Dressed Stones of the Region of Soddo

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 Hamer people. 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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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).

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Featured image: Stelae of the site of Tiya, in the region of Soddo. Tiya is one of the most important megalithic groups of the region of Soddo. Photo by Julien Demade – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Tiya (archaeological site)” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Derara W. (2008). On the Megalithic Sites of the Gurage Highlands: A Study of Enigmatic Nature of Engravings and Megalith Builders. Addis Ababa University, Archaeology and Heritage Management, Faculty Member.

Douze K. (2014). “A new chrono-cultural marker for the early Middle Stone Age in Ethiopia: The tranchet blow process on convergent tools from Gademotta and Kulkuletti sites”. Quaternary International, Vol. 343. pp. 40–52. Available at <https://bit.ly/3eOUTy5>. [Accessed on 26th June, 2020].

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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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Stardust’s Shadow (2007). “Ethiopia Reprise: Tiya Stela Site”. In: Stardust’s Shadow. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BGQUEK>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

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Island of the Sun in Favour of the Gods

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 our cousins for relaxing holidays in the Aegean region of Turkey.

The entry of the old harbour of Rhodes (called Mandraki), from the embankment inside. Rhodes, Greece. According to the legend, here was located the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. One can see the Saint-Nicolas fort and his lighthouse. Photo by Jebulon (2011). CC0. Photo and caption source: “Colossus of Rhodes”(2020). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel

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. Photo by Wojsyl (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Rhodes (city)”. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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 The World Ended 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. Photo source: Justin Lynch (2017) “The Iliad’s Literary Role”. In: The Iliad and the Islamic State.

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).

The Colossus as imagined in a 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck, part of his series of the Seven Wonders of the World. By Marten van Heemskerck (1498-1574). Uploaded in 2014. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Colossus of Rhodes”(2020). Wikipedia, the Free 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).

Rhodes city, around 1490. By Konrad Grünenberg (1487). Double page, from Conrad Grünenberg: Description of the journey from Constance to Jerusalem. From Lake Constance area, around 1487. Badische Landesbibliothek Karlsruhe, Cod. St. Peter, pap. 32. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Rhodes (city)”. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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 definitely 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 Enclosed in the Idea of 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.

With a short visit at the Acropolis of Rhodes. Photo by Jebulon (2011). CC0. Photo source: Photo source: “Rhodes (city)”. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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 two teenagers and two children, and so she looked a bit upset when we were leaving. Yet our passion for ancient monuments was stronger and finally won with our doubts.

General view of the village of Lindos, with the acropolis and the beaches, island of Rhodes, Greece. Photo by Jebulon (2011). CC0. Photo source: “Rhodes” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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 (Ibid.). 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).

View of the Rhodian Apollo Temple, which used to be entirely constructed in the Doric order. Unfortunately, today there are only the restored remains of the columns and the architrave. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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).

Fall of the Telchines

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 (or Rose), 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. Photo by Jebulon (2011). CC0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Acropolis of Rhodes” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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). This image was first published on Flickr. Original image by Carole Raddato. Uploaded by Mark Cartwright, published on 16 May 2016 under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike. Photo source: Raddato C. (2016) “Helios Relief, Troy”. 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). Yet, 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 referred to as Phoebus, which means shiny or bright (Ibid.).

Apart from Apollo Pythios or Helios, who by tradition owned the Island of Rhodes, two other Greek gods were also venerated on the Acropolis, in the temples dedicated to them by the ancients. Those were Athena and Zeus, who by mythology favoured the island by granting it generous gifts. Was it then the act of building the Acropolis of Rhodes inspired by the divine patronage of the island or by the genius loci of the place itself? Or maybe, as some enthusiasts claim, Apollo’s chariot landed on the hill, on its way north and along the ley line, giving the god’s worshipers a good reason of erecting there his temple?

Featured image: The Acropolis of Rhodes with the Temple of Apollo on Agios Stephanos. The Temple of Pythian Apollo, on top of Monte Smith, was a poros peripteral temple; restored is part of the north-eastern side with four columns and a part of the architrave. In the background there is visible a picturesque bay. Photo by roytmand (2017). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient 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). In: Youtube Channel.

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 lion-headed 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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.; see: War and Peace in the Standard of Ur).

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 1850s. “Discovery of the Ziggurat of Ur (The Great Temple at Mugeyer from the west)” (1857). Public domain. Source “Ziggurat 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: Dr. Senta 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: Dr. Senta 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’” (Dhwty 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: Copyright © 1999–2020 by Carl McTague. The Lyre 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 Museum of 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: Nicholas de 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: DHWTY (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. Internet Archive Book Images (1900). The Standard of Ur was located in “S”. Public domain. 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 side of 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). “Standard of Ur”. In: Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

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.
Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo 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).

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). “Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

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. Photo source: Craig Barker (2018).“Fifteen Years after Looting, Thousands of Artefacts are still Missing from Iraq’s National Museum”. In: The Conversation.

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: DHWTY (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.).

Featured image: Standard of Ur (Peace side); British Museum; Room 56. Photo source: Neil MacGregor (2020). “Standard of Ur. A History of the World in 100 Objects. The First Cities and States (4000 – 2000 BC.) Episode 2 of 5”. In: BBC Radio 4.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Faces of the Fifth Sun in the World of the Aztecs

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). Photo by Ziko van Dijk. CC BY-SA 3.0. 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). Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike. 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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Photo: “Catedral Piedra del sol, 1950s”. Source: Mia Forbes (2020) “Aztec Calendar: It Is More Than What We Know”. In: The Collector.

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. Photo: “The discovery of the Aztec Calendar, Casasola Archive, 1913”. Source: Mia Forbes (2020) “Aztec Calendar: It Is More Than What We Know”. In: The Collector.

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

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

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. 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: “Aztec Human Sacrifice” (2016). Public domain. In: Wikimedia Commons.

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).

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:Apocalypto Eclipse” by vsprlnd25. In: vsprlnd25 Youtube Channel.

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.).

The High Priest performing human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the High Priest played by Fernando Hernandez. Source: The Cinema Archives (2012-2020).

The Aztecs believed in extreme penitential suffering: self-sacrifice and human sacrifice, which was in all sense devoted to the gods (McDonald 2013). On the other hand, the sacrificial theme may really have served to control the populations of the Empire through terror and intimidation: seeing as many as thousand sacrificial victims having their hearts torn out on the top of the temple and seeing their heads displayed on skull racks must have had a strong effect on coercing cooperation (Ibid.). This sort of activity was like ruling with terror and probably only few societies have done it on this scale (Ibid.). Illustrations of such deeds still strike and make a powerful effect; open mouths with sharp teeth, blood and dismembered human limbs depicted in threatening and destructive sense, both in anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery created by the Aztecs, reveals a rather aggressive imperial and warlike culture (Ibid.). The Aztecs certainly believed that they were very survival depended on war penance and tribute to their gods (Ibid.).

Aztec bloody heritage

When it comes to the art of Mexico after the Conquest and even today, there are visible results of the Aztec heritage (McDonald 2013). The depiction of gods at death, or in the aftermath of gory sacrifice, probably had some influence in how Mexicans have seen and depicted the images of Catholicism (Ibid.).

Souvenirs from Mexico: colourful skulls. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps; Sopa Images; Lightrocket/Getty Images. Source: Smith (2019).

In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, the sufferings of Christ are usually depicted in more realistic and almost brutal manner than in much of European sculpture and painting (McDonald 2013). They usually show Christ’s Passion with lots of blood, suffering and physical pain emphasize (Ibid.). The penitential aspect of religion is more important in today Mexico than elsewhere (Ibid.). The requirement of personal suffering for the sake of piety has not disappeared (Ibid.). The obliquity of skulls in Mexican art today is another evidence of the strong influence of the pre-Columbian culture (Ibid.). Except that skulls of sacrificial victims on skull racks from Tenochtitlan have been today replaced by ones created out of spun sugar for the Day of the Dead (Ibid.).

Grimace of the Stone’s face

Upon the Calendar Stone, there are a series of carved concentric circles, some cut much deeper than the others (McDonald 2013). These bands are in turn divided into rectangular compartments with smaller motifs inside them (Ibid.). In the center, there is a monstrous face, which appears to have its tongue sticking out (Ibid.). Dr McDonald (2013) thinks this is not a tongue but a sacrificial flint knife, just like the ones used by priests. There are also dots or beads below the neck, which have been interpreted as drops of blood  (Ibid.). Large claws that seem to be extending from the face grasp human hearts  (Ibid.). This blood and sacrificial imagery seems to imply that the face is of a god, one who has been decapitated and sacrificed (Ibid.).

The Calendar Stone of the Aztecs was certainly covered in colourful polychrome. In the center a ferocious face of a mysterious god. Source: O’Connell (2020).

For over two hundred years scholars have not been able to agree on exactly what Aztec deity this is meant to portray (McDonald 2013). Dr McDonald (2013) says that it may be the Sun god, Tonatiuh or the consuming Earth Monster, Tlaltecuhtli, or a combination of both or even some other deity (Ibid.). Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018) claims that the real meaning behind the Calendar Stone is hidden in the symbol of that central character but its face belongs not to the Sun god but to the Aztec goddess personifying the Earth. A very similar image from the Calendar Stone, has also been carved underneath the sacrificial Stone of Tizoc or on the Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli, discovered in Mexico City in 2006 (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). However, this image belongs to the Earth Monster and not to the sun god.

Aztec sun god, Tōnatiuh. Illustration from the Codex Borgia. Public domain. Source: “Tōnatiuh” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Tonatiuh has been usually represented in profile, while wearing an eagle feather headdress and holding a shield as a solar disc (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Portrayals of Tlaltecuhtli, usually referred to by scholars as the Earth Monster, can be seen carved by the Aztecs just in the same manner as it is visible in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Earth imagery is very present in Aztec carvings displayed by the Mexican Museum (Ibid.). Tlaltecuhtli is often depicted there as an anthropomorphic squatting toad-like creature with splayed legs and arms (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019).

Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli discovered in Mexico City in 2006 (1502 AD). Her face is very similar to the one of the Calendar Stone deity. “Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli discovered in Mexico City in 2006 (1502 CE)”. Unknown photographer of ancient artwork (2018). CC0. Source: “Tlaltecuhtli” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The goddess’ hands and feet are armed with massive claws (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Goddess’ body is covered in crocodile or serpent skin, which probably stands for the surface of the earth (Ibid.). The most characteristic is her full round face with huge golden earrings and a gaping mouth with sharp teeth and a long tongue sticking out of it (Ibid.). The latter is usually interpreted by scholars as a river of blood flowing from the mouth or a flint knife between her teeth (Ibid.).

After Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, the sticking tongue does not represent the flint knife and the need to be fed but it stands for speaking. The deity is speaking to humankind to whom it is bringing a message (Ibid.). As it represents the Earth, the goddess was usually carved onto the bottom of sculptures where they made contact with the earth, or on the undersides of Cuauhxicalli (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019).

The underside of the Stone of Tizoc showing the Earth Monster, Tlaltecuhtli, with the same grimace as on the Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

As the face is carved on the topmost part of the Calendar Stone and not onto its bottom, some scholars suggest that the image may actually stand for a collective representation of two different Aztec deities, Tlaltecuhtli and Tonatiuh (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Nahui-Ollin, knowns as the cosmic butterfly

The outline of the sign in which the face resides is the glyph for 4 Nahui-Ollin, which indicates 4 Movement (or Earthquake) and the date of destruction of the previous era (McDonald 2013). Furthermore, inside the glyph, there are four flanges in the forms of rectangles around the face, which are associated not only with the four previous eras or suns of the Aztec cosmos but also with the four cardinal points, four elements and four corners of the universe (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).

The central Nahui Ollin glyph of the Calendar Stone. Photo: “Figure 2. The central Nahui Olin glyph of the Calendar Stone.” Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

The ensemble of 4 Nahui-Ollin and four rectangles symbolically paints the image of the wings of a butterfly (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Hence the whole image is called the Movement (Ollin) (Ibid.). Dr McDonald (2013) claims that in that context the central image is in fact 5 sun or era, meaning it is all about the coming destruction of the fifth world and so the end of the current time (Ibid.). At the same time, the glyphs inscribed in the four rectangles, they all portray the dates of destruction of the previous eras (Ibid.). It is believed they should be read from the right to the left as they go counter clockwise (Ibid.). Starting from the right side, there is the symbol of the Earth, standing for the North – a day sign of the Jaguar (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). On the left, there is the symbol of the Wind, meaning the West – a day sign of the wind (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Going further down, there is the symbol of the Rain, which also implies the South – a day sign of the fire, and finally on the right of it, there is the symbol of the Water – the East – a day sign of the water (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Accordingly, there are four elements giving life and keeping it in harmony and balance (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Nevertheless, they also stand for a cataclysm while such a balance is interrupted. In this context, they represent all the natural forces responsible for a destruction of each of the four successive eras preceding the fifth world or sun, which is represented just in the middle of the cosmic butterfly. But what does the Calendar Stone say about the current era and its final destruction?

Featured image: Calendar Aztec Stone (detail). Source: Mia Forbes (2020). “Aztec Calendar: It Is More Than What We Know”. In: The Collector.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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