Tag Archives: Artifacts

Lady of the Labyrinth

The cicadas are extremely noisy during the summer months in Crete, and particularly in Knossos.

Exploring Knossos …

For a good while, I could not gather my thoughts as I stood in the vestibule of the Throne Room and looked deeper into its abyss. The name of this part of the so-called Palace of Knossos comes from the limestone throne found there, which has surprisingly survived in its entire form and which is still in the same location where Evans discovered it and where it was probably used in the past (Łogiadu-Platonos date unknown:60). Although it does not resemble the royal Egyptian thrones of the pharaohs or those of the ancient East, the archaeologist was convinced that he had come across a Cretan royal mansion where King Minos had once been enthroned (Gregor 1997:16).

Since then, however, various hypotheses have been made about the Throne Room of Knossos (Gregor 1997:16).

Kefalia Hill

Arthur Evans began excavations on the Kafala Hill – at the site of the the so-called palace at Knossos – on 23rd March, 1900 (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). An early discovery, made on 30th March, was a great number of clay tablets inscribed in Linear B script in the Room of the Chariot Tables (Ibid.). The most significant discovery, however, turned out to be the Throne Room complex (Ibid.). During the following months, Evans’s group unearthed a series of mysterious rooms along the west side of what later was known as the Central Court (Ibid.).

Reconstructed Fresco of a Tripartite Shrine
Grandstand fresco from the palace of Knossos (reconstruction). Source: Pinterest (2020)..

Unexpected discovery

During this first season of excavation at Knossos, the area between the Throne Room and the Room of the Chariot Tables was uncovered (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). It included the Room of the Tall Pithos and a small room with two open, and empty, cists or vats in the floor (Ibid.). At the time of their discovery, the cists were of a very little interest … (Ibid.).

Temple repositories

Three years later, in 1903, it was noticed that the pavement around the cists was sagging and upon investigation, two much larger stone-lined cists, or repositories, were discovered beneath the floor (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). This area  was called the Temple Repositories of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary at Knossos (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:80-81; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). The Tripartite Shrine depicted in one of the Grandstand Fresco may have once been its façade (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). Sir Arthur Evans found a large quantity of amazing objects there, probably deposited just after the huge earthquake, around 1700 BC. (Ibid.).

Excavation of the temple repositories, from Sir Arthur Evans, The Neolithic and Early and Middle Minoan Ages (London: Macmillan, 1921), p. 465 (Universitäts-Bibliothek Heidelberg).Source: German (2018).

“Duncan Mckenzie found, on top, a large quantity of vases […] tightly packed together. Then, about a metre down, he found seal impressions, large quantities of painted sea shells, imitation shells and flying fish, fruit and flowers made of faience, beads, faience chalices with sacred tree motifs, decorative inlays, objects made of bone and ivory, gold leaf, a finely polished but broken marble cross [and] two beautiful faience plaques of a goat with her kids and a cow with her calf” (Castleden 2000:81).

Ritually killed?

The most spectacular finds, however, were the broken pieces of at least three female faience statuettes (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017; German 2018). “Vast numbers of shells accompanied the terra-cotta figures, along with votive robes for the statues” (Johnson 1990:144). They all were actually represented opulently dressed with two of them with snakes (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017; German 2018). The third one lacks the upper part so it is difficult to say if she held the snakes as well but it is highly possible (Ibid.). “One of the [figures holding snakes] found in the East Repository had been [also] broken before it was sealed up in the vault; a matching fragment of it was found in the West Repository. These and other pieces of cult furniture may have been deliberately, ritually killed [by their depositors] by breaking before being sealed up in the large repositories as a re-foundation offering. After they were filled and closed, the repositories were replaced by two new and smaller [ones]” (Castleden 2000:81).

Objects from the temple repositories f Knossos, just after its discovery in 1903. Evans, A.J. (1921-35). The Palace of Minos – Volumes 1-4. Source: “Minoan Snake Goddess Figurine” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The most significant thing about the temple treasure is that it hints at the sort of cult activities that may have been conducted in the surrounding chambers of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary” (Castleden 2000:81).

Snake Goddesses’ epiphany and her Votary

The larger statuette (left) stands some thirty-five centimetres high and depicts a woman wearing a tall hat, an embroidered bodice and a skirt with a short apron (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017).

The information table on the area of the West Wing of Knossos, where the faience female figures were found.

“Her omnipotence is expressed through a triple tiara topped […] by a snake’s head, [the] bodice, a laced corset exposing her full breasts, suggests her nourishing aspects. The skirt is bordered with the sacred net pattern and partially covered by a short double apron edged with the wave design. The figurine’s most striking features are her staring eyes, black and hypnotic. The eyebrows are sculpted in relief to enhance the mantic expression. Hair hair, cut short in front, falls down her back to her waist. Large ears, quite out of proportion, are a feature noted in other Cretan goddesses of the period” (Johnson 1990:142). Probably three snakes are swirling around her body (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). One is draped around her neck so that it hangs well down her back with its bulk slithering along both of her arms (Ibid.). She holds the snake’s head in her right hand and the tail in her left (Ibid.). Two other snakes appear to slither down her body from the top of her headdress, gliding past her breasts to intertwine their heads just below her waist (Ibid.). All of them “twine [around the faience woman] as if offering life or death” (Johnson 1990:142).

Two Snake Goddesses from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 34.2 cm and 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo (modified): Jill_Ion, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; modified). Source: German (2018).

The smaller figure (far right), which is about twenty centimetres tall, was found with the head and part of the left arm missing (now reconstructed) (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:81-82; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). At the time of being found, she grasped a small snake in her surviving outstretched hand and presumably there had been another one in the right one (Johnson 1990:143; Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). The snake’ “size and distinctive markings identify [it] as [a] sacred [adder]” (Johnson 1990:143). Evans found a small fragment of what he took to be her headdress, a circular crown decorated with raised medallions (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). There was a small rivet hole in the top that matched exactly with another fragment representing the small seated figure of a feline, perhaps a lioness, and the figure was restored on that basis (Ibid.). “The restoration of the Snake Goddess was done by the Danish artist Halvor Bagge together with Evans. Their contribution to the figurine was the creation of a matching arm and stripy snake, the head of the goddess, and the placement of the hat and cat […] on her head, [composed of] separate faience pieces found in the Temple Repositories […]” (German 2018).

The Snake Goddess prior to restoration by Evans,
from Angelo Mosso, The Palaces of Crete and
Their Builders (London: Unwin, 1907), p. 137
(University of Toronto Libraries). Source: German (2018).

“The nubile figure of the smaller goddess is robed in the same fashion as the more matronly figure. A tight-fitting jacket exposes her breasts. Her bell-shaped skirt hangs from the waist in seven flounces, and her apron is covered with the cross-hatched net pattern. Like the larger [figure, the smaller’s] skirt covers her feet, a mark of divinity” (Johnson 1990:143). Evans believed the larger figure to be the Goddess herself or a High Priestess as her epiphany, while the smaller was perhaps a lesser and younger priestess or a votary (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:82; Archaeological Institute of America 2017).

Two Snake Goddesses from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 34.2 cm and 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jill_Ion, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; modified). Source: German (2018).

The figurines must have been created long before the time of the earthquake (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). Nevertheless, they are usually dated back to the time of their destruction (Ibid.). “[Now] reconstructed and deservedly among the most famous and memorable relics of the Minoan culture, [they both show] how the Minoan Snake Goddess was visualized [and] her High Priestess ritually and ecstatically transformed into an epiphany of the goddess” (Castleden 2000:82-82).

The Palace of Knossos is not a palace

As Sir Arthur Evans excavated the magnificent ruins at Knossos, he grew more certain that this was a palace of King Minos and home of the legendary labyrinth (Lilley 2006). He even believed that he had found a royal throne (Ibid.). However, new revelations about Minoan religion and language are transforming a modern understanding of those people (Ibid.). Some archaeologists believe that these buildings are not a palace (Ibid.). Instead they see the Daedalus’ labyrinth or a temple [or both] to harness the chthonic and celestial powers of the divine (Castleden 2000:70-76; Lilley 2006; ).

The Throne Room

Rodney Castleden thinks that “[the] Throne Room has an oppressive, claustrophobic quality that is often missed in photographs” (Castleden 2000:77). I share his opinion. “Windowless and low-ceilinged, approached by way of a deep anteroom that itself is depressed four steps below the level of the Central Court, the room has an almost subterranean quality” (Ibid.:77). Such a character of the Room was also expressed by the colour of the floors and pillars (Ibid.:77). They were pained red (Ibid.:77). The colour itself was associated with sacrificial blood and by extension also with the underworld (Ibid.:77). “The red floor panel was apparently the centre of the religious rituals in the Throne Sanctuary and the manifestation of the deity on the throne itself was their focus” (Ibid.:77).

The so-called Throne Room discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, with a fully preserved gypsum throne. Was it for a king?

The throne was made of gypsum and, unlike flanking it benches, it was surely intended as a seat (Castleden 2000:77). Surprisingly enough, “it does not face the doorway, but looks across the width of the room towards the half-hidden sunken adyton (holy of holies), [which is also referred to as the lustral basin]” (Ibid.:77). Its design particularly indicates its chthonic character and purpose, and its setting visibly relates it to the throne itself (Ibid.:77). Some scholars even interpret it as the walled pit used for holding sacred snakes (Gregor 1997:17).

“The whole complex of chambers, sixteen in all, [with the adyton included], was evidently designed as a self-contained unit within the temple building” (Castleden 2000:78). It may have been dedicated to the Snake Goddess as her major attribute has been specifically linked to the powers coming from the underworld.

Priestess of the light and darkness

In 2001, the archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray realized that each of the doorways in the Throne Room is aligned with the rising sun on key days in the calendar (Lilley 2006).

The Vase of Zakros. Museum of Heraklion, Crete. CC BY-SA 3.0.; 2012. Source:Source: “Zakros” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘What we’re looking at here is a solar temple’, he claims (Lilley 2006). Accordingly, like the Egyptians, the Minoans may have worshiped the changing cycles of the Sun, the Moon and the stars (Ibid.). Light has always been born from darkness and “[the] adyta were certainly places to descend into […] dark and secret places for mystic rituals, places where the subterranean deities might be invoked, places for individual initiation” (Castleden 2000:78). In the darkness of the adyton, the whole ceremony of the Throne Room may have started with the throne as its focal point. “What we have here is essentially a theater of the senses’, says Dr McGillivray (Lilley 2006). “You can start off with complete blackness and then you can fling open these doors at that [very] moment of sunrise and experience [the] beginning of something new. And in the winter, the Sun comes through on the winter solstice and illuminates the throne” (Ibid.).

Peak Sanctuary re-creation

“The nature of the frescoes [of the Throne Room themselves] suggests an attempt was being made to re-create [there] the wild landscape of the mountain tops. The peculiar wavy shape of the throne […] is a representation of a mountain peak; a rhyton from the temple at Zakro shows a very similar form to indicate the summit of a mountain rising behind an elaborately designed peak sanctuary” (Castleden 2000:79).

The Vase of Zakros. Museum of Heraklion; detail showing the outlines of the throne imitating a mountain peak (between the wild goats’ heads), Crete. CC BY-SA 3.0.; 2012. Source:Source: “Zakros” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, “[the] intention of the Throne Sanctuary […] was to honour the same deity or deities that were honoured in the peak sanctuaries by a symbolic re-creation of the peak setting” (Castleden 2000:79). This was mostly a domain of the Mountain Goddess, and the peak dominated by her presence was usually interpreted as a form of her throne (Żak-Bucholc 2005). The latter was also a symbolical representation of the goddess herself (Żak-Bucholc 2005; see Image of the Goddess: between Matriarchy and Patriarchy).

Who sat on the Throne?

“But which god or goddess was being worshiped or appeared to in the Throne Room is far more difficult to say” (Castleden 2000:79). Who then would have sat upon the throne? (History Channel 1980s). Was it used by a king to hold court or did snake princesses practice their rituals of sacrifice there? (Ibid.). Who may have worn the Isopata Signet Ring illustrating rituals led by women? (Ibid.). Was it the privilege of royal or priestly dignity? (Ibid.).

“It was on 13th April 1900 that Evans’ workmen started uncovering the north wall of the Throne Room with its palm tree fresco fragments and the throne itself” (Castleden 2000:43). The Throne Room with its seat still perfectly intact is the oldest ever found in Europe dating back 3 500 years () “[It] seemed to provide Evans with the solid proof of kingship that would support his palace interpretation, but it also provided him with less welcome evidence of religious use” (Castleden 2000:77).

From one side, there is evidence suggesting the existence of a real King Minos; later on, archaeologists found an inscription in an ancient language that may even mention the King by name (Cassel, Conway 2009). ‘In the archives of Knossos there were stone tablets which have inscribed on the words which looked to be like the name of King Minos’, says the author, Tom Stone (Ibid.). Some scholars, however, claim that the word ‘Minos’ does not stand for the name of a particular king but refers to the common title of the monarchs of the Minoans (Castleden 2000:171-172; see Santarcangeli 1982). Also “the strength of the Greeks’ belief in King Minos suggests that there were kings in bronze age Crete” (Castleden 2000:171). These clues suggest the King may have actually lived but the most intriguing connection to the ruins in Knossos appears on another tablet found at the site (Cassel, Conway 2009). “On tablet Gg 702, the inscription [written in the Linear B] refers to an offering made to [the so called Mistress or Lady or Potnia of the Labyrinth]” (Castleden 2000:107; see: Cassel, Conway 2009). So there is in writing not only a direct reference to the Labyrinth, described by Greeks in the Myth of Minotaur, but also a unmistakable connection between the Palace of Knossos and the Labyrinth itself (Cassel, Conway 2009).

Ariadne at the threshold of the Labyrinth. Shot from the documentary Cassel C., Conway J. (2009) The Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Clash of the Gods, Season 1, Episode 4. Dreamaker Productions; KPI.

“[The word ‘Potnia’ [itself] was [long] in use in the classical period as an honorific title in addressing women of rank, such as queens, goddesses and mothers; it seems to have had the same flavour of archaic deference as the phrase ‘my lady’. [It] appears again and again as [the main female title referring to the Minoans’ goddess]. Hers, probably, was the double-axe symbol that [is found] at so many Minoan sanctuaries on Crete, but possibly the pillar and the snake were her symbols too. [Truly], the snake may particularly have made a natural symbol for the chtonic, Earth-mother aspect of Potnia” (Castleden 2000:107). Are then the faience female statuettes with snakes linked to the cult of Potnia, and so to the Lady of the Labyrinth?

Mistress of the Labyrinth

Some authors believe, there was a living epiphany of Potnia in Knossos, as much as it is illustrated by the faience figurines (Cassel, Conway 2009). Her identity is, however, an intriguing mystery (Ibid.). Experts believe it was a woman of great importance in the palace, a High Priestess or even the king’s daughter who held this title (Ibid.). In the myth, the King Minos’ daughter was Ariadne and she plays an important role in the myth (Ibid.). ‘We do not know who the Mistress of the Labyrinth was’, says Stone (Ibid.). ‘But it could have been Ariadne in as much as she was entitled to be the priestess of the temple because she was the first daughter of King Minos’ (Ibid.).

“Harriet Boyd, an American pioneer archaeologist […], was at Knossos when the Throne Room was opened up. She described in her diary how Evans straight away named the stone seat ‘the Throne of Ariadne’. The throne’s broad moulded seat, Evans explained, was more likely designed for a woman’s hips than a man’s” (Castleden 2000:43-44).

Sir Arthur Evans, 1911, in Knossos. Source: German
(2020). In: Khan Academy.

For this reason it happened “he […] referred to the stone seat as ‘Ariadne’s throne’ and the sunken area opposite as ‘Ariadne’s bath’. […] But the association of the throne with Ariadne did not lead Evans anywhere, evocative though it was. [On the other side], Evans sometimes referred to the Throne Room as ‘King Minos’ Council Chamber’ to get round this problem. Even so, that initial inspiration witnessed by Miss Boyd, that the throne was Ariadne’s persisted” (Castleden 2000:44). As a matter of fact, “Evans gave different impressions about the throne on different occasions, [calling it either Ariadne’s or King Minos’ seat]. The accuracy of the name was perhaps unimportant to [him]. What seemed to have mattered most to [the archaeologist] was the names evoked the right response in the visitor, that he or she should feel the place to be a great palace and connected with glittering and exotic names from [the] Greek myth” (Ibid.:44-45).

Solar Virgin

According to the Greek myth, Ariadne is a Cretan princess, the daughter of King Minos and his wife Pazyfae, and the half-sister of the monstrous hybrid, Minotaur (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:24). Ariadne enters the mythical scene with the arrival of Theseus in Crete, who is intended together with his Athenian companions as a sacrificial offering to the Minotaur living in the Labyrinth (Ibid.:24). After falling in love with the hero, the girl reveals him the secret of how to leave the Labyrinth, and when he is saved she decides to abandon her home island by his side (Ibid.:24). One version of the myth tells of Ariadne’s breakup with Theseus; reportedly he abandons her on the island of Dia (now Naxos), where she eventually marries Dionysus (Ibid.:25-26). Thus, the meeting with the hero is only a short-lived episode in her life and is only a transition to the essential part of her divine destiny alongside Dionysus – the regenerating god par excellence (Ibid.:26). In this context, Ariadne was seen as a wild goddess, “associated with untamed landscape and consorting with wild beasts” (Castleden 2000:107), as much as it is illustrated by the found female figures.

Ariadne as the Lady of the Labyrinth. Shot from the documentary Cassel C., Conway J. (2009) The Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Clash of the Gods, Season 1, Episode 4. Dreamaker Productions; KPI.

In the Greek tradition, Ariadne was considered a solar virgin, a daughter of the sun and a spring maiden (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:25). Moreover, in Crete her name meant radiant and luminous (Ibid.:25). The Sun in its daily and annual journey illustrates the mystery of the resurrection, hence Ariadne was a symbol of rebirth (Ibid.:25). As such, she is the goddess of life, love and death (Ibid.:25). If she was a priestess in Knossos, she must have led the revival cult; it was finally believed that she disappeared annually and reappeared in the spring (Ibid.:25-26).

Ariadne’s guideline through the darkness

As Theseus goes deeper and farther, and with each step he comes closer to death at the bottom of the abyss, at the center of the maze, Ariadne is a ‘potential opportunity’ for him to see the light again (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:26).

Isopata Signet Ring from Knossos, showing some sort of ritual being performed by priestesses. Source: Tausch (2012). In: Wikidata.

The hero who reaches the end of death and kills the Minotaur would never have escaped from the dark Labyrinth if not for Ariadne’s help (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:26). The myth is therefore a story of rebirth, of leaving the Labyrinth in a physical and mystical, literal and figurative sense (Ibid.:26). On the threshold of the Labyrinth, in whose deepest recess lurks a mortal monster, stands Ariadne, the Lady of the Labyrinth (Ibid.:26). She offers the hero a ball of thread and holds its end in her hand as if she held the hero’s destiny (Ibid.:26). In this context, Ariadne personifies and combines two aspects: chtonic and solar, which are also closely intertwined in human life by death and rebirth (Ibid.:26). The Throne Room seems to illustrate this mystery, which is also well revealed by the Greek myth.

Ariadne on the Throne

Like chthonic powers, out of the underground depository of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary came the figures looking like Minoan deities or their priestesses (Lilley 2006). “[Snakes] characterize [their] domination of the underworld” (Johnson 1990:143). Such women apparently controlled religious life and there are scholars who believe that the gypsum throne at Knossos was occupied not by a king but by a priestess (Ibid.). ‘Whoever [sat] on that throne [was] basically being illuminated […] on the day when the Sun is reborn’, says Dr. McGillivray (Ibid.). Still he believes that it was rather a High Priestess who sat there to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun and re-forge the Minoan bond with nature (Ibid.). It is also likely that she was “mysteriously transformed by ritual into an epiphany of a deity (Castleden 2000:82).

Snake Goddess from the palace at Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Zde. CC BY-SA 4.0). Source: German (2018); Joy of Museums Virtual Tours (2020).

The female figurines found at Knossos themselves suggest a strong cult of the snake deity in the Throne Room (Lilley 2006). Not only is the snake chthonic in its character but also did it appear as a symbol of the renewal coming with the rising Sun. As such it perfectly illustrates the opposite but co-substantiating one another powers of Ariadne. The presence of the snake imagery is also reinforcing the idea that the Knossos palace was actually a temple and that it was led by the Lady of the Labyrinth (Ibid.). Yet [its] size and evident […] seems to leave little room for a king. It is tempting to see King Minos as forever living in the shadow of the High Priestess of the Labyrinth, just as the worshipful Velchanos, Minoan male deity], always lived in the shadow of Potnia. The king may have been a puppet of the priestesses, dependent on them for the divine validation of his reign and perhaps even dependent on them for material sustenance; a share of a large tribute income of the Labyrinth may have been diverted discreetly into the king’s coffers” (Castleden 2000:172).

Women superior to men?

Apart from priestesses, who are believed to have stood at the forefront of the Minoan prosperous society, these were apparently Minoan women who enjoyed significant influence and independence (Mitchell 2011). The legal code found in Crete testifies that Minoan women had more marital rights than wives in other societies of that time (Ibid.). In the event of divorce, they could even order the return of the dowry (Ibid.). And only men were punished for adultery (Ibid.).

The Sacred Grove miniature fresco. Source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015).

Such a high status of women and their religious leadership is also highlighted by the Minoan art. In the Grandstand or the Sacred Grove frescoes, there is a group of women “who are obviously the [significant] figures. [On the other side], there is still no sign of Evans’ king and no sign of any male officials” (Castleden 2000:116; see 54-55).

The presiding spirit of the Minoan Golden Age

The presiding spirit of Minoan Crete in its Golden Age was undoubtedly the Snake Goddess, the Minoan icon of the feminine power (Hughes 2004). Together with her diminutive companion, often described as a votary, the figurines are both beautifully attired but even their fine craftsmanship cannot disguise the fact that something elemental and very wild is hiding behind their elegant posture (Ibid.). The goddess’ fierce, wide-eyed stare is matched by her votary’s concentration; simultaneously, the gigantic snake grips her in a protective embrace from her slender waist right up to the tip of her headdress (Ibid.).

Hughes B. “The Snake Goddess”. In: Archer M, Kirby T. (2004) The Minoans. The Ancient Worlds: Episode 3 (fragment). Source: Higging (2018). In: Youtube.

The Minoan world was undoubtedly governed by such potent and vindictive powers as personified by the Snake Goddess (Hughes 2004). They could not be understood only placated (Ibid.). For all the Goddess’ glamour and sexual power this is the deity who feeds off respect and fear and not love (Ibid.). “Her fearsome expression is a reminder of the volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, and earthquakes that destroyed the temple-palaces on more than one occasion. The greatest eruption ever known is that of the volcano of nearby Thera, [today Santorini]. It blew up the island in a terrible holocaust […] that probably [began the destruction of] the Minoan civilization” (Johnson 1990:143; see: When Gods Turned against the Minoans).

Here on Crete, although separated by millennia from the Minoans, I felt closer to the ancient mysterious forces, hidden in the hypnotic gaze of the Snake Goddess and Ariadne’s shining smile, indicating the exit from the Labyrinth’s abyss.

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Image of the Goddess: between Matriarchy and Patriarchy

On the threshold of the Neolithic, the hunter slowly turns into a farmer and breeder (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). This is a special period in the development of the matriarchal system (Ibid.). The forces of nature continue to play a major role in human life, yet the new lifestyle changes its spiritual approach (Ibid.). Moon worship is replaced by solar cult but it is still closely related to female aspects and so responsible for factors influencing land fertility and annual harvests, which are highly significant to Neolithic society (Ibid.). The cycle process and persistence of nature flows from its divine matrix (Ibid.). Mother Earth supports life, is responsible for death, but also guarantees rebirth (Ibid.).

Neolithic face of Magna Mater

In the Paleolithic, the dark, hidden uterus corresponded to cave sanctuaries (see Figurines of the Stone Age: Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic), and in the Neolithic it was identified with the earth itself – the eternal parent (Jabłońska 2010). Magna Mater managed vegetation, nature, and her fertility originated in the ground which, as the humans observed, gave birth to all forms of life without interruption (Ibid.). The Neolithic likewise saw a similarity between the growth of humans and plants, with the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (Ibid.).

Seated “goddess” of Çatalhöyük, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey (the sixth millennium BC). Neolithic Magna Mater was usually enthroned and flanked by two animals. In this representation, she is giving birth to a child.

While naturalistic cave art fades away with the end of the Paleolithic world of the hunter-gatherer, the image of the Mother-Goddess stubbornly repeats the well-established pattern: exaggeratedly lush shapes with lack of care for facial features, arms and legs, as if the essence of femininity was limited to the heaviness of a figure distorted by motherhood (Nougier 1898:39). Such domestic female figurines still had a right to exist, as does life that awoke in Mother Earth’s womb (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48).

Goddess in the first cities

In the Neolithic Age, when the first cities were sprouting, goddess worship was not only common, but it clearly flourished and gained importance (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48). This is evidenced by the finds of numerous figurines of the goddess – mother in the houses of the first urban settlements, such as the Anatolian Çatalhöyük or Hacilar (Ibid.:25-48). The place where religious rituals were performed was apparently a part of the house adapted for these purposes, most often decorated with geometric patterns and heads of bulls, animals dedicated to the goddess (Ibid.:25-48). In the museum reconstruction of the home sanctuary in Çatalhöyük, a plaster relief of the Mother Goddess is displayed, surrounded by bull heads (Ibid.:25-48). The local statuettes were most often carved in stone, made of burnt clay, and later also of terracotta, and although they resembled the Great Mother of the Paleolithic, the Neolithic female figurines were distinguished by the multitude of representations (Ibid.:25-48).

Restoration of a typical interior of Catal Höyük dwelling with the bulls’ heads – a possible symbol of the Neolithic goddess. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey.

They were depicted in a standing or sitting position; once they resembled a young girl, another time a giving birth mother, and finally an old woman (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48, 183; Żak-Bucholc 2005). These three views allude to the three aspects of the goddess and at the same time to the three stages of a woman’s life; the Virgin is the first image of the triple goddess, the second is the Mother, and the third is the Old Woman (Ibid.). In this way, the goddess figure makers probably wanted to emphasize the sacred cycle of life and death (Ibid.). Since the Neolithic times, various forms of the image of the Mother-Goddess had slowly emerged, and iconographic figurative groups were formed (Ibid.). In this way, the original idea had been subject to further modifications over time, which took place within the great ancient cultures (Ibid.).

Mother enthroned

One of the famous iconographic groups is the enthroned Goddess and Lady of the Animals (Żak-Bucholc 2005). The oldest example of such a divine position is represented by a figure found in Çatalhöyük (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Now preserved at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, the Mother Goddess dates from the sixth millennium BC (Ibid.). As the one of the most important artifacts, she is enthroned among the rich collections of other Neolithic female figurines in the museum (Ibid.). Like the Palaeolithic Venus, the image of the Çatalhöyük mother goddess is characterized by generous body shapes and slightly delineated facial features, with a high forehead, headgear or single roller hairstyle (Ibid.). The heads of the two leopards are flanking her throne (Ibid.). Between the legs of the figure, at the level of the throne, a small, oval form is visible (Ibid.). Possibly, it is the baby’s head that emerges from the mother’s womb (Ibid.). Accordingly, the clay figurine of the goddess represents a woman giving birth (Ibid.). The second of the three stages of a woman’s life – motherhood – refers directly to the cult of life, fertility, and the very idea of ​​Magna Mater (Ibid.).

Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey”. In: “Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük. Photo by Dilmen N. (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Another figurine illustrating motherhood is a terracotta statue of a mother with a child in her arms, which also dates back to the sixth millennium and comes from the Hacilar area (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Unfortunately, the baby’s head has not survived to our times (Ibid.). The mother was caught in a sitting position; her posture seems very natural and relaxed, as if it came from the joy of having a baby and holding it in her arms (Ibid.).

Lady of the Animals

The image of the goddess sitting on a throne, or standing upright – the position similar to a pole or column – and surrounded on both sides by sacred animals, is probably a prototype of the representations of the later Animal Goddess – Artemis of Ephesus (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). In the Neolithic and Bronze Age, votive objects of a zoomorphic character were usually offered to the goddess; these were most often terracotta vessels, statuettes or frescoes depicting leopards, bulls, wild boars, deer, bears and birds (Ibid.).

Goddess on the Mountain

Yet another reference to the Throne of the Lady of Animals theme can be a plastic depiction of a female figure standing on a small pedestal or a hill, with animals, often lions facing her (Żak-Bucholc 2005).

Throne Room in Knossos (Minoans; the Bronze Age). If the Throne was once occupied by a Priestess, it may have been symbolically meant for a mountain peak, which was the seat of the goddess.

This iconographic group is known as the Mountain Goddess, and the mountain the goddess stands on can be interpreted as a form of a throne (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Often the embodiment of the goddess was the Throne itself, flanked by animals, which is best depicted in the Throne Room of the Minoan Knossos – assuming, however, that the throne belonged not to the king Minos but to a priestess (Ibid.; see Lady of the Labyrinth).

Female column flanked by beasts

Another form of representing a goddess is a column or pillar, most often with a pair of lions (lioness) on either side of it. Such depictions of a deity are typical of the Hittites (Żak-Bucholc 2005). One of the best examples of the representation of the Goddess as a column, however, is the Lion Gate in Mycenae (Ibid.).

Detail photo of the Lion Gate in Mycenae, Argolis, Greece. The goddess is played by a column flanked by two lions/lioness. Photo by Van der Crabben J. (2012). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

In Minoan art, the most typical is in turn the image of the Goddess as a woman holding writhing serpents in both hands (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Regardless of the accompanying animals of Magna Mater, the iconographic group described above shows the Lady ruling over the forces of Nature, who is therefore responsible for maintaining harmony in the Universe (Ibid.)

Woman supporting her breasts

Another form of depicting a goddess is a woman supporting her breasts, precisely a female figure with her hands under her breasts or crossed on the breasts, or with her hands supporting them (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005).

Twin goddess supporting breasts. Çatalhöyük, 6000-5500 BC. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara. Photo: Zde (1999). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Such representations date back to the Neolithic age and appear in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005). This iconographic type shows the goddess who feeds the world, who provides nourishment to creation as its mother and protector (Ibid.). In ancient Egyptian mythology, the milk of the goddess Hathor, often pictured as a divine cow, is provided with the pharaoh himself (Ibid.). This group also includes Minoan images of a goddess with bare breasts, or some of the Anatolian figurines exhibited in the Museum of Ankara, such as the Neolithic figurine of the so-called Twin Goddess with two heads and bodies, but with only one pair of arms, the left of which supports two pairs of breasts (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:30).

Lady of the Moon, Sun and the Earth

In the Neolithic, the goddess’ pietism was still associated with the sky; next to the moon, the sun’s disk becomes the main attribute of a woman (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30). Such devotion was intertwined with the telluric cults associated with the earthly sphere (Ibid.). Both cults seemed to penetrate and complement each other; the Sun is the growth force of all seed that draws life-giving juices from the Earth, that blooms, bears fruit, shrinks and dies to be reborn (Ibid.). This is how the cycle of life and death takes place, for which the cult of the Great Mother is responsible (Ibid.).

Shu supporting the sky goddess Nut arched above. Photo by British Museum. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

No wonder that among the peoples of Bronze Age Anatolia, the chthonic deity of the mother-woman was represented in writing with an ideographic sign denoting a solar deity (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). In the mythology of the ancient civilizations of the fertile Crescent and Egypt, the divine shield of the Sun traverses the heavens to finally extinguish and be reborn from the womb of Mother Earth; hence the object of worship was also mentioned in Anatolian texts as “the underground sun” or “the sun in the water” (Popko 1980: 26-29, 63-73; Nougier 1989:39-40; Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33).

The bow of Nut

The most beautiful illustration of beliefs about the rebirth of the Sun is the ancient Egyptian image of the Heavens’ Goddess, Nut (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:170; Karaszewski 2011; Żak-Bucholc 2003;2005). The wife of the telluric deity and the mother of the superior gods of Egypt was usually depicted in art as a woman whose body, bent into a bow, formed the vault of heavens, but at the same time marked the underground path of the sun (Ibid.). The personification of Nut thus combines the earthly element with the sky; according to Heliopolitan beliefs, during the day the goddess touches the earth only with the tips of her hands and fingers, creating a sphere of air, but when the sun approached the west, her body could completely fuse with the earth (Ibid.). Nut swallowed them, which brought night, and every morning at dawn the goddess again gave birth to the Sun, which emerged from between her thighs, giving rise to a new day (Ibid.). The repeating cycle of death and rebirth of the solar disk echoes Stone Age beliefs of mankind (Ibid.). The body of Nut, dotted with stars and arched, resembles a crescent, which brings to mind the Palaeolithic lunar cult (Ibid.). Another image of Nut emphasizes even more the connection of ancient Egyptian beliefs with the beliefs of the original hunter-gatherers; keeping in mind the sacred dimension of the horned animals (Ibid.). It is not surprising that Nut or Hathor were also imagined as the Heavenly Cow, on whose back the sun traversed the sky. In this view, the spouse of the goddess Nut was represented as Taurus (Ibid.).

The sky goddess Nut depicted as a heavenly cow. Photo by King Vegita (2006). Source:: “Nut (goddess)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the Hittite mythology of Anatolia, which is heavily influenced by Mesopotamian myths, it is typical to divide the deities into “lower” – telluric or underground, and “upper” – uranic, related to the sky sphere (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). As patriarchy progressed, most solar deities become masculine, yet female sun deities often had a superior function (Ibid.). They usually combined the element of heaven and earth, hence the association of the goddess with the Earth’s sun. According to Anatolian texts, the Earth’s Sun was based in the land of the dead as it descended into the abyss of the earth at the end of the day (Ibid.). The concept of the relationship of the Sun with the underworld reveals a dual image of the Mother Goddess, perhaps frozen in the image of the Twin Goddess of Çatalhöyük (Ibid.).

Lady of Hatti

Apart from the Egyptian Nut, the solar goddess, also known the Lady of Hatti, had a similar character (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). During the Hittite period, the goddess became one of the main deities of the pantheon (Ibid.). She was called “Queen of Heaven and Earth, mistress of the kings and queens of the country of Hatti” (Kapełuś 2008:46). In the Mesopotamian pantheon, the same title was borne by the Sumerian goddess Inanna, with whom the Semitic goddess Ishtar was identified (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33).

Nut swallows the Sun. Photo by Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)  (1976). Source: “Nut (goddess)” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The main attributes of such goddesses were the animals flanking them; most often they were lions, other times horned animals, or owls and lions (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33). The goddess herself is usually depicted naked, standing, with a tiara on her head (Ibid.). Her arms covered with wings are most often raised upwards, and her feet end in claws (Ibid.). The silhouette of a woman is based on zoomorphic pedestals which brings to mind the iconographic type of the enthroned goddess discussed above, whose majesty is nature (Ibid.). A similar image of the goddess is a visualization of the original idea of ​​belief related to the power of Magna Mater over the Element (Ibid.). The symbol of the goddess was a star, which gives her the character of uranium deities (Ibid.). Yet it was also the Lady of the Earth; in one of the myths in the Akkadian version, Ishtar, as a solar deity, descends into the underworld to also take over the land of the dead. In turn, Inanna went underground in the fall to return in the spring. Her return heralded the rebirth of nature (Ibid.).

Warrior and the dragon

Around the fifth millennium BC, with the emergence of breeding and pastoralism and the rise of the first cities, patriarchy prevailed in Asia, Europe and the Middle East (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The goddess then takes on the characteristics typical of men; Ishtar is the goddess of love, but on the other hand, she is an armed warrior and a cruel lover (Ibid.). The masculine principle dominates the pantheon of ancient deities; the goddess ceases to be the lady of the universe (Ibid.). From then on, power is unevenly distributed between female and male deities (Ibid.).

Minoan goddess/priestess/votaries with snakes. Knossos. (Minoans, the Bronze Age). Typical depiction of the Lady of Animals with chthonic powers. Both figures hold snakes and the one on the right additionally has got a lion/lioness on her head.

The latter play a superior role (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The aforementioned victorious fight between god – warrior and dragon is the best illustration of the collapse of matriarchy (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the cult of the Great Mother has survived to historical times (Ibid.). Successive incarnations of Magna Mater proliferate in ancient cultures. In Mesopotamia the Great Mother is known as Inanna and Ishtar, in Egypt – Isis and Hathor. The Hittite Kubaba, known as the Phrygian Iron Age Cybele, became one of the many divine designs of the Mother-Goddess of the Neolithic (Ibid.). The features of the latter were inherited by Artemis of Ephesus (Ibid.). We also find the Great Mother in the Greeks in the form of Demeter or Gaia. There are many examples (Ibid.). The Catholic Church raised Mary to a pedestal; she was granted the status of the Eternal Virgin, Immaculate, Assumed, Second after God, Mother of God and all creatures (Ibid.).

From patriarchy to matriarchy

The subject of the work is relatively difficult to analyse in detail due to its breadth and territorial scope (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31). It combines such diverse scientific disciplines as archaeology, anthropology, religious studies, cultural studies and art history (Ibid.:31). So far, there have been many scientific works on the subject of the Mother Goddess, her iconographic representations in art or on the matriarchy itself (Ibid.:31). Nevertheless, learning about the religious practices of the lunar or solar cult, which are connected with the image of the goddess in art, requires further, thorough research (Ibid.:31). Most of the readings on the topic are based on more or less credible theories and are still looking for evidence to support them. The theme of Mother Goddess worship goes back to the Upper Paleolithic, an era studied solely through archaeological excavations and artifact interpretations. Therefore, an important key to the matriarchal culture of the Stone Age are the depictions of deities supplemented by a written source, created only by people living already in the patriarchy.

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Drenowska-Rymarz O., Wygnańska Z. (2008) ”Ludy Mezopotamii”. In: Mitologie Świata. Rzeczpospolita Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa.

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Longing for a Better Life: Double-Levelled Notion of An Idyllic Image of the Late Middle Ages

“Illusion is a refuge for everyone, not just for royal dukes. It softens life’s cruelties and smooths the sharp edges. The calendar cycles offer a sustaining image of pattern, order, and attainable achievement, to counter the confusions and disappointments in real life in the real world. For this reason, its little pictures continued to be welcome for centuries, long after they had grown detached from any teaching program and dwindled into decoration. In this afterglow they lived on as ornamental details, reassuring and endearingly familiar. […] As time rolled by, the calendar most needed labour for society, in any month of any year, was no longer to instruct but, instead, to charm, to comfort, and to cheer.”

Henisch 1999

The Fabulous Middle Ages

Of all numerous miniatures made for the Duke Jean de Berry, those of the calendar cycle are distinguished by art history as the most renowned illuminations ever made (Henisch 1999:26; see Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: Squared Humanity inscribed in the Cycle of God). The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry seems to be a suitably luxurious title for the most fabulous Middle Ages ever painted: gentry play, happy peasants’ toil – the rich man’s view (Beckett 1996). And that’s the Duke of Berry actually was (Ibid.). Although, the Limbourg brothers painted what was requested by their powerful and rich commissioner, their miniatures seem to have a double levelled meaning in each case (Ibid.). The ability to look truly and without any fixed ideas of what is fitting is what makes great paintings (Ibid.).

April detail: engagement scene. Limbourg Brothers. Source: Gazzola A. (2017-2018). In: Fashion History Timeline.

“The animated little scenes offer delightful glimpses of everyday activity and for this very reason have often been used as illustrations of daily life in the medieval world” (Henisch 1999:vii). They show the world of feudal society, including contemporary clothes, splendours of the rich and everyday labours of peasants marked with the rhythm of passing time of the successive months of the year (Battistini 2005:47). Simultaneously, “their surface-realism is deceptive [and all idyllic images of the medieval calendar served to style and discipline] the unwieldy, unsatisfactory complexities of life, to create an image more beguiling and beautiful than any attempted re-creation of reality itself” (Henisch 1999:vii). In the idealized picture of contemporary society of the calendar, peasants’ rural labours, such as ploughing, sowing, haymaking and harvesting, grape picking, or wood collecting in winter, continuously interlace with a represented side by side allegorical picture of a medieval aristocracy and their favourite amusements: feasts, tournaments, courtship, nuptials, and hunting with a falcon (Battistini 2005:47). Two strikingly different worlds co-exist there in full accordance complementing one another.

Hierarchy of medieval life

The miniatures capture a hierarchical idea of the world characteristic of the Late Middle Ages: on medieval calendar pages every man, every creature and thing seem to have been placed as said by the divine will and order (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). The lifetime of a human being is bound with the successive stages of nature, and with the cycle of transformations, it is endlessly subject to the rolling year (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). In the illuminations, a bulk of a knightly castle always dominates above an earthly life of peasants, while the law of God’s order rules over the whole universe (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237).

September detail: Château de Saumur. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The space of the fifteenth century painting had already reached quite far; all the same, it still looked like a mise en scène composition finishing behind several layers of hills (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). Inscribed in the framework, the painted landscape seems to rise above human heads (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). The forest, like a curtain, is covering from a viewer a mystery living beyond the horizon and a symbolical image of a ruling the universe order is harmoniously extending over the world of mankind (Białostocki 2008:213).

Idealized picture

Nevertheless, the reality was not so harmonious, and contemporary daily live did not go through as delightfully and in line with the social hierarchy, as contemporary artists tried to show in their bright illuminations (Żylińska 1986:237). Wearing linen shirts, bare-foot peasants were not so pleased with their life, nobles not always led a romantic life near their charming châteaux, or showed gallantry towards women, the latter, in turn, more often demonstrated their disagreement with the place imposed them by the Church and society (Ibid.:237).

December detail: hunting with dogs. Barthélemy d’Eyck – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Memories of the peasants’ revolt of the year 1381 were still alive; the Black Death was persistently taking a devastating toll on human life in Europe; heretics were burning at numerous stakes, and the Hundred Years War continued (Ibid.:237). The owner of the Very Rich Hours, the generous Duke of Berry, was not definitely known as a lord “noted for his love of farm life or, indeed, of peasants. [Outside] of the pages his very own books, […] he showed a harsh indifference towards his peasants, and a positively rapacious interest in the profits he could wring from their exertions. His record as a master of men called for not paeans of praise of grateful subjects but resentment and rebellion throughout his vast domains” (Henisch 1999:26).

May detail: nobles horseback. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Middle Ages, like every epoch throughout history, had strong reasons to long for a more beautiful world to live in and the deeper despair and suffering because of difficulties of the present day (Huizinga 2003:54). In those days, the more passionate and desperate yearning and melancholy may have born (Ibid.:54). One of the ways of escape from the reality was an artistic imagery (Żylińska 1986:237).

From gold to true colours of life

In the so-called classical epoch of the Parisian miniature in the thirteenth century, illuminations were usually plentifully decorated with gold and vivid colours harmonically put together in the way to avoid clashing in their various combinations (Pijoan 2006:57). In the fourteenth century, especially in the Avignon school, golden surfaces clearly diminished giving a place to the colours of blues and greens, like in the case of Italian miniatures (Ibid.:57). Finally, in the fifteenth century, in the schools of central France and Burgundy, sparkling gold completely disappeared; the background adopted colours imitating those one could find in the world of nature, and the sky and trees were only slightly touched with silver and golden marks just for underling the brightness and depth of the colour (Ibid.:57).

September detail: peasants working in the vineyard by the River Loire. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Books of hours were traditionally much smaller in comparison with the large Carolingian codes, and their sumptuous imagery turned out to be an integral part of the written word (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). Consequently, accompanying a text, an illustration was treated less as a book decoration and more as its dominant information (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). In illuminated manuscripts of the Late Middle Ages, the observation of the nature objectified the pictures of a represented world giving them innovative expressions: clearness, light and shadow, a horizontal distance shining in the mist, and foamed waves of floating clouds, all joined together with a dancing rhythm of human shapes and various concrete forms (Białostocki 2008:213).

Painting more expressive than words

In the fifteenth century, painting dominated literature in means of expressions (Huizinga 2003:340,343). Especially miniaturists successfully tried to seize a colour of the passing moment, such as the depiction of the play of light of a torch, or of the radiant sunset (Ibid.:340,343). The illuminator of the Hours, Pierre d’Ailly even dared to represent the sunbeams breaking through the clouds after the storm (Ibid.:340,343). A realistic picture of the nature in contemporary painting, unlike in the literature, was freely developed, irrespective of any conventions (Ibid.:340,343).

April detail; Château de Dourdan. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Furthermore, a depiction of the nature painted in the background was only of a marginal importance, and therefore, it could preserve a clean expression and form, independent of the rules of the hieratic style strongly influencing in turn a major subject of the paining in the foreground (Huizinga 2003:340,343). A precise parallel to this phenomenon of the medieval painting can be drawn from the art of the ancient Egypt; the less the landscape was linked to the thematic scene, the more its picture itself became harmonious and natural (Ibid.:340,343).

In the architectural background

Although the Limbourg represented an imagined world in their masterpiece, it was depicted against a background of real scenery, still idyllic and gentle (Żylińska 1986:237). In the miniatures, the viewing of the distance is usually hidden by huge silhouettes of the castles, represented in detail with almost an archaeological accuracy (Białostocki 2008:213): from the majestic walls in and around Paris: the Louvre, royal palace of Cité with Sainte-Chapelle, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the castle of Vincennes, to the most charming royal residences, such as the Châteaux of Saumur, Lusignan, Étampes, or Clain, near Poitiers (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:3-4).

Melusine turned into a dragon flying above Château de Lusignan. March detail. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Amongst steep roofs of cities, charming castles, and towering cathedrals, the scenes of daily life arise in douce France according to the changing months of the calendar year; harvesting, grape picking, hunting with falcons, and sumptuous feasts belong to the most characteristic (Żylińska 1986:236-237). What the Duke of Berry saw was a paint in one of the most splendid manuscripts ever owned by a royal prince (Beckett 1996). And one can imagine him looking at these magnificent pictures with a proud of a rich owner (Ibid.). “For him the calendar pictures he enjoyed as he turned the pages of his book of hours must have woven a beautiful veil of illusion, to mask the ugly reality of the world outside his castle walls” (Henisch 1999:26).

January

The Very Rich Hours opens with January and the New Year’s feast at the court of the Duke, Jean of Berry (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Only the first of the twelve scenes of the cycle represents activities taking place indoors; the Duke is sitting down by the table laden with food and drink, on the right (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). He is wearing a typical of the epoch blue belted houppelande and a furry hat (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The host’s subordinates are offering him gifts according to the custom (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The Master of Ceremonies encourages them with his words written above in French: approche, approche, [approach] (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

January page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures showing the household of John, Duke of Berry exchanging New Year gifts. The Duke is seated at the right, in blue. Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Behind the feasting group there is a blue tapestry hanging on the wall, which represents fighting knights (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Accuracy in representing details is astonishing; the authors even depicted the so-called Salière de Pavillon – the salt-cellar in the shape of a boat with the Duke’s bear and swan emblems (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Quite surprising is the lack of ladies at the feast (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Women’s role was quite important at the court of Burgundy though (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

February

To illustrate February the artists covered the landscape in snow for the very first time in the history of European painting (Secomska 1972:14-25; Białostocki 2008:213). After Sister Wendy Beckett, the winter cold, with its delight but also with its inconvenience, has been shown in a surprisingly charming way (Beckett 2001:267). The Duke’s barns must be fulfilled with harvests; in the background there is a snow-covered haystack up the hill, the birds are pecking scattered seeds from the ground (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right of the framework there is an enclosure for the sheep, four bee hives, a pigeon loft, barrels, a bunch of brushwood, and a cart (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

February miniature attributed to Paul Limbourg, or the “Rustic painter.” R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

At first sight, however, a viewer can see here a comic (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, inside the house a woman and a man are warming themselves by the fire; by the door, there is a lady in blue dress warming her underpants while bashfully averting her gaze from the couple inside the house warming there “their lack of underpants” (Ibid.). Outside the house, there are three peasants: the first man, trembling because of the cold, is covering himself with a white cloth and brushing the snow off his shoes, the second is chopping the wood, and the last one is driving a loaded donkey up the snow-covered and surely slippery road (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

March

“March” is also dedicated to the life at the countryside; first labours in the field; ploughing and sowing have just started (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Some peasants are trimming the grapevines (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them, a looking after the herd shepherd is trying to escape from the March downpour (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the fond and up the hill there is the huge silhouette of Lusignan castle stretched out on the whole width of the page; towering over the region of Poitou, it was one of many residences belonging to the Duke (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

March (Château de Lusignan). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Its story is bound with the beautiful French legend of Melusine (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Although there are different versions of the story, the legend has it that one of the Lusignans married a ravishing woman named Melusine who turns into a dragon (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The miniaturist painted her in the shape of a fantastical lizard flying over the castle’s tower to watch over the lords of the castle and warn them against a coming danger (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Wonderful is that even the most hidden detail is to say a fascinating history (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

April

In April the nature is waking up again; in the background the Château de Dourdan is plunged in the green entourage of trees and meadows (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the foreground, accompanied by two witnesses, a young noble couple is exchanging engagement rings (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

April (Château de Dourdan). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Plausibly, the scene shows the engagement of Charles d’Orléan with Jean of Berry’s granddaughter, Bonne d’Armagnac (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right young women are picking first flowers; in the distance two boats with fishermen are floating on the waters at the foot of the castle (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The whole illumination is imbued with the blossom of spring, which is symbolically underlined with the graceful scene of the engagement (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

May

“May” shows the scene of spring time outing taking its place outside the walls of a charming city in Auvergne (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). According to the depicted here tradition, people went to the forest in May to pick green branches used then for decorating houses (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

May (Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke’s Paris Residence). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

An elegantly dressed procession of lords and ladies are following the musicians; the nobles are wearing the so-called in French livrée du mai – the livery of May, and wreaths of leaves on their heads or on the shoulders (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them there is the dense and dark forest and not less multiplied than the trees in the forest are the towers of the castle of Riom rising in the background (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).

June

Hay-making in June is placed in the foreground of Paris, being seen from the Hôtel de Nesles, also the castle of the dukes of Berry, with a view of Île de la Cité with the royal palace and Sainte Chapelle visible in the picture (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the sweltering heat of summer the bare-foot peasants are working in the field, the men are scything; the girls are raking and piling the hay in the haystacks (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). The figures of the peasant-women are slender; they are dancingly bending and assuming flexible ballet positions (Białostocki 2008:213).

June (Palais de la Cité et la Sainte Chapelle). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their slim shapes more remind the figures of the ladies picking the flowers in the scene of April, or those riding horsebacks with their lords in May, rather than of hard-working women of the lower stratum (Ibid.:213). It is because both, the peasants and ladies, are depicted according to the same sophisticated style dominating in art at contemporary courts of Paris, Dijon or Prague (Ibid.:213). Not all miniatures of the Limbourg, however, show this particular type of slender proportions of the body or excessive decorations of clothes; in some illuminations the figures of peasants are not only represented in a naturalistic way, but also with an excessive indecency (Ibid.:213), and lack of dignity (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5), like in the scene of February.

July

July (Palais de Poitiers). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the miniatures summer is insistently going forward; the illustration of July represents the corn field with poppy and corn flowers between the ears (Secomska 1972:14-25). Two men are cutting the crops with a sickle; on the right, the sitting couple is shearing the sheep (Ibid.:14-25). Between the hills, the geometrical walls of the castle of Poitiers are mounting over the area of a scenic beauty (Ibid.:14-25).

August

In the miniature of August, there’s the castle – actually one of his seventeen castles – all fairly and gleaming in the summer light (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, a hunting scene is taking place; the nobles on horseback are using dogs and prey birds for chasing ducks and swans; a falconer is guiding the riders (Secomska 1972:14-25); the courtiers are wearing magnificent attire and sitting on their splendid horses, perhaps with the Duke himself on the white horse (Beckett 1996). As the Limbourg were great artists they did not reduce their representations to what the Duke really required to see but they depicted what they truly saw (Ibid.). And they saw those fields, the river and the peasants being engaged in different activities (Ibid.).

August (Château d’Étampes). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

At the foot of the castle of Étampes, their small figures are caught while both working and enjoying the summer; some are stacking sheaves into shocks and piling them on a horse-cart, others are swimming naked and free, amusing themselves happily in the water (Secomska 1972:14-25; Beckett 2001:267). Striking is the difference between the look and attitude of nobles and depicted peasants (Beckett 2001:267). This is August, so probably it’s very hot (Beckett 1996). Yet, the nobles apparently living a good and wealthy life are dressed up to their neck in tight and heavy clothes (Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). They are also all following the rules of the court game, which is visible in a look exchange of the couple riding at the back (Beckett 1996). Hence it is a very constricted life, which is still observed and judged by others (Ibid.). Accordingly, on one side, there is a rather strict and tight etiquette of the well-dressed nobles, and on the other, an unhampered behaviour of the unclothed peasants who could freely and happily indulge themselves in a refreshing bath in the cold water Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). Unlike the courtiers, they additionally seem unbound and sincere in their joy (Beckett 1996).

September

The leading theme of the month of September, a grape harvest, is represented by the river Loire, against the background of the picturesque castle of Saumur (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). With its Gothic towers, battlements (Żylińska 1986:237), “chimneys and weathervanes decorated with golden fleurs-de-lys” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4),  the château looks like a fairy-tale apparition (Żylińska 1986:237). “The architectural design of the château draws the gaze up towards the dreamily poetic volutes. The towers conceal their protective nature beneath festive trappings, redolent of fabulous adventures in the forests of Arthurian legends and suggestive of the presence of God in His creation” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5). Good King René of Anjou stated that the Chastel de Plaisance from his dreams looked exactly the same (Żylińska 1986:237).

“These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light.”

François Cali in “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5
September (Château de Saumur). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Grape-picking takes place in the foreground: plenty bunches of grapes are being loaded either into the vats on the oxen-cart or to the panniers attached to the backs of the waiting mules (Żylińska 1986:237).  Peasants are working hard in the vineyard plunged in the September sun (Żylińska 1986:237; “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4). Most of them are leaning forwards, picking the purple fruits (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4), “while one of them is tasting the grapes. […] In the middle of the grape pickers, a character is showing his behind. This intentionally grotesque touch contrasts with the extraordinary elegance of the château” (Ibid.:4-5). On the left, a looking pregnant woman (Ibid.:4) is tidying her hat up and straightening her body as if she felt too tired of working in the vineyard. Such a depiction of the peasant-woman may also suggest the child-bearing potential of women in general, and underline a symbolical connection between a woman pregnancy and the womb of the mother earth giving birth in the month of September (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4-5; Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25).

October

Together with autumn the artists move the action of the Hours from the lands of the Valley of Loire to the banks of the River Seine (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

October (Louvre Castle, Paris). Limbourg Brothers – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Human figures are moving along them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Instead of charming châteaux by Loire, in the background are rising the towers of the Louvre (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). It is already October (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The scene shows the works typical of autumn; the man on horseback is tilling the field, another – sowing it (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Magpies and crows are stealing the seeds (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind the working men, dressed as an archer, a scarecrow is unsuccessfully trying to frighten the birds away (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

November

The scene of November shows the autumn harvest of acorns (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

November. Jean Colombe – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The landscape is sparking with the colours of autumn (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Three swineherds are making the fruits fall down with the sticks (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Pigs are feeding on them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). One of the men, depicted in the foreground, is accompanied by a dog (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The darkness of the forest and a navy blue colour of the sky are the signs of the coming nightfall (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

December

December (Château de Vincennes). Barthélemy d’Eyck – R.M.N. R.-G. Ojéda. In: “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The cycle traditionally ends with the scene of December (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The illumination represents a wild boar hunt (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The dogs are fiercely attacking the already hunted animal lying between two men (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The landscape is gradually rising up from the scene of hunting in the foreground through the dense forest behind, and finally finishes with the towers of the Château de Vincennes, being distinguished against the background of the dark sky (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).

Castles seen from the outside

On the example of the calendar pages of the Très Heures it is possible to compare the way the same motive is presented in painting and literature. The equivalent of illuminated châteaux of the Hours is the literary description of nine French castles in the work of Deschamps (Huizinga 2003:345-346). While illustrating the castle, however, the painter is observing it from the outside; the poet is looking out of it (Ibid.:345-346). Consequently, literally enumerating pleasures and advantages of the castles bears no comparison with an impression being given by the painted pictures of a fairy-tale Saumur, prestigious Lusignan and gloomy Vincennes (Ibid.:345-346).


“Very Rich Hours (c.1412−1416).” In: Faces of Ancient Europe (2019).

The image gains an advantage of the word (Huizinga 2003:345-346). It is also because the Middle Ages mainly perceived the outside world by means of the image (Ibid.:345-346). Behind the enchanting imagery, the epoch hid its reality or masked it with the dream of a better world (Roger S. Wieck in: Henisch 1999:back cover).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2012). In: PDF. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Oh9XJ8>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X7xQIK>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

AP Manuscripts (2020) “Très Riches Heures, Limbourg Brothers 1412 AD. Page 112.” In: Manuscripts. Available at <https://bit.ly/38LjyRP>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

Battistini, M. (2005) “Symbole i alegorie.” In: Leksykon, historia, sztuka, ikonografia [Dizionari dell’Arte], Dyjas, K. trans. Warszawa: Arkady.

Beckett, W. (1996) Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, Episode 1: “The Mists of Time.” Rossiter, N., Robinson T. BBC Production.

Beckett, W. (2001) Sister Wendy’s 1000 arcydzieł. Warszawa: Arkady.

Białostocki, J. (2008) Sztuka cenniejsza niż złoto. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Faces of Ancient Europe (2019) “Very Rich Hours (c.1412−1416).”. In: Faces of Ancient Europe. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Zl2WgB>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

Gazzola A. (2017-2018) “1416 – Limbourg Brothers, April, Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry”. In: Fashion History Timeline. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iUVUHh>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].

Henisch, B. A. (1999) The Medieval Calendar Year. Pennsylvania: University Park, Penn State Press.

Huizinga, J. (2003) Jesień średniowiecza [Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen]. Brzostowski, T. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Pijoan, J. (2006) ”Sztuka gotycka. Sztuka gotycka we Francji.” In: Sztuka świata vol. IV [Historia del Arte, vol. IV], Machowski, M. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Secomska, K. (1972) Mistrzowie i książęta malarstwo francuskie XV i XVI wieku. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe.

Żylińska, J. (1986) Spotkania po drugiej stronie lustra. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

War and Peace of Ur

During my several months’ stay in London, one of the sites I visited most frequently was undoubtedly the British Museum. Apart from contemporary exhibitions, the entrance to the Museum is free of charge so it would be a pity to miss it, especially for someone who loves wandering around ancient artifacts. As a museums expert, Amaya (2017) advises, an average amount of time spent in a museum should be no more than around 90 minutes, as a human brain can focus only during this period and then it simply needs a break. If it is not possible to come back to the museum later, it is essential to have intervals between particular display units and drink water for a better concentration (Ibid.).

“5 tips to enjoy a no hassle museum visit”. In: Museums Made Easy by Amaya (2017).

I usually stay longer in a museum when we have just one day for a huge exhibition during a study trip, as it was in Mexico. In London or Paris, it was easier as I could come back to the museums during my longer stay in the cities.

Room 56

Ones of the oldest objects preserved by the British Museum come from the display units dedicated to Mesopotamia (6000–1500 BC), which is the so-called cradle of human civilization (The British Museum 2020). To get there, I needed to climb up to the upper floor, where the Rooms 55 and 56 are located, within the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery (Rooms 53-59) (Ibid.). Of my particular interest was especially the Room 56, as it displays very important artifacts unearthed in the early twentieth century at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, in southern Iraq (Ibid.). The collection includes jewellery, pottery and musical instruments that were excavated by one of the greatest British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (Ibid.).

The lionheaded eagle, called Imdugud in Sumerian. It seems to have been especially associated with the city-state of Lagash and with its chief deity, Ningirsu. Here it is surmounting a lintel made from sheets of copper, Temple of Ninhursag at Tell al-Ubagid, Iraq, c. 2500 BC. Room 56 in the British Museum.

For a while I was found on my own in the Room, accompanied by all these remarkable objects, yet under the surveillance of the divine Sumerian lion-headed eagle, looking down at me from the panel hanging above the entrance door. Finally, I could take a closer look of the burial goods, without any need of waiting in a queue to stand directly in front of the display window. They are placed among other artifacts from the region, “[illustrating] economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians who lived in Mesopotamia at this time” (The British Museum 2020). Yet many of their aspects are still shrouded in mystery as much as the culture who created them.

Standard of Ur is catching visitors’ attention by its intensively vivid colours. The British Museum, Room 56.

My attention was suddenly caught by vibrant colours of the triangular object, which was calling me behind the glass. Today, it is just an archaeological reconstruction of its once crushed remains, unearthed in such a state that it is only a best guess how the object was originally shaped (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Nevertheless, it has been labelled as a standard, the Standard of Ur (Ibid.).

Mound of Pitch

The land of ancient Mesopotamia lay across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq and Syria (Wakely 1999). It has always been a flat desolate land made green by rivers’ canals and marshes (Ibid.). Yet from this unpromising landscape arouse the foundation of the ancient civilisation, including the world’s first cities and the earliest known writing system (Ibid.). Southern Mesopotamia was settled already by the seventh millennium BC. (Ibid.). By the second half of the third millennium, it was divided into twenty or thirty city-states that controlled the smallest towns and villages dispersed across the countryside (Ibid.). Shifting alliances among competing city-states brought conflicts often over water and even war to the city’s walls (Ibid.).

William Loftus’s sketch of his discovery of the ziggurat, in 1850. Source “Ziggurta of Ur” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Some objects on display in the Room 56 of the British Museum tell a story about Ur, one of the ancient southern Mesopotamian city-states (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The site is also known as the cradle of civilization (Ibid.) as “[archaeologists] have discovered there the evidence of an early [settlement] during the [so-called] Ubaid Period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC)” (“Ur” 2020). Its name also appears in the Book of Genesis as the home of the biblical patriarch, Abraham (Genesis 11:29-32), and the region itself is referred to as the location of the Garden of Eden (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). “The further occupation of Ur only becomes clear during its emergence in the third millennium BC, although it must already have been a growing urban center during the fourth millennium” (“Ur” 2020), around 3 800 BC (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It was equally among the most powerful and prosperous (Wakely 1999). Although the city-state of Uruk was one of the earliest and most prominent cities by this time, in the early third millennium BC., the temple dominated city-state of Ur emerged as one of the most important cities in the new stage of the development of human society and states (McDonald 2013). The modern name of the ancient Ur is Tell el-Muqayyar, which in Arabic means a mound of pitch (Wakely 1999). The name comes from the monumental temple tower, which was made of baked mud bricks set in the bitumen or pitch, a naturally occurring form of tar (Ibid.).

Ziggurat of Ur

In 1922, under the leadership of a little known young archaeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley, excavations jointly sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum were initiated at the site of ancient Ur (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The decision to excavate proved to be a prominent one (Wakely 1999).

Woolley Photo of the Ziggurat of Ur with workers Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 BC., Woolley excavation workers (Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq). Source: German (2014). Khan Academy.

One of the most important part of the ancient city of Ur turned out to be the temple complex of the Moon god Nanna, at the centre of which was a ziggurat: a series of stepped terraces with a temple on top (Wakely 1999). “The remains of the ziggurat were first discovered by William Loftus in 1850” (“Ziggurat of Ur” 2020), during the first excavations at the site, conducted by a British consul at Basra, John George Taylor (Wakely 1999; “Ziggurat of Ur” 2020). The excavations at the mound in 1854 uncovered inscribed cylinders, which recorded rebuilding of the temple tower by the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (around sixth century BC.), who was the successor of the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Ibid.).

Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 B.C.E. mud brick and baked brick, Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq (largely reconstructed). Source: German (2014) Khan Academy.

The ziggurat was excavated further by Woolley who managed to uncover its older layers. The core of the huge pyramidal tower was made of packed mud bricks, whereas the outside of the monument was constructed of baked mud bricks, jointed together with bitumen or pitch (Wakely 1999) Many of the bricks have had a stamped inscription with the name of the founder of the third dynasty of Ur, Ur-Nammu, who ruled there over four thousand years ago (Ibid.). Woolley’s recovery of Ur’s ancient ziggurat and the complex of buildings around it was a remarkable find but it paled in a comparison with his discoveries of the so-called Royal Tombs (Ibid.).

The ‘gold trench’

In 1923, Woolley discovered a whole cache of opulent graves in a trench near the ruins of the ziggurat of Ur (McDonald 2013; Ḏḥwty 2017). The archaeologist, “however, decided to halt the excavation [there], as he was aware that neither he nor his men were experienced enough to excavate burials. Hence, Woolley concentrated on excavating buildings, before returning to the [trench] in 1926, [where his] workmen discovered evidence of burials and jewellery of gold and precious stones, leading to it being called the ‘gold trench’” (Ḏḥwty 2017; see Wakely 1999). Excavated burials were so rich that they competed only with Howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, unearthed earlier in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in 1922 (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013).  

A reconstruction of the great death pit burial scene. Notice the two musicians holding lyres just beyond the oxen. (Originally appeared in the Illustrated London News, 23 June 1928). Source: McTague (1999–2020) Live of Ur.

Ur’s discoveries are noteworthy not just for their contents but for the location of the dig (McDonald 2013). The tombs discovered in Ur seemed to date from about 2 550 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It means the cemetery appeared around fifty years after the reign of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk (2800 – 2600 BC; see Gibbor in the Louvre). Some tombs of Ur were full of gold and silver jewellery and objects as well as colourful and spectacular grave goods (McDonald 2013). The archaeologists discovered things that had never been seen before: wonderous musical instruments, gold headdresses, a golden ostrich egg, weapons and even inlaid gameboards (Ibid.). What was even more fascinating about them was the fact some contained possibly deliberate human sacrifices as a part of burial rituals (McDonald 2013; Amaya March, 2017).

Public secret

At the early stage of excavations, in 1928, Woolley wanted to keep his breath-taking discovery secret (McDonald 2013). Therefore, he sent his telegram announcing the news in Latin to make it understandable only to his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Ibid.). When the news finally reached the public and press in London and New York, it created a high sensation (Ibid.). The New York Times and an Illustrated London News wrote articles recounting the marvels discovered (Ibid.). The Illustrated London News even published an artist’s drawing recreating the moments before the people in the great death pit had met their deaths (Ibid.).

Agatha Christie with husband Max Mallowan (left) and lead archaeologist Leonard Woolley at Ur, southern Iraq, in 1931. Photograph: British Museum. Source: Jongh (2014) The Guardian.

The 1920s and early 30s of the same century are a golden age of archaeological discoveries and the public is fascinated by all the details (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). Perhaps no excavation in more than one hundred and fifty years of archaeological working in Mesopotamia had excited as much worldwide interest as Woolley’s work in ancient Ur (Wakely 1999). As a result of extensive publicity, tours from all parts of the globe, including European royalty and the famous crime novelist, Agatha Christie, flocked to the remote site in the Iraqi desert (Ibid.). Christie came to Iraq after her devastating divorce and met there her future husband, who was Woolley’s colleague and assistant from the dig, Max Mallowan (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019). Her stay at the site during excavations was also the perfect remedy; she lost her heart for the ancient site of Ur and so she even set her another story of mystery murder in Mesopotamia, at an archaeological dig that resembled that one (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019; JOM 2020). Later she recalled it by writing (National Geographic 2019):

I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.

Agatha Christie on Ur. In: National Geographic (2019).

Royal tombs and resourceful researcher

Between 1927 and 1934, Woolley uncovered 1 850 tombs in Ur (Wakely 1999). “The cemetery was used between about 2600-2000 BC and hundreds of burials were made in pits” (The British Museum 2015). Sixteen (or seventeen) tombs dated to the mid-third millennium stood apart from the others; each contained an extraordinary wealth of artifacts and evidence of human sacrifices (Wakely 1999; Amaya March, 2017).

Leonard Woolley holding the noted excavated Sumerian Queen’s Lyre, 1922. Source: Ḏḥwty (2017). Ancient Origins.

Woolley called them Royal Tombs because he assumed they contained Ur’s deceased kings (Wakely 1999). Yet, he recognised considerable variations between them (Ibid.). The archaeologist’s skills also proved equal to his task; he turned out to be an imaginative and resourceful researcher under very difficult circumstances (McDonald 2013). First of all, he knew how to rescue objects of art that seemed lost to time like the wooden sound boxes of the lyres that long ago rotted wet (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). In order to save them, he poured wet plaster into the holes created by the decayed wood and carefully brushed the dirt aside to reveal the plaster form of a lost article (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999).

Object from the Tomb PG 779

A particular mosaic covered object was discovered in the Tomb PG 779, one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Already in ancient times, “[robbers] had thoroughly plundered the tomb in which [the artifact] was found. As one corner of the last chamber […] was being cleared, a workman accidentally spotted a piece of shell inlay, and from this starting point, the remains of the [mosaic object] were slowly revealed and reconstructed” (JOM 2020).  When the artifact was found, its original wood had already rotted away but the remains of an elaborate design created by a multicoloured mosaic were preserved (McDonald 2013; Sailus 2003-2020). As the object was decayed, “the two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil [of the collapsed tomb. Moreover], the bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were [also] broken” (The British Museum 2015). So these were only “the mosaic pieces that had kept [in place the whole] form [of the previously wooden skeleton]” (JOM 2020). This is why the object required Woolley’s special attention (McDonald 2013).

Plan of grave PG 779, thought to belong to Ur-Pablisag (1900). The Standard of Ur was located in “S”. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Like in the case of other excavated artifacts, “[the archaeologist] looked for hollows in the ground created by [the] decayed object and then filled them with plaster or wax to record the shape of the [material] that had once filled [it. Woolley] carefully uncovered small sections measuring about 3 square centimetres and covered them with wax, enabling the mosaics to be lifted while maintaining their original designs” (JOM 2020). Due to reconstructing efforts, the remains found in the Tomb PG 779 have eventually become a 21.59×49.53-centimetre hollow wooden box in the shape of a trapezoid, covered in original colourful mosaics (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015; JOM 2020).

But what was it?

As the artifact was found “lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a [ritually sacrificed] man” (The British Museum 2015), Woolley imagined that it had once been supported on a pole and borne by the deceased (Ibid.). The archaeologist reasoned such a possibility because of the object’s position along the dead (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, it may have been carried as a standard in war, aloft on a pole in order to identify a military unit (Ibid.). “Another theory suggests, [however], that it once formed the soundbox of a musical instrument” (The British Museum 2015) or was a part of furniture or else served as a box used to hold civic funds (Sailus 2003-2020). The fact is, however, that nothing like it has been known then or since (McDonald 2013).

Peace (detail), The Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 B.C.E., shell, red limestone, lapis lazuli, and bitumen (original wood no longer exists), 21.59 x 49.53 x 12 cm, Ur © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Today this mysterious object is known as the Royal Standard of Ur and it proves to be the most informative, beautiful and enigmatic of all (McDonald 2013). In such a way, Woolley also describes the artifact in his letter (Ibid.). However, no one knows whether the so-called Royal Standard of Ur is a standard or even royal and our knowledge of the royal cemetery is not much greater than it was known from Woolley’s excavations (Ibid.). Scholars assume, however, that modern understanding of the symbolism of early Sumerian society has been improved since the beginning of the twentieth century, and so interpretation of the figures and actions shown on the objects discovered in the cemetery of Ur is much more nuanced and clear (Ibid.). Yet, any interpretation is still speculating and there are more theories than evidence.

Stylistic Conventions

Rendering of the depicted figures on the Standard, both human and animal, is very characteristic of Sumerian stylistic conventions (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012). Almost all the characters are illustrated in a perfect profile (Ibid.). Accordingly, only one eye is visible (Ibid.). However, it is not directed forward but rather looking outside (Ibid.). By these means, it seems to be depicted in the form of a frontally seen eye but just on the side of the face, like it is present in the Egyptian art  (Ibid.). The human shoulders are squared, as if presented frontally, whereas the feet are again depicted in profile, as if one after the other, which evokes movement  (Ibid.).

The animals’ figures are superimposed; the four are walking one beside the other, and the outlines of the three animals are visible behind the one at the front, so their number overlapping (McDonald 2013). This artistic technique of overlapping gives a sense of depth, which today results from the use of perspective (Ibid.).

Conventional interpretation

The original Warka or Uruk Vase, dated to
c. 3200–3000 BC. National Museum of Uruk.
Source: “Warka Vase” (2020) In: Wikipedia.
The Free Encyclopedia.
 

The Standard of Ur, whose function is still shrouded in mystery, is said to tell more about powerful rulers of Ur and a great deal about life in early Sumerian society than almost any other artifact that was discovered from ancient Sumer (McDonald 2013).

The box-like sculpture inlaid with colourful mosaics shows scenes of both, warfare and festivals, with a ruler in their center (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the prevailing subjects depicted on the Standard are a successful military campaign led by the ruler and the abundance of the land which assures fertility for its people (Ibid.). In some aspects, the Standard of Ur repeats themes from the Uruk vase, known also as the Warka vase (McDonald 2013; “Warka vase” 2020). Even though the vase comes from centuries earlier than the Standard itself, it shows a parallel artistic composition and probably gives a similar message (McDonald 2013).

War and Peace

From the reconstructed Standard of Ur, it can be observed that the box itself consists of two panels, which slope together towards the top and two end pieces, which are triangular but cut off at the top (McDonald 2013). All the four sides of the Standard are covered in three registers of mosaics (Ibid.). The inlaid pieces consist of lapis lazuli, shell and red marble (limestone) set into bitumen, which is a sticky oil-by product found in Iraq (Ibid.). Conventionally, the two large sides have been called War and Peace because one side is organised around a depiction of a military campaign, whereas the other illustrates the banquet and files of people and animals (Ibid.). “For those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the ‘War’ side is the chronological beginning” (Sailus 2003-2020).

Dr Diana McDonald (2013), however, believes that these panels of inlay tell principally about the dual role of a Sumerian ruler controlling a city-state and about a Sumerian society at the time around 2 550 BC. Back in time, when Sumerian city-states first began to coalesce and population pressures made resources of water and food, which was scarce in this arid land, a ruler or king had a special obligation to and role for his people; he was expected to be a leader at war and a commander-in-chief (Ibid.).

Royal entourage

The so-called War Side of the Standard of Ur shows three registers of battle scenes with the earliest representations of a Sumerian army and the aftermath of the fight (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). All the scenes are colourfully illustrated in pieces of red limestone, shell and lapis inlays (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. The ruler as a larger figure among his entourage. Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Action seems to begin (likewise on the Uruk vase) at the bottom register (McDonald 2013). The top register shows that all the action leads up from down to the most important figure, depicted at the very top and in the centre (Ibid.). It stands turned to the right, represented in profile. Although the figure is a human-looking being, it is much broader and taller than all the others shown in the register (Ibid.). His head actually pierces the pictorial frame intended for the panel (Ibid.). This outsized man holds what appears to be a staff or a spear and faces a group of men, probably some prisoners who approach him (Ibid.). Among them, there are the men clothed in kilt like skirts with scalloped edges are wearing sheep skins and they are apparently the soldiers (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. War captives led by soldiers to the ruler. Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Differently looking men shown between them are apparently war captives (McDonald 2013). They “are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs” (JOM 2020). The soldiers could have captured them in a battle and they are being presented now to the ruler (McDonald 2013). The poorly looking enemies strikingly contrast with the majestic figures of the ruler and his people, which should be also understood symbolically: the victory is on the side of Ur due to its overwhelming power (Amaya March, 2017).

King’s mounts

Behind the king, to the left of the centre in the top register, there is also his battle wagon and members of the royal entourage or other soldiers with staffs (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

The battle wagon is a fairly large and unwieldy looking vehicle (McDonald 2013). It is known, and accordingly represented, that the wagon’s blocky looking wheels were made of two pieces of wood as spoked wheels had not been invented yet (Ibid.). There is also the driver holding the reins and standing behind the vehicle (Ibid.). Horses had not been yet imported to the area so the wagon is probably driven by four asses or onagers (Ibid.). The latter was a kind of wild ass that is now extinct but was originally native to Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Some scholars think that the Sumerians actually interbred the two animals to produce an onager ass hybrid, which was easier to control and stronger than either one (Ibid.). Their tails look long and tufted at the end like an ass or a donkey’s (Ibid.). Such details reveal the ingenuity and technological capability of these people in the beginning of the third millennium BC.; they were domesticating and taming animals, creating vehicles and working on the sophisticated metal technology which allowed the wagons to be yoked to the animals (Ibid.).

In the second register, in the middle, there is a scene of warfare, showing the Sumerian infantry, carrying spears (McDonald 2013). At the left, there is a disciplined phalanxof soldiers, who are wearing some kind of protective clothing, probably a leather armour and helmets (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013). The infantry faces a group on the right consisting of soldiers who are killing or leading off enemy prisoners (McDonald 2013). The latter are either “killed with axes [or] paraded naked [as those above] presented to the king” (The British Museum 2015). It means that the middle register depicts the battle itself (McDonald 2013), which is already shown as a decisive victory of the Standard’s owner.

Battle wagons

On the lowest register, there is the force of battle wagons (McDonald 2013). While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian [‘chariot’] attack, others think it is the post-battle procession, [with the ruler’s wagon in front] leading the army back to Ur” (Sailus 2003-2020). If the last interpretation is real, however, the whole sequence of the register should be read from up down, and not the other way round as it is generally assumed.

The depicted vehicles are presumably early forerunners of chariots as they are bulkier and less flexible versions of equid-drawn that are horse-drawn vehicles (McDonald 2013). The line of battle wagons begins at the left with a vehicle, which is drawn by four of these asses or onagers (Ibid.).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2 550 BC. War panel, detail. The illustration of the battle wagons in the bottom register are showing the movement speeding up from left to right. The British Museum; Room 56. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the back of the wagon, there is a warrior and inside it a driver holds the reins, which pass over the high front of the vehicle and then through what is called a terret or a rein ring, and which was yoked to the animals, which have got nose rings (McDonald 2013). The metal bit had not yet been invented at that time (Ibid.). In this way, all these carefully rendered scenes show a detailed account of transportation technology of the Sumerians (Ibid.).

Pictures in motion

There is also the use of the narrative in the quickening pace of the lower register (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons trampling the enemies. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

By observing the next wagon to the right, it is really easy to get the impression that the asses have picked up a bit of speed and their gait is now a canter (McDonald 2013). The animals’ legs are farther apart, stretched in galloping, whereas in the space between them, lies a prostrate figure of a nude dead enemy (Ibid.). The rhythm picks up again with the next two groups of speeding animals and trampling the enemies (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). While one group of mounts is galloping, the last appears to be already in a flying gallop (McDonald 2013). The picking up of speed in these register scenes is a possibly new invention in art (Ibid.). Much later it was applied most notably in the Greek Parthenon frieze, with the huge marble sculpture of a procession with horses that pulses with speed towards the central scene (Ibid.).

Rhythm and hierarchy

The so-called Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects and is probably symbolic of Sumer. the British Museum; Room 56.

The other notable aspect of the way the mosaic has been created is a rhythmic pattern, not just of the individual groups, who vary between active and static poses, but also in bright colours of lapis lazuli and red limestone (McDonald 2013). And this rhythmic pattern of colours punctuates the scenes in a pleasing and sophisticated design (Ibid.). Also, the whole design is hierarchical from bottom to top in scale and in placement; it underlines and attests the dominance and leadership of a powerful ruler (Ibid.). He is portrayed as victorious and is set triumphantly amidst and atop the battle, which is complete with his prisoners dead and the nude enemies at the very bottom below the galloping animals (Ibid.).

Religious banquet?

The other side of the Standard of Ur shows a completely different aspect of the Sumerian leadership (McDonald 2013). This side which was often referred to as Peace, has also been called victory but its meaning is perhaps much broader than either name evokes (Ibid.).

This side depicts a big banquet at the very top register (McDonald 2013). It could perhaps be a cultic banquet with some religious significance but it is also interpreted as a victory feast (Ibid.). The latter is a theory proposed by scholars “who believe the Standard portrays an actual event” (Sailus 2003-2020).

Standard of Ur. Sumerian artwork, ca. 2250 BC. From tomb 779 Ur. British Museum. Detail. By Michel Wal. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The ruler is again the largest figure of all in the topmost part of the panel but this time he is seated at the left with his six bald men facing him as they lift their cups (McDonald 2013). He is also holding a cup and is naked above the waist (Ibid.). He is wearing a fleecy garment or fringed skirt, is bald and sits on a stool with some animal-like legs (Ibid.). It could be a gazelle or a hoof of a similar animal (Ibid.). The slightly smaller seated figures are wearing kilts with a fleecy border and are seated on similar stools as their ruler (Ibid.).

Similarly dressed, three or four other men (the upper-part of the fourth, on the left, is apparently missing) are standing near the ruler (McDonald 2013). They seemed to be attendants for the banquet (Ibid.). To the extreme right, there is a musician playing a lyre, which is similar to the elaborate inlaid bull lyres, which were actually found at the cemetery of Ur (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). A figure with longer hair at the right of the musician has arms crossed as if singing (Ibid.). This may very well be the musicians for the banquet (Ibid.).

The bounty of land

Below, there are two registers of mostly bald men who guide different kinds of livestock and other goods as if to show the bounty of the land, as much as it is represented on the Uruk vase (McDonald 2013).

“Peace”, detail showing a lyrist and possibly a singer. “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the second register, there are bald Sumerians wearing similar fleece bordered skirts as in the banquet scene and probably leading the animals of the land to the ruler depicted above (McDonald 2013). Animals are one of the most carefully and frequently represented subjects by the Sumerians, as much as by most of the early cultures of the Near East (Ibid.). After all, it is from them that the bounties of the land flow: meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather and even transportation (Ibid.). Also the cultivation of the earth for crops is made easier by the beast of burden, such as an ox (Ibid). Hence the procession of these precious animals led by people: the bull at the right, rams and sheep, and finally a cow and a goat (Ibid.). One bald figure in the middle also holds two large fishes in either hand (Ibid.). Such animals represent the bounty of the lands of Sumer, both marshes and cultivated pastures (Ibid.).

The last row of the side shows a slightly different procession of bounty (McDonald 2013). People depicted there are dressed differently and some bear burdens on their shoulders and backs while other lead asses by their nose rings (Ibid.). It is thought that these people must come from elsewhere, most likely from the north, the region later known as Akkad (Ibid.). Sumer and Akkad were linked as two regions of Mesopotamia and they both complemented each other in their produce and in their topography: marshes in desert versus hillier, more temperate regions in the north (Ibid.).

The same language

The two lower registers of the Peace side move in the opposite direction to the seated men depicted on top (McDonald 2013). By these means, a rhythm is set up (Ibid.). Assuming that the motion of the processions is from bottom to top, it would be again a hierarchical definition of the Sumerian society, where the largest and so the most significant figure is the ruler and just after him the ruler’s closest entourage, probably priests, who are smaller than their ruler but still larger than the banquet musicians and attendants (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013).

Both techniques also appear in the registers of the Uruk vase and one message seems to be common to both artifacts: the bounty of the land prevails and the ruler holds sway over its productivity (McDonald 2013). On the Uruk vase, priests are depicted while making offering to Inanna on behalf of a ruler (Ibid.). Similarly, the banquet, which seems to be religious in nature on the Standard of Ur, positions the ruler at the top and he is receiving the bounty of the land, yet this time without the deity represented (Ibid.). In the object from Ur, however, the fertility theme is in a colourful inlay of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, as if it was a more fully realized, colorized version of the vase of Uruk, yet made several hundred years later (Ibid.). Accordingly, both objects show similar concerns : depicting the ruler in a ritual scene with the fertile products of his land display (Ibid.).

Historic events?

Providing that the Standard has recorded a historic event, some scholars interpret the bottom row of the Peace side as the procession of goods being the tribute brought in by the losing side in the battle, shown on the other side of the standard (McDonald 2013).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2550 BC. Peace panel;
the bottom register, detail. Gifts carried
to the ruler shown at the top. The British
Museum; Room 56. Source: “Standard
of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free
Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, “[the] feast [would have taken] place in commemoration of the preceding side’s military victory; [the] top row [would show] the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him, [whereas], the bottom two rows [would represent] the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords” (Sailus 2003-2020). But there are also other interpretations, such as a recurring theme of the Sumerian leadership and its dual function (McDonald 2013).

Two sides of the kingship

The two sides of the Standard could actually be showing the two sides of the kingship itself: the role of the king as a leader in warfare and his religious role as a leader of his people in worship of the gods (McDonald 2013). He is the one responsible for providing that the fecundity of the land continues to feed his people (Ibid.). The ruler is positioned as a mediator to the deities; his actions and his prayers connect with the divine in order to support his people (Ibid.). So the ruler was not only the protector of his city in war conflict but also the one responsible for the very fertility of the land, which provided for his people (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top and middle registers. The royal wagon, soldiers and infantry below. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

The two complementary sides of kingship, warrior and provider, are very clearly represented in Sumerian artworks (McDonald 2013). In fact, these aspects of kingship occur in artistic representations all over the world because they are the heart of the legitimacy of any ruler; they must defend their people and provide for them (Ibid.).

The Sumerians are by no means the only people who had such concerns and expectations for their rulers, and a theme of an offerings procession occurs in many contexts in art (McDonald 2013). Similar scenes occur later in Greek art, as in the mentioned above sculpture of Parthenon, where there are both martial and offering or fertility themes, all directed towards a goddess of the city that appears to coalesce (Ibid.).

Still a mystery

The actual usage of the standard of Ur still remains a mystery; the box like reconstruction does not seem to be ideal for a standard used in war (McDonald 2013). It is because its scenes were apparently meant to be seen up close and understood on a detailed level (Ibid.).

Cylinder seal of Pu-abi, ca. 2600 B.C., lapis lazuli, 4.9 x 2.6 cm, from Ur © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Skilled craftsmen who knew how to communicate a message about the kingship and religion in the Sumerian state were engaged in telling a story that rolls out like a narrative, similar to the use of the comic book register, which is also observed in the cylinder seals of the period being very central to Sumerian tradition (McDonald 2013). Banquet scenes, like the one on the Standard of Ur, were also represented on such objects, for example the seal of the so-called Queen Puabi, which was also found in Ur and equally exposed in the British Museum (The British Museum 2015).

Fanciful scenes

Unlike major panels of the Standard, its end panels are usually neglected in detailed interpretations as they are thought to be only fanciful scenes, which were added by the artist merely as a lush decoration (Shukur 2018).

End panels on the Royal Standard of Ur. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

Some authors think that it is unlikely and the depictions on the shorter sides have got a deeper meaning and so deserve thorough explanations (Shukur 2018). As in the case of the longer sides of the Standard, both end panels are also divided into three registers but due to limited space, they depict just a few pictures in comparison to the long panels of War and Peace sides.

Heralds of failure or victory?

One of the end panels. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

The end panel to the left of the War side shows a ram in the top register; it is standing on its hint legs while “feeding on the high branches of a tree” (Shukur 2018). Such an image resembles a famous Sumerian sculpture, known as the Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects (Ibid.) and “it seemed to be symbolic of Sumer itself” (Ibid.). On the other side of the tree, there is an incomplete representation of a creature with hooves and a tail, which can be a half-human hybrid typical of Sumerian mythology (Ibid.).

End panel; detail from the top register. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

In the middle register, there is the same ram but this time it is accompanied by a Sumerian man on the right, who “is making a ceremonial offering to the [animal]” (Shukur 2018). On the left, there is another figure, probably of an “Akkadian enemy in the angled-skirt” (Ibid.). He is probably holding a sort of weapon, whose blade seems to spear the ram’s body (Ibid.). At the bottom, the ram disappears as if killed by the enemy (Ibid.). But it has left its tree behind it. Now, it is flanked by two seated man-headed bulls, probably symbols of Sumer (Ibid.). Are these images metaphorical heralds of the coming war, depicted on the longer side of the Standard? (Ibid.).

On the other side, if the registers are read from down up, it would mean that the ram appears in the second register and is still present in the final scene, together with the opposite creature, which may be a key to the meaning of the whole story. If it is one of the man-headed bulls from the bottom, the scenes may announce the Sumerian victory.

From war to peaceful bounties of life

The other end panel. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

The opposite end panel also represents interesting, yet mysterious images. Starting from the bottom, there is possibly the same ram, which is now on top of a mountain or jumping over it. The mountain front can be also interpreted as a gate or door (Shukur 2018). It “is probably [also a] part of a locking mechanism by which the Standard could be attached or removed” (Ibid.). The middle register above shows in turn the ram (its horns are damaged and so are invisible) being chased by a leopard (Ibid.). Finally, the topmost scene represents “two flowering plants with the eight-pointed rosettes, […] symbolically important to the Sumerians” (Ibid.) Above, there may have been also a larger rosette (Ibid.). Unfortunately, now the uppermost image is erased.

As it seems, the two end panels complement each other by the imagery portrayed on them in the three successive registers. If the sequence of events is read from down up in both cases, the scenes of the both sides seem to correlate. The bottom pictures probably build a scenery of peace just before the war, whereas the two middle registers always show the ram in danger. Providing that the ram is identified with Sumer, such imagery may evoke some menace to the city-states, such as war. Nevertheless, the top registers reveal that Sumer has not only been saved but also turned out to be victorious; the ram feeding on a tree and flowering plants may imply an abundance of the land that has become even wealthier afterwards, as much as it is visible on the Peace side of the Standard.

The Standard’s story

But while the Standard does not reveal all its secrets it does tell a story about a society, which was full of hierarchy and wealth (McDonald 2013). Its trade routes reach far and wide to receive the luxury goods of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, to the red marble or limestone, which may have come all the way from India (Ibid.).

The Standard of Ur, in the British Museum, Room 56. Photo by Denis Bourez from France – British Museum, London. Uploaded by SunOfErat. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Elaborate mosaics must have been crafted by skilled artisans, which implies that a society that could support art and artists devoted only to that and fed by others had developed in Sumer (McDonald 2013). The artists’ skills were in turn directed towards the support of the elite, the king or ruler and his nobles (Ibid.). Rulers are depicted in art in such a way that their role above the others in the society must have been legitimatized; they were protectors of their people in warfare and bringers of peace, continuously acting as the conduit between fertility and human survival, and by extension, between the earthly world and heavens (Ibid.).

Treasures of the museums

As Sir Charles Leonard Woolley’ archaeological expedition was a joint effort between the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum in London, the objects uncovered by the excavators were in great part shipped off to new homes in those two museums (McDonald 2013). In fact, a great deal of archaeology of that time and earlier sought to recover fabulous treasures and then remove them from their native lands to the museums of their excavators (Ibid.).

A Street Scene at Ur in the Level of the Abrahamic Period (2000-1900 BC.). Postcard; printed; photograph showing archaeological excavations at Ur, with Arab workmen standing for scale in the excavated street of an early second millennium B.C.E. residential quarter © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

This is definitely something that does not happen nowadays (McDonald 2013). New moral standards, nationalism, pride and the better resources of art make such wholesale removal of what has been called the national patrimony no longer allowed (Ibid.). Moreover, archaeology as a discipline has changed throughout centuries (Ibid.). Most archaeologists do not seek to wrest the treasures from the ground to exhibit them in a museum far away as their trophies (Ibid.). Instead, they are intent on finding out more about the culture and the society that produced the excavated artifacts and with this objective it is possible to learn more (Ibid.). Objects that are excavated now usually stay in their countries in local museums or universities (Ibid.).

Lost national patrimony

As a matter of fact, the artifacts, which Woolley uncovered in his excavations in Ur were not only divided among the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum, but also were granted to the National Iraq Museum in Bagdad (Wakely 1999). Although some authors claim that only a small number of artifacts was left in Iraq (Ḏḥwty 2017), Neil McGregor, in The History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC Radio 4), says that “the Iraq Museum in Baghdad [actually] received the lion’s share of the Ur excavations” (Gerry 2010). Nevertheless, in 2003 some part of this unique treasure was looted and lost forever (Barker 2018). Exceptional artifacts from Woolley’s excavations in Ur, such as the bowl made of gold and lapis lazuli, have been stolen and never found (Ibid.). And although plundering museums and archaeological sites has been “regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times” (Ibid.), this crime has never stopped.

Gold and lapis bowl from Ur, Iraq Museum IM8272. Current status is unknown. Oriental Institute Lost Treasures from Iraq database. Source: Barker (2018).

Unfortunately, since 2003, “much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen […]. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing” (Barker 2018). McGregor says that “the looting of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum during the recent war in Iraq was felt very profoundly by the Iraqis […]; from the moment of discovery, there was a strong connection between Iraqi national identity and the antiquities of Ur. [It was because] the  discoveries at Ur [had] coincided with the early years of the modern state of Iraq, created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. One of the focal points of that new state was the Iraq Museum in Baghdad […]. Mesopotamia’s past [has become] a key part of Iraq’s future. Archaeology and politics are set to remain closely connected as, tragically, are cities and warfare” (Gerry 2010).

Safe by all means

“The museum looting should have been a clarion call for the need for better protection of antiquities in conflict zones, both from combatants and local populations. Sadly, this has not been the case. There has been subsequent destruction of archaeological sites and museums in [Egypt], Syria and Libya, ISIS selling antiquities to finance weapons, and increases in thefts from both private and public collections and from archaeological sites […] The loss of these sites and artifacts is disastrous for humanity” (Barker 2018).

Ruins in the Town of Ur, southern Iraq, with the ziggurat in the background. CC by SA 2.0. Source: Ḏḥwty (2017). Ancient Origins.

This is also why there are fierce debates weather artifacts taken to overseas museums during colonialism should be returned to their countries of origin, especially when they keep facing unceasing social unrest and wars (Jenkins, Rodet, Stefanidis, Thomas 2019). Actually, there are as many different opinions as scholars (Ibid.). The problem is even more complex; although some authorities definitely agree that archaeological artifacts should be left in the country, where they were unearthed, the overriding matter that counts for them is to keep them safe by all means (Ibid.).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Ḏḥwty (2017) “Where Sumerian Rulers Lie: The Royal Tombs of Ur’. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2MQfCFi>. [Accessed on 11th June, 2020].

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Jenkins T., Rodet M., Stefanidis I.D., Thomas N. (2019) “Do historical objects belong in their country of origin?” In: The History Today. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BWdwkN>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

JOM (2020) “Standard of Ur”. In: Joy of Museum Virtual Tours. Available at <https://bit.ly/30AfmlR>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

Jongh N. de (2014) “From the archive, 13 January 1976: Agatha Christie remains unsolved”. In: The Guardian. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fmon6e>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

MacGregor N. (2020) “Standard of Ur. A History of the World in 100 Objects. The First Cities and States (4000 – 2000 BC) Episode 2 of 5”. In: BBC Radio 4. Available at <https://bbc.in/2N7ZsY5>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

McDonald D. K. (2013) “Lecture 4: The Standard of Ur: the Role of the King”. In: 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. The Great Courses. Boston College.

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Face of the Fifth Sun

We started our first day in the capital of Mexico with a visit at National Museum of Anthropology and History in Chalpultepek Park, called in Spanish El Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. When we entered the Museum, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the opulence and variation of the world’s greatest collection of ancient Mesoamerican art. I admit it is one of my most favourites museums in the world I have ever visited. As the exhibition is vast and its collections highly extensive, we allocated the whole day to explore it right (Semantika 2014). As a matter of fact, the museum edifice is built around a large courtyard, which is a pleasant and shady place to stay when you want to take a break or have lunch, so we did not leave the building before its closure (Ibid.).

The Central Courtyard Umbrella, Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico (National Museum of Anthropology). Source: “National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico)” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The museum [contains twenty-three] permanent exhibit halls. Archaeology [displays] are located on the ground floor and ethnographic exhibits about present-day indigenous groups in Mexico are on the upper level. […] On the left of the entrance, [there] are halls devoted to [different] cultural areas of Mexico [and each room is extremely impressive. Also] several of the rooms have recreations of archaeological scenes: murals in the Teotihuacan exhibit and tombs in the Oaxaca and Maya rooms, which gives the chance to see the pieces in the context in which they were found” (Semantika 2014). Some of the museum highlights are found on displays dedicated to the last of the great pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, who furthermore founded the Mexico City itself. It is the culture of the Aztecs, originally known as the tribe of Mexica.

Archaeological journey through the Central Mexico to Tonalmachiot

When we entered the museum, first we turned right to study artifacts showing the cultures that developed in Central Mexico (Semantika 2014). Display units are organized there in a chronological order so starting on the right and making our way around counter-clockwise, we got a feel for how the cultures had changed over time (Ibid.). The archaeological tour of the Central Mexico culminates in the Mexica, aka Aztec exhibit, fulfilled with monumental stone sculptures, of which the most famous is undoubtedly the Aztec Calendar Stone, also known as El Piedro del Sol, which is the Sunstone in Spanish (Ibid.).

The Aztec Calendar Stone, also known as El Piedro del Sol, which is the Sunstone in Spanish. Aztekayolokalli (2012) claims it has its own name and should be called Tonalmachiot; Central Mexico display in National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photo by Dennis Jarvis (2013). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

What is today known as the Aztec Calendar Stone should be rather called Tonalmachiot, where Tonal stands for the Sun and Machiotl for the Pattern (Aztekayolokalli 2012). The huge stone disc is hanging today on the wall, showing its most interesting topmost face and occupying a central stage of the room dedicated to the last prominent culture of Mesoamerica before the Conquest.

Disc of mysteries

The so-called Calendar Stone of the Aztecs, aka Tonalmachiot, is certainly the most iconic object from pre-Columbian Mexico (Aztekayolokalli 2012; McDonald 2013). It is probably one of the most famous and frequently studied excavated objects from the ancient world (McDonald 2013).

In the foreground the Aztec god of suffering, Xipe Totec. Behind it, the Calendar Stone in the background.

Nonetheless, despite of all the attention given to the round disc by various scholars and authors, it is still an object of mystery (McDonald 2013). Since the Calendar Stone was found, its enigma has caught human imagination and sparkled a fierce debate over its meaning but so far the disc has not revealed all its secrets to the modern viewer (Ibid.). The Aztecs did not write about it at all so it should be examined carefully on its own to be understood (Ibid.). It needs to be put in the context of what is known today about the Aztec Empire from the Spanish accounts and the Aztecs own history in order to acknowledge its significance (Ibid.). So what is this stone, known as the Piedra del Sol or Sunstone in Spanish and why is it so difficult to figure out the meanings of the images on the stone? (Ibid.).

Not Mayan but Aztec idea

It happens that the Calendar Disc is misinterpreted and perceived as a simple object, especially to people not aware of its true meaning (McDonald 2013). Actually, it is quite complex and enigmatic even to scholars (Ibid.). Surprisingly enough, the Calendar Stone has nothing to do with the so-called ending of times and the apocalypse foretold for 2012 (Ibid.). Although the Sunstone is believed to have been a “next logical step of the Mayan Calendar – proven by modern scientific means to be the most precise calendar system invented by humankind” (Aztekayolokalli 2012) – the Aztec Calendar is not Mayan and it is not a calendar for keeping track of time (McDonald 2013).

The monument is huge; it is made of basalt and measures about 3,6 metres in diameter and is about 1,2 metres thick. Its weight reaches about 24 tons. It is hanging today on the wall, showing its most interesting topmost face and occupying a central stage of the Central Mexico room in the Museum.

Although there are historical dates recorded in the Calendar Stone of the Aztecs, “unlike the Mayan calendar, which is very precise, the Aztec system was [not so, and] a certain date [in it] could refer to a couple of different times in a year. [Hence often disagreements] among scholars about when certain events occurred in the Aztec [Empire]” (Gillan 2019). After an historian of art, Dr Diana McDonald (2013), the Calendar Stone does, however, tell a story about the previous Aztec eras which apparently ended in destruction. Accordingly, the idea of different ages of creation and destruction is present there (Ibid.). Yet it is a particularly Aztec idea and not Mayan (Ibid.). The Maya were notable for their long count of time and dates found on their monuments were figured from a fixed event (point) in the past but the Aztecs were thinking in terms of the dates of the ages of creation (Ibid.). Probably the Calendar Stone is more connected with cosmic events and with human sacrifice than with telling exact time or foretelling future events (Ibid.).

Unearthed treasure of the past

The Calendar Stone was excavated on December 17, 1790 along with another masterpiece of the Aztec sculpture, a colossal statue of Coatlicue, which was a major deity in the Aztec pantheon (Aztekayolokalli 2012; McDonald 2013).

The statue of the goddess Coatlicue, one of the centrals deities in the Aztec Pantheon. The sculpture was unearthed together with the Calendar Stone in 1790, on the grounds of Zócalo, in Mexico City.

The both artifacts were unearthed on the grounds of Zócalo, the central square of Mexico City (McDonald 2013).The Zócalo in its previous incarnation was the central plaza of the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Ibid.). “After the conquest, the Spanish moved the [Calendar Stone] a few hundred meters south of [its original] precinct, in a position facing upward and near the Templo Mayor and the Viceregal Palace. Sometime between 1551-1572, the religious officials in Mexico City decided the image was a bad influence on their citizens, and the stone was buried facing down” (Maestri 2019), probably to deflect its powerful imagery (McDonald 2013). The Spanish also destroyed the main temple, the Templo Mayor, and stones from the Aztec period were re-used in colonial buildings, such as the Catholic Cathedral (Ibid.). Like the Sunstone, the whole Aztec statuary was buried in the mid-sixteenth century in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest and a terrifying smallpox epidemic (Ibid.).

In 1790s, the Sunstone was put on display at a tower of the Cathedral in Mexico City. In the nineteenth century it was first moved to the Museo Nacional, and finally , in the twentieth century it found its place in the new Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park, where it is displayed also today. Source: Forbes (2020).

By these means, the two most prominent pieces, the colossal statue of Coatlicue and the Calendar Stone had not been seen again until their accidental unearthing in the eighteenth century (McDonald 2013). Having been found, the Sunstone was first put on display at a tower of the Cathedral (Ibid.). “In 1885, the disk was moved to the early Museo Nacional, where it was held in the monolithic gallery. […] In 1964 it was transferred to the new Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park, [where] it is displayed [today] on the ground floor, […] within the Aztec/Mexica exhibition room” (Maestri 2019).

The Aztec Calendar in the early Museo Nacional, Casasola Archive, 1913. Source: Forbes (2020).

The monument is an outstanding masterpiece; it is made of basalt and measures about 3,6 metres in diameter and is about 1,2 metres thick (McDonald 2013; Maestri 2019). Its weight reaches about 24 tons (Ibid.). “Scholars surmise that the basalt was quarried somewhere in the southern basin of Mexico, at least 18-22 kilometres […] south of Tenochtitlan” (Maestri 2019). The topmost part of the disc is intricately carved in hieroglyphs in low and high relief, creating a play of light and shadow (McDonald 2013; Gillan 2019). Additionally, it can have originally been multi-colourfully polychromed. After the author and heir of the Mexica culture, Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018), not only the Calendar Stone is a beautiful piece of art reflecting good artistic qualities but it also contains a significant message.

The greatest in its class

Surprisingly to most of the visitors of the Aztec section in the Museum of Anthropology, it turns out that the Calendar Stone is not the only disc produced by the Aztecs.

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

In the same room, where the Sunstone is exposed, there are also other similar discs but smaller and carved less intricately (McDonald 2013). Unlike other Aztec round discs of a similar character, the Calendar Stone is irregular since it has got a ragged stone edge, looking to some people as if it were not completed (Ibid.). As it turned out later on it is not the case. El Piedra del Sol is also by far the largest and most complex example of this kind of stone sculpture and indeed of any Aztec sculpture (Ibid.). After Dr McDonald (2013) it can be described as the most intricate, beautiful and detailed enumeration of a cosmic scheme made by any ancient American culture.

The Empire of bloody rituals

The Aztec Empire itself had grown vast and influential in a fairly short period of time before Spanish conquistadors arrived and destroyed it in the sixteenth century (McDonald 2013). At that time, it was at its height and seemed to have been in power for a bit more than a century, at least according to their own accounts (Ibid.). One of the most important aspects of the Aztec Empire was its alliance with and conquest of many different neighbouring peoples from the Pacific coast to the Gulf coast of today Mexico, and in the mosaic of regions down to Oaxaca (Ibid.). These allied and conquered peoples were required to give tribute to the Aztec capital (Ibid.). At the center of Tenochtitlan many goods were exchanged in this way (Ibid.). The economy was based on the tribute in such things as valuable woven cloth, cacao beans, animal pelts, feathers, jadeite. All that was offered to the Aztec emperor (Ibid.).

Human sacrifice offered to gods at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson. Source: The Cinema Archives (2012-2020).

Most remarkably, however, part of the tribute consisted of people, men and women who were destined for sacrifice (McDonald 2013). It is debated who these sacrificial victims were but many seemed to come from neighbouring regions and from the center of the Aztec Empire as well (Ibid.). Different kinds of people were offered to specific gods at designated times (Ibid.). Some high status captives were offered during important ceremonies on a special sort of stone disc, like the Calendar Stone, but smaller (Ibid.). These sacrificial vessels or platforms were termed Eagle Boxes or Cuauhxicalli in the Aztec language of Nahuatl (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). The sacrificial person was stretched with his back over the stone disc and held down by four attendants, each holding one limb of a victim (McDonald 2013). A priest made a quick incision in the chest with a special flint knife (Ibid.). Then he reached into his chest and removed the heart, which was then offered as the precious gift to the Sun, called by the Aztecs, the precious Eagle Cactus Fruit (Ibid.). Human blood would have been caught in the central depression that was usually carved into these stones (Ibid.). Probably it would have also served to hold sacrificial hearts (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019; Maestri 2019).

Aztec Warriors with a typical Aztec weapon, called a macuahuitl. Illustration from the Florentine Codex, sixteenth century. Source:
History Crunch Writers (2018-2019).

There was also another sacrificial use for this shape of stone (McDonald 2013). One of the most interesting sort of sacrifice was a kind mock combat, a gladiatorial contest between a captured warrior meant for sacrifice and an Aztec warrior (Ibid.). The tribute warrior or sacrifice was tethered to a round stone disc, rather like the Calendar Stone but again smaller, usually with a hole drilled through the middle (Ibid.). It was the base for the final sacrifice of a gladiatorial combatant and was called Temalacatl in Nahuatl (Maestri 2019). The sacrificial warrior was given a weapon which consisted of a sort of wooden club or sword studded with feathers, which was rather ineffective in fight (McDonald 2013). He then engaged in combat, obviously pretty limited by being tied to the stone with another warrior who had a real weapon, which was a club as well but this one was studded with sharp and cutting obsidian blades (Ibid.). This typical Aztec weapon was called a macuahuitl and it was capable of serious damage (Ibid.). So this kind of combat was pretty much unequal and one-sided but it was made to be a part of a religious rite (Ibid.). Moreover, bloody rituals conducted by the Aztecs certainly served to strike terror into the hearts of those who may have opposed their absolute rule (Ibid.).

Illustration from the Durán Codex, also known as the History of the Indies of New Spain, which was completed in about 1581. The illustration shows a human sacrifice on Cuauhxicalli, These were sacrificial vessels or platforms also termed Eagle Boxes. Source: Forbes (2020).

Cuauhxicalli and Temalacatl objects are also the possible symbolic associations for the shape of the  Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013; Maestri 2019). The large circular sacrificial stones were set on the horizonal as it is represented in the Durán Codex illustration and the Calendar Stone was likely meant to be horizontal as well (McDonald 2013). Having been carved, the Sunstone “must have been located in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlán, […] and likely near where ritual human sacrifices took place” (Maestri 2019). Yet it is not clear if the Calendar Stone was going to be used as an actual Cuauhxicalli or Temalacatl, or just meant to look like one for symbolic reasons, which is supported by the fact that it is deprived of a similar depression or drilled whole in the middle (McDonald 2013).  

13 Reed and gods’ sacrifice

The essential key to understanding the message of the Calendar Stone itself is, however, what is actually represented upon it (McDonald 2013). Some scholars have worked out that the Aztec Calendar was made in 1479 AD (Ibid.). It is because at the top of the stone, there is the date of 13 Acatl (13 Reed), which directly refers to this particular year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although some scholars claim the Calendar Stone was carved for Motecuhzoma II, aka Montezuma, the last Aztec tlatoani (emperor) whose reign was eventually disturbed by the Spanish conquest, the year 1479 AD actually fell during the time of the rule of the Aztec emperor, Axayacatl (1469-1481) (McDonald 2013).

13 Acatl (13 Reed) date underlined in yellow, at the top of the Calendar Stone. Probably, it is an equivalent of the date of 1479, which is very significant for the history of the Aztec Empire. Shot from the Lecture 31 given by Dr Diane McDonald (2013): “Aztec Calendar Stone”. In: 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. The Great Courses. Boston College Fine Arts Department,

Dr McDonald (2013) claims that the date associated with the construction of the Calendar Stone is also what makes the Calendar Stone so important and such a masterpiece. It is due to the fact that 13 Reed or 1479 was also the time of the gathering of gods at Teotihuacan, when they gave the beginning of the era of 4 Earthquake Sun (Ibid.). Emily Umberger, the archaeologist, believes that the date is also “an anniversary […] of a politically crucial event [for the Aztecs. The] birth of the Sun and the rebirth of Huitzilopochtli as the Sun [was] the political message [and] for those who saw the stone [it] was clear: this was an important year of rebirth for the Aztec Empire, and the emperor’s right to rule comes directly from the Sun God and is embedded with the sacred power of time, directionality, and sacrifice” (Maestri 2019).

The king supervising the ceremony of human sacrifice. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the emperor played by Rafael Velez. Source: Youtube.

In the creation of the new world, the gods sacrificed themselves in bloody rituals (McDonald 2013). Therefore, as it is observed in the case of Coatlicue statue, Aztec gods were usually represented dismembered or as sacrificial victims at the moment of death (Ibid.). This is also why the Aztecs continued human sacrifice; they felt in dept to their gods who had saved the whole creation and supported life on Earth (Ibid.). In this way, they just followed their gods’ example (Ibid.).

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

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

Aztec bloody heritage

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

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

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

Grimace of the Stone’s face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nahui-Ollin, knowns as the cosmic butterfly

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

The central Nahui Ollin glyph of the Calendar Stone. Source: Stuart (2016).

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

Cyclic time

Unlike the present prevailing idea of linearly running time, many peoples around the world have thought of time as cyclic, which was particularly common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Gillan 2019). “The Aztecs, among other groups, [such as the Mayans], believed in a succession of world ages and they depicted those ages on [the Calendar Stone]” (Andrews 1998:21).

Representation of the Aztec glyph for Nahui Ollin (4 Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Ollin element, replaced by the god’s face on the Calendar Stone. Illustration from the Codex Borbonicus. Source: Stuart (2016).

According to one version of the story, which is also analogous to the Mayan understanding of time, the Calendar Stone represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle (George 2004:25; McDonald 2013). Each of the four rectangles standing for the four eras/suns additionally includes a number 4 in the forms of 4 dots or beads, which is quite significant while reading the glyphs (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, 4 (as there are four dots) Jaguar is the oldest era of creation, supposedly between 956-280 BC (McDonald 2013). Giants who populated the Earth in that era were devoured by jaguars as they had not performed their duties to the gods (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). The next era – 4 Wind, ruled by the god Ehecatl – lasted for 364 years and it had monkey men in some versions, who were carried away and destroyed by hurricanes (Ibid.). 4 Rain was ruled by a water deity, Tlaloc, and it ended when its denizens, who were near human beings were destroyed by the rain and fire (probably a volcano eruption) and supposedly eaten by turkeys (Ibid.). The last date – 4 Water – was the era ruled by the goddess Chalchihuiticue and destroyed by a 52-year flood and within which men drowned and maybe turned into fish (Ibid.).

Center of the Sun Stone with Nahui Ollin and five eras or suns: four destroyed and one that still exists (Painting by R. S. Flandes. Source: Source: O’Connell (2020).

The present creation (the fifth era) began on 4 Movement/Earthquake in around 1195 AD (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh, the sun god and Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Monster, were both created for this era by means of their own bloody sacrifice (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). This current creation was meant to be stable on the condition that the blood sacrifice was continuously made to the gods and it could probably last forever (Ibid.). Constant penitent sacrifice of human blood was therefore required for this era so the symbolism shown in the Sunstone is apparently all about the Aztec current world (Ibid.). By means of the Sunstone it was foretold that if the blood sacrifices had ceased, the world would have ended in earthquakes (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). These are some pretty vivid and scarily specific cataclysms and it is just the very central part of the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013).

If it is the Earth, where is the Sun?

Although the central face of the Calendar Stone may not represent Tonatiuh, the image of the Sun is very present in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Sun is hidden for those who do not want to see it (Ibid.).

The Calendar Stone represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018).

In artistic representation of Tonatiuh, where he is wearing eagle feathers, there are direct connections between the Sun and an eagle (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tōnatiuh” 2020). It is “relating to the belief that an eagle is a reference to the ascending and descending eagle talons, a visual metaphor for capturing the heart or life force of a person. This particular form of symbolism points to ritual of human sacrifice, which was associated with Tonatiuh and his devouring of the hearts of victims” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Hence the sacrifice of human heart offered to the Sun was called the Eagle Cactus Fruit (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh‘s symbolic association with the eagle [also] alludes to the Aztec belief of his journey as the Sun, […] travelling across the sky each day, where he descended in the west and ascended in the east” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020).

Accordingly, Tonatiuh may have been represented in the Calendar Stone in its zoomorphic disguise (Aztekayolokalli 2018). If so, where is it? Just in the center, caught in its flight (Ibid.).

Eagle representation as the symbol of the sun god, Tonatiuh, hidden within the complex image of Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018).

In order to discern it, one should look beyond the both elements building up its picture, the goddess Tlaltecuhtli and the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Aztekayolokalli 2018). There is the eagle’s beak sticking out of the Earth and pointing up to the sky, in the direction of the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.). There are its talons being at once Tlaltecuhtli’s claws grasping human hearts and tail feathers, just below the round Face of the Earth (Ibid.). The eagle’s wings are in turn shaped by the four “wings’ of the cosmic Butterfly, and outspread to four corners of the universe (Ibid.).

The three superimposed images create Nahui Ollin glyph (4 Movement) within the Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018).. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018).

The Sun is then superimposed over the shape of the Butterfly, and subsequently, they are both superimposed over the Face of Earth – astronomical event that takes place every year on July 26th, when the Sun is directly above Mexico City, in its zenith (Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Combined worlds

In the deeply carved background of the ring surrounding 4 Movement glyph, there are a few smaller date glyphs (McDonald 2013). On the right of the pointer at the top, there is the date 1 Flint Knife (Ibid.). On the left, there is a headdress glyph (Ibid.), which is interpreted as the name of Montezuma (Stuart 2016).

Four other Aztec glyphs adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. On top in blue, there is a hairdress on the left , and 1 Flint on the right. At the bottom, there are 7 Monkey on the right and 1 Rain on the left. Drawing by E. Umberger. Source: Stuart (2016).

Hence, some scholars ascribe the Calendar Stone to the last emperor of the Aztecs (McDonald 2013). At the bottom of the same field, adjacent to the Nahui-Oliln glyph, there are also 7 Monkey (on the right) and 1 Rain (on the left) (Stuart 2016; McDonald 2013). These dates may refer to actual historical milestones in Aztec history (Ibid.). For instant, 1 Flint is likely to be the calendar name of Huitzilopochtli (Stuart 2016). As the god is the patron of the Aztecs’ city of Tenochtitlan, it may refer to the date when the Mexica tribe left their homeland, a legendary Aztlan, to found their new capital, which is now Mexico City (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the Calendar Stone would also contain historic records (Ibid.).

Xiuhpohualli and Tōnalpōhualli

The Mesoamerican “calendar consisted of a 365-day calendar cycle called Xiuhpohualli (year count) and a 260-day ritual cycle called Tōnalpōhualli (day count). These two cycles together formed a 52-year calendar round. The Xiuhpohualli is considered to be the agricultural calendar, since it is based on the Sun” (Gillan 2019), whereas Tōnalpōhualli is regarded more in a sacred dimension of time counting (Ibid.).

Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph. Source: Stuart (2016).

“[The] Aztecs divided their year into 18 months of 20 days plus 5 days at the end” (Noble 2009:51). Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Noble 2009:51; see Gillan 2019; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). However, according to others, these 5 signs refer to the five suns; the four gone and the one, which is currently lasting in the current era (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although the same sings may have got a double meaning, it is probable that only one of the two significant Mesoamerican calendars has been depicted by the Aztecs in the Sunstone (Ibid.). It is Tōnalpōhualli (day count).

Tōnalpōhualli (day count)

A ring of 20-day names circles the key image of the central creation in the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). The cycle starts slightly to the left of the pointer above the central face; so the cycle begins with the glyph of a Crocodile and ends with the glyph of a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, the first day is represented by a Crocodile or an Alligator (McDonald 2013). The next to the left is Wind (Ibid.). After that a House, Lizard, Serpent, Death, Deer, Rabbit, Water, Dog, Monkey, Grass, Reed, Jaguar, Eagle, Vulture, Movement (Earthquake), Flint knife, Rain and finally a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). To the right, the glyphs representing the Movement and Flint knife are depicted in miniature, compared to their larger characters around the central face (McDonald 2013). Additionally, “each of the day signs also bears an association with one of the four cardinal directions” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020).

A representation of the Tonalpohualli – ‘Counting of the Days’ 260-day calendar used by ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Two systems ran simultaneously with a group of 13 numbered days combined with a group of 20 name days. Thus, each day had a unique combination of day and number. Illustration by Richard Graber (2016). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

That cycle of 20-day names consisted of a 260-day period (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018), which “was recorded in 13-day cycles” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020). It means that “each day [was] signified by a combination of a number from 1 to 13 and one of the twenty day signs. With each new day, both the number and day sign would be incremented: 1 Crocodile is followed by 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and so forth up to 13 Reed, after which the cycle of numbers would restart (though the twenty day signs had not yet been exhausted) resulting in 1 Jaguar, 2 Eagle, and so on, as the days immediately following 13 Reed. This cycle of number and day signs would continue similarly until the [twentieth] week, which would start on 1 Rabbit, and end on 13 Flower. It would take a full 260 [20×13] days for the two cycles, [where twenty day signs are multiplied by thirteen numbers] to realign and repeat the sequence back on 1 Crocodile” (Ibid.). Accordingly, the whole cycle “was broken up into 20 periods, [or 20-day names] of 13 days each, which was reflected in two interlocking wheels in this 260-day ritual calendar” (Gillan 2019).

This round of days was not meant by the Aztecs to depict an actual date but rather to represent the counting of time itself (McDonald 2013). The 260-day ritual calendar was an important characteristic of all Mesoamerican pre-Colombian cultures (Ibid.). Apparently, “it originated by ancient peoples observing that the [Sun] crossed a certain zenith point near the Mayan city of Copan, every 260 days” (Gillan 2019). Yet for the Aztecs it was not related to any solar or astronomical calendar features as it seems (McDonald 2013). Most likely it could have been related to the length of pregnancy (9 months) in correlation with the period of the earth’s translation around the Sun in a 365.25 days of the solar year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2012; “Aztec Calendar” 2019). This idea is confirmed by the fact that Mesoamerican peoples named their children after the day name of their birth in this ritual calendar (McDonald 2013). “When the child was born he or she was given the name and number of that particular 24 hour piece of time. The ancestors could identify the potential, qualities and capabilities that existed in that space of time, and this was the basis of his/her responsibility to everybody and everything that surrounded them. [In this context], mother and father were responsible for insuring their child grew up recognizing and knowing its potential and capacities and thus its responsibilities by maintaining the rhythm in which it was born” (Aztekayolokalli 2012).

Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl

The next ring of carvings consists of a repeated design of 5 dots, called quincunx, which are inscribed in little squares (McDonald 2013). After scholars they seem to represent preciousness or maybe jadeite (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Nicoletta Maestri (2019) writes they represent the five-day Aztec week in each square. Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, interprets that symbol differently. He claims that 5-dot symbol represents the five movements of Venus around the Sun in a period of eight years (Ibid.). The last number comes from 8 triangular signs set upon the ring of quincunx, which can be interpreted as rays of the Sun (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; Maestri 2019).

Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli, as depicted on page 14 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The sign above him is the year 1 Reed in the Aztec Calendar. The god manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus. Source: “Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Known to the Mesoamericans as a bright star, […] Venus was especially important in [their] religious and agricultural calendar with its average 584-day cycle being carefully observed and precisely calculated. Even the architectural layout of [important Mesoamerican cities] were built and aligned in accordance with the appearance of Venus at particular moments during its cycle. […] Mesoamerican astronomers recorded that the planet appears for 236 days as the morning star in the east, then sinks below the horizon for 90 days, and reappears for 250 days as the evening star in the west before disappearing again for 8 days before restarting the cycle over again. In actual fact, Venus can be seen with the naked eye for approximately 263 days in each spell, and it is not known quite why or how the ancient astronomers had arrived at their particular calculations” (Cartwright 2017). And it is probably a coincidence that this number of days when Venus is visible also overlaps with the 260-day ritual calendar. However, there is no evidence confirming that the Mesoamerican day count, Tōnalpōhualli, was related in any way to the appearance of Venus.

As the morning star, Venus was described as the Beginning of the Daylight, and as the evening star – it was named the Companion of the Sun (Aztekayolokalli 2018). “Each aspect of Venus – morning and evening – was manifested in the form of two ancient Mesoamerican gods: the feathered-serpent Quetzalcoatl and his canine companion Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl represented Venus as the morning star, and Xolotl represented it as the evening star” (Cartwright 2017; see Aztekayolokalli 2018). Simultaneously, another Mesoamerican deity, “Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus (Ibid.). As the twin brother of Xolotl and the avatar of Quetzalcoatl, he was imagined as both and so represented the morning and evening star aspects of Venus (Ibid.).

The Moon

Going outwards, the next string or band of images in the Calendar Stone is obscure to scholars (Mc Donald 2013).

The image above reproduces The Coyolxauhqui Stone, showing the Aztec goddess of the Moon. The giant monolith was found at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Image courtesy of the Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico. Source: National Earth Science Teachers Association (2020)

There may be some representations of feathers, beads and blood drops but it is really not clear (Mc Donald 2013). Aztekayolokalli  (2018) believes the ring represents kernels of corn. There are 10 such kernels between each of the 8 sun-rays (or triangles pointing outside the center), which create a pattern looking like a lace decorating the ring (Ibid.). Additional 3 grains of corn are visible on top of the square, sticking out in the middle of the “corn lace” (Ibid.) Consequently there are 13 grains of corn altogether, and the number 13 represents the number of the Moon rises in a year cycle (Ibid.). What is more, the Moon also moves 13 degrees per day around the Earth (Ibid.).

Two encircling dragons

The final, encircling ring consists of two thick fire serpents or dragons, called Xiuhcoatl (McDonald 2013). Such imagery points to the fact that symbols of serpents are significant in Mesoamerican cultures (Ibid.). The fire serpents’ tails are at the very top with their pointed ends framing the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.).

Ballcourt marker from the Postclassic site of Mixco Viejo in Guatemala. This sculpture depicts Kukulkan (Quetzacoatl) with a human head sticking out of its jaws agape. Some scholars define it as the head of a human warrior emerging from the serpent’s maw. In the Calendar Stone such images are identified with divine beings. Photo by Simon Burchell. Source: “Kukulkan” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their bodies are divided into squared segments that have butterfly symbols (Nahui-Ollin glyphs) inside them and the serpents encircle the whole disc only to end with their open moss at the bottom of the Stone (McDonald 2013). These rather nasty looking serpent faces have noses or perhaps tongues that curl up and back (Ibid.). They are probably adorned by star signs (Ibid.). Revealed in the dragons’ mouths are two more deities, represented as two anthropomorphic heads sticking out of the animal bulks (Ibid.). Such imagery is typical of the Mayan god, Kukulcan (the equivalent of Quetzacoatl), who has been similarly represented among others in Chichen Itza (Mexico) or Mixco Viejo (Guatemala) as a feathered serpent with a human head protruding out of its open jaws. Yet the gods on the Calendar Stone are identified by archaeologists as other deities. The left god is probably the Sun god and one on the right is the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli (Ibid.). One interesting thing about more or less human looking faces of the deities on this stone is that they all look quite ferocious (Ibid.). They have got open mouths as if screaming or biting in a hostile and aggressive manner (Ibid.).

In the margin of the Circle

But It is not the end of the mysteries of the Stone (McDonald 2013). The ragged looking edges of the Calendar Stone have some meaning as well (Ibid.).

Depiction of Itzpapalotl, Queen of the Tzitzimimeh, known as Aztec star demons. Illustration from the Codex Borgia. Source: “Tzitzimitl” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These unfinished looking side areas depict the constellations or, as the Aztecs called them Tzitzimimeh, which means star demons (McDonald 2013; “Tzitzimitl” 2020). They were “associated with the stars and especially the stars that can be seen around the Sun during a solar eclipse. This was interpreted as the Tzitzimimeh attacking the Sun, thus causing the belief that during a solar eclipse, the tzitzimime would descend to the earth and possess men” (“Tzitzimitl” 2020). These demonic beings were terrifying to the Aztecs as they were responsible for the eclipse of the Sun and by extension for the death of the Sun and the Earth (McDonald 2013). Eclipses were the moments of terror for the populace of the Aztecs and the only thing they could do to keep the Sun moving in the sky was to feed it human hearts and blood, as much as the gods once sacrificed themselves in order to create the Sun, the Earth and the Moon (Ibid.).

The Queen observing the ceremony of offering human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the Queen played by Diana Botello. Source: the Cinema Archives (2012-2020).

Star demons were part of the Mesoamerican cosmic mythology but it does not mean that the Aztecs did not understand the eclipse phenomenon. Such an assumption would be rather peculiar, providing that Mesoamerican cultures used to reflect important astronomical events not only through their art but also in layouts of their whole cities. The Calendar Stone itself is a complex mechanism combining the Aztec multi-dimensional understanding of time with particular dates and astronomical events. And even though the Aztecs dressed most celestial bodies and events in colourful mythical costumes, they held the essential knowledge of the universe and its cosmic scheme. It is probable, however, that such knowledge was ultimately reserved for the Aztec elite, namely emperors and priests, in order to keep control over the peoples within the Empire and to threaten their enemies.

Apocalypto (2006); Director: Mel Gibson; Writer: Farhad Safinia Stars: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Gerardo Taracena; Network: Touchstone Pictures. Icon Productions.
Although the film tells the story of the Mayas, it looks more like a portrayal of the Aztec Empire just in the eve of the Spanish Conquest. The fragment shows the solar eclipse and the reason of the Aztec dominance due to their astronomical knowledge.

Such an idea has been well represented in one of the scenes from the film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson (2006). Although the director has meant to represent the culture of the Maya, its interpretation rather fits the Aztecs and their ceremony of massive human sacrifice in the city of Tenochtitlan. In the scene, when the eclipse of the Sun takes place, darkness falls down on the crowd at the foot of the pyramid. It looks as if the end of the world was coming. People are terrified, the next victim is stretched over the altar and waiting for cruel death. But the emperor and the High Priest are not afraid. They exchange a knowing look as if they knew what is going to happen. Another religious attendant is theatrically entering into trance, while the High Priest is assuring the gathered faithful that the gods have been sated by the offered sacrifice; hence they will spare the Sun and life. Finally, he turns to the gods asking them to let the Sun shine again. And after a while, the Sun reappears in the sky. The crowd is cheering. The Aztec elite has once again legitimized their power and right to intermediate between people and the deities.

The Stone of Tizoc

Apart from the Sunstone, probably the best and most interesting example of other Aztec stones to look at is the Stone of Tizoc (McDonald 2013). This is also because it may shed some light on the meaning on the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). By comparing both monuments, it can be seen what a masterpiece and a great accomplishment the Sunstone is (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc. The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens. Source: MacCurdy (1910). National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room.

The Stone of Tizoc was found buried in the Zocalo just a year after the Calendar Stone was found, namely in 1791 (McDonald 2013). Tizoc was the Aztec tlatoani (1481-1486) who came just after Axayacatl (1469-1481) (Ibid.). He was not a very successful emperor and so he did not reign very long, just about six years (Ibid.). Yet his stone is a masterwork of propaganda and cosmic imagery (Ibid.). It is proportionally thicker than the Calendar Stone but has a much simpler design on its topmost surface (Ibid.). The image there is probably meant to be a solar disc and it is very similar to the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). Although much simplified (Ibid.). There is also a carved depression in its center, which was meant to hold the blood and hearts of sacrificed warriors (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Hence it is likely that this stone was used as Cuauhxicalli for holy sacrifices (McDonald 2013).

Tom sides of the Stone of Tizoc represent historical, though mythologized scenes. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. “Stone of Tizoc” (2020).

The most interesting part of the Stone of Tizoc is actually represented on its tom sides (McDonald 2013). First of all, there are fifteen repeated images of Tizoc carved in very sharp cut but fairly shallow relief on the surface (Ibid.). Tizoc is not shown as himself but rather in the guise of the god Tetzcatlipoca, known as the Smoking Mirror, or Huitzilopotchtli – the patron deity of the Aztecs (Ibid.). The scenes depict Tizoc conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the personified town (Ibid.) (likewise pharaohs are represented in Egypt while fighting back their enemies). In reality Tizoc had a reputation of a coward and an unsuccessful ruler (Ibid.). But the interesting thing about the Tizoc monument is that it combines historical events and places with the cosmic ones, just like the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). As such, they both serve at once as a historical document and a religious one (Ibid.). Tizoc has been shown conquering or rather claiming to have conquered real places, like Xochimilco (Ibid.). On the other hand, he has got a divine mission (Ibid.). On the surface of the sacrificial stone there is probably depicted the Sun, on the underside – the Earth Monster; in such a context, Tizoc is depicted just between them, metaphorically holding apart the Sun from the Earth (Ibid.). So this device gives a ruler the central role, not only in military expansion but in cosmic terms, just like in the Maya world, or elsewhere in other ancient cultures beyond America (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc (detail). The scenes depict Tizoc conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the personified town.

The Calendar Stone is similar in its meaning to the Stone of Tizoc but even more significant (McDonald 2013). As it seems, It functions at several levels at the same time (Ibid.). It combines some historical dates with the cosmic scheme of creation and destruction of the previous worlds/eras or the suns (Ibid.). And it commands in a sense a continuation of sacrifices to the gods through its imagery and places all these variables in the mandala like scheme of really great complexity (Ibid.).

Definition of the Disc

Not all is still understood about the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). So great is the content and the information depicted (Ibid.). Whatever the final and exact interpretation of the Sunstone is, it gives some interesting knowledge about Mesoamerican cultures and their relation to the cosmic scheme of the universe and their deities (Ibid.). The Calendar Disc also contains “millennia of accumulated astronomical knowledge and wisdom” (Aztekayolokalli 2012). It combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. “It was not just a way to keep time – it was a complete philosophy of time in which every day had a religious significance. [The Aztecs] also believed that time went in cycles – ultimately in the repeated destruction and recreation of the world” (Gillan 2019).

The Calendar Stone combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time.

As Dr McDonald (2013) also believes the enormous sculpture of the Calendar Stone not only has encoded a message about the cataclysm and cosmic destruction but also the warlike imagery of the Aztec nation itself. It must have been an imposing and threatening message to those who saw it (Ibid.). There was serious intimidation going on there and cooperation must have been coerced through the art (Ibid.). The very shape of the stone itself calls to mind the ultimate human sacrifice of blood and hearts (Ibid.). This was the kind of monument which reminded the populace of Tenochtitlan and of the peripheral provinces of the Empire of the power of the gods and of the rulers and state itself (Ibid.). The destruction of the Sun and the universe hung in the balance, so obviously obeying the authorities was the best course to follow for survival (Ibid.).

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When Gods Turned against the Minoans

The Bronze Age. Dusk in the eastern Mediterranean (Westbrook 1995). The people on the island of Thera felt something frightening and cataclysmic in the air (Ibid.). They were preparing to abandon their home island (Ibid.). They had filled storage jars with wine, olive and wheat as if one day they would have come back to reclaim them (Ibid.). They carefully closed each lid (Ibid.). They also hid some valuables in their houses’ basements or under door frames (Mitchell 2011). Yet, their most precious possessions, like gold and jewels, they took with them (Westbrook 1995). They carefully sealed their houses as if protecting them from thieves and rushed to their boats (Mitchell 2011). What those people felt was the earth itself trembling beneath them but they had already survived similar earthquakes in the past (Westbrook 1995). That time, however, it was not a mere earthquake (Ibid.). Those people were to never return to their olive, wine and idyllic life they had depicted in their frescoes (Ibid.). They would have simply fled into the night and into the sea (Ibid.).

Sunset at the northern coast of Crete

Idyllic Island

In the Mediterranean region, in the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands stands out in a Greek archipelago (Masjum 2006). They are thrown north of Crete, with a huge caldera at their center (Wengler 2009). The archipelago’s dark and brooding nature appears in contrast to the white limestone and pristine marble of the buildings (Masjum 2006). This islands are collectively known today as Santorini (Ibid.). The terraced landscape and rich volcanic soil make the them ideal for vineyards (History Channel 1980s). For this reason, Santorini is home to some of the finest wines in the world (Ibid.). But while tourists travel to Santorini for sun and the island’s quaint village life, archaeologists keep searching there for more clues about the destruction of the Minoan empire (Ibid.).

In the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago.

For years, teams of various scientists, each specialized in a particular field, have joined their forces to solve the mystery (Lilley 2006). They are still finding new evidence of a dreadful disaster that overwhelmed Europe’s first civilisation (Ibid.) ‘Did their terrible fate create the myth of Atlantis, the continent-city that drowned?’, speculates the archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘They worshiped the sea and the sea [eventually] turned against them’ (Ibid.)

Everlasting myths

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plato wrote about Atlantis, the fabulous civilization that had been swallowed by the sea but no one has been able to trace the origins of Plato’s story yet (Lilley 2006). Appearing evidence from the island of Crete led some archaeologists to speculate that the Atlantis legend was in fact created in the Mediterranean (Ibid.). Is the legendary destruction of Atlantis just a folk memory of what happened to the Minoans, who flourished on Crete in the Bronze Age, over two thousand years before Plato? (Ibid.)

One of the most charming and visited cities on Santorini, Oia.

Atlantis was mentioned in Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias, in the fourth century BC. (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). The great Athenian philosopher claimed the story had originally come from Egypt (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). It was handed down to him from an Athenian lawmaker, Solon, who had in turn heard it from Egyptian priests from Sais, the capital of Lower Egypt (Ibid.). Solon, and after him Plato, both claimed these were facts, no fiction (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). According to their accounts, a highly advanced civilization would have developed on the island of Atlantis (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18-21).

The Minoans

In the Bronze Age, the Greek islands were in fact home to an advanced civilization, competing for cultural, artistic and commercial influences in the region, even with the pharaohs of Egypt (Mitchell 2011). These were the Minoans (Ibid.). Centuries before the Greek built the Parthenon, Minoan artists recorded their achievements through exquisite carvings and stunning frescoes (Lilley 2006). They were the first Europeans to use writing but at the height of their powers they were wiped from the pages of history (Ibid.). Their disappearance is still one of the ancient world’s greatest mysteries (Ibid.). Some think the Minoans were slaughtered by conquers from overseas (Ibid.). Others claim that the cataclysmic eruption destroyed them (Ibid).

The Bull Chamber with the relief fresco, probably representing hunting for a bull.

Apart from the legend of Atlantis, there are also other famous stories passionately haunting human imagination. Until the twentieth century, the Minoans had been the mysterious people known only from Greek myths about hybrid monsters and human sacrifice (Lilley 2006). The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been studying Minoan culture on Crete for twenty-five years (Ibid.). He has explored ancient caves in the centre of the island (Ibid.). For hundreds of years, people have believed their winding corridors were actually the Cretan labyrinth, which was the home of legendary Minotaur (Ibid.). Greek myths describe the beast as a feeding on human flesh, half-bull and half-human creature, who was imprisoned in the subterranean chambers by King Minos (Ibid.). According to the myth, the Minotaur had a very particular taste (Ibid.). He liked to consume its human prey alive (Ibid.). ‘To keep a Minotaur fed, Minos executed the tribute of seven maids and seven youths from the Athenians and once they entered the labyrinth, they never left it’, recounts Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). The myth suggests that Minoans practiced human sacrifice and were even cannibals (Ibid.). Or was this simply a propaganda generated by Greek fears of a powerful people? (Ibid.).

Remains of the so-called palace of King Minos with architectural elements characteristic of the Minoan culture.

When the explosion of Thera occurred, the Minoan empire must have been at its highest (Westbrook 1995). However, despite their power and remarkable achievements, the Minoans disappeared after 1500 BC (Lilley 2006). Their fate is still a mystery (Ibid.). Were they wiped out by ancient Greek invaders, described by Homer in his epic poems about the Trojan war? (Ibid.). Or was it a catastrophic natural event, like the one that supposedly destroyed the Atlantis? (Ibid.).

Knossos

In 1900, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans started excavating at Knossos in northern Crete, near the modern capital of the island, Heraklion (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). The whole western world was astonished by his discovery (Lilley 2006). Evans devoted forty years of his life to this endeavour, for which he was eventually knighted (History Channel 1980s).

The Minoan ‘Prince of the Lilies’ (copy) on the wall of the “Knossos Palace”. The original restored fresco is preserved in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete.

After the excavations started, it shortly turned out that the archaeologist had come across the capital of the highly advanced civilisation of the Bronze Age (Lilley 2006). Whilst the ancient Europeans were living as barbarian warriors, building clay huts, Cretans were creating monumental architecture and living in overwhelming luxury (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Men in Knossos must have moved about proudly and confidently (History Channel 1980s). Women were attired elegantly and glamorously (Ibid.). Evans exhumed in Knossos a huge architectural complex, he soon called a palace (History Channel 1980s; (Lilley 2006). It was a complex of buildings of the size of four football fields consisting of one thousand and three hundred courtyards, halls, passageways and rooms (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). All of them belonged to one single building, which was the heartbeat of the Minoan empire (History Channel 1980s). The palace was approached by massive entrance portals, leading  deep inside its subterranean complex (Ibid.). Above the surface, the palace was two to three storeys high and built of cut stone (Ibid.). The walls were decorated with serene motifs of flowers and animals (Ibid.). War was not glorified there (Ibid.).

Minoan ‘Ladies in Blue’ Fresco, largely recreated according to a modern interpretation, basing just on a few preserved fragments. Nobody can actually know how it looked initially. The original is exposed at Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete.

The architecture was so bewildering that Evans was convinced that he had found the Minotaur’s labyrinth, incorporated into the King Minos’ royal residence (History Channel 1980s). He found there marble walls and alabaster floors, which had been protected by the earth for millennia (Ibid.). In the lavishly decorated private chambers of the priest-king, as Evans assumed, a bathtub was even found (Ibid.). Staircases functioned as ingenuously designed air-conditioners (Ibid.). Light shafts provided subdued lighting (Ibid.). Below the floors, complicated drainage conduits have been built for bathrooms and, first in Europe, flush toilets (Ibid.). Even rainwater, which was collected in the open courtyards of the palace, passed through a special system of drains (Ibid.).

In the storehouses of the palace of Knossos, archaeologists have found huge jars, also called pithoi, for wine, oil, grains and honey. Some are larger, some smaller but many a time they are approximately the size of a human.

In the storehouses there were as many as four hundred storage vats for wine, oil, grains and honey (History Channel 1980s). The Minoans’ capital itself was a masterpiece of contemporary town planning, with its buildings being connected by Europe’s first paved roads (Lilley 2006). Surrounding the palace, there was a town with a population of more than forty thousand inhabitants (Ibid.).

The Empire

Based on what Evans found, archaeologists have built a more accurate picture of what this once great empire looked like (History Channel 1980s). Modern technology offers an impression of extraordinary splendour of the civilization around the whole Crete; ceremonial buildings, holy places, storehouses and workshops were once grouped around large central courtyards (Ibid.). Successively, archaeologists have discovered similar Minoan settlements with the so-called palaces throughout Crete and far beyond it (Lilley 2006). Among them, Knossos is believed to have been the most significant.

Representation of a probably dancing woman or goddess. The preserved fragment of the fresco is showing only the upper part of the woman figure with open bodice and tresses flying in the air. The original can be seen in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. The copy is exposed in the Queen’s Megaron at Knossos, Crete, where the fragment has been found.

The Minoans were the contemporaries of the mighty ancient Egyptians, with a language of their own and a distinctive culture, widely revered by others (Masjum 2006). Highly cultured and civilized, the Minoans held much promise as a people (Ibid.). It was their culture that provided the seed of Greek civilization a thousand years later (Ibid.). They had an advanced state of bureaucracy and organization (Ibid.). The Minoans were equally skilled craftsmen capable of producing exquisite treasures and sophisticated objects of art (Lilley 2006). Their pottery was known throughout the contemporary world for its outstanding beauty and craftsmanship (History Channel 1980s). Its distinctive geometric patterns and naturalistic imagery were prized even by the pharaohs (Ibid.).

Merchants, not warriors

The source of Minoan wealth was their rule at sea (Mitchell 2011). They were peace-loving traders who placed strong emphasis on commerce and not war (Masjum 2006).

Fragments of the cup-bearers fresco found in the area of the South Propylaeum of the palace of Knossos, Crete.

A geologist, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, says  that the Minoans created a commercial empire (Masjum 2006). ‘They did not have any defensive walls or anything to protect themselves because they had the [powerful fleet], and they were known in the entire eastern Mediterranean as traders’ (Ibid.). Also artistic influences of the Minoans were far-reaching (Wengler 2009). Minoan pottery and other various artifacts carried by their ships have been found from Spain to Mesopotamia (Lilley 2006). Their distinguished artistic style and motifs, flourished in frescoes also in foreign palaces of Mycenaeans, Egyptians and even Canaanites, such as Tel Kabri, in modern day Israel (Cline 2013). In the Egyptian city of Avaris (also Awaris), in the north-eastern region of the Nile Delta, the Egyptologist, Prof. Manfred Bietak has found a Minoan fresco, dated back to the sixteenth century BC. (Wengler 2009). It represents a recurring theme of the Minoan iconography, especially on Crete, which is a bull-leaping (Ibid.). Bietak claims that the fresco must have been painted by a Minoan artist, probably living and working in Avaris and decorating an Egyptian palace in a typical Minoan style (Ibid.). At the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the artistic influence of the Minoans on Egyptian art became highly noticeable (Ibid.). The presence of Minoan frescoes in the Nile Delta is further evidence of close contacts between these two worlds: Egyptian and Minoan (Ibid.).

Reconstructed Minoan Fresco from Tell El-Dab’a, in Egypt. The archaeological site is also known as Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos, which was developed in the Nile delta region of Egypt. However, the fresco itself is dated back to the Eighteenth Dynasty. It represents a bull-leaping, which is a recurring theme in Minoan art. Source: “Minoan Frescoes from Tell el-Daba” (2017). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient times, the Minoans traded with the peoples of the Aegean and were amongst the first to sail to distant foreign lands (History Channel 1980s). After the British author, Gavin Menzies (2011), their boats voyaged westwards through the Pillars of Hercules to finally reach not only the British Isles but even northern America. Although scholars have rejected such theories as pseudohistory, all of them agree that the Minoan representatives surely travelled to the Near East and up the River Nile to the legendary city of Thebes, in Egypt (History Channel 1980s; Cline 2013). The palaces in their homeland of Crete, in Knossos, Phaistos and Malia were on a smaller scale than in Egypt but archaeologists claim to have observed in Cretan monumental architecture, structural designs similar to the temples dedicated to Egyptian gods, like Osiris, Isis or Hathor (History Channel 1980s). As Diodorus of Sicily writes in the first century BC. (Bibliotheca historica, Book I, 61), the architect of the labyrinth in Knossos, Dedalus, had first seen such an edifice in Egypt and designed a similar one for King Minos (Santarcangeli 1982:85). Although the Egyptian one was more monumental than the Cretan, it apparently served as its prototype (Ibid.:85).

The North Entrance to the Palace of Knossos, Crete.

On the other side, the Minoans’ maritime empire was so vast that it even rivalled the ancient Egyptians (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Nonetheless, the islanders must have been popular and respected in ancient Egypt (Ibid.), particularly because they did not sail with warships on buccaneering raids but as peaceful merchants (History Channel 1980s). Apart from mutual trading, as some scholars underline, there may have also been other Egyptian – Minoan relations, especially in the context of religion and ritual (Santarcangeli 1982:73-85). Yet, all of the sudden, all records of the Minoans came to an abrupt end in the papyrus texts of the Egyptian scribes. Why? (History Channel 1980s).

Northern coast of Crete. Today it attracts flocks of tourists, especially because of the sun and warm sea.

With time, the Minoans colonized Aegean islands also in the parts of mainland Turkey (Lilley 2006). Consequently, their powerful fleet could significantly control the Mediterranean’s trade routes (Mitchell 2011). At their intersection between Europe, Asia and Africa was Crete, the strategic centre of Minoan power (Ibid.). One hundred and twelve kilometres north lay the island of Thera, known today as the group of Santorini islands (Ibid.).

Restless island

The island of Santorini may provide a clue to solving the Minoan disappearance from history (Lilley 2006). The wild scenery and jagged cliffs draw countless tourists but they do not realize that this is in fact a highly explosive volcano (Ibid.). Nor did the colony of Minoans, who lived on Santorini in the Bronze Age and had built their town on the most dangerous island in Eurasia (Ibid.). At that time, the island was known as Thera. Its crescent shape testifies to a violent volcanic past (History Channel 1980s). Its harbour is now a gigantic caldera, so deep that no ship’s anchor can touch the bottom (Ibid.). In the middle, a volcanic dome rises out of the sea (Ibid.). Today it is an awesome monument to the fourth largest eruption in the last twenty thousand years (Ibid.). It was a cataclysm that some believed led the Minoan civilization to its final end (Ibid.).

“Some scholars identify [Atlantis] with the Greek volcanic island of Thera. […] The circular rim of [the island’s] crater is clearly shown in the aerial photograph” (Harpur, Westwood 1997).

In 1967, archaeologists discovered the Minoan town of Akrotiri, located on the southern coast of Santorini (History Channel 1980s). It was buried on the slopes of the vast volcano crater (Lilley 2006). Traces of Thera’s wealth can be seen in the ruins of this town (Mitchell 2011). Kitchens and storehouses offered a glimpse of people’s daily life (History Channel 1980s). At the moment they were found, storage jars still contained green kernels and olive pips (Ibid). Along the streets stood buildings whose walls were richly decorated with sophisticated frescoes (Mitchell 2011).

Famous Minoan Spring Fresco in the West Wall Swallows Scene, Akrotiri, Santorini. Subjects undertaken in art by the Minoans on Thera mostly showed the beauty and serenity of nature, with its different colours emanating during the day. Source: Sheppard Baird (2007-2019).

Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist, pays attention to the way Akrotiri’s inhabitants may have celebrated their life, which is well reflected in Minoan art. ‘If you take a look at the wall paintings that have been discovered [there], they are portraying their landscape. This is a happy landscape: animal bouncing around and [girls] picking saffron’, he says (Lilley 2006). ‘They [are] showing a nice lifestyle, comfortable one. It’s a pity it was all destroyed’ (Ibid.). People living on Thera, like the Cretans, built a highly advanced  society, provided with such facilities as the world’s first home toilets combined with an underground sewage system (Mitchell 2011). For such a luxury most Europeans waited another two thousand years (Ibid.).

Island cursed by gods

In the rubble of the ancient town, scientists have found clues, which suggest that Thera eruption may have coincided with the downfall of the Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s).

Unearthing the Spring Fresco. In: ”Prehistoric Thera” by Christos Doumas, published by the John S. Latsis public benefit foundation. In 1974, Marinatos passed away and the following year Doumas himself took over running the excavation, bringing to light an amazing wealth of finds and information. Unlike in Knossos, Minoan frescoes of Akrotiri are better preserved due to having been covered by the layers of volcanic ash and pumice stones. Source: Eptakili (2017).

Gradually the buried city began to divulge its secrets (History Channel 1980s). However, working among the crumbling walls was dangerous and the man who first discovered Akrotiri, the veteran Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos (1901-1974), was killed by falling rocks and buried in his town (Ibid.). His daughter, Nanno Marinatos, is carrying on his work (Ibid.). She says that most archaeologists agree that the Minoans established a theocratic empire of the seas (Ibid.). Still they do not know what their ruling class was like (Ibid.). Marinatos thinks that its representatives were priests and they claimed their special connections with a deity (Ibid.). Minoan priestesses apparently had the greatest power of all (Mitchell 2011).


Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis.

As Marinatos claims, Minoan priests usually appeared in front of the public dressed as deities, which is well defined by the preserved frescoes (History Channel 1980s). Indeed, the Minoan art represents the mysterious world, where powerful priestesses performed strange and dangerous rituals (Mitchell 2011). Their task as it seems was to communicate with the gods, often through complex rituals in which saffron served as a hallucinogen (Ibid.). Like all ancient civilizations, the Minoans believed that their gods were present everywhere (Ibid.).

Fresco of a fisherman with Coryphaena hippurus from Akrotiri, Thera. Probably an offering to gods. Source: “Fresco of a fisherman” (2015) Wikimedia Commons.

Deity was responsible for every natural phenomenon, from the birth of a child to earthquakes, from the seas to the mountain peaks (Mitchell 2011). And the ancient peoples seemed to treat them as flesh and blood figures. Minoan gods were not considered gentle and merciful beings, but rather impulsive and often vindictive (Ibid.). To obtain the favour of the gods sacrifices were made to them and rituals were a way for priests to know their desires (Ibid.). In many houses in the town, rich and colourful paintings reveal images of the Minoan spiritual life: priestesses paying homage to their gods, maids and youths depicted at different stages of their initiation (History Channel 1980s). Even the young man with his abundant catch of fish, archaeologists believe may be on his way to the sacrificial altar (Ibid.). But with time, the Minoan belief system had to begin to break down (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). It was due to the geological forces that contributed to the destruction of Thera and this glittering world sank in the chaos of the powers of nature (Ibid.).

Earth-shaker is getting furious

In the second millennium BC., Akrotiri was shaken by a violent earthquake but this was merely the beginning of the natural disaster and subsequently the collapse of the entire Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). One of the most powerful Minoan gods was called ‘earth-shaker, also identified with Poseidon (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18; Mitchell 2011). As a deity, he was responsible for sea powers and earthquakes and for this reason he was particularly frightening (Ibid.). Structural damage discovered on Thera shows that just before the volcanic eruption there was an earthquake with magnitudes exceeding seven degrees on the Richter scale (0-9) (Mitchell 2011).

Stone Staircase destroyed by a devastating earthquake in ancient city of Akrotiri, Thera. It was also one of the warnings, announcing the final explosion of the volcano.

The buildings on Thera had been designed to withstand weaker shocks, which usually happened in that region (Mitchell 2011). The houses were therefore strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs (Ibid.) However, that earthquake was strong enough to smash a stone staircase, as it is visible in ancient Akrotiri, and triggered a series of fatal events for the inhabitants of Thera (Ibid.).

Heralds of the coming disaster

Yet before the deciding earthquake came, the great eruption announced itself slowly and gradually (Wengler 2009). As the black mountain, the volcano was slowly coming to life (Ibid.). One of the first signals of volcano activity were hydrothermal explosions caused by heated groundwaters (Mitchell 2011). Boiling fountains of steam bursting from the sea were accompanied by the first tremors shaking the island (Wengler 2009). Sea quakes caused giant waves to form (Ibid.). These were the heralds of the coming disaster a few months ahead (Ibid.) A Minoan wall painting from the island of Santorini represents a giant wave and drowning people beneath it (Ibid.). Is this a portrayal of the events just before the eruption? (Ibid).

Detail of the so-called Naval Battle shown on the north wall frieze of Room 5 of the West House in Akrotiri, Santorini. Some scholars think that casualties in the water have resulted from the naval battle, others point to giant waves of the sea quakes, which were the heralds of the coming eruption. Source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015).

For over seventeen thousand years, the magma reservoir beneath the island’s surface was closed but recurring tremors kept deepening cracks and lava began to rise (Mitchell 2011). The rising magma was accompanied by the larger release of sulphurous vapours and other toxic gases (Ibid.). It was another sinister harbinger of the approaching eruption (Ibid.). Foul-smelling sulphurous vapours emerged and spread (Wengler 2009).

Typical of the Minoan architecture, a column tapered at the bottom and larger at the top, with a pillow-like capital (bulbous). Minoan columns were made of timber and painted black and red.Designed is this way to be more resistant to seismic shocks.

Certainly, for the inhabitants of the island it became a race against time (Wengler 2009).  According to archaeological research, the damage after the final earthquake was so severe that residents of Akrotiri had to leave their weakened homes and probably moved to temporary camps, in the hope that they would be able to return to their town soon (Mitchell 2011). “There is evidence [that] people [even] started to repair the damage, but before repairs were complete, another set of quakes hit the town. It appears people abandoned it then and left fairly quickly, as many belongings were [found in Akrotiri]” (Jensen 2018). Undoubtedly, the residents had tried to save whatever they could (Wengler 2009). Just before the eruption, they managed to gather food and water supply and other domestic equipment, but eventually, food jars and the beds tied together and ready to go had to be left behind (Ibid.). The excavations at Akrotiri has showed that while some houses were almost completely emptied before eruption (Ibid.), in others, precious belongings were found safely under the bed or wooden frame (Mitchell 2011). Houses’ doors were shut tight (Ibid.). When the mountain belched hot volcanic ash, for the Minoan islanders it was high time to leave their island (Wengler 2009). Experts believe the population got off Thera just in time; unlike in Pompeii, no trace of human remains have ever been found in Akrotiri (Wengler 2009; Jensen 2018). Yet nobody knows where they sailed to take refuge (Wengler 2009). 

Stages of eruption

‘And suddenly [the volcano] exploded’, says Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist (Lilley 2006). Thera was erupting (Ibid.). The vast volcano blasted ash, gas and rock up to into the stratosphere (Ibid.).

“Sheer volcanic cliffs bear witness to the terrible cataclysm that befall Thera” (Harpur, Westwood 1997).

On Santorini, a team of geologists, volcanologists, botanists, archaeologists and physicists has regularly studied the site of the disaster (Wengler 2009). Evidence of the volcano power is all around the island (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). There are deposits that are more than sixty metres deep in places (Lilley 2006). The scientists have made an attempt to reconstruct different stages of the Thera’s eruption (Ibid.). ‘There, in that cliffs face,’ Prof. Floyd McCoy points to the multicoloured high rock face on Santorini, ‘[there are] all four [visible] layers representing the four major faces of this huge dramatic eruption’ (Ibid.).

Ruthless gods

Following the final earthquake, the pressure of magma burst the rock, which for thousands of years had clogged the volcano funnel (Mitchell 2011). It was only a preview of an impending explosion (Ibid.). The volcano was only clearing its throat (Ibid.).

A number of the fragments of frescoes found at Knossos have been restored to give the sense of what the original image might have looked like. [The] ‘Cup-bearer’ from the South Propylaeum shows a young man carrying a large silver rhyton. This is the only life-size figure in a Minoan fresco whose head and torso are preserved. Today exposed at Heraklion Museum, Crete. Source: Bloomsbury (2020).

Earlier generations had already seen similar but minor eruptions and recognized them as signs from the gods (Mitchell 2011). These were signs whose understanding was the task of the priests (Ibid.). For the Minoans, there was no better way to satisfy threatening and unpredictable gods than through sacrifice (Ibid.). They performed such rituals in sanctuaries, high in the mountains, where they were physically closest to the gods (Ibid.). Twenty-three such places have been discovered in Crete itself, and in them the remains of thousands of clay figurines (Ibid.) Clay parts of the body were to heal the same human limbs, and animal figurines were to heal and protect livestock (Ibid.). In Minoan shrines, bones of animals have also been found, of goats, sheep, pigs and even bulls (Ibid.). Possibly blood sacrifice was considered the most powerful (Ibid.). The power of priests and priestesses depended on their ability to win the favour of the gods, but the forces released beneath Thera’s surface could not be stopped any more (Ibid.). Consequently, confidence in the powers of priests weakened, which eventually led to the collapse of Minoan social and religious systems (Ibid.).

From the earthquake to Plinian eruption

Plinian eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Donald A. Swanson. Source: Volcano Discovery (2020).

From the structure of volcanic sediments in the initial phase of eruption, the island was covered with bright ash (Mitchell 2011). It was enough to poison the sources of drinking water (Ibid.). But it was not the worst awaiting the people living on Thera (Ibid.). What distinguished this eruption from all others experienced so far by the inhabitants of the island was the interaction of two types of magma that triggered a catastrophic chemical reaction (Ibid.). This reaction spewed about a hundred and fifty billion tons of magma onto the surface and made the eruption the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world (Ibid.). Columns of glowing gas of ash and stones flew at over nine kilometres up into the stratosphere, forming a cloud shaped like an atomic mushroom (Ibid.). Consequently, large clouds of rubble and dust rose into the sky after the explosion (Ibid.). Their force can be compared to the detonation of a nuclear bomb (Ibid.). The sound of explosion must have been heard even in Egypt, and clouds of smoke have been seen from Crete after a few minutes (Ibid.).

Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis.

Thera’s eruption has been called the Plinian, which is the most devastating of all (Mitchell 2011). “Plinian eruptions or Vesuvian eruptions are […] marked by their similarity to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The eruption was described in a letter written by Pliny the Younger, after the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder” (“Plinian eruption” 2020). Hence its name. Such “eruptions are marked by columns of volcanic debris and hot gases ejected high into the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The key characteristics are ejection of large amount of pumice and very powerful continuous gas-driven eruptions” (Ibid.)

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Yesterday (2020).

During the first four hours of Thera’s eruption, the volcano ejected five billion tons of magma from the crater (Mitchell 2011). The day turned into night, because volcanic dust began to cover the entire island (Ibid.). The cooling magma began to fall as pumice (Ibid.). These were small stones filled with air bubbles but deadly in such large quantities (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy points out to the cliffs on Santorini, saying that at this stage of the eruption, the first layer was created (Lilley 2006). ‘[It] is that brown [one] at the bottom. [This] granular brown layer that’s pumice. Pumice is frothy rock. It represents magma frozen in place, a frozen explosion’, he says (Ibid.).

Deadly ashes

Probably one of the first stages of an initiation for Minoan women: a young girl gathering saffron. Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera. Source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

But it was ash, not pumice stone, that posed the greatest threat (Mitchell 2011). Volcanic ashes are different from ordinary ones, as they contain silicone (Ibid.). Drawn into wet human lungs, volcanic ash turns into liquid cement (Ibid.). Breathing then is difficult and finally impossible (Ibid.). Although archaeologists have not found any human remains in Akrotiri, it is still possible some residents of the town could have been stopped on the island, imprisoned by subsequent deadly effects of the eruption, either in their contemporary camps (Ibid.), or elsewhere on the island. Some scholars estimate that in Thera’s case, there were probably only few survivors who had escaped the island (Mitchell 2011).

Pyroclastic flows and torrential rains

The layer on top of the pumice from the cross-section of the cliffs proves the real power of this mighty eruption (Lilley 2006). This is the ash left by pyroclastic flows (Ibid.). ‘Pyroclastic flows [are made by] hot gas material that comes up and flows laterally across the landscape, sometimes at supersonic speeds’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). These gases were forced out by massive explosions in the heart of the volcano, the caldera (Ibid.). But what caused these blasts? (Ibid.).

The archaeological site of Akrotiri on Santorini island. The ancient houses were strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs to avoid their destruction during often on Thera earthquakes. Source: Print & Web Guides Ltd. (2020)

When the magma first erupted, it left behind a huge empty chamber (Lilley 2006). The surface above the chamber collapsed, creating a vast cavity (Ibid.). Then seawaters rushed into the expanding crater (Mitchell 2011; Lilley 2006). Upon contact with magma, the water turned into vapour, starting another wave of eruptions (Mitchell 2011). ‘Magma and water do not mix [but] create an explosion’, explains Prof. McCoy (Lilley 2006). ‘The entire Aegean Sea [was] pouring in this vent, mixing with new magma coming up and explosion was tremendous […] and from that [came] these pyroclastic flows’ (Ibid.).

The violent reaction of water with magma led to a phreatomagmatic eruptions (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that the sound pressure level of this explosion reached three hundred decibels (Ibid.). It was enough to burst the tympanic membrane of everyone within sixteen kilometres (Ibid.). Moreover, the power of this eruption threw rocks from the inside of the crater, turning them into deadly rockets – lava bombs (Ibid.). Such burning lumps of stone could reach the size of a small truck and weigh up to eight tons (Ibid.). As the crater widened, the pressure was pushing the column upwards (Ibid.). The gases and rocks forming it began to fall in all directions (Ibid.). Pyroclastic flows reached the speed of two hundred and ninety kilometres per hour and a temperature of seven hundred degrees (Ibid.). Finally, the sizzling wave of rocks fell into the sea, and when it made the water surface boil, it began to move even faster on the layer of hot steam (Ibid.). After the final monstrous pyroclastic flow, ten metres deposit of ash and pumice were left, which have eventually formed the third layer that the best demonstrates the awesome forces of this eruption (Lilley 2006).

Santorini cliffs encrusted with white buildings, standing out clearly against the brown background of the volcanic rock.

And on their top Santorini cliffs are built of the final, fourth layer (Lilley 2006). ‘It started to rain’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Torrential rains came down and then all this loose ash and pumice on the surface started to move downslope. That’s what we call debris flows and then it was over’ (Ibid.).

Far-reaching disaster

What caused Thera eruption to be so far-reaching? (Masjum 2006). Thera sat on a string of volcanic islands straddling four plates (Ibid.). This convergence of plates creates the chain of volcanic islands and makes Thera eruption highly potent (Ibid.). Magma is formed when the African plate gets pushed beneath the Eurasian (Ibid.). The result is a gas rich and thick magma that erupts explosively (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy believes that the explosion was so loud that it could be heard throughout southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East (Ibid.).

More importantly, the blast has changed completely the shape of the land (Masjum 2006). Thousands years before the Minoan eruption, Santorini was believed to have joined as one island but after several eruptions the single island was blasted apart into smaller ones (Ibid.). At the time of the Minoans, the volcano was situated at the centre of these islands (Ibid.). When it erupted, it again changed the shape (Ibid.). When the centre of the volcano eventually collapsed, it formed a huge caldera (Ibid.). Today all that remains of the volcano is Nea Kameni, a tiny uninhabited island within the flooded Santorini caldera (Ibid.). With the birth of this new island the volcano is slowly rebuilding itself (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy claims that ‘over next twenty thousand years, this island is going to get larger and larger and then possibly it explodes again’ (Ibid.). ‘In the course of history of this volcano, an eruption repeats itself every twenty thousand years’, he explains (Ibid.).

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Jones (2011).

Was the Thera eruption in the Bronze Age powerful enough to have destroyed the Minoans as well on Crete? (Lilley 2006).

Town under the ashes

Experts are only now learning the true scale of this disaster, which deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of Thera (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).

The earthquakes on Akrotiri seemed to happen in a couple of waves. One set did substantial damage to the town. Photo by Gretchen Gibbs. Source: Jensen (2018).

Excavations on the island itself, reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).

Biblical darkness

With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).

The ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete, excavated and then reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning pf the twentieth century.

The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).

Decorative flower-like rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, today Santorini.

Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).

Fire in the sky

Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).

The north entrance to the palace of Knossos passing by the North Pillar Hall.

‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Lilley (2006).

Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).

Gramvousa Peninsula in north-western Crete is nowadays a dream destination for tourists.

Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire came archaeologists, such as Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated on eastern coast of Crete. Source: Swindale (2020) “Palaikastro”. The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage. ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray.

The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).

Today the small hill, the town stood on at the water’s edge is eroding into the sea (Lilley 2006). It reveals strange layers of chaotically mixed material of pottery, building material, stones, cattle bones and lumps of ash, reaching up to five metres above Minoan sea level (Ibid.). After Prof. Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist who specializes in identifying and dating unusual layers, the deposit does not look like natural archaeological stratification or the result of an earthquake (Ibid.). To find out the origins of the strange deposits in Palaikastro, Prof. Bruins has conducted thorough laboratory studies (Ibid.). He was thrilled by the results (Ibid.). ‘We saw foraminifera in these deposits’, he says (Ibid.). Foraminifera are the shells of tiny organisms only found beneath the sea (Ibid.). Accordingly, it suggests that the deposit has been formed with the power of sea waves (Ibid.). Another marine creature within the soil sample is coralline algae from the seabed (Ibid.). ‘These come from below the sea level and in order to deposit them in that level, where we found them in a promontory, [they had] to be scooped up […] to [the] level, where the sea normally never comes’, explains Prof. Bruins (Ibid.). No storm would have lifted the algae from the seabed and left it stranded metres up on the island (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there is another powerful natural force that has the power to do that (Ibid.). These are tsunami waves (Ibid.). Are the Palaikastro beach deposits the terrifying footprint of a tsunami? (Ibid.).

Now it makes sense

Prof. Costas Synolakis, an expert on tsunami, has explored the excavated part of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated three hundred metres from the beach (Lilley 2006). He has found there further evidence that something extraordinary happened there in the far past (Ibid.).