Royal Terraces without a Palace of the Kings

We had just left behind a stone forest of the fifty-four towers of the State Temple of Bayon, situated at the very heart of Angkor Thom. They followed us with the eyes of the faces looking out to the Baphuon Temple, and further on to the North Gate.

The both temples, Bayon and Baphuon, are definitely the most beautiful and complete in comparison to other numerous remains of temples and secular structures of different ages and styles scattered around Angkor Thom (Teo 2014); there are ruins of Prasat Chrung, composed of “four temples located at the corners of the wall, in southwest, northwest, northeast, and southeast” (Ibid.), then Preah Pithu Group, Prasat Suor Prat, the Khleangs, Tep Pranam, the so-called Monuments 486 and 487, and the Royal Palace area with the Royal Chapel of Phimeanakas and two monumental terraces (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020; Teo 2014).

Perished Palace of Angkor Thom

The city of Angkor Tom “was [once] inhabited by tens of thousands of common people who lived in wooden houses, that have long gone. The city was highly developed with a system of roads and waterways, as well as four hospitals” (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020).

One of the main stairway leading to the Terrace of the Elephants. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Elephants” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The city of Angkor Thom was not evenly covered with ever-lasting stone structures; in comparison to southern part of Angkor Tom, which seems now desolate, the northern side of the city abounds in various architectural creations, unfortunately now mostly in ruins. To the North of the Bayon the king Jayavarman VII built his Royal Palace (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020). “Since it was built of perishable materials as were other urban constructions, nothing of it remains today except for the Royal Terraces that were made of stone” (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020; see Pałkiewicz 2007:176). Consequently, both the Elephants’ Terrace and the Leper King’s Terrace has still marked the eastern extremity of the Royal Palace enclosure (Ibid.).

Terrace of the Elephants

We walked to the north, from Baphuon in the direction of Phimeanakas, two former state temples incorporated to the twelfth century’s Royal Palace (“Angkor Thom” 2020). There is a huge square adjoining the Terrace of the Elephants (Teo 2014). Its two and a half-meter tall edifice is really impressive: it extends in length for over three hundred metres; we observed that it already starts at the foot of the Baphuon Temple and reaches northwards to the second Terrace of the Leper King (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014).

Terrace of the Elephants’ long wall is adorned with intricate carvings, major part of which represents royal and holy animals – elephants, which proudly walk along the terrace’s pedestal. Photo by Marcin Konsek (2016). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source:Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, these two boundaries of its large architectural construction “remain imprecise in their layout and the terrace itself shows evidence of additions and alterations” (Glaize I 1944), made partially by Jayavarman VII in the late twelfth century, and then continued by his successor (Teo 2014).

Elephants everywhere

The terrace’s long wall is adorned with intricate carvings, major part of which represents royal and holy animals – elephants, which proudly walk along the terrace’s pedestal (Pałkiewicz 2007:165). Hence the terrace’s name (Ibid.:165). During the golden age, the royal cavalry consisted of two hundred thousand elephants, the pride of the army, as well as a large number of horses, oxen and carts (Ibid.:170).

Often the result of a battle depended on the number of elephants that took part in it (Pałkiewicz 2007:170). Wars on land usually started in the dry season, which made it easier for the troops with elephants to move quicker around (Ibid.:170). During the battle, clouds of dust stirred up by elephants rose in the air, which, as the verses of an epic Khmer poem say, even covered the Sun (Ibid.:170).

Five-headed horse

The terrace’s wall spans the front of Baphuon Temple, the Royal Chapel of Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area in the centre of Angkor Thom (Teo 2014). The northern segment of the wall (a part of an ancient façade) shows a panel densely decorated in high relief with the five-headed horse, around which there are complex, possibly mythological scenes (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014): “the king’s horse sheltered under tiered parasols, […] surrounded by apsaras and menacing genies armed with sticks who chase some terrified smaller figures” (Glaize I 1944). Three sections of retaining walls of the Terrace of the Elephants together with its two side walls compose five outworks extending towards the square in the centre (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014).

Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Angkor Thom” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their middle sections are covered in life size legendary Hindu bird-like creatures, called Garudas, and lions, all depicted in the pose of atlantes (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014). Towards either end of the wall, the entire length of the panel is sculpted in a high relief, representing a parade of nearly full in size elephants depicted in profile and mounted by famous Khmer mahouts (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014). Various level changes in the wall are in turn ”marked with lions sculpted in the round and Naga-balustrades on blocks with [their opponents, Garudas], on the [snakes’] hoods” (Glaize I 1944).

Three-headed elephant

The Terrace is double-levelled, and its upper part has furthermore two levels with an elevated platform, whose base is carved with Hamsas (sacred geese) (Glaize I 1944).

Three-headed elephant from the Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by Anita (2014). In: kolibri5. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

Five stairways, as many as there are gates to the city, lead to the Terrace of the Elephants (Glaize I 1944). They are all also fully covered in carvings but three of the staircases seem most dominant of all (Ibid.). The southern one displays exceptionally beautiful sculpture (Ibid.), namely, it is “framed by motifs of [a three-headed elephant, Airvan], with trunks forming pillars tugging at lotuses, [the sculpture already found on the gates of Angkor Thom] (see Passageway through the Stargate). The same arrangement can be seen on the two secondary stairways which frame the central perron” (Ibid.). The stairway on the northern façade is partly sculpted in a bas-relief of horizontal bands; there are “scenes of sport, wrestling, chariot racing and polo, […] which originated from India” (Ibid.).

Royal stand

Around eight hundred years ago, the Terrace of the Elephants must have been a spectacular meeting place (Teo 2014); it was probably “used as a giant reviewing stand for [spectacles], public [and religious] ceremonies, and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:165). Triumphant military parades and colourful spectacles took place at its foot, and despite the fact that the construction had been damaged many times, its majestic appearance still makes a great impression (Pałkiewicz 2007:165). The bas-reliefs of the Terrace of the Elephants, and the whole Angkor Tom, show how great the magnificence of the royal court of Khmers really was (Ibid.:170).

Terrace of the Elephants is the largest of the two in Angkor Thom. It is compsed of five outworks with five stairways leading to double-levelled platform. The terrace may have served as a ceremonial stand. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A traveller and journalist, Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:170) imagines the ceremonial protocol of that time: here is the divine ruler with a tiara on his forehead, seated on a high terrace in the shade of ceremonial umbrellas. Handmaids in colourful, silk robes are approaching him, while offering refreshing fruit (Ibid.:170). The king is surrounded by an entourage of clergy, dignitaries and diplomats (Ibid.:170). In their company, the ruler is watching the infantry and cavalry troops heading towards the central Palace (Ibid.:170). Flags and banners are fluttering in the wind (Ibid.:170). It was a real propaganda for the diplomats, envoys and travellers who came from abroad (Ibid.:165,170).

Envoy’s reports

The contemporary chronicles also report a great prosperity in trade in the Khmer Empire (Pałkiewicz 2007: 174). Gold was imported from Sumatra and Korea, tin and fabric from Malaysia, mercury from China and an extremely valuable aromatic tree, silk from India (Ibid.:174). Spices and dyes were transported by water or by carts drawn by Indian buffaloes or by men from lower castes (Ibid.:174).

An envoy from China, Chou Ta Kuan, reports that people from lowest classes in Angkor had dark skin and lived a very simple life (Pałkiewicz 2007: 174). On the other side, aristocrats and inhabitants of the Royal Palace, both men and women fair complexion, which is probably due to the fact that their skin had not been exposed to sunlight (Ibid.:174). Generally, both men and women only wore a loincloth (Ibid.:174). They bound their hair up at the top of the head and walked barefoot, including emperors’ wives (Ibid.:174). According to the envoy’s records, the king had five wives (Ibid.:174). As for concubines and palace maidens, their number ranged from three to five thousand (Ibid.:174). They were divided into many classes, but these women rarely had the opportunity to be in the royal quarters (Ibid.:174). The best noble families competed with each other, offering their daughters to the king, thus seeking privileges (Ibid.:174).

Terrace of the Leper King, Angkor Tom, Cambodia. Photo by Olaf Tausch (2015). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Angkor Thom” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Apart from the being admired at his Terrace of the Elephants, the king equally gave audiences twice a day at his Royal Palace, which, unfortunately, no longer exists (Pałkiewicz 2007: 170). Chou Ta Kuan writes that this Palace had colourful interiors decorated with wood and gold (Ibid.:170). And the king himself, during the audience, appeared in the window with golden cornices, holding his sword in his hand (Ibid.:170,174). The entire ceremony was performed to the accompaniment of music (Ibid.:170). After being summoned by the king, a minister or another official sat on a tiger’s skin before the king and submitted interpellations (Ibid.:174). While leaving the site, I thought about a mystery of those ancient times, yet brining back in such details by the envoy’s contemporary reports and magical movements and dance of the sculpted stone figures frozen in the past.

Terrace of the Leper King

Soon we reached the second terrace of the Royal Palace, called the Terrace of the Leper King, situated at the north end of the Terrace of the Elephants (Teo 2014); it is aligned with it but forming a separate architectural unit of twenty-five metres wide by six metres high (Glaize II 1944). The Terrace resembles a bastion, which is entirely sculpted in the mixture of high and low relief (Ibid.). All the filigree carvings are depicted in five visible registers (Maurice Glaize II (1944) mentions seven); unfortunately, some of the sculpture, especially the uppermost, is strongly damaged or worn out, and thus hardy readable (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:174).

Dense sculpture encrusting the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by one_life (2016). Free images at Pixabay.

Both the internal and external reliefs show lines of seated mythological figures of Naga, Garuda, and Kumbhanda (Glaize II 1944). There are also meditating silhouettes of women, images of monarchs in crowns, armed with short swords, various species of animals, hunting scenes, games and activities (Pałkiewicz 2007:174,176). All of them “haunt the flanks of Mount Meru, shown as giants, […] sometimes with multiple arms […], sword or club bearers, and women with bare torsos” (Glaize II 1944).

Apsaras in pearls

When I approached the construction from its north side I saw yet different looking sculpture; there was a sword swallower and some figures wearing a curious side-chignon, who kept following him (Glaize II 1944). Having moved to the south side, I entered the internal corridor or passage dividing the carved mound in two (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:176). I admired a well preserved set of carvings whose décor is composed of the same elements as the exterior but it is additionally adorned with my favourite Hindu characters, graceful and benevolent Devi, also called Apsaras (Glaize II 1944).

The summer light penetrating from the above fell on the sculptures covering the interior walls, emphasizing the shapely naked breasts of charming female upper bodies adorned only with strings of pearls (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:176) and “triangular head dress with flaming discs” (Glaize II 1944). Some sculpted characters on the south side were also seated upon a lower frieze built up of depictions of fish, elephants and a river running vertically (Ibid.).

Leper King

Following the rows of scenes, I eventually climbed laterite steps to the upper level of the Terrace, where “[surrounded by three smaller decapitated statues carrying clubs on their right shoulders, the ‘Leper King’ sits in the Javanese manner with his right knee raised” (Glaize II 1944). Possibly his position has originally been on a simple stone slab he is seated on (Ibid.). The sculpture is itself unique in Khmer art, as it represents the King entirely naked, with no trace of his genitalia though (Ibid.).

Seated statue (a copy) venerated in Buddhist orange clothes in the photo gives the Terrace of the Leper King its name. Photo by McKay Savage (2009). CC BY 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Leper King” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I looked at the figure and I immediately got an impression he is smiling, pleased with his entourage and location, or maybe visitors taking him loads of photos. When I started wondering why the seated figure is called the Leper King, I unexpectedly found the answer to my question: although the figure has no sign of leprosy as such, it is discoloured. Anyway, the original sculpture of the ‘King’ had already been replaced with a copy (Pałkiewicz 2007:174); “[the] statue was moved from the Terrace in Angkor Thom to the National Museum in Phnom Penh” (Miura 2015).

The statue which gave the Terrace of the Leaper King its name has been replaced by a replica. Photo by Serinde (2004). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Leper King” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Maurice Glaize (II:1944), as a French architect, archaeologist, and Conservator of Angkor from 1937 to 1945, had an opportunity to describe the original statue in his the guidebooks to the Angkor monuments. He writes that besides being stained and disfigured, it also bears a few patches of lichen, which may have resembled a person with leprosy (Glaize II:1944; see Pałkiewicz 2007:174). The source of the King’s and thus the Terrace’s name could be also because of a Cambodian legend of an Angkorian king, Yasovarman I (889–910 AD.), who was a great creator of Angkor and possibly he died of leprosy (“Terrace of the Leper King” 2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:174). Consequently, he went down in history as the Leper King (“Terrace of the Leper King” 2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:174). Yet, he had reigned much earlier than the Terrace was constructed in the late twelfth century.

Sculpture of the so-called Leper King from the Terrace named after that figure. Does he really represent a king? Or maybe a demon or the god of the dead? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some scholars neither the statue represents a leper nor a king. Actually, the identity of the sculptured character is unknown. It is held by some that it represents ‘Shiva ascetic’, others believe that a later inscription on the Terrace’s base, which reads a ‘Dharmaraja’ reveals the statue’s real name (Glaize II:1944).“[It] is sometimes given to Yama and sometimes to one of his assessors – ‘the Inspector of Qualities and Faults’ – the supreme judge in the hour of judgement, [and so] the ‘god of the Dead’” (Ibid.). However, the hairstyle of the individual, namely composed “of thick coils starting from the front and covering the nape of the neck – emphasises, like the two ‘fangs’ near the corner of the lips, his demonic character” (Ibid.). Is it then one of demons from Hindu tradition? Is it maybe a depiction of Ravana?

Dharmaraja at Mount Meru

It is probable that the Terrace of the Leper King was once dominated by the sculpted mound, possibly complemented with pools, and with the buried wall; this curious arrangement may have been a symbolic representation of Mount Meru (Glaize 1944).

On the other side, “the fact that it occupies an area to the north of the Royal Palace – the area […] reserved still now for royal cremations known as ‘Val Prah Men’ (the name of the pavilion prepared there for the funeral pyre) – leads one to suspect that the Terrace of the Leper King was none other than a permanent [Val Prah] Men, which would explain why, when this cult was still remembered [in the fifteenth century, the name] of Dharmaraja [as the god of the dead, had been] placed [just] there” (Ibid.).

Ancient heritage

From the main entrance to the Royal Palace, that is halfway along the wall of the Terrace of the Elephants, there is an almost one and half kilometre long Victory Way that leads to the fifth and most important passage within the citadel of Angkor Thom, the Victory Gate or the Fifth Gopura (Pałkiewicz 2007:176).

Following the road I kept passing by numerous remains of ancient structures of Prasat Suor Prat, plunged in the greenery, and I was thinking about their links to modern times of Cambodia. I looked around and except for tourists from abroad, there were many Khmers visiting the city. Contemporary inhabitants of the country, although fiercely experienced by the regime of the Red Khmers, are still very proud of the ancient past of their country, and happy to show that it boasts a great medieval culture, as does Europe (Pałkiewicz 2007:176).

Featured image: Devi, also called Apsaras among the sculpture from the Terrace of the Leper King; the inside passage. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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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Miura K. (2015). “From “Originals” to Replicas: Diverse Significance of Khmer Statues”. In: Kultur als Eigentum: Instrumente, Querschnitte und Fallstudie [online]. Growth S., Bendix R. F. and Spiller A. (dir.). Göttingen: Göttingen University Press. (generated 10 September 2020). ISBN: 9782821875500. Available at <>. [Accessed 20th January, 2021].

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Teo R. (2014). “Gates of Angkor Thom”. In: Reubenteophotography. Available at <>. [Accessed 18th January, 2021].

Jamb of a Window and a Door in Architecture

The term jamb stands for a recess between the wall face inside the room and the side of a fitted window (window jamb) or door (door jamb) or other wall opening.

The jamb on a medieval church doorway (in a Gothic portal accompanied by lintel and trumeau) is normally occupied by a cascading row of carved figures. “These [jamb] statues are often human figures, typically religious figures or secular or ecclesiastical leaders” (“Jamb statue” 2020). Such jamb figures are very often visible in Gothic cathedrals of France and elsewhere in medieval Europe.

Featured image: The fragment of the West Portal of the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, France. The portal is occupied by the so-called jamb figures of saints and angels, which is typical of the French style of medieval architecture. The figures are positioned below the so-called capitals. Above them, there is a fragment of a beautifully carved archivolt and of the tympanum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


“Framuga” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

“Jamb statue” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, p. 122.

Magic in the Hag’s Cairn of the Loughcrew Hills at the Equinox Rising Sun

Within the Loughcrew complex, Cairn T (Hag’s Cairn), which is situated on Carnbane East, is the most outstanding of all (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). As if it had been designed as an astronomical construct, the mound “stands in the focal position and takes the most prominent place on the highest summit of a megalithic area” (Brennan 1994:46). Originally there were fifty to a hundred mounds (Ibid.). In the seven remaining mounds, sufficient stones are in their original alignment for a beam of light to be projected into the chamber and against the backstone, presenting a clearly defined frame of light (Ibid.). The number of remaining mounds allows to reconstruct the main elements in a planned astronomical and calendrical scheme.

Major mounds and their satellites

In 1980, two researchers, Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts studied the two most important cairns at Loughcrew, T and L, which are supplemented by smaller satellite mounds linked to their larger counterparts by orientation and alignment (Brennan 1994:46-50). “Cairns L and T – [initially] appeared to be oriented in the same direction according to archaeological surveys done before 1980s, however, [the explorers have eventually concluded that] in terms of real function, the equinox rising sun is focused on Cairn T, but does not approach anywhere near the passage of Cairn L” (Brennan 1994:48).

While conducting their studies, the both researchers had encountered similar problems as we did during our study trip, while they were trying to reach the Cairn T in March to observe the spring equinox (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Martin Brennan (1994:46) writes that “the mountains were covered in snow and the […] winds from the east blew icy gusts down the passage of the mound.” Actually, 5000 years ago the climate was more favourable to celebrate the spring equinox.

What does the equinox mean?

“Equinox literally means equal night. In terms of hours, equinox is the date, when the hours of day and night are equal. The two extremes of this are winter solstice, when the night is longest, and summer solstice, when the night is shortest” (Brennan 1994:90). So equinox (spring and autumnal) is midway between these two points (Ibid.:90). “At equinox the sun is raising due east to the horizon” (Ibid.:90).

Hag’s Cairn

As the major mound, Cairn T “dominates a group of smaller satellite mounds clustered around it on the summit of the Mountain of the Sorceress, [called like that for the mentioned reasons (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)]” (Brennan 1994:48). It is orientated about nine degrees south of east and above the horizon (Ibid.:90). Therefore “the beam [of light] does not enter the mound until the sun rises to the proper altitude. At the spring equinox the angle of the sun’s path is very high in relation to the horizon, whereas at the autumnal equinox the angle of the ecliptic is lower. […] What [one can witness] at Cairn T [at the equinox is] the intended projection of light and its interaction with [the carved symbols]” (Ibid.:90).

Views from Loughcrew Passage Tomb near Oldcastle, County Meath. Photo by Stephen Keaveny (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

During their research at the time of the spring equinox, Brennan and Roberts noticed a rectangular patch of light on the upper left of the backstone inside the Cairn T (Brennan 1994:47,93). It was starting to take a regular form, “brilliantly illuminating the entire chamber in a glowing splendour of shimmering golden orange light” (Ibid.). As the researchers notice, it gives a different effect from the one observed at Newgrange at the winter solstice. Whereas in the latter, the beam of light sweeps across the chamber, inside the Cairn T at Loughcrew, “the light [assumes] a clearly defined geometric shape that [is] projected on to the upright backstone and [moves] diagonally across it, tracing the path of the sun against a mural of prehistoric art” (Ibid.).

Encrypted message of Loughcrew?

“The arrangement of the engravings in relation to the sunbeam reveals that there is quite precise time reckoning and careful determination of the equinoxes” (Brennan 1994:92). The beam of light is concentrated on one stone at the back of the passage chamber (C8) and in its journey it progresses from left to right (Ibid.:94). Finally it gradually moves down the stone, “reflecting the movement of the rising sun” (Ibid.:94) and “illuminating key symbols as it progresses” (Ibid.:92). “It is the beam of light itself which finally and conclusively identifies the inscriptions as solar symbols” (Ibid.:94). The focal point of the entire process is a petroglyph representing “a large circular radial sun on the right of the stone” (Ibid.:93; see 94).   

The researchers were highly impressed by the observed phenomenon, where the sliding beam of light played the role of a guide or key to the encrypted message left by the builders of Loughcrew. In this context, the petroglyphs on the backstone (C8)  in Cairn T may “be interpreted as the language of unknown archaic astronomers” (Brennan 1994:92).

“For the first time we were seeing the signs and symbols in the context in which the artist had meant them to be seen. Suddenly markings that had appeared to be random and haphazard became part of an intricately structured system that derived its meaning from the solar event we were witnessing” (Brennan 1994:47)

Cairn T at Loughcrew. Photo by William Whyte from Dublin, Ireland (2008). CC BY-SA 2.0. “Loughcrew” (2019). In. Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Furthermore, the entrance stones and the narrow passage shape the beam of light into a regular geometric form of a rectangle (Brennan 1994:94). At the end it disintegrates in the process of moving on the right and away from stone C8 (Ibid.:94). The rectangular shape reconstructs itself reaching stone C10 (Ibid.:94). At autumnal equinox the process is repeated (research carried out at the site on 22nd September, 1980 by Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts) (Ibid.:98). “The beam of light clearly centres on the sun’s disc, repeating the imagery of the spring equinox. [Although the] focal image in both events remains the same, […] different sets of engravings are utilized to measure the beam of light” (Ibid.:98). With the same width of the beam as at spring equinox, at the autumnal its length changes and is about double as it is in the spring (Ibid.:98). In both cases, however, “the illumination of the sun wheel unambiguously links the prehistoric art and the astronomy” (Ibid.:100).

Precise solar construct

According to the results of research done at the site on 20th March in 1980 (on the day of the spring equinox), Cairn T turned out to be a precise astronomical instrument or a solar construct (Brennan 1994:48). Combined with the prehistoric petroglyphs, the visible differences in the movement of the sunlight on the backstone made it far easier and more precise in identifying the actual day of equinox  at Loughcrew than the day of winter solstice at Newgrange (Ibid.).

Epitaph for Jeremiah …?

Michelangelo, Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512). The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Jeremiah” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There is a growing belief that Cairn T is actually the burial place of the Bible Prophet, Jeremiah! Some authors claim that Jeremiah’s message is encoded in the petroglyphs inside the entrance to the Cairn and that they even reveal the exact date of his death on 21st of September in 581 BC (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017). According to the same authors, the Cairn T itself would have been designed to demonstrate the autumnal equinox just in memory to the Prophet (JAH 1998-2006). “These are the same [authors] who also believe that the Ark of the Covenant is buried on the Hill of Tara” (Murphy 2017-2020).

Jeremiah was the Jewish prophet known from the Old Testament from his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (O’Bryan 2017). According to one of the versions reporting a possible story of the lost Ark of the Covenant, Jeremiah may have been a person who escaped Jerusalem with the Ark in 587 BC (Ibid.). It may have happened just before “the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar took the city and destroyed the First Temple” (Ibid.). After the Book of Jeremiah, the Prophet escaped the conquered city together with other Israelites, among whom there was a Jewish princess and the scribe Baruch (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017). As the legend says, the group sailed to Ireland, after stopping in Egypt (possibly Tanis) (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017) Other accounts state, however, that the Israelites actually headed off to the south, in the direction of Abyssinia (today Ethiopia).

Bethel aka Stone of Destiny

Dipre (D’Ypre), Nicolas. 1495–1531. Jacob’s dream of a ladder. Avignon. Musée du Petit Palais. Photo uploaded by Eugene (2011). Public domain {{PD-US}}. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is also believed that Jeremiah brought to Ireland the Stone of Destiny aka Jacob’s Pillar, which was once used by the biblical patriarch Jacob (Genesis 28:11-22) as a pillow while he was dreaming of angels ascending and descending on a ladder suspended between the Earth and Heavens (JAH 1998-2006; Gilbert 2015). Jacob thought he had found himself at the door to God’s realm and so he put the stone in a vertical position and called the place the Bethel, which means the House of God (Gilbert 2015). The Stone of Destiny, in turn, was called in Irish Lia Fáil, which means the Speaking Stone or the Stone that Roared to give an explanation for its oracular function (JAH 1998-2006; Keyser 1999-2009). It is believed that it became later the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland (Keyser 1999-2009; Gilbert 2017). Herbert W. Armstrong writes that “many kings in the history of Ireland, Scotland, and England have been coronated over this stone – including the present queen. The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it” (Keyser 1999-2009). Additionally, the stone has got the plate behind it labelling it as ‘Bethel’ (Gilbert 2017).

Jeremiah, Ollamh Fodhla and Tuatha de Danann

Illustration of the Stone of Scone in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey, 1855. Anonymous engraver. The History of England (1859) by D. Hume, continued by T. Smollett, E. Farr and E.H. Nolan Also published in The Queens of England (c. 1889) by Sydney Wilmot. Uploaded in 2006 and in 2016. Public domain {{PD-US}}. Colours intensified. Image source: “Stone of Scone” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Some authors look for evidence for the story in Irish Annals. None of those refers to Jeremiah (Keyser 1999-2009). However, the Annals of Clonmacnoise mentions a mysterious personage of Ollamh Fodhla who appeared on the Island accompanied by an Oriental princess (Gilbert 2015). As the story goes they brought to its shore ancient relics: a harp, chest and a stone (Ibid.). A leading authority on Irish history, Roderic O’Flaherty, however, states that Ollamh Fodhla could not be the same person as Jeremiah due to completely different origins and lifetime of both characters (Keyser 1999-2009). Some scholars also suggest that the Stone of Destiny was brought to Ireland already prior to 700 BC by mysterious people, the Irish myths refer to as Tuatha de Danann – a supernatural race who came to Ireland in ships (Gilbert 2015). It is suggested they were actually representatives of the Tribe of Dan – one of the tribes of Israel, according to the Torah, who had lived along the coast in the north of Israel (today Palestine) (Ibid.). Simultaneously, it was the place where Jacob had got his vision. Israelites from the Tribe of Dan were in danger of becoming captives of other invaders – the Assyrians (Ibid.). As they were excellent sailors, they may have escaped by the sea and reached the shores of Ireland together with their treasure – the Stone of Destiny (Ibid.). In this version, however, Jeremiah could not have played the role he has been ascribed to by the legend.

Replica of the Stone of Scone, Scone Palace, Scotland. The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it. Additionally, the stone has got the plate behind it labelling it as ‘Bethel’. Photo by Aaron Bradley from Vancouver, Canada (2013). CC BY-SA 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Stone of Scone” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Just speculations

Although such stories are fascinating, they are decidedly criticized or even ignored by academics. First of all, the Cairn T of Loughcrew was not built as a burial place for Jeremiah or aligned according to the day of his death as it is itself dated back to the second part of the fourth millennium BC, whereas Jeremiah lived in the sixth century BC. Most authors point to the fact that Irish records do not mention Jeremiah’s landing in Ireland or the fact he brought there such treasures as the Bethel or the Arch of Convents (Keyser 1999-2009).

Tuatha Dé Danann as depicted in John Duncan‘s “Riders of the Sidhe” (1911). Public domain. Colours intensified. Painting source: “Tuatha Dé Danann” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The assumption that the Prophet was buried in the Cairn T of  Loughcrew is not borne out either by Irish Annals, petroglyphs of the cairn (unless somebody has deciphered their meaning) or by archaeological evidence. If the Bethel is the same as the Stone of Destiny, which is still under question, it seems more possible it was brought by the Israelites from the Tribe of Dan. Still these are also speculations …

Inside the Cairn T

We did not have a chance to visit Loughcrew in March. Yet I had already climbed up the Hag’s Hill together with my sister when she came to Ireland several months before our study trip. It was in October and we travelled with a group of tourists to the Boyne Valley. The weather was a little bit better than in March. There was a shower from time to time but without strong winds or low temperatures. Still it was wet and some people slipped down the side of the Hill and got covered in mud before they reached its summit. Although the visibility was quite poor because of the mist, we could eventually enter the Cairn T in small groups and admire the mysterious symbols on huge stones inside the passage. Together with my sister we were amazed by their circulating lines, zig-zags and circles engraved in stone. Fascinated with their various shapes I was tracing enigmatic lines with my fingers as if I in hope of understanding the prehistoric writing by touch.

I was tracing enigmatic lines with my fingers as if I in hope of understanding the prehistoric writing by touch . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Do they contain any encoded messages at all …?

Featured image: Bing Map of the Cairn T at Sliabh na Caillighe (Loughcrew, Ireland). The map created by Archaeotravel by means of the Bing Maps. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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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Brennan M. (1994) The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Rochester.

Dipre (D’Ypre) N. (1495–1531). Jacob’s dream of a ladder. Avignon. Musée du Petit Palais. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Gilbert, A. In: Gaunt T. (2015) “The Stone of Jacob” In: Secrets of the Bible. Season 1; Episode 8. Documentary.

Hurson R. (2014). “Entrance carvings Loughcrew Cairn T”. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at  <>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].

JAH (1998-2006) Jeremiah’s Tomb (The Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla). Available at  <>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Keyser J. D. (1999-2009) “The Coronation Stone – Jeremiah in Ireland”. In: Sanders, M. S. Mysteries of the Bible. Available at  <>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

McCormack L. (2020) “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Murphy A. (2017-2020) Mythical Ireland. Available at  <>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

O’Bryan L. (2017) “Could Ireland’s Cairn T Really Be the Tomb of the Prophet Jeremiah?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Pax : “Peace to You … And with Your Spirit”

From Latin: pacyficus; in the Late Latin Church: pacificale.

A reliquary, most often in the shape of a cross or monstrance, used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It served for the Kiss of Peace in the Catholic Mass, until the thirteenth century before the Holy Communion. Originally, there was a habit of “direct kissing among the celebrants [of the Mass, which had been] replaced by each in turn kissing the pax [due to] a range of concerns over the sexual, social and medical implications of actual kissing” (“Pax (liturgical object)” 2020). During such celebration, a priest or a celebrant said ‘Pax tecum’, while passing the pax down for the kiss and they received the response ‘Et cum spiritu tuo.’

Ivory pax with Crucifixion, Netherlandish, 1500–1510. Photo by Niels from Amsterdam, NL (2009). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Pax (liturgical object)” (2020).

Although “[the] great majority were probably very simple wood or brass pieces” (“Pax (liturgical object)” 2020), pax reliquaries were also made of silver and richly decorated, with a flat surface to be kissed. They usually included an image of the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ. Although “[the] pax gradually fell out of general use” (Ibid.) yet before the previous century, after the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), the custom was still practiced at important occasion. Since the twentieth century, kissing the pax has been commonly replaced with a handshake at the time of sharing the sign of peace. Nevertheless, the medieval custom is still continued at the time of significant celebrations and holidays.

Featured image: Design for a pax by E.W. Pugin (d. 1875), showing its handle. Public domain. Image enlarged. Photo and caption source: “Pax (liturgical object)” (2020).


“Pax (liturgical object)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 22nd February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 296. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Discovered but Uncovered Palenque of the Ancient Maya

Having entered the Mayan city of Palenque, I left a group of colleagues slightly behind to plunge into the labyrinth of the Palace complex. From there, the facade of the Temple of the Inscriptions kept proudly looking at me, while holding its mystery intact. For a moment, I was slowly walking among the jagged ruins, passing by their openings of strange shapes and of unknown functions, and, as if without a plan, I groped among the contradictory theories put forward on Palenque over the years by various researchers. On the other hand, the accumulation of such conflicting hypotheses forces a deeper reflection and a closer look at debatable structures and artifacts. Or maybe it is worth taking a general look at the Mayan culture and their city first and then going into details? But sultry Palenque still remains a mystery.

Outstanding rulers of Palenque and their city running out of food …?

The oldest traces of settlement in the area of Palenque are dated back to the third century AD., but most of the buildings and facade decorations go back to the Classic Period, the time when the city flourished between 600 and 800 AD. (Prager, Grube 2013:447; Von Däniken 1991:163).

K’inich Kan B’alam II, one of the many rulers of Palenque. Detail from the Temple XVII Tablet. Photo by Mdcarrasco – Own work (2007). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It was then, under the rule of the most significant of the local rulers: K’inich Janaab Pakal, his son Kan Balam II (684-702) and K’an Joy Chitam (702-711) (Ibid.:447). This dynasty was interrupted by the capture of K’an Joy Chitam around 711 by the hostile city of Tonina, but its rule was continued by K’inch Ahkal Mo ‘Naab III (721-736), coming from the adjacent line of the family who eventually commissioned the construction of the Temple XIX (Ibid.:447).

While the city was certainly one of the main centres of the Maya people, this fact is quite surprising to some scholars, as Mark Van Stone, PhD. (Burns 2012). For in the jungle the soil that could be cultivated was unusually thin and so could not provide enough food with such a large urban centre (Ibid.). What makes it even more astonishing is that Palneque was one of the most populated cities of the Maya, even twenty times more than it is observed in the region today (Ibid.).

Complex sewage system

Ancient Palenque rises high above the plains of Usumacinta, at the foot of the Tumbalá Mountains, in the Mexican state of Chiapas (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202; Burns 2012; Von Däniken 1991:173). The ritual centre itself is situated on hills and artificial terraces, which perfectly fit into the natural terrain (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). The terraces themselves are separated in turn by the Otolum stream into the western and eastern parts (Von Däniken 1991:173). Its natural bed was directed by an artificial and wide underground network, so that in some places the Otolum waters still flow through the city by means of vaulted canals (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202; Von Däniken 1991:173; Burns 2012).

Palenque Center, Chiapas, Mexico; view from the Temple of the Cross on the palace complex. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Based on the research to date, it is also known that the inhabitants of Palenque additionally developed a complicated system of aqueducts, and obtained water pressure by leading the artificial channels from the main riverbed (David Hatcher Childress in: Burns 2012). In the past, this sophisticated sewage system also took over streams of rainwater flowing from the roofs of temples, then led through aqueducts and underground channels to the structure, known commonly as the Palace (Von Däniken 1991:173). For Erich von Däniken, who often followed in the footsteps of archaeologists by asking them a series of uncomfortable questions, the similar sewage system in Palenque is already a cause for amazement (Ibid.:173).

What experts claim

Mesoamerican culture experts believe that Mayan construction techniques primarily determined the need to drain water as quickly as possibly during heavy rainfall, especially in dense jungle areas, and the need to take appropriate steps to store it for later use (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Free-standing courtyards with houses on platforms, arranged at different levels and perhaps surrounded by gardens, were perfectly suited to these requirements (Ibid.:200). The water could flow in any direction and be stored in domestic cisterns or huge tanks (Ibid.:200). The same rule was applied in case of monumental buildings, such as palaces and temple architecture (Ibid.:200). Stucco-covered courtyards or large squares, and in some cases causeways, were probably designed to channel and store water (Ibid.:200).

Palace complex seen from the base of the Temple of the Inscriptions. . Outside the Palace, on the west and north sides, there are impressive entrance stairs and cloisters. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Moreover, largely due to the tropical climate, very few enclosed and covered rooms were built in the area (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Most of the activities, public and private, could be performed outdoors or under a light roof (Ibid.:200). Therefore, it seems logical, as specialists claim, to focus on Mayan cities’ open spaces when analysing their complex architecture (Ibid.:200).

Successive excavations and discoveries

Although excavations in the city of Palenque began in the 1940s, the ruins of the city itself have still not been sufficiently explored (Prager, Grube 2013:447; Burns 2012). The archaeological site measures 1780 hectares, including nine major recorded areas with 1400 buildings (UNESCO 2021). On the whole, the archaeological research carried out so far covers around 10% of the whole area (UNESCO 2021; Prager, Grube 2013:447; Burns 2012). Moreover, due to the rainy season, excavation work is usually limited to four months of the year (Von Däniken 1991:179). Since so far the greatest discovery in Palenque, which was revealed in  the Temple of the Inscriptions, another Temple of the city, labelled as the Temple XIII, has unveiled the tomb of the so-called Red Queen (1994) and a stone throne has also been discovered in the Temple XIX (1999) (Prager, Grube 2013:447). And there was yet uncovered another burial in the Temple XXI (2013) (Ibid.:447). Therefore, new important archaeological finds may hopefully come to light soon (Ibid.:447).

Wealth of architectural elements and details

A breath-taking architecture of the city, such as the so-called Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace complex, the Ceremonial Courtyard, and several smaller temples and residential districts around it, all constitute the essential centre of Palenque (Prager, Grube 2013:447).

A bas-relief in the Palenque museum that depicts Upakal K’inich, the son of K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Naab III. Photo by Soerfm (2018). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

All buildings in the city were once decorated with rich stucco reliefs and colourful wall paintings (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). They even appear in the vaulted sections found at the rear of the edifices, which similarly to their facades and stair ramps, also contain the remains of beautiful stucco reliefs (Ibid.:203). In turn, inside the buildings, there have been preserved large and artistic wall reliefs, made of particularly fine-grained limestone (Ibid.:203). Like Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions, such reliefs often refer to complex figural scenes (Ibid.:203). The so-called roof combs at gable ridges are typical of the Mayan architecture; also in Palenque, if preserved, these peculiar crests still crown the central part of the roof of the temples (Ibid.:203-204). Since the roof combs are filigree structures, they feature multiple openings, and so together with the temple they give a whole compact blocks of architectural pyramids a specific lightness (Ibid.:203-204). In the past, they were additionally decorated with colourful painted surfaces and stucco (Ibid.:203-204). Roof combs, which seem to have been intended for the gable ridges of more important sacred buildings, also gave the structures an impression of height and monumentality (Ibid.:199).

Temple of the Sun with an intricate roof comb. Photo by Éclusette – Own work (2009). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Moreover, the door openings reached almost to the level where the corbelled vaults began and were topped with stone lintels or stone beams (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). In turn, numerous vaults in Palenque reveal unusual leaf-shaped trefoil, and mysterious keyhole arches appear in the city’s niches, window openings and doorways (Ibid.:203). Did they serve merely as a decoration or did they evoke a symbolic meaning?

Significance of the keyhole

Window openings and arches in the form of a keyhole appear all over the city of Palenque, where they feature some buildings of the Palace complex and, particularly, the Temple of the Foliated Cross (Burns 2020).

Surprisingly, they do not occur in architecture of any other Mayan cities. A similar symbol had been, however, used in sacred and sepulchral architecture of many ancient cultures around the world (Ibid.). The keyhole form is, among all, observed in the shape of burial mounds in Japan and Algeria, geoglyphs in Saudi Arabia, sacral-astronomical structures in Peru, in the United States, on the Italian island of Sardinia and in India (Ibid.). Some of them are so huge that their shape can be recognized only from the bird’s eye view (Ibid.). As an Arabic legend goes, a similar symbol also adorned the so-called Seal of the biblical King Solomon, which served him as a tool for subjugating demons and so using them to build a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant (Ibid.).

Temple of the Foliated Cross with mysterious window openings in the form of a keyhole. Rob Young from United Kingdom – Temple of the Foliated Cross (2012). CC BY 2.0. “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Egypt, the so-called menat necklace was worn with a heavy pendant at the back, in the form of a keyhole, used as its counterbalance; it was mainly associated with the goddess Hathor, who was also called Meant, and with the Moon god, Chonsu, who was a guardian of the invisible worlds (Burns 2020; “Menat” 2020). “His name means ‘traveller’, and this may relate to the perceived nightly travel of the Moon across the sky” (“Khonsu” 2021). In ancient Egyptian iconography, the meant is often passed down by gods to members of the aristocracy (Burns 2020). What is even more intriguing, a similar symbol was an attribute of another lunar deity, the Phoenician goddess Tanit (Ibid.). Moreover, a mysterious well-like structure in the shape of a keyhole in Sardinia was also architecturally associated with the Moon; namely, its dome was apparently designed to observe the Moon at its highest stage, that it to say, at the moment of the so-called lunar standstill (Ibid.). A similar structure built in India also refers to the same astronomical phenomena, which is the lunar cycle that lasts eighteen years (Ibid.). For this reason, some researchers have suggested the keyhole symbol is associated with celestial bodies such as the Earth and the Moon, and therefore, with our planet’s relations with the sky (Ibid.). Did the keyhole openings in Palenque use to have a similar function?

An elaborate menat necklace depicted in a relief at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Egypt. Photo by Olaf Tausch – Own work (2011). CC BY 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Menat” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Today, it is still a mystery why so many ancient cultures in different and distant corners of the world, including the Maya, used to illustrate such a symbol in their architecture or sacral objects (Burns 2020). Keys and locks have existed since ancient times, serving indirectly to open gates and doors (Ibid.). As such, the keyhole may have had a ritual significance in opening symbolic gates (Ibid.). But what did they open to?  And what is the key to those gates, matching the keyhole? The origin of the symbol still remains a mystery, but whatever inspired its shape, it had to be quite significant to our ancestors (Ibid.).

Corbelled vault and its key functions

While major elements of Mayan architecture were relatively simple, they developed into quite rich and varied forms (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). Between the Preclassic and Early Classic periods, there were observed some changes in building techniques; specialists note that the walls of contemporary Mayan buildings were built of more precisely cut stones, which made the layer of lime plaster applied to them much thinner (Ibid.:198). The use of a corbelled (cantilever) vault, the method used to build a roof using stones and mortar, had also increased at that time (Ibid.:199;. see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque).

Fragment of one of the long corridors of the Palace seen from the inside of the complex. The building feature strange openings in the shape of the letter T and of a keyhole (on the left). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In a corbelled vault, also referred to as a false vault, horizontal blocks of stone protrude further inwards in individual layers, getting closer to each other, and thus connect two supporting walls (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). The vault was eventually closed by means of a flat stone slab (Ibid.:199).

Other solutions in vaulting the roof

In the Early Classic Period, most of the burial chambers in the deeper layers were cut off and closed with a corbelled vault (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199).

K’inich K’an B’alam II (“Chan Bahlam II”). Photo by Sergio~commonswiki (2006). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

False vaults had been widely used in many buildings from Late Classic centres, such as Palenque, although there were also vaults composed of rubble and ceilings with wooden beams covered with a layer of stucco (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199199). The latter were widespread in the Mayan lowlands in the Late Classic and Postclassic periods (Ibid.:199). They had the advantage of covering large room spaces (Ibid.:199). At the same time, they were quite unstable (Ibid.:199). In order to prevent water from penetrating into the building, especially in the rainy season, new layers of stucco had to be constantly applied (Ibid.:199). In turn, vaults made of rubble was a system, where the stones protruding from the wall structure in a false vault were replaced with a mixture of mortar and stone, in such a way that the vault stones visible from the below were nothing but a clever illusion (Ibid.:199).

More intricate constructions

The use of a corbelled vault allowed a construction of long houses with several entrances and two or three rows of vaulted rooms, placed one above the other, and providing the building with subsequent levels, to which the entrance led with separate stairs (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199).

The city of Palenque rises on terraces in the northernmost part of the Chiapas Mountains above the wide, once densely forested plains of the Gulf of Mexico. The Palace seen from the Temple of the Cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The vaulted rooms were placed either alternately or one above the other (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). The facades of buildings were clearly divided into a horizontal wall and a fragment filled with vaults, often with the base between the terrace level and the upper edge of the floor inside the building (Ibid.:199). These areas were usually separated by sills (Ibid.:199). An example of such a multi-storey complex in Palenque is the so-called Palace.

Analysis of the Mayan architectural functions within a city-state

An accessibility, location and connection system of Mayan building complexes within a given city state indicate whether the area was used for private or public functions (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200).

Religious ceremonies were believed to have been held in centrally located buildings, not easily accessible, but well recognizable (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Limited access to the complexes erected on elevations, most often on several levels, near large, open squares, proves that they were used as palaces, as much as it is present in Palenque, whose Palace is placed just in the center (Ibid.:200). “The plan [of the city itself] follows a pin-wheel arrangement, as well as a gridded system. [Already its early] explorers [had] noted stunning similarities in the design of [its] stone structures and their apparent use.” (Blankenbehler 2015).

The Palace is one of the greatest Mayan structures of its kind and the largest architectural complex in Palenque. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Depending on the location within the whole city layout, separate areas were used for representative purposes or domestic functions (Ibid.:200). In many regions of the central lowlands, ball fields, which are most typical urban features of the Pre-Columbian cities, are usually located in front of the palace complex (Ibid.:200). This location is different in Palenque, where the remains of an area interpreted as a ball field are located in the northern part of the city complex. In turn, in the north of the lowlands, separate parts of buildings considered as Mayan palaces, such as residential, representative and administrative parts, were housed in distinct building complexes (Ibid.:200).

In Palenque, the said Palace complex was located in one single, though intricate complex, which would be indicative at once of its private, administrative and representative function. At the same time, along with the nearby temples erected on stepped pyramids, it would accordingly perform ceremonial functions.

El Palacio

The Palace of Palenque was discovered at the end of the eighteenth century by the Spanish (Burns 2012). It is one of the greatest Mayan structures of its kind and the largest architectural complex in Palenque at all (Ibid.). The palace complex is located in front of the Temple of the Inscriptions, just in the middle of the ancient city (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). According to archaeologists, it had been changed and rebuilt many times (Ibid.:202). In its present form, it contains several extremely varied courtyards located on a common platform together with internal stairs (Ibid.:202). Outside the Palace, on the west and north sides, there are impressive entrance stairs and cloisters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203).

The architecture of Palenque is impressive not only because of its impressive size, but also because of its elegance and simplicity. El Palacio seen from the Temple of the Cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The huge edifice of the complex is divided into three floors, one above the other (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:173). The platform on which the palace complex stands is ten meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). Its space (80×100 meters), in turn, is divided into many smaller and larger courtyards lying on different levels (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:173). Today they are referred to as the Main Courtyard, West Courtyard, East Courtyard and the Tower Courtyard (Von Däniken 1991:173). The lower part of the Palace on the south side is called Subterraneum (Ibid.:173). In the East Courtyard, a stone slab (2.4 x 2.6 meters) has additionally been found; it is decorated with two hundred and sixty-two Mayan engravings, including mythological scenes, heads of gods, figures of people and animals, and calendar hieroglyphs (Ibid.:173).

At first glance, El Palacio gives the impression of a labyrinth-like structure, because its complex is so confusing that tourists sometimes lose their orientation while walking among its walls (Von Däniken 1991:173). There are also rooms of various sizes (Ibid.:173). A number of elongated buildings have double barrel vaults (Ibid.:173). Their corbelled, vaulted ceilings slant back and, like many other buildings, they are equally adorned with stucco decorations (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203).

Astonishing finds in the corridors of the Palace

A system of sewage pipes and stone toilets were discovered in the Palace, including a small room with a toilet (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). All of them were placed in strategic points of the building and they were cleaned with water, which carried the waste underground (Von Däniken 1991:174).

The squared tower is an important structure within the Palace complex, which stands out significantly against the background of the maze of corridors, rooms and courtyards. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The presence of toilets convinced archaeologists of the secular character of the complex (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). Additionally, there was probably a ventilation system that supplied air also to the underground parts of the building, where long corridors also ran next to the rooms (Ibid.:174). One of the longest reaches twenty meters and ends with a flight of stairs leading up to the centre of the complex (Ibid.:174). As the corridors are intricately decorated with reliefs, researchers believe that important rituals must have taken place there, possibly related to the underworld (Ibid.:174). For others, however, these corridors are not anything special, even despite their truly unique decorations (Ibid.:174-175). The western, elongated facade of the Palace is dominated by five two meters thick square columns, which are all covered with stucco reliefs (Ibid.:173).

Erich Von Däniken (1991:173) recognizes in one of them a Mayan fighter skating on rollers! (Ibid.:173). Other interesting features of the Palace are T-shaped openings, which are  in the walls; they are sometimes interpreted as symbolic attribution of the sun or wind god, but were apparently used for observing the sky (Burns 2012). Likewise, many buildings in Mayan cities were designed to provide favourable conditions for astronomical observations (Ibid.).

Modern names of the buildings and their original purpose

Such a majestic building must have had an important purpose at the time of the Maya, but what was it? (Von Däniken 1991:173). El Palacio is just a modern name of the building as it was claimed that it was the royal palace (Ibid.:173). Later it was also considered a convent for women or dwellings of priests (Ibid.:173).

Temple of the Cross during the primary stages of excavation. Photo by Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Created: between circa 1871 and circa 1907. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Däniken’s local Indian guide suggests, however, that it was once a famous university in the region (Von Däniken 1991:173-174). After him, the history of the Maya people was taught on the ground floor, chemistry and nature were taught on the first floor, and mathematics and astronomy on the second floor (Ibid.:174). Thus, various interpretations of archaeologists and nomenclature is rather conventional, as it is based on very uncertain foundations (Ibid.:174).

Other terms used for buildings in Palenque and elsewhere in Mesoamerica, such as the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Temple of the Sun, or the Temple of the Foliated Cross, are just modern names and so not given by their builders themselves (Von Däniken 1991:175-176). Hence, one cannot be sure about the purpose of these buildings (Ibid.:175-176).

Squared tower of the Palace

The very thesis about the Palace as a Mayan university can be supported by another important structure within the complex, which stands out significantly against the background of the maze of corridors, rooms and courtyards; it is a fifteen-meter tower rising on a huge pedestal with a base of 7×7.5 meters, above the south-west courtyard of the Palace, known as the Courtyard with the Tower (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174).

Today, researchers believe that Palenque kings and priests watched the stars from that squared construction. Accordingly, it was a Mayan astronomical observatory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The similar structure of the tower remains unique in Mayan architecture and is believed to have been added as the last element of the palace during the reign of the penultimate Palenque ruler, K’uk ‘Balam the First (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). The tower was previously thought to be a viewing point or a watchtower, although the Mayan cities were not fortified but open on all sides (Von Däniken 1991:174). Today, researchers believe that Palenque kings and priests watched the stars from that squared construction (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). Similar function of the tower is supported by the hieroglyph found there and identified as symbolizing the planet Venus or a star (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). This hieroglyph was apparently painted as part of the date of the patron of the month of yax, in 1516 (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). The tower could have therefore been an observatory that served once Palenque elite and theoretically university students to study astronomical phenomena in the sky (Von Däniken 1991:174). Certainly, this activity was facilitated by large windows, placed on all sides of the tall building (Von Däniken 1991:174; Burns 2012). What’s more, there was no entrance to the first floor in the tower, and its narrow stairs led directly to the second and third floors (Ibid.:174).

Obsession with astronomy

The observatory and T-shaped windows of the Palace are not the only testimonies of the Mayan fascination with astronomy in Palenque (Burns 2012). The city’s temples were also associated with particular times of the day and year (Ibid.). The main ones are the equinoxes and solstices (Ibid.).

The Temple of the Sun on the left, further the Temple XIV and the ruins of the Temple XV on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

According to the echoes of many ancient myths, including the Egyptian and Mayan, while disappearing in the west, the Sun takes a journey by entering the underworld and then reappearing in the east at dawn (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Similar beliefs also translate the four astronomical events, the solstices and equinoxes (Ibid.:200). When the Sun rises and sets down at the summer and winter solstices, it moves between the extreme points on the horizon (Ibid.:200). In turn, at the beginning of spring and autumn, on the days of the equinoxes, the Sun rises and sets halfway between these points (Ibid.:200). Additionally, the Maya believed that the lines connecting the Sun’s four turning points correspond to the four sides of the world, each associated with a different colour and different characteristics (Ibid.:200).

Such astronomical phenomena, like the solstices and equinoxes, had been carefully observed by various ancient civilisations, and accordingly reflected in their architectural layouts (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Everywhere in the Mayan world, there is evidence of how the Mayans’ knowledge of astronomy was reflected in their structures, which were unmistakably linked to the observation of the astronomical year (Burns 2012). Linda Schele (1942-1998) an American archaeologist and an expert in the field of Maya epigraphy and iconography, noted that on the winter solstice the sun sets exactly “inside” the Temple of the Inscriptions, a phenomenon that repeats itself in reverse phase in the day of the vernal equinox, when the sun rises “from within” the Temple of the Inscriptions (Burns 2012; “Linda Schele” 2021).

The whole phenomenon in both cases can be easily observed from the roof of the Temple of the Sun, which is located east of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Burns 2012). Thus, the layout of the buildings in Palenque (as in other ancient Mesoamerican cities) is not a matter of coincidence (Ibid.). The Temple of the Sun itself was set on the plinth of a four-level pyramid, so it is more than two times lower than the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:176; Burns 2012). Such a design of buildings and their arrangement in the city space must have had a great impact on the general perception of the above-described astronomical phenomena (Burns 2012).

The Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun has a square base (23×23 meters) and positioned on the stepped pyramid it is nineteen meters high, up to the comb roof of the temple (Von Däniken 1991:176). The Temple’s front crest is decorated with refined reliefs in stucco as much as the side walls of the building (Ibid.:176). There are three entrances to the Sanctuary of the Temple (Ibid.:176).

On both sides of the central entrance, the walls are covered with stucco reliefs, depicting two figures of natural height with elaborate clothing decorations (Von Däniken 1991:176). Between them, there is an entrance leading to a small room with the so-called Sanctuary Tablet or Tablet of the Sun, from which the Temple possibly has taken its name (Ibid.:176). The tablet itself is a well-preserved relief depicting a shield on which two spears decorated with feathers intersect (Ibid.:176-177). The shield is positioned between two male figures, probably priests. Apparently, the image on it symbolizes the Sun of Jaguar (Ibid.:177).

Right next to the Temple of the Sun, there are the ruins of two minor temples, labelled as Temples XIV and XV.

Complex of the three temples

The Temple of the Sun, along with the Temple of the Foliage Cross and the Temple of the Cross all constitute a group of the three temples that were built during the reign of King Kan Balam in 692 AD., so ten years after Pakal’s death (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Like other temples in Palenque, this trio was also set on substructures in the shape of stepped pyramids (Ibid.:204).

The Temple of the Cross is the greatest of the complex composed of the three temples, built on the stepped pyramids. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called Temple of the Cross is extremely important among the three temples, also in the context of this article. It is located on a large elevated square in the eastern part of the city (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The other two temples, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Foliage Cross, are much lower than the Temple of the Cross itself, which definitely towers over the entire ensemble of three pyramids (Ibid.:204). It is distinguished not only by proportions, but also by a preserved, magnificent comb in the middle of the roof, originally decorated with figures and stucco (Ibid.:204).

The Temple of the Cross and its Tablet

Like the other two temples of the complex, the Temple of the Cross contains a sanctuary, called by the Maya pib naah, which stands for the birthplace of the gods (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The walls of the sanctuary, on the other hand, are decorated with Mayan stone reliefs, which are one of the most outstanding examples of Mayan sculptures of possibly deep religious significance (Ibid.:204). A limestone relief on the back wall of the sanctuary, in turn, became the source of the name for the temple itself (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Wagner 2013:282).

Entrance to the Temple of the Cross, which features on its roof a beautifully decorated crest, a typical element of the Mayan architecture. On the right of the entrance, there is another keyhole opening. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Namely, the very central motif on the sculpted tablet is in the form of a cross (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Wagner 2013:282). Actually, it is believed to be in fact a highly stylized representation of the Tree of Life or the Tree of the World, growing from a sacrificial vessel, atop which an exotic bird sits (Wagner 2013:282). The latter is actually the god Itzamna, who is a Mayan sky deity, represented there in its zoomorphic form (Ibid.:282). According to archaeologists, the scene tells about the creation of the world and the birth of the tutelary deity of Palenque (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The tree in the form of a cross itself is believed to mark the centre of the sky, as demonstrated by the heavenly belt on which it stands; the location of the Temple of the Cross accordingly marks the northern quarter of the cosmos assigned to the sky (Wagner 2013:282).

Tablet of the cross restored from the Temple of the Cross. Photo by Ineuw (2017). Public domain. Photo source: “Tablet of the Cross restored” (2017). In: Wikipedia Commons.

An identical cross motif with a strongly stylized exotic bird on its top, as depicted on the Tablet of the Cross, also appears on a much older relief adorning a highly controversial sarcophagus from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Are there any relations between these two representations at all, as it seems? If so, why are not they compared together but interpreted separately or even contradictory?

Featured image: The squared tower of the Palace complex in Palenque. It is believed to have served as an astronomical observatory. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Image cropped and modified. 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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Technique of Corbelling in Architecture

“The corbel arch and corbel vault use the technique [of corbelling] to make openings in walls and to form ceilings”. A corbelled (false) roof or vault and a corbelled arch are prototypes of their structural counterparts in the history of architecture.

Corbelling dome and a false arch based on a lintel inside Atreus Tholos Tomb, Mycenae. Photo by Sharon Mollerus (2009). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Skarbiec Atreusza” (2020). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The corbelled vault usually occurs in a form of an elevated roof constructed using horizontal and successive layers of stone slabs or bricks that gradually overlap each other, inwards. As a result of such a process, a false vault or dome is created. The top of the corbelled roof is closed with a single capstone which spans the remaining space or void between the overhung stone slabs. “[In the] technique of corbelling, […] rows of corbels deeply keyed inside a wall support a projecting wall or parapet” (“Corbel” 2021).

In turn, corbelled arches, like structural (true) arches, are also made of stone but do not use “a wedge-shaped voussoirs converging towards” (“Corbel arch” 2021). They are cut in one beam or stone slab, or several horizontal layers of stone. Accordingly, “a corbel arch is an arch-like construction method that uses the architectural technique of corbelling to span a space or void in a structure. […] Although an improvement in load-bearing efficiency over the post and lintel design, [corbelled] arches are not entirely self-supporting structures, and the [corbelled] arch is sometimes termed a false arch for this reason” (Ibid.)

Featured image: A corbelled (false) arch in the Royal Palace of Ugarit, Bronze Age Syria. Photo by Disdero (2005). CC BY 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Corbel arch” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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Noah’s Beasts Released on the Hills of Göbekli Tepe

Perhaps the key to understanding the site of Göbekli Tepe lies in its impressive carvings situated on the cluster of pillars (Conrad 2012). As described in my previous article (see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery), they are ‘T’-shaped and decorated with strange zoomorphic imagery. The latter represent elaborate and naturalistic animal characters, both in low, high and full relief, showing three-dimensional figures, signifying improbable menagerie (Conrad 2012; Noren 2020).

Images of various animals found, including birds and insects, all in all, create an astonishing menagerie that continues to amaze archaeologists who have studied the site to this day (Burns 2010). An archaeologist, Paul Bahn, PhD., admits that there is no other archaeological site in the world with a similar variety of zoomorphic representations in stone (Burns 2017). Their juxtaposition is also interesting (Ibid.). Therefore, there are many different speculations concerning their interpretation; for example, an author, Andrew Collins, suspects that Noah’s Ark had actually been immortalized on the stones of the site, as if it had been a livestock inventory of the Ark (Burns 2010; 2017). Discovered five hundred kilometres south of Mount Ararat, considered by Biblical scholars to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark, the reliefs of Göbekli Tepe suggest that certain species of animals come from other regions than it has been previously considered (Ibid.). Could these sculptures prove that the memories of the Great Flood described in the Bible and its aftermath were preserved by the builders of Göbekli Tepe? (Ibid.). Some researchers believe that the traces of this cataclysm and the story of Noah’s Ark were actually written on the stone pillars (Ibid.). If so, the Great Flood would have occurred at the end of what scientists call the end of the Ice Age (Ibid.).

Stone Age masterpiece of sculpture

Sumber credit: by Nico Becker, Göbekli Tepe Archive, German Archaeological Institute, DAI. Source: Kompasiana (2018).

The mystery of the imagery of the site became even greater when discovered reliefs have revealed animal species that have never been endemic to the region, such as geese, armadillos or wild boars (Burns 2017). Moreover, the masterpiece of the sculpture found also suggests their builders must have been highly advanced artists with engineering skills, taking into account the fact there is no trace of their tools in situ (Conrad 2012). Physical characteristics of the animals carved are very clearly depicted (Ibid.). In many cases anatomical details openly express a rather aggressive attitude, embodied by their posture and grinning teeth (Ibid.).

T-shaped pillars and their flock

Klaus Schmidt argues that the animal component of the site is crucial in its iconographic interpretation (Conrad 2012). According to the Professor, represented animals have mainly wild, male and predatory connotations (Busacca 2017:313-314). He interprets the zoomorphic depictions either as having a protective role as the guardians of the pillars (especially high-relief sculpture), or being a part of a horrifying spectacle (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017).

Eastern central pillar of Enclosure D. Image cropped. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site”. In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

The ‘T’-shaped pillars, as he points out, are in turn the abstract representations of human bodies with the upper part resembling a man’s head in profile, the shaft of the ‘T’ standing for the human corpus, with arms, palms and fingers incised in stone (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). Below them, there is the representation of a belt encircling the pillar with loincloth looking like an animal skin (Ibid.). Such features as the hands with elongated fingers on the stomach, around the the navel area, amazingly reappear on other ancient representations in the wold (Burns 2017). Such a motif repeats, for example, carved in the great Moai statues on the Easter Island (Ibid.) or even on sculpted stone fragments crumbling among the old-Irish idols at the cemetery on the Boa Island, in Northern Island. They equally occur on anthropomorphic menhirs in France, Italy, Romania and elsewhere in the world (Ibid.). A similar iconographic element in some a way joins all these statues of different cultures and age and so testifies to the fact that Göbekli Tepe may not have developped in isolation, but was a part of a worldwide, prehistoric culture that once existed (Ibid.). Or it itself may have given rise to a later universal iconography by means of its mysterious heritage (Ibid.). Are the anthropomorphic statues from Göbekli Tepe and other parts of the world a carved in stone story of an alien race that lived on the earth before the cataclysm? (Ibid.). If so, maybe such monuments were erected in places where people were rebuilding civilization after the Great Flood (Ibid.). Maybe the builders of the site tried to save from oblivion what had taken place about 12,000 years ago? (Ibid.).

Professor Schmidt says that the ‘T’-shaped pillars are gathered on the hillside as if there was “a meeting of stone beings” (Scham 2008:27). Despite their anthropomorphic features, the pillars are deprived of facial features, which makes Schmidt think that the human-like monoliths personify spiritual beings, and probably they are the earliest imagery of deities or god-like ancestors (Conrad 2012). Accordingly, Schmidt also suggests that the disintegrated now temple doorway could metaphorically have stood for the entrance to the netherworld (Conrad 2012). If so, Göbekli Tepe must have been related to the cult of the death (Ibid.).

One of the most enigmatic symbology shown on the ‘T’-shaped pillar 43 with vultures flying above the scorpion. Source: Sandra Scham (2008:25). The World’s First Temple. Archaeology, v. 61, no. 6, New York: Archaeological Institute of America, pp. 22-27.

Vital to creating that dark world are the creatures carved on the pillars (Conrad 2012). It is not even difficult to imagine the site as a temple devoted to the dead, especially at night, when the portal leading to the flickering by the fire netherworld may have involved humans into strange rituals performed beneath the monumental human-like pillars, dressed up with the aggressive elements of nature (Ibid.). In the course of ritual performances, including sound, scents and probably under shamanic drug haze, the images on the pillars may have seemed alive and active (Busacca 2017). Gusaldo Busacca (2017), a PhD. student at Stanford University, admits, however, that very little can be said on the purpose and nature of such rituals. Some kind of ritual paraphernalia have been found at the site, such as benches, niches (altars), cup holes and limestone vessels, probably used for libations to the spirits and extensive feasting (Schmidt, 2010; Dietrich et al. 2012).

According to Klaus Schmidt, the site may have been also a pilgrimage location (Scham 2008:26). He assumes “that once pilgrims reached Göbekli Tepe, they made animal sacrifices” (Ibid.:26). That theory is supported by the archaeological finds of animal bones belonging to various species, such as gazelles, goats, boars, sheep, wild birds and so on (Scham 2008; Busacca 2017). Most of these animals belong to the carved menagerie in question (Ibid.).

What was first: religion or civilisation?

As Prof. Joris Peters notices, although the animistic nature dominates in the Palaeolithic art of the caves, at Göbekli Tepe the control over the nature is visibly taken by humans in the disguise of the ‘T’-shaped pillars (Conrad 2012).

Pillar 27 from Enclosure C with the three-dimensional sculpture of an animal catching a prey in low relief below. Photo (2008). Public domain. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Schmidt also notices that all the zoomorphic images are carved only below the so-called head of the pillars, which suggests that people had already became superior to animals (Conrad 2012). Gods themselves had left their animal disguise and started to look like humans (Ibid.). As Schmidt underlines, such imagery may reveal the Stone Age man’s desire for having control over the nature (Ibid.). The new religion gave humans an enormous psychological advantage (Ibid.). It placed people above the animals and above nature, and that mental leap forward, as Prof. Joris Peters says, was needed to start to domesticate animals and plants (Ibid.). Accordingly, it was first the urge to worship that sparked civilization (Ibid.). The theory is yet radical: namely, it suggests that it was the religion itself which brought people to farming, and not the other way round, as it has been believed so far… (Ibid.). In this context, Göbekli Tepe would have been a dramatic point in mankind development (Ibid.).

The hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face

Gusaldo Busacca (2017) underlines in his study of Göbekli Tepe that he takes “the hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face” (Ibid.:313) due to fragmentary evidence, time and cultural distance, and finally lack of written sources or oral traditions (Ibid.). Many scholars working at the site have already proposed their interpretations of the complex animal symbolism present there by using different contexts, such as shamanism (Benz & Bauer, 2015; Lewis – Williams & Pearce 2009), human-animal linkage (Verhoeven 2002), and burial rituals (Schmidt 2012), with a particular emphasis on the aggressive attitudes, predatory and wild aspects of the depicted animals. Other scholars also identify phallocentrism (the ideology that the male aspect is the central element in the organization of the social world) (“Phallocentrism” 2019), as the major symbolic theme of the most aggressive representations at the site (Hodder and Meskell 2011).

Most of the ‘T’-shaped pillars at the site show wild animals, such as lions/leopards. Source: Sandra Scham (2008:22). The World’s First Temple. Archaeology, v. 61, no. 6, New York: Archaeological Institute of America, pp. 22-27

Basing on Schmidt’s research, Busacca (2017) claims that the most frequently represented animals are snakes, then foxes, boars, bulls and wild ducks. Less often motifs include cranes, spiders, quadrupeds, vultures, wild sheep, asses, gazelles and felids (Ibid.). Although the majority of depicted animals belong to predatory and venomous species, it is worth remarking there are also non-dangerous animals in the iconographic repertoire (Ibid.). Along the zoomorphic imagery, there are also abstract motifs, especially ‘H’- shaped pictograms, as well as some anthropomorphic motifs, like headless human bodies, which would suit the theory the temple was dedicated to the dead (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). Furthermore, Busacca (2017:316) notices that “the depicted motifs and their distribution vary markedly throughout the four main enclosures.”

Further attempts of interpretation

In terms of animistic ontology, Busacca (2017) focuses on exploring the role of images as a category of animated non-human beings (Ibid.).

Pillar with the sculpture of a fox. Photo by Zhengan (2012). CC BY-SA. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

He calls these images “composite entities constituted by both material and immaterial components” (Ibid.:315) as they are placed between two different spaces: the present and the absent, the visible and the invisible (Belting, 2011). The scholar argues that prehistoric artists may have believed that the act of making an image sparked a specific relation between the carver and the spirit inside the material medium (Busacca 2017:315-316). The carver did not create an animal out of the stone but he released it (Carpenter 1973). In this context, the zoomorphic images should be reconsidered as active participants between humans and material objects (Busacca 2017:315-316). Animals do not simply represent but they are material personification of animal spirits (Ibid.:315-316). The author also underlines the importance of their location within the architectural space in which they first appeared (Ibid.:315-316).

As the author remarks, the zoomorphic imagery has been mainly defined as a human concern with wild animals, “masculinity and violence prior to the ‘domestication of symbols’ that accompanied the transition toward agriculture and settled life” (Busacca 2017:319). The violent part of the iconography can be also linked to the dominant agents in prehistoric communities, identified as shamans (Benz & Bauer 2013). Another researcher, Borić (2013:54) claims that the dynamic and narrative postures of the carved beasts are the notions of “strong, dangerous spirits lurking beneath the skin of the depicted animals” (Borić 2013:54). Quite innovative interpretation is proposed by Yeşilyurt (2014) who argues that the site should be interpreted as prehistoric research laboratory, where the representations of animals actually illustrate research carried out on specific species.

Stone Age menagerie in motion

Busacca (2017:322) also analyses the sculpture in the context of stylistic features, such as the dynamism and movement of the animal figures. In order to refer to stylistic techniques used at Göbekli Tepe, the author has borrowed the terminology used in the studies on Franco-Cantabrian Upper Palaeolithic rock art, where similar style can be observed (Ibid.:322). Nevertheless, he underlines that “these similarities in techniques of visual representations should not be considered evidence of direct contact, ancestry or diffusion, but as independent, though similar, phenomena” (Ibid:322).

The use of ‘split action’ in the depiction of possible bird figures. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The movement is shown at Göbekli Tepe by means of two major techniques which seem to have been applied selectively only to certain types of animals depicted (Ibid.:322). Both predatory and non-predatory species, including gazelle, wild ass and crane, have their legs bent and/or are caught in oblique position (postural information) which generates some sort of motion (Ibid.:322). The wavy lines of the snake depictions are equally the representations of movement (Ibid.:322). Also the use of ‘split action’ technique is applied by the reiteration (superimposition or juxtaposition) of the subject, where an animal is depicted at successive stages in time (Ibid.:322). Examples of such artistic approach is clearly shown in the representations of water birds, especially wild ducks (Enclosures C and D) (Ibid.:322).  

Description of the stylistic traits is followed by an analysis of the orientation of the carved imagery (Busacca 2017:313,324). To conduct the study, the author makes a distinction between the central  pillars, which are those arranged in pairs, usually larger in size, and radial pillars – those arranged along the enclosures (Ibid.:313,324).

Internal subdivision of T-shaped pillars Photo by Irmgard Wagner, German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (modified). Source: Gesualdo Busacca (2017:322). “Places of Encounter: Relational Ontologies, Animal Depiction and Ritual Performance at Göbekli Tepe”. In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, v. 27, issue 2, pp. 313-330.

Radial pillars have been furthermore subdivided into two groups, frontal and lateral (Ibid.:313,324). All the locations of the carvings on pillars have been clearly labelled by means of simple abbreviations that the author has provided together with the photographs illustrating his concept (Ibid.:313,322,324). Accordingly, he marked them as follows: ‘FH’, ‘BS’, ‘LH’, ‘LS’, where ‘F’ stands for frontal, ‘B’ for back, ‘H’ for head ‘S’ for side, ‘L’ for lateral and left in some cases (Ibid.:313,322,324). Taking into consideration the lateral sides of the radial pillars, the author notices that 29 out of 34 total animals depicted on the pillars are facing toward the centre of the enclosure (Ibid.:313,322,324). High relief and full relief sculptures also indicate a centripetal orientation (Ibid.:313,322,324). As the author suggests “emerging from the walls or from the top of them with their full bodies or only with the head, these sculptures suggestively resonate with the general impression of a centripetal ‘jump’ of the animals into the enclosures”(Busacca 2017: 324).

On the other hand, the bas-reliefs carved on the frontal sides are facing either downwards or upwards or the right or left (Ibid.:313,322,324). Hence their pattern is less clear to be easily defined (Ibid.:313,322,324). The author suggests that the dynamism and mostly centripetal orientation of zoomorphic depictions may refer to the liminal space of the enclosure calling for animal spirits to its centre (Ibid.:313,322,324). Providing that the ‘T’- shaped pillars represent anthropomorphic spiritual beings, as mentioned above (Schmidt 2010), the enclosures can be identified as places of encounter between humans and animal spirits (Busacca 2017:313,322,324). In this context zoomorphic images play the role of the bridge between human and non-human beings (Ibid.:313,322,324).

Pillar 2 from Enclosure A with low reliefs of possibly a bull, fox and a crane. Photo by Teomancimit  (2011).CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Busacca (2017) also emphasizes the importance of the iconographic repertoire in any attempt of interpreting enigmatic functions of Göbekli Tepe. Unlike in post-agricultural societies within which wild animals meant danger and wilderness, hunter-gatherers would have had rather social and inter-personal attitudes towards such beasts, still without excluding the always present threat of their violence, which is probably expressed by aggressive aspects of zoomorphic representations (Ibid.:327). The author suggests that “socialising with the animal on the peer-to-peer basis would be just another way of ‘domesticating’ the animal without bringing it under complete human control” (Ibid.:327). Such an idea, however, would contradict the interpretation proposed by Schmidt, according to which the carved ‘T’- shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe show humans completely superior to animals. Although Schmidt’s assumption does not negate the whole idea of ontological relations between humans and animals, their character would be quite different from that defined by Busacca (2017).

Vulture Stone

On the other side, some independent researchers, such as Paul Burley (2013), Graham Hancock (2016) and Martin Sweatman (2019) claim that at least a few zoomorphic representations on the pillars of Göbekli Tepe are grouped and arranged in a way to create the sky map. Such features are mainly revealed by the limestone ‘T’- shaped Pillar 43, also known under an intriguing name of the “Vulture Stone”, which is incorporated along with other ‘T-‘-shaped pillars of a similar height into the stone wall on the north-west side of the Enclosure D (Burley 2013; Sweatman 2019:22). The latter, in turn, comes from the Layer III, which is not only the oldest, and hence the lowest in the ground, but also distinguished by a variety of mysterious thematic aspects and sophisticated artistic depictions (Fleckney 2020). Whereas the wall of the Enclosure D, made of rough stones, is radiocarbon dated back to over 9 500 BC., the pillars embedded in it definitely predate it (Sweatman 2019:22). It is also worth mentioning that again we are dealing here with the phenomenon where more ancient finds are more advanced in many respects than those dated as being more recent.

Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Zhengan (2012). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Since the Pillar 43 started to be regularly studied, it has become widely iconic for the site of Göbekli Tepe (Sweatman 2019:22). It is simultaneously one of the most mysterious and captivating human imagination objects yet found in situ. The pillar does not belong to the greatest of the site; it is three metres tall, one and a half metre wide, a half metre thick, and weighs around five tons (Ibid.:22). The key to its popularity, however, has turned out to be its outstanding iconography. Not only does it include a clearly defined group of various animals but also an ithyphallic and headless anthropomorphic figure (Sweatman 2019:22; Fleckney 2020). The whole imagery is further enriched and so complicated by a set of abstract symbols, which, moreover, seem reminiscent of so far undecipherable images appearing in different ancient cultures, including Ancient Egypt, Assyria (Iraq), the Olmecs (La Venta, Mexico), and even Pumapunku (Bolivia).

Zoo of the shaft

All the carvings covering the Pillar 43 are in low relief (Burley 2013). Starting from the bottom of the shaft, there is a bird head upon a long neck, possibly belonging to a goose (Sweatman 2019:22). Just behind the bird’s neck, on the right, a figure of a headless man appears (Ibid.:24). Right there, the bottom corner of the pillar is broken. Still on the shaft, above the bird’s head, there is a clearly defined, huge scorpion, crawling upwards, whereas on the left of the long-necked bird and the scorpion, one can discern the head and front legs of another animal, probably a quadruped of some type, like a wolf (Ibid.:22-23). Just above its head, there is either an animal tail or a snake, maybe a viper, with a triangular end, looking like an arrow.

The bird king with its scepter on the pillar head

Moving to the ‘T’-shaped pillar head, on the left, there is the largest image of all, which has eventually given the name to the pillar (Sweatman 2019:22). Precisely, it represents some kind of a bird of pray, probably and eagle or a vulture with its wings outstretched, which may suggest it was depicted in flight (Ibid.:22).

The Goddess Nekhbet, Temple of Hatshepsut, circa 1479 –1458 B.C. Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art MET. By Charles K. Wilkinson. Uploaded by Pharos (2017). CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Photo and caption source: Wikimedia Commons.

In its iconography, the bird looks like a strongly stylized representation of the ancient Egyptian vulture, personifying Nekhbet, “an early predynastic local goddess in Egyptian mythology, who was [originally] the patron of the city of Nekheb […]. Ultimately, she became the patron of Upper Egypt and one of the two patron deities for all of Ancient Egypt when it was unified. […] Nekhbet usually was depicted hovering, with her wings spread above the royal image, clutching a shen symbol, representing eternal encircling protection, frequently in her claws” (“Nekhbet” 2021). The said shen symbol additionally resembles a plain circle beside the vulture’s outstretched wing from the Pillar 43. The significant difference between these two images, however, is the placement of the disc in the both cases.

On the Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe, unlike in Egyptian images, the vulture’s left wing seems to hold or horizontally support the disc, which, hovering above it, is situated centrally on the pillar head and so in the middle of the visual context of the whole scene (Sweatman 2019:22; Burley 2013). By these means, the disc provides a sense of an order on the pillar’s surface, which at first sight, seems to be just filled in with randomly depicted elements (Burley 2013). In the right lower corner of the pillar head, another stylized figure of a bird is depicted, possibly of the same species as its larger companion, as they both feature the same hooked beak (Sweatman 2019:22-23). Or maybe, it is just the same individual but depicted in motion, as it is visible in other carved images on pillars?

Long-body creature with an arrow

The example of the believed image of a snake, represented in carving on the back of a stone human head from Nevalı Çori. Artifact photographed at Şanliurfa Museum, Turkey (early Neolithic period, 8400-8100 BC.). Photo by Vincent J. Musi. Originally published by National Geographic. Photo and caption source: Prata E. (2011). “The Mystery of Gobekli Tepe”. In: The End Time.

The most interesting of all, however, is the top part of the pillar head. To the upper-right of the title bird character, there is a bird with long legs, looking like a flamingo (Sweatman 2019:23). Between its beak and lifted thin legs, there is an undecipherable image, which Martin Sweatman (2019:23) compares to a “wriggling fish in [the flamingo’s] beak”. For myself, the element more resemble a snake with a tail or a head ending in an arrow, like in the fragmented image on the shaft of the same pillar or on other T-shaped pillars of Göbekli Tepe, featuring similar representations (Johannes 2005; Courtesy of the Göbekli Tepe Project, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut 2005). One creature of this kind is also present at the back of a sculpted human head from Nevalı Çori (Şanliurfa Museum, Turkey) (Prata 2011; see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery).

From letter symbols to handbags

To the very right of that duo of the flamingo and the snake, aka fish, there is an abstract symbol resembling a squat letter ‘H’ and, slightly above a letter ‘I’ or just the same letter ‘H’ but turned 90° right (Sweatman 2019:23). Above the flamingo’s back, in turn, there appears a frieze-like stretch, interrupted on the left by the vulture’s head and equally by additional components above, yet it stretches to the very top of the pillar head. It is composed of two rows of interlocked symbols in the shape of the letter ‘V’, which all appear on both sides of the narrow and horizontal belt of squares (Ibid.:23).

Finally, in the upper part of the ‘frieze’ and so of the pillar head itself, there is a row of the three mentioned elements, generally compared to ‘handbags’ (Sweatman 2019:23), though my eight-years old nephew claims these are padlocks …

Some of the so-called ‘H’-blocks which were interconnected (or intended to interconnect) with other andesite blocks forming blind miniature gateways. The shape of the blocks are sometimes compared to the ‘H’ symbol from the “Vulture Stone”. Photo by Janikorpi (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Pumapunku” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Such strange components as the ‘handbags’, found among a zoomorphic gathering, become even stranger if one realizes that they also appear in other ancient cultures; namely, they are being carried by winged geniuses in Assyrian reliefs (between 2000-600 BC.) or by an Olmec from La Venta, travelling ‘inside’ a feathered serpent (between 1800 BC.-200 AD.). In the Pillar 43, each ‘handbag’ is additionally coupled with an animal character (Ibid.:23). Yet, all the three are difficult to be recognized as particular species (Ibid.:23). The left-most one resembles a minuscule version of the bent flamingo (Ibid.:23), depicted below, the middle one represents a quadruped, which Martin Sweatman (2019:23) interprets as a “standing or charging […] gazelle, goat or ibex, with large horns or ears bent backwards over the body”, whereas the animal on the most-right, seems to crawl downwards, like a lizard or a frog (Ibid.:23).

Constellations inscribed the outlines of the animals

Although the actual function of Göbekli Tepe is still a mystery, an author, Andrew Collins, proposes a theory, suggesting the site was erected for reflecting celestial phenomena (Burns 2017; see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery). Accordingly, the successive circles of the site with its elaborate stone ‘T’-shaped pillars and, finally, their complex iconography would have their astronomical meaning (Burley 2013; Sweatman 2019). In line with such assumptions are also theories related to the Pillar 43. Martin Sweatman (2019:24) studies a hypothesis proposed by Paul Burley (2013) and Graham Hancock (2016), according to which the title vulture occupying the pillar head represents the modern-day constellation of Sagittarius and the huge scorpion crawling on the shaft, the constellation of Scorpius. Additionally, the duo of a flamingo and a snake with an arrow would represent the so-called thirteenth sign of the zodiac, Ophiuchus (Sweatman 2019:24; see Hancock 2016). And the central disc supported by the vulture’s outstretched left wing would relate to the Sun, being close to the center of the galaxy, with the mentioned constellations nearby (Burley 2013; see Hancock 2016).

‘T’ – shaped pillars of the site. Photo by German Archaeological Institute (DAI). Source : Jens Notroff (2016). “Could we really called it a temple?” In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

After noticing similarities between the patterns of the considered animal images and the range of studied constellations, along with their relative match in context of their positions on the pillar and in the sky respectively, Sweatman (2019:24-32) also tries to support the theory by justifying whether the selection of animals corresponding to the constellations among the thirteen zoomorphic symbols at Göbekli Tepe is adequate and not coincidental (Ibid.:27-32,41). The choice of a scorpion for the Scorpius seems obvious, in turn, the vulture would be the best choice for the Sagittarius among all the animals represented on site (Ibid.:30,32). Additionally, Martin Sweatman (2019:27) pays attention to another constellation, the Libra, which is just below the Scorpius, and finds that the goose represented below the scorpion can match the constellation as it is an animal associated with water. What is more, the fragmented quadruped depicted to the left of the goose can similarly correspond to the constellation of Lupus, the wolf, which is also to the left of Libra in the sky (Ibid.:27). Can it be then a pure coincidence?

Nevertheless, the main problem is that after the mainstream scholars, the knowledge of zodiacal constellations could only appear and develop the earliest with the civilization of Sumer, that is to say, between 3000 and 2000 BC., and it was much later passed down to the modern world by means of the ancient Greece, during the period of the last few centuries BC. (Sweatman 2019:25). For these reasons, the similar knowledge cannot be as old as the site of Göbekli Tepe, which is nearly 12 000 years old (Ibid.:25). But if one alternatively accepts such a possibility, it would mean that ancient Sumerians were not the first who invented zodiacal symbols but they would have learnt their skills in astronomy from much earlier but highly advanced civilizations, who, for some reasons, were erased from human history (Ibid.:31).

Precession of the equinoxes

In order to understand a message encoded on the Pillar 43, Martin Sweatman (2019:36) additionally uses the phenomenon of the so-called precession of the equinoxes (see: Through the Passageway of the Khmers’ Stargate of Angkor Tom).

Göbekli Tepe and a panoramic view of the southern excavation field. Photo by Rolfcosar (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to the conventional teaching, the discovery of precession of the equinoxes should be ascribed to Hipparchus of the Greeks who would have come up with this idea in the second century BC. (Sweatman 2019:36). Yet, after alternative researchers outside of Academia, such knowledge had already been in use by the sculptors of the “Vulture Stone”, around 13 000 years ago (Ibid.:36). Providing that the disc over the vulture’s wing stands for the Sun, the researcher observes the phenomenon of precession in earlier epochs, with the summer solstice as the reference day (Ibid.:38). As a result, he finds out that the position of the constellations in relation to the Sun, represented on the Pillar 43, only correspond to the date anywhere between 11 200 and 10 700 BC. (Ibid.:38). It is because only within this range of time the Sun appears in such an arrangement between the constellations as it is represented on the pillar (Ibid.:38).

Handbags as sunsets

After Martin Sweatman and his wife, Alison (2019:39), the mysterious symbols at the very top of the Pillar 43 resemble semicircles of the Sun disc at the moment of sunset. Furthermore, if we assume the represented image reflects the summer solstice in 10 950 BC., when the Sun was in front of the constellation of Sagittarius (the vulture), the three handbags (sunsets) may signify the other three solar phenomena in the astronomical year, namely the winter solstice and the spring and vernal and autumn equinoxes (Ibid.:34,37-39). Accordingly, at the spring equinox in 10 950, the Sun moved to Virgo, at the winter solstice, it appeared in Gemini, and at the autumn equinox, it entered the constellation of Pisces (Ibid.:39).

By analogy with the zoomorphic figures symbolizing the constellations in the main part of the pillar, the miniature creatures beside the ‘handbags’ would stand for the constellations corresponding to the three astronomical days that the ‘handbags’ possibly represent (Sweatman 2019:39). Staring from the oldest date and so the upper-right ‘handbag’, the crawling downwards frog beside it would symbolize Virgo, the horned quadruped in the middle, Gemini, and finally the bent bird with long legs would stand for Pisces (Ibid.:39). Surprisingly, the outlines of all the three constellations perfectly correspond to the shape of miniature animal images depicted beside the respective ‘handbags’ (Ibid.:40; see Figure 10 in: Sweatman 2019:40).

Zoomorphic code language of hunter-gatherers

Martin Sweatman (2019:40-44) admits that the results of his studies may be just a coincidence, though it is rather improbable. On the other side, they heavily undermine the current scientific status quo in all its aspects, particularly concerning the acknowledged range of astronomical knowledge of the ancients and how far back in time it could be scientifically justified (Ibid.:40,44).

All in all, the Stone Age builders must have represented the animal symbols at the site for important reasons. Either the representations were religious or totemic, artistic or scientific, at least a few of them were definitely nested in astronomy. Did the builders of Göbekli Tepe encode more than one meaning behind the carved imagery of their Noah’s Ark? Was it done deliberately? And was it intended to be deciphered and read by contemporaries at all if the site had been eventually buried? Or maybe it was to immortalize in stone a turning point in their history, such as the Great Flood or another cataclysm and its further consequences.

Bison in the great hall of polychromes, at Altamira Cave, Cantabria. Photo (2008)by Rameessos. Public domain. Source: “Franco-Cantabrian region” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Today, our insight into the zoomorphic world is guided by a set of fixed ideas, interpreting various animals in a strictly defined, though often ambiguous way, often by attributing to them human characteristics. We know this code from ancient myths, medieval bestiaries, fairy tales and legends. Did the builders of Göbekli Tepe used a similar key to the meaning of zoomorphic symbols before they eventually passed them on to later generations in the relief carvings on the ‘T’ shaped pillars? Or maybe their understanding of the menagerie was different from ours and it only survived to our times in distorted fragments over the span of thousands years.

Featured image: The so-called Vulture Stone in Gobekli Tepe, Turkey. Photo by Sue Fleckney (2013). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: 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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Guttae in the Architecture of Classical Greece

Latin: gutta (singular); guttae (plural) – ‘drops’.

Found uniquely the Doric order entablature in Greek classical architecture (900 BC. – 1st century AD.), guttae are the conical projecting ornaments. They are situated under each triglyph of a frieze, which a set of guttae always goes with. In turn, a row of six guttae, located at the top of the architrave blocks, formed an element called a regula, located just below the narrow projection of the taenia (fillet). 

Guttae, see also Image: Droppar, fig 2, Nordisk familjebok.png. Photo in Nordisk familjebok (1907), vol.6, p. 876. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Gutty” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

“In It is thought that the guttae were a skeuomorphic representation of the pegs used in the construction of the wooden structures that preceded the familiar Greek architecture in stone. However, they have some functionality, as water drips over the edges, away from the edge of the building” (“Gutta” 2021).

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