A type of masonry, also known as megalithic architecture, characteristic of unusually huge constructions created of gigantic more-or-less rough-edged boulders adjusted to each other frequently without using mortar, and the resulting minimal clearances between them are sometimes filled with clay and small stones (Lucie-Smith, 2003:68,205; Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018). The cyclopean term can be also described as ‘polygonal (ashlar) masonry’ technique, if there are regularly-dressed boulders with fine joints in polygonal shapes, and precisely fitted together without the use of mortar and without visibly defined courses of stones (Bruschi, 2020; Lucie-Smith, 2003:206). The degree of precision may differ in polygonal masonry. The finest examples astonish even modern-day architects and builders.
Initially, such a definition was used to describe constructions ascribed to the Aegean and Mycenaean cultures (circa 1425 – 1190 B.C.), who built their fortifications and citadels of huge blocks of stone arranged horizontally (Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018; Kashdan, 2007). Their creation was attributed to the mythological Cyclops, and “[the] term [itself] was coined by Greeks in the Classical Age, reflecting the belief that only the Cyclops, gigantic, one-eyed creatures of myth, could have been strong enough to manipulate stones so immense” (Kashdan, 2007). Pliny the Elder (23/24 – 79 A.D.) in his NaturalHistory gives an account of such a belief, which apparently traces back to Aristotle, who was supposed to claim that the Cyclopes were skillful architects and builders (“Cyclopean masonry” 2022).
Apart from ancient the Mediterranean region, where the the Mycenaean citadel, then Nuraghe towers or megalithic temples of Malta are most typical examples, such stonework is found in all parts of the ancient world (Lucie-Smith, 2003:68; Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018; Kashdan, 2007); in Egypt, the cyclopean masonry is present in the valley temple of Giza and in Abydos; in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, there are numerous megalithic constructions, ascribed to the culture of Incas (Bruschi, 2020). A good examples of such masonry are also visible in the South-East Asia and even on Easter Island (Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022). “But there are quite a few others” (Bruschi, 2020).
Featured image:Homolle, Théophile (1902). A polygonal wall, excavated at Delphi, showing very characteristic polygonal masonry with a high degree of precision in contrast to stonework on the other side, in “Ecole française d’Athènes”, in “Cyclopean masonry”. Public domain, in Wikipedia. the Free Encyclopedia (2022).
“Mur cyklopowy”, in Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia (2018). Available at <https://bit.ly/3F5pDsA>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].
“Cyclopean masonry”, in Wikipedia. the Free Encyclopedia (2022). Available at <https://bit.ly/3LqCEz7>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].
Bruschi, R. (2020). “The Cyclopean Walls: Construction Skills and Mystery”, in The Mystery Box. Available at <https://bit.ly/3y2tFjE>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].
Kashdan, H. (2007). “Archaeologies of the Greek Past”, in JIAAW Workplace. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vwezBB>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].
Lucie-Smith, E. (2003). Dictionary of Art Terms. London: The Thames & Hudson World of Art.
Stanley, D. (2012). “View of Hatun Rumiyuq Street, Cuzco”, in “Cusco” (2022). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3xYCP0K>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].
Like two months before Christmas, 2018, a group of three archaeology students started to conduct a thorough archaeological survey of Ballyedmonduff wedge tomb in Co. Dublin, in order to gain a better understanding of the site. I was one of them. Although we were not allowed to do proper archaeological digs, we documented instead the archaeological remains in detail, including research of the folklore surrounding the so-called ‘Giant’s Graves’ as the wedge tomb of Ballyedmonduff is usually called (McGuire et al. 2019:3). Before the date of submitting the project, in February, 2019, we visited the site a number of times. “The tomb itself is marked on the Park’s map, as the ‘Giant’s Grave’ [and] is situated on land owned by Glencullen Adventure Park (GAP), a privately-run facility mainly engaged in the provision of mountain biking trails. Some of these trails run close to the tomb” (Ibid.:4), which frequently made our work in the field more difficult, when groups of people, like children of a school trip started climbing up the tomb stones and jumping between our tools and measuring tapes. The weather was not on our side either. Although it was not often raining (or snowing), it was really freezing, especially in the shadow of the forest, and adding that we were spending long hours of working in the filed, mostly staying in the same position, while taking precise measurements, making a drawing or reading levels calculations. So a nearby coffee shop often saved our lives. On the other side, I remember this project as one of the most interesting assignments at the university and the reason why I have actually chosen archaeology as my profession. Comparing it to the work I do for living, sitting for hours in a noisy office and listening to complaining clients, wading through the mud and patiently observing stones definitely win. And when no one appeared on the trail at that time, there was such an eerie silence, soaring in the darkness of the surrounding trees, that it seemed it would disturb the sleep of the buried giant who would finally wake up to leave his lair of stones.
Wedge tombs are the most numerous and distinctive type of megalithic passage tombs. They are found all over Ireland but mainly in the west and the south-west (Ruggles, 2005:435; O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39). Mystery surrounds these great stone monuments which stand remarkably in lonely places and fit into wild Irish landscapes (Evans, 1938:7). Wedge tomb constructions mainly took place between 2500 – 1800 BC. (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39), placing them chronologically towards the end of a rich tradition of Neolithic tomb construction in Ireland (Ruggles, 2005:435) and constructions petered out circa 1900-1600 BC. (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39). Over five hundred examples of wedge tombs are currently known in the Republic of Ireland (Ruggles, 2005:435), but many more have been destroyed over the intervening centuries (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39). A map of the distribution of wedge tombs in the Republic of Ireland is shown in Figure 10, based on GIS data with the latest information from the NMS (National Monuments Service Website).
The Ballyedmonduff tomb forms part of a small group of wedge tombs in the Dublin region (see Figure 11) which include Ilmashogue Wedge Tomb located half way up Three Rock Mountain near Kilmashogue Recreation Area car park – (SMR DU025- 00701); Killakee Wedge Tomb in Massey’s Estate Forest Park – (SMR DU025-022); Laughanstown Wedge Tomb in Cabinteely – (SMR DU026-024); and Shankill Wedge Tomb (SMR – DU026-059).
In terms of their chamber size, wedge tombs can be divided into two separate categories: single wedge-shaped, box like constructions, and long and low wedge-shaped galleries (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39). The former is typical of north-west Clare, while the latter occur particularly in the north, although examples happen elsewhere (Ibid.:36-39). Ballyedmonduff appears to be large, complex and well-built in the context of the class as a whole and as a gallery grave belongs to the second category of wedge tombs. Whilst wedge tombs vary widely in size (Ruggles, 2005:435), they have defining characteristics – a trapezoidal central chamber, with its sides formed by two lines of large, upright stones (orthostates), getting wider and higher toward the entrance end, from east to west, and forming a wedge shape (Ó’Ríordáin and de Valéra, 1952:61-81), hence their name. An antechamber is separated from the main chamber (the burial area) by a jamb or sill. Such tombs were often covered with cairns, which could be round, oval or heel-shaped, often with kerb stones around to support the whole construction (Ibid.:61-81).
The other characteristic that confirms the wedge tomb as a significant category of monument, is the strong consistency in their orientation, with their doorway generally facing west (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Nearly all known examples face the western arc of the horizon, with a large group facing south-west (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). It is unusual to have such a clear preference for westerly orientation among a group of Neolithic tombs (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Their pattern of alignment fits the sun descending or setting model (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). In other words, Ruggles (2005:435) notes that each wedge tomb was oriented upon a position where the sun was seen either to set, or to be descending in the sky on a significant day – perhaps the day on which construction was begun.
Wedge tomb concentrations appear to be denser around mountains than in the lowlands (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232). Throughout Ireland, wedge tombs can be found at elevations. They are on the summits or slopes of drumlins, hills or foothills, with a smaller number on the sides of higher mountains (including Ballyedmonduff). Unlike in the case of portal or court tombs, it seems that builders preferred hilly locations, though not to the exclusion of other landscape settings – one exception is that no wedge tombs are found on mountain peaks (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). They do not often appear to have been in close proximity to the coastline, as in the case of Altar Wedge Tomb in Co. Cork. Still they show a pattern of concentration closer to rivers or lakes (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Salisbury and Keeler (2007:226-227, 231-232) note that it seems likely that water represented no more than an exploitable resource to the wedge tomb builders, with no ritual or cosmological significance. The suitability of an area for settlement and farming, together with the availability copper (e.g. in Cork-Kerry area), influenced the locations of wedge tombs (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).
The lore of the giant’s tombs
Prehistory in Ireland begins around 8000 – 7000 BC (Powell, 2012:11-16). The most prominent remains of this early prehistoric period are the megalithic tombs in general, the majority of which were constructed in 4000 – 2000 BC. (Ibid.:11-16). Depending on their particular shape and category, some of them have been referred to as Giant’s Tombs or Graves, others were called Druid’s Altars, mainly to describe portal tombs (dolmens) (Ibid.:11-16). During the first part of the 19th century, before the completion of archaeological research on Irish megaliths, such tombs were widely noted in literature (Ibid.:11-16). A great number of these legendary sites reappear on the OS maps in 1902, 1904-05, 1907 and 1913-14 under names such as Cromlechs, Druid’s Altars, Giant’s Beds, Giant’s Griddles, Giant’s Gravesor Dermot and Grania’s Bed (Cody, 2002). According to Survey of Megalithic Tombs of Ireland, Vol. 1-6, some of the tombs had been destroyed, others were not accepted after inspection as proven megalithic tombs, and the reasons for their rejections are noted in each case (De Valéra and Ó Nuallain, 1961-1989; De Valera, Ó Nuallain 1982).
Many megalithic structures are so huge that numerous legends say they were built by a race of giants for different purposes (Powell 2012:11-16). Some of them were believed to have held dead giants, which would account for their enormous size, and hence the name Giant’s Tomb seemed appropriate (Ibid.:11-16), although not all megalithic tombs have been known under that name. According to OS maps from the first part of the 20th century, and our GIS survey, the greatest number of Giant’s Graves is present in County Sligo (73), which looks like a huge megalithic cemetery. In Ireland, the term Giant’s Grave usually refers to wedge tombs (46), court tombs (54), portal tombs (9) and unclassified tombs (21). The same records indicate there is no passage tombs known as Giant Graves (see Figure 12) (Powell 2012:11-16; De Valéra and Ó Nuallain, 1961-1989).
The term Giant’s Grave is probably the most widely used as far afield as Ireland, Sardinia and Denmark (Evans 1938:7). It can be readily understood how giants were invoked to explain these monstrous architectural achievements (Ibid.:7). Legends of giants, who undertake extraordinary feats are very common in Irish mythology (Powell 2012:11-16). These legendary tales were usually used by the 18th century Victorian Antiquarians and earlier writers (Ibid.:11-16). Already in ancient times, these so-called romantic concepts abounded about the origins and the builders of great megalithic structures, not only in Ireland but worldwide (Powell 2012:11-16). The term Giant’s tomb was already recorded at the beginning of 2nd century AD. by Plutarch, a Greek biographer and essayist (Plutarch, 2nd century AD.). Plutarch describes that when the Roman general Sertorius (123-72 BC) took over the city of Tingis (Tangier, Morocco), he broke open the tomb of Antaeus, the giant venerated by Phoenicians (Ibid.). To his surprise, he found a body sixty cubits long (about 27 metres) (Quayle and Albertino, 2017), “and after performing a sacrifice filled up the tomb again, and joined in magnifying its traditions and honours” (Plutarch, op. cit.) (see On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar).
Most of the megalithic monuments, from the Greek, megas, ‘great’, and lithos ‘stone’, are today assigned to major classes and each are named after an important distinguishing feature (Powell 2012:11-16). Among them, there are the so-called tombs, temples, fortifications, citadels, towers, alignments, and hedges (Quayle, Alberino). Megalithic architecture was also described by the ancient Greeks as cyclopean after the race of giants with only one eye, who were believed to have been great craftsmen and builders (Ibid.). For the ancient, Cyclops were the offspring of gods, and they attributed them with megalithic structures throughout the Mediterranean, such as the walls of Mycenae (Ibid.). The term cyclopean masonry is nowadays used by archaeologists to describe an engineering technique that incorporates large stones without the use of mortar (Ibid.). The style ranges roughhewn stone structures as displayed, for example, in nuraghe towers all over Sardinia, or in structures of north-western and south Europe, Africa, Near East, and southern Asia, to incomprehensibly precise edifices devised with immense polygons of blocks (Italy, Greece, Malta, Egypt, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Peru etc.) (Ibid.). The knowledge of cyclopean masonry vanished but all over the world, anywhere megaliths are present, legends of giants abound (Ibid.).
In relation to megalithic sepulchre architecture there are four major categories, such as passage tombs, court tombs, portal tombs and wedge tombs, with other minor categories (Powell 2012:11-16). The so-called giant’s tombs or graves are scattered all over Ireland: the Giant Leap (wedge tomb) in Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park, Giant’s Grave on the Laois and Offaly border in Killinaparson, Moytirra East Court Tomb in Co. Sligo, and Giant’s Load (dolmen) at Proleek, Co. Louth, to name just a few. Some of them tell a story of giants buried there, others, such as the megalithic tomb in Killinaparson are believed to be the resting place of ancient warriors or heroes (Slieve Bloom Association, 2019). In Proleek, the dolmen is said to have been erected by the Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, whose body was buried nearby (Dempsey, 2008). Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park, also has a giant story associated with its name (Goldbaum 2010-2019). According to Harold Johnson (1998), from the nearby town of Blacklion, the giant, attempting to impress a lady, failed in his final attempt to jump the nearby chasm, which is, of course, called the Giant’s Leap (Goldbaum 2010-2019). After the giant’s fell down and broke his back, he was buried in what’s called now the Giant’s Grave (Ibid.)There are two giant’s tombs near Dublin, one of which is a portal tomb located in Brennanstown, the other is the subject matter of the project and is known as Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb. Although the latter is also referred to as a Giant’s Grave, there is no known local folklore of a giant or giants linked to this site.
The Giant’s Grave of Ballyedmonduff is located on the lower south-eastern slopes of the Two Rock Mountain, close to the stream (Ó’Ríordáin and De Valéra, 1952:61-68). Nowadays there is a dense pine forest but in the past, there may have been splendid views of Dublin Bay and Wicklow mountains from the site (Ibid.: 61-68). The grave’s structure consists of a gallery aligned approximately west-east (Ibid.:61-68). Today partially destroyed and disarranged, the gallery is divided by two septal stones into three parts of different size: ante-chamber, separated burial chamber, and a smaller niche or chamber closed with the back stone (Ibid.:61-68). The eastern side of the tomb (which was once covered by a cairn) is delimited by horse-shoe shaped kerbs with a row of orthostats forming a straight façade at the western end, onto which the entrance to the tomb opened (Ibid.:61-68). During excavations in 1940s there were some finds recorded at the site: about 150 pieces of pottery, twenty-seven pieces of flint, a perforated polished hammer, and a few fragments of cremated bone of human origin (Ibid.61-68).
Wedge tombs are said to have primarily served as collective burials for social groups (Evans, 1938:7) and territorial markers Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226, 231-232). Yet, some giant’s graves yield no osseous remains (Frazer, 1895:64). Some scholars even suggest such constructions as wedge tombs did not originally serve as sepulchre at all but they were re-used as tombs by later generations or cultures (Brennan, 1994). According to Walsh (1995) wedge tombs were not simply burial structures or territorial markers. They seem to have served a variety of functions ranging from the practical to the symbolic (Walsh 1995). Studies in archaeoastronomy carried out by scientists such as Lomsdalen (2014) and Brennan (1994) show that megalithic architecture holds a strong relationship to the sky. Accordingly, some theorists, for example Kaulins (2003), claim Ballyedmonduff used to be a geodetic astronomical planisphere (i.e. a star chart formed by the position of the stones), and the largest megalith on the site marks the constellation of Andromeda, while other stones are related to other major stellar constellations of the sky. He believes that all of the stones were intentionally placed there to serve a particular purpose and were not placed there by chance (Ibid.). Each was selected for their particular position out of the many stones available (Ibid.). Kaulins (1995) also notes that megaliths made of quartz, granite or particular colour deserve special attention.
As there is no straight answer on the purpose of giant’s graves in Ireland, it is valuable to look closer at other megaliths bearing the same name outside Ireland and compare them, especially the tombs built in Sardinia – an island famous for its legendary gigantic inhabitants. All over this island, there are massive stone sepulchres commonly called the tombs of giants. Similarly, in Ireland, most of the megalithic stones once incorporated into ancient monuments were partially dismantled long ago by residents of local villages, however, they are still impressive (Quayle and Alberino, 2017). Sardinian licenced archaeological guide Maria Paola Loi, confirms there are legends in Sardinia saying that the tombs themselves were not designed to house the bodies of giants (Loi, 2017). The giant’s body was inhumated first underneath and the monument was built on top once the body was buried (Ibid.).
Loi (2017) explains that an aperture inside the tombs was used by young men during the so-called rite of passage ceremony to stay in contact with the soul of ancestors, known as heroes or giants. Boys would crawl into the narrow opening of the entrance stele and sit down in the tomb gallery on particular celestial events, when it was believed that the giants’ powers were released (Ibid.). She notes that each boy would individually spend a few days and nights there, meditating alone and absorbing the energy of the mighty one buried beneath (Ibid.). Likewise, O’Sullivan and Downey (2010:36-39) explain that in Ireland “megalithic tombs were symbolic expressions of ideological beliefs, ritual authority and access to the supernatural”. They also note that the wedge tomb was at the centre of a community of individuals who shared the same beliefs and values (Ibid.:36-39). The ancestors may have been regarded as spirits whose function was to communicate with higher spirits to further the prosperity of the whole community (Loi, 2017).
There are two kinds of giant’s tombs in Sardinia (Loi, 2017). The major group consists of the so-called horned cairns, namely long wedged-shaped galleries of upright stones, divided or segmented by stone pillars, sometimes with low transverse slabs between them, dividing them into oblong compartments (Evans, 1938:10-12). Unlike Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb, they do not feature a distinct chamber at the end, as the gallery is thought to have been an actual burial place (Ibid.10-12). If preserved, the gallery is roofed by corbels and covered with cap stones (Ibid.:10-12), some weighing up to 20 tons (Quayle and Alberino, 2017). Although cap stones were once present at Ballyedmonduff, as shown in the Ordnance Survey sketches, they are missing now at the site. A very significant feature of the tombs in Sardinia is the entrance (Evans, 1938:10-12; Quayle and Alberino, 2017). Namely, it is emphasized and set off by a curving line of orthostates, forming an imposing semi-circular façade embracing a forecourt (Evans, 1938:10-12; Quayle and Alberino, 2017).
The term hornedcairns come from the resemblance which the layout of the forecourt bears to the horns of a bull (Evans, 1938:10-12). This type of forecourt does not occur in the typical form of Irish wedge tombs. Although monuments with this type of forecourt are found especially in the south-west of Scotland and the south of France, and seem to derive from Sardinia, Northern Ireland is the region of their richest development, and they are mostly clustered around Carlingford Lough in Ulster, such as Browndod tomb in Co. Antrim (Ibid.:10-12).
Although passage tombs in Ireland are not remembered as giants’ tombs, an Irish legend has it that the passage tombs of Loughcrew were created when a giant witch, walking across the land, dropped her cargo of huge stones from her apron (Ireland’s Ancient East 2018; see Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Actually, very similar story is known on Gozo Island in Malta, where the giantess Sansuna is said to have built the temple Ggantija – the Place of Giants, carrying huge stones upon one of her shoulders or in an apron four kilometres to their current resting place (Newman 2016). On her way, likewise the Loughcrew witch, she dropped some of the stones (Ibid.). One of them is called Sansuna’s Dolmen and it is located exactly one kilometre south-east of the Ggantija temple (Ibid.) (see Sleeping Beauty of the Underworld).
Situated in the Golden Heights, south of Damascus, there is another giant’s tomb, however, of an outstanding shape (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). It is called Rujm el-Hiri or Gilgal Refaim (from Hebrew, Giant’s Circle of Stones) and it is an ancient megalithic construction consisting of an estimated four thousand tons of loose rocks of huge and various sizes, which makes it another cyclopean construction (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). The stones form concentric circles, with a tumulus at its centre (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). It is dated to around 3000–2700 BCE BC. (“Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). Like the other giant’s tombs, Rujm el-Hiri is also strongly associated with the race of giants, yet in this case it is not only a folk story but the biblical narrative that supports that (Hamilton-Brown 1990s). An Israeli archaeologist, Daniel Herman, claims that the tomb must have been dedicated to someone really powerful as its construction should have taken an enormous amount of time and effort (Ibid.). When Israelites came to this area, the tomb had already been there and they documented the identification of the site by saying that this region had been ruled by Og, the king of the Basham (Ibid.). The Bible mentions that king in Deuteronomy 3:11: “For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants […]” (Ibid.)
I do not know if the giant buried in Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb was one of those mentioned in the Bible. Maybe … However, the world’s ancient tradition of giants is extremely rich, especially in the British Isles and in Ireland. Similar folk stories, some extremely attractive, and especially the connection of the race of giants with megalithic constructions, are now taken with a pinch of salt, especially among archaeologists. Today, mostly tourists are likely to listen to such tales, who, usually indulged amid the sounds of Irish music, are sipping beer in pubs. Yet, the stories of giants and their beds resound with a deep note of melancholy, especially for those who are longing for the unknown past. Actually, despite further archaeological research to reveal the truth about prehistoric megalithic structures, such as the Ballyedmunduff Wedge Tomb, their secrets continue to persist and stimulate the human imagination.
Article based on research conducted on site of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb by Maurice McGuire, Joanna Pyrgies, Susan Ryan (2017). Survey of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’). University College Dublin.
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 term has derived from the Sanskrit prāsāda or more accurately, kudakhan or rueanyotand. It usually stands for a Khmer and Thai word meaning a ‘castle’, ‘palace’ or a ‘temple’. Accordingly, in Khmer architecture, prasat means a tapered tower (or towers) rising at the centre of a temple or a temple complex (e.g, Prasat Thom), which is often compared to a pyramid-like structure or even a temple-mountain. Many a time, prasat is surmounted by prang (a usually tall and richly carved spire). Whereas in Thai architecture, it involves a royal or religious building form. “It is a building featuring an ornate roof structure, usually multi-tiered, with one or more spires. The form symbolizes the centre of the universe, which is traditionally associated with the monarch or the Buddha” (“Prasat (Thai architecture)” 2021).
What is really surprising, the seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly resembles any other structures built in the Empire of ancient Khmers (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although pyramids were very distinctive of the Khmer sacral architecture, yet Prasat Prang differs from its typical model in several aspects (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020).
Firstly, it is not adorned like other Asian pyramidal temples; the successive levels lack of carvings, statues or sanctuaries, except for sculpted representations at the very top (Lawrence 2020).
Secondly, it is visibly a stepped pyramid and only two such pyramids exist in Cambodia (Mohan 6th April, 2020). One of them is Prang and the other is called Baksei Chamkrong Temple from the same period (Ibid.). Some scholars also compare these two pyramids to a similar construction in Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; Lapkura 2021; Manatunga 2009:204) (see Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History).
Thirdly, “the pyramid has [well-proportioned] terraces of regular hight, [and] their edges form the linear outline of an almost equilateral triangle, taller and more slender than [in the case of] the previous pyramidic state temples” (Sopheak 2020).
Furthermore, while Khmer pyramids have got usually four entrances and more than one stairway (Kossak, Watts 2001:71), Prasat Prang features the only stairway on its eastern side (Sopheak 2020). Yet “on the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Ibid.), which is another feature atypical to Southeastern temple towers.
Next, even if the concentric ground plan with enclosures and Gopuram gates was traditional to the Khmer architecture and was applied at Prasat Thom (front enclosure), and at some other sanctuaries in Koh Ker, the same idea was abandoned in the rear enclosure of the terraced pyramid (Sopheak 2020).
Finally, contrary to the temples built elsewhere in the Empire, Prang pyramid does not illustrate the Mount Meru of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology (Ciccone 1998-2020). Instead it may have served as a pedestal for a linga (Ibid.), as much as a throne is meant for a king’s seat.
These definitely individual characteristic of the pyramid`s shape and symbology, had given rise to alternative theories regarding the history of Prasat Prang, which itself more closely resembles Mesoamerican stepped structures of the Maya than those of Southeast Asia (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020).
Another megalithic site
On a direct way to Prang, there is a huge compound wall erected around the pyramid, which was not typical of other similar constructions in Cambodia (Mohan 10th April, 2020). It may suggest the area had a strictly limited access (Ibid.).
The pyramid of Prang is a six-stepped pyramid but the pedestal of lingam on top forms its seventh level (Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85; see: Sopheak 2015). It means it is half higher than a typical royal temple ever built by ancient Khmers (Sopheak 2020; Osmanagich 2017). The pyramid is dressed in sandstone and its stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85). Additionally, on some stone blocks there are protrusions, described as knobs, widely applied in other examples of megalithic constructions (Mohan 19th March, 2020). They are present, for example, in Peru, Egypt, Turkey and India (Ibid.)
The form of a stepped pyramid appears together with the cult of devaraja, “god-king”, and the king as an incarnation of Shiva, represented by lingam, which is confirmed by Sanskrit inscriptions in Prasat Thom (Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48). Such Khmer concepts can be enclosed in the name of Tribhuvaneśvara – the god worshiped in Koh Ker (Coedès in: Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:48), whose name is in Sanskrit an epithet of Indra or Śiva (Wisdom Library 2021).
“The artificial temple mountain […] is 62 m wide and 36 m high, compared with 15 metres for the Bakong” (Sopheak 2020). After Dr. Sam Osmanagich (2017), however, these official numbers are wrong. Having measured the pyramid himself, he has concluded that the length of the sides is 66 m and the height reaches to 40 m (Ibid.). Furthermore, he notices that the pyramid “is constructed with the combination of processed volcanic rock laid inside the structure and sandstone blocks on the exterior” (Osmanagich 2017). Also some stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks of sandstone carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019): “exterior blocks are of different dimensions, and a combination of concave and convex, with four to six sides. Uneven dimensions resulted in the structural stability of the object, which is preserved until today” (Osmanagich 2017) (we encounter the same technique around the world). The author likewise observes that “the first level of the pyramid has 11 rows of blocks. The second level has 13 rows, and all other levels (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh) have eleven rows of blocks. The blocks are joined with mastery – not binder, plaster, or cement. The hexagonal blocks serve to lock down the whole structure” (Osmanagich 2017). “On the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Sopheak 2020). As Dr. Osmanagich (2017) points out the weight of stones differs from 500 kg up to 7 tons in mass. In this context, it is another example of a polygonal megalithic construction.
The uppermost tier and the passage to the underworld
Although the pyramid’s stairway is not allowed to be accessed today, visitors can still climb up the top by means of a wooden provisional staircase constructed over to the side (Lawrence 2020). Moving, upstairs, we climbed up the highest terrace measuring 12 metres on a side. It is theorised the uppermost tier was once crowned by a Prasat tower to shrine a large Shiva linga or linga Tribhuvaneshvara (king’s state idol) (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). The Lingam is said to have measured over 9 metres in height and been made of transparent crystal (Mohan 14th March, 2020). Additionally, the city of Koh Ker is still referred to by locals as Lingapura (city of lingams) and the pyramid as the Sahasralinga Temple, which means thousands of lingams (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mohan 28th March, 2020). The city was also called Chok Gargyar (the grove of Hopea odorata) (Zéphir 2015, “Koh Ker” 2021), “translated as city of glance, […] or as iron tree forest” (Koh Ker 2021). The current names, such as Koh Ker and Prasat Prang are modern (Mohan 28th March, 2020).
The lingam from Prang had already gone but inscriptions found in Prasat Thom give the exact time of its consecration, namely on Wednesday, 12th December in the year 921 (Ciccone 1998-2020; Mohan 6th April, 2020). The date is puzzling as the King Jayavarman the Fourth, who is believed to have constructed the Pyramid, came to this area only a few days before the given date (Mohan 6th April, 2020). Accordingly, the lingam must have been consecrated prior to the construction of the pyramid (see: Mohan 6th April, 2020; Sopheak 2020) or the pyramid is more ancient.
The linga may have simply been looted (Sopheak 2020), leaving behind a deep hole in the middle of the platform (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020; Mohan 10th April, 2020), which is symbolically supported by telamon life-size lions statues (Cunin 2019; Mohan 10th April, 2020). These are Yali, lion-like figures, usually found in South India temples, shown as holding up a structure of a temple (Mohan 10th April, 2020).
The hole itself may actually be reaching down to the pyramid’s bottom (Lawrence 2020), “much like the central chambers of Angkor Wat and the Bayon” (Ibid.). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) describes it as the energy chimney. Apparently, Khmers’ pyramids were to symbolize a connection between the heaven and the underworld (Lawrence 2020).
To the west, behind the pyramid, there is the last component of the complex – a completely overgrown artificial mound, known as the tomb of the White Elephant (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although no elephant has been found there yet, local people associate it with that animal as it symbolises a royal power in the South East Asia (Sibson 2019). For this reason, it is believed the mound may have been the burial place of the king himself (Ibid.). Yet there is no evidence to support it. In Hinduism, the White Elephant is also a symbol of the god Indra who is represented on the white elephant while holding the Vajra, a mythical device, by means of which, as locals claim, he built Prasat Prang (Mohan 14th March, 2020; 6th April, 2020).
I was sitting on one of the crumbling stones in front of the pyramid while observing its majesty. Maybe, the King Jayavarman’s decision about moving the capital to Koh Ker was caused by special qualities of the site (Lawrence 2020). Undoubtedly significant was its geographical location; it was “along the royal road network that connected Angkor to many of its various peripheral settlements” (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1). Most important was an ancient highway between Koh Ker and Wat Phu in modern day southern Laos, which was first discovered by Lajonquière and confirmed in twenty-first century by another researcher, Damian Evans, as the most important strategic road of the Khmer empire (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021).
Specifically Prang seems to have played a crucial role in the complex function as if it had been a gate built to channel a specific energy or power (Osmanagich 2017; Lawrence 2020). As it is described above, Khmer architects designed temples to build a bridge between the celestial and earthly realms (Ibid.). The exceptional shape of Prang itself could be a key to its mystery. Its architect must have been an outstanding individual as much as the pyramid. And I was wondering where the inspiration came from …
The heritage area of Koh Ker is situated near two villages: Koh Ker and Srayong (Miura 2016:27-28). Yet before the war, Prasat Thom, and especially Prang, were avoided by local villagers not only because of natural factors, like wild animals and snakes, but also due to the supernatural they felt unsecure about (Ibid.:28). They said that the site “was believed to have had such an enormous magical power that birds flying over it would drop dead” (Ibid.:28). ‘Only the French, ‘the ritual officer said. ‘Only they had enough courage to approach it (Ibid.:28).
Nowadays, people visit the temples on their holy days, especially on Khmer New Year, when even people from distant areas come to take part in the ceremony (Miura 2016:31). Although many younger Khmers have already abandoned ancient cultural attitude, older villagers still believe in a genius loci of Prasat Thom (Ibid.:31) … And so do I …
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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In Hinduism, the term stands for the phallic symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva. It is also an abstract or aniconic representation of the god in Shaivism. The stone representations of lingas were worshiped as a symbol of the god’s creative power, often depicted in conjunction with yoni, the symbol of his wife, Parvati (Devi).
Featured image: An eleventh-century linga-yoni plaque with a worshipper (Nepal). Nepal, dated 1068 Sculpture Repoussé gilt copper alloy Purchased with funds provided by Harry and Yvonne Lenart (M.85.125) South and Southeast Asian Art. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lingam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
“Lingam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vPT8so>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].
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