Miracle of the Sun

The waters of the River Nile are “a symbol of rebirth and eternal life to the ancient Egyptians. [It] has for untold centuries been the lifeblood of their country. The river and its banks appear from the air to be one long green ribbon of fertility snaking through the arid desert. This ribbon is Egypt: the Nile’s bounty created it, and made possible the rise of one of the world’s great civilizations. […] The Greek historian, Herodotus neatly summed up the relationship between country and river: ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile.’ […] The prosperity created by the Nile, [in turn,] enabled the Egyptians to raise magnificent monuments along its course – temples and memorials to the ancient gods and kings” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42,49).

The River Nile in the south of Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Ancient Egypt seen from the Nile

Nubian girl sitting by the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“For centuries, the Nile has been the life-giving artery of Egypt. From the land nourished by its waters arose the great civilization of ancient Egypt, with its golden temples and pyramids. Today visitors can cruise between its palm-lined banks on voyages into the past” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42). Together with my little sister and a group of archaeology students we embarked on one of the luxurious and authentic boutique ships at the port of Luxor to explore the ancient civilization from the River. While our stay on the ship, we were accommodated in  private spacious cabins with a view on the River. Overnight, the ship was anchored in successive ports and at dawn, it restarted its engines to continue the journey up the Nile. On our way southwards, we stopped at Edfu and Kom Ombo temples, both constructed mainly during the Ptolemaic dynasty circa between 237–47 BC. When we were not visiting the temples spread out along the banks of the Nile, we could enjoy the extensive sun deck areas around the swimming pool while tasting gourmet cuisine and taking in the scenery (Team of the Sanctuary Retreats 2020). And all that was possible in February, when Poland was covered in snow and cold.

Macbeth on the Nile

One day, after a delicious afternoon tea, my sister laid out on a sun lounger, by the pool. She closed her eyes. Right next to her lay an abandoned book that she had brought from Poland. On the cover, there was the title and author: “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare.

“Macbeth” in Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘Why did you even take this book if you don’t read it and only carry it with you?’, I asked my sister coming out of the pool and settling beside her.

Agnieszka didn’t even look at me. She just murmured. ‘Because this is my compulsory reading and if I do not read it until the end of winter holidays, I will get F.’

‘Well read it then’ – I advised.

This time my sister sat down and looked at me behind her sunglasses. ‘Look around and say … Does it look like Scotland at all?’

‘Well no, it does not’, I admitted. ‘But unfortunately I haven’t got the “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie.’

‘Death will come on my Polish class after my return’, Agnieszka replied, but she did not open the book.

Anchoring at Aswan

Feluccas by on the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After the fifth day of our cruise, we were slowly reaching Aswan. The city is situated in the far south of Egypt and constitutes the gateway to Nubia – an important region of ancient and medieval Africa situated along the Nile encompassing the area between the southern Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan. The city of Aswan is also “called the ‘Jewel of the Nile’. Pink and grey granite thrusts upward through the Nubian sandstone, forming mountains, cliffs and jagged outcrops. The Nile runs clear and cold here, and endless waves of golden sand swirl against its banks” (Team of the Sanctuary Retreats 2020). Our ship was welcomed there by the elegant, white triangular sails of feluccas – a traditional wooden sailing boats widely used in the eastern Mediterranean (Harpur, Westwood 1997:44). David Roberts, the nineteenth century British artist, usually painted them and wrote in his diary: “Nothing to the painter can exceed  in beauty these craft skimming along the river with their white sails spread and shivering in the wind” (Ibid:44).

The elegant, white triangular sails of boats. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Convoy composed of a single car

One of the greatest jewels of ancient Egyptian architecture built in the southern Egypt is undoubtedly the temple complex of Abu Simbel, situated in Nubia, at the second cataract of the Nile. It lies on the western bank of the River, by the Lake Nasser and near the border with modern day Sudan. At the same time, It is located around 290 km southwest of Aswan and it takes three to four hours to get there from the port (Serwicka 2010). The road there leads through an isolated area of the desert, thus due to safety reasons, a special convoy is organised (Ibid.). It sets off every day at 4 AM (Ibid.). Coaches, busses and other vehicles must come to one place (Ibid.). The police count them and then they can start their journey (Ibid.). From that moment on, our car was ahead speeding along the asphalt road across the sands of Sahara desert (Ibid.). After a while, the whole convoy fell apart; we lost the sight of the police and other vehicles in the darkness of the dawn (Ibid.). I thought that such a convoy made no sense as everyone was lost in the desert on their own (Ibid.). Eventually, we safely reached Abu Simbel as the first of all. It was just after 7 AM and the rising sun had already broken through the darkness and reflected four sitting colossal statues of the temple, situated by one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.

Two Temples by the Lake

Temple’s front façade. Photo from: Jarus, O. (2018). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The ancient complex at Abu Simbel consists of two temples. They are both sculpted from a mountainside in Nubia (Leona 2015), and they were erected to demonstrate the strength, power and eternal superiority of Egypt on the southern border of the state (Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018). The builder of the complex was Ramesses II the Great (1290-1224 BC). He was the third king of the Nineteenth Dynasty of the Ramesside (Ibid.). “During his long reign, [the Pharaoh] created nearly half of Egypt’s surviving temples [of the New Kingdom], many of them erected to celebrate his deeds in winning back and protecting Egypt’s Asiatic empire from the Hittites” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). As one of the greatest and most famous pharaohs of Egypt, Ramesses II also “became the model for Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’” (Richardson 2020).

The Statues of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Great Temple

Detail of the façade of the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Most remarkable and known to tourists is the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, built to venerate the gods, mainly Amon-Ra, Ptah, Ra-Horakhti and the deified Ramesses II himself (Mark 2018). Beside it, there is also the so-called Small Temple, which was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, Ramesses’ favourite wife (Ibid.). Both monuments were carved in solid rock and believed to have been created during around twenty years at the time of the reign of Ramesses II, in the thirteenth century BC (Ibid.).

The View of the Great Temple from one side. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The Great Temple stands [30 metres] high and [35 metres] long with four seated colossi, [each one 20 metres tall], flanking the entrance” (Mark 2018). Two gigantic statues carved to each side represent Ramesses II on his throne (Ibid.). One of them lost his head during an earthquake in the first century BC (Serwicka 2010). Beneath them, there are smaller figures depicting the pharaoh’s defeated enemies: the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites (Mark 2018). There are also statues depicting Ramesses’s family members and their protecting gods (Ibid.).

The Sun Rise at the Lake Nasser. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Layout of an Egyptian temple

Fragment of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The building generally repeats the layout of an Egyptian temple characteristic of the New Kingdom, serving the worship of the ruler and gods. Usually, such a ground plan is linear and longitudinal; typically, it contains major successive elements arranged along the axis starting from its entrance: an avenue of sphinxes, pylons (gateway [Lucie-Smith 2003:178]), the colonnaded courtyard, hypostyle hall, Barque shrine, and finally, the sanctuary (the holly of hollies) (Kubik 2020:5). Moreover, the further chambers are getting the lower and darker (Ibid.). Like in a general plan, “the interior of the Great Temple in Abu Simbel is organised along a series of halls aligned with one another” (Magli 2016). Although, the rock temple does not have an avenue of sphinxes or the colonnaded courtyard, it includes other major parts of the Egyptian temple. Stairway to the temple plateau (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16) goes to the pylons – tall tapered towers (Lucie-Smith 2003:178). In Abu Simbel, the gateway is shaped out of the rock, flanking the entrance with colossi on each side (Mark 2018). Passing between the two pairs of gigantic figures representing Ramesses II, the central entrance leads to the vast rectangular hypostyle hall with eight massive 10 metres tall pillars, arranged in two rows and representing the mummies of Osiris, with some features of Ramesses (Leona2015; LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Mark 2018). Inside “a shadowy light emphasizes the mysterious and evocative atmosphere of the place” (Leona 2015). It is followed by the second hall with four square pillars (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16). Both interiors are decorated with reliefs showing the heroic life of the king and depicting religious scenes, mainly the royal pair paying homage to the gods (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Magli 2016; Mark 2018; Kubik 2020:5). Finally, the vestibule leads to the very end of the temple – the sanctuary with four figures of seated gods (Ibid.). As it is the most intimate and secret part of the temple, according to the Egyptian model of a temple (Kubik 2020:5), it is a room of a small size measuring four meters by seven (Leona 2015). It also stands for the heart of the temple, where the so-called  ‘miracle of the sun’ happens twice a year (Ibid.). 

At the sides of the main axis of the temple, there are also storerooms and two chapels. Such rooms also appear in other Egyptian temples (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Kubik 2020:5).

The Abu Simbel temples sit on the west bank of the Nile River. (Image credit: WitR Shutterstock). Photo from (Jarus 2018).

The Temple for the Beloved Wife

Beloved Ramesses’ wife and queen Nefertari . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The Small Temple stands nearby at a height of [12 metres] and [is 28 metres] long. This temple is also adorned by colossi across the front facade, three on either side of the doorway, depicting Ramesses and his queen Nefertari” (Mark 2018). There are “four statues of the king and two of the queen at a height of [10 metres]. The prestige of the queen is apparent in that, usually, a female is represented on a much smaller scale than the Pharaoh while, at Abu Simbel, Nefertari is rendered the same size as Ramesses. The Small Temple is also notable in that it is the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a ruler dedicated a temple to his wife” (Ibid.). The first was the Pharaoh Akhenaton (Ibid.). In the fourteenth century BC, he built a temple dedicated to the famous queen Nefertiti, his beloved wife (Ibid.).

The View of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The walls of the Small Temple illustrate Ramesses and Nefertari making offerings to the gods, especially to the goddess Hathor (Mark 2018). Actually, the location of the site was dedicated to Hathor long before the temples were constructed by Ramesses. For this reason, it is believed that the choice of this site was not accidental (Ibid.).

The temple is also adorned by colossi across the front facade, three on either side of the doorway, depicting Ramesses and his queen Nefertari (matiplanas/Adobe Stock) . Photo from DHWTY (2019).

Original name of the site

The Great Temple of Ramesses II (left) and the Small Temple of Hathor and Nefertari (right). Photo from “Abu Simbel Temples.” In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Surprisingly, the temple complex was not originally named as ‘Abu Simbel’ (Mark 2018) but it was apparently referred to in the past as the ‘Temple of Ramesses, Beloved by Amun’” (DHWTY 2019). Actually, “the Swiss explorer [Johann Ludwig] Burckhardt was led to the site by a boy named Abu Simbel in 1813 and the site was then named after him. Burckhardt, however, was unable to uncover the site, which was buried in sand up to the necks of the grand colossi” (Ibid.). Another version says, the boy called Abu Simbel was actually a guide for Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian circus performer and collector of Egyptian antiquities (Ibid.). Eventually, it was him, who first uncovered Abu Simbel in 1817 (Ibid.). After arriving at Abu Simbel, he tried to uncover it “from thousands of tons of sand but every bucket he removed was replaced by yet more sand sliding down the dune. Just at the point of giving up, he discovered a very simple solution to the problem; wetting the sand held it in place and after years of struggling, he finally found the entrance to the Great Temple and became the first man for centuries to walk inside it” (Hawas 2008). His main aim, however, was not archaeological research but most probably looting. When he did not find any treasure inside, he abandoned further exploration of the temple and finally left the site (Mark 2018; Serwicka 2010).

Epitome of king’s ego and godhood

Two of the four Colossi at the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Abu Simbel is said to be the most impressive, largest and significant temple complex of Pharaoh Ramses II the Great – the most prominent king of the nineteenth dynasty (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). It was hence the monument of the Egypt’s greater builder, warrior and ruler who reigned over sixty seven years and turned the land of Egypt into a display of his achievements (Brand 2008). A thorough analysis of the temples’ walls, art and statues also reveal a dual role of the Pharaoh (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008).

Two Colossi viewed from the way to the Entrance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Ramses’ first function was a defender of the nation: a warrior, champion and a hero fighting against enemies and defending Egypt from their hands (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). On the other side, his second role involves religion; he is not only a mediator between men and gods but a divine figure himself equal to other gods in the Egyptian pantheon (Ibid.). After Peter Brand, PhD. (2008) “the king has one foot in a divine world and one foot in a human world.” In both temples of Abu Simbel, “Ramesses is recognized as a god among other gods and his choice of an already sacred locale [for the temple (it was Hathor’s domain)] would have strengthened this impression among the people” (Mark 2018).

Another view of the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Warrior-King

Agnieszka between the two statues of the royal couple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Pharaoh’s authority and power actually depended on fulfilling these two functions (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). Reliefs within the temples illustrate the Pharaoh’ dilemma between his earthly and god-like natures (Ibid.). His story represented there starts with the battle of Kadesh (Ibid.). “Ramesses’ great victory at Kadesh is […] depicted in detail across the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall. It is certain, based upon the extensive artwork throughout the interior of the Great Temple, that the structures were created, at least in part, to celebrate Ramesses’ victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC” (Mark 2018) The Hittites Empire was the great enemy of Egypt, whose lands were stretching  from ancient Anatolia to Syria (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). The Great Temple of Abu Simbel gives a full testimony and artistic records of Ramses II’s military engagement in one of the most famous battles in ancient history (Ibid.). According to the scenes represented in reliefs, It was a brutal clash between two contemporary superpowers with the use of their whole armies and modern weapons, such as chariots (Ibid.). The final result of the battle is unknown to historians, however, the same records within the temple prove the undisputed victory of Ramses II over his enemies (Ibid.). The fact is that Ramses eventually made a peace deal with the Empire of Hittites but Ramses’ role as a king-warrior had not been completed yet (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). Although, Abu Simbel mainly shows the evidence of the battle of Kadesh, “the decision to build the grand monument at that precise location, on the border with the conquered lands of Nubia, suggests to other scholars” (Mark 2018) that the temple complex was possibly begun after the Nubian Campaigns, undertaken by Ramesses II after the battle of Kadesh, in 1244 BC (Ibid.). Hence it can be concluded that it was built as a symbol of Egypt’s power at the border with another enemy – the Nubians (Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018).

Behind my sister, the representation of the slaves/defeated enemies – probably the Nubians. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Godlike Pharaoh

Apart from his representations as a king-warrior, Ramesses was also portrayed as a living god (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). By means of Abu Simbel complex, he declared his divinity, and so the temples were not only built to the gods but also to Ramses himself as a god (Ibid.). This dedication is well expressed in the heart of the Great Temple – the holly of hollies, where the seated statue of Ramses II is placed between the three other statues of the same size, representing major gods of Egypt (Ibid.). Such a representation signifies that the Pharaoh is equalised with the divine beings by becoming one of them (Ibid.).

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel gives a full testimony and artistic records of Ramses II as a god and warrior-king. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, Abu Simbel reveals the two important notions defining a pharaoh: a defender of Egypt and a god (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008).

Key-role of the Sun and Egyptian Calendar

The alignment of sacred ancient structures with the rising or setting Sun or with the position of celestial bodies in the sky at various astronomical events appears throughout the whole world (Mark 2018). The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, aligned with the east, is another example of uncanny ancient architecture and its orientation to the rising sun. Furthermore, it also reveals a special relation to the Egyptian calendar (Magli 2016; Mark 2018).  

Ancient Calendar

Great Pillared Hall, Temple of Ramses II, Abu Simbel, Egypt. Source: chemistkane/Adobe Stock. Photo from (DHWTY 2019).

The ancient Egyptian calendar was composed of three seasons linked to the three cyclic events of the River Nile and so the rhythm of human life on its banks (Murphy 2002; Authors of Wikipedia 2013; Magli 2016). Each season contained 120 days (four months of thirty days) (Magli 2016):

AKHET (inundation) 120 days

PERET (growth) 120 days

SHEMU (harvest) 120 days (Ibid.).

Akhet started the new Egyptian year “in mid-July with the sightseeing of the star Sopdet in the early morning sky and the beginning of the floods” (Murphy 2002). It was then the season “when the Nile flooded, leaving a several layers of fertile soil behind, aiding  in agricultural growth” (Authors of Wikipedia 2013). Peret was the time of growing, which had happened by November and Shemu was the harvest season without rains, having started by March (Ibid.). To the total of 360 days, ancient Egyptians “added 5 days, which gave 365 days, without any corrections such as leap years” (Magli 2016). Those “last five days of the year were given over to the celebrations of various gods’ and goddesses’ birthdays and were considered unlucky” (Murphy 2002).

The View of the Nasser Lake. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet ancient Egyptians realised “that their calendar was too short to take into account the length of the tropical year” [ that is to say, 365 days and ¼ of the day] (Magli 2016). “A tropical year is the time that the Sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons, as seen from Earth; for example, the time from vernal equinox to vernal equinox, or from summer solstice to summer solstice” (Tropical Year 2020). For this reason, “the Egyptian calendar drifted of one solar day each four years, making a complete turnaround in 4 x 365 = 1 460 years” (Magli 2016).

Magical Journey of the Sun

As described above, the chapel (the sanctuary or the holly of hollies), located at the end of the Great Temple, includes four seated figures of gods (Magli 2016; Mark 2018; Leona 2015). From the left, there are Ptah, Amun-Ra, Ramses the Great, and Ra-Horakhti (Magli 2016). Their tiny chapel is covered in darkness for most of the year (Fawzy 2018). Nonetheless, “on 20th February and on 22nd October of every year, and for a few days just before and after those dates, the Sun rises in alignment with the axis of the temple” (Magli 2016) and illuminates its interior in a very particular way.

Caption from Magli (2016).

In a magical journey of the Sun, the light beam moves 65 meters from the entrance along the axis of the temple and reach the inner chapel at the end of the building. (Magli 2016; Hafner, Karolewski & ETI 2020). Whereas the sunlight carefully omits Ptah, who is a chthonic god related to the underworld suspended in perpetual darkness, it  successively illuminates the statues of Amun-Ra, then Ramesses and finally Ra-Horakhti, who is a personification of the solar disc (Leona 2015; Magli 2016; Mark 2018).

The Sanctuary: House of the Gods |Ben Snooks / photo modified . Photo from (Lee 2020).

We came there only at the beginning of February so we could not celebrate ‘the miracle of the sun’ coming into sight just a few weeks later. It was a pity. It must be a great experience to observe “the rising sun [penetrating] the heart of the mountain and [gradually flooding  the statues] in light. It takes about twenty minutes for the light to pass. According to the ancient Egyptians, the sun rays would thus recharged of energy the figure of [the Pharaoh]” (Leona 2015).

Reaching the Solar Year

Visitors taking part in the Sun Festival in the Abu Simple temple in south Aswan for 20 minutes in a rare phenomenon that takes place twice a year – Muhammad Fawzy (2018) Egypt Today.

“This spectacular hierophany implies an architectural constraint that conditioned the entire planning of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel right from the onset” (Magli 2016). Like in other famous temples in Egypt (e.g. Karnak) the origins of the temple layout is associated with the Egyptian calendar (Ibid.). The two key dates in the Great Temple’s alignment marked the beginnings of the two seasons: Peret (around 22nd October) and Shemu (around 20th February) (Ibid.). In fact, the same dates are also believed to correspond to Ramesses’ birthday in February and coronation in October (Mark 2018; Fawzy 2018). The Calendar is said to have been devised in 2 700 BC (Magli 2016). Consequently, when Ramesses II “accessed to the throne of Egypt in the thirteenth century BC, 1 460 years were elapsed” (Ibid.). For this reason, “he could celebrate himself as the Pharaoh who started reigning at the time the Egyptian calendar re-aligned with the solar year” (Ibid.). The answer to this special event was the astronomical alignment of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel.

Short film advertising the Sun Festival at Abu Simbel on 22nd October in 2018.
“It’s almost here, coming to Egypt on October 22nd! If you won’t be there, don’t worry, we’ve got you.”
“Live the history live in Aswan, Abu Simbel Sun Festival” by  Memphis Tours (2018).

The Aswan High Dam

The process of the illumination had happened very precisely for over four thousand years. “Inevitably, the demands of modern progress have conflicted with the need to preserve the past” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49).

The statue of Ramesses the Great at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel is reassembled after having been moved in 1967 to save it from flooding. Photo from “Abu Simbel Temples.” In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Luckily, “these two considerations were spectacularly reconciled with the building of the Aswan Dam, when the temples of Abu Simbel were saved from the raising waters” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). In the 60’s of the twentieth century, the two temples were dismantled (Mark 2018) and, “in an astonishing feat of engineering completed in 1966, [they were] moved bodily 65 metres above their original site” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). In order “to give the impression of the temples cut into the rock cliff, […] a man-made mountain was erected” (Mark 2018). Altogether, there were 2 200 blocks of stone (the heaviest weighing around 30 tons), moved upwards by heavy machinery (Pooyard 2012). The reconstruction of the temple took five years (Ibid.). The project was directed by UNESCO and led by a multi-national team of archaeologists, engineers and other specialists from around fifty different countries (Pooyard 2012; Leona 2015; Mark 2018; Cultural Heritage News 2018) “to rescue what was viewed, for the first time, as the shared heritage of humankind” (Cultural Heritage News 2018). In the same Nubian Rescue Campaign other monuments have been also saved and preserved, namely the Temple of Isis situated on one of the islands on the Nile and Christian wall paintings from the Cathedral of Faras (DHWTY 2019).


A scale model showing the original and current location of the temple (with respect to the water level) at the Nubian Museum, in Aswan. Photo from “Abu Simbel Temples.” In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ancient technology vs. Technology of the 60s

“Great care was taken to orient both temples in exactly the same direction as before” (Mark 2018). Nevertheless, today it can be observed that it was not fully effective despite all undertaken efforts (Leona 2015; Serwicka 2010). Namely, on the two key-dates, the left arm of the statue of the god Ptah, positioned originally in the way preventing it to have been reached by the Sun, now is partially exposed to the sunlight. Simultaneously, the left side of the statue of the god Ra-Horakhti, seated on the far right, is not being illuminated anymore. Some sources also say that the culmination point of solar illuminations initially happened exactly on 21st February and 21st October (see Serwicka 2010; Leona 2015; Mark 2018) but today the dates of the performance are slightly shifted (Serwicka 2010; Leona 2015). Such a disorder of the ‘miracle of the sun’ is the result of the displacement of the Great Temple in the twentieth century (Ibid.). The project turned out to be very successful as it saved the Nubian monuments from being flooded. Thanks to the international work, determination and funds it was possible to preserve such ancient architectural treasure as Abu Simbel for future generations. Yet, even with the use of all modern equipment and machinery, it was not possible to reproduce the original precision designed by ancient architects in orienting the temple (Leons 2015).

The illumination shifted slightly rightwards – the result of the temple’s displacement in the 60s. Photo from Muhammad Fawzy (2018) Egypt Today.

Just after the Pyramids of Giza

Nowadays, the ancient site of Abu Simbel is the most visited place in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza (Mark 2018). It has even got “its own airport to support the thousands of tourists who arrive at the site each year” (Ibid.). Yet we were coming back to Aswan and our luxurious ship by car. Sleepy and tired with the heat, I was trying to keep myself awake to admire the landscape behind the window. For a while I was looking at the sandy and harsh desert, and the horizon blurred in the sun. Finally I closed my eyes and fall asleep next to my sleeping sister.

Great moments on the luxurious cruise on the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was our last night on the ship. The following evening we were going to Cairo by train. The light breeze and the proximity of the river nicely neutralized the heat of the night. My sister was resting in the cabin. Immediately after arriving from Abu Simbel, she felt sick. A doctor from Aswan was called. He gave her an injection and promised that she would feel much better the next day. As it turned out, he was right. I had been hoping for that. There was a long way yet to travel.

The Great Temple of Rameses II in Abu Simbel from above, Egypt. (rayints/Adobe Stock). Photo from (DHWTY 2019).

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Team of the Sanctuary Retreats (2020) “Luxury Nile Cruises – 5-Star Luxury Cruise.” In: Sanctuary Retreats. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WKTX7A>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Figurines of the Stone Age: Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic

Civilizations primary arising from agriculture have often believed that the creator of all things is the feminine element. Earth, the source of life, was imagined as the holy and fertile mother who was the matrix of all creation. In many myths of ancient civilizations, such as Babylonian or Hebrew, there are echoes of worship and faith in Magna Mater – the Great Mother, the creator of the world, which naturally resulted from her feminine ability to give life. In pre-patriarchal times, goddesses – not gods – were supposed to be  supreme powers. Hence there are many stories about the goddesses-creators of the world (Leeming 1999). However, with the rise of patriarchal cultures, they were supplanted in favour of more desirable tales about almighty gods and their male prophets.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) “St. George Striking the Dragon” Photo from: Fox, M.

From Matriarchy to Patriarchy

The etymology of the word matriarchy is derived from Latin and Greek: mater, matris – mother and arche – power (Jabłońska 2010). The period of matriarchy dates back to the Upper Paleolithic, and can still be observed in the late Neolithic period – the younger Stone Age – when a visible transition to patriarchy follows. In the Bronze Age, patriarchy is definitely dominating, which is associated with changes in the understanding of higher beings and religion in general. The way of life in the matriarchate differs significantly from the one prevailing in the patriarchate. At the time of patriarchy, life and culture were dominated by venerating harsh and ruthless male divinities (Ibid.) – warriors who slay the bodies of snake-like monsters. Simultaneously, the latter were associated in many myths with the female aspect, present in the elements of water, fire, earth and air (Absalon, Canard 2006:15-23). The tradition of the male creator god continues in monotheistic religions. In Judeo-Christian culture it is Yahweh, and for Muslims it is Allah (Jabłońska 2010).

Magna Mater and her Origins

The beginnings of Mother-Earth veneration were already visible in the older Stone Age, when the Paleolithic hunter worshiped the Moon, observed its phases and cyclical nature. The lunar worship of that time was undeniably associated with devotion to life and fertility, and thus dedicated to womanhood and menstrual cycle that has always corresponded to subsequent phases of the Moon (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31-32; Frazer 1971:378- 381).

Diana the Moon Goddess.” Photo from: The Phases of Diana

Echoes of the Paleolithic connection of Magna Mater with the worship of the Moon resound in the pantheon of ancient lunar goddesses; the moon lady is Syrian Astarte and Egyptian Isis or Hathor with the ears and horns of a cow symbolizing the Moon. The next incarnation of the Great Mother is Babylonian-Assyrian Ishtar, similar to Sumerian Inanna (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010; Żak-Bucholc 2003, “Astarte” 2010) and the Greek Selene – the personification of the Moon par excellence. In Roman mythology the goddess was known as Luna – the Moon. Her cult was associated with the cult of Artemis, in Roman mythology most often associated with Diana – the goddess of fertility and moonlight, and with the Greek Hekate – the goddess of death and magic. The most common attribute of lunar goddesses was the lunar sickle in their hair (“Artemida” 2010; ”Diana” 2010; ”Selene” 2010). Diana herself even took the form of the Moon and sailing into the cloudless sky, she looked with pleasure at her beautiful reflection in the calm shimmering surface of the lake, the mirror of the goddess (Frazer 1971:366-367). It is not surprising that today many scholars consider Paleolithic lunar worship as the source and foundation of all subsequent mythology (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010).

Goddess in the Darkness of Caves

Lascaux cave paintings. Caption from “Lascaux Cave Paintings Discovered” (2009). In: History Channel.
Wounded Bull, Man & Bird, Lascaux Cave. Photo from: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

At the time of lunar worship, the female element hid in the dark, underground channels of cave-sanctuaries. From her womb all creation was born: mammoths, horses and bison are still emerging from the underground wells and are swirling in the colours of the cave ceilings – a gift from the Mother Goddess, which was invoked by magical rituals of the Paleolithic hunter (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:32-39; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33). The naturalistic art of Paleolithic is dominated by the animal which had a sacred dimension at that time. Compared to realistically depicted images of animals, man was represented very schematically, and even in a caricatural way. On the verge of a flourishing matriarchate, among a few anthropomorphic performances, the image of a naked woman definitely dominates (Nougier 1989:39; Osińska 2004:14-16).

Palaeolithic Venus

Commonly known as Paleolithic Venus, female representations in the form of small sculpture or relief do not bring to mind ancient goddesses of beauty. Still the name of the statuettes refers to the famous statue of Venus of Milo, because, like the statue itself, figurines of Paleolithic Venus are basically devoid of arms (“Wenus Paleolityczna” 2010). The so-called Venus figurines occur across Eurasia from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Baikal, and given that the creators of these carvings were separated by hundreds of kilometers, it is remarkable that so many of statuettes share the same traits (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

They are generally quite small with sizes typically ranging from 2.5 cm to 10 cm though a few examples are as large as 24 cm but they are mostly small enough to be held in the hand (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). The most common material used to carve these statuettes is mammoth tusk, horse teeth, hematite, antlers, bone, limonite and stone (Ibid.). A very small number of sites produced clay figurines, which are among the earliest known examples of ceramic art. Some of their features are greatly exaggerated while other are absent or downplayed (Ibid.).

Upper Paleolithic Europe with some locations of sites where Venus figurines were found. 1. 1. Brassempouy, France; 2. Lespugue, France; 3. Laussel, France; 4. Grimaldi Caves, Italy; 5. Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic; 6. Pavlov, Czech Republic; 7. Willendorf, Austria; 8. Avdeevo, Russia; 9. Kostenki, Russia; 10. Gagarino, Kazakhstan. Map from Soffer et al. 2000 .

Paleolithic Venus image is dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics: exaggerated buttocks, abdomen, thighs and womb may indicate a body deformed by frequent births (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Due to such characteristics, Paleolithic figurines are sometimes referred to as Steatopygian Venus figures as they expose body features typical of African women, namely an excessive fat accumulation in and around the buttocks (“Steatopygia” 2020). Additionally, it is quite common for the figurines to be faceless with poorly defined arms (hence their name) and legs and a silhouette that is tapered at the top and bottom. The carvings often lack defined hands and feet (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Bias interpretations

Venuses’ physical appearance provoke different interpretation (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Venus from Savignano, Italy (c. 25 000-20 000 BC). Photo from Biologus.eu. Figurine with a silhouette tapered at the top and bottom . The middle depiction is displaying steatopygia.

They may stand for :

  1. fertility symbols,
  2. mother goddess,
  3. paleoerotica,
  4. self-portraiture,
  5. beauty standards,
  6. protective talismans,
  7. good luck amulets playing religious and ritual functions,
  8. ancestors,
  9. women throughout the lifespan,
  10. puppets, dolls,
  11. witches keeping strangers away (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).
Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE) Among the oldest art of Russia. Photo from: Venus Figurines

Those bias interpretations result from different aspects of gender(Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). There were androcentric (men as creators of figurines with an objectified understanding of representations of females) and feminist interpretations and approaches to the subject (Ibid.). Moreover, great number of found figurines and their realistic features contrast with the scarcity of depictions of males whose representation are usually schematic, stylised or abstract (Ibid.).

Notion of Motherhood and Self-Representation

Statues are characterized by the lack of facial features, which may indicate their character and purpose; Venus is not a beauty with individual features, but a notion of motherhood in general (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Simultaneously, her major features express respect and reverence for a woman as a source of life and refer to the cult of fertility. In the image of Paleolithic Venus, one can see a goddess taking care of women during pregnancy and childbirth, which was justified in the period of low birth rate and high mortality among new-born children (Ibid.).

Venus of Willendorf. Photo from: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, the figurines may have been self-representations by female creators (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). This assumption is supported by statuettes’ proportions (Ibid.). Their bodies were shaped as if they were observed from the top down (Ibid.). At the time for a woman to know what she looked like, she could only look down upon herself (Ibid.). That would explain lack their faces, smaller heads, and why legs seem to disappear (Ibid.).

Worldwide worship

Due to a wide number of Paleolithic female statuettes – from Western Europe to Siberia – the conclusion is that their worship was highly widespread in the whole contemporary world (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Venus figurines are one of the most distinctive components of Stone Age material culture and the earliest examples of art created in the human image (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Those remarkable statuettes were created in Upper Paleolithic 50 000 – 10 000, mostly by Gravettian people who spread out all over Europe around 33000 to 22000 or even 17000 BP(Ibid.). Some statuettes have been found inside dwellings, in pits, some come from cultural layers (Ibid.).  They were first brought to the attention of modern society during 1890s when they were discovered in southwestern France and northern Italy by Edouard Petite and Salomon Reinach. The oldest was discovered in 2008 in Germany, dated to over 35 000 years old (Ibid.).

Venus of Kostenki; c. 23 000 BC. Photo from: Senko, K. N. Venus of Kostenki. Upper body decorations – linear wedge-shaped notching looking like bandeaux, usually present on Eastern European figurines with headgear. When such clothing is absent, it is probably replaced by the hands folded on top of the breasts (e.g. Venus of Willendorf).

Palaeolithic fashion

Photo by Cohen (2003) Fragment of a Venus from Kostenki (c. 23 000 BC) with the rope-like coil around both wrists hanging on the belly.” In: Venus figures from the Kostenki.

Decorations on the Venus bodies suggest some of them might represent clothing (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).It was generally thought that Venus, if dressed, should have worn animal furs, leathers or hides (Ibid.).According to information from burials, the dead were fully clad with abundance of bracelets and necklaces (Ibid.). Venus figurines reflect plant based textiles and basketry (Ibid.). According to undertaken studies, there are at least three different types of dressed female depictions: different headgear, body bandeaux and at least one type of skirt (Ibid.).

Venus of Brassempouy , France 22 000 BC; head covering: stylized and indistinct in detail, rather hairnets or netted snoods. Photo from “The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era”. In: Ancient Origins.

Venuses’ dressing underlines the importance of textile industry in Upper Paleolithic cultures, which must have been associated with women, and stood for their prestige in a society (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).Similar value can be given to basketry: apparently weaving of textiles, plaiting and coiling of baskets were dominant female occupations employed already in Upper Palaeolith (50 000-10 000 BP). It is the earliest evidence of technologies such as textile – usually much more associated with the later Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (Ibid.).Factually, the stone age probably produced more wood tools and fibre artefacts than lithic items (Ibid.).

Venus of Lespugue, France, 26 000 BC : belts attached to string skirts, low on the hips with a high attention to detail. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 7. In: In. Slide Share.

No detail is accidental

The figurines of  the Upper Paleolithic may be unclad or partially clad and the modelling of their bodies differs. Such a depiction is not random but rigidly patterned within one particular type (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Among a massive number of figurines, they represent a female image of different functions; each has got its own symbolic meaning conveyed by the pose and underlined body parts (Ibid.). No detail is accidental; their creators made a selection of attributes and human identity (Ibid.). The Venus body becomes a medium to reflect social differences, also by means of their attire (Ibid.). Paleolithic imagery associates the wearing of clothing with a category of women whose attire included basket hats or caps, netted snoods, bandeaux, string skirts, and belts (Ibid.). These garments may have been of a ritual wear, which served as a notion of distinct social categories (Ibid.). Creators of clad Venuses must have been well familiar with the art of making textiles and fiber technology in general, or they could have been guided by such experts (Ibid.).

Venus of Laussel, France, on the left (c. 25 000-23 000 BC) and Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Rebublic, on the right (34 000-26 500 BC) with highly abstracted horizontal lines girdling the body . Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 6. In: In. Slide Share.

Venus from Laussel

Among most famous prehistoric statuettes of Venus of the Paleolithic period there is undoubtedly the relief of Venus from Laussel, Aquitaine, dating from 22 000 to the 18 000 BC. Currently, the object, commonly known as Venus with the Horn, is a part of the collection of the Museum of National Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. An iconographic analysis of the relief indicates a close relationship between Venus, the lunar cult discussed above and the mystery of the Great Mother. While the naked woman’s left hand rests on her swollen womb, in her right hand she holds a buffalo’s horn with thirteen cuts. A woman’s womb may stand for the matrix of all creation, while the horn is interpreted as a crescent moon – a symbol of chthonic and lunar powers (“Kult lunarny” 2009; Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16, “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:9). The thirteen marks on the horn refer to the thirteen days in which the moon is in the growing phase and the thirteen lunar cycles making up the solar year. All this testifies not only to the Paleolithic knowledge of the lunar month, but also to the fact that makers of the relief must have understood the connection between the woman’s menstrual cycle and the lunar month (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

Venus of Moravany, Czech Republic (c. 24 000-24 000 BC) Statuette dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 4. In: In. Slide Share.

The buffalo horn held by Venus of Laussel is also of great iconographic significance: horned animals such as a bull, cow or buffalo are often attributed to fertility goddesses and were once used as sacrificial animals. It was believed that their blood was a source of purification, spiritual strength and life. Menstrual blood was interpreted similarly, given that the lush shapes of Venus with a horn were once covered by a red layer of ochre (Nougier 1989:9; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

There are apparently complicated relationships between women, Paleolithic Venuses, red colour, the Moon, fertility cycle, the first attempts to control nature and the very first beliefs.

“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf, Austria (c. 28,000 –25,000 BC ). Her heads depicted with radially or spirally produced hair gear or a fiber based woven cap or hat with a knotted center, which looks like a coiled basket with circuits encircling the head. Photo from Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 2. In: In. Slide Share.

One of the most famous Paleolithic female mothers, Venus of Willendorf, also has traces of red dye. Dated to the period between 32 000 and 30 000 BC, it is now kept among the collections of the Naturhistorisches Museum, in Vienna. The figurine is one of the first images of this type found by archaeologists, thanks to which it became a kind of an ambassador of the prehistoric art. Like her Paleolithic sisters, Venus of Willendorf boasts a lush shape of thighs, hips, buttocks, breasts and abdomen with a clearly enhanced womb. The author did not show the woman’s face (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2016; Pastuszka 2010). Her whole head is adorned with a haircut in a form of rollers surrounding most of the head with concentric circles (Szombathy 2010), or a round-like headgear (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Pastuszka 2010; “Wenus z Willendorfu” 2010). As it is described above, it may have been also a kind of a head cover. Unlike most figurines, the Willendorf statuette has the outline of small arms falling on the chest (Ibid.).

Venus figurine from Kostenki, Russia (c. 23 000-21 000 BC). Like in the case of Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Kostenki features a coiled basket around the head but with extra half-circuits over the nape of the neck.

Venus’ Evolution from Paleolithic to Neolithic

Venus of Lespugue, France. Photo from: Venus Figurines.

In addition to the two Paleolithic figurines described more closely, one should also mention the mammoth Venus of Lespugue and Venus of Kostenki, the burnt clay Venus of Dolni Vestovice, the serpentine Venus of Savignano or the ivory Venus of Gagarino. Regardless of the origin and material from which they were made, the number of figurines found proves their mass production, and so a large demand for this type of product. Findings of single statues in houses, near hearths and in sacrificial places could testify to their relationship with domestic worship. Probably prehistoric Venus was used in rites of ancestor and fertility cult as art products associated with the household. As it is mentioned above, there is also a theory that they served as votive gifts, fetishes, or – due to their small size and convenience – they may have been amulets.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice , Czech Republic. Photo from: Venus Figurines.

When the Paleolithic passed away, the image of the Great Mother gradually evolved acquiring new values in Neolithic (Jabłońska 2010; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:25). In conjunction with that evolution, we cannot reject Magna Mater’s firmly sexual connotations. At the beginning of Neolithic, some artistic streams formed more abstract and stylized expressions in sculpture that existed and developed alongside more naturalistic expressions  – clothing disappears but sexual attributes remain (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

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Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)

In March we left for one-week study trip to the Boyne Valley. It was just a few days after heavy snowfall swamped the whole Ireland. Dubbed by the media as the “Beast from the East”, the cold wave had subsided after three days leaving behind white patches of snow and a hope for spring. Personally, as somebody who comes from Poland, I was used to the view of bigger snows and lower temperatures and so I got surprised by the reaction of people cleaning the shop shelves from food products on the day of the sinister weather forecast.

Brú na Bóinne

Boyne Valley with the hills of Loughcrew. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

According to archaeological studies, the Boyne Valley, called in Irish Brú na Bóinne, has been inhabited uninterruptedly since the end of the Ice Age, and is said to be the birthplace of Ireland’s Ancient East featuring one of the most sacred and mythical landscapes in the country. For these reasons, the region has always been very attractive in terms of archaeological research and international tourism (“About Boyne Valley Tourism” 2018).

The Boyne Valley mainly encompasses two counties, namely Co. Meath and Co. Louth, and it is itself a hugely attractive and unique region of Ireland to be explored by researchers, scholars and tourists. Unfortunately, its well-deserved fame and grandeur of incomparable monuments are not sufficiently illustrious and extended, except for the Stone Age passage tomb of Newgrange, which has become a significant ambassador of the local history encouraging the development of tourism in this area. Except for scholars and archaeologists widely interested in the region, tourists mostly head off to the Boyne Valley to visit only the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, and possibly also the Norman Castle of Trim, which was the location for King John’s Castle in the film Braveheart (1995). Other monuments appear to generally exist in their shadow, and seem to be less attractive and more obscure to a broader group of visitors.

Less known but essential

Neolithic mounds of Loughcrew. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The key role of promoting the Boyne Valley is to point out and attract attention to other significant archaeological sites in the region, and simultaneously interesting tourist spots to be taken into account. It concerns prehistoric monuments of Dowth, Fourknocks and Loughcrew, royal and mythological Hills of Tara and Slane and finally medieval monuments of Mellifont, Duleek, Bective and Fore Abbeys as significant witnesses to European influence on insular tradition and architecture of Ireland (Michael 2018). Not without significant importance to the Irish history is also the site of  the seventeenth century Battle of the Boyne (Ibid.). Last but not least, there are ones of Ireland’s earliest Christian monastic sites, especially early medieval monuments of Irish sculpture – exceptional High Crosses of Kells in County Meath and those of Monasterboice in nearby Co. Louth (Ibid.). The monastic sites also feature Round Towers, which are not less interesting than the High Crosses themselves.

Archaeological assignments under the Irish sky

Newgrange in the distance and in the mist. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet before our study trip, we were divided into groups who each worked on a project dedicated to one particular site within the Boyne Valley. During our one-week trip, we stopped daily at three or four different sites and every group was supposed to give a lecture on a given monument in front of other students. Such a procedure would have been quite interesting unless a typical Irish weather that usually occurs in March. The snow gave its way to lashing and freezing rainfalls. Mixed with the prevailing winds, the rain was literally attacking us at each possible angle while we were trying to listen to the lectures in front of unmoved ancient stones, in the open space. Speakers suffered terribly: their voices were howled down by sudden blasts of icy cold air and their damped notes were literally falling apart between their fingers or were torn out by the wind.

Working in the field. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I and two of my colleagues were assigned to the ancient site of  Loughcrew. However, the Beast from the East efficiently cut it off from the outside world due to the heavy snows, which still covered its ancient hills. Consequently, we were left without the subject of our study. To makes things even worse, our group was caught by an epidemic of stomach flu and some members of the study trip got sick and had to come back to Dublin, including one colleague of our three-person group. Therefore, two of us were left in the battlefield.

One of the sunniest days. Still wet and muddy. Wellingtons were the only option … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it turned out later on, we were compensated for all the inconvenience as we got a chance to present our project in much more favourable conditions than others. To make up for another rotten day, after visiting the High Crosses under the crying sky, we finally entered a warm coffeeshop in Kells where we were served fragrant sweet pastries and freshly ground coffee. Suddenly, our Professor came up with the idea of presenting the site of Loughcrew inside. We looked hesitantly at each other and then at clients curiously looking in our direction, possibly waiting for further development of the situation.

At Loughcrew in October, yet before the study trip. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘Well’, my colleague stopped the awkward silence. ‘Why not?’, he asked. ‘Unless it disturbs others …’ By saying ‘others’ he actually meant clients of the coffee shop.

‘No, not at all’, we heard some voices. Some members of the unexpected audience also approached our group to listen to what was going to be said. At once I got nervous. One thing is giving a lecture in front of my colleagues, the other thing was to expose yourself to criticism of strangers. I took a sip of my coffee, gathered my notes and joined my colleague who was already standing in a more open space, by the door.

Ancient site of Loughcrew

Loughcrew “gets its name from a nearby lake, originally called Lough Creeve: meaning lake of the tree, and is believed to refer to an ancient tree where rituals were held” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The site is deeply ancient as it dates back to around 3500-3300BC (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). It is spread across four hills: Carnbane West, Carnbane East and Patrickstown, the highest of which is around 274 meters above sea level (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The hills were also known in the past as Sliabh na Calliaghe, which can be translated from Irish as Mountains of the Witch, referring to a folk tale surrounding the cairns (Ibid.).

Three hills with neolithic mounds. Photo from Jones, S. and E. (2020).

“Nowadays [Loughcrew] is probably the best preserved example of a Neolithic landscape in the world. Nevertheless, the site initially “escaped the attention and well documented archaeological investigation devoted to other Boyne Valley [monuments]” (Brennan 1994:46).

“All things are full of gods” – Thales (c. 636 – c. 546 B.C.)

There are a few legends about the hills of Loughcrew, but perhaps the most famous is “the story of the hag for which the hills are named” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). “The story goes that to rule over all of Ireland the Hag [or Witch – Calliaghe] had to complete a feat of enormous strength. She had to leap from hill to hill with stones in her apron. As she jumped from peak to peak she dropped a handful of stones. These stones became the cairns. On her final jump, to make her [ruler over] Ireland, she broke her neck and was buried under the stones on the side of the hill” (Shortt, Heery 2020). Another folklore says it was actually “a giant goddess named Garavoge, who came from the north-west with a collection of rocks which she dropped from her white apron” (Byrne 2020). In Celtic Folklore by John Rhys (1901-2015:393), the author gives an account of the legend he heard from his guide – a young shepherd, when he was visiting the cairns of Loughcrew in the summer of 1894. “He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns” (Ibid.).

Hag’s Chair. Photo from Jones, S. and E. (2020).

One of the most significant cairns of Loughcrew, Cairn T is commonly known as the Hag’s Cairn as it is believed to be a burial place of the Witch. Furthermore, outside the Cairn T, there is a large stone, possibly a kerbstone, in the form similar to an armchair, named the Witch or Hag’s chair. Rhys’ guide also describes the same stone, which was “placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round” (Rhys 1901-2015:393). Yet he added that “usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed” (Ibid.). The author also notices that “the hag appears to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare’, that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork” (Ibid.).


Cartoon of the Caillech/Witch dropping the stones from her apron (Eibhlin Nu Sheinchin 1937). Photo and caption from McCormack, L. (2020).

The figure of the Witch or Giantess flying on her broomstick and dropping the stones seems to be always associated with the megaliths built on the summits (Hugh 2017). Her mysterious character not only joins the cairns of Loughcrew with those of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo, of Sheemor and Sheebeg in Co. Leitrim or of Corn Hill in Co. Longford (Hugh 2017; Byrne 2020), but she also appears in folklore far beyond Ireland.

“Determined now her tomb to build, Her ample skirt with stones she filled, And dropped a heap on Carnmore; Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar, And dropped another goodly heap; And then with one prodigious leap Gained Carnbeg; and on its height Displayed the wonders of her might. And when approached death’s awful doom, Her chair was placed within the womb Of hills whose tops with heather bloom”


Jonathan Swift, c. 1720

Some sources say that Loughcrew became known as Mountains of the Witch because Ireland was once a matriarchy (O’Bryan 2017). After the Annals of Irish High Kings, women judges, who were later nicknamed as witches, could take away human life as a penalty for heavy crimes, which was believed to have been imposed at the time of year referred today as Halloween (31st October) (Ibid.).

Loughcrew as a passage tomb

Loughcrew is one of the so-called passage tomb sites in Ireland. The centre of the passage tomb typically consists of several upright supports (orthostats) topped with a corbelled roofing or covered with a flat slab or capstone (Brennan 1994). Its plan usually creates a cruciform chamber, like in the case of the ground plan of Cairn T at Loughcrew, which takes the shape of one of the most ancient and universal sun symbols known as the equinoctial or Greek Cross (Ibid.). Another element characteristic of passage tombs is the passage itself, which is formed by the addition of a long entrance passageway to the central chamber (Ibid.). The entire structure is furthermore covered with a circular mound of earth, occasionally edged with external kerbstones (Ibid.).

Magical properties?

Hag’s Hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Structural stones of the Loughcrew monuments were made of local green gritstone, which is soft to carve (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). “Cairn T may [also] have once been covered with milky white quartz, the same stone which was used on the facade at Newgrange” (Murphy 2017-2020). An author Jean McMann (1993) claims that “large pieces of quartz could be found behind the kerbstones and around the entry. Conwell also reported small lumps of quartz ‘strewn about’ at the base of the Hag’s Chair” (Murphy 2017-2020). It is generally known that quartz crystal is usually found at constructions known as passage tombs. Unquestionably, it was “valued and held in awe by almost every ancient culture as a magical stone (DeSalvo 2012:11)” Quartz is an example of hard mineral (7 on the Mohs’ scale) with a few interesting properties (Ibid.:14), of which “[the] piezoelectric effect is perhaps the most fascinating. [Namely], when stress is place across the crystal it develops an electrical potential. [Additionally, quartz is] able to transmit ultraviolet light, which glass cannot” (Ibid.:14-15). Why did the builders of passage tombs were so interested in using it at their constructions? Was it just because of its beautiful appearance or magical powers? If it was the second option, what should be understood by term “magical”? Some authors suggest that quartz crystal was selected due to its mentioned properties “and its use in information storage. […] Can quartz record information like a video recorder and then be played back centuries later? These are questions to consider” (Ibid.:15)

Astronomical instrument?

The Loughcrew mountains give a panoramic view nearly “from coast to coast and into both northern and southern provinces of Ireland” (Brennan 1994:46), which actually bears out is astronomical function. Undeniably the Loughcrew mounds constitute a large complex of astronomically aligned megalithic mounds (Brennan 1994) and after such authors as Martin Brennan (1994) they could have been originally designed as astronomical devices – not tombs.

Stone Age writings

Inside passage tombs, there are usually multiple megalithic petroglyphs (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). They are typically carved in stone in the forms of lozenge, triangles, leaf shapes, spirals, zigzags, circles, some surrounded by radiating lines, as it is observed in the Cairn T at Loughcrew (Ibid.). At some sites, anthropomorphic elements are believed to have been represented (Ibid.). They are usually interpreted as various facial features or body outlines (Ibid.). Some researches, as George Coffey claim such motifs are mostly ornamental and they may represent the style of decoration of the period (O’Kelly 1978). At the same time Coffey admitted himself that some of them may originally have been symbolical (Ibid.).

Photograph by Paul Naessens Cairn T centrally placed on Carnbane East with Cairn U to the right and Cairn S in the background. Photo from McCormack, L. (2020).

Usually the motifs are picked or pitted on the natural surface of the stone slabs, using a sharply pointed tool (O’Kelly 1978). Sometimes, however, the same motifs are just incised or scratched, which can be explained by an assumption they are unfinished petroglyphs (Ibid.). Accordingly, in the process of their creation, the outlines were first scratched on the slab and then picked over (Ibid.). The most sophisticated effect was achieved while picking back the stone surface, leaving an unpicked area in relief, which eventually forms the pattern or motif (Ibid.). This technique is seen at Newgrange and Knowth (Ibid.).

Some researchers believe the Loughcrew complex is earlier than other Neolithic sites in the Valley as its engraving techniques seem to be more primitive (Brennan 1994:46). Still there are not radiocarbon dates to support this thesis (Ibid.). Motifs found at passage tombs were generally carved on the surface of well displayed slab stones, whereas some others were mysteriously hidden – such signs are placed in or above the passage roof, at the bottom of orthostats, and even below the ground level (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). However, the group of well visible motifs placed at the backstones could have played an essential role at the time of important astronomical events, such as equinoxes and solstices, giving an encrypted message by their interaction with the beam of sunlight (Brennan 1994).

Cairn T at the equinox rising sun

My little sister at Loughcrew. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

Cairn at Loughcrew. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

What does the equinox mean?

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

Hag’s Cairn

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

Backstone with engravings. Photo from Michael (2018) “Loughcrew Cairns.”

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

Encrypted message of Loughcrew?

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

Photo from Brennan 1994:94.

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

The focal point of the entire process is a petroglyph representing “a large circular radial sun on the right of the stone.” Photo from Brennan 1994:95.

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

Backstone (C8). Photo from Brennan 1994:92.

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

Closer look at Cairn T. Photo from Jones, S. and E. (2020).

Precise solar construct

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

Epitaph for Jeremiah …?

Michelangelo, Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512). Photo from Bandwidth (2020) .

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

Tuatha Dé Danann as depicted in John Duncan’s “Riders of the Sidhe” (1911) . Photo from Wikipedia (2020).

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

Bethel aka Stone of Destiny

Dipre (D’Ypre), Nicolas. 1495–1531. Jacob’s dream of a ladder. Avignon. Musée du Petit Palais. Photo from: Wikimedia Commons.

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

Jeremiah, Ollamh Fodhla and Tuatha de Danann

The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it. Additionally, the stone has got the plate behind it labelling it as ‘Bethel’ . Photo from Paisley Tartan Army (2008-2009).

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


The Stone of Destiny. Photo from Paisley Tartan Army (2008-2009).

Just speculations

Although such stories are fascinating, they are decidedly criticized or even ignored by academics. First of all, the Cairn T of Loughcrew was not built as a burial place for Jeremiah or aligned according to the day of his death as it is itself dated back to the second part of the fourth millennium BC, whereas Jeremiah lived in the sixth century BC. Most authors point to the fact that Irish records do not mention Jeremiah’s landing in Ireland or the fact he brought there such treasures as the Bethel or the Arch of Convents (Keyser 1999-2009). The assumption that the Prophet was buried in the Cairn T of  Loughcrew is not borne out either by Irish Annals, petroglyphs of the cairn (unless somebody has deciphered their meaning) or by archaeological evidence. If the Bethel is the same as the Stone of Destiny, which is still under question, it seems more possible it was brought by the Israelites from the Tribe of Dan. Still these are also speculations …

Inside the Cairn T

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

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

Do they contain any encoded messages at all …?

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“About Boyne Valley Tourism” (2018) Meath County Council. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VUN1EC>. [Accessed 7th March, 2020].

“Tuatha Dé Danann” (2020) Wikipedia. Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/33haaCw>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Bandwidth (2020) “Works.Voice(s) & Orchestra Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah (1942)”. In: Leonard Berstein Office. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TR9sca>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

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

Byrne, M. (2020) “Loughcrew – Sliabh na Cailleach”. In: The Sacred Island. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2Tx6OrS>. [Accessed 8th March, 2020].

Celentano, E., Mulcahy, D., Pyrgies J. (2018) “Loughcrew. Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)”. In: ARCH40780: Irish Archaeological Landscapes. Presentation Handout. UCD.

DeSalvo Ph.D., J. (2012) Power Crystals: Spiritual and Magical Practices, Crystal Skulls, and Alien Technology. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books.

Dipre (D’Ypre), Nicolas. 1495–1531. Jacob’s dream of a ladder. Avignon. Musée du Petit Palais. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aVu9t5>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Dronehenge (2016) “Maps of the cairns at Sliabh na Caillighe, Loughcrew (Bing Maps)” In: Mythical Ireland Blog. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U74ZB1>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

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

Hugh N. (2017) “The 7,000 Year Old Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery in Ancient Ireland” In: Megalithomania. Available at <https://bit.ly/2IKRkKH>. [Accessed 7th March, 2020].

JAH. (1998-2006) Jeremiah’s Tomb (The Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla). Available at  <https://bit.ly/2U8zCWC>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Jones, S. and E. (2020) “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QgLUew>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Keyser, J. D. (1999-2009) “The Coronation Stone – Jeremiah in Ireland”. In: Sanders, M. S. Mysteries of the Bible. Available at  <https://bit.ly/39MA7wi>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

McCormack, L. (2020) “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WcTHhi>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

McMann, J. (1993) Loughcrew The Cairns a Guide. In: Murphy, A. (2017-2020) Mythical Ireland. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2WcWAP3>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Michael (2018) “Loughcrew Cairns” In: BoyneValleyTours.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TNxLrw>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Michael (2018) Boyne Valley Tours.com. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2GJWib9>. [Accessed 7th March, 2020].

Murphy, A. (2017-2020) Mythical Ireland. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2WcWAP3>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

O’Kelly, C. (1978) Passage-grave Art in the Boyne Valley, Cork: Houston&Son.

O’Bryan, L. (2017) “Could Ireland’s Cairn T Really Be the Tomb of the Prophet Jeremiah?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2xvtDDJ>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Paisley Tartan Army (2008-2009) “The Stone of Destiny” In: The Sons of Scotland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2INeBeZ>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Rhys, J. (1901-2015) Celtic Folklore. Welsh and Manx. Vol.1. Cambridge University Press.

Shortt, N., Heery F. (2020) “Loughcrew Cairns”. In: Loughcrew Megalithic Centre. Available at <https://bit.ly/38EUw5j>. [Accessed 8th March, 2020].

Swift, J. (c. 1720) “Loughcrew Poem” In: Byrne, M. (2020) “Loughcrew – Sliabh na Cailleach”. In: The Sacred Island. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2Tx6OrS>. [Accessed 8th March, 2020].

Al Fresco vs al Secco and Controversial Examples of Murals

Yet before I started my studies of art history I had got problems to accurately recognize a technique applied by artists in processes of mural painting. Although people generally describe wall paintings simply with the term of frescoes, it may not be technically correct for all of them (Jaspal 2007). Then I actually realized that even scholars may happen to misuse the term, especially in case of controversial examples, whose technique has been always strongly debated.

But let’s start from the beginning

When we talk about wall paintings or murals (Latin murus) we mean paintings done on the walls (Somathilake 2007:109). In the context of techniques of murals, we can specify:

AL FRESCO (It. ‘fresh’) True fresco (buon affresco, as distinct from fresco secco), is painting done with mineral or earth pigments upon wet lime or gypsum PLASTER. (Vegetable pigments cannot be used as they are attacked by the lime). The pigments are suspended in water, and unite with the plaster as they dry. The basis is a roughcast wall, covered with a layer of plaster (the arricciato), on which the composition (the synopia) is sketched out in charcoal and sinopia. Only enough wet plaster (the intonaco) is then applied for a day’s work. Any additional retouching must be done in fresco secco.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:96)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12 and ‘Last Judgement’ 1536-41 (fresco). True Fresco is a skill that dates back to Classical Antiquity but reached its peak as an art form during the Italian Renaissance. Photo from: “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour” (2008-2020).

And …

AL SECCO (It. ‘dry’), fresco secco (It. ‘dry fresco’) Painting which, unlike true FRESCO, is carried out on plaster which has already dried. It can be done in TEMPERA, or with PIGMENTS in a MEDIUM of lime-water. In the latter case, the surface is dampened before applying the paint. The results are less durable than true fresco.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:195)
Cupola decoration Inv. No. 7118 Tempera; Bawit, Monastery of St. Apollo, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Cairo, tempera). Photo from Web Gallery of Art (1996-2020).

Al Fresco – from the Antiquity to Renaissance

AL FRESCO (fresh in Italian) indicates fresh or wet ground, and FRESCO BUONO (true fresco) is made using a genuine wet ground (Somathilake 2007:109). Although al fresco had been already practiced by ancient civilisations, the technique called fresco buono (or buon fresco) was first perfected in Italy, around 1300, on the verge of Renaissance (Ibid.:110).

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘The Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508 -12 (fresco) The most iconic image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, also referred to as ‘The Creation of Adam’. Photo from: Wikipedia (2020).

“The technique [actually] involves the most durable form of art known to Europe where a piece of painting must be completed on a wet and freshly laid stucco ground before another piece of plaster is prepared” (Somathilake 2007:113). In this method pigments are mixed with water only (Lucie-Smith 2003:96). In a fresco technique, “no binder is required to be added to the mineral pigments that are applied because the chemical reaction of the wet plaster with the carbon dioxide in the air creates a hard layer of calcium carbonate and the pigments are securely fixed in the calcium carbonate layer while drying” (Jaspal 2007).

Young Girl Gathering Saffron Crocus Flowers, detail of wall painting, Room 3 of House Xeste, Akrotiri, Thera. Second Palace period, c. 1700-1450 BCE. Thera Foundation, Petros M. Nomikos, Greece. Photo from: Richards, B., Sherman, H., Richardson E. (2001)

Accordingly, the method “consists of painting with lime-resistant pigments (only pigments which do not suffer from lime can be used) on damp lime plaster, which has not yet set. In this process as the plaster can only be painted on once it is wet, the painter divides his work in the so-called ‘day-pieces’, each piece day being the area, which he can finish [daily]” (Somathilake 2007:113). “In this rapid process, the parts of the plastered portion that have not been painted yet need to be cut away at the end of [work]” (Dhanapala:65). When the artists comes back to painting, the surface is plastered to keep it damp (Ibid.). “Thus in true fresco nothing can be added or altered after the plaster has set. This time factor gives fresco painting an extraordinary vitality as it means that the brushwork must be quick, the forms monumental and the range of colours limited”(Somathilake 2007:113).

“In addition, when the plaster sets, the particles of colours crystallise into the wall and remain permanently fused in it. They cannot flake off. […] The fresco can only be damaged if the wall decays. (…) The relevant plaster layers must therefore be very carefully built up” (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 BC, fresco. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jebulon, CC0. Photo and caption from Dr. German, S. (2020). The Minoans decorated their temple (known as palaces) complexes and homes with the so-called true fresco painting (buon fresco).

The technique of Al Secco and Tempera

Fresco secco actually indicates any dry technique of murals, including tempera. Here, “the whole wall or rock surface may be completely plastered and allowed to dry” (Dhanapala:65). The main aspect of this method, involves then painting on lime plaster which already has set (Somathilake 2007:113). The technique al secco was commonly applied in antiquity (Somathilake 2007:113). In its process, “the pigments were ground in an aqueous binding medium. The completely dry lime plaster wall is usually thoroughly saturated with lime water (or baryta water) and left overnight. The painting then takes place on a moist surface as in fresco, except that the colours are mixed with a solution of casein glue or egg yolk [- tempera], instead of being ground in water only” (Ibid.). Painting in fresco secco “are also quite stable, but susceptible to damage by moisture and dampness. Yet, as they are done on dry plaster, there is no stress of the time deadline” (Jaspal 2007). This technique has always complemented the fresco method, when alterations were needed. These are usually referred to as superficial, upper layers (ibid.).

Decorated prayer niche. Inv. No. 7987. Tempera Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah, cell 1725, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Coptic Cairo). Photo from: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum (2020)..

TEMPERA (It. fr. Lat. temperare, ‘to mix in due proportion’). An EMULSION used as a MEDIUM for PIGMENT. Traditionally, tempera is made with whole eggs or egg-yolk, but milk, various kinds of glue or gum or even dandelion juice or the sap of the fig-tree can be used.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:213)

In other words, the pigment used is mixed with some liquid vehicle, such as egg-yolk, diluted glue or gum, chalk, clay, gelatine, etc. (Somathilake 2007:109-110,112,120). Next it is laid on a dry surface. After Somathilake (2007:120), however, true tempera is when the colours are ground with egg yolk only. Another characteristics typical of tempera are rather opaque colours in paintings, whereas in the true fresco technique, colours are subdued and their choice is limited (Dhanapala:67).

It is important to note that tempera in al secco technique is exclusively used in wall paintings, when a painting is applied directly on plaster (the latter is applied first on the wall or rock’s surface). Tempera, however, can also be executed on the wood (e.g. fayum portraits), vellum (e.g. The Beautiful Hours of Jean de France, Duc de Berry), paper (Funerary Equipment, Tomb Of Userhat), canvas (paintings in the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar), etc.

Wall painting flourished in Faras in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The finest monumental composition is the Nativity, once in the northern aisle … Photo from: Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014).
…. and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace in the narthex. The paintings were executed in the tempera technique on dry mud plaster, using natural pigments found on the desert fringes of the Nile Valley. Photo from: Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) .

Major difference between the techniques

Accordingly, the main difference in these two methods is that in the fresco the pigments are strongly bound within the plaster and so are united with the surface, while in al secco the pigments are applied as layers on top of the plaster surface (Dhanapala:65; Somathilake 2007:114).

Controversy in the matter of the Technique of Murals in South Asia

Controversy regarding a recognition of a correct technique of murals mainly appears in an analysis of paintings from South Asia, precisely Ajanta (India) and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka). Let’s call them simply paintings. The paintings of Ajanta Caves and of Sigiriya rock are said to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries (Dalrymple 2014; De Silva 2019). Most of experts have already reached a consensus that the so-called Ajanta ‘frescoes’ are actually paintings made by means of some kind of tempera, which actually amounted to the title of al secco as their pigments had been applied to dried plaster (Somathilake 2007:120). Nevertheless, the case of Sigiriya still keeps the scholars awake.

Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption from: Sekhon, B. (2020)

Differences between murals of Ajanta and Sigiriya

One of Sri Lankan authors, D.B Dhanapala heatedly states that even “most authorities incline to the opinion that [Sigiriya paintings] are tempera in technique, [their] reasoning seems to be this wise: ‘[the] Sigiriya pictures bear a close affinity to those at Ajanta. [As the latter] have been proved to be tempera paintings, therefore the Sigiriya figures are tempera [too]!” (Ibid.:64).

There are several aspects of murals that can be actually examined in order to decide on a technique applied: characteristics of the ground (plaster), the presence of medium and its nature (Somathilake 2007:119).

Sigiriya
Women in the Clouds in Sigiriya: true freso or tempera?

Medium

As it is discussed above, a medium binder has been ultimately used in al secco technique, usually by means of tempera. The universally accepted classification of paintings, such as oil, watercolour, tempera, fresco etc. is generally formulated based on the medium (binder) used (Ibid.). Unfortunately, the binding medium in India and Sri Lanka is said to have largely perished due to autoxidation and the depredations by insect-pests (Ibid.:119-120). Hence there is an issue of identifying the presence of the binder even through chemical analysis, which factually stands in the way of coming to a definite conclusion (Ibid.:120).

Sigiriya
One of the most iconic Sigiriya’s murals ; the so-called Apsara or a court lady

Dr. Somathilake (2007:120,123), however, underlines that “in many murals [vegetable glue or gum] was the only organic binding medium that held the pigments firmly to the ground unlike in the fresco method. Thus, all these facts would definitely point to a tempera technique at Ajanta and elsewhere.” The binding components of the Sigiriya pigments are said to be a vegetable gum and a drying oil, which is insoluble in water (Ibid.:124). Probably, this is why the murals, which were exposed to the elements for centuries, have eventually survived to our times (Ibid.). From literary documents, we also know that ancient artists of Sri Lanka were familiar with a technique of using an oil medium for wall paintings (Ibid.)“and there was an apparent reason for using [it] since almost all of the murals were located outdoor, unlike the painting sites of India” (Ibid.).

Ground for the murals

Ajanta painting. Photo from Hortman, J. (2020)

In further examination, Dhanapala also analyses the ground for the murals in both cases, Ajanta and Sigiriya. The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya, unlike Ajanta’s thin surface, was actually more prepared for the technique of true fresco (Dhanapala:65-66). Moreover, artists working in Ajanta Caves must have worked in dimly-lit halls (Ibid.:66)(the way they actually let the light in is another mystery) and so they probably were not able to complete such intricate compositions, as Ajanta boasts, before the plaster got dry (Ibid.). Sigiriya’s painting have got more simple compositions and they are located in the open rock pocket, where strong sunlight has been available (Ibid.) (a separate question is how the artists actually managed to paint on the rock surface, while being suspended at the height of over 50 meters above the ground (Kovalsky, V. 2013).

The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya was more prepared for the technique of true fresco.

Pigments used

Furthermore, the author observes that in case of Ajanta, the scenes are overpainted in many scenes, whereas at Sigiriya, there are only few examples of overcoating (Dhanapala:67). In comparison to Ajanta, where colours are deeper and their palette wider, at Sigiriya the pigments are much thinner and so subdued, and they are restricted to mainly red, yellow, green and black (Dhanapala:67; Somathilake 2007:121,123). Although there are small areas of more intense green and blue, the author suggests, they may have been later additions completed in tempera (Dhanapala:67). Dr. Somathilake (2007:121), however, argues that although the blue pigment was not actually used as much as the other colours, it is evident that the green was originally applied in Sigiriya murals and so it was not a later addition. He also underlines that all the pigments used were of natural origins. In a fact, organic pigments were typical of both, fresco and tempera techniques.

Ajanta caves Mural paintings- Flying Apsara (Left), Queen Sivali begin tended to by her maids (Right) . Photo and caption from Sekhon, B. (2020) .

Besides, Dhanapala points out to the fact that the pigments in tempera have got a tendency to peel off on the plaster, which happens at Ajanta but does not occur at Sigiriya (Dhanapala:67). Even though the plaster comes off in Sigiriya murals, the pigments stay strongly incorporated in its structure (Ibid.:68). And if paint peels off, it appears only on surfaces, which were later altered in tempera (Ibid.).

Sigiriya woman with two hands

Dhanapala then puts forward another argument to support his thesis. In the figure no. 8 of the pocket B, behind the woman’s right hand, which was altered, there is an outline of the original hand visible in the plaster (Dhanapala:67). Dhanapala came to the conclusion that the artist changed his mind about how the woman’s hand should be actually depicted “but before he had time to erase the original hand the plaster dried” (Ibid.). Dr. Somathilake responds to Dhanapala’s argument claiming that an examination of the painting does not show any attempts to erase the contour of the original hand (Somathilake 2007:120-121). Moreover, if the plaster had dried before the artist had time to erase the hand, he would not have enough time to finish the hand in the altered position (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the scholar assumes that both: the original version and its alteration would have been done in fresco. There is another option though. The original woman’s hand may have been made in a true fresco technique, and later her hand was altered with a tempera technique. That would actually explain how the artist had enough time to finish the altered version and also why his original idea was still visible in the plaster.

Mural showing the woman with the outline of the original hand and the altered one below. The artist must have changed his mind … Photo from Rainbow. J. (2020).

Compromise ?

In his conclusion, Dhanapala sustains his arguments and claims Sigiriya murals were originally made as real frescoes (Ibid.:68). On the other side, such authorities, as Dr. Somathilake, strongly disagree with that opinion and argue that using the term ‘frescoes’ in terms of Ajanta or Sigiriya murals “is a misnomer in every sense” (Somathilake 2007:124). Further, they emphasize that there is no evidence that the Asian wall paintings are real frescoes (Ibid.), and “the general technique of the murals of India and Sri Lanka has always been some kind of tempera” (Ibid.). On the other side, there are scholars who have reached the compromise in that hotly debate and they believe that a technique applied in Ajanta and Sigiriya may be actually a combination of real fresco with tempera (see Somathilake 2007).

Notable Mural painting in Ajanta caves called Black Princess . Photo and caption from Sekhon, B. (2020) .

“No known process …”

Finally, it is also worth to quote another scholar, Havel (1905) whose words have become prominent for many researchers investigating the matter of Sigiriya’s murals (Dhanapala:66).

“There is no known process of tempera or oil painting which would stand to exposure of tropical weather for nearly fifteen hundred years as the Sigiriya paintings have done.”

(Havel 1905 in: Dhanapala:66)
“Gallery of Art” at Sigiriya. Photo from Debutante, D., Cator, J. (2020) .

We can also conclude that, like many aspects of Sigiriya site, also the question of its paintings (aka frescoes) still remains unresolved, not only in terms of their technique of painting but also regarding the way they were executed, iconographically represented and the purpose they were made for at all.

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