lifetime of a human being is bound with the successive stages of nature, and with the cycle of transformations, it is endlessly subject to the rolling year (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). In the illuminations, a bulk of a knightly castle always dominates above an earthly life of peasants, while the law of God’s order rules over the whole universe (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237).

September detail: Château de Saumur. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The space of the fifteenth century painting had already reached quite far; all the same, it still looked like a mise en scène composition finishing behind several layers of hills (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). Inscribed in the framework, the painted landscape seems to rise above human heads (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). The forest, like a curtain, is covering from a viewer a mystery living beyond the horizon and a symbolical image of a ruling the universe order is harmoniously extending over the world of mankind (Białostocki 2008:213).

Idealized picture

Nevertheless, the reality was not so harmonious, and contemporary daily live did not go through as delightfully and in line with the social hierarchy, as contemporary artists tried to show in their bright illuminations (Żylińska 1986:237). Wearing linen shirts, bare-foot peasants were not so pleased with their life, nobles not always led a romantic life near their charming châteaux, or showed gallantry towards women, the latter, in turn, more often demonstrated their disagreement with the place imposed them by the Church and society (Ibid.:237).

December detail: hunting with dogs. Barthélemy d’Eyck – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Memories of the peasants’ revolt of the year 1381 were still alive; the Black Death was persistently taking a devastating toll on human life in Europe; heretics were burning at numerous stakes, and the Hundred Years War continued (Ibid.:237). The owner of the Very Rich Hours, the generous Duke of Berry, was not definitely known as a lord “noted for his love of farm life or, indeed, of peasants. [Outside] of the pages his very own books, […] he showed a harsh indifference towards his peasants, and a positively rapacious interest in the profits he could wring from their exertions. His record as a master of men called for not paeans of praise of grateful subjects but resentment and rebellion throughout his vast domains” (Henisch 1999:26).

May detail: nobles horseback. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Middle Ages, like every epoch throughout history, had strong reasons to long for a more beautiful world to live in and the deeper despair and suffering because of difficulties of the present day (Huizinga 2003:54). In those days, the more passionate and desperate yearning and melancholy may have born (Ibid.:54). One of the ways of escape from the reality was an artistic imagery (Żylińska 1986:237).

From gold to true colours of life

In the so-called classical epoch of the Parisian miniature in the thirteenth century, illuminations were usually plentifully decorated with gold and vivid colours harmonically put together in the way to avoid clashing in their various combinations (Pijoan 2006:57). In the fourteenth century, especially in the Avignon school, golden surfaces clearly diminished giving a place to the colours of blues and greens, like in the case of Italian miniatures (Ibid.:57). Finally, in the fifteenth century, in the schools of central France and Burgundy, sparkling gold completely disappeared; the background adopted colours imitating those one could find in the world of nature, and the sky and trees were only slightly touched with silver and golden marks just for underling the brightness and depth of the colour (Ibid.:57).

September detail: peasants working in the vineyard by the River Loire. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Books of hours were traditionally much smaller in comparison with the large Carolingian codes, and their sumptuous imagery turned out to be an integral part of the written word (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). Consequently, accompanying a text, an illustration was treated less as a book decoration and more as its dominant information (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). In illuminated manuscripts of the Late Middle Ages, the observation of the nature objectified the pictures of a represented world giving them innovative expressions: clearness, light and shadow, a horizontal distance shining in the mist, and foamed waves of floating clouds, all joined together with a dancing rhythm of human shapes and various concrete forms (Białostocki 2008:213).

Painting more expressive than words

In the fifteenth century, painting dominated literature in means of expressions (Huizinga 2003:340,343). Especially miniaturists successfully tried to seize a colour of the passing moment, such as the depiction of the play of light of a torch, or of the radiant sunset (Ibid.:340,343). The illuminator of the Hours, Pierre d’Ailly even dared to represent the sunbeams breaking through the clouds after the storm (Ibid.:340,343). A realistic picture of the nature in contemporary painting, unlike in the literature, was freely developed, irrespective of any conventions (Ibid.:340,343).

April detail; Château de Dourdan. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Furthermore, a depiction of the nature painted in the background was only of a marginal importance, and therefore, it could preserve a clean expression and form, independent of the rules of the hieratic style strongly influencing in turn a major subject of the paining in the foreground (Huizinga 2003:340,343). A precise parallel to this phenomenon of the medieval painting can be drawn from the art of the ancient Egypt; the less the landscape was linked to the thematic scene, the more its picture itself became harmonious and natural (Ibid.:340,343).

In the architectural background

Although the Limbourg represented an imagined world in their masterpiece, it was depicted against a background of real scenery, still idyllic and gentle (Żylińska 1986:237). In the miniatures, the viewing of the distance is usually hidden by huge silhouettes of the castles, represented in detail with almost an archaeological accuracy (Białostocki 2008:213): from the majestic walls in and around Paris: the Louvre, royal palace of Cité with Sainte-Chapelle, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the castle of Vincennes, to the most charming royal residences, such as the Châteaux of Saumur, Lusignan, Étampes, or Clain, near Poitiers (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:3-4).

Melusine turned into a dragon flying above Château de Lusignan. March detail. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Amongst steep roofs of cities, charming castles, and towering cathedrals, the scenes of daily life arise in douce France according to the changing months of the calendar year; harvesting, grape picking, hunting with falcons, and sumptuous feasts belong to the most characteristic (Żylińska 1986:236-237). What the Duke of Berry saw was a paint in one of the most splendid manuscripts ever owned by a royal prince (Beckett 1996). And one can imagine him looking at these magnificent pictures with a proud of a rich owner (Ibid.). “For him the calendar pictures he enjoyed as he turned the pages of his book of hours must have woven a beautiful veil of illusion, to mask the ugly reality of the world outside his castle walls” (Henisch 1999:26).

January

The Very Rich Hours opens with January and the New Year’s feast at the court of the Duke, Jean of Berry (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Only the first of the twelve scenes of the cycle represents activities taking place indoors; the Duke is sitting down by the table laden with food and drink, on the right (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). He is wearing a typical of the epoch blue belted houppelande and a furry hat (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The host’s subordinates are offering him gifts according to the custom (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The Master of Ceremonies encourages them with his words written above in French: approche, approche, [approach] (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

January page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures showing the household of John, Duke of Berry exchanging New Year gifts. The Duke is seated at the right, in blue. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Behind the feasting group there is a blue tapestry hanging on the wall, which represents fighting knights (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Accuracy in representing details is astonishing; the authors even depicted the so-called Salière de Pavillon – the salt-cellar in the shape of a boat with the Duke’s bear and swan emblems (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Quite surprising is the lack of ladies at the feast (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Women’s role was quite important at the court of Burgundy though (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

February

To illustrate February the artists covered the landscape in snow for the very first time in the history of European painting (Secomska 1972:14-25; Białostocki 2008:213). After Sister Wendy Beckett, the winter cold, with its delight but also with its inconvenience, has been shown in a surprisingly charming way (Beckett 2001:267). The Duke’s barns must be fulfilled with harvests; in the background there is a snow-covered haystack up the hill, the birds are pecking scattered seeds from the ground (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right of the framework there is an enclosure for the sheep, four bee hives, a pigeon loft, barrels, a bunch of brushwood, and a cart (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

February miniature attributed to Paul Limbourg, or the “Rustic painter.” R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

At first sight, however, a viewer can see here a comic (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, inside the house a woman and a man are warming themselves by the fire; by the door, there is a lady in blue dress warming her underpants while bashfully averting her gaze from the couple inside the house warming there “their lack of underpants” (Ibid.). Outside the house, there are three peasants: the first man, trembling because of the cold, is covering himself with a white cloth and brushing the snow off his shoes, the second is chopping the wood, and the last one is driving a loaded donkey up the snow-covered and surely slippery road (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

March

“March” is also dedicated to the life at the countryside; first labours in the field; ploughing and sowing have just started (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Some peasants are trimming the grapevines (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them, a looking after the herd shepherd is trying to escape from the March downpour (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the fond and up the hill there is the huge silhouette of Lusignan castle stretched out on the whole width of the page; towering over the region of Poitou, it was one of many residences belonging to the Duke (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

March (Château de Lusignan). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Its story is bound with the beautiful French legend of Melusine (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Although there are different versions of the story, the legend has it that one of the Lusignans married a ravishing woman named Melusine who turns into a dragon (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The miniaturist painted her in the shape of a fantastical lizard flying over the castle’s tower to watch over the lords of the castle and warn them against a coming danger (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Wonderful is that even the most hidden detail is to say a fascinating history (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

April

In April the nature is waking up again; in the background the Château de Dourdan is plunged in the green entourage of trees and meadows (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the foreground, accompanied by two witnesses, a young noble couple is exchanging engagement rings (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

April (Château de Dourdan). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Plausibly, the scene shows the engagement of Charles d’Orléan with Jean of Berry’s granddaughter, Bonne d’Armagnac (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right young women are picking first flowers; in the distance two boats with fishermen are floating on the waters at the foot of the castle (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The whole illumination is imbued with the blossom of spring, which is symbolically underlined with the graceful scene of the engagement (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

May

“May” shows the scene of spring time outing taking its place outside the walls of a charming city in Auvergne (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). According to the depicted here tradition, people went to the forest in May to pick green branches used then for decorating houses (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

May (Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke’s Paris Residence). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

An elegantly dressed procession of lords and ladies are following the musicians; the nobles are wearing the so-called in French livrée du mai – the livery of May, and wreaths of leaves on their heads or on the shoulders (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them there is the dense and dark forest and not less multiplied than the trees in the forest are the towers of the castle of Riom rising in the background (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

June

Hay-making in June is placed in the foreground of Paris, being seen from the Hôtel de Nesles, also the castle of the dukes of Berry, with a view of Île de la Cité with the royal palace and Sainte Chapelle visible in the picture (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the sweltering heat of summer the bare-foot peasants are working in the field, the men are scything; the girls are raking and piling the hay in the haystacks (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). The figures of the peasant-women are slender; they are dancingly bending and assuming flexible ballet positions (Białostocki 2008:213).

June (Palais de la Cité et la Sainte Chapelle). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their slim shapes more remind the figures of the ladies picking the flowers in the scene of April, or those riding horsebacks with their lords in May, rather than of hard-working women of the lower stratum (Ibid.:213). It is because both, the peasants and ladies, are depicted according to the same sophisticated style dominating in art at contemporary courts of Paris, Dijon or Prague (Ibid.:213). Not all miniatures of the Limbourg, however, show this particular type of slender proportions of the body or excessive decorations of clothes; in some illuminations the figures of peasants are not only represented in a naturalistic way, but also with an excessive indecency (Ibid.:213), and lack of dignity (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5), like in the scene of February.

July

July (Palais de Poitiers). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the miniatures summer is insistently going forward; the illustration of July represents the corn field with poppy and corn flowers between the ears (Secomska 1972:14-25). Two men are cutting the crops with a sickle; on the right, the sitting couple is shearing the sheep (Ibid.:14-25). Between the hills, the geometrical walls of the castle of Poitiers are mounting over the area of a scenic beauty (Ibid.:14-25).

August

In the miniature of August, there’s the castle – actually one of his seventeen castles – all fairly and gleaming in the summer light (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, a hunting scene is taking place; the nobles on horseback are using dogs and prey birds for chasing ducks and swans; a falconer is guiding the riders (Secomska 1972:14-25); the courtiers are wearing magnificent attire and sitting on their splendid horses, perhaps with the Duke himself on the white horse (Beckett 1996). As the Limbourg were great artists they did not reduce their representations to what the Duke really required to see but they depicted what they truly saw (Ibid.). And they saw those fields, the river and the peasants being engaged in different activities (Ibid.).

August (Château d’Étampes). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

At the foot of the castle of Étampes, their small figures are caught while both working and enjoying the summer; some are stacking sheaves into shocks and piling them on a horse-cart, others are swimming naked and free, amusing themselves happily in the water (Secomska 1972:14-25; Beckett 2001:267). Striking is the difference between the look and attitude of nobles and depicted peasants (Beckett 2001:267). This is August, so probably it’s very hot (Beckett 1996). Yet, the nobles apparently living a good and wealthy life are dressed up to their neck in tight and heavy clothes (Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). They are also all following the rules of the court game, which is visible in a look exchange of the couple riding at the back (Beckett 1996). Hence it is a very constricted life, which is still observed and judged by others (Ibid.). Accordingly, on one side, there is a rather strict and tight etiquette of the well-dressed nobles, and on the other, an unhampered behaviour of the unclothed peasants who could freely and happily indulge themselves in a refreshing bath in the cold water Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). Unlike the courtiers, they additionally seem unbound and sincere in their joy (Beckett 1996).

September

The leading theme of the month of September, a grape harvest, is represented by the river Loire, against the background of the picturesque castle of Saumur (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). With its Gothic towers, battlements (Żylińska 1986:237), “chimneys and weathervanes decorated with golden fleurs-de-lys” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4),  the château looks like a fairy-tale apparition (Żylińska 1986:237). “The architectural design of the château draws the gaze up towards the dreamily poetic volutes. The towers conceal their protective nature beneath festive trappings, redolent of fabulous adventures in the forests of Arthurian legends and suggestive of the presence of God in His creation” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5). Good King René of Anjou stated that the Chastel de Plaisance from his dreams looked exactly the same (Żylińska 1986:237).

“These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light.”

François Cali in “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5
September (Château de Saumur). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Grape-picking takes place in the foreground: plenty bunches of grapes are being loaded either into the vats on the oxen-cart or to the panniers attached to the backs of the waiting mules (Żylińska 1986:237).  Peasants are working hard in the vineyard plunged in the September sun (Żylińska 1986:237; “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4). Most of them are leaning forwards, picking the purple fruits (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4), “while one of them is tasting the grapes. […] In the middle of the grape pickers, a character is showing his behind. This intentionally grotesque touch contrasts with the extraordinary elegance of the château” (Ibid.:4-5). On the left, a looking pregnant woman (Ibid.:4) is tidying her hat up and straightening her body as if she felt too tired of working in the vineyard. Such a depiction of the peasant-woman may also suggest the child-bearing potential of women in general, and underline a symbolical connection between a woman pregnancy and the womb of the mother earth giving birth in the month of September (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4-5; Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25).

October

Together with autumn the artists move the action of the Hours from the lands of the Valley of Loire to the banks of the River Seine (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

October (Louvre Castle, Paris). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Human figures are moving along them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Instead of charming châteaux by Loire, in the background are rising the towers of the Louvre (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). It is already October (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The scene shows the works typical of autumn; the man on horseback is tilling the field, another – sowing it (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Magpies and crows are stealing the seeds (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind the working men, dressed as an archer, a scarecrow is unsuccessfully trying to frighten the birds away (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

November

The scene of November shows the autumn harvest of acorns (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

November. Jean Colombe – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The landscape is sparking with the colours of autumn (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Three swineherds are making the fruits fall down with the sticks (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Pigs are feeding on them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). One of the men, depicted in the foreground, is accompanied by a dog (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The darkness of the forest and a navy blue colour of the sky are the signs of the coming nightfall (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

December

December (Château de Vincennes). Barthélemy d’Eyck – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The cycle traditionally ends with the scene of December (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The illumination represents a wild boar hunt (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The dogs are fiercely attacking the already hunted animal lying between two men (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The landscape is gradually rising up from the scene of hunting in the foreground through the dense forest behind, and finally finishes with the towers of the Château de Vincennes, being distinguished against the background of the dark sky (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

Castles seen from the outside

On the example of the calendar pages of the Très Heures it is possible to compare the way the same motive is presented in painting and literature. The equivalent of illuminated châteaux of the Hours is the literary description of nine French castles in the work of Deschamps (Huizinga 2003:345-346). While illustrating the castle, however, the painter is observing it from the outside; the poet is looking out of it (Ibid.:345-346). Consequently, literally enumerating pleasures and advantages of the castles bears no comparison with an impression being given by the painted pictures of a fairy-tale Saumur, prestigious Lusignan and gloomy Vincennes (Ibid.:345-346).


“Very Rich Hours (c.1412−1416).” In: Faces of Ancient Europe (2019).

The image gains an advantage of the word (Huizinga 2003:345-346). It is also because the Middle Ages mainly perceived the outside world by means of the image (Ibid.:345-346). Behind the enchanting imagery, the epoch hid its reality or masked it with the dream of a better world (Roger S. Wieck in: Henisch 1999:back cover).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2012). In: PDF. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Oh9XJ8>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X7xQIK>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

AP Manuscripts (2020) “Très Riches Heures, Limbourg Brothers 1412 AD. Page 112.” In: Manuscripts. Available at <https://bit.ly/38LjyRP>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

Battistini, M. (2005) “Symbole i alegorie.” In: Leksykon, historia, sztuka, ikonografia [Dizionari dell’Arte], Dyjas, K. trans. Warszawa: Arkady.

Beckett, W. (1996) Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, Episode 1: “The Mists of Time.” Rossiter, N., Robinson T. BBC Production.

Beckett, W. (2001) Sister Wendy’s 1000 arcydzieł. Warszawa: Arkady.

Białostocki, J. (2008) Sztuka cenniejsza niż złoto. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Faces of Ancient Europe (2019) “Very Rich Hours (c.1412−1416).”. In: Faces of Ancient Europe. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Zl2WgB>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

Gazzola A. (2017-2018) “1416 – Limbourg Brothers, April, Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry”. In: Fashion History Timeline. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iUVUHh>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

Henisch, B. A. (1999) The Medieval Calendar Year. Pennsylvania: University Park, Penn State Press.

Huizinga, J. (2003) Jesień średniowiecza [Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen]. Brzostowski, T. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Pijoan, J. (2006) ”Sztuka gotycka. Sztuka gotycka we Francji.” In: Sztuka świata vol. IV [Historia del Arte, vol. IV], Machowski, M. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Secomska, K. (1972) Mistrzowie i książęta malarstwo francuskie XV i XVI wieku. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe.

Żylińska, J. (1986) Spotkania po drugiej stronie lustra. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Language of the Megalithic Tiya

Every thirty seconds we were jumping up on our seats, and the luggage mounted on the roof of our bus all the time threatened to fall down. Shortly afterwards, red dust rose from the road and broke through half-closed windows causing a general attack of coughing among us.

‘Please, close the widows’, some voices were heard. ‘It’s difficult to breathe’.

Then the sound of closed windows was heard, only to make them open in a while to stick out a camera at the sight of half-naked, painted people with red hair, walking along the road or curiously looking at our passing vehicle behind the fences of their villages. But seeing multiply barrels of camera’s lens pointed at themselves, some angrily waved their arms, turned away or fled. It also happened that someone threw a stone at our bus or showed a gesture of demanding money for any taken photos. At that signal, we usually stopped and met them face to face paying for their patience. Those people belonged to the Ethiopian tribe of Hamers. The Hamer, also called Hamar, are an Omotic society living on the territory east of the Omo River, in southwestern Ethiopia (Atlas of Humanity 2020). We were just about to leave their land to come back to Addis Ababa, lying over six hundred kilometres away in the north. From there, we were going to take our flight back to Istanbul.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site on the way

On the whole, it took us two days to get to the capital with an overnight stay in Arba Minch. Yet before we reached our half-way point, we encountered another peculiar tribe. There were eight boys walking on stilts, who suddenly appeared in the middle of the road we travelled. All of them, except for one, had covered their bodies in different designs with white paint, and were gracefully posing on their wooden scaffolding to our cameras. Of course, not for free!

Stilt-walkers in southern Ethiopia (Banna tribe). Photo by Magdalena Michniewicz-Piurkoś. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Anyway, a great idea of creating such a teen tribe to earn pocket money after school. Moreover, the boys were once rewarded for their creativity with their photo having been published by National Geographic. It is a fact, however, that youths in Ethiopian villages, like those of Banna people living in Lower Omo Valley, learn to walk on stilts to watch for predators attacking livestock (Rees 2017).

On the second day everybody was already extremely tired with hours spent in the seating position so we stopped sometimes on the way to get out of the bus and stretch our legs. On the other side, we did not want to stay on the road after dark so our breaks were quite short. Finally, about fifty kilometres from Addis Ababa, we reached our last must-see stop before leaving Ethiopia. It was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tiya, which had become famous for its intricately carved megaliths.

Land of megaliths

“Owing to its long tradition of erecting monuments, Ethiopia is regarded as a land of [megaliths]. The varieties of […] monuments comprised within the Ethiopian megalithic culture fall into three major groups: dolmens, tumuli and stelae” (Derara 2008:64), of which the latter can be furthermore subdivided into two groups, in terms of their occurrence. Whereas, the first group of stelae appears in the north of the country, mainly in Tigray region (see Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration: Stelae), Ethiopia’s southern part is renowned for a huge number of particular megalithic sites, containing the so-called stones of Gragn (Ya Gragn Dingay) (Finneran 2007:243; Derara 2008:64).

The site of Tiya, Soddo region, Ethiopia.

Gragn is an Amharic word and means the left-handed; it refers to the historic character of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, who brought three-quarters of modern day Ethiopia under the power of the Muslim Sultanate of Adal during the Abyssinian-Adal War in the sixteenth century (Finneran 2007:243; “Ahmad …” 2020). Although “[local] tradition identifies [the stones as] mementos of his victorious progress through the region” (Finneran 2007:243), their history is not linked to him in any way.

Problematic dating

Such megaliths are variform dressed standing stones, generally associated with burials, containing flexed skeletons of men and women, with or without any grave goods (Finneran 2007:243, 248; Stardust’s Shadow 2007; Derara 2008:64; Mire 2020:11). Such archaeological results “have been confirmed by excavations at Tiya […] and Gatira Demma. [According] to these sources, [the tombs] were dated between the [eleventh] and [thirteenth] century to the [twelfth] century A.D. respectively” (Derara 2008:64). Still the age of megalithic sites cannot be precisely determined (UNESCO 1992-2020); it is only based on the carbon dating of the burials. Stones themselves cannot be dated in that way as they do not contain an organic material. (Finneran 2007:248; Derara 2008:64) What is more, in the area of the megaliths at Tiya, researchers have also unearthed tools from the Middle Stone Age so the site itself may have been associated with the finds (Douze 2014; “Tiya …” 2020).

The monoliths of Tiya. The site contains stelae measuring from two to five metres high.

It is believed, however that if these monoliths “do not belong to any Christian or Muslim funerary tradition, [they] must predate the fifteenth century” (Finneran 2007:248), but could not be earlier than the burials (Ibid.:248). According to Niall Finneran (2008:248), the correlated graves “suggest both a strong association with the stelae, as well as some basis for dating the monuments. [A] sample of bone from tomb X at Gattira-Demma gave a radiocarbon date of ca.1200 AD.; this broadly matches a similar date yielded by excavations at Tomb 1 at the nearby site of Tiya […] as well as dates obtained […] on the tumulus at Tuto-Fela, to the south-east of Wenago in the north of Gedeo at the southern range of the distribution of the megaliths”. Moreover, subsequent studies have proved that iconographic decorations of the stone graves correspond respectively to the gender of an individual buried beneath them (Finneran 2007:244-248; Stardust’s Shadow 2007; Adventures … 2012; Mire 2020:3-22).

A wider distribution of the megalithic tradition

“The lands of the southern highlands of Ethiopia (the modern provinces of southern Arssi and Sidamo) were only finally incorporated into the Christian Empire [of Ethiopia] during the nineteenth century and they possess a very distinctive cultural [and archaeological] heritage of their own” (Finneran 2007:243). This concerns the region of Soddo (also Sodo), which lies approximately one hundred and sixty kilometres to the south of Addis Ababa (Ibid.:243). The etymology of the name Soddo may itself reflect the Oromo noun for dressed stone (Ibid.:243) After Anfray (1982) the word Soddo also refers to standing stones in Sidama language (Derara 2008:77). Yet Sidama vocabulary had been strongly influenced by Oromo language (“Sidamo language” 2020). Moreover, these two ethnic groups are related as they both make a part of Eastern Cushitic speaking people (“Sidama people” 2020).

Megaliths of Tiya aligned over an axis of forty-five metres with a group of thirty-three stelae. Photo taken by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

“In broad terms, the region of the megaliths extends [south-west] from Addis Ababa along the west of the line of the Rift Valley lakes, although similar stones have been [equally] noted as far north as the site of Gherem Gabriel, near Debre Berham just to the north-east of Addis Ababa, as well as in Efrata and Gidim in northern Shawa. [In the south, the] he distribution [of such monuments] extends […] to the Hadiya and Kambata groups, then further [southwards] still through Wolayta into Sidama, an area bounded to the north by Lake Awasa, and to the west by Lake Abaya. […] The site of Tiya occupies the northern  portion of the region, in Soddo proper, and is located [fifty] kilometres due south of Addis Ababa” (Finneran 2007:243-244), in an area known as the Gurage Zone (Derara 2008; Reese 2019).

The fallen anthropomorphic stela of Tiya, designed as a burial for a woman, probably one of a high status. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Such distribution of the megalithic sites may have overlapped with permanent human settlements in these areas, especially those with water supply, farmland and a defensive position in the highlands (Derara 2008:67). Such factors were highly significant in selecting a site for habitation and for communal religious rites, one of which was apparently the erection of megaliths (Ibid.:67).

One diverse family of stones

The tradition of megalithic sites in Ethiopia has been already studied since early years of the twentieth century (Derara 2008:63).

One of the Tiya stelae with the engravings representing the so-called daggers. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

The site of Tiya was first studied by the French archaeological team at the end of the 1970s (Mire 2020:11; The British Museum 2020). Even earlier, “[in] April 1935, one of the Tiya stones […] was discovered during a German expedition” (Rey 2015), however, studies on the megaliths were mostly led by Francophone scholars” (Finneran 2007:243). “The site was first reported by Azïs and Chabard (1931) in their impressive volumes of texts and pictures; since then Joussaume (1983, 1995) has studied it more systematically” (Mire 2020:11). Quite inspiring and stimulating for future studies can be work by Godet and Pierre (1993), Anfray (1982, 1992) and Le Quellec (1987), who have attempted to decipher the site’s mysterious symbolism (Ibid.:11). Especially, the excavations led by Francis Anfray and Roger Joussaume in situ have “thrown some light upon this fascinating cultural tradition [of Tiya]” (Finneran 2007:243). Anfary (1982), however, admits that their “attempts to relate it to traditions in other regions [of Ethiopia] ended with no appreciable gains. [Moreover] the task of systematic survey [itself] seems to be carried out relatively less than the problem demands” (Derara 2008:63). Nevertheless, there have been made a few significant conclusions so far.

Between the stelae of Tiya. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

According to archaeological studies, the diverse concentration of megalithic sites shows an observed regional variation from north to south; yet this mosaic culture should be treated and interpreted as one group of megaliths (Finneran 2007:244). These stones, of which there are roughly one hundred and sixty archaeological sites discovered so far in the Soddo region (UNESCO 1992-2020), “are representative of a very distinctive southern highland cultural phenomenon” (Finneran 2007:244).

Unusual stones

The megaliths “range from simple monoliths to elaborate figurative and phallic [stones]; in the northern regions of Soddo they tend to be grouped whilst further south the megaliths often stand alone” (Finneran 2007:244).

Such megalithic sites as Tiya (around 160 altogether) were possibly cemeteries for both men and women.

In case of Tiya, the stones appear to be laid out like a row of headstones (Reese 2019). “[This] may imply that the northern sites, such as Seden and Tiya, are actually cemeteries” (Finneran 2007:244). As Joussaume (1995:218) reports “[fifty] tombs have been excavated [at the site of Tiya], with pits generally of 1.50 metres deep and 1.80 metres wide, yielding a total of [fifty two] individuals of whom [seventeen] have been identified as women and [eighteen] as men, with one infant” (Mire 2020:11). “The majority of the bodies, [twenty and four] in total, had been placed on a bed of wooden sticks [whereas other] eight bodies were laid instead on a stone slab with another stone slab placed on top to close the pit” (Ibid.:11). After Joussaume (1995) “[there] is good reason to believe that some of the other [twenty] skeletons might originally have also been placed either on sticks or stones, of which some traces can still be seen (Ibid.:11). Archaeological excavations also revealed that the buried people died between the ages of [eighteen] and [thirty] and were laid to rest in a foetal position” (Stardust’s Shadow:2007). In some tomb quarters, as Joussaume (1995) reports, there were still preserved grave goods, such as lithics pottery, bovine bones, beads and iron objects (Mire 2020:11). They were usually placed separately from the body, above the pit that held the individual (Ibid.:11).  

Another cluster of three stelae a short distance from the larger group of the Tiya site.

Furthermore, there are visible patterns among various stone arrangements within the group of Soddo, like “in the north-east of the site of Gayet-Gareno where the recumbent [standing stones] appear to be grouped into squares. It is [also] striking that the distribution of the known sites tends to group along roads; it may be possible that these [monoliths] are territorial markers  as well as grave stones, marking boundaries along-long-established routes of communication through the highlands” (Finneran 2007:244).

The site contains ones of the tallest megaliths in the region.

Ethiopian megaliths are carved from local volcanic rocks, rhyolite (Finneran 2007:244). In the north of Soddo decorated [monoliths] predominate” (Ibid.:244). Sometimes, the monuments are also referred to as stelae, yet they are believed not to belong to the northern stela tradition (Ibid.:243-244), which possibly “has its roots in the borderlands with the Sudanic worlds” (Ibid.:248; see Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration: Stelae). Neither they are linked to “the megalithic traditions of the Harar and Tchercher mountains, where the ‘dolmens’ are […] dated to the second millennium BC” (Ibid.:248). On the other side, a symbol of lance (epée), which is highly characteristic of many of the megaliths of Soddo, is also visible on the fragments of stela four at Aksum (Ibid.:244); this would mean that some iconographic elements were common for all Ethiopian megaliths, even though they had originated from various traditions.

Taking a closer look

The site of Tiya is among the most important and representative of all (Rey 2015; UNESCO 1992-2020). It contains thirty-six monuments (UNESCO 1992-2020), including “[roughly] aligned over an axis of [forty-five metres] a group of thirty-three stelae, with another [cluster] of three stelae a short distance from [the larger group]” (Rey 2015). Among them all, there are thirty-two carved stones, covered in symbols in low-relief; although some of them can easily be identified, most still remain difficult to decipher (UNESCO 1992-2020).

The group of three stelae at closer look. Like others, they are all covered with typical enigmatic symbols.

The standing stones on the site are generally taller than the monoliths found elsewhere in the region (Reese 2019). Most measure between two and three metres high with the tallest reaching over five meters (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). Tiya’s sanding stones can be divided into three types: anthropomorphic, phallic (snake-like), and non-anthropomorphic (Reese 2019; Mire 2020:20). While anthropomorphic stelae resemble a human shape, though highly schematized, the phallic or snake type looks like a tall and thin shaft (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). The final groups contains flat monuments with irregular edges but usually resembling rectangular blocks (Derara 2008; Reese 2019). Yet, most of them narrow up to the pointed end, looking like a knife sticking out of the ground (Mire 2020:20). Furthermore, all the monoliths “may [originally] have been coloured in organic pigment” (Finneran 2007:244).

Plan of Tiya stelae field (after Joussaume 1985). Source: Finneran (2007:243; Figure 6.16).

Either type bears a series of particular symbols carved on them. Their combination predominantly includes engravings representing a sword, the so-called forked branch sign, and what Joussaume (1995) describes as la triade symbolique (the three signs), consisting of the design similar to zigzag (Σ), Х, and finally discs or circles (Mire 2020:11) Most stelae in Tiya also have mysterious perforations on their bottom part (Ibid.:11). Just one stela was still standing at the site of its initial studies, and this in situ stone revealed that the perforations had once been below the ground (Ibid.:11).

Weapons on the megaliths

Among the symbols carved on the Tiya standing stones, the most frequently utilised is the ubiquitous engraving of a dagger, lance or epée (on around twenty-eight stelae), which also widely appears at other megalithic sites in the region, such as Odotibo, Firshi, Seden and Lalou (Finneran 2007:244; Mire 2020:11).

Some steale are covered at least in four different types of symbols of unknown meaning. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Its symbolism is ambiguous; it may refer either to general weapons used in the community, or to the occupation of men buried beneath the stones (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:70). In the latter option, the symbol of lance could signify a burial of a hunter or a warrior, while the number of daggers carved on a particular stela would signify the rank of the warrior or the number of killed enemies (Derara 2008:70). Hence, it is also possible that some male remains belonged to individuals who were killed in battle (Reese 2019). The signs of daggers may also refer to the ritual hunt or slaughter (Mire 2020:21). In further hypothesis, such weapons as represented on the stones were possibly made of iron, which would be another significant insight into the economy of the megalithic community (Finneran 2007:244).

When the site was discovered, all of the stelae, except for one, were fallen on the ground.

However, to make the whole picture complete, it should be also mentioned that the position and layout of the so-called weapons on stones vary; sometimes, the dagger’s blade points up, the other time, it is directed down. Certainly, it must once have had a meaning; nonetheless, it is unknown today. Maybe it was a symbolic representation of warriors fighting against each other, providing that each dagger would represent a warrior on each side of a combat. There is even a theory saying that the so-called daggers pointing at each other look more like starting or landing space rockets than weapons. 

Signes ramifiés

Unlike the symbol of the lance, which form is observable in a material world, some of the designs at Tiya, or elsewhere in the region, are more abstract than others. Likewise, a few of the megaliths “at Tiya carry a very distinctive Y-shape, described by Anfray (1982:126) as signes ramifiés (vegetable signs or a branch of a tree) (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:11). Like other engravings, it is also accompanied by other different signs, including the daggers (Mire 2020:11). This is probably why Anfary (1982) also compares it to a projective weapon like a spear (Derara 2008:71). Still, there are many other alternative theories on its possible meaning.

The enigmatic symbol of signes ramifiés translated in various ways by scholars studied the megalithic culture of Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

This enigmatic image features the rectangular base and branched pillar attached to this base (Derara 2008:71). “In connection with this depiction, there are different plausible but still controversial views” (Ibid.:71). Assuming it is an actual representation of a tree, the sign could suggest its religious and ritual meaning in a society and so “be interpreted in the light of the tradition of sacrificial flora, sacred grass and trees associated with the fertility rituals currently practiced in the Horn of Africa” (Mire 2020:11). In the burial context, the symbol may stand for continuation as much as continuous is the circle of nature (Ibid.:17). After a Swedish-Somali archaeologist, Sada Mire (2020:17), “[this] would make sense in Tiya in terms of the archaeology as the place is clearly linked to ritual and, perhaps, the blessings of the ancestors and the protection of a family […]. The sprouting or a ‘vegetable’ sign of Tiya may therefore be associated with the regeneration of the lineage. [To this day], plants are also part of ritual meals and are used in many local [religious rites].”

A bifurcated stick carried by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein. Source: Mohammed Ademo (2011).

 There is also another evidence indicating a ‘vegetable’ nature of the symbol; it is linked to present-day beliefs of the Arsi-Oromo people who represent a Cushitic ethnic group of Ethiopia (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). They believe in the powers of the so-called dhanqee or dhanquu, which is a short and bifurcated (rather forked) stick, carved from a sacred tree and carried as such by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein (a holy site for Muslims) (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). Although it is today mostly associated with Islam, the symbol of dhanqee is as well a part of the long lasting tradition of the Sky-god religion as practised by the Oromo today and in the past (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17).

Wooden ‘pillows’ of headrests (Gime) are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure. Source: Hamill Gallery (2020).

Nonetheless, an archaeologist Worku Derara (2008:71) claims that although the Tiya symbol’s “branches at the top resemble the stick, [its] rectangular base cannot be correlated with the pointed metal called Ankase, which is attached at the base of the stick held by pilgrims.”

Four most frequent symbols on one of the stelae: a dagger, forked branch, discs and a zig-zag. There is still missing the X or H sign. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Another theory, which is widely accepted, is based on the oral information from the area suggesting the enigmatic design represents the traditional wooden headrest (Derara 2008:72). Such wooden ‘pillows’, locally called Gime, are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure (Derara 2008:72-73; Ethnix 2012). However, as Derara (2008:73) points out, morphological differences between the Y-shaped symbol and the wooden headrest does not allow to openly connect them.

Gender ambiguous

On the other side, the engraving of the forked branch is “not unlike the bucranial symbol from the prehistoric rock art of the north” (Finneran 2007:244), which is usually interpreted as manhood or male virility.

One of the two anthropomorphic stelae in Tiya dedicated to female burials. The standing stela represents typical of the Soddo region female features, such as a necklace and schematized breasts. The woman’s image is, however, deprived of the arms and head.

In this context, the sign “may be related to fertility symbolism” (Ibid.:244). Accordingly, if a standing stone is read in an analogous way to a human body, the Y-shaped symbol is found approximately at the level of human genitalia (Ibid.:244). Simultaneously, two other megaliths of Tiya “are [distinctly] feminine in nature [by their form and decoration]” (Ibid.:244). The anthropomorphic slabs, of which one is standing and the other fallen on the ground, both reveal the visible outlines of woman’s breasts below a sort of necklace (Finneran 2007:244,248). The standing one is already deprived of the arms and head, but there is still the lower half of the tombstone, exposing the feminine features (Adventures … 2012). it is obvious that such stone slabs were obviously reserved for buried women (Finneran 2007:244,248; Adventures … 2012).

The second anthropomorphic stela revealing female features. This one is fallen on the ground. Still it has partly preserved its phallic head and rectangular torso, showing female breast and necklace. In the comparison to the previous one, the necklace here seems more intricate, which may indicate a higher status of a woman buried beneath that stela.

Similar representations among the stones of Soddo indicate the notion of strong gendered associations (Finneran 2007:244,248) that go “beyond the narrative of [male] heroism [and] so may [turn out to be the key to] the meaning of [the Tiya] symbols [in general]” (Mire 2020:21). It also happens that two genders are even combined and exposed by the shape of a single stone, as it is in the case of Tiya fallen anthropomorphic stela and almost identical representation on Gora-Shino stela (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21). In both cases, the phallic-fashioned monolith additionally bears a schematic female figure, standing akimbo (with hands on the hips and elbows turned outwards) with noticeable breasts and a more intricate necklace than in the first case of the Tiya standing stela (which probably indicates a woman of significance) (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21; Adventures … 2012; Reese 2019).

Such a combination of genders, however, is not exclusive to Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, it has got a much longer tradition than the megaliths in the region of Soddo, providing that the latter are dated accurately. Similar iconography had already been applied in abstract forms of art as early as in the Bronze Age, or even earlier, the most striking exemplum of which are the so-called Anatolian Discs from Cappadocia.

Phallic or snake shaped stelae?

Among the stelae of Soddo, also present at Tiya, there are monoliths described as phallic as they resemble penis in erection. Nevertheless, some scholars interpret them as snakeheads (Mire 2020:20).

Gora Shino Stela, which is similar to the fallen female stela in Tiya. Both reveal a mix of genders by means of phallic/snale head and female breasts. Source: Finneran (2007:246; Figure 6.19.b).

As a matter of fact, there is a visible connection between both images, not only in the context of their physical appearance but equally “between snake worship and phallic symbolism” (Ibid.:20), which is also strongly interwound in ritual use of fertility stones (Ibid.:20). These may be additionally covered in patterns resembling reptile skin, as it appears in the form of sinuous zigzag shape on the phallic, mixed gender stela of Tiya (Ibid.:20). This is not merely the matter of iconographical interpretation; such analogy is visible in current practices associated with the Cushitic religion, where phallic ritual objects are also covered in snakeskin (Ibid.:20). Moreover, in the tradition of Africa snakes are generally seen as symbols of renewal and fertility, as much as it is expressed by phallic imagery (Ibid.:20). “The occurrence of phallic symbolism, therefore, may be seen not just as a symbol of a victorious battle and masculinity but also as a symbol of reconciliation […], purification [and by extension, the continuation of the family and resurrection” (Ibid.:20).  

The fallen female stela in Tiya; the frame around its rectangular part is covered in sinuous zigzag patterns resembling reptile skin, which may introduce snake symbolism. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Snake rituals may have been also related to the perforations on the stones of Tiya (Mire 2020:20). Such holes feature the stela part initially buried in the ground; snakes as chthonic animals are believed to live and move underground and the perforations at the base of stones stuck in the ground may have been intended to make this movement possible (Ibid.:20). This may also “relate to the notion of ancestor spirits moving in the form of snakes underground”(Ibid.:20).   

Zigzags

Another engraving appearing profusely is another abstract sign, which resembles the letter W or M in a reversed position (Derara 2008:70; Mire 2020:11). Others compare it to the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ) (Stardust’s Shadow 2007). “As noted by Anfray (1982) this representation has remained mysterious because no possible explanation can be given” (Derara 2008:70).

The abstract sign in the shape of the letter W or M in a reversed position, or the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ). Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Nevertheless, the symbol may be read as a metaphor for a ploughing trace, as it is represented in a scene at the Eritrean rock art site of Amba (Baahti), dated back to the first millennium BC (McCann 1995:39; Finneran 2007:84-85). Although the pastoral scene shows a continuous zig-zag design left by the activity of ploughing in the field by a long beam plow driven by oxen (McCann 1995:39), creators of medieval stelae may have used just its section to represent the very same idea. Moreover, it was easier to represent it in such an artistic abbreviation due to limited surface of the stela they worked on.

Ploughing scene, Baahti Focada, Eritrea (after Graziosi 1941). The zig-zag symbol from Tiya may be a metaphor for ploughing and so a symbol of the cultivation of land. Source: Finneran (2007:85; Figure 3.5).

Additionally, carving in relief took longer than painting the scene on the rock. If it is the case, the abstract design possibly symbolized the land owned by the buried man or the significance of land cultivation itself.

Eyes of a god

Another mysterious symbol on the stones of Tiya looks like a circle or a disk. Two such engravings appear on nearly all the Tiya monoliths and on others in the region (Mire 2020:11,21).

Discs or circles may be interpreted as the eyes of the Sky-god, a supreme deity of the Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of southern Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

They are carved on the same level of the stone and usually in the proximity of one or two of the three mentioned above symbols: the forked branch (ϒ), zigzag (Σ) and (Х/H), which are usually depicted between or below them (Ibid.:21). The disks may signify the eyes of an omnipresent, all-seeing deity and so are possibly related to the cult of the Sky-god, who is usually associated by contemporary believers with the eye and seeing (Ibid.:21). As Mire (2020:21) claims “belief systems […] tend to linger”, and so the same deity may have been also worshiped by the megalithic builders.

Scarification rituals?

Alternative theory says, however, that all the signs highlight again the significance of gender symbolism and so they expose intimate detail of a human body (Mire 2020:21). In this context, the two discs would stand for male breasts (Ibid.:21), especially if they are placed above Y-shaped symbol, earlier identified as male genitalia. More problematic are attempts to interpret two other symbols, which appear in the proximity of the previous ones.

The engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

The X or H-shaped sign, is usually positioned between the discs and the forked branch and may refer to the stomach or naval. Sometimes, however, it is replaced by the zig-zag design. Otherwise, either of them is carved on the right or left side of the first two. Are these scarification signs on the belly area? Among Somali, such decorating of a human body is still applied as a healing ritual; this could have been also practised by the megalithic culture (Ibid.:21). Irrespective of a possibility of such a link, the engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far.

Ringing stones

“Another interesting [finds] at Tiya are drum stelae” (Mire 2020:22). They may “have been related to ritual and have been symbols of status or used to call upon or ward off spiritual beings. [Such] stone drums are still used in Lalibela to call people to prayer” (Ibid.:22) as they give a particular metallic sound, like gongs, tin drums and bells usually do, especially while being tapped with a metal object.

Rigning stones serving as stone chiurch bells at Christian Monastery on Lake Tana.

The stelae’s ringing ability is attributed to the iron content of the diabase (“Ringing rocks” 2020). Little is known, however, about the ‘drum stelae’ discovered through archaeology” (Ibid.:22).

Finding the key

Thestelae of the Soddo region can be a link between the ancient megalithic culture and the current peoples living in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

The carved designs on stelae in the region of Soddo may have been “used for regulating and organizing people as well as the material world. The may [have] simply [conveyed] information [in time, from generation to generation, or signified] power, social organization or cult system, or [else] the economy of a given society” (Derara 2008:69). Equally they must have played a transcendental function by witnessing to “the relevance of the community in association between the dead (ancestors) and the living”(Mire 2020:3). These and similar hypotheses have been proposed by scholars for centuries. Generally, many scholars suggest that “a megalithic tradition in the Horn [of Africa] seems to go back millennia” (Ibid.:3). Nevertheless, “it is problematic and [highly ambiguous] to infer the meaning of symbols [without] the presence of a living culture similar to or comparable with what the stelae exhibit”(Derara 2008:79). It is the missing piece that would probably shed light on mysterious character of the megalithic culture of the Soddo region and its ancient creators (Ibid.:80).

There is a need for further exploration of the site and its symbolism. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

The “anonymity behind [the symbolism of the Tiya stelae] can be, [however], resolved through ethno-archaeological studies conducted on the material culture of the diverse communities living [over the wider part of southern] Ethiopia. It is also valuable to look into the evolution and relation of megalithic art in the Horn of Africa because of the long-standing contacts and cultural ties over the centuries” (Derara 2008:79). Apparently, the monoliths of the southern Ethiopia “represent the archaeological evidence for Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of the southern highlands, whose lives, […] were disrupted by the migration of the pastoralist Oromo (‘Galla’) who emerged from their ancestral lands on what is now the northern Kenyan [and] southern Ethiopian border and in a series of massive population movements thrust northwards into the highlands during the sixteenth century” (Finneran 2007:248)Although Oromo people adopted in time either Christianity or Islam, they have maintained their special identity which may be a bridge between their contemporary rituals and those once conducted by the megalithic builders (Ibid.:248).

The living reveal the secrets of the dead

Today, “despite some Semitic speaking clusters, the majority of people living in southern Ethiopia are Eastern Cushitic speaking people” (Mire 2020:10) and “[it] is noteworthy that there are systematic cultural similarities within [their groups, such as Oromo or Konso], and that these commonalities are crucial to an understanding of Tiya cemetery in particular and of stelae traditions in southern Ethiopia in general” (Ibid.:11).

The fallen stela with visible perforations at the base, probably once being set in the ground. A series of hypotheses are proposed for such marks. Some are related to the snake and ancestors cult. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

For instance, “a close study of Oromo funerary material culture, which is hugely distinctive and symbolically expressive, in the case of Oromo in the Arssi region may have  drawn upon certain elements derived from the earlier megalithic carving traditions” (Finneran 2007:248). Among the Eastern Cushitic speaking groups, both the Oromo and the Konso (Ibid.:5), the “stones erected for the dead served not only as grave stones but also as symbols of ancestors and fertility and the preservation of the family. […] Their traditions and […] archaeology of indigenous practices furthermore offer important insights into the site of Tiya and the practices that may have once taken place there”(Ibid.:11).

The people who live today around the site of Tiya, in the Gurage Zone, are called the Guraghe themselves (hence the area’s name) (Mire 2020:10). They are Ethiopian Semitic group who originally come from the Harar region, not the Tiya area itself (Ibid.:10). Nevertheless, like the Eastern Cushitic people of southern Ethiopia, they also “share a belief in a traditional deity they call the Sky-god, Waaq” (Ibid.:11), which shows, they have probably absorbed it from an earlier Cushitic culture, like Oromo (Ibid.:10-11), “given that the Sky-god religion is a region-wide belief and [its rituals] are recognised by all the people” (Ibid.:17).

Southern Ethiopia is a real mosaic of peoples, their rituals and cultures. It is a real paradise for both ethnographers and photographers. There is equally much work to do for archaeologists who can look for some evidence of still present customs in reference to the monuments, decorations and burial practice of Tiya. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, it is likely “that the Oromo [people] themselves would feel affinities with the religious culture of the people who had created the stelae of Tiya” (Ibid.:17). It is also why they trace their ancestry also to the part of Soddo, where the site in question is located (Ibid.:17). The Oromo “imprint upon highland society is evidenced by a distribution of their language, yet they transformed socially in response to their new surrounds in the case of the adaptation of their Gada social system (a system of an age-grade classes)]” (Finneran 2007:248). In such a way, they could have also absorbed and preserved the notions of the ancient culture.

As many scholars underline, the meaning of symbols roh Tiya and other sites require more
ethnoarchaeological studies.
Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Such cultural elements as “language, religious beliefs and sociopolitical organisation, enable [scholars] to explore the ideas expressed at Tiya cemetery since these ideas seem today to encompass all the elements essential to the living and to their relationship with each other of times of death and birth” (Mire 2020:11). Important aspects of current life in the region to some extent overlap with archaeological and ethnographic evidence regarding human fertility, animals, cultivation of land, inheritance, wealth and burial practice (Ibid.:3-17). This is why there is a need for “studies involving careful examination of the material and culture of the people residing over the wider part of southern Ethiopia” (Derara 2008:76). It can also be relevant to Tiya, where some evidence of still present customs is consolidated by the monuments, decorations and burial practice (Mire 2020:11).

Unrevealed secrets of Ethiopia

Since the site of Tiya became a part of the UNESCO World Heritage in 1981 (Mire 2020:11), it has been recognised as one of unique archaeological locations in Ethiopia, such as Axum, Lalibela, Abuna Yemata Guh, Debre Damo, Fasiledes Castle or Konso landscape (Reese 2019). Although all these sites represent the testimony of the ancient past of Ethiopia, there have not been enough studies to fully understand it yet (Ibid.). Also little research has been done lately on Tiya, likewise in case of other megaliths in the region, whose purpose and meaning behind their physical appearance still remains unclear (Ibid.).

Last photos of the Tiya megalithic site. It is definitely one of the many precious archaeological sites in Ethiopia.

To protect the site, however, authorities conducted some conservation work in 2017 (Ibid.). Keeping the stelae in good shape not only may attract more tourists but also help to continue further research to finally unlock some significance of the story the monuments still hold secret.

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Mire S. (2020) Divine Fertility: The Continuity in Transformation of an Ideology of Sacred Kinship in Northeast Africa. UCL Institute of Archaeology Publications: Routledge.

Rees R. (2017) No Turning Back. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers.

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Island of the Sun

It was only before nine in the morning but the heat of July had been already rising. I felt drops of sweat running down my back and I quickly moved to the shadow, as the queue was moving towards the catamaran rocking on the sea waves. It was going to take me from Fethiye to the Greek Island of Rhodes. Actually, I was embarking together with six members of my family; I and my sister had joined our aunt and uncle, and three cousins for relaxing holidays in the Aegean region of Turkey.

One of the Rhodian sandy beaches and the turquoise sea seen from Monte Smith and the Acropolis of Rhodes. Source: Chameleontas (2020).

Just relaxing summer holidays

Initially, the idea was to spend two weeks just enjoying the sun and warm sea on southwestern Turquoise Coast. But it was not my idea. Although I really appreciate the both aspects of summer holidays, I relax most when I visit museums and above all explore archaeological sites. Especially in Turkey, I could hardly resist digging up its fascinating past. Of course, this time just metaphorically. Sometimes, I travelled on my own or occasionally with somebody else, when my family felt tired with staying on the beach. But nobody could keep up with my everyday trips around southwestern Turkey, especially when it came to endless wandering around ruins in the full sun. Maybe except my uncle, who is a university professor of Fine Arts, and my sister and the oldest cousin, who sometimes dared to see more than a swimming pool at the hotel. Yet more often than not, they did not even feel like trying. This time, however, we all decided to spend one day on the island of Greece. For some it was even a tempting  opportunity to visit two different countries during one holiday.

The view of the City of Rhodes and its medieval fortifications from the sea.

The Greek island of Rhodes is lying on the southeast corner of the Aegean Sea and its capital, the City of Rhodes is just eighty-four kilometres away from the southwestern coast of Turkey, and the whole journey across the sea takes around one hour and a half. Moreover, everybody could decide to either stay there on the beach and relax or do some sightseeing around the city.

Welcoming island

Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands of Greece, situated just to the south of Anatolian western coastline on a crossroads between East and West (FM Records 2014; “Rhodes” 2020). The history of Rhodes, as in the case of other islands in the Mediterranean region, is like an art of mosaic; various cultures and myths have encrusted it over centuries. Rhodes still bears the hallmarks and visible influences of the vast plethora of very cultures that have inhabited it throughout its long history (FM Records 2014). As such, the island has played an important cultural and social role since the ancient times until nowadays (Ibid.). Largely because of its geographical and strategic position between the Aegean and Mediterranean seas and its accessibility to both Europe and the Middle East, the island was consistently fought over for the majority of its recorded history (FM Records 2014; History Time 2017).

The entrance to the harbour Mandráki. It is the place where the Colossus of Rhodes was believed to have stood. There are, however, two landmarks of the City of Rhodes: two columns of bronze on which are represented the animals which are the emblems of the island : Elafos and Elafina, which are a stag and a doe. Source: Gill (2016).

Today, diversity is one of the characteristics of this Greek island, as there are relics from different periods of time in its every corner (FM Records 2014). Apart from ancient temples, the Christian faith is also very present on the island and marked by byzantine churches, usually dedicated to the Mother of Jesus Christ and different saints (Ibid.). Rhodes also marries ancient and medieval monuments with blue-water beaches, offered generously to the tourists (Ibid.). Modern and cosmopolitan, the island is at once the land of medieval knights and cradle of enchanting ancient myths (Ibid.). Its marvellous history combines with generous sunlight that justifies the Rhodes definition as the island devoted to the Sun god (Ibid.).

From the Neolithic to the fall of the Colossus of Rhodes

Rhodes was first inhabited by Stone Age Neolithic people, possibly just after the last Ice Age, which ended around 12 000 BC (History Time 2017). However, there is only scarce archaeological evidence about these peoples (Ibid.). The first culture who made a lasting impression on the island’s history were the Minoans who seemed to have colonized Rhodes in the course of the Bronze Age (Ibid.). After the eruption of Thera volcano, the Minoan civilization gradually collapsed and was subsequently replaced by Mycenaeans in the region, in the fifteenth century BC. (see When Gods Turned against the Minoans) (Ibid.). The Mycenaean civilization was composed of the ancients, whose heroic deeds were recorded by later Greek authors, such as Homer in his Iliad and Odyssey (ninth century BC.) (Ibid.). Among the ranks of legendary Mycenaeans, there were such heroes as Achilles and Odysseus who fought the War against Trojans (Ibid.). “Homes mentions that Rhodes [also] participated in the [war] under the leadership of Tlepolemus” (“Rhodes” 2020).

Mycenaean heroes from the Trojan War: Menelaus, Paris, Diomedes, Odysseus, Nestor, Achilles, and Agamemnon. Source: Lynch (2017).

Around the eighth century BC., the so-called Dorian Greeks came to the island (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). They were one of the four Greek tribes formed in the so-called Archaic period of Greece (“Rhodes” 2020). The Dorians “built the three important cities of [Rhodes]: Lindos, Ialyssos and Kameiros, which together with Kos, Cnidus and Halicarnassus on the mainland made up the so-called Dorian Hexapolis” (Ibid.). During the Classical Greek period, the Persians repeatedly invited the island but their ruling was always short (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). In the intervals of their brief conquests, “[in] 408 BC., the cities [of Rhodes] united to form one territory” (“Rhodes 2020), eventually founding the modern capital of Rhodes on the northern end of the island, which still exists today and is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). “Its regular plan was, according to Strabo, superintended by the Athenian architect Hippodamus [of Miletus]” (“Rhodes” 2020). In the Hellenistic period starting in the fourth century BC, Rhodes asserted its independence and rose steadily in prominence, quickly becoming a world center for learning and culture (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). During this time, through a combination of skillful diplomacy and by the use of its strong navy, Rhodes maintained to retain its autonomy for hundreds of years despite of threats from the side of contemporary leading empires (History Time 2017).

An oil painting representing the ancient City of Rhodes by Frantisek Kupka (1906 AD.). According to archaeological studies, the painter illustrated, the Colossus of Rhodes as standing on the Acropolis of Rhodes, and not in the harbour. By Hisgett (2013). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

It was then, precisely in 280 BC., that the Colossus of Rhodes was constructed by the ancient Rhodians (Steedman 2004; (History Time 2017). It was meant to represent the Sun god Helios, the patron of the island (Steedman 2004). Although it was initially thought that the bronze statue was standing at the entrance to the harbour of Rhodes, it was most likely erected uphill, either on the site occupied today by the medieval castle or on the nearby hill with the Acropolis of Rhodes (Rice 1995:384; Steedman 2004). The Colossus was thirty-tree metres high, almost as much as the Statue of Liberty (forty-six meters), and it was categorized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Steedman 2004). The large statue was also the best example of the vast power and wealth of the city-state of Rhodes (Steedman 2004; History Time 2017). But once erected it was sadly lost in the earthquake, in 228 or 226 BC, and never rebuilt (Steedman 2004; Hisgett 2013; History Time 2017).

From the Romans back to the Greeks

In the second century BC., a new power arouse in the Mediterranean region that the Greek city-states could not withstand (History Time 2017). After periods of short alliances, conflicts and political outmanoeuvre, the island of Rhodes was finally incorporated into the Roman Republic in 164 BC, effectively ending its lengthy period of independence (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). However, it still remained important and became a provincial capital of Rome, and subsequently of the Byzantine Empire, which carried on Rome’s legacy over the many centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (Ibid.). During this period, Rhodes changed hands several times (History Time 2017). But the most important newcomers were the Arabs, after the rise of Islam in the 600s AD (Ibid.).

Facade and entrance of the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes in the former hospital of the Knights of Saint John, City of Rhodes.

Aftermath, Rhodes inevitably became integral in the ensuing power struggle which raged between the Christianity and Islam for the next one thousand years, during the time of crusades (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). “In 1306–1310, the Byzantine era of the island’s history came to an end when the island was occupied by the Knights Hospitaller” (“Rhodes” 2020). They heavily fortified the island and converted it into an ideal of medieval chivalric values (History Time 2017). Much architecture visible today in the City of Rhodes was constructed during this period including huge castles and city walls spanning for more than four kilometres (Ibid.). By the sixteenth century, a new power had risen upon the Mediterranean; based in Asia Minor, the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) grew from its humble roots to encompass much of the Middle East and southern Europe and subsequently set its gaze upon Rhodes (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). The Knight Hospitaller who numbered no more than 7500 men made a valiant horse stand at the Palace of the Grand Master but they could do little as the huge invasion force led by the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent landed on the island in 1522, with an army possibly numbering as many as 200 000 men equipped with the gigantic siege weapons and canons (History Time 2017). The Ottomans held onto the island for the next several centuries until the collapse of their Empire in the early twentieth century (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020).

Approaching by a ferry to the City of Rhodes. In the background the Marine Gate, located right across from the medieval commercial harbour.

“In 1912, Italy seized Rhodes from the Ottomans during the Italo-Turkish War” (“Rhodes” 2020) and occupied the island till 1948 (Ibid.). During the World War II, Rhodes subsequently fell under the sway of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany but eventually it became the part of the independent Greece whose territorial ambitions were supported by Britain and the Allies (History Time 2017). Now as a part of Greece, the island remains one of the most interesting historic sites in the region (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020; FM Records 2014).

Medieval City of Rhodes and the Knights Hospitaller

We were approaching to the island by a ferry; it was a unique occasion to see its towering fortifications from both the sea and the city sides. They “are shaped like a defensive crescent around the medieval town” (“Fortifications of Rhode” 2019), with their grey walls soaring above colourful boats and ships being anchored in the harbour. “Construction works on these fortifications were initiated in the late [seventh] century AD, [but mostly rebuilt] by additions and expansions that coincided with the start of the Crusades, [and particularly during the sovereign of the order of the Knights Hospitaller]” (Medieval Town 2019).

The fortifications of Rhodes creates a defensive crescent around the medieval town.

The whole massive structures were “bestowed upon the Medieval City of Rhodes” (Ibid.). I could observe “the typical outlook of a fortified medieval stronghold, with clearly identified modules like the Citadel, [also known as the Palace of the Grand Master], the Fort […] and the urban area” (Ibid.). The most characteristic monument of the City of Rhodes is the Medieval Town, that throbs with life and has a hospitable atmosphere (FM Records 2014).

D’Amboise Gate, Rhodes Old Town. In the niche above the arched entrance of the Gate, there is a bas-relief sculpture of an an angel brandishing the coats of arms of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John and of the House of d’Amboise.

The Castle of the Crusader Knights is even today a notable huge edifice (FM Records 2014). It was built in 1350 and is saved in a very good condition (Ibid.). Imposing towers with pill-boxes and solid gates protected the interior composed of one hundred and fifty-six rooms (Ibid.). The former hospital of the Knights of Rhodes was built in 1440 and is now the city’s archaeological museum (Ibid.). Art also flourished in Rhodes; above all, it has developed a rich tradition in pottery (Ibid.). In the village of Archangelos, people still use the old way to manufacture pottery objects (Ibid.). Clay of Rhodes has been one of the best in the world and hence even Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was made of Rhodes’ bricks during Rhodes’ Byzantine period (Ibid.).

Acropolis of Rhodes and the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis

After a tour around the Old Town, my family felt exhausted and gave up further sightseeing. They all sat around an ornamental, medieval fountain at Ippokratous (Hippokratous) Square, “which, along with a grand staircase from the south west section, is the only remaining evidence of the Castellania, an important building constructed by the Knights Hospitaller in the [fourteenth] century” (GPSmyCity 2020).  Without paying much attention to the monument’s beauty, major part of the group refused to move for the next hour. Some wanted to eat, others drink or play with pigeons, and my aunt had spotted earlier beautiful shoes so she wanted to go shopping. None was of my interest so I decided to visit one of my must see sites on the island, namely the Acropolis of Rhodes.

Not only is it an archaeological site dating back to the Hellenistic Greece but it is also one of the successive points placed on the so-called Apollo-Saint Michael Axis, I had started to follow just after the lecture of the book, The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, by Paul Broadhurst, Hamish Miller, Vivienne Shanley, and Ba Russell (2000-2003) (see Sacred Geography: the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis). Apart from the Acropolis of Rhodes, there are other three sites on the island identified by the authors as possibly linked to the cult of Apollo, namely Camirus (Kamiros), Feraklos and Lindos (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003:8, 343-346). But although there is a Doric temple dedicated possibly to Apollo at Camirus (“Camirus” 2020), there is not much evidence of such dedications at the two other sites.

Acropolis of Rhodes: the temple of Apollo Pythios. Source: Greek Travel Pages (GTP) (2019).

In Feraklos, there are the ruins of a medieval castle built in the Byzantine period and maintained till the Ottoman times (“Feraklos Castle” 2019). The same place was earlier occupied by an ancient Acropolis, which may have been partially dedicated to Apollo but it is not archaeologically supported (Ibid.). The ancient city of Lindos is in turn a beautiful Acropolis, surrounded by little houses of the white town, located on the southeastern coast of the island (FM Records 2014). Beaches stretch there just at the feet of ancient temples, where tired visitors may have a swim and enjoy the sun (Ibid.). The road to the Acropolis leads uphill and is usually travelled by donkeys, driven by tourists (Ibid.). Due to its location, the site views of the surrounding harbours and coastline (Ibid.). The major temple of Acropolis was built in the fourth century BC. but it was not, however, dedicated to Apollo but to Athena Lindia (FM Records 2014; “Lindos” 2020). Yet it was erected on the remains of a more ancient temple (“Lindos” 2020). Did it adore Apollo?

The island of gods

The Temple of Apollo atop the Acropolis of Rhodes; that was where I wanted to go (Lawrence 2005:Scroll XX). For a while, my uncle stood as if torn apart between his duties towards family and a tempting option of seeing the remains of the Greek temple. Eventually, he decided to join me. According to the map, the site lay within a walking distance, around half an hour on foot, so we promised to be back up to two hours. My aunt was not much enthusiastic about the idea of staying alone with four teenagers and she looked a bit upset when we were leaving. Yet our passion for ancient monuments was stronger and finally won with our doubts.

Beautiful view from the Rhodian Acropolis. Source: Gill (2016).

Legends hovers around Rhodes and the island is very present in the ancient Greek mythology (Up Living 2020). They say that the first inhabitants of the island were the Telchines who apparently appeared there in the Bronze Age (Up Living 2020; “Rhodes” 2020). It was a mysterious tribe who tracked its origins back to Phrygia but they came to Rhodes from Crete or Cyprus (Ibid.). “Their name comes from the ancient Greek verb thelgo, meaning to attract or to charm and they were [believed] to be great sorcerers. According to one source, they were the sons of Thalassa (the Sea) and [that is] why they were very able mariners, a fact which is actually historically well documented. The Telchines were also great technicians, particularly at the treatment of metal, [and] mason artists, creating the first statues dedicated to the [gods]” (Up Living 2020). The Telchines’ only sister, the nymph Alia, bore Poseidon’s six sons and her only daughter: Rhode, whose name means a rose (Up Living 2020; GreekMythology.com 1997-2020).

Mythological history of the island: Greek gods drowning the island of Rhodes along with the corrupted Telchines. Source: Up Living (2020).

By gods’ actions and their own faults, the Telchines soon lost their power over the island and were buried by Poseidon, along with their beautiful island (Up Living 2020). Witnessing that, people of Rhodes flew from their drowning land (Ibid.). “Historically, this flight might be linked to the destruction of the Minoan civilization by the eruption of the volcano [of Thera]: people afraid of a great flood tend to forsake island settlements” (Ibid.). Some years after, twelve Olympus gods and their divine allies defeated the Titans and shared their lands between them (Ibid.). Zeus “promised Helios, [who was the Sun god, that he] would appoint him [a] ruler of the next land to emerge out of the sea. [At] that exact moment, [Rhodes] re-emerged on the sea’s surface in the form of the nymph Rhode, who had been left there alone, beautiful and soaking wet. Helios fell instantly in love with her, dried her up from the water with his warm sunbeams and they lived together ever since. Rhode bore Helios seven sons and one daughter. Their oldest son, Kerkofos [had] then three sons of his own: Kaminos, Ialysos and Lindos, who divided Rhodes up into regions to rule over, giving them their names” (Ibid.). They were historically the three city-states established on the island by the tribe of Dorians (“Rhodes” 2020).

Rhodes Acropolis Monte Smith with the outlines of the Temple of Apollo Pythios and its reconstructed part with four columns. Source: Chameleontas (2020) & Themis (2020).

Some other version of the same myth says that these three boys were actually born by Rhode and so were Helios’ sons (FM Records 2014). Irrespective of the right version, the sea-nymph Rhode became a protector goddess of the island of Rhodes, while Helios was worshipped as its patron god (Up Living 2020). By these means, his dominance of the island was confirmed and people held him in great reverence, showing their dedication by a contraction of the famous Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.). Additionally, “Rhodes is said to have been blessed with year round sunshine, as well as with gifts from two more very important [gods], as acknowledgement of Helios’ help during the fight with the Titans; Zeus sent golden rain upon Rhodes, providing its inhabitants with great wealth, while Athena blessed them with the gift of art and craft-making” (Ibid.), equal to the Telchines’ artistic abilities (Ibid.).

Apollo Helios

On the Acropolis of Rhodes, there lie the remains of the temples, of which most iconic are the reconstructed ruins of the Temple dedicated to Apollo Pythios (Rice 1995:384). The god’s title Pythios reminds he was the prophetic deity of the Delphic Oracle (“Apollo” 2020). Yet as one of the Olympian gods, Apollo had more than one power; he “has been recognized as [the patron] of archery, music and dance, healing and diseases, the Sun, […] light, [and] poetry” (Ibid.). Prof. Richard Martin says that according to Greek mythology, Apollo was also a civilizer, teacher and organizer; he brought roads to places where they had never existed before (Roos, Kim 2001). He was the one who healed but also could bring plague (Ibid.). Such a feature is typical of many Greek gods; if they could cause something, they could equally stop it (Ibid.). Apollo is also believed to have driven his chariot to faraway lands (Burns 2011). He flew along the straight line, stopping at some sites, where the ancient built aftermath sacral buildings dedicated to the god (Ibid.).

Helios, the sun god riding his chariot. Many a time, such an iconography is also ascribed to Apollo. Relief architrave from the Temple of Athena at Troy, 300-280 BC. (Altes Museum, Berlin). Source: Raddato (2016). In: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Apollo’s flight trajectory is described by some authors as  the ley line or straight track, which overlaps in the north of Europe with the Saint Michael Axis (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003; Burns 2011). The Archangel in turn is also associated with the Sun and for some scholars he is the Christian counterpart of Apollo (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003). On the other side, driving the Sun chariot was more associated by the ancient Greeks with Helios than with Apollo (“Helios” 2020). Even though ancient sources say that these were two separate gods, they have been usually combined as one single deity, known as Apollo Helios, especially during the fifth century BC (“Apollo 2020). And as such they were both described as Phoebus, which means shiny or bright (Ibid.). However, apart from Apollo Pythios and Helios, who by tradition owned Rhodes, two other Greek gods were also venerated on the Acropolis of Rhodes, in the temples dedicated to them by the ancient. Those were Athena and Zeus, who by mythology favoured the island by granting it with gifts.

On the way up the hill

Although the Google Map showed an estimated time of reaching the hill of Acropolis in thirty minutes, we did not take into account the heat, generously sent by Helios, and the fact that we should climb the path leading up to the hill. At some point, we had to slow down our walk as the hillside grew steeper and so we were both out of breath (Lawrence 2005:Scroll XX). And even if we kept moving up, the site seemed still far in the distance. Why is it always so hard to see the summit when you climb up?

The Acropolis of Rhodes on Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte Smith. Source: Rodos Palace (2020).

Located on the western edge of the city of Rhodes, the hill with the Acropolis on its eastern slope is called Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte San Stephano by the Italians (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020). But there is also its third name, Monte Smith, after the name of the British Admiral, Sir Sidney Smith who built there in 1802 (Ibid.) “an observation post to monitor the movements of Napoleon’s fleet during the Egyptian campaign” (Via Gallica 2020). “[The] Acropolis of Rhodes and its imposing Temple of Apollo, dominates the views” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

Tourism Rhodes (2015) “Acropolis of Rhodes”.

From the site, which is situated at altitude of 111 metres, it is possible to see a small valley surrounding the city and the western coast with precipitous cliffs overlooking blue waters of the Ixia Bay (Rice 1995:384; Via Gallica 2020; Themis 2020). Especially at sunset, the site “offers breathtaking [and panoramic] views [reaching as far as] the island of Symi and […] the Turkish coast, about [twenty] kilometres away” (Via Gallica 2020).

Two acropolises instead of one

As recent excavations have revealed, the ancient city of Rhodes had in fact two acropolises; the other one with the Temples of Aphrodite and Dionysus was situated on the site now occupied by the Palace of the Knights and Collachium (the northernmost part of the Medieval City) (Via Gallica 2020; Medieval Town “Collchium” 2019).

The remains of Panagia tou Bourg (Our Lady of the Burgh), the fourteenth century Catholic church built by the Knights of Saint John who operated a hospital on Rhodes for the Crusaders, in the Medieval Town of Rhodes .

The ancient city of the Classical Greece was therefore much larger; “it stretched from the northern tip of the island at the site of the current” (Via Gallica 2020) Medieval Town and went south-westwards to where today are the remains of the Acropolis of Rhodes (Ibid.). The latter “was a large elevated plateau […], lying just inside the main fortification wall, running [east-west], along the southern boundary of the [ancient] city” (Rice 1995:384). Unlike most ancient acropolis, that one was not fortified (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020); so “it is not a towering citadel which dominates the lower city, but it does present a distinct elevated profile when Rhodes is seen from the sea – the means of approach in antiquity. [Ancient] streets running [westwards and southwards] from the main inhabited areas in the [east] and [north] gave access to the [Acropolis] from the [city], and it could also be reached from outside […], through the city gate situated near the southern end of modern Odos Sophouli (ancient north-south street P)” (Rice 1995:384).

Many tourists spend their time shopping at Ippokratous Square in the medieval walled city of Rhodes.

Nowadays, it is possible to get there from the Medieval Town either by bus or on foot, leaving through the western side of the city walls (Via Gallica 2020).

Lecture on Greek architecture

The Acropolis finally opened to us, revealing its treasures. “Far from the urban liveliness, [we were] standing on the top of Monte Smith hill” (Themis 2020), accompanied just by striking musical performances of Greek cicadas. I felt utterly tired but deeply satisfied we made it. My uncle even speeded up while we are approaching a row of reconstructed columns towering ahead as if the city’s guardian (Tourist Guide 2020). They are the part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios, “which are visible today from the commercial harbour even above the intervening modern building” (Rice 1995:384). they. ‘Amazing’, my uncle admitted, still panting. ‘Now I can give you a lecture if you want’, he exclaimed enthusiastically, gasping for breath.

It must be emphasized that many areas [of the site] are now overgrown or filled in since they were last investigated many decades ago, which makes any observations based only on what is visible to the naked eye today superficial and in need of refinement” (Rice 1995:387). But in its glorious past, the site must have looked impressing; “it consisted of a monumental zone with [sanctuaries], large temples, public buildings and places of worship, [including underground cult places (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019]. Significant buildings] were mainly built on terraces reinforced by powerful walls” (Via Gallica 2020).

My uncle and university professor of Fine Arts, giving a lecture in front of the Temple of Apollo Pythos on the Acropolis of Rhodes.

Different constructions vary in their dating but most buildings were erected during the Hellenistic times (323-31 BC) (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). “These public structures would have been a visual highlight above the busy harbours, drawing the eyes above and away from the bustling dock areas” (Rice 1995:348). Apart from the Temple of Apollo (C), on the Acropolis stood the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies (B) (Ibid.:384). There was also “the stadium (D) with an adjacent [Odeion] (E), very probably a nearby gymnasium (F) and possibly the theatre (G)” (Ibid.:384). The lecturer in classical archaeology, E. E. Rice (1995:384) says that “it […] appears likely that the main civic sanctuary of Helios […] was located on the eastern [side] of the [Acropolis of Rhodes]”.

In the third century BC, it may have housed one of the legendary Wonders of the Ancient World and Greece, the bronze statue of the Colossus of Rhodes, (Ibid.:384). From that point, the mounting representation of the patron Sun god, Helios, would be visible to those approaching the island from the sea.

A composite photo in a modern setting at Rhodes, showing how the Colossus (a random image selected for illustration purposes, which, while reflecting the statue‘s actual height, is not meant to be an accurate representation of its stance or configuration) would have dominated the city and harbours below– if, as proposed here, it was once located atop Monte Smith. Source: Kebric (2019) (Fig.1; p. 86).

On the Rhodian Acropolis, there were possibly also landscaping features, characteristic of ancient sanctuaries, such as trees and sacred groves surrounding the buildings (Ibid.:386). Such a theory is attested by the observation made by the orator Aelius Aristides, from the second century AD, (Ibid.:386) “that ‘the Acropolis is full of fields and groves’. […] The open spaces of the Rhodian [Acropolis were probably] due to the fact it was a virgin site when the city of Rhodes was founded and designed at the end of the fifth century BC. […] The new structures which were built upon the [Acropolis] were therefore inserted into the natural landscape which already predominated; [these were] fields, groves, natural rock hollows [and] cliff faces […]” (Ibid.:386).

Stadium and Odeion

In an olive grove to the east of the Acropolis, there are the partly restored Temple of Apollo, the stadium and the Odeion (Via Gallica 2020). The so-called stadium of Diagoras was built around second century BC. (Themis 2020; Via Gallica 2020).

Acropolis of Rhodes: the ancient stadium. Source: Greek Travel Pages (GTP) (2019).

It is located southeast of the hill and oriented north-south (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). It measured according to the Greek standards, over one hundred and eighty metres in length and around thirty-five in width (Via Gallica 2020). This was one of the very first sites that were excavated in 1912 and, like the Odeion, it is was largely restored (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). Hence their perfect condition known at present (Ibid.). The stadium could contain over ten thousand spectators, attending various exhibitions and athletic games (Stefanu 2017). There “athletic competitions were staged as part of the Haleion Games, an important celebration held by the ancient Rhodians in honour of the god Helios” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

However, taking into account that the uppermost part of the monument has not been excavated yet, its size and so the capacity of the stadium may have been much larger (Stefanu 2017). Among the stadium’s authentic parts, there are sphendone (a semi-circular part at the end of an ancient Greek stadium), the proedries (seats of honour, dedicated to the officials), (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019), “and some of the lower seats in the auditorium. Also preserved is the starting mechanism for the athletes” (Ibid.). The stadium was made from the local limestone, with rectangular blocks but of different sizes, which depended on their location (Stefanu 2017). Each element has got smooth surface and fits perfectly in the whole construction without the use of mortar (Ibid.). To the east of the stadium, there was additionally a gymnasium, which was partially uncovered (the western side along with its north-east corner) (Via Gallica 2020). It was a large square building (around two hundred metres wide), where many works of art were uncovered (Ibid.).

Odeion of the Acropolis of Rhodes. Photo by Tango (2011), published in Wikimedia Commons.

Another important element of the ancient site lies northwest of the stadium (Via Gallica 2020). It is a white marble Odeion (theater) built in the second century BC (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). It was possibly used for attending musical performances or rhetoric lessons given by famous speakers, as its stage is too small to be a scene of a theater (Ibid.). One who was standing in the middle of it could be well heard around, at each point of the construction (Stefanu 2017). There were probably eight hundred spectators who could watch performances (Via Gallica 2020). Although the Odeion looks impressive today, it has been entirely rebuilt by the Italian archaeologists, and only its bottom shelf is authentic (Ibid.).

Today tourists usually enjoy the sunset sitting on the stairs of the stadium or of the nearby Odeion, which regularly hosts musical and theatrical performances (Themis 2020). At the time of our visit, however, there were just a few tourists walking around the reconstructed columns; it was definitely too hot to enjoy the Acropolis by staying for longer in the sun. Our sightseeing unfortunately fell at full noon, but we had no choice due to limited time on Rhodes. If we had stayed on the island a few days, we would have certainly taken the evening walk to the Acropolis with the family, of course, just for volunteers …

Agora and necropolis

The both constructions, the stadium and Odeion, were once situated just in the centre of the ancient agora (known as the forum in the Roman times) (Stefanu 2017). It was a very central site, where all the political and cultural events took place (Ibid.). Piles of ancient stones placed together there consist of finds from the archaeological excavations; they all come from the ancient agora and contain precious parts of various buildings, sometimes covered in Greek writings (Ibid.). It is a pity, they are not exposed in the museum as objects of further studies (Ibid.).

Piles of ancient stones placed together on the place of the ancient agora of the Acropolis of Rhodes. It consists of finds from the archaeological excavations, now in the shadow of trees.

South of the ancient city, there is also a Hellenistic necropolis of Saint John (Agiou Ioannou) (Tourist Guide 2020; Via Gallica 2020). “The most important of these are the large corner funerary complex with tombs featuring vaulted masonry tombs, the cluster of yet more tombs of vaulted stonework crowned by a monument with triglyphs and metopes and the tomb carved into the rock that includes a monumental gateway. Of greatest interest is the underground quarry where burial chambers were dug into the sides of the tunnels”(Tourist Guide 2020).

Stairs leading to the temples

Nonetheless, the most significant part of Monte Smith is the Acropolis (Stefanu 2017). From the place of the previous agora, there are stairs leading up to the Greek temples of Acropolis of Rhodes, which were, like other ancient sanctuaries, built upon an area of elevated ground (Stefanu 2017; “Acropolis” 2020). Hence akron, meaning the highest point and polis – city (“Acropolis” 2020). Today, on the site, there are mostly huge pieces of stones, such as blocks of local limestone and marble, possibly from Naxos or from Pharos, scattered everywhere around the place (Stefanu 2017). Some original building material had already disappeared; they were mostly reused for the construction of post-Hellenistic buildings (Ibid.).

“[Once] situated on the northern edge of the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies was orientated east-west and was a poros Doric peripteral temple (having a columned portico on all four sides). Four oversize column drums and parts of a capital and architrave still [can] be seen on the site. This was where the Rhodians kept the texts of their treaties with other states.

The restored part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios.

The temple stood in a larger temenos bounded by a stoa on the east” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). The only reconstructed structures, however, belong to the Temple of Apollo, which was also built in the Doric style (Via Gallica 2020). The temple stood “on the southern part of the hill, on the west side of a large rectangular terrace. It [was] orientated [east-west, and like the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies it was also a poros peripteral temple, but smaller […]. Part of [its north-eastern] side [has been restored” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019): rising from the incomplete stylobate, there are just four columns and a small section of the entablature as the remains of the temple colonnade. It is also evident that its entrance must have once led through a wide staircase (Via Gallica 2020). Although the temple does not exist anymore, the preserved remains are still able to witness to its monumental character (Ibid.).

Nymphaea

Nothing was left from the once impressive façade of the stoa (a covered walkway or portico for public use); only its foundation has been preserved to our times (Via Gallica 2020). Southeast of the stoa wall, there starts “the first of a series of elaborate rock-cut chambers [carved in] the slopes beneath the [Acropolis] summit; other similar [underground] systems are [cut] into the ridge that curves to the [south and west], towards the main buildings on the summit, and to the [north] where it meets the [western] edge of the [Acropolis]. These structures, partly open to the sky but beneath ground level, have traditionally been described as nymphaea” (Rice 1995:387-388) or the Temple of Nymphaea (Via Gallica 2020).

Nymphaea of Monte Smith (2020) with all artificial caves and stairs carved in the rock of the Acropolis of Rhodes, leading directly to the temples on the summit.

“The word nymphaeum originally meant a shrine of the nymphs, but since nymphs were traditionally associated with caves, and caves with water, the term came to be [later] applied to an ornamental fountain” (Ibid.:388). Archaeological study shows that the Temple of Nymphaea on the Acropolis of Rhodes “consists of four subterranean cave-like constructions cut into the rock with entrance steps, communicating passages and a large opening in the central part of the roof. […] Water cisterns and lush vegetation complete the picture” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019) “Despite the undoubted fact that shade, water and attractive decoration would have made these places pleasant enough to visit and linger in during an ascent to the [Acropolis], they nonetheless led directly to the summit where the main religious buildings were located. The alignment with the grid plan and direct connections with streets and stoas make this evident” (Rice 1995:403).

Why were such underground structures built? What function might they have had? It is believed “they were places for recreation and worship” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). “Cults of the nymphs were [highly] popular [in the Hellenistic] period; they and Pan were also worshiped in Rhodes. [A late] fragmentary inscription found on the Rhodian [Acropolis], dated to the third or fourth century AD, […] mentions a shrine of Pan (a ‘Paneion’) near of sanctuary of Artemis Thermia, [the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister]” (Rice 1995:402). Nothing else is known about the Paneion but there are the remains of other places of worship, which may have once been the Artemision (a temple attributed to the cult of Artemis) (Rice 1995:402; Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

The Apollo’s restored temple behind the trees on the Acropolis of Rhodes.

The cult ‘Thermia’ of the goddess Artemis presumably had associations with thermal waters. It can be hence speculated that ‘some grottoes indeed had passages which connected into the underground aqueduct system” (Rice 1995:402-403). If so, the artificial caves would have “played an important role, since water supply was vital to the survival of the city, and they might have functioned as shrines to deities directly associated with water, [which is manifested by] recesses in the interior walls for statuettes” (Ibid.:403). “[The] evidence of the votive dedications [in the caves] shows that these areas clearly had a primarily […] religious function. The extensive systems of grottoes covered a significant part of the Rhodian [Acropolis, including] the separate system of [south] of the [Temple] of Apollo precinct” (Ibid.:403), and so it may have once been linked to the temples themselves. It is hoped that future archaeological excavations by modern methods may go some way [further] in revealing its mystery (Ibid.:402).  

Successive ways of destructions

All the ancient acropolises on Rhodes and elsewhere are located on the mounts, as much as the sites falling on the axis dedicated to both, Apollo and Saint Michael (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003). The following conquerors of Rhodes also reached there but did not respect the ancient sites and they left their signs on them as the remnants of war, having scratched the beauty of the temples (FM Records 2014). Who and why destroyed them?

The park around the Old Town of Rhodes with footpath and cannon balls in the grass.

As a matter of fact, there were three periods that had greatly contributed to the destruction of the site (Stefanu 2017). The first devastation was, however, caused by nature and happened already in 226 BC, when a huge earthquake hit the island of Rhodes and toppled down most of the buildings on the site, including the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.). The temples of the Rhodian Acropolis were rebuilt but in 42 BC they were again destroyed (Ibid.). This time it was because of the Roman senator, Casius, and his army (Ibid.). Yet, the most modern warfare turned out to be the most destructive to the Acropolis (Ibid.). In 1944, the Germans installed their artillery on the hill, which was consequently bombarded by the British (Ibid.). That it turn affected the temples, which suffered considerable damage (Ibid.).

Time for excavations

Successive excavations and restoration work carried out on Rhodes in the twentieth century allowed to uncover the sites and reconstruct some of the ancient buildings. However, historically diverse, multiply layers of uninterrupted constructions makes such sites difficult to excavate and interpret archaeologically (“Lindos 2020”).

The Temple of Pythian Apollo, on the southern part of the hill, was a poros peripteral temple; restored is part of the north-eastern side with four columns and part of the architrave.

“The [Acropolis] of Rhodes offers different archaeological problems from those posed by the rest of the ancient city. Unlike the lower town, the hill has not been much built over, but neither has it been much excavated except for the Temple of Apollo Pythios and the stadium-Odeion area, which [had mainly been] investigated and reconstructed” (Rice 1995:387)  by the Italian School of Archaeology in Athens from 1912 to 1945 (Via Gallica 2020). Other areas have been partially studied both by the Italians and by the Greek Archaeological Service after the World War II (Rice 1995:387).

“From 1946 onwards Greek Archaeologists [have conducted] a series of excavations, bringing into light important findings regarding the site’s history and topography. During the 60’s and 70’s more reconstruction work was carried out to the west foundation of the Temple of Pythian Apollo. In 1996 further reconstruction was added on the Temple and the [Nymphaeum]. There is still an ongoing excavation in the Acropolis archaeological park, a protected area that covers an area of 12,500 m². As the archaeologists say, the current findings represent only a fragment of the glorious past of the ancient city of Rhodes” Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2010-2019).

Back to the port

Suddenly, my uncle awoke from thoughts on the ruined temples and quickly looked at his watch. He looked terrified. ‘She’s going to kill us’, he said. I knew who he meant.

Tourist Port lies outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. It is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port. A perfect point to take a swim while waiting for a ferry. Source: Rhodes Oldtown (2020).

Around thirty minutes later, we were back at the port of Rhodes. We had made our way back much faster as, according to the basics of the physics and fear, we were walking down, additionally being pushed by the vision of my furious aunt. Meantime, we got a message that the whole company was waiting for us in a cove with a small beach, just outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. The place is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port, so we could wait in the proximity for our ferry to go back to Asia (Rhodes Oldtown 2020).

Our catamaran waiting in the port of Rhodes to come back to Turkey in the evening.

When we got there, again breathless, everybody was either enjoying sun or swimming in the warm sea. My aunt did not even notice at first we came back. She just waved to us from water. After a while, I reminded myself that I was still wearing my bikini underneath, and soon I also dived into blue sea. It was a great refreshment after the archaeological adventure full of sun and effort.

The island’s ambiance took me centuries back (FM Records 2014). It seemed as if the Sun god had shed beauty to his land; on Rhodes, visitors got the impression of living in a fairy tale as they are carried away by the blue sea, warm beaches, locals’ welcoming smiles, picturesque ports, churches, and soaring ancient temples (Ibid.).

Rhodes island offers visitors a history that goes back in time thousands of years, to the ages of mythology. Source: Nicholas Rhodes Taxi Tours (2020).

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War and Peace of Ur

During my several months’ stay in London, one of the sites I visited most frequently was undoubtedly the British Museum. Apart from contemporary exhibitions, the entrance to the Museum is free of charge so it would be a pity to miss it, especially for someone who loves wandering around ancient artifacts. As a museums expert, Amaya (2017) advises, an average amount of time spent in a museum should be no more than around 90 minutes, as a human brain can focus only during this period and then it simply needs a break. If it is not possible to come back to the museum later, it is essential to have intervals between particular display units and drink water for a better concentration (Ibid.).

“5 tips to enjoy a no hassle museum visit”. In: Museums Made Easy by Amaya (2017).

I usually stay longer in a museum when we have just one day for a huge exhibition during a study trip, as it was in Mexico. In London or Paris, it was easier as I could come back to the museums during my longer stay in the cities.

Room 56

Ones of the oldest objects preserved by the British Museum come from the display units dedicated to Mesopotamia (6000–1500 BC), which is the so-called cradle of human civilization (The British Museum 2020). To get there, I needed to climb up to the upper floor, where the Rooms 55 and 56 are located, within the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery (Rooms 53-59) (Ibid.). Of my particular interest was especially the Room 56, as it displays very important artifacts unearthed in the early twentieth century at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, in southern Iraq (Ibid.). The collection includes jewellery, pottery and musical instruments that were excavated by one of the greatest British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (Ibid.).

The lionheaded eagle, called Imdugud in Sumerian. It seems to have been especially associated with the city-state of Lagash and with its chief deity, Ningirsu. Here it is surmounting a lintel made from sheets of copper, Temple of Ninhursag at Tell al-Ubagid, Iraq, c. 2500 BC. Room 56 in the British Museum.

For a while I was found on my own in the Room, accompanied by all these remarkable objects, yet under the surveillance of the divine Sumerian lion-headed eagle, looking down at me from the panel hanging above the entrance door. Finally, I could take a closer look of the burial goods, without any need of waiting in a queue to stand directly in front of the display window. They are placed among other artifacts from the region, “[illustrating] economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians who lived in Mesopotamia at this time” (The British Museum 2020). Yet many of their aspects are still shrouded in mystery as much as the culture who created them.

Standard of Ur is catching visitors’ attention by its intensively vivid colours. The British Museum, Room 56.

My attention was suddenly caught by vibrant colours of the triangular object, which was calling me behind the glass. Today, it is just an archaeological reconstruction of its once crushed remains, unearthed in such a state that it is only a best guess how the object was originally shaped (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Nevertheless, it has been labelled as a standard, the Standard of Ur (Ibid.).

Mound of Pitch

The land of ancient Mesopotamia lay across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq and Syria (Wakely 1999). It has always been a flat desolate land made green by rivers’ canals and marshes (Ibid.). Yet from this unpromising landscape arouse the foundation of the ancient civilisation, including the world’s first cities and the earliest known writing system (Ibid.). Southern Mesopotamia was settled already by the seventh millennium BC. (Ibid.). By the second half of the third millennium, it was divided into twenty or thirty city-states that controlled the smallest towns and villages dispersed across the countryside (Ibid.). Shifting alliances among competing city-states brought conflicts often over water and even war to the city’s walls (Ibid.).

William Loftus’s sketch of his discovery of the ziggurat, in 1850. Source “Ziggurta of Ur” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Some objects on display in the Room 56 of the British Museum tell a story about Ur, one of the ancient southern Mesopotamian city-states (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The site is also known as the cradle of civilization (Ibid.) as “[archaeologists] have discovered there the evidence of an early [settlement] during the [so-called] Ubaid Period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC)” (“Ur” 2020). Its name also appears in the Book of Genesis as the home of the biblical patriarch, Abraham (Genesis 11:29-32), and the region itself is referred to as the location of the Garden of Eden (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). “The further occupation of Ur only becomes clear during its emergence in the third millennium BC, although it must already have been a growing urban center during the fourth millennium” (“Ur” 2020), around 3 800 BC (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It was equally among the most powerful and prosperous (Wakely 1999). Although the city-state of Uruk was one of the earliest and most prominent cities by this time, in the early third millennium BC., the temple dominated city-state of Ur emerged as one of the most important cities in the new stage of the development of human society and states (McDonald 2013). The modern name of the ancient Ur is Tell el-Muqayyar, which in Arabic means a mound of pitch (Wakely 1999). The name comes from the monumental temple tower, which was made of baked mud bricks set in the bitumen or pitch, a naturally occurring form of tar (Ibid.).

Ziggurat of Ur

In 1922, under the leadership of a little known young archaeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley, excavations jointly sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum were initiated at the site of ancient Ur (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The decision to excavate proved to be a prominent one (Wakely 1999).

Woolley Photo of the Ziggurat of Ur with workers Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 BC., Woolley excavation workers (Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq). Source: German (2014). Khan Academy.

One of the most important part of the ancient city of Ur turned out to be the temple complex of the Moon god Nanna, at the centre of which was a ziggurat: a series of stepped terraces with a temple on top (Wakely 1999). “The remains of the ziggurat were first discovered by William Loftus in 1850” (“Ziggurat of Ur” 2020), during the first excavations at the site, conducted by a British consul at Basra, John George Taylor (Wakely 1999; “Ziggurat of Ur” 2020). The excavations at the mound in 1854 uncovered inscribed cylinders, which recorded rebuilding of the temple tower by the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (around sixth century BC.), who was the successor of the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Ibid.).

Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 B.C.E. mud brick and baked brick, Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq (largely reconstructed). Source: German (2014) Khan Academy.

The ziggurat was excavated further by Woolley who managed to uncover its older layers. The core of the huge pyramidal tower was made of packed mud bricks, whereas the outside of the monument was constructed of baked mud bricks, jointed together with bitumen or pitch (Wakely 1999) Many of the bricks have had a stamped inscription with the name of the founder of the third dynasty of Ur, Ur-Nammu, who ruled there over four thousand years ago (Ibid.). Woolley’s recovery of Ur’s ancient ziggurat and the complex of buildings around it was a remarkable find but it paled in a comparison with his discoveries of the so-called Royal Tombs (Ibid.).

The ‘gold trench’

In 1923, Woolley discovered a whole cache of opulent graves in a trench near the ruins of the ziggurat of Ur (McDonald 2013; Ḏḥwty 2017). The archaeologist, “however, decided to halt the excavation [there], as he was aware that neither he nor his men were experienced enough to excavate burials. Hence, Woolley concentrated on excavating buildings, before returning to the [trench] in 1926, [where his] workmen discovered evidence of burials and jewellery of gold and precious stones, leading to it being called the ‘gold trench’” (Ḏḥwty 2017; see Wakely 1999). Excavated burials were so rich that they competed only with Howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, unearthed earlier in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in 1922 (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013).  

A reconstruction of the great death pit burial scene. Notice the two musicians holding lyres just beyond the oxen. (Originally appeared in the Illustrated London News, 23 June 1928). Source: McTague (1999–2020) Live of Ur.

Ur’s discoveries are noteworthy not just for their contents but for the location of the dig (McDonald 2013). The tombs discovered in Ur seemed to date from about 2 550 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It means the cemetery appeared around fifty years after the reign of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk (2800 – 2600 BC; see Gibbor in the Louvre). Some tombs of Ur were full of gold and silver jewellery and objects as well as colourful and spectacular grave goods (McDonald 2013). The archaeologists discovered things that had never been seen before: wonderous musical instruments, gold headdresses, a golden ostrich egg, weapons and even inlaid gameboards (Ibid.). What was even more fascinating about them was the fact some contained possibly deliberate human sacrifices as a part of burial rituals (McDonald 2013; Amaya March, 2017).

Public secret

At the early stage of excavations, in 1928, Woolley wanted to keep his breath-taking discovery secret (McDonald 2013). Therefore, he sent his telegram announcing the news in Latin to make it understandable only to his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Ibid.). When the news finally reached the public and press in London and New York, it created a high sensation (Ibid.). The New York Times and an Illustrated London News wrote articles recounting the marvels discovered (Ibid.). The Illustrated London News even published an artist’s drawing recreating the moments before the people in the great death pit had met their deaths (Ibid.).

Agatha Christie with husband Max Mallowan (left) and lead archaeologist Leonard Woolley at Ur, southern Iraq, in 1931. Photograph: British Museum. Source: Jongh (2014) The Guardian.

The 1920s and early 30s of the same century are a golden age of archaeological discoveries and the public is fascinated by all the details (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). Perhaps no excavation in more than one hundred and fifty years of archaeological working in Mesopotamia had excited as much worldwide interest as Woolley’s work in ancient Ur (Wakely 1999). As a result of extensive publicity, tours from all parts of the globe, including European royalty and the famous crime novelist, Agatha Christie, flocked to the remote site in the Iraqi desert (Ibid.). Christie came to Iraq after her devastating divorce and met there her future husband, who was Woolley’s colleague and assistant from the dig, Max Mallowan (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019). Her stay at the site during excavations was also the perfect remedy; she lost her heart for the ancient site of Ur and so she even set her another story of mystery murder in Mesopotamia, at an archaeological dig that resembled that one (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019; JOM 2020). Later she recalled it by writing (National Geographic 2019):

I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.

Agatha Christie on Ur. In: National Geographic (2019).

Royal tombs and resourceful researcher

Between 1927 and 1934, Woolley uncovered 1 850 tombs in Ur (Wakely 1999). “The cemetery was used between about 2600-2000 BC and hundreds of burials were made in pits” (The British Museum 2015). Sixteen (or seventeen) tombs dated to the mid-third millennium stood apart from the others; each contained an extraordinary wealth of artifacts and evidence of human sacrifices (Wakely 1999; Amaya March, 2017).

Leonard Woolley holding the noted excavated Sumerian Queen’s Lyre, 1922. Source: Ḏḥwty (2017). Ancient Origins.

Woolley called them Royal Tombs because he assumed they contained Ur’s deceased kings (Wakely 1999). Yet, he recognised considerable variations between them (Ibid.). The archaeologist’s skills also proved equal to his task; he turned out to be an imaginative and resourceful researcher under very difficult circumstances (McDonald 2013). First of all, he knew how to rescue objects of art that seemed lost to time like the wooden sound boxes of the lyres that long ago rotted wet (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). In order to save them, he poured wet plaster into the holes created by the decayed wood and carefully brushed the dirt aside to reveal the plaster form of a lost article (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999).

Object from the Tomb PG 779

A particular mosaic covered object was discovered in the Tomb PG 779, one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Already in ancient times, “[robbers] had thoroughly plundered the tomb in which [the artifact] was found. As one corner of the last chamber […] was being cleared, a workman accidentally spotted a piece of shell inlay, and from this starting point, the remains of the [mosaic object] were slowly revealed and reconstructed” (JOM 2020).  When the artifact was found, its original wood had already rotted away but the remains of an elaborate design created by a multicoloured mosaic were preserved (McDonald 2013; Sailus 2003-2020). As the object was decayed, “the two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil [of the collapsed tomb. Moreover], the bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were [also] broken” (The British Museum 2015). So these were only “the mosaic pieces that had kept [in place the whole] form [of the previously wooden skeleton]” (JOM 2020). This is why the object required Woolley’s special attention (McDonald 2013).

Plan of grave PG 779, thought to belong to Ur-Pablisag (1900). The Standard of Ur was located in “S”. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Like in the case of other excavated artifacts, “[the archaeologist] looked for hollows in the ground created by [the] decayed object and then filled them with plaster or wax to record the shape of the [material] that had once filled [it. Woolley] carefully uncovered small sections measuring about 3 square centimetres and covered them with wax, enabling the mosaics to be lifted while maintaining their original designs” (JOM 2020). Due to reconstructing efforts, the remains found in the Tomb PG 779 have eventually become a 21.59×49.53-centimetre hollow wooden box in the shape of a trapezoid, covered in original colourful mosaics (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015; JOM 2020).

But what was it?

As the artifact was found “lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a [ritually sacrificed] man” (The British Museum 2015), Woolley imagined that it had once been supported on a pole and borne by the deceased (Ibid.). The archaeologist reasoned such a possibility because of the object’s position along the dead (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, it may have been carried as a standard in war, aloft on a pole in order to identify a military unit (Ibid.). “Another theory suggests, [however], that it once formed the soundbox of a musical instrument” (The British Museum 2015) or was a part of furniture or else served as a box used to hold civic funds (Sailus 2003-2020). The fact is, however, that nothing like it has been known then or since (McDonald 2013).

Peace (detail), The Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 B.C.E., shell, red limestone, lapis lazuli, and bitumen (original wood no longer exists), 21.59 x 49.53 x 12 cm, Ur © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Today this mysterious object is known as the Royal Standard of Ur and it proves to be the most informative, beautiful and enigmatic of all (McDonald 2013). In such a way, Woolley also describes the artifact in his letter (Ibid.). However, no one knows whether the so-called Royal Standard of Ur is a standard or even royal and our knowledge of the royal cemetery is not much greater than it was known from Woolley’s excavations (Ibid.). Scholars assume, however, that modern understanding of the symbolism of early Sumerian society has been improved since the beginning of the twentieth century, and so interpretation of the figures and actions shown on the objects discovered in the cemetery of Ur is much more nuanced and clear (Ibid.). Yet, any interpretation is still speculating and there are more theories than evidence.

Stylistic Conventions

Rendering of the depicted figures on the Standard, both human and animal, is very characteristic of Sumerian stylistic conventions (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012). Almost all the characters are illustrated in a perfect profile (Ibid.). Accordingly, only one eye is visible (Ibid.). However, it is not directed forward but rather looking outside (Ibid.). By these means, it seems to be depicted in the form of a frontally seen eye but just on the side of the face, like it is present in the Egyptian art  (Ibid.). The human shoulders are squared, as if presented frontally, whereas the feet are again depicted in profile, as if one after the other, which evokes movement  (Ibid.).

The animals’ figures are superimposed; the four are walking one beside the other, and the outlines of the three animals are visible behind the one at the front, so their number overlapping (McDonald 2013). This artistic technique of overlapping gives a sense of depth, which today results from the use of perspective (Ibid.).

Conventional interpretation

The original Warka or Uruk Vase, dated to
c. 3200–3000 BC. National Museum of Uruk.
Source: “Warka Vase” (2020) In: Wikipedia.
The Free Encyclopedia.
 

The Standard of Ur, whose function is still shrouded in mystery, is said to tell more about powerful rulers of Ur and a great deal about life in early Sumerian society than almost any other artifact that was discovered from ancient Sumer (McDonald 2013).

The box-like sculpture inlaid with colourful mosaics shows scenes of both, warfare and festivals, with a ruler in their center (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the prevailing subjects depicted on the Standard are a successful military campaign led by the ruler and the abundance of the land which assures fertility for its people (Ibid.). In some aspects, the Standard of Ur repeats themes from the Uruk vase, known also as the Warka vase (McDonald 2013; “Warka vase” 2020). Even though the vase comes from centuries earlier than the Standard itself, it shows a parallel artistic composition and probably gives a similar message (McDonald 2013).

War and Peace

From the reconstructed Standard of Ur, it can be observed that the box itself consists of two panels, which slope together towards the top and two end pieces, which are triangular but cut off at the top (McDonald 2013). All the four sides of the Standard are covered in three registers of mosaics (Ibid.). The inlaid pieces consist of lapis lazuli, shell and red marble (limestone) set into bitumen, which is a sticky oil-by product found in Iraq (Ibid.). Conventionally, the two large sides have been called War and Peace because one side is organised around a depiction of a military campaign, whereas the other illustrates the banquet and files of people and animals (Ibid.). “For those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the ‘War’ side is the chronological beginning” (Sailus 2003-2020).

Dr Diana McDonald (2013), however, believes that these panels of inlay tell principally about the dual role of a Sumerian ruler controlling a city-state and about a Sumerian society at the time around 2 550 BC. Back in time, when Sumerian city-states first began to coalesce and population pressures made resources of water and food, which was scarce in this arid land, a ruler or king had a special obligation to and role for his people; he was expected to be a leader at war and a commander-in-chief (Ibid.).

Royal entourage

The so-called War Side of the Standard of Ur shows three registers of battle scenes with the earliest representations of a Sumerian army and the aftermath of the fight (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). All the scenes are colourfully illustrated in pieces of red limestone, shell and lapis inlays (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. The ruler as a larger figure among his entourage. Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Action seems to begin (likewise on the Uruk vase) at the bottom register (McDonald 2013). The top register shows that all the action leads up from down to the most important figure, depicted at the very top and in the centre (Ibid.). It stands turned to the right, represented in profile. Although the figure is a human-looking being, it is much broader and taller than all the others shown in the register (Ibid.). His head actually pierces the pictorial frame intended for the panel (Ibid.). This outsized man holds what appears to be a staff or a spear and faces a group of men, probably some prisoners who approach him (Ibid.). Among them, there are the men clothed in kilt like skirts with scalloped edges are wearing sheep skins and they are apparently the soldiers (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. War captives led by soldiers to the ruler. Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Differently looking men shown between them are apparently war captives (McDonald 2013). They “are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs” (JOM 2020). The soldiers could have captured them in a battle and they are being presented now to the ruler (McDonald 2013). The poorly looking enemies strikingly contrast with the majestic figures of the ruler and his people, which should be also understood symbolically: the victory is on the side of Ur due to its overwhelming power (Amaya March, 2017).

King’s mounts

Behind the king, to the left of the centre in the top register, there is also his battle wagon and members of the royal entourage or other soldiers with staffs (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

The battle wagon is a fairly large and unwieldy looking vehicle (McDonald 2013). It is known, and accordingly represented, that the wagon’s blocky looking wheels were made of two pieces of wood as spoked wheels had not been invented yet (Ibid.). There is also the driver holding the reins and standing behind the vehicle (Ibid.). Horses had not been yet imported to the area so the wagon is probably driven by four asses or onagers (Ibid.). The latter was a kind of wild ass that is now extinct but was originally native to Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Some scholars think that the Sumerians actually interbred the two animals to produce an onager ass hybrid, which was easier to control and stronger than either one (Ibid.). Their tails look long and tufted at the end like an ass or a donkey’s (Ibid.). Such details reveal the ingenuity and technological capability of these people in the beginning of the third millennium BC.; they were domesticating and taming animals, creating vehicles and working on the sophisticated metal technology which allowed the wagons to be yoked to the animals (Ibid.).

In the second register, in the middle, there is a scene of warfare, showing the Sumerian infantry, carrying spears (McDonald 2013). At the left, there is a disciplined phalanxof soldiers, who are wearing some kind of protective clothing, probably a leather armour and helmets (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013). The infantry faces a group on the right consisting of soldiers who are killing or leading off enemy prisoners (McDonald 2013). The latter are either “killed with axes [or] paraded naked [as those above] presented to the king” (The British Museum 2015). It means that the middle register depicts the battle itself (McDonald 2013), which is already shown as a decisive victory of the Standard’s owner.

Battle wagons

On the lowest register, there is the force of battle wagons (McDonald 2013). While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian [‘chariot’] attack, others think it is the post-battle procession, [with the ruler’s wagon in front] leading the army back to Ur” (Sailus 2003-2020). If the last interpretation is real, however, the whole sequence of the register should be read from up down, and not the other way round as it is generally assumed.

The depicted vehicles are presumably early forerunners of chariots as they are bulkier and less flexible versions of equid-drawn that are horse-drawn vehicles (McDonald 2013). The line of battle wagons begins at the left with a vehicle, which is drawn by four of these asses or onagers (Ibid.).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2 550 BC. War panel, detail. The illustration of the battle wagons in the bottom register are showing the movement speeding up from left to right. The British Museum; Room 56. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the back of the wagon, there is a warrior and inside it a driver holds the reins, which pass over the high front of the vehicle and then through what is called a terret or a rein ring, and which was yoked to the animals, which have got nose rings (McDonald 2013). The metal bit had not yet been invented at that time (Ibid.). In this way, all these carefully rendered scenes show a detailed account of transportation technology of the Sumerians (Ibid.).

Pictures in motion

There is also the use of the narrative in the quickening pace of the lower register (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons trampling the enemies. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

By observing the next wagon to the right, it is really easy to get the impression that the asses have picked up a bit of speed and their gait is now a canter (McDonald 2013). The animals’ legs are farther apart, stretched in galloping, whereas in the space between them, lies a prostrate figure of a nude dead enemy (Ibid.). The rhythm picks up again with the next two groups of speeding animals and trampling the enemies (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). While one group of mounts is galloping, the last appears to be already in a flying gallop (McDonald 2013). The picking up of speed in these register scenes is a possibly new invention in art (Ibid.). Much later it was applied most notably in the Greek Parthenon frieze, with the huge marble sculpture of a procession with horses that pulses with speed towards the central scene (Ibid.).

Rhythm and hierarchy

The so-called Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects and is probably symbolic of Sumer. the British Museum; Room 56.

The other notable aspect of the way the mosaic has been created is a rhythmic pattern, not just of the individual groups, who vary between active and static poses, but also in bright colours of lapis lazuli and red limestone (McDonald 2013). And this rhythmic pattern of colours punctuates the scenes in a pleasing and sophisticated design (Ibid.). Also, the whole design is hierarchical from bottom to top in scale and in placement; it underlines and attests the dominance and leadership of a powerful ruler (Ibid.). He is portrayed as victorious and is set triumphantly amidst and atop the battle, which is complete with his prisoners dead and the nude enemies at the very bottom below the galloping animals (Ibid.).

Religious banquet?

The other side of the Standard of Ur shows a completely different aspect of the Sumerian leadership (McDonald 2013). This side which was often referred to as Peace, has also been called victory but its meaning is perhaps much broader than either name evokes (Ibid.).

This side depicts a big banquet at the very top register (McDonald 2013). It could perhaps be a cultic banquet with some religious significance but it is also interpreted as a victory feast (Ibid.). The latter is a theory proposed by scholars “who believe the Standard portrays an actual event” (Sailus 2003-2020).

Standard of Ur. Sumerian artwork, ca. 2250 BC. From tomb 779 Ur. British Museum. Detail. By Michel Wal. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The ruler is again the largest figure of all in the topmost part of the panel but this time he is seated at the left with his six bald men facing him as they lift their cups (McDonald 2013). He is also holding a cup and is naked above the waist (Ibid.). He is wearing a fleecy garment or fringed skirt, is bald and sits on a stool with some animal-like legs (Ibid.). It could be a gazelle or a hoof of a similar animal (Ibid.). The slightly smaller seated figures are wearing kilts with a fleecy border and are seated on similar stools as their ruler (Ibid.).

Similarly dressed, three or four other men (the upper-part of the fourth, on the left, is apparently missing) are standing near the ruler (McDonald 2013). They seemed to be attendants for the banquet (Ibid.). To the extreme right, there is a musician playing a lyre, which is similar to the elaborate inlaid bull lyres, which were actually found at the cemetery of Ur (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). A figure with longer hair at the right of the musician has arms crossed as if singing (Ibid.). This may very well be the musicians for the banquet (Ibid.).

The bounty of land

Below, there are two registers of mostly bald men who guide different kinds of livestock and other goods as if to show the bounty of the land, as much as it is represented on the Uruk vase (McDonald 2013).

“Peace”, detail showing a lyrist and possibly a singer. “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the second register, there are bald Sumerians wearing similar fleece bordered skirts as in the banquet scene and probably leading the animals of the land to the ruler depicted above (McDonald 2013). Animals are one of the most carefully and frequently represented subjects by the Sumerians, as much as by most of the early cultures of the Near East (Ibid.). After all, it is from them that the bounties of the land flow: meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather and even transportation (Ibid.). Also the cultivation of the earth for crops is made easier by the beast of burden, such as an ox (Ibid). Hence the procession of these precious animals led by people: the bull at the right, rams and sheep, and finally a cow and a goat (Ibid.). One bald figure in the middle also holds two large fishes in either hand (Ibid.). Such animals represent the bounty of the lands of Sumer, both marshes and cultivated pastures (Ibid.).

The last row of the side shows a slightly different procession of bounty (McDonald 2013). People depicted there are dressed differently and some bear burdens on their shoulders and backs while other lead asses by their nose rings (Ibid.). It is thought that these people must come from elsewhere, most likely from the north, the region later known as Akkad (Ibid.). Sumer and Akkad were linked as two regions of Mesopotamia and they both complemented each other in their produce and in their topography: marshes in desert versus hillier, more temperate regions in the north (Ibid.).

The same language

The two lower registers of the Peace side move in the opposite direction to the seated men depicted on top (McDonald 2013). By these means, a rhythm is set up (Ibid.). Assuming that the motion of the processions is from bottom to top, it would be again a hierarchical definition of the Sumerian society, where the largest and so the most significant figure is the ruler and just after him the ruler’s closest entourage, probably priests, who are smaller than their ruler but still larger than the banquet musicians and attendants (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013).

Both techniques also appear in the registers of the Uruk vase and one message seems to be common to both artifacts: the bounty of the land prevails and the ruler holds sway over its productivity (McDonald 2013). On the Uruk vase, priests are depicted while making offering to Inanna on behalf of a ruler (Ibid.). Similarly, the banquet, which seems to be religious in nature on the Standard of Ur, positions the ruler at the top and he is receiving the bounty of the land, yet this time without the deity represented (Ibid.). In the object from Ur, however, the fertility theme is in a colourful inlay of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, as if it was a more fully realized, colorized version of the vase of Uruk, yet made several hundred years later (Ibid.). Accordingly, both objects show similar concerns : depicting the ruler in a ritual scene with the fertile products of his land display (Ibid.).

Historic events?

Providing that the Standard has recorded a historic event, some scholars interpret the bottom row of the Peace side as the procession of goods being the tribute brought in by the losing side in the battle, shown on the other side of the standard (McDonald 2013).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2550 BC. Peace panel;
the bottom register, detail. Gifts carried
to the ruler shown at the top. The British
Museum; Room 56. Source: “Standard
of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free
Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, “[the] feast [would have taken] place in commemoration of the preceding side’s military victory; [the] top row [would show] the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him, [whereas], the bottom two rows [would represent] the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords” (Sailus 2003-2020). But there are also other interpretations, such as a recurring theme of the Sumerian leadership and its dual function (McDonald 2013).

Two sides of the kingship

The two sides of the Standard could actually be showing the two sides of the kingship itself: the role of the king as a leader in warfare and his religious role as a leader of his people in worship of the gods (McDonald 2013). He is the one responsible for providing that the fecundity of the land continues to feed his people (Ibid.). The ruler is positioned as a mediator to the deities; his actions and his prayers connect with the divine in order to support his people (Ibid.). So the ruler was not only the protector of his city in war conflict but also the one responsible for the very fertility of the land, which provided for his people (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top and middle registers. The royal wagon, soldiers and infantry below. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

The two complementary sides of kingship, warrior and provider, are very clearly represented in Sumerian artworks (McDonald 2013). In fact, these aspects of kingship occur in artistic representations all over the world because they are the heart of the legitimacy of any ruler; they must defend their people and provide for them (Ibid.).

The Sumerians are by no means the only people who had such concerns and expectations for their rulers, and a theme of an offerings procession occurs in many contexts in art (McDonald 2013). Similar scenes occur later in Greek art, as in the mentioned above sculpture of Parthenon, where there are both martial and offering or fertility themes, all directed towards a goddess of the city that appears to coalesce (Ibid.).

Still a mystery

The actual usage of the standard of Ur still remains a mystery; the box like reconstruction does not seem to be ideal for a standard used in war (McDonald 2013). It is because its scenes were apparently meant to be seen up close and understood on a detailed level (Ibid.).

Cylinder seal of Pu-abi, ca. 2600 B.C., lapis lazuli, 4.9 x 2.6 cm, from Ur © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Skilled craftsmen who knew how to communicate a message about the kingship and religion in the Sumerian state were engaged in telling a story that rolls out like a narrative, similar to the use of the comic book register, which is also observed in the cylinder seals of the period being very central to Sumerian tradition (McDonald 2013). Banquet scenes, like the one on the Standard of Ur, were also represented on such objects, for example the seal of the so-called Queen Puabi, which was also found in Ur and equally exposed in the British Museum (The British Museum 2015).

Fanciful scenes

Unlike major panels of the Standard, its end panels are usually neglected in detailed interpretations as they are thought to be only fanciful scenes, which were added by the artist merely as a lush decoration (Shukur 2018).

End panels on the Royal Standard of Ur. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

Some authors think that it is unlikely and the depictions on the shorter sides have got a deeper meaning and so deserve thorough explanations (Shukur 2018). As in the case of the longer sides of the Standard, both end panels are also divided into three registers but due to limited space, they depict just a few pictures in comparison to the long panels of War and Peace sides.

Heralds of failure or victory?

One of the end panels. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

The end panel to the left of the War side shows a ram in the top register; it is standing on its hint legs while “feeding on the high branches of a tree” (Shukur 2018). Such an image resembles a famous Sumerian sculpture, known as the Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects (Ibid.) and “it seemed to be symbolic of Sumer itself” (Ibid.). On the other side of the tree, there is an incomplete representation of a creature with hooves and a tail, which can be a half-human hybrid typical of Sumerian mythology (Ibid.).

End panel; detail from the top register. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

In the middle register, there is the same ram but this time it is accompanied by a Sumerian man on the right, who “is making a ceremonial offering to the [animal]” (Shukur 2018). On the left, there is another figure, probably of an “Akkadian enemy in the angled-skirt” (Ibid.). He is probably holding a sort of weapon, whose blade seems to spear the ram’s body (Ibid.). At the bottom, the ram disappears as if killed by the enemy (Ibid.). But it has left its tree behind it. Now, it is flanked by two seated man-headed bulls, probably symbols of Sumer (Ibid.). Are these images metaphorical heralds of the coming war, depicted on the longer side of the Standard? (Ibid.).

On the other side, if the registers are read from down up, it would mean that the ram appears in the second register and is still present in the final scene, together with the opposite creature, which may be a key to the meaning of the whole story. If it is one of the man-headed bulls from the bottom, the scenes may announce the Sumerian victory.

From war to peaceful bounties of life

The other end panel. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

The opposite end panel also represents interesting, yet mysterious images. Starting from the bottom, there is possibly the same ram, which is now on top of a mountain or jumping over it. The mountain front can be also interpreted as a gate or door (Shukur 2018). It “is probably [also a] part of a locking mechanism by which the Standard could be attached or removed” (Ibid.). The middle register above shows in turn the ram (its horns are damaged and so are invisible) being chased by a leopard (Ibid.). Finally, the topmost scene represents “two flowering plants with the eight-pointed rosettes, […] symbolically important to the Sumerians” (Ibid.) Above, there may have been also a larger rosette (Ibid.). Unfortunately, now the uppermost image is erased.

As it seems, the two end panels complement each other by the imagery portrayed on them in the three successive registers. If the sequence of events is read from down up in both cases, the scenes of the both sides seem to correlate. The bottom pictures probably build a scenery of peace just before the war, whereas the two middle registers always show the ram in danger. Providing that the ram is identified with Sumer, such imagery may evoke some menace to the city-states, such as war. Nevertheless, the top registers reveal that Sumer has not only been saved but also turned out to be victorious; the ram feeding on a tree and flowering plants may imply an abundance of the land that has become even wealthier afterwards, as much as it is visible on the Peace side of the Standard.

The Standard’s story

But while the Standard does not reveal all its secrets it does tell a story about a society, which was full of hierarchy and wealth (McDonald 2013). Its trade routes reach far and wide to receive the luxury goods of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, to the red marble or limestone, which may have come all the way from India (Ibid.).

The Standard of Ur, in the British Museum, Room 56. Photo by Denis Bourez from France – British Museum, London. Uploaded by SunOfErat. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Elaborate mosaics must have been crafted by skilled artisans, which implies that a society that could support art and artists devoted only to that and fed by others had developed in Sumer (McDonald 2013). The artists’ skills were in turn directed towards the support of the elite, the king or ruler and his nobles (Ibid.). Rulers are depicted in art in such a way that their role above the others in the society must have been legitimatized; they were protectors of their people in warfare and bringers of peace, continuously acting as the conduit between fertility and human survival, and by extension, between the earthly world and heavens (Ibid.).

Treasures of the museums

As Sir Charles Leonard Woolley’ archaeological expedition was a joint effort between the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum in London, the objects uncovered by the excavators were in great part shipped off to new homes in those two museums (McDonald 2013). In fact, a great deal of archaeology of that time and earlier sought to recover fabulous treasures and then remove them from their native lands to the museums of their excavators (Ibid.).

A Street Scene at Ur in the Level of the Abrahamic Period (2000-1900 BC.). Postcard; printed; photograph showing archaeological excavations at Ur, with Arab workmen standing for scale in the excavated street of an early second millennium B.C.E. residential quarter © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

This is definitely something that does not happen nowadays (McDonald 2013). New moral standards, nationalism, pride and the better resources of art make such wholesale removal of what has been called the national patrimony no longer allowed (Ibid.). Moreover, archaeology as a discipline has changed throughout centuries (Ibid.). Most archaeologists do not seek to wrest the treasures from the ground to exhibit them in a museum far away as their trophies (Ibid.). Instead, they are intent on finding out more about the culture and the society that produced the excavated artifacts and with this objective it is possible to learn more (Ibid.). Objects that are excavated now usually stay in their countries in local museums or universities (Ibid.).

Lost national patrimony

As a matter of fact, the artifacts, which Woolley uncovered in his excavations in Ur were not only divided among the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum, but also were granted to the National Iraq Museum in Bagdad (Wakely 1999). Although some authors claim that only a small number of artifacts was left in Iraq (Ḏḥwty 2017), Neil McGregor, in The History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC Radio 4), says that “the Iraq Museum in Baghdad [actually] received the lion’s share of the Ur excavations” (Gerry 2010). Nevertheless, in 2003 some part of this unique treasure was looted and lost forever (Barker 2018). Exceptional artifacts from Woolley’s excavations in Ur, such as the bowl made of gold and lapis lazuli, have been stolen and never found (Ibid.). And although plundering museums and archaeological sites has been “regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times” (Ibid.), this crime has never stopped.

Gold and lapis bowl from Ur, Iraq Museum IM8272. Current status is unknown. Oriental Institute Lost Treasures from Iraq database. Source: Barker (2018).

Unfortunately, since 2003, “much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen […]. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing” (Barker 2018). McGregor says that “the looting of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum during the recent war in Iraq was felt very profoundly by the Iraqis […]; from the moment of discovery, there was a strong connection between Iraqi national identity and the antiquities of Ur. [It was because] the  discoveries at Ur [had] coincided with the early years of the modern state of Iraq, created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. One of the focal points of that new state was the Iraq Museum in Baghdad […]. Mesopotamia’s past [has become] a key part of Iraq’s future. Archaeology and politics are set to remain closely connected as, tragically, are cities and warfare” (Gerry 2010).

Safe by all means

“The museum looting should have been a clarion call for the need for better protection of antiquities in conflict zones, both from combatants and local populations. Sadly, this has not been the case. There has been subsequent destruction of archaeological sites and museums in [Egypt], Syria and Libya, ISIS selling antiquities to finance weapons, and increases in thefts from both private and public collections and from archaeological sites […] The loss of these sites and artifacts is disastrous for humanity” (Barker 2018).

Ruins in the Town of Ur, southern Iraq, with the ziggurat in the background. CC by SA 2.0. Source: Ḏḥwty (2017). Ancient Origins.

This is also why there are fierce debates weather artifacts taken to overseas museums during colonialism should be returned to their countries of origin, especially when they keep facing unceasing social unrest and wars (Jenkins, Rodet, Stefanidis, Thomas 2019). Actually, there are as many different opinions as scholars (Ibid.). The problem is even more complex; although some authorities definitely agree that archaeological artifacts should be left in the country, where they were unearthed, the overriding matter that counts for them is to keep them safe by all means (Ibid.).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Face of the Fifth Sun

We started our first day in the capital of Mexico with a visit at National Museum of Anthropology and History in Chalpultepek Park, called in Spanish El Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. When we entered the Museum, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the opulence and variation of the world’s greatest collection of ancient Mesoamerican art. I admit it is one of my most favourites museums in the world I have ever visited. As the exhibition is vast and its collections highly extensive, we allocated the whole day to explore it right (Semantika 2014). As a matter of fact, the museum edifice is built around a large courtyard, which is a pleasant and shady place to stay when you want to take a break or have lunch, so we did not leave the building before its closure (Ibid.).

The Central Courtyard Umbrella, Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico (National Museum of Anthropology). Source: “National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico)” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The museum [contains twenty-three] permanent exhibit halls. Archaeology [displays] are located on the ground floor and ethnographic exhibits about present-day indigenous groups in Mexico are on the upper level. […] On the left of the entrance, [there] are halls devoted to [different] cultural areas of Mexico [and each room is extremely impressive. Also] several of the rooms have recreations of archaeological scenes: murals in the Teotihuacan exhibit and tombs in the Oaxaca and Maya rooms, which gives the chance to see the pieces in the context in which they were found” (Semantika 2014). Some of the museum highlights are found on displays dedicated to the last of the great pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, who furthermore founded the Mexico City itself. It is the culture of the Aztecs, originally known as the tribe of Mexica.

Archaeological journey through the Central Mexico to Tonalmachiot

When we entered the museum, first we turned right to study artifacts showing the cultures that developed in Central Mexico (Semantika 2014). Display units are organized there in a chronological order so starting on the right and making our way around counter-clockwise, we got a feel for how the cultures had changed over time (Ibid.). The archaeological tour of the Central Mexico culminates in the Mexica, aka Aztec exhibit, fulfilled with monumental stone sculptures, of which the most famous is undoubtedly the Aztec Calendar Stone, also known as El Piedro del Sol, which is the Sunstone in Spanish (Ibid.).

The Aztec Calendar Stone, also known as El Piedro del Sol, which is the Sunstone in Spanish. Aztekayolokalli (2012) claims it has its own name and should be called Tonalmachiot; Central Mexico display in National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photo by Dennis Jarvis (2013). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

What is today known as the Aztec Calendar Stone should be rather called Tonalmachiot, where Tonal stands for the Sun and Machiotl for the Pattern (Aztekayolokalli 2012). The huge stone disc is hanging today on the wall, showing its most interesting topmost face and occupying a central stage of the room dedicated to the last prominent culture of Mesoamerica before the Conquest.

Disc of mysteries

The so-called Calendar Stone of the Aztecs, aka Tonalmachiot, is certainly the most iconic object from pre-Columbian Mexico (Aztekayolokalli 2012; McDonald 2013). It is probably one of the most famous and frequently studied excavated objects from the ancient world (McDonald 2013).

In the foreground the Aztec god of suffering, Xipe Totec. Behind it, the Calendar Stone in the background.

Nonetheless, despite of all the attention given to the round disc by various scholars and authors, it is still an object of mystery (McDonald 2013). Since the Calendar Stone was found, its enigma has caught human imagination and sparkled a fierce debate over its meaning but so far the disc has not revealed all its secrets to the modern viewer (Ibid.). The Aztecs did not write about it at all so it should be examined carefully on its own to be understood (Ibid.). It needs to be put in the context of what is known today about the Aztec Empire from the Spanish accounts and the Aztecs own history in order to acknowledge its significance (Ibid.). So what is this stone, known as the Piedra del Sol or Sunstone in Spanish and why is it so difficult to figure out the meanings of the images on the stone? (Ibid.).

Not Mayan but Aztec idea

It happens that the Calendar Disc is misinterpreted and perceived as a simple object, especially to people not aware of its true meaning (McDonald 2013). Actually, it is quite complex and enigmatic even to scholars (Ibid.). Surprisingly enough, the Calendar Stone has nothing to do with the so-called ending of times and the apocalypse foretold for 2012 (Ibid.). Although the Sunstone is believed to have been a “next logical step of the Mayan Calendar – proven by modern scientific means to be the most precise calendar system invented by humankind” (Aztekayolokalli 2012) – the Aztec Calendar is not Mayan and it is not a calendar for keeping track of time (McDonald 2013).

The monument is huge; it is made of basalt and measures about 3,6 metres in diameter and is about 1,2 metres thick. Its weight reaches about 24 tons. It is hanging today on the wall, showing its most interesting topmost face and occupying a central stage of the Central Mexico room in the Museum.

Although there are historical dates recorded in the Calendar Stone of the Aztecs, “unlike the Mayan calendar, which is very precise, the Aztec system was [not so, and] a certain date [in it] could refer to a couple of different times in a year. [Hence often disagreements] among scholars about when certain events occurred in the Aztec [Empire]” (Gillan 2019). After an historian of art, Dr Diana McDonald (2013), the Calendar Stone does, however, tell a story about the previous Aztec eras which apparently ended in destruction. Accordingly, the idea of different ages of creation and destruction is present there (Ibid.). Yet it is a particularly Aztec idea and not Mayan (Ibid.). The Maya were notable for their long count of time and dates found on their monuments were figured from a fixed event (point) in the past but the Aztecs were thinking in terms of the dates of the ages of creation (Ibid.). Probably the Calendar Stone is more connected with cosmic events and with human sacrifice than with telling exact time or foretelling future events (Ibid.).

Unearthed treasure of the past

The Calendar Stone was excavated on December 17, 1790 along with another masterpiece of the Aztec sculpture, a colossal statue of Coatlicue, which was a major deity in the Aztec pantheon (Aztekayolokalli 2012; McDonald 2013).

The statue of the goddess Coatlicue, one of the centrals deities in the Aztec Pantheon. The sculpture was unearthed together with the Calendar Stone in 1790, on the grounds of Zócalo, in Mexico City.

The both artifacts were unearthed on the grounds of Zócalo, the central square of Mexico City (McDonald 2013).The Zócalo in its previous incarnation was the central plaza of the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Ibid.). “After the conquest, the Spanish moved the [Calendar Stone] a few hundred meters south of [its original] precinct, in a position facing upward and near the Templo Mayor and the Viceregal Palace. Sometime between 1551-1572, the religious officials in Mexico City decided the image was a bad influence on their citizens, and the stone was buried facing down” (Maestri 2019), probably to deflect its powerful imagery (McDonald 2013). The Spanish also destroyed the main temple, the Templo Mayor, and stones from the Aztec period were re-used in colonial buildings, such as the Catholic Cathedral (Ibid.). Like the Sunstone, the whole Aztec statuary was buried in the mid-sixteenth century in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest and a terrifying smallpox epidemic (Ibid.).

In 1790s, the Sunstone was put on display at a tower of the Cathedral in Mexico City. In the nineteenth century it was first moved to the Museo Nacional, and finally , in the twentieth century it found its place in the new Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park, where it is displayed also today. Source: Forbes (2020).

By these means, the two most prominent pieces, the colossal statue of Coatlicue and the Calendar Stone had not been seen again until their accidental unearthing in the eighteenth century (McDonald 2013). Having been found, the Sunstone was first put on display at a tower of the Cathedral (Ibid.). “In 1885, the disk was moved to the early Museo Nacional, where it was held in the monolithic gallery. […] In 1964 it was transferred to the new Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park, [where] it is displayed [today] on the ground floor, […] within the Aztec/Mexica exhibition room” (Maestri 2019).

The Aztec Calendar in the early Museo Nacional, Casasola Archive, 1913. Source: Forbes (2020).

The monument is an outstanding masterpiece; it is made of basalt and measures about 3,6 metres in diameter and is about 1,2 metres thick (McDonald 2013; Maestri 2019). Its weight reaches about 24 tons (Ibid.). “Scholars surmise that the basalt was quarried somewhere in the southern basin of Mexico, at least 18-22 kilometres […] south of Tenochtitlan” (Maestri 2019). The topmost part of the disc is intricately carved in hieroglyphs in low and high relief, creating a play of light and shadow (McDonald 2013; Gillan 2019). Additionally, it can have originally been multi-colourfully polychromed. After the author and heir of the Mexica culture, Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018), not only the Calendar Stone is a beautiful piece of art reflecting good artistic qualities but it also contains a significant message.

The greatest in its class

Surprisingly to most of the visitors of the Aztec section in the Museum of Anthropology, it turns out that the Calendar Stone is not the only disc produced by the Aztecs.

Photograph of the Piedra del Sol with Porfirio Díaz, President of Mexico, in the early Museo National in Mexico City. Photo: AGN Mexico (1910). Source: Carrillo A. (2016). Wikimedia Commons.

In the same room, where the Sunstone is exposed, there are also other similar discs but smaller and carved less intricately (McDonald 2013). Unlike other Aztec round discs of a similar character, the Calendar Stone is irregular since it has got a ragged stone edge, looking to some people as if it were not completed (Ibid.). As it turned out later on it is not the case. El Piedra del Sol is also by far the largest and most complex example of this kind of stone sculpture and indeed of any Aztec sculpture (Ibid.). After Dr McDonald (2013) it can be described as the most intricate, beautiful and detailed enumeration of a cosmic scheme made by any ancient American culture.

The Empire of bloody rituals

The Aztec Empire itself had grown vast and influential in a fairly short period of time before Spanish conquistadors arrived and destroyed it in the sixteenth century (McDonald 2013). At that time, it was at its height and seemed to have been in power for a bit more than a century, at least according to their own accounts (Ibid.). One of the most important aspects of the Aztec Empire was its alliance with and conquest of many different neighbouring peoples from the Pacific coast to the Gulf coast of today Mexico, and in the mosaic of regions down to Oaxaca (Ibid.). These allied and conquered peoples were required to give tribute to the Aztec capital (Ibid.). At the center of Tenochtitlan many goods were exchanged in this way (Ibid.). The economy was based on the tribute in such things as valuable woven cloth, cacao beans, animal pelts, feathers, jadeite. All that was offered to the Aztec emperor (Ibid.).

Human sacrifice offered to gods at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson. Source: The Cinema Archives (2012-2020).

Most remarkably, however, part of the tribute consisted of people, men and women who were destined for sacrifice (McDonald 2013). It is debated who these sacrificial victims were but many seemed to come from neighbouring regions and from the center of the Aztec Empire as well (Ibid.). Different kinds of people were offered to specific gods at designated times (Ibid.). Some high status captives were offered during important ceremonies on a special sort of stone disc, like the Calendar Stone, but smaller (Ibid.). These sacrificial vessels or platforms were termed Eagle Boxes or Cuauhxicalli in the Aztec language of Nahuatl (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). The sacrificial person was stretched with his back over the stone disc and held down by four attendants, each holding one limb of a victim (McDonald 2013). A priest made a quick incision in the chest with a special flint knife (Ibid.). Then he reached into his chest and removed the heart, which was then offered as the precious gift to the Sun, called by the Aztecs, the precious Eagle Cactus Fruit (Ibid.). Human blood would have been caught in the central depression that was usually carved into these stones (Ibid.). Probably it would have also served to hold sacrificial hearts (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019; Maestri 2019).

Aztec Warriors with a typical Aztec weapon, called a macuahuitl. Illustration from the Florentine Codex, sixteenth century. Source:
History Crunch Writers (2018-2019).

There was also another sacrificial use for this shape of stone (McDonald 2013). One of the most interesting sort of sacrifice was a kind mock combat, a gladiatorial contest between a captured warrior meant for sacrifice and an Aztec warrior (Ibid.). The tribute warrior or sacrifice was tethered to a round stone disc, rather like the Calendar Stone but again smaller, usually with a hole drilled through the middle (Ibid.). It was the base for the final sacrifice of a gladiatorial combatant and was called Temalacatl in Nahuatl (Maestri 2019). The sacrificial warrior was given a weapon which consisted of a sort of wooden club or sword studded with feathers, which was rather ineffective in fight (McDonald 2013). He then engaged in combat, obviously pretty limited by being tied to the stone with another warrior who had a real weapon, which was a club as well but this one was studded with sharp and cutting obsidian blades (Ibid.). This typical Aztec weapon was called a macuahuitl and it was capable of serious damage (Ibid.). So this kind of combat was pretty much unequal and one-sided but it was made to be a part of a religious rite (Ibid.). Moreover, bloody rituals conducted by the Aztecs certainly served to strike terror into the hearts of those who may have opposed their absolute rule (Ibid.).

Illustration from the Durán Codex, also known as the History of the Indies of New Spain, which was completed in about 1581. The illustration shows a human sacrifice on Cuauhxicalli, These were sacrificial vessels or platforms also termed Eagle Boxes. Source: Forbes (2020).

Cuauhxicalli and Temalacatl objects are also the possible symbolic associations for the shape of the  Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013; Maestri 2019). The large circular sacrificial stones were set on the horizonal as it is represented in the Durán Codex illustration and the Calendar Stone was likely meant to be horizontal as well (McDonald 2013). Having been carved, the Sunstone “must have been located in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlán, […] and likely near where ritual human sacrifices took place” (Maestri 2019). Yet it is not clear if the Calendar Stone was going to be used as an actual Cuauhxicalli or Temalacatl, or just meant to look like one for symbolic reasons, which is supported by the fact that it is deprived of a similar depression or drilled whole in the middle (McDonald 2013).  

13 Reed and gods’ sacrifice

The essential key to understanding the message of the Calendar Stone itself is, however, what is actually represented upon it (McDonald 2013). Some scholars have worked out that the Aztec Calendar was made in 1479 AD (Ibid.). It is because at the top of the stone, there is the date of 13 Acatl (13 Reed), which directly refers to this particular year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although some scholars claim the Calendar Stone was carved for Motecuhzoma II, aka Montezuma, the last Aztec tlatoani (emperor) whose reign was eventually disturbed by the Spanish conquest, the year 1479 AD actually fell during the time of the rule of the Aztec emperor, Axayacatl (1469-1481) (McDonald 2013).

13 Acatl (13 Reed) date underlined in yellow, at the top of the Calendar Stone. Probably, it is an equivalent of the date of 1479, which is very significant for the history of the Aztec Empire. Shot from the Lecture 31 given by Dr Diane McDonald (2013): “Aztec Calendar Stone”. In: 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. The Great Courses. Boston College Fine Arts Department,

Dr McDonald (2013) claims that the date associated with the construction of the Calendar Stone is also what makes the Calendar Stone so important and such a masterpiece. It is due to the fact that 13 Reed or 1479 was also the time of the gathering of gods at Teotihuacan, when they gave the beginning of the era of 4 Earthquake Sun (Ibid.). Emily Umberger, the archaeologist, believes that the date is also “an anniversary […] of a politically crucial event [for the Aztecs. The] birth of the Sun and the rebirth of Huitzilopochtli as the Sun [was] the political message [and] for those who saw the stone [it] was clear: this was an important year of rebirth for the Aztec Empire, and the emperor’s right to rule comes directly from the Sun God and is embedded with the sacred power of time, directionality, and sacrifice” (Maestri 2019).

The king supervising the ceremony of human sacrifice. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the emperor played by Rafael Velez. Source: Youtube.

In the creation of the new world, the gods sacrificed themselves in bloody rituals (McDonald 2013). Therefore, as it is observed in the case of Coatlicue statue, Aztec gods were usually represented dismembered or as sacrificial victims at the moment of death (Ibid.). This is also why the Aztecs continued human sacrifice; they felt in dept to their gods who had saved the whole creation and supported life on Earth (Ibid.). In this way, they just followed their gods’ example (Ibid.).