All posts by Joanna

Topsy-Turvy Epilogue of the Polish Christmas

Shrovetide period, later also called a carnival, was a colourful and sometimes overly cheerful epilogue of Christmas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:214). As such, it was the period of the most active social life in Old Poland (Ibid.:214).


During Shrovetide hunts for big and small animals took place (Ibid.:214). Weddings often combined with feasts and balls kept continuously lasting for several days (Ibid.:214). There were carnivorous feasts, masquerades, or games where participants dressed up and put on masks, and the famous old Polish sleigh rides were also organised (Ibid.:214).

Shrovetide in Podmokle Wielkie, 1950, Zielona Góra County, Lubusz Voivodeship, in western Poland. Shrovetide being celebrated in a tavern; peasants’ rite “leading the goat” in front of a Polish nobleman. Western Belarus, nineteenth century. The rite has been practiced during the Shrovetide, and also involves ‘leading the bear’, especially in the south-western part of Poland. Such a tradition must have originated from a pagan rite and is meant to ward off the evil. Photo by an Unknown Author. Public domain. Photo source: “Karnawał” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These boisterous time, often combined with gluttony and drunkenness, widely scandalized clergymen and secular moralists, such as Jakub Wujek (1541-1597), Grzegorz of Żarnowiec (1528-1601), and Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569) (Ibid.:214).

Crazy sleigh rides of the Old Polish nobles

Sleigh rides were particularly popular among the Polish nobility (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:214). The closest neighbours made arrangements and visited other manors on a few sledges and on horseback (Ibid.:214). The surprised host had to accept unexpected guests with everything he had in the pantry and in the basement, and then he usually joined the sleigh ride to the next noble court (Ibid.:214). At each stop, not only did they feast, but also danced, so either the musicians they met by chance were used, or the sleigh ride went with their own playing group (Ibid.:214). Women, wrapped in fur, rode a sleigh, men usually accompanied them on horseback (Ibid.:214). The whole procession was accompanied by the service on horseback, lighting the road with torches at night (Ibid.:214). The Old Polish sleigh ride presented then an exceptionally colourful picture, also noisy, not only because of the bells jingling at the sleighs, but also because the men, excited after drinking alcohol, often shot ‘to the cheer’, sometimes to chase away packs of wolves, but more often out of an excess of fantasy (Ibid.:214-215).

One of the Old Polish representations of nobles’ sleigh ride (kulig in Polish) in painting. Original name or image source unknown. Present image source: Stajnia TROT (2017). “Kuligi dawniej i dziś czyli: sporo o tradycji, troszkę o współczesności”. In: Stajnia TROT.

If one would like to come back in time to such ‘noble’ attractions in winter, sleigh rides are usually organised for tourists in Polish mountains …

Donuts and faworki

Sumptuous dishes were served at balls and feasts, including native Polish dishes, such as bigos (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215). Today bigos is a dish of chopped meat of various kinds stewed with shredded fresh cabbage but in the past it was mostly hunter’s stew, of course, always full of cabbage. Faworki (called in English angel wings are a kind of sugared oblong cakes), and donuts (without the whole in the middle) appeared among carnival sweet cakes (Ibid.:215). Polish donuts, light, aromatic and delicate, gained immense popularity already in the eighteenth century, during the reign of King Augustus III (Ibid.:215). Today, the inhabitants of Poland eat millions of confectionery donuts on the so-called Fat Thursday (Shrove Thursday), not to mention those that are fried along with faworki according to old family recipes in many homes (Ibid.:215).

Carnival for all

During Shrovetide, not only the nobility, but also plebs from towns and villages had fun (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215).

Such celebrations were less noisy than those of the nobles but there was no shortage of food or drink, and they also included dances and masquerades (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215). Shrovetide was primarily an opportunity for young people to entertain themselves (Ibid.:215). Many carnival pranks were played by them, which, if they had not excessed the limits of good fun, would rather go away with impunity (Ibid.:215). In rich bourgeois houses, carnival parties were not inferior to the nobility’s, although they were held without noble excesses or sleigh rides (Ibid.:215). The journeymen had the most fun among them (Ibid.). Daughters of the masters were also invited to such feasts (Ibid.:215). The men inviting girl had to take care that she had a good time, because when she did not have a partner for every dance, such a young man had to pay a fine (Ibid.:215-216). Not only did they eat, drink and dance at this occasion, but they also sang songs, sometimes with completely frivolous lyrics (Ibid.:216).

Shrovetide, or in the Krakow dialect – comber (the last frolics of the carnival) before fasting, in the image by Peter Bruegel the Elder; “Carnival fight with fasting” (1559). Image source: “Ostatki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The priest, Jędrzej Kitowicz (1728-1804) writes about the carnival party of Kraków street vendor women, famous for their unrestrained language and fiery temperaments (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215-216). It was a feast with an old tradition, organized on the Kraków market square, full of humour and vigour, deserving of remembrance (Ibid.:215-216). It was called comber (a folk carnival party from the Middle Ages), and it was held every Fat Thursday (Ibid.:216). The amiable comber was a kind of ‘democratic’ feast celebrated by common town people, and only the ‘distinguished’ refused to take part in it (Ibid.216).

Wooden rooster

In the countryside, on the other hand, the farmhand carried a wooden rooster on a cart, receiving cheese, butter, pork fat, sausage and eggs from girls and even from sedate housewives fun (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:216). At the end, from the collected victuals, they arranged a merry feast, sprinkled with booze. This rooster driven around the village was probably an echo of some Slavic pagan folk rite (Ibid.:216). It is probably related to the tradition of leading the Turoń, goat or the bear during the Christmas and following it Carnival.

Coming back to fasting

Turoń, Ethnographic Museum of Kraków [Muzeum Etnograficzne w Krakowie (MEK)]. Photo by ImreKiss Łukasz S. Olszewski (2009). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Turoń” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Finally, the Shrovetide was coming to an end, and on Ash Wednesday the long reign of fasting żur (sour rye soup) and herring began (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:216).

Nowadays, people still enjoy the period of Carnival but it is not as traditional as it used to be in Old Poland. In some regions, however, it happens that old rites, such as leading the goat or the bear, are still preserved. Especially during winter holidays, Poles go up to the Polish mountains, covered in snow, to have fun on sleigh rides with their whole families. Yet the most important still remains Polish traditional cuisine, typical of the Shrovetide: Polish, large donuts and faworki.

I usually spend both, the Shrovetide and the Ash Wednesday outside Poland; just after the New Year, I need to come back to work. Nevertheless, it is the Christmas Eve I always wish to come back to Poland for and spend it together with my family.

Featured image:  Shrovetide, or in the Krakow dialect – comber (the last frolics of the carnival) before fasting, in the image by Peter Bruegel the Elder; “Carnival fight with fasting” (1559). Image source: “Ostatki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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


“Karnawał” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th December, 2020].

“Ostatki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th December, 2020].

“Tłusty Czwartek” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th December, 2020].

“Turoń” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st December, 2020].

Lemnis M., Vitry H. (1979). W staropolskie kuchni i przy polskim stole. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Interpress.

Stajnia TROT (2017). “Kuligi dawniej i dziś czyli: sporo o tradycji, troszkę o współczesności”. In: Stajnia TROT. Available at <>. [Accessed on 24th December, 2020].

Medieval Comic Strip in the Technique of Sgraffito

The Tring Tiles are today remarkable survivals, witnessing the devotional curiosity of the Middle Ages with the Christ’s childhood (Robinson et al. 2008:118) and a clear reflection of “the resurgence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of Christianity’s focus on the humanity of Christ” (Casey 2007:2).  

Christian lore of medieval dominoes

“The scenes [on the tiles] are arranged in pairs [except for one of the canonical character], in a composition that resembles a modern-day comic strip” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). There are more traditional Christian miracles, such as a multiplication of food (Casey 2007:1): “planting a single grain of wheat, which immediately produces an entire crop for the poor to harvest” (Ibid.:1). There is equally a scene showing “healing the lame and the injured” (Ibid.:1).

The four other Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

Christ is obviously the driving force of all these miracles. Still He is also the hero of more humoristic but confrontational scenes while He is depicted “at play, [often resulting in fatal accidents], working in the fields or in the carpenter’s workshop, at school, and, occasionally, in trouble” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). On the whole, the “[stories] told by the tiles are drawn from the ordinary activities of children, though enriched by a miraculous element” (The British Museum II 2021), which, on the other hand, “struggle [to show] the notion of a child at once human and divine”(Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Consequently, the angelic face of the Child Jesus, as drawn on holy pictures in the Church, as much as in the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:2) “may belie the strangeness of his actions” (Ibid.:2); the Christ Child behaves as an average boy but granted with supernatural powers that he openly uses not only in good intentions but also for his own, rather selfish purposes; if the author of the Apocrypha “was to humanize the Christ Child, he went to such [extremes in Jesus’ behaviour] that centuries of Popes, Church Fathers, theologians and scholars have dismissed the stories as incorrect, […] exaggerated [and even heretic, as they declare] the [Child] Jesus to be rude, vindictive, unruly, and ‘non-Christian’” (Ibid.:3).

Mediation of the Virgin Mary

Such an attitude of the Church is not surprising; in the apocryphal legends, also illustrated on the Tring Tiles, Jesus transforms other boys into pigs and even kills his colleagues and a Jewish teacher for offending Him, after which, however, He restores them either to the previous state or even to life, especially on the initiative of His Mother, Saint Mary, who asks Him for mercy on behalf of the people and, in every instance, the intercession of the Virgin Mary sees the return to normality (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1; Munday 2018).

The image of the Virgin Mary with Jesus Child in one of the illuminations decorating the Infancy Gospels in Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8, fol. 027v (detail) (c. 1315-1325). Apocryphal Childhood of Christ. Written in French. Image source: Bodleian Library (2021) “Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38, pt. 1”. In: Digital Bodleian; Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Sometimes, the Virgin is represented as if She rebuked Her Son for His bad behaviour towards humans (Casey 2007:15) or even as if “it was the Virgin, not [Her Son], who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe” (Munday 2018). Such an illustration of the Jesus’s Mother shows the cult of the Virgin Mary at its height and underlines Her increasing, almost godlike power in the Christian tradition (Munday 2018; Casey 2007:15). Despite the negative reaction of the Church officials’ towards the Infancy Gospels, the Church simultaneously remained quite tolerant when it comes to a growing popularity of such stories among the lay Christian populace, and while they were being consecutively repeated in multiplying images created by artists in religious art, like those depicted on the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:3).

Starting with a miracle

I decided to start analyzing the objects from up down; consequently, I looked up at the uppermost tile in the showcase covered with glass. It displays two, rather unrelated scenes; the first one shows a cart drawn by one horse and two peasants harvesting a field of wheat, miraculously grown from the one grain which Jesus has planted (Fig.1A) (Casey 2007:27,39). In Pseudo-Matthew and Selden Supra 38 the grain is barley (Ibid.:27). The tile with the preceding scene of Christ sowing and multiplying His Mother’s grain is lost. Missing scenes obviously disturb the continuity of the story represented on the Tring Tiles. Although they can be easily complemented and retold by means of the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, the tile showing the reaping of wheat miraculously multiplied to a vast amount still remains combined with an unconnected accident, namely Fathers and Jesus at oven (Fig.1B) (Ibid.:39).

‘Unpleasant’ transformation

The latter scene (Fig.1B) shows three parents of Jesus’ colleagues who “are reluctant for their children to play with Jesus [and thus] often [implement] extreme measures to prevent [His] contact with [their children]” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). In the scene, they are standing with Jesus Child in front of an oven, pointing to it.

Fig. 1A “Harvesting” and Fig. 1B “Fathers and Jesus at oven”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

The medieval Infancy Gospels say that the parents have just hid their children in the oven away from Jesus only to find them later transformed by Him into pigs, when they finally open it (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “Missing from the extant Tring Tiles is the pig-children’s culminating escape from the oven, but this dramatic scene would undoubtedly have been part of the original tile series” (Casey 2007:38). The story is not a part of Greek and Latin texts of the apocryphal Gospels of Thomas or Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.: 38). Yet it may have originally been included in one of the early versions of Gospels of Thomas, from which it was removed for being too ‘unpleasant’ (Ibid.:38). Anyway, it reappears in early apocryphal literature of the Arabic Infancy Gospel but the boys there are transformed not into pigs but into goats (Ibid.:38). “The exchange of the pigs for goats has been attributed to a […] Jewish aversion to pork, a restriction shared with Islam” (Ibid.:40).

Another reason may be the historic antisemitic association of Jews with pigs or an Islamic notion (Casey 2007:40), according to which “Jews [and] Christians were once punished by being transformed into pigs and apes” (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, the story with the boys transformed into pigs already appears in medieval Christian manuscripts and so must equally have been included in the lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:38-39).

Privileged animals, a miracle, and the Crown for the Virgin Mary

In the lower row, there are two tiles; one from the left portrays jumping and apparently happy lion cubs, accompanied by Child Jesus, His Mother Mary and Joseph, and two Jews further behind them (Fig.2A) (Austin Date Unknown). The scene is to express the fact that in contrast to Jews, animals are able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God (Ibid.). In the scene, “Mary’s appearance reflects the evolution of the Cult of the Virgin by the early fourteenth century as she is portrayed in elegant Gothic dress, wearing the crown of the Queen of Heaven, as opposed to her depiction in Selden Supra 38, where she is seated, holding a book, with a shawl over her head” (Casey 2007:15).

Fig. 2A “Lion cubs” and Fig. 2B “Broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Next scene on the same tile (Fig.2B) is the first of the three (two more are shown on the next tile in the same row: Fig.3A&B) illustrating Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough. In the first scene (Fig.2B), a workmen is scolded by his master for breaking or cutting a plough beam too short (Priory Tiles 2021). Jesus observes the incident and eagerly helps to fix the tool; He miraculously repairs the beam (Fig.3A), which can be successfully applied again in ploughing the fields (Fig.3B).

Culmination of the story in the middle

Below the second row, there is only one tile in the middle, which actually should be the culmination of the series (Fig.4: feature image) (Robinson et al. 2008:118). It is the only scene which occupies a full tile, which stands for its significance, and illustrates Christ’s first official miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes water to wine (John 2:1-11) (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:46).

Fig. 3A and Fig. 3B “Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

By these means, the ‘unofficial’ life of Christ naturally complements the canonical version (Casey 2007:46). Moreover, including the biblical scene in the series of formally rejected stories also “[lends] an air of legitimacy to the marginalized apocryphal Infancy Gospels“ (Casey 2007:46).

Death and resurrection

The successive row of the tiles below again displays two of them with four related scenes. Starting from the episode on the left (Fig.5A), Child Jesus is shown playing alone a “game of making pools on the banks of the river Jordan, which is [suddenly] disturbed by a [bad Jewish boy] who destroys them: the bully promptly falls down dead” (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007:46). “Likewise, [in the first scene on the right side tile (Fig.6A)], when a fellow pupil jumps on Christ’s back in a playful attack, he is struck down, [in front of seated Zacharias]. In both cases instant dead is shown by the figures being flipped upside down” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 5A “Jesus building pools; dead boy” and Fig. 5B “Mary, Jesus reviving dead boy.”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

In the second scene of the first tile (Fig.5B), Saint Mary with the crown on Her head admonishes Jesus for killing the boy (Casey 2007:15). She puts “her hand on Jesus’ back, encouraging him to rejuvenate the dead boy” (Ibid.:15). Although Jesus still curses the Jewish colleague, He revives the boy, yet underlying that he does so only for Her Mother’s sake (Ibid.:15).

Caricatured faces

In the second tile, in the left side scene (Fig.6A), “Zacharias is hieratically seated on an elevated bench, holding a book […], his head capped with a stalked beret, a style seen frequently on Jewish scholars. He looks beyond Jesus to exchange gestures and glances with the Bad Boy, implying a possible collusion between the teacher and the boy, and reminding viewers of the Christian assertion that the Jews were blind to Christ [as it is also underlined in the scene showing lion cubs]. The exaggerated, yet comical, antisemitic caricature of Zacharias’ visage does not suggest a man of wisdom” (Casey 2007:20).

Fig. 6A “Zacharias, boy and Jesus; dead boy” and Fig. 6B “Joseph and parents; Jesus reviving boy”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Written versions of the Infancy Gospels also adds that “Jesus starts lecturing [Zacharias], pointing out the teacher’s ignorance, in contrast to Jesus’ superior knowledge” (Ibid.:20). The compression of the two successive events in a single scene, with Jesus and the boy jumping on His back, and the Bad Boy seen again upside down behind the first group was a typical artistic practice in the medieval art, also observed in a comic strip. Having killed the boy, Jesus again appeared in the right scene accompanied by Joseph who is standing in front of the Bad Boy’s annoyed parents, trying to calm them down (Ibid.:17,19). Meantime, Jesus restores their son back to life (Casey 2007:17; Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Castle tower

At the bottom of the showcase there is the last row of the two tiles; “[they] continue the polemic between Christianity and Judaism” (Casey 2007:36). The one on the right side shows in the first scene (Fig.7A), a father who has just locked his son in a tower with a huge key, “to protect him from the ‘accidents’ which seemed to occur when children play with Jesus” (Ibid.:36). However, already in the second scene (Fig.7B) “Christ miraculously pulls the boy through the lock” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 7A “Father locks son in tower” and Fig. 7B “Jesus pulls boy from tower”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

The symbol of a tower seems significant as it used to be an important feature of medieval Anglo-Jewish co-existence (Casey 2007:37). In England, the tower was a place of refuge for Jews or, like the Tower of London, it was used to imprison and execute them (Ibid.:37). “At times, Jews saved their lives by converting [to Christianity] while they were imprisoned […]” (Ibid.:37-38). The tile illustrating the tower may metaphorically symbolize such a conversion of the released boy, who was eventually set free by Jesus Himself.

Again in school

“Following an interlude of [those two Tring Tile scenes, in the left side scene of the second tile], Jesus appears [again in school (Fig.8A). He is standing in front of] a second teacher, a bearded Levi, seated on a bench with his legs crossed. This teacher also attempts to instruct Jesus, but Jesus rejects the teacher’s instructions, exhibiting his knowledge […] and […] the extent of his wisdom” (Casey 2007:20). As a result, “the teacher scolds him for his insolence, and slaps him” (Ibid.:21). In this scene, there also appears the mentioned practice of duplicating the same character in order to present it at a later stage of events, being the aftermath of the previous one.

Fig. 8A “Levi slaps Jesus; Jesus scolding” and Fig. 8B “Teachers, Jesus; lame persons”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Consequently, behind the ‘first’ representation of the Christ Child, “[the] second figure of Jesus shows [Him again] responding to the teacher, as he in turn, scolds the Hebrew master” (Casey 2007:21). The right side of the same tile (Fig.8B) further illustrates Jesus who is still engaged in preaching but this time there are two teachers seated in front of him (Ibid.:31). Behind Jesus, there are two lame people whom only Jesus, and not the teachers, can heal. “The compositional placement of the teacher [or teachers] seated on the left and Jesus standing on the right appears [in all such scenes and may be symbolically related to the right side associated with good, and the left with evil]”(Ibid.:20).

Difficult relations

By observing and analysing the artefacts behind the glass, I understood that the Tring Tiles not only illustrate the apocryphal Infancy Gospels to fill in the gaps in the biblical stories, but also to reflect tense and difficult Jewish-Christian relations in medieval England, where there was the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, especially because Jews reminded blind to Jesus’ teaching; “the stories [represented on the tiles], sometimes not so subtly, reflect the conflicts that existed between Jews and Christians [already] in the early years of the new faith when both groups proclaimed the predominance and superiority of their beliefs, while competing over converts. The stereotypical, [even caricatured, depictions] of the Jewish figures, [usually featuring huge noses and bulging eyes] in the scenes on the Tring Tiles, reminds […] that these conflicts still existed in the minds of the fourteenth century English, even though King Edward [the First] had expelled all Jews from England in 1290” (Casey 2007:1-2).

Two other tiles

In the Middle Ages, “from the Jewish perspective, the fathers in both the tower and the oven stories would have recognized the need to hide their children from Jesus, not just for their physical safety, but to protect them from the threat of medieval Christians who attempted to convert [Jews] to Christianity” (Casey 2007:41).

Tring Tile on the left: Fig. 9A “Jesus and kneeling boys”. Fig. 9B “Jesus and boys at well”. Tring Tile on the right: Fig. 10A “Joseph and angry parents”. Fig. 10B “Jesus and kneeling boys”. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. Preserved by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo source: Mary F. Casey (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”, p. 42. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53.

Images depicted on the two missing Tring Tiles, displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrate such conversions among Jewish children (Casey 2007:41-42). The first tile (Fig.9A) shows kneeling boys and Jesus preaching or blessing them in the first scene (Ibid.:41). The same composition reappears on the second tile, on its right side (Fig.10B) (Ibid.:41-42). “These images show [obedient] children, as Jesus’ blessing gesture suggests that he is fulfilling his mission and converting the children” (Ibid.:41); moreover, the “repetition of [the] image of kneeling children (Fig.9A and 10B) suggests a special emphasis on conversion” (Ibid.:42). The Infancy Gospels also read that Child Jesus “revives and blesses his playmates, after they accidentally fall while attempting to follow him as he jumped from hill to hill and slid down a sunbeam” (Ibid.:41). This underlines “the importance of Jesus’ life-saving power, even though following his lead can be difficult” (Ibid.:42).

The well

The second scene on the first tile (Fig.9B) is also related to the theme of conversion. Jesus and boys are at well (Casey 2007:42); while one figure is using a pitcher to draw water from it, others carry the pitchers, already full or empty, on their shoulders.

This is probably a reference to the baptism following the conversion. It also brings to mind the Gospel scene in which the adult Jesus talks by a well with a Samaritan woman who consequently experiences conversion (John 4: 5-42). Jesus then said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10).

‘Convert or die’ threat

The first scene of the second tile (Fig.10A) shows in turn Joseph and the children’s parents who have just witnessed Jesus’ ability to revive their dead children (Casey 2007:41-42). The one standing just in front of Joseph seems angry, yet others behind them look like wondering at Jesus’ miraculous powers (Ibid.:41).

Although those tile scenes show that the miraculously restored to life Jewish children were converted, in contemporary England, it was also “a reminder of the ‘convert or die’ threat often faced by Jews. […] In reality, the attempted conversion failed after a two-century effort which ended in [their] expulsion of 1290” (Casey 2007:42).

The Humanity of God

It was almost one hour, I was squatting on the floor in front of the tiles. The scenes drawn on them were both, informative and touching; not only do they portray politics, ethnic and religious conflicts in medieval England but also a strong desire of contemporary people to approach their God closer in His Humanity by observing Him as a human Child with miraculous powers, yet with flaws typical of common children. I also understood that the ten preserved Tring Tiles of the whole larger series would not give all the answers to the questions posed without the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, in turn, filling gaps in the missing stories expressed in art. And although apocrypha does not deepen the canonical knowledge of God’s Child as represented on the Tring Tiles (Rops 1944:115), they do reveal mankind’s desire to find human nature, with all of its aspects, in the Divine.

Nazareth, old postcard by Fadil Saba. Uploaded by TheRealHuldra in 2008. Public domain. {{PD-Israel-Photo}}. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

So deep in my thoughts I hardly noticed there was a group of visitors gathering in the Room 40 and trying to approach the object of my study. I quickly gathered my notes from the floor, stood up and sent my last glance at the red tiles. ‘To be continued during the lecture’, I thought.

Featured image: “Jesus building pools; dead boy” (left) and “Mary, Jesus reviving dead boy.”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Drawing by the British Museum (2021). Asset number: 191480001. Earthenware tile, lead-glazed. © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: The British Museum (2021).

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


“Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Austin W. (Date unknown). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Bodleian Library (2021). “Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38, pt. 1”. In: Digital Bodleian; Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Casey M. F. (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53. Available at <>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].

Munday A. (2018). “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles”. In: A Writer’s Perspective. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Robinson et al. (2008). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Masterpieces. Medieval Art. pp. 118-119. London: The British Museum Press.

Rops D. (1944). Dzieje Chrystusa [Histoire Sainte – Jesus et Son Temps]. Starowiejska-Morstinowa Z. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax.

The British Museum II (2021). “The Tring Tiles; museum number 1922,0412.1.CR.” In: The British Museum. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

The British Museum (drawing) (2021). Asset number: 191480001. Photo source: The British Museum (2021). Available at <>. [Accessed 3rd July, 2021].

Identity of the Man Found in the Sarcophagus of Palenque

Presumably, in order to preserve the precious archaeological find in its original state, Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier had not unsealed the unearthed sarcophagus for six months since it was discovered (My Gen 2021). And it took archaeologists an additional week of work before they eventually lifted the five-ton beautifully carved lid of the sarcophagus, on 28th November, in 1952 (Ibid.).

Mayan Matryoshka-style

Eventually, it turned out that the inside of the rectangular stone slab of the tomb had been additionally closed off with another smaller slab, attached by means of stone plugs in the holes (Quetzal Resistance 2011; My Gen 2021). The additional and strangely shaped lid ultimately uncovered the final resting place of the dead, whose long and beautifully attired skeleton was lying inside a similarly-shaped coffin (My Gen 2021). As a result, the whole tomb design slightly resembles a set of Matryoshka dolls, where one of a smaller size is placed inside a larger one.

Howard Carter examining the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun. On the whole, there were three coffins, decreasing in size. Exclusive to The Times – The New York Times photo archive, via their online store (1922). Public domain. Photo source: “Tutankhamun” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The interesting shape of the smaller coffin lid, sometimes compared to a body-shape, drew Graham Hancock’s attention (2016:158); he connects it with a specific type of Egyptian coffins with a widen bottom (Ibid.:158). It is a characteristic that also appears in the shape of the coffin under the Temple of the Inscriptions (Ibid.:158). Yet, the Egyptian caskets were made of wood and had wide bases as they were often placed vertically, as if they were standing (Ibid.:158). By comparison, Pakal’s coffin was carved out entirely of solid stone and was arranged horizontally (Ibid.:158). The author therefore wonders why the builders of the sarcophagus took more trouble extending its lower part since it had no practical application (Ibid.:158). Or maybe it was the shape itself, which really mattered? (Ibid.:158); it actually resembles the aforementioned keyhole symbol, but which is turned upside down and with a circle part squashed, looking slightly like an eclipse. Moreover, the Matryoshka-style of Palenque sarcophagus had been also applied in Egyptian royal coffins, such as the set of Tutankhamun’s three coffins, characterized each by a decreasing size (Tyldesley 2016).

Descendant of the race of giants

All the archaeological reports accordingly claim that in the sarcophagus in Palenque, there was found a skeleton of a tall man (My Gen 2021; Hancock 2016:158). Nevertheless, the same scientific sources never give any precise information about the exact measures of the skeleton (My Gen 2021). In my opinion, it is not sufficient to argue that some person is tall or not as such descriptions are quite subjective as they may be based on a personal judgement.

Anthropological Museum of Mexico City. Funerary dress and jewellery of king Pakal of Palenque, seventh century AD. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, such a matter as the height of an individual should be given in detail. In spite of the information missing, some alternative researchers, however, keep trying to calculate an approximate skeleton’s height, basing on equally estimated measurements of the strangely shaped sarcophagus’ cut in stone, which was specially designed for the corpse (My Gen 2021). Such estimates can be only possible to obtain by means of the provided accurate measurements of the main, rectangular lid of the sarcophagus, which are the following: the square slab of the tomb is 30 centimetres (10 inches) thick, 90 centimetres (3 feet) wide and 3,7 metres (12,5 feet) long (Hancock 2016:159). As a result of a mathematical analysis, the skeleton would have belonged to a male measuring well over 2,2 metres in height (over 7,3 feet) (My Gen 2021).

Who was really buried in Pakal’s tomb?

Although the skeleton found inside the sarcophagus is usually recognized as the remains of the king Pakal, his identity has become repeatedly questioned (My Gen 2021; Von Däniken 1991:182).

First doubts arouse mainly due to the inconsistent date of 633 AD., which is the latest among those found on the sarcophagus and so it does not chronologically correspond to the conventional date of Pakal’s death (Von Däniken 1991:182). The doubts have deepened even more together with the results of interdisciplinary identification examination of the skeletal remains from the sarcophagus, which were presented at “a symposium organized by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina for the Sixty-eighth Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2003” ( 2021). During the project directed by a specialist in Maya civilization remains, Prof. Vera Tiesler, a wide range of laboratory analyses had been used with comparative data, including archaeological, bioanthropological and epigraphical studies of the Maya culture (Ibid.). Age assessment of the individual was mainly carried out by means of morphological observations and histological methods, including even mathematical approaches applied by paleo-demographers (Ibid.).

Temple of the Foliated Cross in Palenque features mysterious openings in the shape of keyhole. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet, during the conference, there was no mention about results of radiocarbon dating of the bones or whether it had ever been conducted (My Gen 2021; see: 2021). It is only known that there was no DNA extraction, which Vera Tiesler explains by the fact of a very poor and fragmentary condition of the studied skeletal remains, which have been hardly preserved in seventy-five percent ( 2021). As a result, even though the time of the individual’s death is relatively recent in comparison with other analysed skeletal remains from cultures existing before our era, the age determination and other analyses of Palenque skeletal remains may be erratic and inconsistent (Ibid.).

Inconsistent results

Particular results of one of the conducted examinations, however, seem quite reliable and they entirely put the identity of the individual found in the sarcophagus under question. Precisely, it was the analysis of wear on the skeleton’s teeth, which has placed the age of their owner at death as forty years old, which is simultaneously an average lifetime of the ancient Mayas (“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” 2021). Consequently, it means the skeleton must have belonged to a man forty years younger than Pakal at the moment of his death, when he was eighty years old (“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” 2021; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). Such a contradiction may have resulted either by a wrong interpretation of the dates ascribed to Pakal’s lifetime or the fact the skeletal remains do not belong to Pakal at all.

Despite such conflicting results, most scholars have no doubts about the identity of the skeletal remains in the sarcophagus in Palenque and so they reject any possibility it may not be the skeleton of the king Pakal ( 2021). Probably, in order to achieve a compromise, they have accepted that at the moment of his death Pakal could be either in the low age range, estimated between forty and fifty years, or the highest estimated age of eighty years (Ibid.). But does it bring any final conclusion to the question of age of the skeletal remains and, indirectly, of dating the burial itself?

Temple of the Inscriptions, seen from the Palace side. It is built on the stepped pyramid with nine platforms. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such a wide range of an acceptable age for the found skeleton is justified by scholars due to particular challenges in its precise age determination ( 2021). After Prof. Vera Tiesler the human remains under question cause particular difficulties in their studies, not only because they are extensively fragmented, but also because of the age range of the individual (Ibid.). Skeletal specialists agree that it is highly difficult to precisely estimate skeletal age in case of the dead adults, especially those who were over fifty years old at the moment of their death (Ibid.). This is why the results cannot be more precise or consistent unless some novel and conclusive methods are applied in this context.

Which way leads to the afterlife?

If the conducted examinations of the found skeleton generally fail in determining the identity of the buried individual, is it possible to find out missing answers in the imagery of his sarcophagus? The latter is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating Mayan monuments and is still the subject of a fierce debate even today, which is especially about an intriguing relief on the lid. Despite different interpretations of the scene, scholars generally believe that it depicts a mythological image or the king’s journey into the world of the dead. For the Mayans of the Classic period, the afterlife was located in the underground world filled with water and so it was associated in the earthly world with actual water reservoirs or caves (Eberl 2013:311; see 😊). Accordingly, the dead body of the ruler was to rest in the burial chamber in the centre of the Temple of the Inscriptions, symbolizing an artificial cave and the king’s descent into the earth, by means of the steps leading down to the underworld (Ibid.:311). The stone lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus was therefore intended to recreate his journey to the afterlife (Ibid.:311).

But if this interpretation is correct, and the Mayan underworld was located underground, why does a small pipe of psychoduct led Pakal’s soul from the tomb back to the temple outside it?

The Tree of Life

Cosmological Mythology of the ancient Maya was recorded in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a Latin compilation of Mayan texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Wagner 2013:288). The act of creation described there was preceded by the destruction of the world by the flood (Ibid.:288), also mentioned by numerous independent sources, such as the “Book of Genesis” in the Bible and the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (see😊

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

As the story goes, the very centre of the created world inhabited by the Maya was graphically marked by the Tree of Life, connecting the zenith with the nadir (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Not without a surprise, such a motif also appears in the Celtic and Scandinavian cultures (see😊. In the Mayan iconography, the central motif of the panel in the Temple of the Cross is a symbolic representation of such a tree that grows from the sacrificial bowl (Wagner 2013:288; see😊 The image must be strongly stylized because it resembles more a cross rather than a tree. After experts, branches covered with flowers grow on its both sides, whereas the two-headed serpent hanging on it symbolizes the eternally green tree and the colour of the centre of the cosmos (Ibid.:288). Additionally, on its highest branch, the god Itzamna sits on the throne, dressed as blue birds (Ibid.:288).

Here I must admit to myself that if I interpreted the relief of the Temple of the Cross myself, I would never have noticed some of the described details without a professional help of specialists.

Hidden birds game

On the sarcophagus from Planeque there are hieroglyphs and more or less abstract images. Starting from the top of the lid positioned in a vertical position, there is found a central motif that was recreated with slight changes on the later and the aforementioned relief from the sanctuary of the Temple of the Cross (Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in: Von Däniken 1991:187; see😊. In the first place, it is easy to notice a kind of a cross just in the middle, whose arms divide the surface, and metaphorically the world into four parts, and at the same time indicate the four cardinal points with its arms (see: Eberl 2013:314; Von Däniken 1991:186).

A drawing of the lid of the tomb of Maya ruler Pacal the Great. Drawing by Madman2001 – Made it myself based on several drawings References for this description (or part of this) or for the depiction in the file are not provided (2008). CC BY-SA 2.0. Image modified. Photo and caption source :“Temple of the Inscriptions” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to experts having translated its imagery, a whole ornithological garden can be seen in the relief around the cross, including the Mayan bird Quetzal and the bird Moan, symbolising death (Von Däniken 1991:186-187; Wołek 2012:18). The latter was probably crouching just below the squatting anthropomorphic figure. Indeed, a strongly stylized outline of a pair of eyes and something that looks like a duck bake are visible there. Similar element also appears in the relief of the Temple of the Cross, but no one interprets it there as the bird Moan heralding death …

Furthermore, after a conventional interpretation of the relief from the Temple of the Cross, at the top of the Tree of Life sits the Mayan god Itzamna, depicted once again in the form of a bird (Wagner 2013:282). Its mirror image with small changes was also carved on earlier Pakal’s sarcophagus (see: Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in: Von Däniken 1991:187). For consistency of the both interpretations, it must be just the same bird in the both representations. But if Itzamna is sitting at the top of the cross, where is Quetzal? Apparently, it is crouching on the head of a man lying under the Tree of Life … (Von Däniken 1991:186). I need to admit that I cannot discern anything there except for elements looking like bird feathers, probably being a part of the lying man’s headgear … Dr. Ruz, in turn, sees Quetzal wearing the mask of Tlaloc and is one of miniature mythological creatures coming out from a two-headed dragon …  (Ibid.:187). Still nothing … I cannot see either the dragon or a creature wearing Tlaloc’s mask and jumping out of any head… Yet, according to translating the lid experts, a proper interpretations of the imagery is only possible when the lid is viewed from a horizontal position … (Von Däniken 1991:188; Wołek 2012:18)

Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As a matter of fact, most scientists believe that the imagery on Pakal’s sarcophagus should only be interpreted in a horizontal arrangement (Von Däniken 1991:188; Wołek 2012:18). And here is another contradiction. The relief from the Temple of the Cross, which depicts the same main motif, can be only analysed in a vertical position, and the correct positioning of the relief is evidenced by two male figures standing on both sides of the Tree of Life, while it is depicted vertically.

Why is it so that the both images sharing exactly the same elements have been interpreted separately and so incoherently?

Academic and alternative interpretations of the image

Continuing the analysis of the sarcophagus lid from the vertical position, it can be noticed that under the Tree you can see the gaping mouth of the Earth Monster, which grins its teeth dangerously and threatens with its tusks (see: Von Däniken 1991:186-187). This element is missing in the later relief from the Temple of the Cross, likewise the main character of the scene on the sarcophagus. It is a male figure in a reclining position, situated just under the Tree of Life. Some experts claim it is Pakal who at the moment of his death falls into the mouth of the underworld, or of the Earth Monster armed with teeth, to be reborn like the god of corn (Von Däniken 1991:187; Eberl 2013:314).

The Tree of Life itself seems to grow out of the Earth-Monster between its tusks, and pierce the belly of the lying man with its roots. In addition, strange vines appear to grow from the man’s mouth and nose and on the back of his head. Maybe it is the Tree of Life that wants to consume the individual? Others argue that the “creepers” on the back of the king’s head are only part of an intricately pinned up hairstyle or headgear (Von Däniken 1991:187). As I mentioned earlier, some experts notice there the bird Quetzal, which would crouch on the king’s head (Ibid.:186).

‘Or maybe the ruler is inside a large skyrocket and goes into space?’, ask the proponents of the ancient astronaut theory, who support the thesis that ancient peoples around the world had contacts with representatives of a highly developed alien civilization, whom they consequently took for gods (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012).

And under the influence of such a hypothesis, the “creepers” or headdress ornaments, magically turn into double wires running inside the spacecraft (see: Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). Such a theory has been successfully instilled by a controversial researcher and author, Enrich von Däniken. By taking a closer look at the lid in an upright position, he has noticed that the figure depicted takes the position of today’s cosmonauts during the launch of a space rocket (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). You can also see that the ‘cosmonaut’ is touching some devices with his hands, which look like levers (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). His feet rest on some kind of pedals (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). And beneath it, you can see what resembles flames and not the teeth of an Earth Monster (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). Additionally, the king has something like a breathing apparatus in front of his face (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). ‘This element is called’ giver of life ‘,explains Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, one of Däniken’s followers (Burns 2012). ‘So it seems logical that it could be oxygen. It is also logical that in space a man would need a similar breathing mask’, he says (Ibid.).

Following this interpretation of the sarcophagus lid, we may come to the conclusion that the picture presented in it proves the theory of the relationship between the Mayan rulers and aliens. So which interpretation is correct?

New definitions of old truths

Various representations of the bird Quetzal and the Mouth of the Underworld or the Earth Monster, are typical imagery features of the religion and mythology of the Mesoamerican peoples, and therefore also of their art (see😊. As we can see, a similar sarcophagus motif of the cross was also immortalized on a later relief from the Temple of the Cross. But was it meant as the Tree of Life for the Maya?

Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All such interpretations are found within a framework of modern speculations and guessing, likewise contemporarily invented names given to ancient cultures, their architectural structures and artifacts (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Hancock 2016:156). The Temple encompassing Pakal’s sarcophagus certainly was not called the Temple of the Inscriptions by the Maya themselves (Ibid.:175-176). In turn, the Earth Monster was imagined as an anthropomorphic-zoomorphic figure mainly by the Aztecs, who worshiped it under the female name Tlaltecuhtli (see😊 The Aztecs, however, were one of the most recent cultures of Mesoamerica, whose development was only interrupted by the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century.

By applying the same known matrix of mythological interpretations to all discovered artifacts from the world of ancient cultures in Mesoamerica does not really add anything in determining the real meaning behind them. It only causes that we are stubbornly going around in circles, putting another painting into the same frames. According to archaeologists and art historians, the Maya could create metaphorical representations of nature, which they provided with divine features, as many other ancient cultures around the world did. Then the Earth Monster jaws would be a universal and metaphorical image of the underworld or the gateway to the underworld, in which the Mayans certainly believed and worshiped (see😊. By the time of the Aztecs, such an image could gradually evolve to finally adopt the image of the half human goddess Tlaltecuhtli.

Exclusivity for the truth

On the other hand, the image on the sarcophagus may not originally have been purely symbolic, but with time it took on just such a character; perhaps a Mayan artist initially tried to recreate a scene he had seen or heard about, but he dressed it in images that were understandable to his contemporaries, or to himself.

Temple of the Inscriptions is adjacent to Temple XIII, where another tomb of Palenque was found in 90s of the twentieth century by archaeologists. Yet, it is the sarcophagus from the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions that still attracts most attention. Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It did not necessarily have to be a spacecraft launch or the maw belonging to a monster that looks as if it had been taken alive from Mayan nightmares. It could have been an image of a phenomenon or truth that once terrified, but at the same time aroused a sort of respect among various inhabitants of Mesoamerica at the time. What was that? We do not know. And perhaps we will never know the truth. Besides, no one can claim exclusivity for the true understanding of the Mayan images, and no diploma or academic degree guarantees their correct interpretation. One would have to arrange a chat with an ancient Maya first. I wonder how the ancients would react to contemporary interpretations of scenes that they once created. Probably their jaw would drop …

The sculptor of the sarcophagus could actually have left a hieroglyphic inscription on its surface, which would identify the man imagined there (see: Von Däniken 1991:182,186). The problem is that some of the hieroglyphs found on the sarcophagus still cannot be deciphered (Von Däniken 1991:186; Hancock 2016:157).

In the Mouth of the Earth Monster

In the central part of  the Temple of the Inscriptions, suspended at the top of the stepped pyramid, there is a series of stairs steeply sloping down from enormous stone slabs of the floor (Hancock 2016:157). The sandstone steps are polished by the soles of millions of tourists visiting Palenque and are now quite slippery, also due to the tropical humidity hovering in the air (Ibid.:157). The stairs lead to the crypt. ‘The Earth Monster’s Mouth’ measures 7 metres in height and 9 metres in length (Ibid.:158). The burial chamber is now separated from the visitors by a heavy grating, and additionally, a usually foggy glass hinders the access to it together with a possibility of seeing the sarcophagus in detail (Von Däniken 1991:184).

Fortunately, in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, there is a replica of the sarcophagus, which I was able to successfully photograph, although the inability to use a flash significantly worsened the sharpness of the image (see: Von Däniken 1991:185). Thus you need to have much patience to make a successful shot of this famous and controversial monument. The image itself is also often reproduced in various forms by local Indians who sell them massively to tourists. You can then hang such a woven or painted picture on the wall, of course in a vertical position, and keep trying to solve its mystery for hours after returning home from Mexico.

Featured image: Temple of the Inscriptions is adjacent to Temple XIII, where another tomb of Palenque was found in 90s of the twentieth century by archaeologists. Yet, it is the sarcophagus from the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions that still attracts most attention. Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


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White Idols from the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean

It was supposed to be a high-speed ferry ride from Crete (Heraklion Port) to Santorini (Thera), which usually takes around two hours. In our case, the estimated time was disrupted by a sudden storm that broke out at sea. Raging waves ruthlessly played with our boat throughout the whole sea crossing. People were swinging on their feet or wading across the deck of the ferry, which was dangerously shaken in its foundations, together with tearing the screens off the walls. Passengers felt as if they had been on a roller coaster, with their stomach approaching the throat. The lucky ones managed to get to the toilet on time, primarily still available, and others grabbed the last resort, usually one of the paper bags distributed dispassionately by the crew.

My friend sitting next to me got frozen in fear of another stomach contraction, squeezing the edges of the bag in the fingers. The colours of her face kept changing from pale white to green. In the midst of this collective hysteria, apparently I was the only person who felt well. Maybe yet except for the crew, who looked at me in disbelief.

‘Could I go outside?’, I asked hesitantly. ‘I just can’t handle staying inside’.

It was indeed stuffy inside the ferry; all windows and doors were closed tightly. and the atmosphere became more and more unpleasant due to the sick passengers.

In response to my question, two crew members looked at each other and one of them in turn looked at me asking: ‘Don’t suffer from seasickness?’,
‘It looks like no’, I smiled.

An amazing view on the Aegean Sea and the Santorini archipelago from the overbuilt cliffs of the island, in one of its most charming towns, Oia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Finally the captain agreed, and after a while I was standing outside, in the crisp sea air, with the rope strongly tied around my waist and firmly attached to the side of the jumping on the waves ferry. The gusts of wind were hitting me with all its force and blowing up the folds of my long and light skirt. The rough sea kept splashing over my face again and again, leaving flecks of salt on my skin and in the long locks of hair, dancing in the breeze.

When we finally got to the port of Santorini, the storm ceased. The sun shone and the earth emanated with an usual peace, as if black clouds never appeared in this area. However, it is known that this volcanic island in particular has experienced the wrath of nature. There was always something happening in Santorini, known in Greek as Thera, and the face of the island has been shaped in equal measure by people and nature (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45).

Oia town (or a village, as some call it) is on the northwest coast of Santorini and it is built on the caldera slope. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“As its own archipelago, Santorini encompasses the islands of Thíra, Thirassiá, Asproníssi, Palea Kaméni and Nea Kaméni, which all lie in the southern part of the Cyclades, and are the result of [ancient] volcanic activity” (“Cyclades” 2021). Five thousand years ago, there was a thriving center of Minoan civilization on the archipelago (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). In mid-two thousand BC., a volcano erupted on Thera, or in fact the entire island blew out, as it had grown out of a volcano (Ibid.:45; see: When Gods Turned against the Minoans). The volcanic eruption destroyed everything, not only the island itself and its closest area, but also had a negative impact on the entire world of that time, including the Minoan culture, for which the volcanic eruption was the beginning of the end (Ibid.:45). The volcano itself collapsed into the abyss of the sea but it did not disappear (Ibid.:45).

After the volcanic eruption, the circular shape of the island of Thera had been shaped into a semi-circular crescent, which is clearly visible in the aerial photo taken from the plane. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After volcanologists monitoring the island, the volcano is going to be reborn and will erupt again in the future (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The trace of those dramatic events not only changed the shape of the island, looking now like a crescent, but also made one of the largest calderas in the world, that is to say. the collapsed crater flooded by the waters of the sea (Ibid.:45). It is naturally still active, which may be felt by microseismic activity. At that time, it is possible to observe rings forming on the water. While staying on Satorini, I noticed it once in the morning, while I was reaching for a glass of water on my table. Such a phenomenon is not usually dangerous and does not last long.

On the white roofs of Oia; ts beauty is unprecedented. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the port, my friend was still recovering from the seasickness. Surely, I did not look too good either; I was covered from head to toe with flecks of sea salt, and my hair for the same reason formed a kind of stiff and disheveled basket on my head. Additionally, it turned out that the car sent by the hotel did not show up to pick us up from the port. Fortunately, several taxis and buses were waiting for the visitors, and one of the drivers offered to take two emaciated travelers, because our hotel was on his way. He did not take a cent from us. It was probably because we looked like two poor relatives who had managed to finally save enough to go on holidays.

Towns and villages on Santorini are all like taken from postcards. The town of Pyrgos, built at the foot of Mount Profitis Ilias and in the center of hinterland, is one of the hidden gems of Santorini. Life there seems slower and more relaxing. It is also a fantastic place for taking beautiful pictures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The towns and villages of the main island are trully picturesque: the former capital of Santorini, Pyrgos, inland (the city’s name sounds almost like my surname, and so my origins may be possibly traced to Greece), seaside Oia in the north or Fira, the charming capital of the island (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). Although Pyrgos is situated almost in the central island, like most towns on Santorini, it is built up the hill so it is still possible to observe the sea from its highest parts.

Among other things, Oia and Fira are famous for the fact that their buildings descend along the steep shore built by the volcanic eruption almost to the surface of the sea (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The buildings of the insular towns look like cubist paintings hung on the deep blue canvas of the sea and the sky (Ibid.:45). The landscape is composed of bright, regular blocks of houses and countless outbuildings, blue domed roofs, miniature terraces, stairs, steps, squares and streets (Ibid.:45). And all this is clustered on small areas, around the hills or cliffs, as if glued together (Ibid.:45). In this picturesque maze, holidaymakers can wander for hours, stepping into tiny galleries, museums, jewelry stores, boutiques and romantic cafes or wine bars (Ibid.:45). The white dry wine produced in Santorini tastes especially good, which is usually chosen by food connoisseurs to go with seafood dishes (Ibid.:45). On the other side, lunch or dinner in a tavern on the cliff, overlooking the endless blue of the sea with the spots of scattered islands, is a pure pleasure (Ibid.:45).

Early forms of the Cycladic idols in the form of a violin. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera, Fira. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
One of a typical female idols of the Cycladic culture in the Archaeological Museum of Thera, Fira. It represents a possibly pregnant woman with her arms under the breast. The features of the face are invisible. The most intriguing is an oval and elongated head. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From the south of the island, where we were staying, we drove to Fira by a hired car, where we got after a quarter of an hour. Actually, it is a very tiny island. First, we went to the port hugged to the rock face, and from there we climbed to the top of the two hundred meter volcanic cliff on which the city was built (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). You can get there on the back of a donkey or on foot along the paved path, as we did (Ibid.:45). The two must-see sights in Fira were definitely the Archaeological Museum of Thera and the Museum of Prehistoric Thira. While most of the Minoan frescoes excavated in Akrotiri (the Minoan town destroyed by the volcano) are preserved by the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, they two also boast impressive collections of artifacts found on the island throughout its cultural development, starting from Prehistory. Apart from being one of the center (or an important colony) of the Minoan civilization, the island also housed the so-called Cycladic culture, having developed around the third millennium BC. (the period of Late Neolithic and Bronze Age). Its main objects of art are Cycladic marble figurines, also known as Cycladic idols.

Group of three figurines, early Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II). Photo by Smial (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Idols are objects of art typical of various prehistoric and ancient cultures, particularly from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, such as figurines of Venus, various representations of Neolithic goddesses, like the Cypriot Idol of Pomos, or more abstract depictions, including bronze discs from Cappadocia (PWN 2007:156). Most outstanding idols, however, come from the Cycladic culture in the Aegean Sea (Ibid.:156). The turn of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age is a period of rapid development of settlement, trade and many other areas of life (Rutkowski 2009:7). During this period, the most interesting art depicting idols, apart from Crete, comes from the Cycladic islands, whose influences also reached the Minoan civilization (Ibid.:7). The Cyclades belonged in the Bronze Age (from 3000 BC.) to the circle of Aegean cultures (Barucki et al. 2009:170). They constitute the Aegean archipelago of thirty-one islands around the sacred island of Delos, where Apollo and Artemis were born. Hence their name ‘cyclic’ (“Cyclades” 2020).

The largest Cycladic island of all is Naxos, Apart from them, there are also Syros, Santorini, Mykonos, Amorgos, Paros and Antiparos (“Cyclades” 2020). The residential buildings on the Cyclades, except for Thera, are poorly known (Barucki et al. 2009:170). Moreover, the art having developed there was, in comparison to Crete and mainland Greece, of a peripheral character, and many of their products refer to the Minoan art and its famous frescoes (Ibid.:170). In addition to the Minoan Thera, valuable frescoes have been also found on Melos (Filakopi) (Ibid.:170). On the other side, the Cyclades equally produced original and unique of the archipelago works of art, with which this region of the world is now clearly associated (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9).

Together with my friend, who is a historian of art, we came to the island of Santorini to continue our research on the Minoan culture, which we had alrady started on Crete. Our aim was thus to describe the archaeological site of Akrotiri and Minoan artifacts exhibited by the museums in Fira. Nevertheless, the Cycladic culture seemed to me equally attracting. It developed into successive phases, from the Late Neolithic, throughout the Bronze Age, till circa 1050 BC., and although it is slightly older, the Cycladic culture stays in part chronologically parallel to the Minoan civilisation (3000-1100BC), The Cycladic art flourished north of Crete and for me the archipelago of Santorini constituted a symbolical gateway to the islands’ cycle.

On numerous and usually tiny Cycladic islands, small human figures were massively carved; they usually do not exceed a dozen or so centimetres in height (Rutkowski 2009:7). They were made of clay or stone, but most often of snow-white marble, as in the Cyclades (Paros, Naxos) there are deposits of precious marble, from which vases and figurines were made (Barucki et al. 2009:170). While the Cycladic ceramics usually imitated the forms of stone vessels and statuettes (Ibid.:170).

Head of a female figure, Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II, 2700–2300 BCE; Louvre). Photo by Unknown artist – Jastrow (2006). Public domain. Image cropped and sharpened. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Cycladic art, the earliest methods of shaping the human figure were limited to the simplest forms, and it was only from those models that the larger plastic compositions developed (Majewski 1935:23). A characteristic early type is composed by the so-called violin idols (Ibid.:25). They have a long neck, a circular part of the arms, and the lower part modelled in the form of a semicircle by a curved waistline (Ibid.:25). By these means, such figurines resemble the shape of a violin, or, as it is also noticed, the outlines of the island of Cyprus. Such examples are also preserved by the museums of Fira,

Other Cycladic idols mostly illustrate highly simplified but still naturalistic figurative representations; they usually show naked women, also pregnant, with arms folded at the waist level, above the belly, or under their breast, like in the case of a marble female figurine from the island of Paros, preserved by the Museum of Louvre in Paris, France (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). It represents a standing woman with arms folded under her breasts, whose body is characterized by a compact form and a synthesizing interpretation of anatomical details, such as the geometric outline of the breast, resembling two pyramids, and the pubic triangle (Rutkowski 2009:9).

A spectacular panoramic view with the blue domes of the churches, the shore of the main island, the deep caldera and small isles of the archipelago in the distance. The photo was taken from the top of the hill encrusted with the village of Pyrgos in the central part of the island of Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Generally, figurines are built on the principle of geometrical parts of the body, usually with an elongated almond-shaped head or one in the form of an upside down triangle, a small, almost rectangular body and usually joined (early examples) or separate legs (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). This is a style that is generally defined as the tendency to synthesize human forms (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). The Polish researcher, the author of the first monograph on Cycladic art, Kazimierz Majewski (1935), supposes that the mutual relationship of individual parts of the body, i.e. the head, torso and legs, testifies to the application of almost mathematical rules by artists creating these works of fine art (Rutkowski 2009:7,9).

Although only a few figures have traces of polychrome, it is assumed that the natural white surface of the stone, especially the face, was usually enlivened with elements painted with a thick contour line in red; thus the outlines of the eyes and mouth were made (Rutkowski 2009:8-9; Barucki et al. 2009:170). Such a technique may have been also applied to a marble figurine from the Late Bronze Age, found on the island of Amorgos, now in the Museum of Louvre, in Paris (Rutkowski 2009:8). It possibly represents a female head; its schematic almond shape is only identified by an elongated nose (Ibid.:8). The lack of facial features without being underlined by paint gives the sculpture a rather raw expression (Ibid.:8).

It is believed that Cycladic idols may have been related to the sepulchral practices prevailing on the islands, as most of the statuettes come from graves, characteristic of the archipelago, namely of box, tolos and chamber types (Rutkowski 2009:9; Barucki et al. 2009:170).

Pyrgos is the largest and the well-preserved medieval settlement on Santorini, though almost completely omitted by tourists. Thanks to that, the atmosphere in Pyrgos is truly idyllique. This is also why the town offers almost empty mazes of blue-white narrow streets and lanes, sometimes leading under low and long passages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The figurines placed in the graves of the dead were usually small (Rutkowski 2009:9). However, the Cycladic artist did not abstain from making large human (female) heads and statues reaching a height of about one and a half meters (Ibid.:8-9). Some researchers believe that such large figures were placed in holy places dedicated to the cults of nature deities (Ibid.:9).

The best-known examples of Cycladic art also include male figurines depicting warriors or characters playing musical instruments (Rutkowski 2009:9). The latter group, including the figure of the Harpist of Keos, are distinguished by a much greater degree of detail in their form and equipment (Rutkowski 2009:9;Barucki et al. 2009:170). There are also some examples with visible facial features, like eyes and a mouth, and even few elements of clothes, such as necklaces.

Cycladic idols, of the FAF type below, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by I, Sailko (2008). CC BY 2.5. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

During the period of the greatest development of this type of art, that is, in the third millennium BC. there were many workshops, and the stylistic differences between the statuettes make it possible to distinguish artistic individualists, which are referred to by convention, for example, by the name of private collections (Rutkowski 2009:9). The contemporary interest in Cycladic art is evidenced by the fact that a museum has been established in Athens (opened in October 2019), the core of which is the collection of N.P. Goulandris, collecting mainly figurines of Cycladic masters (Ibid.:9). But the admiration for this field of fine arts dates back to the time when in the early twentieth century, artists such as Pablo Picasso or Hans Arp looked for inspiration to express the ‘new’ in form, yet modeled on the works of primitive and ancient art, in which there was a tendency of synthesizing natural forms (Ibid.:9). Thus, in the art of the early Bronze Age, there were achievements that are still valid and admired to this day (Ibid.:9).

We still travelled around Santorini, enjoying its natural though dangerous beauty, which for ages has ideally mingled with the manmade constructions, scattered around the island. Leaving the coast behind, we headed off towards the centre of the island with its charming town, Pyrgos. At each step, apart from numerous traces left by the Minoans, there were tell-tales of the white marble idols. Sometimes, a copy of some sculpture was crouching in front of the door of somebody’s house, another time the idols were sold in souvenir shops for tourists. They all keep welcoming and inviting deeper inside their sacred cyclic kingdom of the tiny islands, dancing on the turquoise waves of the Aegean Sea. … And I have accepted their invitation.

The village of Oia is carved out of Santorini post-volcanic cliffs. From up the roof, I could see the panorama of the deep blue Aegean Sea with the visible shores of the caldera, dotted with tiny islands. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: In the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland


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Barucki T. et al. (2009). “Cykladzka sztuka”. In: Sztuka świata. Leksykon A-K, tom 12. [Historia del Arte, vol. 12]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Chabińska-Ilchanka, E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015) Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

Majewski K. (1935). “Figuralna plastyka cykladzka. Geneza i rozwój form”. In: Archiwum Towarzystwa Naukowego we Lwowie, Section I, Volume VI, Book 3. Drukarnia Naukowa we Lwowie.

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 156. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Rutkowski B. (2009). “Sztuka mykeńska i minojska”. In: Sztuka świata, tom. 2 [Historia del Arte, vol. 2]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Twelve (Uncovered) Consecration Crosses, Each for One Apostle

In the Catholic Church, referred to as crosses or apostolic candlesticks. Usually they are in the form of a block, tiles with a symbolic cross, are painted or carved into the wall. A single-arm candlestick or lamp is placed under them. Their number, twelve in total, symbolically refers to the Twelve Apostles. They are located on the walls of the main nave to mark the twelve places of consecration of the church. After the Second Vatican Council, the number of anointed places in in church was reduced to four. However, the anointing of the church in twelve places has not been forbidden. Candlesticks are lit on the anniversary of the church’s dedication.

The custom itself comes from the Old Gallic liturgy (France from the fifth century to the tenth century). The Polish name comes from the biblical name Zacchaeus (hence Zacheuszki), who received Jesus Christ in his home.

Featured image: The so-called in Polish Zacchaeus in the form of a cross in the wooden Gothic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Borek in Tarnów (Poland). Photo by J. Błaż (2008). Public domain. Image cropped; colours intensified. Photo source: “Zacheuszki” (2018). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.


“Zacheuszek” (2018). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd February, 2021].

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PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 447. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

On the Road from Lycia to Ancient Caunus in Caria.

Saklikent Gorge in Lycian Turkey turned out to be just the beginning of water attractions on our holidays (see:). Many more were waiting for us just at the threshold to another ancient region of Anatolia, which is known as Caria.

Through the gateway to Caria. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Mud baths, Turtle Beach and ancient ruins

One day we travelled from Fethiye for a river cruise to Turtle Beach (Iztuzu Beach), which is situated on the Dalyan coast, already outside the historic Lycia. The natural beauty of the Dalyan delta belongs to another region, which is known as Caria. Nevertheless, various meanders of history leave monuments outside their home country, as it happened in the case of Lycian tombs, scattered also in neighbouring Caria. One of the greatest ancient cities of that region, Caunus (modern area of Dalyan), which was populated by the nation that did not have either the Lycian or Carian origins, witnessed a changeable history of the both countries, and once even found itself within the Lycian borders (see Bean, v.3 1989:142-145). As such the region equally absorbed the way of designing contemporary sepulchral architecture, typical of Lycia but having been strongly influenced by Greece. And although today the Caunus tombs are a well-known tourist attraction, the region of Caria is mostly famous for another tomb belonging to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient Word (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:14-15). It was the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), which while was built by Carians, it mostly adopted a Hellenized architectural style (Ibid.:14-15). Unfortunately, it was eventually destroyed during the Middle Ages in earthquakes (Ibid.:14-15).

Most common way to admire the Lycian tombs in Caunus today is to take a boat cruise along the Dalyan River. Like most Lycian tombs (temple and house-tombs), those in Caunus are also carved high in the rock and there is, of course, a possibility to climb up the cliff and examine the tombs closer. Yet, as I was accompanied by less ambitious researchers, I had to limit my curiosity of the monuments to their observation from the River. On the other side, the most important must see (or rather do) for my companions was to plunge in the mud and thermal springs, sunbath on one of the most beautiful beaches in Turkey, the Turtle Beach, and – as its name suggests, look there for sea turtles.

Among celebrities taking a bath in the mud

First the boat took us to the mud and sulfur pools, which are known to give a beautifying effect on the skin (Kaynak 2021). They are situated on the far side of Köyceğiz Lake and attract loads of tourists posing in front of a camera after getting into the mud (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, Dalyan’s mud baths have always been very popular, also among modern Hollywood celebrities (Ibid.). It is even believed that Cleopatra herself would have travelled there to take pleasure by mud bathing (Ibid.), supposedly when she was bored with swimming in milk. Actually, it may not have necessarily been that Cleopatra (there were other ladies bearing the same name in history of the region). Still, it is a prefect advertisement for the site as the Spa for famous queens, especially those known in history for their beauty and sexual appeal. Following Cleopatra’s example, we also covered ourselves in soft and sticky liquid earth, and while waiting for it to dry in the sun, we kept taking photos. It was equally fun to plunge in one of the sulphur pools of a temperature of around forty degrees to clean from the mud (Ibid.). Such a bath, although very pleasant for skin, is not definitely perfect for your nose. It smells just like rotten eggs!

Finally, we were ready to re-take our trip by the River Dalyan; it flew us further along its winding route from Lake Köyceğiz to Dalyan Village, offering on the way a scenic views of pine-clad valleys, its various wildlife and white, rocky cliffs suspended above with the ancient ruins of the Lycian tombs.

Through the gateway to Caria

Before pouring into the Mediterranean Sea, the River brought us to the place from where a rocky cliff rises. It is clustered with the most eye-catching feature of the site: the rock-cut tombs of the ancient city of Caunus (Bean, v.3 1989:146). The city itself is located nearby the necropolis, with its acropolis on the notable crag, south of the rows of the tombs (Ibid.:146-148).

Long walls of Caunus are still visible and impressive; they stretched once from its ancient harbour, which is now a small lake, high up above the river to the precipice of the cliff (Bean, v.3 1989:140-141, 147-148). The site is now over three kilometres from the sea and so accumulated ground is not firm but composed of some soil held by reeds (Ibid.:139-140, 145). It in turn makes a vivid impression as if the solid cliff was floating on a green carpet, unrolled by the river. The ruins are most easily reached by land, passing by a modern Village of Dalyan (Ibid.:146). It is also possible to get there by boat from Köyceğiz Lake (Ibid.:146) but, unfortunately, it was not included in our itinerary.

The tombs seen from Dalyan River

When we were approaching in our boat to the site, I instinctively I pulled out my camera and took some photos of a series of temple-tombs emerging from above the river’s reeds. Then I zoomed the view out, which turned out to be extremely helpful from our position on the River, and then I looked closely at the monuments’ details.

Before pouring into the Mediterranean Sea, the River brought us to the place from where a rocky cliff rises. It is clustered with the most eye-catching feature of the site: the rock-cut tombs of the ancient city of Caunus. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The tombs are carved in two uneven rows, of which the upper one is composed of typical Lycian temple-tombs and the lower features much simpler and randomly distributed chambers with squared openings (Bean, v.3 1989:146-147). Like in the case of the tombs in Telmessus (Fethiye) or Tlos, some of the monuments, especially the upper ones with a stone passage cut around them, can be reached easier; whereas those in the row below are less accessible (Ibid.:147). I could notice six temple-tombs on the whole but such a number is only included within the first of the five tomb clusters of Caunus that we had just approached on the boat (Ibid.:147-148).

The tombs are carved in two uneven rows, of which the upper one is composed of typical Lycian temple-tombs and the lower features much simpler and randomly distributed chambers with squared openings. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The four of them, located on the western side of the cliff, barely compose a separate group (Bean, v.3 1989:147). They all  have in their façade two Ionic columns in antis, which are now in most cases partly broken away, and a dentil frieze with a usually undecorated pediment above, featuring acroteria at each of its three corners (Ibid.:147). Only one of the four pediments is carved with reliefs, representing two lions facing each other from the two opposite sides of the fronton (Ibid.:147), nearly with the same refinement as the pair of animals from the Lion Gate in Mycenae (southern Greece). Of course, I could not discern those from below but I rely here on a description by an archaeologist I often refer to in this article, George E. Bean (v.3 1989:146-148).

Such tombs have been dated back to the fourth century B.C., as much as the temple-tombs in Lycia (Bean, v.3 1989:147). Bean (1989:147) also writes that behind the façade of each tomb, there is only a single small funerary chamber, typically with three stone benches for the deposition of the corpses. The three of the tombs also bear inscriptions; although some include Carian words suggesting they are original, other writing is of a later date and so it indicates a re-use of the tombs by the Romans (Ibid.:147). What is more, two of the inscriptions on adjacent tombs claim them for the same three dead (Ibid.:147).

Unfinished tomb

Looking eastwards of the group of the described tombs, there is another one composed of two more monuments carved in the rock, one of which is slightly protruding forwards, against the previous four tombs (Bean, v.3 1989:147). Actually, that group, which is situated closest to Dalyan Village, had grabbed my attention first, especially the tomb on the left side (Ibid.:147). It was not only because it is the most impressive in size of all but also due to the fact it has remained visibly unfinished (Ibid.:147).

By these means, it also helps to understand how such tombs were once constructed, or rather cut out from the rockface (Bean, v.3 1989:147). While the upper parts of it, including the roof with the pediment and the frieze are almost completely carved out, the outlines of the upper shafts of the four columns in antis, together with their capitals, are still imprisoned in squared block of the rock and so look more like pilasters than columns (Ibid.:147). Then, the lower, the less notable is the progress of works; below the upper parts of the columns, the construction is just limited to smoothing and polishing the rockface (Ibid.:147). Accordingly, as it is mentioned above, carving such tombs out of the rock proceeded from up down (Bean, v.3 1989:147; Ching et al. 2010:173). Simultaneously, a much smaller tomb, hidden below in the rock on the right-side of the unfinished monument, is more similar to those from the previous group but far more disfigured, being almost completely deprived of both, its portico or the left part of the roof.

Carian type

Finally, as our boat was slowly moving forward, I noticed another group located a few metres away west from the previous one. It is also composed of less or more preserved smaller temple-tombs above some squared or round openings, looking like pigeon holes (Bean, v.3 1989:147).

At that moment, our boat unfortunately turned away from the soaring cliff with the tombs, heading off to the sea. Although I could not see more the rock-cut monuments from the distance, I know that there are two more clusters of similar type along the cliff-face, and at the most western point of the series, there is a group of tombs, whose style unexpectedly change (Bean, v.3 1989:147). They are called Carian type of tombs and they look like grave-pits cut deep into the solid rock and covered with separate and heavy lids (Ibid.:147). Additionally, they are provided with a group of tiny niches, where votive offerings for the dead were once deposed (Ibid.:147).

Who were the Caunians?

History of the city of Caunus and its inhabitants is as complicated as the described above story of Lycia. Herodotus writes that it was thought the Caunians, like the Lycians, had originated from Crete (Bean, v.3 1989:142). Yet, the ancient historian denies such a belief, claiming they must have been indigenous to their land (Ibid.:142). Judging from their unusual customs and language, which was assimilated to Carian or the other way round, Herodotus strongly differentiates Caunians from both, the Carians and Lycians (Ibid.:142). Simultaneously, Herodotus records that ‘the Caunians imitated the Lycians for the most part’, especially in the way they faced their city’s invaders and fought for freedom (Ibid.:142).

A deep river Calbis (modern-day Dalyan River) probably held the acropolis at its mouth. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From preserved, though fragmentary records, it is also known that in the Lycian city of Xanthus, there was apparently a cult of a legendary king Caunus, the son of Miletus, who was believed to have founded the city of his name, and although he is said today to be just a fictious character, a memory of such a king had lasted in Caunus till the Roman times Crete (Bean, v.3 1989:142). Simultaneously, the triangular stele from Xanthus says that the Lycians from the city and its surroundings built an altar dedicated to the hero, approximately, in the fourth century BC. (Ibid.:142). Another trace of the hero-king, memory of whom is now covered by the ancient ruins, is the proverbial expression of a ‘Caunian love’, apparently coined in memory of a sad love story (Ibid.:142). Legend has it that Caunus’ sister, named Byblis, loved his brother so passionately that she hanged herself when he left her (Ibid.:142). In Caria, such incestuous relationships were normal and really happened among the royal families in Caria, as much as in other countries of the ancient world. Unfortunately, today it is little known about the hero, whose name is not either mentioned too often by scholars, studying the region (Ibid.:142). Is it Caunus’ punishment for having rejected the woman in love?

How mosquitos made Caunus unpopular

Even though, the sea stretched to the land in antiquity, there still were large areas of marshes, which made the region known as highly unhealthy due to recurring malaria (Bean, v.3 1989:139-140). At the same time, the land of Caunus was very fruitful and bore various fruits, such as figs, which were broadly famous in those days (Ibid.:140). Surely, the Caunians had their fishery as it existed not so long ago opposite the modern Village of Dalyan (Ibid.:141).

Strabo writes the city had got its harbour closed with a chain and dockyards (Bean, v.3 1989::140). Gracefully flowing by, a deep river Calbis (modern-day Dalyan River) probably held the acropolis at its mouth (Ibid.:140-141). According to the records, the River was also provided with a navigable channel from (Köyceğiz) Lake towards the sea (Ibid.:140-141). High above, on the crag, the fort Imbrus was constructed (Ibid.:140-141). Such a description can be easily identified with the modern region of Dalyan, though its landscape has definitely changed throughout ages (Ibid.:140-141). 

Making long history short

In ancient times, Caunus was described as a Carian city, despite its ethnic and cultural distinctions (Bean, v.3 1989:141-142). In the sixth century BC.. the Persian army invaded Lycia and Caria, including Caunus (Ibid.:142). In the following century, after the failure of the Persian invasion of Greece, Caunus was included in the Delian Confederacy (Ibid.:142-143). Following the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC.), in 387 BC., the coast with Caunus fell again under the domination of the Achaemenid Empire (Ibid.:143). At that time, Caria was ruled by a Persian satrap but a native descendant of Caria rulers, Mausolus (377–353 BC), whose policy made the region strongly Hellenized (Ibid.:143). It was also him, who initiated the project of one of famous constructions, known later as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:14-15). Namely, it was the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus, also called after Mausolus, the Mausoleum. It was built between 353 and 350 BC. and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of earthquakes, between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries (Ibid.:14-15). Nevertheless, its name has survived as a present-day term describing an impressive building housing a tomb, a mausoleum (Ibid.:14-15).

Beautiful views offered by a trip by boat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Coming back to Caunus, during Alexander the Great’s campaign in 334 BC. together with the whole region it was possibly handed over to Ada of Caria, a sister and a successor of Mausolus (Bean, v.3 1989:143; see: Weapons and Warfare 2018).  After Alexander’s death (323 BC.), the city continuously changed its rulers among the king’s heirs (Ibid.:143-144). Eventually, around 190 BC., Caunus was bought by the Rhodians from the generals of Ptolemy (Ibid.:144). It just happened one year before Caria and Lycia were also joined to Rhodes by the Romans, as a result of the Battle of Magnesia in 189 BC. (Ibid.:144). Those lands had been the Rhodians’ possession between 189 and 167 BC., until the Province of Asia was established by the Roman Empire in 129 BC. (Ibid.:144). Soon after, Caunus became a part of Lycia but in 85 BC., the Romans gave it back to Rhodes due to the fact Caunus had harshly acted in favour of the opponents of Rome (Ibid.:144).

On the whole, Hellenistic times seemed quite unpredictable; cities and countries were juggled in the hands of the contemporary powers (Bean, v.3 1989:145). The situation had not changed much in the Roman times; accordingly, Caunus was once recorded as a free city, another time as undergoing double servitude to Rome and Rhodes (70 AD.) (Ibid.:144-145). By that time, Caunus had already been a fully Hellenized city, which was likely to have forgotten its Carian origins, although it had never been truly colonised by Greece (Ibid.:143-144). Additionally, the trade of Caunus and of other cities in the region located along the coast, had greatly suffered from the silting process separating the cities from the sea by over three kilometres (Ibid.:145-146). Adding the fact that the city was infamous for its unhealthful location, it did not generally attract visitors’ attention or enjoy popularity among philosophers, who usually accused the Caunians of being foolish and so deserving their misfortunes (Ibid.:139-140,145).

Along the River Dalyan. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Not without a surprise, the situation has entirely changed now; every day, tourists from all over the world come to see the archaeological site, either drawn by a natural beauty of the region, where the sea and river meet or the ruins, nearby which they can take a mud bath. Above all, they all come for the ever-present sun.

Goodbye to Caunus

İztuzu Beach (Turtle Beach) stretches for almost five metres and it is the place where navy blue waves of the Mediterranean meet more turquoise waters of the Aegean. It is situated near Dalyan and for its beauty, it attracts every day great numbers of tourists, who usually enjoy sunbathing and swimming in the warm sea for hours. It is also one of the main areas in the Mediterranean, where loggerhead sea turtles, called Caretta Caretta breed and so there is a chance to encounter them while dragging their shelled bodies on the sand. Personally, I doubted it that turtles would have come out of hiding when there were hordes of people screaming and looking for some to see. Moreover, the species is under a strict protection.

Nevertheless, it was fun to see my little cousins carefully following the turtles’ traces in the sand; knowing they must be very cautious, they patiently kept observing sand holes where the turtles may have laid their eggs. Those, however, had already been abandoned.

After taking a swim in the sea, I was laying in the shadow and looking through the archaeological guide-book I had brought with me for my journey along Lycia and Caria. Its author, the archaeologist George E. Bean helped me to learn about the history of the regions beforehand and understand more about their architecture by comparing his description to what I had found on place. And although I was unable to reach every single corner of each tomb I met on my way, I complemented my own observations with the author’s notes.

The Turtle Beach, where navy blue waves of the Mediterranean meet more turquoise waters of the Aegean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When the sun started getting reddish and the sea waters darkened on the horizon, I knew our stay in Caria was almost over. It was high time to come back to Fethiye. Yet, I was happy I could again see the tombs of Caunus on our way back along the River. And what about you? Do you also enjoy this kind of sepulchral architecture?

Featured image: The remains of ancient Caunus in Dalyan (Caria), with its most distinctive landmarks: Lycian rock-cut tombs encrusting high and steep cliffs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


Bean G. E. (1989). Lycian Turkey. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 4. London: John Murray Publishers.

Bean G. E. (1989). Turkey Beyond the Meander. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 3. London: John Murray Publishers.

Ching F. D.K., Jarzombek M. M., Prakash V. (2010). A Global History of Architecture. USA: Wiley Publishing. The Second Edition.

Kaynak (2021) “Dalyan Mud Baths”. Available at <>. [Accessed on 27th April, 2021].

Starozytne Cywilizacje (2007). “Siedem cudów śwata. Starożytne wspaniałości.” In: Starozytne Cywilizacje. MMX International Masters Publishers AB.

Weapons and Warfare (2018). “Ada of Caria”. In: Weapons and Warfare. History and Hardware of Warfare.

Spire (Helm) – A Slender Tower Crowning the Roof

The top of a tower or the end of a dome or helmet but mainly at the summit of church steeples. A spire is usually in the shape of a very tall, slender and pointed pyramid or cone. It may have a square, circular, or polygonal plan. It is also the slender helmet itself on top of a roof or tower. “Spires are typically built of stonework or brickwork, or else of timber structure with metal cladding, ceramic tiling, shingles, or slates on the exterior”. Brick or stone spires, sometimes openwork, were characteristic of Gothic architecture and they are called pinnacles. In French Gothic, the spire at the transept crossing is much more slender and openwork than the two towers (bell-towers) rising at the western end of a church, or more often a cathedral (region of Île-de-France). Whereas in English Gothic, the spire at the transept crossing is a much more massive steeple (tower) crowned with a spire, as it simultaneously plays the role of a bell-tower (for example, Salisbury cathedral). In the Baroque period, spires were made of copper sheet and were crowned with helmets. Spires are also a characteristic element of Ruthenian and Russian architecture.

The slender and openwork spire at the transept crossing of the cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris (France). It was designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who built a new roof and spire for Notre-Dame in the nineteenth century, after centuries of the cathedral’s negligence. Unfortunately, due to human recklessness, it was destroyed in the cathedral’s fire in 2019. Photo by Karolina Jędzrzejko. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Spire of Salisbury Cathedral (completed 1320) (123 metres with its tower and spire on top). Photo by Antony McCallum (2016). The author is the uploader, photographer, full copyright owner and proprietor of CC BY-SA 4.0. Image cropped; colours intensified. Photo source: “Spire” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


“Spire” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 24th February, 2021].

Koch W. (2009) Style w architekturze. Arcydzieła budownictwa europejskiego od antyku po czasy współczesne. [Baustilkunde], pp. 444, 468, 497. Baraniewski W., Kunkel R., Omilanowska M., Sito J., Zięba A., Żak K. trans. Warszawa: Świat Książki.

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 156. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

The Dancing Parade in the Clouds

The morning light was slowly changing and with it also the aura of the ancient site. The sun was reaching higher, hammering its piercing rays into every corner of the city and the sunlight spilled onto the Main Plaza.

I was slowly walking between crumbling rocks, yet escaping from their still cool shade. I admitted to myself that Monte Alban had already made a huge impression on me. I did not know that it could surprise me even more with anything else. And yet! Wandering around in the vicinity of Building L, at the southeastern edge of the city, I suddenly stumbled upon a strange procession of naked stone creatures of an anthropomorphic shape (see: Hancock 2016:153). They were all carved in relief on a large number of stone monuments, which looked like irregular stelas, some of which were leaning loosely against the wall of the pyramid (Ibid.:153). A strange appearance of the figures intrigued and terrified at once. I was just standing there stupefied while looking at the earliest examples of the so-called Danzantes, standing in front of me. Yet a lot of them were also seen haunting throughout the whole Main Plaza of the city and in the nearby Monte Alban Site Museum (“Monte Albán” 2019).

Who were the Danzantes?

Depiction of a woman whose new born child may have just died or maybe she miscarried when she was pregnant. Was it due to epidemics? Museo de Sitio de Monte Albán. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A vast sophistication of the engineering methods applied, along with the large-scale astronomy built in the city’s layout, indicate that Monte Alban must have been constructed by equally advanced civilization (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Who were they and where did they come from?

Some clues are provided by the mysterious elements I had just encountered at Monte Alban – the Danzantes (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). These “are a series of [300] iconic reliefs featuring strange, morbid, rubbery [and naked] characters that appear to be diseased [or] deformed. Their message, and purpose, is a complete mystery and they are one of the many encrypted messages scattered around the city” (Ibid.). Still their style, along with the physical appearance of depicted characters seem analogous to representations left by the foremost civilization of Mesoamerica, usually called the Olmecs but also known as the Proto-Mayans. Yet the latter name is not fully correct, as at a certain stage, they developed parallel to the Maya (see:).

The Olmecs and Monte Alban

Mysterious on their own, the Olmecs had inhabited the lowlands of south-central Mexico (the present-day coastline of Veracruz and Tabasco states) as early as in 2000 BC and left their homeland roughly around 500 BC, that is around the time of Monte Alban’s beginnings on the stage of Mesoamerican history.

Is it just a coincidence?

Actually, it is theorised that the Olmecs migrated south (for unknown reasons) and established their new city in the Oaxaca Valley (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Moreover, yet before Monte Alban was constructed, the Olmecs and the people of San Jose Mogote were involved in mutual trade, by means of which, the farming community developed later into the Zapotec civilisation, who later became credited with monumental architecture, calendrics and the first known form of writing (Ibid.). One slab in Danzantes‘ style was actually found paved in the corridor at San Jose Magote (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). The building where it was found is dated to between 750 BC and 500 BC, when the community of San Jose Magote was about to disappear (Ibid.). The representation of an anthropomorphic character is accompanied there by two glyphs depicted between its legs, meaning Earth (or Motion) and One (in relation to the first day of a 20-day cycle) (Ibid.).

Artistic representations of the Olmecs, and the Danzantes from Monte Alban share, among all, one striking characteristic; they all depict figures of multiple races, namely Negroid, Asian and Caucasian (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

What is fascinating about this enigmatic civilisation to us modern viewers is how they represented themselves. In addition to [the] Negroid features [of the basalt colossal heads], many artefacts depict individuals who have Oriental or European features. It is therefore very interesting to pay close attention to how the figures are presented – how they dressed; the head gear they wore; the shape of their eyes, nose, ears and mouths; the way they held their hands; and the expressions on their faces. […] Who are these people? Where they isolated villagers or strangers from a faraway land?”

(Childress 2007:14)

The stelae’s representations would accordingly indicate both: solid evidence of an Olmec artistic influence depicted in the stelae of Monte Alban and so an international character of the Olmec civilisation (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

An academic science has found nothing extraordinary in this regard, although archaeologists have estimated that the reliefs are very old and date from between 1000 and 600 BC. As in many other cases of stone slabs and carvings, this time period was established due to an analysis of the organic matter accumulated in the reliefs, and not on the basis of studies of the granite steles themselves, which cannot be objectively dated (Hancock 2016:154). The slabs were either carved at Monte Alban (conceivably not by the Zapotecs) or brought there from the outside (probably by the Olmecs themselves) (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Such an assumption comes from the fact that, except for the single example of a similar piece of art found at San Jose Magote, such representations remain unknown in the Oaxaca Valley.

Slain captives or epidemic victims?

The Danzantes means in Spanish dancers in reference to the figures’ poses as they look as if caught in a dancing movement (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

If they represent members of the Olmec civilization, and the stelae of Monte Alban are its legacy, it must have been a civilization of racial equality. Graham Hancock (2016:153) believes that the proud faces of the enormous heads of the so-called Olmecs from La Venta could not have depicted slaves or the images of slender and bearded men there showed no men with knees bowed to no one; their faces radiate with the dignity of great aristocrats (Ibid.:153).

It seems, however, that in Monte Alban someone has immortalized in stone the story of the Olmecs’ fall. Although the Oaxaca sculptors made portraits of the same civilization whose faces are visible in the Olmec homeland, it is no longer a work of the same character, which is indicated by the incomparably lower level of workmanship of the stelae and the lack of visible strength, power and life force in their iconography that once characterized the Olmecs (Hancock 2016:154). The figures of Monte Alban are naked, some huddled in a fetal position and others stretched limply on the ground, like corpses (Ibid.:154).

Stones of the Dancers, in the Plaza of the Dancers, next to Building L. Photo by Gengiskanhg (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Monte Albán” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After the most prominent theory, the slabs symbolise death of slain captives (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Their closed eyes would actually indicate that they represent the human corpses (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). However, other characteristics, such as their nakedness, deformation of limps, positions displaying possibly an agonising death or the presence of female characters stay against that theory (Ibid.). Robin Heyworth (“Are the Danzantes …” 2014) points out that “with more than 300 anonymous gravestones of sickly looking humans, it would make more sense if they [represent] an epidemic.” Maybe the Olmecs were actually forced to leave their homeland around 500 BC due to some kind of epidemic spreading out and they deliberately abandoned their land for the isolated hilltop, just in the same way as other tribes in the Oaxaca Valley did (Ibid.). Likewise San Jose Magote, which also deserted in around 500 BC) (Ibid.).

Plague and Cloud People

Sitting on one of the blocks of stone crumbling in the center of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

If the Olmecs had been the authors of Monte Alban, they must have chosen that exact site on purpose. Did they look for a shelter against the epidemic, which evidence would be the stelae commemorating people smashed by the disease? (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). In this context the stela from San Jose Magote may have been a warning of the spreading epidemic and the call for evacuation to the hilltop (Ibid.).

Or would Monte Alban be rather an answer to the celestial obsession of its builders and inhabitants? (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). The Olmecs may have been the architects of Monte Alban. However, as discussed above, they passed on their knowledge to the Zapotecs and also strongly influenced their culture. The latter referred to themselves as the Cloud People as they believed that their ancestors (?) descended from the sky and hence they may have used the city to communicate with them through celestial appearances (Ibid.).

Or maybe two of those factors overlapped and eventually resulted in establishing the city.

Here comes the Teotihuacan Culture!

On the other side, there are also theories on strong relations of Monte Alban with the enigmatic Teotihuacan city, especially in the span of the fourth century AD. (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). For instance, it is believed that there was a small community of Zapotecs who inhabited Teotihuacan (Ibid.). On the other side, some later structures of Monte Alban may have been influenced by Teotihuacán architecture or even been dedicated to that city (Ibid.).

The figures of Monte Alban are naked, some huddled in a fetal position and others stretched limply on the ground, like corpses. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Interesting is also the fact that both cities simultaneously held their pivotal role in their regions until their dramatic downfall around the eight century AD. (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Since the origins of people who lived in Teotihuacán are shrouded in mystery (they are just called the Teotihuacan Culture), some authors again recognise the Olmecs as the founders of the city or at least that it was strongly influenced by their culture and architecture (Owen 2000;  Childress 2007:74; Delsol, 2010).

One mystery leads to another

We had already been wandering around the ancient city for two hours, taking notes. The cold had gone away. Now I felt a delicate warmth of sunshine but filled with streams of fresh air. Having climbed down another pyramidal construction, I sat on one of the crumbling blocks of stone. Then I took off my cardigan and put my face out to the sun. ‘What a great feeling to take part in the mystery, yet being so far away from it in time’, I thought.

Today we do not even know how the city was originally called by its architects. Hmm! We do not even know who they actually were: the Olmecs, Zapotecs, aka the Cloud People, the Teotihuacan Culture … ? Moreover, the origins of each of those civilizations themselves still remain unclear! One mystery leads to another …

One mystery leads to another … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet, the legacy of Monte Alban cannot be overestimated. Actually, “much of what we associate with Mesoamerica [today] appears to come from this ancient hilltop sanctuary […] in central Oaxaca” (Strom 2019). It was also in Monte Alban, where archaeologists had found hieroglyphic texts, which have not been deciphered yet (Hancock 2016:154). They are engraved on some of the stelae depicting the various races (Ibid.:154). The researchers considered them to be the oldest writing monuments so far uncovered in Mexico (Ibid.:154). Today, little is known about their authors (Ibid.:154). It is only believed that the people who created Monte Alban were excellent builders and professional astronomers (Ibid.:154).

Featured image: People dying in agony or slain captives? One of mysterious stelas in Monte Alban, representing anthropomorphic figures of intriguing features. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


“Monte Albán” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Childress, H. D. (2007) The Mystery of the Olmecs. Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press.

Delsol, C. (2010) “Olmecs to Toltecs: Great ancient civilizations of Mexico” In: SFGate. Available at <>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Hancock G. (2016) Ślady palców bogów. [Fingerprints of Gods]. Kołodziejczyk G. trans. Warszawa: Amber.

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – Are the Danzantes Evidence for an Epidemic?” In: Uncovered History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – Brief History.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – The Encrypted City.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Owen, B. (2000) “Mesoamerica: Olmecs and Teotihuacan.” In: World Prehistory: Class 17. Available at <>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Strom, C. (2019) “The Zapotecs of Monte Alban – The First Civilization in Western Mexico?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Sabil (or Sebil), a Drinking Fountain in Islamic Cities

In Muslim architectural tradition, a public well or water supply (tap), sometimes with a fountain. When it is to provide water for drinking, the sabil is rarely a free-standing construction, usually a part of a larger building, and sometimes the part with a fountain forms an alcove in the wall. “[Water from the sabil] has freely been dispensed to members of the public either by an attendant behind a grilled window” (“Sebil (fountain)” 2020) or by a tap for drinking.

As water reservoirs, “sebils are structures of both civic and religious importance in [Islamic] cities; [they] were built at crossroads, in the middle of city squares, and on the outside of mosques and other religious complexes to provide drinking water for travelers and to assist ritual purification (ablutions) before prayer” (“Sebil (fountain)” 2020). As such they were usually free standing and overbuilt with richly decorated architectural structures.

Featured image: The sabil in the courtyard (sahn) of the mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo. It serves a ritual purification (ablutions) before prayer. Photo by Sailko (2016). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.


“Sebil (fountain)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd February, 2021].

Photo: The sabil in the courtyard (sahn) of the mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo. Photo by Sailko (2016). CC BY-SA 3.0. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 369. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History

In my head I could still hear the noise of the airport, a commotion and rush at the customs control and at baggage claim, when I suddenly fell into the arms of tropical scenery, with its heavenly peace and tranquility given by the sound of the river and the whisper of huge leaves swaying in the wind. Hidden in the shadow of the tall boughs on the shore, I lazily observed a bright sunlight pouring profusely over the river and a group of elephants frolicking in it.

At first, I could not believe that I had become part of this picturesque image: in the background of a dense curtain of tall palm trees and thick creepers protruding from green ficuses and their trunks, heavily wrinkled bulks of elephants were wading in the silvery water of the river. Some turned over and poured water on each other, using their long trunks like watering cans.

Rhapsody for an elephant

Elephants have always been a very important national element of Sri Lanka and as such these animals have become part of the folklore and leading characters of Southeast Asian legends. Throughout ages, men in Asia have taken numerous advantages of elephants’ strength to create massive constructions, using the animals not only for dragging heavy loads and their transportation but also for military purposes. The aforementioned king of Sigiriya, Kashyapa (also Kassapa), was to take part in his last fight also on the back of an elephant (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana).

Especially the white elephant with long tusks has always been of a great importance to both, Hinduism and Buddhism, where, as tradition says, it serves either as a mount for the Hindu god, Indra, or appears in a dream of the mother of Gautama Buddha, just before he is conceived. The white elephant is an equally significant symbol of the royal power in Sri Lanka. During the processions of religious festivals in Kandy, the king’s white elephants have driven a reliquary with the most venerated there a Buddhist relic, namely, the famous Buddha Tooth preserved to our times, and brought to the island in the fourth century AD. by Mahinda’s sister, Sanghamitta. The same relic had previously been also preserved in another ancient capital of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa, where it was possibly housed in the shrine of Hatadage.

Tired after the journey in the cramped seat of the plane, I was laying on the steps of the stairs leading down to the river, and I was watching a wonderful spectacle of playing elephants as if I had been in a daydream. But such a sweet laziness could not last forever. And after a short break in Pinnawala, a famous elephant orphanage on the island, we finally set off on the way to meet archaeology of one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.

Gateway to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was first designed as a country residence before it became the successive capital of the Sinhalese kings, after the destruction of the former royal centre in Anuradhapura, in 993 AD. (UNESCO 2021; Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005).

In the foreground of the remnants of the Palace of the kings of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Actually, Polonnaruwa was designated as a capital by the Chola dynasty, who abandoned the previous one in Anuradhapura for strategical reasons (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). In 1070 AD., it was, however, overtaken by Sinhalese kings who kept Polonnaruwa as their capital (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). As a matter of fact, it was during the Sinhalese rule when the city’s glory reached its peak (Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). Among the greatest kings of that period was the second king who ruled the capital, namely King Parakramabahu the First, whereas the third one, the King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196) eventually led the kingdom to bankruptcy and so, in the early thirteenth century, the glory of Polonnaruwa had ceased (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). Finally, it was abandoned, and the Sinhalese capital was moved to the western side of the island, to the city of Kandy, which became the very last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

Part of the Cultural Heritage Triangle of Sri Lanka

Together with two other historical capitals, Anuradhapura and Kandy, the city of Polonnaruwa creates one of the three angles of the pyramid-shaped graphic sign of the Cultural Heritage Triangle of Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana). As an archaeological and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Polonnaruwa comprises numerous monuments of different periods and functions; besides the Brahman ruins of the Cholas rule, from between the tenth and eleventh centuries, there are picturesque remnants of abundant Sinhalese constructions, built between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including a famous king’s, Parakramabahu the First, magnificent garden-city (UNESCO 2021; Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

Unknown building among royal and sacred edifices

Almost all the constructions in the area of Polonnaruwa are historically recorded (Mohan 2019). Apart from earlier temples dedicated to Hindu gods, there are mostly secular buildings, like the Royal Palace and the Audience Hall, and Buddhist shrines, most famous of which are Dalada Maluva, including the Sacred Quadrangle with the unique Vatadage (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020), “where the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha was housed” (Bell 1903:14-15 in: Manatunga 2009:2004), Lankatilaka Vihara and Gal Vihara (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

The Satmahal Prasada in Polonaruwa. The only feature that may give some insight into the origins of Sathmahal Prasada are sculpted statues. Nevertheless, their identity has been disfigured by intentional destruction. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Photo by Bernard Gagnon (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Satmahal Prasada” (2021). Photo source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, there is no account of a pyramidal-like stepped edifice situated in an elevated area, which is generally perceived as the most mysterious structure of all in the whole ancient city and sometimes the only ancient pyramid in Sri Lanka (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:2004; Lapkura 2021).

Named as Sathmahal Prasada

The structure has been named in modern times as Sathmahal Prasada, which literally means a seven-storey building (Mohan 2019). It is located in the proximity of the Vatadage and so it is included within the Buddhist complex of Dalada Maluva (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). This is why Anura Manatunga (2009:204) thinks it was also build for religious purposes  as other constructions on site. For this reason, Sathmahal Prasada is believed to have served as a stupa, built in the proximity of other prominent Buddhist ruins such as stupas and monasteries of Polonnaruwa (Lapkura 2021).

As much as the Quadrangle may have played the role of the most important royal monastery of Sinhalese kings ruling in the city, Sathmahal Prasada must have had a very significant function as well (Manatunga 2009:204). Yet, the pyramid may not have belonged to the Buddhist complex originally (Mohan 2019). And as Anura Manatunga (2009:204) admits the construction “is still unidentified and remains an ambiguous monument [as] we cannot [pinpoint its] builder, purpose or even the ancient name of the building”.

Accordingly, experts do not know who built it or why it was built (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:204; Lapkura 2021). Its original name is equally lost in history (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:204). As such, it can be described only by means of its appearance and it actually resembles a stepped pyramid with entrances on all four sides (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). Moreover, it is also one of no more than four other ancient constructions on the island with square bases, providing that the others are all older religious ruins in Anuradhapura, most of which are damaged (Lapkura 2021). It is equally worth mentioning that none of the three structures reveal any signs of having been pyramids and all appear to have been rather squat in their shape (Ibid.).

Origins shrouded in mystery

Due to its growing mystery, Sathmahal Prasada has continuously provoked some new theories and scholars’ guesses concerning its provenience and function (Manatunga 2009:204-205). For example, Don Martino de Zilva Wickremasinghe (1865–1937), an epigraphist and archaeologist of Sri Lanka, speculates (1928:92-93) that it may have been once a palace, as much as it is claimed today about the function of the construction on top of the Rock of Sigiriya (Ibid.:204). The scholar based his theory on the fact that epigraphical sources say that one of the most famous kings of Polonnaruwa, Nissanka Malla (1187- 1196) had built a seven-storey palace for himself (Ibid.:204). Nevertheless, unlike in the case of the so-called ‘Palace’ on top of Sigiriya, academics commonly agreed that “the solid tower-like building [of Sathmahal Prasada] is not habitable and, therefore, cannot be residential building” (Ibid.:204).

Another symbolic representation of the Mount Meru in the shape of a pyramid

Most relevant of all seems to be a suggestion made by Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), a Sri Lankan Tamil metaphysician, pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, who proposed  (1965:165) that Sathmahal Prasada actually represented the mythical Mount Meru, as much as many other examples of sacred architecture in Southeast Asia and in India (Manatunga 2009:204). Some alternative authors even claim it has similarities with pyramidal architecture, created by contemporary oversea cultures (Lapkura 2021).

A Buddhist monk passing by Sathmahal Prasada, in Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Harry Charles Purvis Bell (1851-1937), who was the first Commissioner of Archaeology in Ceylon, describes Sathmahal Prasada in his Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey 1903, 1906, and 1910 (2009:14) as “a solid brick structure with seven storeys that diminished in width and height stage by stage” (Manatunga 2009:204). And although he does not directly call it a pyramid, his narrative undoubtedly identifies it as a pyramidal structure. HCP Bell (1903:14) also adds  that “[the] top of the building has collapsed but it is still high, at 53 feet, [which is over 16 metres. And] at the ground level it is a 39 [feet] 2 inches square building, [that is, almost 12 metres]” (Ibid.:204).

Southeast Asian affinities

In terms of the construction’s origins, Anura Manatunga (2009:204) claims that Sathmahal Prasada, together with Gal Vihara statues and Pothgul Vehera, shows more likely Southeast Asian affinities. Her theory is also supported by earlier authorities (Ibid.:204-205). Reginald Le May (1885-1972), a British art historian and a Honorary Member of the Siam Society, writes in A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam (1962:97-98) that Sathmahal Prasada bears some similarity to a bigger and taller pyramidal structure of Wat Kukut in Northern Thailand, which is additionally contemporary to the Polonnaruwa Quadrangle (Ibid.:205). Among other contemporary Thai constructions similar to Sathmahal Prasada, the book Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious and Cultural Relations from A.D. C. 1000 to C. 1500 by W. M. Sirisena (1978:123) also enumerates Suwanna Chedi in Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, which is also pyramidal in its structure (Ibid.:204).

On the other side, HCP Bell (1903:14-15) claims that Sathmahal Prasada resembles more Khmer constructions of the Angkor complex in Cambodia (Manatunga 2009:204). Accordingly, the construction would be “an architectural link between the simplest form of rectangular pyramid such as Ka Keo, [possibly Ta Keo] with plain vertical walls and strait of stairs up the middle of each side and the elaborate towers at Mi-Baume, [in Angkor Wat] and other similar shrines” (Bell 1903:14 in: Manatunga 2009:204).

Mysteries come in pairs

Nowadays, in its ruined but still pyramid-like shape, Sathmahal Prasada is usually compared to an equally mysterious Khmer temple in Cambodia, namely, the unique pyramid of Prasat Thom (Prang) of Koh Ker, which also features seven platform, or to Baksei Chamkrong temple in Siem Reap (Mohan 2019; Saumya 2020; “Polonnaruwa” 2021; Lapkura 2021). Possibly significant is the fact that the both temples were once dedicated to Shiva and built around the tenth century AD. (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). What is more, they resembles some Mayan temples built in Mesoamerica, though on a smaller scale (Lapkura 2021).

On the whole, the construction of Sathmahal Prasada is entirely distinctive from other ancient temples in Polonnaruwa or other buildings, characteristic of Sri Lanka (Mohan 2019; Saumya 2020; “Polonnaruwa” 2021; Manatunga 2009:204). There are no such architectural parallels found in the country or in the South Asia (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:2004). In fact, both tourists and archaeologists are puzzled, while looking at the construction (Mohan 2019).

The mysterious pyramidal structure of Polonnaruwa has been named in modern times as Sathmahal Prasada, which literally means a seven-storey building. Its original name is unknown, whereas most of the constructions in the city is identifiable. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Pyramids also come in pairs

In all ancient civilisations, there are similar pyramidal constructions, built in different time and in various places around the world (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). Stepped pyramids exist in Egypt, Mexico, in lands of the former Ancient Mesopotamia (ziggurats), and in India (Mohan 2019). Generally, such structures appear in a given area usually in numbers and, as it has been speculated, there is also another stepped pyramid in Sri Lanka, possibly once built on top of the Sigiriya Rock (Ibid.). The latter is sometimes referred to as the Great Pyramid of Sri Lanka, in comparison to Sathmahal Prasada, which is much smaller in scale but more completely preserved than its possibly larger equivalent of Sigiriya (Ibid.).

Two pyramids found on the island

After Praveen Mohan (2019), Sathmahal Prasada is actually a perfect match for the pyramid on top of Sigiriya; it features bricked ramps and is also built with the lime mortar set between the bricks. It is furthermore composed of the four sides, with a bricked quadrangle base, like at Sigiriya (Ibid.). It also contains a remaining flight of stairs made of bricks, on the west side of the pyramid, leading up to the first storey (Manatunga 2009:2004; Mohan 2019). Looking at Sath Mahal Prasada, it is also possible to speculate how the Great Pyramid of Sigiriya would have looked like before its upper part was demolished (Mohan 2019).

Carved figures with disfigured identity

The only feature that may give some insight into the origins of Sathmahal Prasada are sculpted statues; namely, “[the] centre of each storey of the building has niches on all four sides. A standing figure, [possibly] of a deity made of bricks and stucco is projected on these niches” (Manatunga 2009:2004).

The area between the twelfth century’s shrine of Hatadage and the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada of the unknown age. There is another mysterious construction; namely, the stone wall featuring visible polygonal masonry. Such elements, as the pyramid and the boundary hedge question the real origins and age of the site of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

An anomaly regarding the sculpture is that the faces of all the statues carved around the stepped pyramid are entirely chopped off, erased or disfigured (Mohan 2019). It could not be an effect of natural forces as the visible destructions are strikingly similar on all the four sides of the structure (Ibid.). Consequently, it can be claimed that the statues’ faces were meant to be deliberately destroyed and so their identity was to be forgotten together with the name of the pyramid’s builder and the true origins of the construction itself (Ibid.).

Polygonal masonry in Polonnaruwa

Yet before I approached the towering façade of Sathmahal Prasada, my attention was immediately drawn by a stone henge separating the remnants of an ancient shrine of Hatadage, built by King Nissanka Malla in the twelfth century, and the pyramidal construction itself. Interesting was the fact that the wall featured polygonal masonry, where huge megalithic stones of various sizes and shapes had been dressed together in a way they resembled a jigsaw puzzle. I also observed that surfaces of each polygonal stone had been cut either with straight or rounded sides but all had joints perfectly fitting adjacent blocks. Sometimes among two or more larger slabs, there were tiny polygonal stones, matching perfectly the free space between them. I was just amazed. The same type of polygonal masonry is very characteristic of megalithic constructions not only in Asia but also in the whole world. Is the wall contemporary to the bricked pyramid of Polonnaruwa? Or maybe it is even more ancient as possibly are some examples of megalithic masonry at Sigiriya … (see: Denied Pyramid on Top of the Rock of Sigiriya)

The question of the lost civilization appears again

Nowadays, all the four entrances to the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada are completely sealed off and there are guards preventing anybody from walking inside it (Mohan 2019). Such precautions are said to protect people from being at danger in case the structure accidentally collapses (Ibid.).

Two friendly macaques were sitting down on the bricked wall of the Eastern Gate. They are apparently attracted by passing tourists, or rather by contents of their bags and backpacks. In the background, the facade of Sathmahal Prasada. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘It is a pity that Sathmahal Prasada cannot be properly restored and seen also from the inside’, I thought, while observing its upper part, narrowing behind a bricked wall of the Eastern Gate to the city. Two friendly macaques were sitting down on it, visibly attracted by passing tourists, or rather by contents of their bags and backpacks.

For a while I was observing with pleasure their graceful movements over broken bricks of the wall.

‘Oh, how much this bricked wall differs from that beside Sathmahal Prasada’, I was still considering the matter of the seen example of polygonal masonry.

Finally, gathering all the facts about the two archaeological sites of Sri Lanka, with their partially surviving constructions, namely the said gigantic stepped pyramid on top of Sigiriya and the smaller one in Polonnaruwa, it can be understood that there was possibly once an ancient civilisation who built pyramidal structures and created polygonal megalithic walls on the island, as elsewhere, anyway, in the whole ancient world (Mohan 2019).

Featured image: The area between the twelfth century’s shrine of Hatadage and the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada of the unknown age. There is another mysterious construction; namely, the stone wall featuring visible polygonal masonry. Such elements, as the pyramid and the boundary hedge question the real origins and age of the site of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


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