All posts by Joanna

Looking in the Eye of Horus

According to the previous article, Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert, the geographic description of Atlantis corresponds to that of Richat, in Mauritania (Kosmiczne […] 2019). However, there is still missing solid archaeological evidence of the advanced civilization described by Plato in the Eye of the Sahara (Ibid.). Artifacts and remnants of structures created once with the hands of the Atlanteans are absent (Ibid.). Yet, such an argument should not be regarded against the proposed theory. Archaeological remains, if any exist buried on site, cannot dig themselves out. They need archaeologists’ systematic work and study. Unfortunately, if the subject is not treated seriously by mainstream Academia, there will not be any excavations in the region. Moreover, Mauritania is not a safe country, and the Eye of the Sahara itself is vast; it takes a multi-day trip to get to Richat from the coast of Mauritania (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:33). As the region does not attract tourists at all, the organisation of transport there may be problematic and expensive (Ettington 2018:33). So far, no official institution has been interested in undertaking long-term thorough excavations of the structure with specialistic equipment (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Even if such a project appears, its realization will be costly.

Despite the lack of proper archaeological digs, many artifacts have already been found on the surface of the structure, such as tools, jewellery, interesting spheres with precise shapes, and a mysterious oval stone artefact weighing about fort kilograms that locals call ‘a surfboard of the gods’ (see: Alexander, Rosen, “Archaeology. Visiting Atlantis” 2018; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Independently, some people have also found within the structure various geometric structures on Google Maps; they resemble the foundations of buildings covered with soil (Ibid.). However, one has to wait for specific archaeological works (if they miraculously happen) (Ibid.).

Elephants live in Africa

Another interesting argument for the Eye of the Sahara as real Atlantis relates to the following description of Plato (Kosmiczne […] 2019):

” Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all”.

Plato, Critias

Virtually every proposed location of Atlantis contradicted the passage saying that there were, among other animals, elephants in Atlantis (Ettington 2018:38; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Indeed, elephants lived in Mauritania, unfortunately they have recently died out, though (Kosmiczne […] 2019). In addition, many elephant skeletons and petroglyphs depicting these animals on rocks have been found in the region (Ibid.).

Disasters came in the past

As mentioned above, a very convincing argument for the theory that Atlantis really existed is Plato’s timeframe for the destruction of the city  (Ettington 2018:37-38).

“Many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years, for that is the number of years which have elapsed since the time of which I am speaking”.

Plato, Critias

 “Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe”.

Plato, Critias

According to the records, Solon heard the story of Atlantis in ancient Sais in 600 BC. (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The priest told him that the city had been destroyed 9,000 years ago (Ibid.). Consequently, the destruction of Atlantis must have occurred around 9,600 BC. (Ibid.)

Reconstruction of the Oikoumene (inhabited world), an ancient map based on Herodotus’ description of the world, circa 450 BC. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol (2006), based on the GIF by Marco Prins and Jona Lendering from Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This date 9,600 BC. is extremely interesting; in the period between 10,900 and 9,500 B.C. the sudden cold period of the last Ice Age, the so-called Younger Dryas, took place (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Reasons behind it have not been yet fully understood, however, there is the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, namely the cooling event happened after the Earth was hit with meteorites or there was an explosion of a swarm of comets in the Earth’s atmosphere (Ettington 2018:39-40; Kosmiczne […] 2019). According to this hypothesis, the sequence of such events eventually caused a sudden change in climate and a global cooling (Ettington 2018:39-40; Kosmiczne […] 2019). At that time, the so-called Clovis culture had disappeared, ocean currents altered, and much of North America’s megafauna had gone extinct (Ettington 2018:40; Kosmiczne […] 2019).  

But it did not finish there.

“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island”.

Plato, Timaeus

Plato writes that “the island of Atlantis disappeared in the depths of the sea”, and “violent earthquakes and floods” could have been a successive result of the Younger Dryas impact, which is called by geologists Meltwater Pulse 1B (Hancock 2020). The latter was triggered by “the rapid release of meltwater into the oceans from the collapse of continental ice sheets” (“Meltwater pulse 1B” 2020). At the end or just after the Younger Drays, it was a period of either rapid or just accelerated post-glacial sea level rise (it is hypothesised to have occurred between 11,500 and 11,200 years ago at the beginning of the Holocene) (Ibid.), and could be the reasons for gigantic tsunamis, which were able to flood the whole landmass (Kosmiczne […] 2019); Hancock 2020). Was it the time of the Biblical Flood?

The so-called influence of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, however, still remains unproven in academic circles (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Island in the desert

While the formation of the Eye of the Sahara is promising as a potential location of Atlantis, its main problem is that, it is not an island and is now situated as much as 500 kilometres north-east of the Atlantic Ocean (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The authors of Visiting Atlantis (2011) say that approximately 12 000 years ago, some of the lands of Africa were beyond sea level, which made its coastline different from the contemporary one. Moreover, proponents of the geographic location of Atlantis in the Eye of Africa, however, refer to the hypothesis of a Younger Dryas impact on the destruction of Atlantis (Ettington 2018:45; 39-44; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Sea thiasos depicting the wedding of Poseidon and Amphitrite (female prsonification of the sea) from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in the Field of Mars, bas-relief, Roman Republic, 2nd century BC. According to Greek mythology, Poseidon was the god of the sea and the founder of the city of Atlantis, sometimes depicted as half-fish, half-human. Some authors compare such sea creatures to the Dogon’s ancestral spirits, Nommos. Photo uploaded by the user Bibi Saint-Pol (2007). Public domain. Photo source: “Poseidon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In their opinion, photos of the structure in the Sahara desert show that the place looks as if it was once flooded by powerful waves of the ocean, similar to giant tsunamis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). As George S. Alexander (2011) says, the place is harshly eroded and washed out, which is unusual for one of the driest places on Earth.

“For the fact is that a single night of excessive rain washed away the earth and laid bare the rock; at the same time there were earthquakes, and then occurred the extraordinary inundation […]”

Plato, Critias

“[…] when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, [Atlantis] became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean.

Plato, Critias

The fragments above are intended to indicate that Atlantis was flooded with waves, which resulted in mud covering of the entire area (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Then the water was withdrawn and the ocean was cut off from the south, so that the ships could no longer get there (Ibid.). It is worth remembering about the huge amount of wells producing just salt water as well as thousands of shells discovered around the Sahara on the way to Richat (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Additionally, the Bright Insight channel (2018) has shown pictures of the remains of a whale in Mauritania (Ibid.). The inhabitants of this country have equally encountered skeletons of fish and marine mammals in the area (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Welcome to Atlantis

The researchers’ journey in contemporary Mauritania, from its seaside to a small town of Atar, led them through the desert (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Guelb er Richât, Mauritania. Photo by Clemens Schmillen (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the time of Atlantis, that place must have been under the ocean, yet on the threshold to its main island; today the Adrar Highlands would border its western steep and mountainous edges, as Plato also describes the Atlantis island’s landform (Alexander, Rosen 2011). And to the east of the range of mountains, there lies a large plain with the Eye of Africa, which may have been once the capital of Atlantis (Ibid.). The terrain is now covered in tricoloured stone; it is white, black and red, as Plato portrays the natural material the Atlanteans used to construct their dwellings (Ibid.). According to the Philosopher, the stone was quarried from the centre of the island (Ibid.). Surprisingly, by a careful examination of satellite images of Richat, one could see in its centre a formation that resembles a quarry or a mine, just as Plato indicates (Ibid.).

Theory of land elevation

The geological origin of Richat assumes that this place has been geologically elevated since Atlantis’ destruction (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Currently, the Eye of the Sahara is about 485 metres above sea level. For the increase in elevation are responsible terrestrial processes, such as volcanism or earthquakes (Ettington 2018:45). The author of the Bright Insight channel has demonstrated computer simulations according to which, at a lower position, the Eye of the Sahara would have been an island surrounded by the ocean’s waters (Kosmiczne […] 2019). This would confirm the description of Plato, according to which Atlantis was an island behind the Gibraltar Strait, and it would have had access to water in the south (Ibid.). Of course, such a theory is based on a number of assumptions and cannot be any evidence (Ibid.). This is why the theory of the Eye’s elevation requires more geological studies in the matter to determine if the area was indeed naturally raised up above sea level (Ettington 2018:45).

Cycles of wet and dry periods disrupted

The combination of land uplift, climate and water-level changes, and the impact in the Younger Dryas may have greatly influenced the geographic shape of the Eye of the Sahara (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Before its destruction, around 11,600 years ago, it may have been a paradise island connected to the ocean from the south, as much as Atlantis was, according to Plato (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:47-48). The visible river channels in the mountains of Richat are linked to the fact that the Sahara then was much wetter than it is today (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:35,47-48).

Richat Structure in Mauritania. This image was acquired by Landsat 7’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper plus (ETM+) sensor on January 11, 2001. This is a false-color composite image made using shortwave infrared, infrared, and green wavelengths. The image has also been sharpened using the sensor’s panchromatic band. Image provided by the USGS EROS Data Center Satellite Systems Branch. This image is part of the ongoing Landsat Earth as Art series. Photo source: “Richat structure in Mauritania” (2001). In: NASA Earth Observatory.

After Sahara pump theory, the Sahara region has kept changing for thousands of years from a desert in arid periods to a savanna grassland during pluvial periods (Ettington 2018:35,47-48). When the cooling of the climate was subsiding, there must have been then huge rivers and lakes all over the area, which was fertile and characterized with moderate climate (Ibid.:35,47-48). The whole region of Richat was then green, not a desert, as it is today (Ibid.:47). The Younger Dryas, however, disrupted the whole cycle and ended not only with heavy rains but also with a disaster, bringing the fall of antediluvian civilizations, such as Atlantis (if they had ever existed).

King Atlas and his heritage

“The eldest, who was the first king, [Poseidon] named Atlas, and after him the whole island and the ocean were called Atlantic”.

Plato, Critias

After Plato, the first king of the city of Atlantis was Poseidon’s son, Atlas (Kosmiczne […] 2019). It is also known that the north-western part of Africa was inhabited by ancient people known in antiquity as the Mauri (Kosmiczne […] 2019; “Mauretania” 2020). They were Berber speaking tribes and lived in Numidia and in neighbouring Mauretania (not to be confused with modern-day Mauritania), located in the ancient Maghreb region, being colonized by Phoenicians throughout the first millennium BC. (“Mauretania” 2020). Tribal Berber kingdoms established there between the third century BC. to 40/44 AD, when the region was incorporated into the Provinces of the Roman Empire with the capital in Volubillis. At the time of the Berber kingdoms, ancient Mauretania “stretched from central present-day Algeria westwards to the Atlantic, covering northern Morocco, and southward to the Atlas Mountains” (“Mauretania” 2020).

Interestingly, as it turns out, the first legendary king of Mauretania was called Atlas (Kosmiczne […] 2019; “Mauretania” 2020). He was an outstanding philosopher, mathematician and astronomer (Kosmiczne […] 2019; “Mauretania” 2020). Atlas is therefore not only the first king of the capital of Atlantis, but also of the ancient region of Mauretania, which was, however, located in the north of the Eye of the Sahara (modern-day Mauritania).

How did the Dogon find out?

During past thousand years the majority of the local population of Northwest Africa has converted to Islam (Alexander, Rosen 2011). Nevertheless, there are still African people in the region who are attached to their ancient religion and tradition (Ibid.). One of such cultures are the so-called Dogon, who largely live to the east of the Mauritania border, in Mali and Niger (Ibid.). Their beliefs and outstanding astronomical knowledge, especially about Sirius Star System, are the matter of debates among various scholars and researchers (Ibid.).

Twin demi-gods

The Dogon have particularly believed in the Nommo or Nummo – primordial ancestral spirits who passed on to them the astronomical understanding and wisdom (Alexander, Rosen 2011; “Nommo” 2020).

Dogon people in Mali. Photo by Devriese (2003). Originally uploaded to Flickr as Dogon #12. CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Dogon people” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Those spirits “are usually described as amphibious, hermaphroditic, fish-like creatures. Folk art depictions of Nommos show creatures with humanoid upper torsos […] and a fish-like lower torso and tail. Nommos are also referred to as ‘Masters of the Water’, ‘the Monitors’, and ‘the Teachers’” (“Nommo” 2020). As such, Nommos resemble half-human sea creatures dwelling in the realm of the god Poseidon, who was the founder of Atlantis city and the deity worshiped by the Atlanteans (Alexander, Rosen 2011). He was also the divine father of the five pairs of twins, who then ruled ten kings of Atlantis (Ibid.). As their mother was a mortal woman, they were only half-divine beings. What is more, according to Dogon’s beliefs, their half-divine ancestral spirits, Nommos, also transformed into twins (four pairs, though, not five as in the case of the kings of Atlantis), and the twin cult has always been very common in West Africa, finding its expressions equally in works of local art (Ibid.). May then the Dogon’s beliefs and knowledge have stemmed from the highly advanced civilization as Atlantis? (Ibid.).

Another ancient notice of Atlantis?

Ancient map made from a description by the famous historian Herodotus, around 450 BC. reveals another clue, specifically, the name of Atlantes in Northwest Africa (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Sometimes a question mark accompanies the name (Ibid.), which seems intriguing as if the author was not sure about his accuracy. The World according to Herodotus shows the known geography of the inhabited World, whose cartographic image is built up of various accounts and assumptions. This is why it is difficult to associate the name Atlantes precisely with an exact place in Africa. It may have been thought to appear beneath the Atlas Mountains, which are located in Morocco and Algeria, more than 1000 kilometres from the Eye of the Sahara (Ibid.). On the other side, Martin K. Ettington (2018:49-51,63) suggests Herodotus’ map rather represents the range of mountains north of the Eye of the Sahara, not of the Atlas Mountains, and so the author believes that the map is another ancient record of Atlantis, independent of Plato’s writings.

 The world map of Herodotus showing the name ‘Atlantes’ in the area of Northwest Africa. Photo source: Panorama of the World (2017). “Human Landscapes and Maps”. In:

It is probable that Herodotus could just refer to a group of people living in the Atlas Mountains (Kosmiczne […] 2019). On the other side, it is a real coincidence the name associated with Atlas (and Atlantis) appears again in relation to Northwest Africa. Moreover, Herodotus as a historian travelled to Egypt and had an access to its ancient libraries (Ettington 2018: 51). His information about the history of Pharaonic Egypt and magnificent monuments, especially those which no longer exist, is invaluable to contemporary Egyptologists and historians. Though-provoking, for example, is his account of the Egyptian Labyrinth that “surpasses the Pyramids” (Herodotus, the fifth century BC.). Was he then aware of any Egyptian records of Atlantis and its inhabitants? Are they depicted in his map?

Good-luck bringing charm

Discussing still the issue of Atlantic-Egyptian relations, Plato indicates that Egypt was within the Atlantean influence (Alexander, Rosen 2011). Although any preserved ancient records in Egypt do not mention such connections, it is worth investigating ancient Egyptian art, its symbolism and mythology in quest for any clues. One of the most recurring images in Dynastic Egypt is unquestionably the symbol of the Eye of Horus, known as wadjet, wedjat or udjat (“Eye of Horus” 2020).

Horus, the god of Egypt was usually depicted as a falcon, or a man with a falcon’s head; as such he was the god of the heavens and the forerunner of the pharaohs (Rachet 1994:135). Horus was also the son of divine siblings, Isis and Osiris, and played a decisive role in his father’s struggle against his brother, Set (Ibid.:135). According to the Texts of Pyramids, Isis, as a vulture, sat on the body of the dead Osiris (murdered by Set) and hence conceived Horus (Ibid.:135). Having grown up, Horus provoked Set to a fight in which he lost an eye (Ibid.:135). He regained it, however, and defeated Set, depriving him of his manhood (Ibid.:135).

Nazars, charms used to ward off the evil eye. After George S. Alexander (2011), each looks like a miniature model of the capital city of Atlantis. Photo by FocalPoint (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Evil eye” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Eye of Horus was in an ancient Egypt a “symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. The Eye of Horus is similar to the Eye of Ra, which belongs to a different god […] but represents many of the same concepts” (“Eye of Horus” 2020). Actually, in the Old Kingdom, the Eye of Ra symbolised the sun, whereas that of Horus, the moon (Rachet 1994:356). As one of the most popular warding off evil amulets, it was usually depicted in Egyptian tombs (Ibid.:357). Mediterranean sailors have “frequently [painted the same] symbol on the bows of their vessels to ensure safe sea travel” (“Eye of Horus” 2020). Even today, such an image as a protection against the evil eye is typical in this region, though in Muslim countries, it is usually called the Eye of the Prophet (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Atlantean symbol or Egyptian amulet?

Udjat in ancient Egyptian art can be seen as a symbolic sign of a lined eye with an element characteristic of the falcon head (Horus), added later below (Rachet 1994:356).

The Eye of the Sahara resembles the Egyptian amulet known as the Eye of Horus with the upper part of ‘the eye’ well emphasized by the range of the steep mountains from the north. Photo received from a cropped satellite image on Google Maps (Google Earth). Imagery©2020 CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies; Map data ©2020.

Some researchers indicate, it is related to Atlantis, and indeed, its representation resembles the Eye of the Sahara, with regard to its centre and surroundings, where the range of mountains to the north of the pupil-like centre are similar to Horus’ lined eyebrow (Ettington 2018:58; Alexander, Rosen 2011). Was the amulet original to Atlantis, before it was adopted by the Egyptian symbology?

No other site more than this one

No other place in the world fits the description of Atlantis so closely as the Eye of the Sahara (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). There is yet no conclusive archaeological evidence; therefore the issue remains unresolved (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Only if archaeologists engage in long-term and reliable work within the mysterious structure, the ancient mystery of Richat may be exposed, either as a natural structure or the lost city of Atlantis (Ibid.).

Nevertheless, if Atlantis really once existed, the Eye of the Sahara remains the most likely location for this legendary civilization (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Ettington 2018:31,35-38,51; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Featured image: A topographic reconstruction (scaled 6:1 on the vertical axis) from satellite photos. False colouring as follows: • Brown: bedrock • Yellow/white: sand • Green: vegetation • Blue: salty sediments. Photo by NASA/JPL/NIMA (2004). Public domain. Photo source: “Richat structure” (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.


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Alexander S. G., Rosen N. (2011) Visiting Atlantis. Gate to a lost world. Wilddoor Production.

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Hancock G. (2020) ”Graham Hancock Explains the Mysteries of Atlantis and Göbekli Tepe”. In: FightMediocrity. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th December, 2020].

Image provided by the USGS EROS Data Center Satellite Systems Branch. This image is part of the ongoing Landsat Earth as Art series. Photo source: “Richat structure in Mauritania” (2001). In: NASA Earth Observatory. Available at <>. [Accessed on 19th December, 2020].

Panorama of the World (2017). “Human Landscapes and Maps”. In: Available at <>. [Accessed on 19th December, 2020].

Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol (2006). Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 19th December, 2020].

Photo by Clemens Schmillen (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 18th December, 2020].

Photo uploaded by the user Bibi Saint-Pol (2007). Public domain. Photo source: “Poseidon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 19th December, 2020].

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Rachet G. (1994) “Horus”, “Udżet”. In: Słownik cywilizacji egipskiej. Śliwa J. Trans. Słowniki Encyklopedyczne Książnica.

Cyclopean Masonry of the Ancient World

A type of masonry, also known as megalithic architecture, characteristic of unusually huge constructions created of gigantic more-or-less rough-edged boulders adjusted to each other frequently without using mortar, and the resulting minimal clearances between them are sometimes filled with clay and small stones (Lucie-Smith, 2003:68,205; Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018). The cyclopean term can be also described as ‘polygonal (ashlar) masonry’ technique, if there are regularly-dressed boulders with fine joints in polygonal shapes, and precisely fitted together without the use of mortar and without visibly defined courses of stones (Bruschi, 2020; Lucie-Smith, 2003:206). The degree of precision may differ in polygonal masonry. The finest examples astonish even modern-day architects and builders.

Initially, such a definition was used to describe constructions ascribed to the Aegean and Mycenaean cultures (circa 1425 – 1190 B.C.), who built their fortifications and citadels of huge blocks of stone arranged horizontally (Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018; Kashdan, 2007). Their creation was attributed to the mythological Cyclops, and “[the] term [itself] was coined by Greeks in the Classical Age, reflecting the belief that only the Cyclops, gigantic, one-eyed creatures of myth, could have been strong enough to manipulate stones so immense” (Kashdan, 2007). Pliny the Elder (23/24 – 79 A.D.) in his Natural History gives an account of such a belief, which apparently traces back to Aristotle, who was supposed to claim that the Cyclopes were skillful architects and builders (“Cyclopean masonry” 2022).

One of the weathered and ruined, but significant cyclopean walls in Europe. The base, though corroded represents polygonal masonry of huge blocks, whereas on top there is typical cyclopean example of stonework of smaller boulders. The Ġgantija complex, Gozo Island, Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from ancient the Mediterranean region, where the the Mycenaean citadel, then Nuraghe towers or megalithic temples of Malta are most typical examples, such stonework is found in all parts of the ancient world (Lucie-Smith, 2003:68; Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018; Kashdan, 2007); in Egypt, the cyclopean masonry is present in the valley temple of Giza and in Abydos; in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, there are numerous megalithic constructions, ascribed to the culture of Incas (Bruschi, 2020). A good examples of such masonry are also visible in the South-East Asia and even on Easter Island (Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022). “But there are quite a few others” (Bruschi, 2020).

View of Hatun Rumiyuq Street. Many of the colonial constructions used the city’s Inca constructions as a base. A typical example of megalithic (cyclopean) polygonal masonry with a very high precision. Photo by David Stanley (2012). CC BY 2.0, in “Cusco” (2022). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Featured image: Homolle, Théophile (1902). A polygonal wall, excavated at Delphi, showing very characteristic polygonal masonry with a high degree of precision in contrast to stonework on the other side, in “Ecole française d’Athènes”, in “Cyclopean masonry”. Public domain, in Wikipedia. the Free Encyclopedia (2022).


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Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb Within the Lore of Giants

Like two months before Christmas, 2018, a group of three archaeology students started to conduct a thorough archaeological survey of Ballyedmonduff wedge tomb in Co. Dublin, in order to gain a better understanding of the site. I was one of them. Although we were not allowed to do proper archaeological digs, we documented instead the archaeological remains in detail, including research of the folklore surrounding the so-called ‘Giant’s Graves’ as the wedge tomb of Ballyedmonduff is usually called (McGuire et al. 2019:3). Before the date of submitting the project, in February, 2019, we visited the site a number of times. “The tomb itself is marked on the Park’s map, as the ‘Giant’s Grave’ [and] is situated on land owned by Glencullen Adventure Park (GAP), a privately-run facility mainly engaged in the provision of mountain biking trails. Some of these trails run close to the tomb” (Ibid.:4), which frequently made our work in the field more difficult, when groups of people, like children of a school trip started climbing up the tomb stones and jumping between our tools and measuring tapes. The weather was not on our side either. Although it was not often raining (or snowing), it was really freezing, especially in the shadow of the forest, and adding that we were spending long hours of working in the filed, mostly staying in the same position, while taking precise measurements, making a drawing or reading levels calculations. So a nearby coffee shop often saved our lives. On the other side, I remember this project as one of the most interesting assignments at the university and the reason why I have actually chosen archaeology as my profession. Comparing it to the work I do for living, sitting for hours in a noisy office and listening to complaining clients, wading through the mud and patiently observing stones definitely win. And when no one appeared on the trail at that time, there was such an eerie silence, soaring in the darkness of the surrounding trees, that it seemed it would disturb the sleep of the buried giant who would finally wake up to leave his lair of stones.

Wedge tombs are the most numerous and distinctive type of megalithic passage tombs. They are found all over Ireland but mainly in the west and the south-west (Ruggles, 2005:435; O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39). Mystery surrounds these great stone monuments which stand remarkably in lonely places and fit into wild Irish landscapes (Evans, 1938:7).  Wedge tomb constructions mainly took place between 2500 – 1800 BC. (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39), placing them chronologically towards the end of a rich tradition of Neolithic tomb construction in Ireland (Ruggles, 2005:435) and constructions petered out circa 1900-1600 BC. (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  Over five hundred examples of wedge tombs are currently known in the Republic of Ireland (Ruggles, 2005:435), but many more have been destroyed over the intervening centuries (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  A map of the distribution of wedge tombs in the Republic of Ireland is shown in Figure 10, based on GIS data with the latest information from the NMS (National Monuments Service Website).

The Ballyedmonduff tomb forms part of a small group of wedge tombs in the Dublin region (see Figure 11) which include Ilmashogue Wedge Tomb located half way up Three Rock Mountain near Kilmashogue Recreation Area car park – (SMR DU025- 00701); Killakee Wedge Tomb in Massey’s Estate Forest Park – (SMR DU025-022); Laughanstown Wedge Tomb in Cabinteely – (SMR DU026-024); and Shankill Wedge Tomb (SMR – DU026-059). 

Figure 11: The Ballyedmonduff as a part of a small group of tombs in the Dublin region, with Ilmashogue Wedge Tomb, Killakee Wedge Tomb, Laughanstown Wedge Tomb, and Shankill Wedge Tomb; based on GIS data for the use of the Survey of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’), made by Maurice McGuire, Joanna Pyrgies, and Susan Ryan, February 2019. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In terms of their chamber size, wedge tombs can be divided into two separate categories: single wedge-shaped, box like constructions, and long and low wedge-shaped galleries (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  The former is typical of north-west Clare, while the latter occur particularly in the north, although examples happen elsewhere (Ibid.:36-39). Ballyedmonduff appears to be large, complex and well-built in the context of the class as a whole and as a gallery grave belongs to the second category of wedge tombs. Whilst wedge tombs vary widely in size (Ruggles, 2005:435), they have defining characteristics – a trapezoidal central chamber, with its sides formed by two lines of large, upright stones (orthostates), getting wider and higher toward the entrance end, from east to west, and forming a wedge shape (Ó’Ríordáin and de Valéra, 1952:61-81), hence their name.  An antechamber is separated from the main chamber (the burial area) by a jamb or sill.  Such tombs were often covered with cairns, which could be round, oval or heel-shaped, often with kerb stones around to support the whole construction (Ibid.:61-81).  

The other characteristic that confirms the wedge tomb as a significant category of monument, is the strong consistency in their orientation, with their doorway generally facing west (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Nearly all known examples face the western arc of the horizon, with a large group facing south-west (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). It is unusual to have such a clear preference for westerly orientation among a group of Neolithic tombs (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Their pattern of alignment fits the sun descending or setting model (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). In other words, Ruggles (2005:435) notes that each wedge tomb was oriented upon a position where the sun was seen either to set, or to be descending in the sky on a significant day – perhaps the day on which construction was begun.

Levels exercise on the site of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb, located in Glencullen Adventure Park (GAP), Ballyedmonduff, Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Wedge tomb concentrations appear to be denser around mountains than in the lowlands (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232). Throughout Ireland, wedge tombs can be found at elevations.  They are on the summits or slopes of drumlins, hills or foothills, with a smaller number on the sides of higher mountains (including Ballyedmonduff). Unlike in the case of portal or court tombs, it seems that builders preferred hilly locations, though not to the exclusion of other landscape settings – one exception is that no wedge tombs are found on mountain peaks (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). They do not often appear to have been in close proximity to the coastline, as in the case of Altar Wedge Tomb in Co. Cork.  Still they show a pattern of concentration closer to rivers or lakes (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81).  Salisbury and Keeler (2007:226-227, 231-232) note that it seems likely that water represented no more than an exploitable resource to the wedge tomb builders, with no ritual or cosmological significance. The suitability of an area for settlement and farming, together with the availability copper (e.g. in Cork-Kerry area), influenced the locations of wedge tombs (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).

The lore of the giant’s tombs

Prehistory in Ireland begins around 8000 – 7000 BC (Powell, 2012:11-16).  The most prominent remains of this early prehistoric period are the megalithic tombs in general, the majority of which were constructed in 4000 – 2000 BC. (Ibid.:11-16).  Depending on their particular shape and category, some of them have been referred to as Giant’s Tombs or Graves, others were called Druid’s Altars, mainly to describe portal tombs (dolmens) (Ibid.:11-16).  During the first part of the 19th century, before the completion of archaeological research on Irish megaliths, such tombs were widely noted in literature (Ibid.:11-16). A great number of these legendary sites reappear on the OS maps in 1902, 1904-05, 1907 and 1913-14 under names such as Cromlechs, Druid’s Altars, Giant’s Beds, Giant’s Griddles, Giant’s Graves or Dermot and Grania’s Bed (Cody, 2002). According to Survey of Megalithic Tombs of Ireland, Vol. 1-6, some of the tombs had been destroyed, others were not accepted after inspection as proven megalithic tombs, and the reasons for their rejections are noted in each case (De Valéra and Ó Nuallain, 1961-1989; De Valera, Ó Nuallain 1982).

Many megalithic structures are so huge that numerous legends say they were built by a race of giants for different purposes (Powell 2012:11-16). Some of them were believed to have held dead giants, which would account for their enormous size, and hence the name Giant’s Tomb seemed appropriate (Ibid.:11-16), although not all megalithic tombs have been known under that name. According to OS maps from the first part of the 20th century, and our GIS survey, the greatest number of Giant’s Graves is present in County Sligo (73), which looks like a huge megalithic cemetery. In Ireland, the term Giant’s Grave usually refers to wedge tombs (46), court tombs (54), portal tombs (9) and unclassified tombs (21). The same records indicate there is no passage tombs known as Giant Graves (see Figure 12) (Powell 2012:11-16; De Valéra and Ó Nuallain, 1961-1989).

The term Giant’s Grave is probably the most widely used as far afield as Ireland, Sardinia and Denmark (Evans 1938:7). It can be readily understood how giants were invoked to explain these monstrous architectural achievements (Ibid.:7).  Legends of giants, who undertake extraordinary feats are very common in Irish mythology (Powell 2012:11-16). These legendary tales were usually used by the 18th century Victorian Antiquarians and earlier writers (Ibid.:11-16).  Already in ancient times, these so-called romantic concepts abounded about the origins and the builders of great megalithic structures, not only in Ireland but worldwide (Powell 2012:11-16). The term Giant’s tomb was already recorded at the beginning of 2nd century AD. by Plutarch, a Greek biographer and essayist (Plutarch, 2nd century AD.).  Plutarch describes that when the Roman general Sertorius (123-72 BC) took over the city of Tingis (Tangier, Morocco), he broke open the tomb of Antaeus, the giant venerated by Phoenicians (Ibid.). To his surprise, he found a body sixty cubits long (about 27 metres) (Quayle and Albertino, 2017), “and after performing a sacrifice filled up the tomb again, and joined in magnifying its traditions and honours” (Plutarch, op. cit.) (see On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar).   

Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’). Photo by Maurice McGuire. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Most of the megalithic monuments, from the Greek, megas, ‘great’, and lithos ‘stone’, are today assigned to major classes and each are named after an important distinguishing feature (Powell 2012:11-16). Among them, there are the so-called tombs, temples, fortifications, citadels, towers, alignments, and hedges (Quayle, Alberino). Megalithic architecture was also described by the ancient Greeks as cyclopean after the race of giants with only one eye, who were believed to have been great craftsmen and builders (Ibid.). For the ancient, Cyclops were the offspring of gods, and they attributed them with megalithic structures throughout the Mediterranean, such as the walls of Mycenae (Ibid.). The term cyclopean masonry is nowadays used by archaeologists to describe an engineering technique that incorporates large stones without the use of mortar (Ibid.). The style ranges roughhewn stone structures as displayed, for example, in nuraghe towers all over Sardinia, or in structures of north-western and south Europe, Africa, Near East, and southern Asia, to incomprehensibly precise edifices devised with immense polygons of blocks (Italy, Greece, Malta, Egypt, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Peru etc.) (Ibid.). The knowledge of cyclopean masonry vanished but all over the world, anywhere megaliths are present, legends of giants abound (Ibid.).

In relation to megalithic sepulchre architecture there are four major categories, such as passage tombs, court tombs, portal tombs and wedge tombs, with other minor categories (Powell 2012:11-16). The so-called giant’s tombs or graves are scattered all over Ireland: the Giant Leap (wedge tomb) in Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park, Giant’s Grave on the Laois and Offaly border in Killinaparson, Moytirra East Court Tomb in Co. Sligo, and Giant’s Load (dolmen) at Proleek, Co. Louth, to name just a few.  Some of them tell a story of giants buried there, others, such as the megalithic tomb in Killinaparson are believed to be the resting place of ancient warriors or heroes (Slieve Bloom Association, 2019).  In Proleek, the dolmen is said to have been erected by the Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, whose body was buried nearby (Dempsey, 2008).  Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park, also has a giant story associated with its name (Goldbaum 2010-2019).  According to Harold Johnson (1998), from the nearby town of Blacklion, the giant, attempting to impress a lady, failed in his final attempt to jump the nearby chasm, which is, of course, called the Giant’s Leap (Goldbaum 2010-2019).  After the giant’s fell down and broke his back, he was buried in what’s called now the Giant’s Grave (Ibid.) There are two giant’s tombs near Dublin, one of which is a portal tomb located in Brennanstown, the other is the subject matter of the project and is known as Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb.  Although the latter is also referred to as a Giant’s Grave, there is no known local folklore of a giant or giants linked to this site.

The Giant’s Grave of Ballyedmonduff is located on the lower south-eastern slopes of the Two Rock Mountain, close to the stream (Ó’Ríordáin and De Valéra, 1952:61-68). Nowadays there is a dense pine forest, but in the past, there may have been splendid views of Dublin Bay and Wicklow mountains from the site (Ibid.: 61-68). The grave’s structure consists of a gallery aligned approximately west-east (Ibid.:61-68).  Today partially destroyed and disarranged, the gallery is divided by two septal stones into three parts of different size: ante-chamber, separated burial chamber, and a smaller niche or chamber closed with the back stone (Ibid.:61-68).  The eastern side of the tomb (which was once covered by a cairn) is delimited by horse-shoe shaped kerbs with a row of orthostats forming a straight façade at the western end, onto which the entrance to the tomb opened (Ibid.:61-68). During excavations in 1940s there were some finds recorded at the site: about 150 pieces of pottery, twenty-seven pieces of flint, a perforated polished hammer, and a few fragments of cremated bone of human origin (Ibid.61-68).  

Wedge tombs are said to have primarily served as collective burials for social groups (Evans, 1938:7) and territorial markers (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226, 231-232).  Yet, some giant’s graves yield no osseous remains (Frazer, 1895:64). Some scholars even suggest such constructions as wedge tombs did not originally serve as sepulchre at all but they were re-used as tombs by later generations or cultures (Brennan, 1994).  According to Walsh (1995) wedge tombs were not simply burial structures or territorial markers.  They seem to have served a variety of functions ranging from the practical to the symbolic (Walsh 1995).  Studies in archaeoastronomy carried out by scientists such as Lomsdalen (2014) and Brennan (1994) show that megalithic architecture holds a strong relationship to the sky. Accordingly, some theorists, for example Kaulins (2003), claim Ballyedmonduff used to be a geodetic astronomical planisphere (i.e. a star chart formed by the position of the stones), and the largest megalith on the site marks the constellation of Andromeda, while other stones are related to other major stellar constellations of the sky.  He believes that all of the stones were intentionally placed there to serve a particular purpose and were not placed there by chance (Ibid.).  Each was selected for their particular position out of the many stones available (Ibid.).  Kaulins (1995) also notes that megaliths made of quartz, granite or particular colour deserve special attention. 

As there is no straight answer on the purpose of giant’s graves in Ireland, it is valuable to look closer at other megaliths bearing the same name outside Ireland and compare them, especially the tombs built in Sardinia – an island famous for its legendary gigantic inhabitants.  All over this island, there are massive stone sepulchres commonly called the tombs of giants.  Similarly, in Ireland, most of the megalithic stones once incorporated into ancient monuments were partially dismantled long ago by residents of local villages, however, they are still impressive (Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Sardinian licenced archaeological guide Maria Paola Loi, confirms there are legends in Sardinia saying that the tombs themselves were not designed to house the bodies of giants (Loi, 2017). The giant’s body was inhumated first underneath and the monument was built on top once the body was buried (Ibid.).

Loi (2017) explains that an aperture inside the tombs was used by young men during the so-called rite of passage ceremony to stay in contact with the soul of ancestors, known as heroes or giants. Boys would crawl into the narrow opening of the entrance stele and sit down in the tomb gallery on particular celestial events, when it was believed that the giants’ powers were released (Ibid.). She notes that each boy would individually spend a few days and nights there, meditating alone and absorbing the energy of the mighty one buried beneath (Ibid.).  Likewise, O’Sullivan and Downey (2010:36-39) explain that in Ireland “megalithic tombs were symbolic expressions of ideological beliefs, ritual authority and access to the supernatural”.  They also note that the wedge tomb was at the centre of a community of individuals who shared the same beliefs and values (Ibid.:36-39). The ancestors may have been regarded as spirits whose function was to communicate with higher spirits to further the prosperity of the whole community (Loi, 2017).

Francesco Cubeddu (2011). Aerial view of the Giant’s grave of Sa Domu ‘e S’Orcu in Sardinia. CC BY-SA 4.0. In “Giants’ grave”. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are two kinds of giant’s tombs in Sardinia (Loi, 2017).  The major group consists of the so-called horned cairns, namely long wedged-shaped galleries of upright stones, divided or segmented by stone pillars, sometimes with low transverse slabs between them, dividing them into oblong compartments (Evans, 1938:10-12). Unlike Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb, they do not feature a distinct chamber at the end, as the gallery is thought to have been an actual burial place (Ibid.10-12).  If preserved, the gallery is roofed by corbels and covered with cap stones (Ibid.:10-12), some weighing up to 20 tons (Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Although cap stones were once present at Ballyedmonduff, as shown in the Ordnance Survey sketches, they are missing now at the site.  A very significant feature of the tombs in Sardinia is the entrance (Evans, 1938:10-12; Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Namely, it is emphasized and set off by a curving line of orthostates, forming an imposing semi-circular façade embracing a forecourt (Evans, 1938:10-12; Quayle and Alberino, 2017). 

The term horned cairns come from the resemblance which the layout of the forecourt bears to the horns of a bull (Evans, 1938:10-12).  This type of forecourt does not occur in the typical form of Irish wedge tombs. Although monuments with this type of forecourt are found especially in the south-west of Scotland and the south of France, and seem to derive from Sardinia, Northern Ireland is the region of their richest development, and they are mostly clustered around Carlingford Lough in Ulster, such as Browndod tomb in Co. Antrim (Ibid.:10-12).

Remains of a statue representing an opulent woman or a goddess found in the area of the temple Ggantija. Is it a representation of the Giantess Sansuna? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although passage tombs in Ireland are not remembered as giants’ tombs, an Irish legend has it that the passage tombs of Loughcrew were created when a giant witch, walking across the land, dropped her cargo of huge stones from her apron (Ireland’s Ancient East 2018; see Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Actually, very similar story is known on Gozo Island in Malta, where the giantess Sansuna is said to have built the temple Ggantija – the Place of Giants, carrying huge stones upon one of her shoulders or in an apron four kilometres to their current resting place (Newman 2016). On her way, likewise the Loughcrew witch, she dropped some of the stones (Ibid.). One of them is called Sansuna’s Dolmen and it is located exactly one kilometre south-east of the Ggantija temple (Ibid.) (see Sleeping Beauty of the Underworld).

Situated in the Golden Heights, south of Damascus, there is another giant’s tomb, however, of an outstanding shape (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). It is called Rujm el-Hiri or Gilgal Refaim (from Hebrew, Giant’s Circle of Stones) and it is an ancient megalithic construction consisting of an estimated four thousand tons of loose rocks of huge and various sizes, which makes it another cyclopean construction (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). The stones form concentric circles, with a tumulus at its centre (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). It is dated to around 3000–2700 BCE BC. (“Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). Like the other giant’s tombs, Rujm el-Hiri is also strongly associated with the race of giants, yet in this case it is not only a folk story but the biblical narrative that supports that (Hamilton-Brown 1990s). An Israeli archaeologist, Daniel Herman, claims that the tomb must have been dedicated to someone really powerful as its construction should have taken an enormous amount of time and effort (Ibid.). When Israelites came to this area, the tomb had already been there and they documented the identification of the site by saying that this region had been ruled by Og, the king of the Basham (Ibid.). The Bible mentions that king in Deuteronomy 3:11: “For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants […]” (Ibid.)

Hebrew Wikipedia (2007). Gilgal Refā’īm is an ancient megalithic monument in the Golan Heights (Early Bronze Age II, 3000–2700 BC.). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. In “Rujm el-Hiri” (2022). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I do not know if the giant buried in Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb was one of those mentioned in the Bible. Maybe … However, the world’s ancient tradition of giants is extremely rich, especially in the British Isles and in Ireland. Similar folk stories, some extremely attractive, and especially the connection of the race of giants with megalithic constructions, are now taken with a pinch of salt, especially among archaeologists. Today, mostly tourists are likely to listen to such tales, who, usually indulged amid the sounds of Irish music, are sipping beer in pubs. Yet, the stories of giants and their beds resound with a deep note of melancholy, especially for those who are longing for the unknown past. Actually, despite further archaeological research to reveal the truth about prehistoric megalithic structures, such as the Ballyedmunduff Wedge Tomb, their secrets continue to persist and stimulate the human imagination.

Article based on research conducted on site of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb by Maurice McGuire, Joanna Pyrgies, Susan Ryan (2017). Survey of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’). University College Dublin.

Featured image: There are at least two giant’s tombs near Dublin, one of which is known as Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb. Although it is referred to as a Giant’s Grave, there is no known local folklore of a giant or giants linked to this site. Photo by Maurice McGuire. 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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Frazer, W. (1895) ‘On cup-markings on megalithic monuments due to echinus lividus’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 64-71, published by Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

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Prasat and its Meaning in Khmer and Thai Architecture

The term has derived from the Sanskrit prāsāda or more accurately, kudakhan or rueanyotand. It usually stands for a Khmer and Thai word meaning a ‘castle’, ‘palace’ or a ‘temple’. Accordingly, in Khmer architecture, prasat means a tapered tower (or towers) rising at the centre of a temple or a temple complex (e.g, Prasat Thom), which is often compared to a pyramid-like structure or even a temple-mountain. Many a time, prasat is surmounted by prang (a usually tall and richly carved spire). Whereas in Thai architecture, it involves a royal or religious building form. “It is a building featuring an ornate roof structure, usually multi-tiered, with one or more spires. The form symbolizes the centre of the universe, which is traditionally associated with the monarch or the Buddha” (“Prasat (Thai architecture)” 2021).

Prasat Neang Khmau – the Black Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured imge: The Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace is a prominent example of the prasat formin Thai architecture. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


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Seven-Tiered Mystery of Prang in the Khmer Empire

What is really surprising, the seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly resembles any other structures built in the Empire of ancient Khmers (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although pyramids were very distinctive of the Khmer sacral architecture, yet Prasat Prang differs from its typical model in several aspects (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020).

Mysterious seven-tiered pyramid of Prang. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Firstly, it is not adorned like other Asian pyramidal temples; the successive levels lack of carvings, statues or sanctuaries, except for sculpted representations at the very top (Lawrence 2020).

In front of the eastern (the only) entrance to the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Secondly, it is visibly a stepped pyramid and only two such pyramids exist in Cambodia (Mohan 6th April, 2020). One of them is Prang and the other is called Baksei Chamkrong Temple from the same period (Ibid.). Some scholars also compare these two pyramids to a similar construction in Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; Lapkura 2021; Manatunga 2009:204) (see Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History).

Thirdly, “the pyramid has [well-proportioned] terraces of regular hight, [and] their edges form the linear outline of an almost equilateral triangle, taller and more slender than [in the case of] the previous pyramidic state temples” (Sopheak 2020).

Furthermore, while Khmer pyramids have got usually four entrances and more than one stairway (Kossak, Watts 2001:71), Prasat Prang features the only stairway on its eastern side (Sopheak 2020). Yet “on the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Ibid.), which is another feature atypical to Southeastern temple towers.

Next, even if the concentric ground plan with enclosures and Gopuram gates was traditional to the Khmer architecture and was applied at Prasat Thom (front enclosure), and at some other sanctuaries in Koh Ker, the same idea was abandoned in the rear enclosure of the terraced pyramid (Sopheak 2020).

In front of the eastern (the only) entrance to the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Finally, contrary to the temples built elsewhere in the Empire, Prang pyramid does not illustrate the Mount Meru of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology (Ciccone 1998-2020). Instead it may have served as a pedestal for a linga (Ibid.), as much as a throne is meant for a king’s seat.

These definitely individual characteristic of the pyramid`s shape and symbology, had given rise to alternative theories regarding the history of Prasat Prang, which itself more closely resembles Mesoamerican stepped structures of the Maya than those of Southeast Asia (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020).

Another megalithic site

On a direct way to Prang, there is a huge compound wall erected around the pyramid, which was not typical of other similar constructions in Cambodia (Mohan 10th April, 2020). It may suggest the area had a strictly limited access (Ibid.).

The pyramid of Prang is a six-stepped pyramid but the pedestal of lingam on top forms its seventh level (Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85; see: Sopheak 2015). It means it is half higher than a typical royal temple ever built by ancient Khmers (Sopheak 2020; Osmanagich 2017). The pyramid is dressed in sandstone and its stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85). Additionally, on some stone blocks there are protrusions, described as knobs, widely applied in other examples of megalithic constructions (Mohan 19th March, 2020). They are present, for example, in Peru, Egypt, Turkey and India (Ibid.)

The form of a stepped pyramid appears together with the cult of devaraja, “god-king”, and the king as an incarnation of Shiva, represented by lingam, which is confirmed by Sanskrit inscriptions in Prasat Thom (Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48). Such Khmer concepts can be enclosed in the name of Tribhuvaneśvara – the god worshiped in Koh Ker (Coedès in: Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:48), whose name is in Sanskrit an epithet of Indra or Śiva (Wisdom Library 2021).

In front of the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The artificial temple mountain […] is 62 m wide and 36 m high, compared with 15 metres for the Bakong” (Sopheak 2020). After Dr. Sam Osmanagich (2017), however, these official numbers are wrong. Having measured the pyramid himself, he has concluded that the length of the sides is 66 m and the height reaches to 40 m (Ibid.). Furthermore, he notices that the pyramid “is constructed with the combination of processed volcanic rock laid inside the structure and sandstone blocks on the exterior” (Osmanagich 2017). Also some stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks of sandstone carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019): “exterior blocks are of different dimensions, and a combination of concave and convex, with four to six sides. Uneven dimensions resulted in the structural stability of the object, which is preserved until today” (Osmanagich 2017) (we encounter the same technique around the world). The author likewise observes that “the first level of the pyramid has 11 rows of blocks. The second level has 13 rows, and all other levels (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh) have eleven rows of blocks. The blocks are joined with mastery – not binder, plaster, or cement. The hexagonal blocks serve to lock down the whole structure” (Osmanagich 2017). “On the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Sopheak 2020). As Dr. Osmanagich (2017) points out the weight of stones differs from 500 kg up to 7 tons in mass. In this context, it is another example of a polygonal megalithic construction.

The uppermost tier and the passage to the underworld

The gateway to the underworld? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although the pyramid’s stairway is not allowed to be accessed today, visitors can still climb up the top by means of a wooden provisional staircase constructed over to the side (Lawrence 2020). Moving, upstairs, we climbed up the highest terrace measuring 12 metres on a side. It is theorised the uppermost tier was once crowned by a Prasat tower to shrine a large Shiva linga or linga Tribhuvaneshvara (king’s state idol) (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). The Lingam is said to have measured over 9 metres in height and been made of transparent crystal (Mohan 14th March, 2020). Additionally, the city of Koh Ker is still referred to by locals as Lingapura (city of lingams) and the pyramid as the Sahasralinga Temple, which means thousands of lingams (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mohan 28th March, 2020). The city was also called Chok Gargyar (the grove of Hopea odorata) (Zéphir 2015, “Koh Ker” 2021), “translated as city of glance, […] or as iron tree forest” (Koh Ker 2021). The current names, such as Koh Ker and Prasat Prang are modern (Mohan 28th March, 2020).

The lingam from Prang had already gone but inscriptions found in Prasat Thom give the exact time of its consecration, namely on Wednesday, 12th December in the year 921 (Ciccone 1998-2020; Mohan 6th April, 2020). The date is puzzling as the King Jayavarman the Fourth, who is believed to have constructed the Pyramid, came to this area only a few days before the given date (Mohan 6th April, 2020). Accordingly, the lingam must have been consecrated prior to the construction of the pyramid (see: Mohan 6th April, 2020; Sopheak 2020) or the pyramid is more ancient.

The linga may have simply been looted (Sopheak 2020), leaving behind a deep hole in the middle of the platform (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020; Mohan 10th April, 2020), which  is symbolically supported by telamon life-size lions statues (Cunin 2019; Mohan 10th April, 2020). These are Yali, lion-like figures, usually found in South India temples, shown as holding up a structure of a temple (Mohan 10th April, 2020).

The hole itself may actually be reaching down to the pyramid’s bottom (Lawrence 2020), “much like the central chambers of Angkor Wat and the Bayon” (Ibid.). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) describes it as the energy chimney. Apparently, Khmers’ pyramids were to symbolize a connection between the heaven and the underworld (Lawrence 2020).

The pillars taken over by offensive nature. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

White Elephant

To the west, behind the pyramid, there is the last component of the complex – a completely overgrown artificial mound, known as the tomb of the White Elephant (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although no elephant has been found there yet, local people associate it with that animal as it symbolises a royal power in the South East Asia (Sibson 2019). For this reason, it is believed the mound may have been the burial place of the king himself (Ibid.). Yet there is no evidence to support it. In Hinduism, the White Elephant is also a symbol of the god Indra who is represented on the white elephant while holding the Vajra, a mythical device, by means of which, as locals claim, he built Prasat Prang (Mohan 14th March, 2020; 6th April, 2020).

Prang’s architect

Between Gopurams. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I was sitting on one of the crumbling stones in front of the pyramid while observing its majesty. Maybe, the King Jayavarman’s decision about moving the capital to Koh Ker was caused by special qualities of the site (Lawrence 2020). Undoubtedly significant was its geographical location; it was “along the royal road network that connected Angkor to many of its various peripheral settlements” (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1). Most important was an ancient highway between Koh Ker and Wat Phu in modern day southern Laos, which was first discovered by Lajonquière and confirmed in twenty-first century by another researcher, Damian Evans, as the most important strategic road of the Khmer empire (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021).

Specifically Prang seems to have played a crucial role in the complex function as if it had been a gate built to channel a specific energy or power (Osmanagich 2017; Lawrence 2020). As it is described above, Khmer architects designed temples to build a bridge between the celestial and earthly realms (Ibid.). The exceptional shape of Prang itself could be a key to its mystery. Its architect must have been an outstanding individual as much as the pyramid. And I was wondering where the inspiration came from …

Genius Loci

The heritage area of Koh Ker is situated near two villages: Koh Ker and Srayong (Miura 2016:27-28). Yet before the war, Prasat Thom, and especially Prang, were avoided by local villagers not only because of natural factors, like wild animals and snakes, but also due to the supernatural they felt unsecure about (Ibid.:28). They said that the site “was believed to have had such an enormous magical power that birds flying over it would drop dead” (Ibid.:28). ‘Only the French, ‘the ritual officer said. ‘Only they had enough courage to approach it (Ibid.:28).

Genius Loci of the site is still tangible. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nowadays, people visit the temples on their holy days, especially on Khmer New Year, when even people from distant areas come to take part in the ceremony (Miura 2016:31). Although many younger Khmers have already abandoned ancient cultural attitude, older villagers still believe in a genius loci of Prasat Thom (Ibid.:31) … And so do I …

Featured image: Mysterious seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom (Prang) at Koh Ker, Cambodia. 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.


“Khmer architecture” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Ciccone, T. M. (1998-2020) “Prasat Thom Temple, Koh Ker, Cambodia.” In: Asian Historical Architecture. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Cunin, O. (2019). “Two Emblematic Khmer Shaiva temples – Prasat Thom and Banteay Srei” (PDF retrieved from Academia). In: Khmer Temple: Architecture and Icons. Visual presentation of a lecture given in April 2019 at Jnanapravaha Mumbai. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Hall, T., Penny, D., Hamilton, R. (2018). Re-evaluating the occupation history of Koh Ker, Cambodia, during the Angkor period: A palaeo-ecological approach. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0203962, pp. 1-25. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Higham, C. (2001). The Civilization of Angkor. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Kossak, S., Watts, E. W. (2001). The Art of South and Southeast Asia: A Resource for Educators. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lapkura (2021). “Sathmahal Prasada”. In: Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Lawrence, K. (2020). “Koh Ker: The Unsolved Puzzles of the Pyramid.” In: Sailingstone Travel. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Manatunga, A. (2009). ”Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia during the Period of the Polonnaruva Kingdom”. In: Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asia. Kulke, H., Kesavapany, K., Sakhuja, V. eds. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies.

Mazzeo, D., Antonini, C. S. (1978). Monuments of Civilization. Ancient Cambodia [Civiltá Khmer],  Arnoldo Mondadori trans. London: Cassell.

Miura, K. (2016). “Koh Ker.” In: Cultural Property and Contested Ownership: The Trafficking of Artefacts and the Quest for Restitution. Hauser-Schäublin, B., Prott, L. V. eds. London&New York: Routledge.

Mohan, P. (10th April, 2020). “Mysteries of the Ancient Koh Ker Temple, Cambodia – Secret Sculptures Hidden on Top Revealed”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Mohan, P. (14th March, 2020). “30 FEET CRYSTAL LINGAM Found in Cambodia? Ancient Koh Ker Pyramid reveals Advanced Technology?”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Mohan, P. (19th March, 2020). “Tajemnica starożytnych „KNOBS” w świątyniach – dowód technologii topienia kamienia / Geopolimeru?” In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Mohan, P. (28th March, 2020). “1000 Year Old ENERGY LINGAM Discovered? Advanced Ancient Technology at Koh Ker Pyramid, Cambodia”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Mohan, P. (6th April, 2020). “Ancient Pyramid Built in just 12 HOURS? Koh Ker Temple, Cambodia”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Osmanagich, S. (2017). “Revealing the Mysterious Story of the Koh Ker Pyramid in Cambodia”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Sibson, M. (2019). “The Enigmatic Koh Ker Pyramid of Cambodia” In: Ancient Architects Youtube Channel. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Sopheak, H. (2020). “Prasat Thom temple complex in Koh Ker.” In: Koh Ker – Temple Town Tours. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Wisdom Library (2021). “Tribhuvaneshvara, Tribhuvaneśvara: 3 definitions”. In: Wisdom Library. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Zéphir, T. (2015).“Koh Ker – ephemeral capital of the Angkorian Empire (928-944 AD)”; conference. In: The Society of Friends of the Cernuschi Museum [La Société des Amis du Musée Cernuschi]. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

The Hindu Symbol of Lingam of the God Shiva

In Hinduism, the term stands for the phallic symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva. It is also an abstract or aniconic representation of the god in Shaivism. The stone representations of lingas were worshiped as a symbol of the god’s creative power, often depicted in conjunction with yoni, the symbol of his wife, Parvati (Devi).

Featured image: An eleventh-century linga-yoni plaque with a worshipper (Nepal). Nepal, dated 1068 Sculpture Repoussé gilt copper alloy Purchased with funds provided by Harry and Yvonne Lenart (M.85.125) South and Southeast Asian Art. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lingam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


“Lingam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 230. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

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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Eberl M. (2013). ”Śmierć i koncepcje duszy”. Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

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

Hohmann-Vogrin A. (2013). ”Jedność w przestrzeni i czasie – architektura Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

My Gen (2021). “In plain sight: Mayan – Lord Pakal’s Tomb”. In: My Generation; Available at <>. [Accessed on 17th June, 2021].

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Tyldesley J. (2016). “8 things you (probably) didn’t know about Tutankhamun”. In: History Extra. The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed. Available at <>. [Accessed on 24th June, 2021].

Von Daniken E. (1991). Dzień, w którym przybyli bogowie. 11 sierpnia 3114 roku prz. Chr. [Der Tag, and em die Gotter kamen. 11. August 3114 v. Chr.]. Serafińska T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Prokop.

Wagner E. (2013). ”Mity kreacyjne Majów i kosmografia”. Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Wołek I. (2012). “Dookoła świata: Tajemnice Majów. Jukatan – Meksyk”. In: Kurier Powiatowy. Available as PDF. Available at <>. [Accessed on 19th June, 2021]. (2021). “Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences: Maya”. In: History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2021].

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 expanse of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago. Copyright©Archaeotravel. 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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