Sacred Enclosure of Abaton in the Ancient World

In ancient times, the name given to holy places, sacred district or underground, usually Greek temple buildings, or a sacred grove, accessible only to priests and so restricted to common people. Sometimes, it was accessible to the faithful who have submitted to ritual cleansing. In Greek, the definition described ‘untrodden place’, as only priests were allowed to set foot in most of them.

The term stands either for an inaccessible religious building, such as a monastery or part of a sacred building and its enclosure. In ancient Greece, abaton was also meant as a bedroom for patients expecting miraculous healing while sleeping and it was usually built as a long stoa.

Among others, abaton is mostly used in reference to an enclosure or a temple of Asclepius, in Epidaurus (sixth century BC.-fourth century AD., Peloponnese, Greece), a temple on the island of Bigeh, in the Nile river situated in historic Nubia, where ancient Egyptians venerated the burial of Osiris (The Middle Kingdom, 2055–1650 BC.), and finally a monument on the island of Rhodes, erected by Artemisia the Second of Caria to celebrate her conquest of the island (the fourth century BC.).

Featured image: View of the Island of Philae with Isis Temple and Trajan’s Kiosk, in the Nile, Nubia. Island of Bigeh and its ruins in foreground. 1838 painting by David Roberts. Painting by David Roberts (1838). Public domain. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: “Bigeh” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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Different Roads of the Ancient World Guided by Different Writers

Like Antipater of Sidon, Philo of Byzantium lists other Wonders of the Ancient World than those given in today’s lexicons (Zamarovsky 1990:8; see: Travel Guidebooks of the Ancients in the Hands of Modern Visitors). He clearly does not consider the Lighthouse from Pharos as a wonder of the world and, like Antipater, grants this dignity to the walls of Babylon (Ibid.:8). There is also no description of the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus in his work, as this chapter has been lost along with a part of the description of the temple of Artemis (Ibid.:8). What is more, after J.C. Orelli, Philo of Byzantium describes the wonders in a more subjective way, ascribing them more glory and splendour than they really deserve (Ibid.:8). Therefore, in order to obtain a faithful description of these timeless works, one should turn for help to Herodotus, Strabo, Diodorus, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias and many other ancient authors and, equally, to modern archaeology (Ibid.:8).

Fragment from Herodotus’ Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD. (2010). Public domain. Caption source: Mingren W. (DHWTY) (2017). “Picking Apart the Words of Herodotus: Was He a Father of Histories or Lies?”. In: Ancient Origins. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2021). Public domain.

Father of History

Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), called by Ciceron the “Father of History”, was a native but Hellenized Carian, born in Halicarnassus (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He has travelled a huge part of the world, even for our measure, and everywhere he did what the Greeks called ‘theory’, that is to say in modern language, conducting research (Ibid.:8). Accordingly, he got to know countries, cities and people, and wrote down everything he learned about their past (Ibid.:8). The work Histories of Herodotus to this day is a valuable historical resource about peoples such as the Lydians, Medes, Persians, the ancestors of the Greeks, the Scythians, and even the Slavs, and about lost countries, such as Babylon, Little Asiatic Greece, regions of India and Arabia, and, of course, ancient Egypt (Ibid.:8).

Bust of Herodotus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009). Public domain. Photo and caption source: ”Herodot” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Herodotus adds to the list of wonders and describes in detail also the Tower of Babel (the ziggurat of Etemenanki in ancient Babylon and not necessarily the Biblical Tower of Babel), the bridge over the Euphrates River again in Babylon and the legendary Egyptian labyrinth (Zamarovsky 1990:8). All these wonders either are in ruins, vanished or, like the latter, has never been found (though academic Egyptologists claim that the labyrinth has already been uncovered and it has turned out to be much less miraculous than it is described by the ancient historian).

Simultaneously, Herodotus also delightedly described three other buildings, all of the located on the island of Samos, treating them as ancient marvels of architecture (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). These were the water-pipe tunnel, port breakwater and a temple in honour of Hera (Ibid.:3).

The book, Travels with Herodotus (2004) by Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author shows how Herodotus’ records have also stimulated an imagination and creativity of modern authors (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021). Kapuściński was the Communist-era Polish Press Agency’s correspondent and in the aforementioned book the author compares his travels through Asia and Africa with the adventures of the ancient historian, Herodotus, where he conducts deliberations and often recounts amusing or interesting anecdotes from his escapades, enriched by those from the Histories of Herodotus (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021; lubimyczytać.pl 2021).

Personally, I often refer to the quotes from this book, especially those about the nature of man in relation to travel and the passion for discovering the world, or the the phenomenon of travelling itself:

After all, the journey does not start when we hit the road and it does not end when we reach the finish line. In fact, it starts much earlier and practically never ends, because the tape of memory keeps spinning inside us, even though we haven’t physically moved for a long time. Actually, there is such a thing as an infection by travel, and it is a kind of disease that is essentially incurable.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

And there is another interesting quote that seems particularly true in relation to travelles being continuously pushed into the unknown by their own personal passion and curiosity of the wold, in comparison to people to whom such feelings are completely alien:

The average person is not particularly curious about the world. Well, they are alive, they have to face this fact somehow and the less effort it costs them, the better. But learning about the world involves effort, and that is a great deal of effort that consumes men.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

I believe that explorers of the world must have made such an effort, from ancient times to the present day.

Father of Geography

Strabo. By André Thevet (1584) Original uploads comes from Potraits from the Dibner Library of the History and Science of Technology. Updated upload from the original scan from the book André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres, chap. 35, page 76. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Strabo (the first century BC.), called in turn the “Father of Geography”, was a slightly later travel guide around the contemporary world (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He was born in the Greek settlement of Amaseia in Pontus (in present-day Turkey), by the Black Sea (Ibid.:8). Like Herodotus, Strabo undertook numerous journeys and travelled all over the known world (Ibid.:8). The results of his observations the author included in the seventeen books of Geographica hypomnemata (Ibid.:8).  As an ancient guide along the track of the Seven Wonders, Strabo helped find paths in ancient Egypt, on the Island of Rhodes and in Mesopotamia and described some of the Eastern legends related to the subject, such as those about Ninos and Semiramis (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus, Pliny and Pausanias, and their wonders

There were also other ancient travellers and authors, who were experts on the ancient wonders (Zamarovsky 1990:8). One of them was Diodorus Siculus or Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) (Ibid.:8). He includes particularly important information on the wonders in his descriptions about Egypt, Babylon and Greece (Ibid.:8). Some of them he drew from the now lost work of Ctesias of Cnidus (the fifth century BC.), the physician of the Persian king, Artaxerxes the Second (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a nineteenth-century fresco). Uploaded by fonte. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Diodorus Siculus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The next author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder (the first century AD.), was a Roman author, who created the famous Historia Naturalis (Zamarovsky 1990:8). In terms of the subject of wonders, it is extremely important that he was interested in the history of art and so he interpreted the wonders in their artistic context (Ibid.:8). Moreover, as a real Roman citizen, he also included on the list the whole city of Rome (Klein 1998:137). The constant drive to knowledge, however, ultimately led to Pliny’s downfall; on August 24, in 79 AD., the author wanted to take a closer look at the erupting volcano Vesuvius, which resulted in his death from poisoning by sulfur fumes (Zamarovsky 1990:8-9).

Nineteenth century image of Pliny the Elder. Uploaded by the User: Angela (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

In the second century AD., there was another guide to the Seven Wonders, a Greek geographer Pausanias, who elevates to the rank of wonders the walls of a citadel from the times of the Mycenaean, located in Argolis, in the Peloponnese (today’s Tiryns) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes (Ibid.:9). Hence, similar megalithic walls composed of crude stones are called Cyclopean. Pausanias’ work, known as Hellados Periegesis (Description of Greece), was especially appreciated by Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890), the famous discoverer of Troy, who, using information from Pausanias, thought that he had excavated the so-called tomb of king Agamemnon in Mycenae (Peloponnese), in 1876 (Ibid.:9). The archaeological site is located around twenty kilometres north of Tiryns and is also characterised by similar Cyclopean masonry. Moreover, it has turned out that it is not the tomb of the legendary Greek chieftain from Troy, but actually of a Mycenaean king who reigned in Mycenae several centuries earlier (Ibid.:9).

More travel guides wanted

Manuscript of Pausanias’ Description of Greece at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, created circa 1485. Uploaded by Institution: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pausanias (geographer)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among other authors writing with the wonders of the world, a Roman poet, Marcus Valerius Martialis (the first century AD.), considers the Roman Colosseum to be the first of the wonders of the world (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). A Latin Author, Gaius Julius Hyginus (at the turn of our era) adds to the list of wonders the palace of the Persian king Cyrus in Ekbatan (today Hamadan in Iran), built of coloured stones and gold by an artist, named Memnon (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). The palace is also included among the wonders of the world by a  Roman writer Vibius Sequester (the fifth century) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). Another Roman geographer and historian, Lucius Ampelius (the fourth century) even multiplies the number seven by seven wonders and records forty-nine wonders of the world, including the oil sources in present-day Iraq or Iran (Ibid.:9).

More pretenders for the title

Among other wonders mentioned by various ancient authors, there is also a notice of the horned altar on the Greek island of Delos and Egyptian Thebes of the hundred gates (Klein 1998:137). And then one can list the wonders endlessly: Minos’ Labyrinth in Crete, Hadrian’s Tomb in Rome (today’s Castel Sant’Angelo), the Roman Capitol, the Athenian Acropolis, or finally the altar of Zeus in Little Asian Pergamon (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

From the Middle Ages to modern times

In the first millennium AD, two monks also wrote about the wonders of the ancient world in Christian Europe (Zamarovsky 1990:9). The one was an ex-dignitary at the court of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great, and was called Cassiodorus (490-583), whereas the second was an Anglo-Saxon historian, known as Beda (673-735) (Ibid.:9). J.C. Orelli assumes, however, that the work on the ancient wonders is wrongly ascribed to Bede, as the book seems too primitive to have been written by a man as educated as he was (Ibid.:9).

Historia Nturalis by Pliny the Elder. Uploaded in 2005. Public domain. Photo source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The author of the first modern work on the ancient wonders was also a monk, but apart from that also a French philologist and archaeologist, and a great traveller (Zamarovsky 1990:9). He is known as Bernard de Montfaucon (1665-1741) (Ibid.:9). In his work Diarium Italicum (Italian Journal) there is a new list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was based on ancient sources (Ibid.:9). It contains: Egyptian Thebes, the walls of Babylon, the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus, the pyramids by the Nile, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Roman Capitol and the Tomb of Hadrian (Ibid.:9).

After Bernard de Montfaucon, it was the turn for an encyclopaedist who eventually  represented such a list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as it is well known today (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

The magic number of seven

All the lists of the ancient wonders may have  contained various monuments but they have always had one common feature (Klein 1998:139). Namely, the number of the ancient wonders has always been limited to seven (or seven was additionally multiplied by seven) (Ibid.:139). This was because the number of seven played an important role in the Greek tradition (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Moreover, it was already widely referred to in cultures much older than that of ancient Greece (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). As a matter of fact, the ‘seven’ encompassed the entire mystery of existence and was seen as a magic number (Klein 1998:139). As such it reappears numerously in culture (Ibid.:139).

Masonry tunnel in ancient Tiryns,in Peloponnese, Greece. According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes. Photo by Alun Salt – originally posted to Flickr as Tiryns, a passageway (2005). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Tiryns” (2021). ” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Greece, there were seven artes liberales, in Greek mythology, seven gates defended the Greek city of Thebes (Boeotia, central Greece), against which Theseus set off at the head of seven heroes (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Then, the Christian tradition enumerates the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Sacraments, and the week was divided into seven days, too; as the Bible says, on the seventh day God rested after creating the world (Genesis 2:2-3) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). It was also believed that there had been seven hills of Rome, on which the city was established, and that the heaven and hell were divided into seven spheres, hence the phrase ‘the seventh heaven’ (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). In addition, the Bible says about seven fat cows and seven thin cows, and then the seven ripe heads of grain and the seven worthless heads of grain (Genesis 41:26-27) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Noah waited seven days before he released a dove from the Ark to see if the flood waters had subsided (Genesis 8:6-12) (Klein 1998:139). Seven is also the key to Saint John’s Revelation; there are mentioned the seven churches, the seven spirits (Revelation 1:4), the Seven Signs in the Book of Signs (Revelation 1:19-12:50), seven golden lampstands (Revelation 1:12), seven stars (Revelation 1:16), a scroll with seven seals (Revelation 5:1), the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits (Revelation 5:6), as many angels, the trumpets of the Last Judgment (Revelation 8:2) thunders (Revelation 10:3) and seven thousand people killed in the earthquake (Revelation 11:13) (Ibid.::139). There is also a dragon with seven heads and seven crowns on its heads (Revelation 12:3), the seven last plagues (Revelation 15:1), seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God (Revelation 15:7) and also seven kings (Revelation 17:10). Such list is much longer.

Coin from Elis district in southern Greece illustrating the Olympian Zeus statue (Nordisk familjebok). Unknown author – second (1904–1926) edition of Nordisk familjebok Transferred from sv.wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Statue of Zeus at Olympia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A special position of the number seven can also be obtained scientifically (Klein 1998:139). In mathematical terms, seven is a prime number, so it is only divided by itself and by one (Klein 1998:139; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). Accordingly 7 cannot be a product or a quotient of integers other than 7 in the range from 1 to 6 and from 6 to 10, so it cannot be obtained either by multiplication or by dividing the integers from the given range (Klein 1998:139-140).

Rankings of modern wonders

From a psychological point of view, the number seven seemed to be perfect for the ancients in terms of quantity; it would have been too difficult or even impossible to select up to three ancient wonders, and a list of more than ten would, in turn, have lost its relevance (Klein 1998:140). One could imagine loads of magnificent buildings, but not loads of wonders of the world (Ibid.:140).

Nowadays, numerous travel guidebooks and magazines are created describing increasingly distant and exotic destinations (Lachowicz 2015). Such “wonders of the world” are usually illustrated in rankings, by referring to them as ‘places to visit before you die’. And although ‘the must-see places’ are usually grouped into sub-categories, like monuments and places within particular countries, cities, or lists including just architectural monuments or wonders of nature, their number keeps changing. Accordingly, one can find in travel books or online such travelling clues as “21 Most Beautiful Places in Poland to See Before You Die!”, “25 Truly Amazing Places To Visit Before You Die”, “30 World’s Best Places to Visit”, “50 Must Visit Places in the World” or “50 awe-inspiring natural wonders for your bucket list”, and so on …

Well, once the world has become larger, it has also got smaller due to greater possibilities of modern travellers to reach its remotest corners. Accordingly, the number of places to visit has essentially grown.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”, as an Arab proverb says; the Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid. As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite all these changes of the world, we still come back in memories to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which even now create a unique world of human achievements, on which Pliny the Elder writes about in the first century AD., referring to the Egyptian pyramids in his words: “Owing to such works, people ascend to gods, or gods descend among people” (Klein 1998:140-141).

Featured image: Detail of a relief of Herodotus by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris, France. Photo by Jastrow (2008). CC BY 3.0. 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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Vaulting of the Interior of the Building

A technique of vaulting includes building a structure made either of wood, natural or artificial stone, brick or concrete, glass or metal, with a curvilinear cross-section, used to cover a specific space of a building. The vaulting technique was already widely used in ancient Rome but greatly developed in medieval architecture of Gothic cathedrals in Europe. The principle of structural vaults is to induce internal compressive stresses that maintain the entire vault, the loads of which are transferred to the supports. The stone vaults are made of wedge-shaped voussoirs. In such a structural technique, the weight and spreading force of the vaulting are taken over by such supports, as walls and pillars.

Among the structural vaults, there are a variety of their types: barrel or tunnel vault, groined and ribbed vaults, cambered and domical vaults, cloistered, cove and trough vaults, along with ornamental vaulting, according to a layout of the ribs, divining it into sections, including star-vaulting, net-vaulting, fan-vaulting, cell-vaulting, and flying ribs.

Featured image: Rib vault of church Sint-Niklaaskerk in Ghent, Belgium. Photo by PetrusSilesius (2005). CC BY-SA 2.0 de. Photo and caption source: “Vault (architecture)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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Inside the Pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions

Well-documented beliefs of ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica say that the Earth is a mass of land surrounded by waters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). But the Mayan world was not simply limited to that land but also included a deep dark underworld beneath it and the blue vault of heavens above it (Ibid.:200). For this reason, the earthly world, where they lived, could itself be perceived as the Middle-World or Middle-Earth (Ibid.:200). Similarly, it was called by the peoples of the Dark Ages, in contemporary North-West Europe in the first millennium AD. (Bates 2002:13). A famous author, J.R.R. Tolkien likewise writes about this mythical world in his epic novel, The Lord of the Rings (Ibid.:13). Similar cosmological concepts found in the Maya culture also appear in other ancient cultures, like the Egyptian; the Heliopolitan creation myth goes that the landmass enclosed by waters was actually a mound that arose from the primordial waters of the god Nu, and was called the Benben stone, which was also related to the  Egyptian pyramidion and obelisk (“Benben” 2021).

‘You read too much and too quick’, I thought, smiling to myself. Such mythological concept-frequency comparisons I was making between different ancient cultures may seem far-reaching speculations. Nevertheless, I could not help finding ensuing similarities between civilisations that are said to have developed independently, in different time and in distant regions. I felt as if I had just crossed a forbidden line. Yet, I could not stop my thoughts from wandering.

Architecture of mystical dimensions

Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). The Mayan urban architecture is usually characterized by a group of buildings, concentrated around a courtyard, which recreate the palace complex on a monumental scale (Ibid.:200). Such an arrangement is also visible in Palenque (Ibid.:200).

The two inner pillars covered in stucco reliefs, from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to scholars, the structures placed in this way resemble a natural environment of Mesoamerica, with mountains towering over green plains (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Such an interpretation is also confirmed by the hieroglyphic description of a tall building, defined as witz – a mountain, whose peaks may refer to stepped pyramids (Ibid.:200). In architecture, Mayan plazas and courtyards border each other in a different way, but the buildings, despite their frequent reconstructions, always remain in an architectural and astronomical relation to each other (Ibid.:200). Moreover, many of them are placed in a mythical landscape and so seem to be planned according to the points where the celestial bodies rise and set on specific days of the astronomical year (Ibid.:200; see: Discovered but Uncovered Palenque of the Ancient Maya). Accordingly, topography and solar orientations were essential for natural cycles and rituals in the net of Mayan city temples (Blankenbehler 2015).

The Temple of the Inscriptions

The so-called Temple of the Inscriptions is not an exception from the rule of specific architectural alignments in Palenque (see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque). It is located in the southwestern corner of the aforementioned Palace, right next to lonely buildings on tall terraced bases, which were later explored and consequently labelled as the Temples XIII and XII (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:178). The Temple’s wide body rises against a hill that archaeologists consider a natural tectonic formation (Von Däniken 1991:178). Erch von Däniken (1991:178) is yet of a different opinion; after him, the hill was artificially elevated and clearly divided into four terraces. Moreover, a temple and small clusters of ruins were discovered on its top (Ibid.:178). Their location indicates they may have been related to the Temple of the Inscriptions itself (Ibid.:178). It can be equally assumed that this inconspicuous mound contains even more archaeological puzzles than have been discovered so far (Ibid.:178).

Templo de las Inscripciones is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by petrs (2014). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all (Von Däniken 1991:178). Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top (Von Däniken 1991:178; Greene Robertson 2021). Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died (Greene Robertson 2021). Is there any connection between these historical and architectural facts? The entire structure of the Temple is twenty-five meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). There are five entrances leading inside it, each flanked by two pillars with rich stucco ornamentation (Von Däniken 1991:178-179; Greene Robertson 2021). Inside the whole Temple, there are relief plates with six hundred and seventeen inscriptions (Ibid.:179). Hence the name of the Temple (Ibid.:178).

Shaft leading down

The Temple of the Inscriptions became famous for yet another reason, which also became the greatest archaeological mystery of Mesoamerica in the twentieth century (Von Däniken 1991:179). Namely, it contains a richly decorated burial chamber and the sarcophagus of King Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). A similar discovery shows that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica also used the pyramids for burial purposes, as it was during the Old and Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt, and in ancient China. The discoverer and explorer of the tomb chamber was Dr. Albert Ruz Lhuillier (1906 – 1979), director of the Palenque excavation, appointed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). In 1949, the archaeologist found a shaft at the temple level with stairs leading down into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179).

The Temple of the Inscriptions, towering from the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The shaft had been hidden below huge stone slabs provided with holes used for their lifting (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). The vaulted staircase turned out to be completely covered with dirt and rubbles so it took the archaeological team three years to clean it and descend deeper into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). Eventually, in 1952, the archaeologist reached the tomb crypt containing a megalithic sarcophagus (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:180-181; Burns 2012). It is still the largest crypt found so far in the land of the Maya; it has dimensions of 4×10 metres, and its vault is 7 metres high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Before the archaeologist entered it, he had to descend flights of stairs, pass through one wall bonded with mortar, then a four-meter stone wall, and finally a triangular stone slab, which already gave a direct access to the proper burial chamber (Von Däniken 1991:180-181). On the way to the tomb, valuable jewellery, clay tablets and the remains of six dead, including one woman, were found (Ibid.:180-181).

Emergency exit for the soul

The burial chamber itself lies on the north-south axis (Von Däniken 1991:181). It is located at the end of the vaulted staircase, inside the terraced substructure and below the level of the Main Plaza in front of the temple, with its foundations reaching two meters below the base of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Von Däniken 1991:181).

Today, it is still accessed by the same spiral stairs from the back room of the temple, which were unburied by the archaeologists in the 50s of the twenty century (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Eberl 2013:311). A cross-section plan of the temple clearly shows huge dimensions of the burial chamber, especially when it is compared with the temple building itself, erected at the top of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The floor of the crypt is covered with one-stone slab weighing approximately nine tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). Stucco reliefs on its walls, show a procession of solemnly decorated priests passing along (Ibid.:182). Graham Hancock (2016:158) calls them the Lords of the Night, referring in this way to the ‘Ennead’, a group of nine ancient Egyptian deities, particularly worshiped at Heliopolis (see: “Ennead” 2021).

There are sixty-nine narrow and steep steps leading to the top of the pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions. Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died. Does it confirm the identity of the buried man? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The sarcophagus was found under the mentioned stone slab and weighs twenty tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). It was carved from a single stone and was sealed with a five-ton stone lid (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). The sarcophagus contained a skeleton of a very tall male, wearing a jade death mask, composed of two hundred fragments (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:158). A similar green funeral mask but made of malachite pieces was also found attached to the front of the Red Queen’s skull in the Temple XIII, situated just on the right of the Temple of the Inscriptions (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Yet, the Queen’s mask was additionally provided with a diadem made of flat circular jade beads (Ibid.). Like in the case of the Red Queen, next to the dead from the Temple of the Inscriptions, there were found, among others, pieces of jewellery, such as jade bracelets, rings and earrings with hieroglyphs engraved on them, a pearl and jade bead necklace and a jade statuette (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:159). For Graham Hancock (2016:159), the found figurine looked like a more ancient object than other tomb offerings and was similar to artifacts associated with a “multicultural” environment of the Olmecs from La Venta; namely, it represented an old Asian man with a goatee and a long flowing robe.

Additionally, from the sarcophagus a clay pipe was carried outside the crypt; it is known as the psychoduct, which is unique to Pakal’s tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; “Palenque” 2021; Eberl 2013:311). As archaeologists say, it allowed the soul of the deceased to separate from the body and fly out of the tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; Eberl 2013:311). Moreover, it was believed that on the way to the afterlife, the dead had to overcome many different obstacles (Eberl 2013:315). Even modern-day Mayas are still afraid of the ok-pixan, or soul thieves who, like Christian demons, can capture the human soul during its ascent to the afterlife (Ibid.:315). Therefore, in the past, living family members of the dead tried to make the journey of the soul easier (Ibid.:315). For this reason, special openings in the houses’ roofs were designed to serve as a hiding place or a soul’s escaping route. In the Tempel of the Inscriptions, it was probably the role of the mentioned psychoduct (Ibid.:315), “which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone, covering the entrance to the burial” (“Palenque” 2021).

Buried mystery in the heart of the pyramid

Most researchers believe that the sarcophagus contains the remains of Pakal, one of the most famous Mayan kings known today, who died in 683 AD. (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Eberl 2013:315). After Palenque had been attacked and looted by the ruler of Calakmul, at the end of the Preclassical period, Pakal took over the power at a young age and rebuilt the city, restoring it to its glory in the so-called Classic Period (Burns 2012). During the almost seventy years of Pakal’s reign, the most significant inscriptions and monuments of the Mayan civilization were also created (Ibid.). Surely, such an outstanding ruler deserved a famous sarcophagus. According to archaeologists, the king designed his own tomb, which was completed together with the Temple of the Inscriptions around 690 AD., already during the reign of his son, Kan Balam the Second (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204).

One thing is certain: the tomb and the crypt were built first, and only then the successive steps of the pyramid were erected over it (Von Däniken 1991:190-191). Only as the final result of the construction was the temple overbuilt on top of the pyramid, which is actually a distinctive architectural design in all Mesoamerica. (Von Däniken 1991:190-191; Greene Robertson 2021). The stairs leading to the interior of the temple were being additionally raised and lengthened several times during the second phase of the building process (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). This part of the whole structure also remained inextricably linked to the tomb by means of the flies of stairs going deep down, which were finally covered up (Von Däniken 1991:179-181; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). It is not known, however, when and why they were buried; was it a result of an unknown ritual, already at the time of the construction of the pyramid, or it was done much later, for generally unknown reasons?

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. It rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by k_tzito (2016). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The assumed chronology of the construction of the Temple of the Inscriptions proves another fact (Von Däniken 1991:190). Since the pyramid with its temple were astronomically oriented, the very first step to such an arrangement must have been started by a proper placement of the twenty-ton sarcophagus and the five-ton stone lid of the tomb, long before the pyramid itself was erected (Ibid.:190). For this reason, the sarcophagus had always been to remain in the place chosen for it underworld; nobody was able to move it outside, climbing again up the steep and narrow stairs (Ibid.:190). As such, it was simultaneously the beginning and the centre of the astronomical mystery of the Temple of the Inscriptions, towering at the top of its stepped pyramid (Ibid.:190).

Or perhaps, the crypt itself had existed hundreds of years before the pyramid was built over it and so the tomb did not belong to the king Pakal … (Ibid.:182;190). Who was then buried in the crypt?

Inconvenient dates

With nearly two hundred hieroglyphic inscriptions, Palenque is one of the most important inscription sites throughout the Mayan territory (Prager, Grube 2013:447). Calendar inscriptions read at Palenque refer, among other things, to the rulers of the Classic period (Von Däniken 1991:182). Pakal was born in 603 AD. and reportedly he was twelve when he ascended the throne and had ruled until his death for nearly seventy years, that is, until 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). So he was about eighty at the time of his death, which after Erich von Däniken (1991:182) seems quite odd considering the average Mayan lifetime in ancient times was only thirty-five.

Beside the Palace with the Temple of the Inscription in the foreground. Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the basis of the Mayan hieroglyphic cycles in Palenque, not only the dates of Pakal’s reign (603-683 AD.) were read, but also the date of the fall of the city (Von Däniken 1991:177,182). The last hieroglyph points to the year of 780 AD. (Ibid.:177). It has also been assumed that the oldest known date for the beginning of the Mayan chronology is 3114 BC. (Ibid.:177). However, the world-renowned archaeologist and historian of art, Herbert J. Spinden (1879–1967) found among the Mayan inscriptions a date going even further back in the past, namely to 3373 BC., whereas in the described before Temple of the Cross at Palenque, he discovered a date going as far back as to 3379 BC. (Ibid.:177; see😊 The problem is that at the time defined by such dates the ancient Maya had not existed yet . (Ibid.:177). Besides, there are so many various dates scattered around the city of Palenque that specialists sometimes get confused while deciphering the hieroglyphs to ascribe them to a proper time in the Mayan history (Ibid.:177). Among them the oldest dates, over which archaeologists usually spread their hands helplessly, are particularly intriguing (Ibid.:177-178,182).

Despite all this inconsistency, the puzzling set of dates in Mayan cities covering the millennia cannot give any foundations for the hypothesis of fictitious dating by the Maya, of which experts often accuse them (Von Däniken 1991:178). In addition, relatively little progress has been made in deciphering other hieroglyphs since the Mayan dates were decoded (Hancock 2016:156). Moreover, although astronomical cycles of dates have been deciphered at Palenque, these are often cycles so long that they probably have little to do with human history (Von Däniken 1991:178). As Erich von Däniken (1996:) writes, dates of thousands and millions of years should be ultimately reserved for gods.

At the back wall of the Temple of the Inscriptions there are carved in rows tangled anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features (Hancock 2016:156). They are a mixture of puzzling hieroglyphs and phonetic symbols that have not been read so far (Ibid.:157). Graham Hancock (2016:157) writes that it is only known that their number, which is six hundred and twenty, refers to the thousands of years of past epochs and their content may stand for a history of gods and people who played a role in those events.

Epitaph fifty years before death

Calendar inscriptions are also depicted on the Palenque sarcophagus (Von Däniken 1991:182,186). They run along its stone-lid and on its side edges (Ibid.:186). So far, only some hieroglyphs standing for dates and astronomical signs, such as of the Venus, Sun, North Star and the Moon have been successfully deciphered (Ibid.:182,186). After Dr. Ruz, among the inscriptions on the tomb, there is ultimately information about the cycles of dates, and the last date on the sarcophagus is 633 AD., that is to say, fifty years before the conventional date of Pakal’s death, which is 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). Probably due to this unmatching date on the sarcophagus, some scholars have suggested that the image on the lid is not really an image of the famous king, but symbolically represents mankind or the Mayan god of corn, Yum Kox (Ibid.:182).

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. Photo by Kwamikagami – English Wikipedia (2004). Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Maya script” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

And where can one turn to for advice? Apparently, any interpretation of the main character of the show depends on an interpreter and their independent but subjective approach to the subject.

Asking geologists

Another question, which is related to the identity of the skeletal remains and to the inconsistency of the most recent date on the sarcophagus, is when the crypt under the Temple of the Inscriptions was actually sealed. The only witnesses who could have revealed the secret were stalactites and stalagmites growing in the crypt (Von Däniken 1991:181). Unfortunately, whereas some may have been accidentally knocked down by the researchers while they were opening the stone slab leading to the tomb, others were probably destroyed during their further archaeological works in situ (Ibid.:181).

Dr. Ruz mentions the geological formations while describing the crypt as:

“[…] an enormous room that appeared to be graven in ice, a kind of grotto whose walls and roof seemed to have been planned in perfect surfaces, or an abandoned chapel whose cupola was draped with curtains of stalactites, and from whose floor arose thick stalagmites like the dripping of a candle.”

(Hancock 2001:163).

As the archaeologist refers to them as “thick” and looking “like the dripping of a candle”, they must have already been quite long and large at the moment of uncovering the crypt, in 1952.

Cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites in Metro Cave / Te Ananui Cave. Photo by Pseudopanax. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Stalaktyt” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Stalactites are icicle-shaped mineral formation that hangs from the ceiling and their equivalent formations growing up from the floor are known as stalagmites (PWN 2021). They are formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate crystals from water dripping from rock fractures and their maximum increment per year is from approximately 0.25 mm to 3 mm (Ibid.). Still, such formations can grow faster in an area rich in limestone, which is actually characteristic of the building substance of Mayan pyramids, including the stepped pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:181).

According to the provided dates for Pakal’s death, the tomb stayed sealed for 1 300 years till it was discovered (My Gen 2021), whereas according to the latest date found in Palenque, it had been neglected for around 1 172 years (Von Däniken 1991:177,181). Since the Maya abandoned Palenque at the turn of the ninth century AD., the water of heavy rains must have penetrated deep into the building of the Temple and greatly influenced the growing process of the geological formations inside it (Ibid.:181). The dry months that followed the rains brought in turn severe heat, which, like humidity, also had an impact on the growth rate of the stalactites inside the crypt (Ibid.:181).

How much could they grow in such conditions? If at least one of them had been preserved, it would be possible for geologists to calculate how many years had passed since the crypt was sealed (Von Däniken 1991:181). After Erich von Däniken (1991:181) it could be a starting point for understanding all the puzzling dates in the Mayan chronology.

Another intact sarcophagus

Just before our descent into the deep belly of the Temple of the Inscriptions, we first directed our steps to another tomb, which was found much later in the adjacent Temple XIII, in the spring of 1994 (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). The discovery was accidently made by a young Mexican archaeologist, Fanny López Jiménez (Ibid.).

Like a team of archaeologists twenty years ago, we climbed into a narrow passageway, leading inside the pyramid with three chambers vaulted by stone ceilings, one of which contained a tomb of the so-called Red Queen, once accompanied by human remains belonging to a young man and an older woman (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a nickname of the female skeleton found inside the sarcophagus was chosen due to the fact that her skeletal remains with the funeral collection of various objects were covered in a red powder, made of grounded cinnabar (the ore of mercury), which was once used as a pigment (Ibid.). The sarcophagus was dated back to the times of Pakal, between 600 and 700 AD. and the age of the buried woman was estimated at around sixty years old (Ibid.). The archaeologists first thought it was Pakal’s mother but then they eventually decided it was rather Ix Tz’akbu Ajaw, the king Pakal’s wife (Ibid.). Nevertheless, her identity has never been surely confirmed (Ibid.).

Further questions about Pakal’s identity

Scientifics have greatly progressed in studies over the remains of the Red Queen and her possible identity by means of precise results of a series of the skeleton’s analyses, which primarily included radiocarbon and DNA tests, supported by facial reconstructions studies (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a state of facts, however, poses many questions about Pakal’s skeletal analyses. Even though the Red Queen had presumably lived in the times of Pakal’s rule and her remains were also buried in Palnque, thus in the exactly same conditions as in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains, and both tombs were sealed and intact till they were discovered, the comparative analyses of both cases have significantly differed.

The Pyramid of the Inscriptions is on the left of the smaller Temple XIII, situated just next to it to the right. There is a characteristic entrance to the inside of the pyramid leading to the burial chamber of the Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Whereas in the case of the Red Queen, there was a successfully extracted sample of DNA (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021), such an examination was claimed to be impossible in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains ( 2021). Moreover, in the analyses of the latter, there are no known results of any radiocarbon tests … (Ibid.; see:).

Why such scientific methods, as radiocarbon dating or DNA examinations, were not conducted to determine the identity of the said Pakal’s skeletal remains?

Featured image: The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 50s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Namely, inside the stepped pyramid of the Temple, the first tomb of Palenque was found in 1952, where a famous sarcophagus was revealed by a group of archaeologists. It is commonly said to contain the king Pakal’s skeletal remains. Besides that, the Temple is one of the crucial architectural elements in a mystical alignment of the city of Palenque. It is located in the southwestern corner of the Palace, from where the picture is taken. Photo by Dezalb (2015). 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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The Megalithic Structure of Trilithon in the Worldwide Architecture

The definition of trilithon or trilith is derived from the Greek words, which stand for “‘having three stones’ (τρι-/tri- ‘three’ + λίθος/lithos ‘stone’)” (“Trilithon” 2021). The word trilithon was primarily applied by an English antiquarian, physician and Anglican clergyman, William Stukeley (1687-1765), who had “a significant influence on the later development of archaeology. [He] pioneered the scholarly investigation of the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire [and] published over twenty books on archaeology and other subjects during his lifetime” (“William Stukeley” 2021).

Haʻamonga ʻa Maui in the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian country and archipelago including 169 islands. An appearance of such structures as trilithons in the furthest corners of the word means that the architectural solution was applied worldwide. Photo by Sarah Kelemen (2009). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Trilithon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Precisely, trilithon is a megalithic structure consisting of three boulders: two vertical and the third arranged horizontally. In such constructions, the two large vertical stones, called posts, constitute the only support for the third stone, which is set horizontally across the top, referred to as a lintel.

The definition of trilithon “is commonly used in the context of megalithic monuments”. Trilithons were built in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, possibly as religious objects or astronomical observatories. “The most famous trilithons are those of Stonehenge in England, those found in the Megalithic temples of Malta […] and the Osireion in Egypt. […] The term also describes the groups of three stones in the Hunebed tombs of the Netherlands and the three massive stones forming part of the wall of the [so-called] Roman Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, Lebanon. Far from Europe and the Middle East, another famous trilithon is the Haʻamonga ʻa Maui in Tonga, Polynesia” (“Trilithon” 2021).

Typical and most famous examples of trilithons at Stonehenge, England. Photo by Daveahern (2005). “Stonehenge Closeup”. Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image: Although the three successive megalithic blocks are positioned here horizontally, they are also known as a trilithon. They are the main feature of the Temple of Jupiter Baal (“Heliopolitan Zeus”) in Baalbek, Lebanon. Photo by Brattarb – Own work (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Trilithon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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Language of the Megalithic Tiya and its Translation

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

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

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

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

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

Weapons on the megaliths

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

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

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

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

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

Signes ramifiés

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender ambiguous

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

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

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

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

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

Phallic or snake shaped stelae?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Nevertheless, the symbol may be read as a metaphor for a ploughing trace, as it is represented in a scene at the Eritrean rock art site of Amba (Baahti), dated back to the first millennium BC (McCann 1995:39; Finneran 2007:84-85).

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

Although the pastoral scene shows a continuous zig-zag design left by the activity of ploughing in the field by a long beam plow driven by oxen (McCann 1995:39), creators of medieval stelae may have used just its section to represent the very same idea. Moreover, it was easier to represent it in such an artistic abbreviation due to limited surface of the stela they worked on. Additionally, carving in relief took longer than painting the scene on the rock. If it is the case, the abstract design possibly symbolized the land owned by the buried man or the significance of land cultivation itself.

Eyes of a god

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

Another mysterious symbol on the stones of Tiya looks like a circle or a disk. Two such engravings appear on nearly all the Tiya monoliths and on others in the region (Mire 2020:11,21). They are carved on the same level of the stone and usually in the proximity of one or two of the three mentioned above symbols: the forked branch (ϒ), zigzag (Σ) and (Х/H), which are usually depicted between or below them (Ibid.:21). The disks may signify the eyes of an omnipresent, all-seeing deity and so are possibly related to the cult of the Sky-god, who is usually associated by contemporary believers with the eye and seeing (Ibid.:21). As Mire (2020:21) claims “belief systems […] tend to linger”, and so the same deity may have been also worshiped by the megalithic builders.

Scarification rituals?

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

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

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

Ringing stones

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

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

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

Finding the key

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

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

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

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

The living reveal the secrets of the dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unrevealed secrets of Ethiopia

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

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

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

Featured image: Megaliths with engraved figures in Tiya. Photo by Julien Demade – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Tiya (archaeological site)” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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


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