All posts by Joanna

Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre

The Louvre Museum is without doubt one of the most famous and largest museums in the world. Its Department of Near Eastern Antiquities display, inter alia, 37 monumental bas-reliefs discovered in 1840s by Paul-Emile Botta at the site of Khorsabad (ancient site of Dur-Sharrukin) (Joshua 2014; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). The city itself was built between 717 and 707 as the Assyrian capital in the time of Sargon II (Ibid.). The same site was harshly destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015. After almost five years, it is still impossible to find words to describe the magnitude of the loss for the world’s cultural heritage …

First impression

Two sculptures brought to France from Dur-Sharrukin palace represent the so-called hero, aka Gilgamesh, choking a lion (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). His figure constitutes a part of a monumental complex of the outside façade of the throne chamber: passageways guarded by colossal lamassu and a pair of genies (Ibid.). In the central passageway, between each pair of lamassu stood Gilgamesh (Ibid.). I remember yet its white and black depiction from my elementary book. At that time I interpreted the statue through the lens of school education. So who was Gilgamesh to an eight-year-old girl? Was he a “good” king-hero who fought against “evil” creepy-crawly monsters? All his heroic deeds were known to me from the Epic of Gilgamesh. I do not remember if we thoroughly studied it at all, but even for an adult it is quite difficult stuff to follow. Instead, I mostly paid attention to Gilgamesh’s appearance: alien and sinister. His up-right, muscular, frontal figure was overwhelming with physical strength and hieratic attitude. Wild looking, wide open eyes were set in a round face covered with plaited beard, and were piercing me through. I was just sorry for the lion stuck in his iron grip. The animal’s pulled claws and his silent roar made no impression on the hunter. At that time, Gilgamesh looked to me more like a motionless robot than a “good” hero.

Second impression

Gilgamesh, one of the two images of the hero. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Years later I saw the sculpture myself in the Museum of Louvre. At that time, I studied in Paris so as a student of art history I was allowed to enter the museum after its closure, that is to say, after 9 p.m. I think it is still practiced and students under 26 are allowed to enter the museum for free when all the hordes of tourists are already gone. When I entered the courtyard to the Palace of Sargon II in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, I felt intimidated by gigantic Assyrian wall reliefs and orthostats. Here I stood alone, face to face with mythical creatures, divine heroes and winged Anunnaki. Facing one of the colossi of Gilgamesh, smarter or not, I got a very similar impression as in the time of my childhood, additionally intensified by the dimension of the image. Gilgamesh’s eyes, once brightly coloured were mesmerising with a magical impact (Olivier 2011). The hero was an incarnation of divine and royal power, and his supernatural strength was believed to have protected the palace and the royalty (Ibid.) from the evil spirits, as much as the image of Medusa’s head in ancient Greece.

Magical Being

As mentioned above, there are two Gilgamesh’s sculptures in the museum (Flynn 2014). Each is larger than life as they measure over five meters high. Both are represented in high relief (Olivier 2011). Unlike other characters from the orthostats, the hero is standing in a frontal position, with upper body and head facing the viewers, and with his legs in profile (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). Such a frontal representation is rare in Assyrian art and only reserved to illustrate magical beings (Ibid.). In his right hand he holds a ceremonial, royal weapon with a curved blade (harpe) (Ibid.). In one representation, he is wearing a short tunic with a large fringed shawl over it, hiding one leg and revealing the other, while in the second one two legs are visible (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). In the former, the lion is lifting its head and baring its teeth (Ibid.), the latter shows it biting Gilgamesh’s arm. In both cases, the lion is grasped by the left arm around which the hero is wearing a bracelet with a rosette in the centre (Olivier 2011), looking like a modern watch.

Hero or Tyrant

My feeling at the sight of the sculptures faithfully corresponded to a mythical story I learned about the Sumerian hero: Gilgamesh was a wandering god-king, tragic hero but tyrant. In his destructive desire to become equal to gods (God?), he failed the final battle for immortality and, despite his heroic deeds, he was doomed to death as all human beings.

They came from nowhere

Among numerous artefacts uncovered at the site of Dur-Sharrukin, one of the most-valuable finds was the Assyrian King List (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). Whereas Assyria came to power in Mesopotamia only about 1900 BC, the king lists enumerate much earlier rulers of Sumer, located once in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia since at least 4500 BC. That region is commonly described as the cradle of civilization due to Sumerians’ outstanding achievements (Cartwright 2018). They appeared in Mesopotamia from “nowhere” and are believed to have invented as the first in human history writing, wheel, agriculture (irrigation), ceramic, bronze, advanced astronomy, astrology, calendar, mathematics, legal code, monumental architecture (ziggurats) and the idea of city-states (Bright, J. 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019).

The Sumerian King List

Sumerians also documented on their clay tablets the antediluvian list of demi-divine kings, identifying ten kings who lived for tens of thousands of years before the Flood (Bright, J. 2018). Similar record of extreme longevity is also found in the Bible (Noah lived for 950 years) (Ibid.). No need to say that this particular part of Sumerian “history” was automatically classified as a myth (and its biblical version was re-interpreted) (Ibid.). Nevertheless, scholars acknowledge the King List at the moment it starts with the House of Uruk – the first royal dynasty of Sumer who reigned just after the Great Flood (McLoud 2019; Kosmiczne … 2020). For ancient Sumerians, these were the greatest of all demi-divine king-heroes (c. 3800-2850 BC) (Ibid.). Assuming the List gives a right order, Gilgamesh appears there as the fifth king of Uruk who reigned sometime between 2800 and 2600 BC (Farmer, Jarrell 2017; Kosmiczne … 2020).

  1. Mesz-ki-ag-gaszer
  2. Enmerkar
  3. Lugalbanda
  4. Dumuzid
  5. Gilgamesh
For ancient Sumerians, these were the greatest of all demi-divine king-heroes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The fifth King: 𒀭𒉈𒂵𒈩

Evidently, there are not more “historical” records about the fifth king of Uruk than it is given by the Epic of Gilgamesh. This literary history begins with five independent Sumerian poems going back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC). The Old Babylonian version (eighteenth century BC) is the first surviving version of the Epic, whereas the standard one is much later (thirteenth – tenth centuries BC). Longer, twelve clay tablet version was discovered in the Library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (seventh century BC) (Epic … 2020).

Mighty One

After the Epic, Gilgamesh was in two-thirds god and in one-thirds human (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). As such he was distinguished to obtain lost knowledge from the antediluvian world (Epic of Gilgamesh, lines 5-9) (Ibid.). To do so he journeyed to Mount Hermon (the legendary mount between Syria and Lebanon, in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range) (Ibid.). According to the apocrypha Book of Enoch (Enoch 6:1-6) Mount Hermon was the place where a group of fallen angels – the Watchers – descended to earth, whereas in the Mesopotamian tradition it is known as the dwelling place of Anunnaki – “those of royal blood” – or in other words – sons of god (Hines 1989:73; Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Are those the same?

Who were Anunnaki?

“[T]he true identity of the Anunnaki [or Annunaki] is to be found in the Eastern tradition of [demi-gods], spawned by cross-breeding between divine beings and mortal females at Mount Hermon. […] These beings are often associated with knowledge from the world before a great deluge and were later assigned roles in the underworld. This would suggest [they should properly be compared to the Nephilim and the fallen ‘sons of God’ brought up in Genesis Chapter 6]” (Farmer, Jarrell 2017; see Hines 1989).

Mace dedicated to Gilgamesh, with transcription of the name Gilgamesh (𒀭𒉈𒂵𒈩) in standard Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, Ur III period, between 2112 and 2004 BC. Photo uploaded on 25th April, 2020.C BY-SA 2.0 FR Creative Commons. Photo source: “Gilgamesh” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sons of God

In the Hebrew Bible the expression: “sons of God” appears four times and always refers to angelic beings (in Hebrew: singualr מַלְאָךְ‎ mal’akh, plural: מלאכים mal’akhim)(Gentry 2019). Only with the coming of Christianity, the title of the Son of God has been ascribed to Jesus. The Bible says (Gen. 6:2,4):

the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. […] The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”

As a professor of Old Testament interpretation, Dr. Peter Gentry (2019), says: “Gen.6:1-4 is a difficult text. And as we attempt to interpret it, we should be humble because there are different interpretations that have been taken of this text.” Scholars explain the fragment: “in those days and also afterward” differently. Gentry (2019) suggests that the Nephilim had already lived on the earth “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans” and also existed after that time, so they have nothing to do with the story of the fallen angels. Others suggest that “afterward” stands for the times after the flood as the giants also appears in the Bible later on (Gentry 2019). Still the Nephilim came into existence in those days, that is to say “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them.” (Alberino, Quayle 2016). On the other side, when taking into account the testimony of Apocrypha, “in those days and also afterward” may refer to the times of Jared, that is to say, when the fallen angels descended (Skiba 2016).

Universal myths

In almost all the ancient cultures, there are three recurring myths telling about ancient gods that once descended from heavens to take for themselves human women, about giants that were the offspring of the sexual relationship between the gods and earthly daughters, and about a great cataclysm – in many cases – the flood that destroyed the empire of the gods and their children (Alberino, Quayle 2016).

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Gilgamesh” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ancient traditions alongside with biblical texts also give references to the way the sons of god were punished for their misdeeds (Ibid.; Farmer, Jarrell 2017). The Book of Jude 6 says:

“And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day”.

The same notion is supported by the New Testament (2nd Peter, 2:4, KJV) :

“God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness”.

It is noteworthy that “the word translated as hell in this verse is actually the Greek Tartarus, referencing the deepest underworld of Greek mythology—the prison of the Titans” (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Not only ancient legends support the biblical texts but also record that the gods’ offspring, the giants, shared the fate of their fathers. Most famous of all, the mythology of ancient Greeks actually repeats the same universal stories of the older Eastern traditions (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Greek Titans may stand for both: the Nephilim and Anunnaki. They all were, as the Greek myth says, the offspring of Gaia – an earth goddess (human women?) and Uranus – a sky deity who stands for heavenly beings – gods (Ibid.).

Who were the Nephilim?

“[T]he Septuagint translates both the Hebrew נְּפִלִ֞ים [Nephilim] and גִּבֹּרִ֛ים [gibborim – mighty men or men of renown] in Genesis 6:4 as γίγαντες [gigantes – giants]” (Garris 2019). “Some scholars, [like Michael Heiser (2015:107)], also think Nephilim comes from the Aramaic word naphiyla for giant”(Ibid.). Biblical giants are also referred to as Anakim and Rephaim (Ibid.). What is the difference between those? “In spite of the flood, giants eventually made a comeback” (Ibid.). In this context, Nephilim were mostly antediluvian giants, whereas their descendants were already recorded after the flood as generations of Anakim and Rephaim (Ibid.). Although Genesis 6:4 does not describe the Nephilim as beings of great stature, Numbers 13:32-33 already gives such a narrative (Ibid.). After leaving Egypt, Israelites are approaching the Promised Land (Canaan) (Ibid.). However, Moses first sends there 12 scouts who come back after 40 days with a report about the land (Numbers 13:32-33) (Ibid.)

“The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them“.

The Palace of Sargon II in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, Louvre. Photo by Renate Flynn (2014). “Hero Overpowering a Lion.” In: Impressions Travelogue.

Was then Gilgamesh a giant?

Intriguingly, there are ancient sources suggesting that Gilgamesh was actually of gigantic stature (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). The Epic of Gilgamesh from Ugarit (lines 34-36) reveals the hero’s size (Ibid.): “Eleven cubits was his height, four cubits the width of his chest. A triple cubit was his foot and a reed-length his legs”. Accordingly, Gilgamesh would have been over five metres tall as his statue in the Louvre (Farmer, Jarrell 2017).

At this point, we should also take a closer look at Gilgamesh relief representing him while grasping a lion. Usually, an adult lion measures around three metres, while in Gilgamesh’s embrace, he looks more like a kitty. Assuming that Gilgamesh was over five metres tall, the depicted size of a lion seems more accurate (Zalewski 2017). Also the fragmentary Book of Giants found among apocrypha scrolls in Qumran enumerates Gilgamesh as one of giants (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Gilgamesh’s divine origins were taken either after his mother – a goddess Ninsun, or his father, or both. Although Lugalbanda (the third king of Uruk) is believed to have been the father of Gilgamesh, according to Sumerian Kings List, his true father was a spiritual being (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). As stated by the Book of Enoch, after the flood a number of dead giants was doomed to eternal exile on earth as spiritual beings. Those wandering entities have desired for revenge on God and His creations for the destruction of their world (Skiba 2016). Hence it happened they possessed human beings. Some of those may have brought Gilgamesh to life, as much as other creatures of their kind (Ibid.).

The episode involving Odysseus’s confrontation with Polyphemus in the Odyssey, shown in this seventeenth-century painting by Guido Reni, bears similarities to Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s battle with Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh. By Guido Reni (between 1639 and 1640). Google Art Project. Public domain. Photo source: “Gilgamesh” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Through the Flood

According to the apocrypha Book of Giants, not only giants were the offspring of fallen angels but also animal-angelic hybrids. There was also a crossbreeding between animals themselves. Such beast-like creatures were giants’ inferior comrades (Alberino 2014). Gilgamesh himself makes friends with Enkidu – a wild man (animal-human hybrid) who apparently looked like a Minotaur.

Some entities of the antediluvian world made through the flood along with the corrupted genome. How? There are several contingencies (Alberino 2018):

  1. The second incursion: spirit beings again got into a sexual intercourse with women and more giants were born (Alberino 2014; Garris 2019);
  2. “Nephilim genes were passed down through Noah’s daughters-in-law. These wives of Ham, Shem, and Japheth were not descended from Noah and thus potentially had Nephilim genes in them” (Garris 2019; see Skiba 2016; Alberino 2018).
  3. Necromancy: a genetic transmutation through the sorcery (Alberino 2018; Skiba 2016).
  4. “The Exile of Atlantis” a theory proposed by Timothy Alberino (2018): some forbidden entities escaped the deluge by different means.

As the Epic says, Gilgamesh himself meets Utnapishtim – a survivor of the great flood whom the god Enlil saved from the waters and made immortal (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Gilgamesh desires the immortality for himself but eventually he fails in his quest. Even if he has got divine origins, defeats Humbaba (Huwawa) – the guardian of the Cedar Forest, and slays the Heavenly Bull, he is unable to become immortal like Utnapishtim. In this context, he can be seen as acting against the postdiluvian order (Wayne 2019).

Gilgamesh aka Nimrod?

Similar attitude is expressed by another Mesopotamian king, known from the Bible (Genesis 10) as Nimrod whom other traditions also ascribe the construction of the Tower of Babel (Skiba 2016). Although the Bible calls him Nimrod, it may have been actually a nickname meaning as much as a Hebrew word to rebel or we shall rebel (Alberino 2018; Skiba 2019). Hence Nimrod is believed to have rebelled against Yahweh by building a tower (Gen:10:8-10).

“And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar”.

Although he apparently came from the second generation after the flood, scholars’ attempts to associate Nimrod with historical rulers have failed (Kosmiczne … 2020). Some scholars, like Rob Skiba (2016), claim that Nimrod and Gilgamesh are actually the same, whereas scholars, like David Rohl (2015), notice parallels between Enmerkar (the second ruler from the List of Sumerian Kings) and Nimrod, as both characters seem to share several characteristics. Also Gilgamesh and Nimrod have one feature in common: they were both described as mighty ones, hunters, warriors (Wayne, Magalashvili 2016). “[All these titles derive] from Hebrew gibbor/Gibborim […] meaning [a] powerful warrior, tyrant; champion […] and can include or be a giant/Nephilim (as in Gen 6)” (Ibid.). According to the Scriptures and apocrypha tradition, however, Nimrod was not a giant originally but “[he began] to be a mighty one in the earth. In this application of Hebrew chalal means to profane and to break your word when Nimrod for some reason became a mighty one. So something mysterious happened to make Nimrod like a mighty one.” (Ibid.). A sorcery?

Between the Lamassu. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Post-flood resurrection

Irrespective of a true identity of Nimrod or Gilgamesh, it can be concluded that the ancient world just after the Great Flood may have been ruled by demi-divine gigantic beings – Gibborim who originated from the Nephilim – the extremely intelligent but wicked angelic offspring. The latter built up the antediluvian empire with the help of their heavenly fathers. After Merriam Webster Dictionary, there are a few notions of the adjective antediluvian :

  1. Of or relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible;
  2. Made, evolved, or developed a long time ago;
  3. Extremely primitive or outmoded.

Due to a pejorative meaning of the last definition, people usually tend to imagine the antediluvian world as the one inhabited by primitive, wearing animal skins people who lived in the the time of general ignorance, with a very low level of technology, knowledge or progress (Alberino, Quayle 2016). Yet nothing could be more further from the truth than these stereotypes (Ibid.). Strange as it seems it was a much more advanced world than we know today (Ibid.). Although this antediluvian empire was destroyed by God and the evil was chained in the darkness, the vestiges of the forbidden knowledge introduced by the Watchers have remained in the earth together with their architecture, technology and angelic gens (Ibid.). Post-flood Gibborim, like Gilgamesh, longed for the lost antediluvian realm and so they were constantly trying to take revenge on God for its final destruction by water. They wished to regain power by means of resurrection: they would rebel against the universal order, just as their antediluvian ancestors did. The Epic of Gilgamesh or the story of the Tower of Babel teach, however, that as mighty as they were, they could not win with the Supreme.

Featured image: Gilgamesh statue at Sydney University (image cropped). Photo by Samantha/Flickr/Creative Commons. Photo source: Ancient Code Team (2020) “20 Facts about Gilgamesh—Ancient Sumeria’s Demigod.” In: Ancient Code.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Anunnaki i Sumerowie – Naukowe Fakty” (2019). In: Kosmiczne opowieści. Available at <https://bit.ly/377sSwH>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

“Biblia i Sumerowie – Wieża Babel Odnaleziona” (2020). In: Kosmiczne opowieści. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bjwZZX>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

“Epic of Gilgamesh” In: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/38cAH5B>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

“Gilgamesh” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2KjWX6U>. [Accessed on 20th December, 2020].

Alberino, T. (2018) “New Theory On How The Nephilim Returned After The Flood.” In: Peck, J. Daily Renegade. Available at <https://bit.ly/2S7x6Ah>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Alberino, T., (2014) “The Book of Giants.” In: The Alberino Analysis. Available at <https://bit.ly/2uy7Rhs>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Alberino, T., Quayle, S. (2016) True Legends: Technology of the Fallen/ The Unholy See: The Vatican Knows All The Secrets. GenSix Productions.

Bright, J. (2018) “The Ancient Sumerians & Lost Ancient Human Civilizations.” In: Bright Insights. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ulse1B>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Bruegel P. the Elder (1568). “The Tower of Babel (Rotterdam)” – edited. Google Art Project. Public domain. Photo source: “The Tower of Babel (Bruegel)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3aq67cQ>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Bruegel P. the Elder (1563). “The Tower of Babel” (Vienna) – Google Art Project – edited. Photo source: “The Tower of Babel (Bruegel)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Wy8RwI>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Cartwright, M., (2018) “Fertile Crescent – Cradle of Civilization.” In: Ancient History. Available at <https://bit.ly/2OFKuJP>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Dr. Gentry, P. (2019) “Were the sons of God in Genesis 6 fallen angels? Who were the Nephilim?” In: Southern Seminary. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ujh0KZ>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Farmer, S., Jarrell, J. (2017) “Anunnaki Revealed: Finding the Nephilim in Myth, Giants Among Men– Part II”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/3boy16Y>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Flynn, R. (2014) “Hero Overpowering a Lion.” In: Impressions Travelogue. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bjjJVb>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Garris, Z. (2019) “Giants in the Land: a Biblical Theology of the Nephilim, Anakim, Rephaim (and Goliath).” In: Knowing Scripture. Available at <https://bit.ly/2HiM8x7>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Heiser, M. (2015) The Unseen Realm. Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Lexham Press.

Hines, C. (1989) Gateway of the Gods: An Investigation of Fallen Angels, the Nephilim, Alchemy, Climate Change, and the Secret Destiny of the Human Race. Murrysville: Numina.

Ancient Code Team (2020) “20 Facts about Gilgamesh—Ancient Sumeria’s Demigod.” In: Ancient Code. Available at <https://bit.ly/38c7qbq>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

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Land of Fairy Chimneys in the Heartland of Anatolia

While working as a teacher I always used my summer holidays for study trips, and when my work colleagues went on holidays by the seaside or up to the mountains to relax with their families after the whole school year, I usually went digging, measuring churches or cataloging its inventory. Always non-profit. Anyway, it was my choice and the only chance I could entirely dedicate my time to my passion.

One trip after another

After one week trip to Tri-City (Pomerania, Poland) in July, organised by Wrocław University, some of my school mates prolonged their stay on Hel Peninsula to enjoy its long sandy beaches (see: Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary). Contrary to others, I decided to grasp another opportunity for getting closer to archaeology and I left for … Turkey.

… ruins of some great and ancient city … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After travelling across the whole Poland, I finally reached my hometown, where I repacked my stuff from my backpack to a suitcase, and two days later I was already at the airport, waiting for my flight to Antalya.

Land full of archaeological treasures

Turkey is famous for its archaeological treasures. I joined there my friends who had chosen Anatolia for their holidays. After visiting together Istanbul and Ankara, “we found ourselves suddenly lost in a forest of cones and pillars of rock … like the ruins of some great and ancient city” (W.F. Ainsworth in Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). We had just reached Cappadocia …

Abstract art of Cappadocia

Lying southeast of Ankara, it is one of the most remarkable area in Turkey and most frequently visited places in the whole world.

Caves and corridors … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Since the early eighteen century, its magical moonscape landscapes have astonished travellers and writers – so unusual are its rock patterns (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Cappadocia looks like “a phantasmagorical world where rocks shaped like stepped ziggurats, towers, spires, minarets and cones jut upward into the blue sky” (Ibid:58). Some of these formations grow out of the ground individually or in a few and are characterized by more erosion-resistant basalt caps in the upper part, which gives them the shape of cones imposed on slender like chimneys trunks of soft tufa. Some even compare the latter to penis heads (Pyrgies 2015:31). Clustered together, the rocks sometimes look like an army of crouching dwarfs wearing pointed hats, others – hill-like formations – resemble more “sandcastles melted by an incoming tide” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Such a diversity of shapes became an inspiration for Bronze Age discs – an excellent exemplum of abstract forms of a human body in art (Pyrgies 2015:31; see Noble 2003:40-42).

Grotesquery of the region

Geologically, Cappadocia is millions years old. It was formed as a result of eruptions of the volcanoes: Hasan Dağı and Erciyes Dağı.

Their lava mixed with thick layers of ash changed with time into soft rock, called tufa (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Then an artist came and sculpted a grotesquery of the region. Its name was natural erosion. A painter – natural light – added the pink flush of dawn or dusk and magnified natural colours of stone valleys, vibrating under its subtle touch (Ibid:58). Then people appeared in the valleys, especially in the area of today towns of Göreme, Ürgüp, Nevşehir, Zelve and Avanos. They gauged and “hollowed out the tufa [formations] into honeycombs of rooms for everyday living […]” (Ibid:58), and with the fourth century, hermitages and monasteries for worship (Ibid:58).

Place for religious retreat

Greek Christians who chose Cappadocia for their retreat followed the monastic idea promoted by Basil, the Great (330-379 AD.), a hermit and the bishop of Caesarea (Kayseri) (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58).

Russet-coloured Christian symbols. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Considered the father of monasticism of the Byzantine Church, Saint Basil (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58), likewise the Fathers of the Egyptian desert, believed that a monk’s life should be filled with work and contemplation. Nevertheless, Cappadocian monasticism was based primarily on coenobitic life (community life), which Saint Basil considered the only proper monastic way, unlike the Egyptian anchoritism (recluse) (Telepneff 2001:24-26, 36; Rops 1968:606-607; Zarzeczny 2013:39-40).

Rock-cut Christian churches

With Christian communities’ grow in the Middle Ages, rock-cut Cappadocian churches developed out of early monastic dwellings and there had been over 300 of them by the end of the thirteenth century (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58-60).

The so-called Dark Church as very little light reaches its interior. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The internal architecture of freestanding churches was copied by carving out all the features out of soft rock: “domes, apses, barrel-vault ceilings, and columns, arches and even tables and benches” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58-60). Supporting functions of such elements as columns seem so realistic that it is still surprising to see a stalactite-like column hanging from the ceiling since its base “has been worn out completely away” (Ibid:60). The churches, especially their interiors, are also richly adorned with Byzantine wall paintings representing Christian symbols: from early russet-coloured various patterns drawn directly on the rock to more elaborated and colourful biblical depictions and portraits of saints (Ibid:60). The latter had appeared in Cappadocia since the tenth century onward and were made already on dry plaster (secco) (Ibid:60).

Open air museum

Most famous churches are still visible in Göreme, known for this reason as an “open air museum” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:60). Most famous are the Elmalı Kilise (Church of the Apple), the Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church – because of the looking like a snake, dragon being killed by Saint George), and the Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church) (Ibid:60).

In the course of the fourteenth century, when Cappadocia was already under Turks, the range of Christianity began to shrink and eventually, in 1922, the Greek were expelled from the country (Harpur, Westwood 1997:60). Nevertheless, Cappadocian “houses” have continued to be used by local communities (Ibid:60).

Going underground

Apart from Christian dwellings, archaeologists encountered other earlier constructions but deep underground (Kosmiczne opowieści 2019). In total there are 36 known subterranean cities in central Anatolia but only four of them are open to the public, like Kaymakli and Derinkuyu (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:253). The most extensive and intriguing of all is definitely Derinkuyu, which means in Turkish a deep well (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

The deeper you go down, the more uncomfortable you feel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Likewise the Hypogeum in Malta, it was uncovered by accident in 1963, at the occasion of refurbishing one of local houses. A demolition of one wall opened the entrance to the tunnel going deep down to the underground, and branching into multiple corridors and chambers (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019). After wide excavations, it turned out it was just a part of a huge honeycomb city located on more than eight successive levels and reaching underground up to sixty metres down. Underground cities could once have been connected as one of the tunnels inside Derinkuyu (nine km long and extremely narrow) is said to lead to another underground complex (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

The deeper, the narrower the tunnels become. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Derinkuyu was inhabited in the past by thousands of people (possibly up to 20.000) and their livestock. They seemed to lead a typical life but underground. In their mysterious city, there were spaces of different everyday conveniences: dining rooms, wine presses, cellars, warehouses, animal enclosures, schools and places of worship (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019). For lighting, in some parts people are believed to have used olive lamps, which could have been placed in special niches (Kosmiczne … 2019). Still such niches are missing elsewhere, and on deeper levels torches or lamps would not work due to limited air sources and so the question of the lighting system inside the city has not been entirely answered. It Is obvious, however, that without any artificial light the underground would be just pitch-dark (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The access to fresh water was provided by the well built under the lowest level and taking water from the river flowing under the surface of the city. In order to prevent the water being poisoned, the river’s flow was checked at the level of the lower floors and in the event of danger, the access of water to the upper floors was cut off (Kosmiczne … 2019). Moreover, the city was constructed in such a way that it was impossible to force people to leave it either by means of fire or water (ibid). There were three main entrances to the underground, which in case of danger could be closed only from the inside with round basalt boulders (one meter in diameter, up to 500 kg in weight) (Ibid.). Such megalithic doors were placed on rollers and also led to subsequent levels, thanks to which each of them could be closed separately (Ibid).

Cappadocia is one of the most beautiful places in the world and a must-see for every explorer. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

City residents could also communicate with each other at a distance, using miniature shafts with a section of 10 cm (Kosmiczne … 2019). The entire ventilation system consisted of thousands of long vertical shafts (52 known in total) that supplied air to the deepest and most distant rooms (Ibid). What is quite interesting, the shaft chimneys sticking out on the ground resemble the shape of bull’s horns (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The builders (whoever they were) also took care of the air conditioning: in the summer, there was about 15 °C in the inside, and in the winter the temperature did not fall below 7 °C (Kosmiczne … 2019).

Nobody knows who built this intricate subterranean complex, why and how.

Who built it and and when?

This matter is still very controversial and there are many hypotheses about who was the author of Derinkuyu (Kosmiczne … 2019). As other stone structures, Derinkuyu cannot be dated, which is why archaeologists usually attribute similar structures to cultures having inhabited a given area (Ibid).

Derinkuyu was inhabited in the past by thousands of people (possibly up to 20.000) and their livestock (Photo posted by Jackson Groves, 2019)

Academics generally claim the construction of Derinkuyu was built either by the Phrygians (the twelfth – seventh century BC) or by an earlier culture – the Hittites (1600 BC – the twelfth century) (Ibid). Although the Phrygians are mostly considered as the authors of the city, and the construction itself dated back to the eighth century, the finds of Hittite artefacts (the thirteenth – twelfth century) in the city’s tunnels leave this question still open (Ibid).

Cappadocia’s honeycombs of chambers. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Moreover, there are also much older Palaeolith tools excavated that date back to around 10 000-12 000 (History 2018). Irrespective of these finds, some scholars suggest that some part of the complex was just started by one of these ancient cultures but then widely expanded only by Christians who were forced to protect themselves underground in great numbers (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Such an explanation is, however, less possible as the whole complex is architecturally consistent. And even if Christians had found there their long time refuge and adapted it to their use by creating (or just modifying) rock-cut spaces, such as the so-called “cathedral”, they could not expand the city to such a degree as it is known today (Ibid). The oldest identified account of underground cities in Cappadocia comes from 370 BC and was written by a Greek historian from Athens, Xenophon (Kosmiczne … 2019). His account comes from the work of Anabaza, where the author mentions people living in large, underground houses, along with their livestock (Ibid).

After historians, the city was already used during the Roman Empire, and then by Christians as a place of refuge during invasions of Mongols and Arabs (Kosmiczne … 2019). According to an alternative theory, the builders of Derinkuyu were representatives of a lost, highly developed civilization, which was destroyed about 12,000 years ago by a huge cataclysm (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019; see Hancock 2016).

Why was it built?

Derinkuyu, like other similar constructions in Cappadocia, is believed to have been built as a war shelter for thousands of people looking for a hide from Arab invaders (Kosmiczne … 2019; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:253). However, these are only speculations, not facts.

The primary collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta (in the Wendidad part), mentions the first king of mankind who was warned by the god Ahura Mazda of the coming catastrophe of long-time and evil winters (Kosmiczne … 2019; see: Hancock 2016).

Basalt caps on top of tufa cones. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Thus, the god recommends building a great Vara (in Persian mythology an underground shelter) and let in a pair of seeds from each animal and plant on earth, as well as a number of carefully selected people who would re-populate the land when winter passes away (Kosmiczne … 2019; see: Hancock 2016). With some exceptions, the story is remarkably similar to the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, and other myths about a great cataclysm and a god saving the earthly life (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). Supporters of the theory of the lost ancient civilization relate the description of harsh winters to the last Ice Age (younger dryas lasting from around 10 850 B.C. to around 9700 B.C.) and associate Derinkuyu with the ancient Vara  (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). For these reasons Persians claim such multi-stored subterranean cities were built by their ancient ancestors (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

How?

First of all, Derinkuyu construction amazes with its craftsmanship and highly functional, architectural elements. Like other structures in Cappadocia, the city was made of soft volcanic rock – tuff (Kosmiczne … 2019).

Beauty of central Anatolia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Therefore, builders had to be very careful while building the underground chambers and had to make sure they would carve out strong and well-balanced columns to maintain the pressure of the upper floors (Kosmiczne … 2019). One structural engineering mistake would be enough to cause a collapse of the entire city (Ibid). Secondly, it is noticed that to construct such functional elements as wells and ventilation shafts, the builders would need a special machinery or tooling to drill deeply and precisely in the rock (by the way, no tools have been there found there so far) (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Next, It is estimated that over million and half square metres of rock was removed to construct the whole complex (History 2018). However, there is no trace of the extracted material in the area (Ibid). Finally, in Turkey there are multiple fault lines (a line on a rock surface or the ground that traces a geological fault) generating earthquakes, except for one region, which is in central Anatolia, especially around Cappadocia (Dunning, Ogun 2018). It is not surprising then that such elaborate and deep subterranean complexes were carved out just in the area that has not posed a threat of earthquakes which can easily destroy the underground warrens of tunnels and chambers. The most important question is how their builders knew about that phenomenon (Ibid).

One of the creepiest places

Without doubt, Derinkuyu belongs to most fascinating but also creepiest sites I have ever been. The deeper you go down, the more uncomfortable you feel. It’s an amazing place to get in but it is not proper for asthmatics, people with heart deceases and claustrophobic issues or those with limited mobility (Dunning, Ogun 2018). While walking down to deeper levels, it is more difficult to breathe and passages getting more and more narrower (Ibid).

Homes, Christian dwellings and ancient underground complexes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The tunnels of the city measure approximately 160 cm high (Kosmiczne … 2019) and if you are taller you need to constantly bend over to pass through from one chamber to the other (Dunning, Ogun 2018). So far archaeologists have excavated the city reaching down to its eight floor but there are possibly even eighteen in total (Ibid). However, no archaeologist has explored it yet directly or indirectly by means of robotic probes (Ibid).

Here comes a fairy tale …

Now goes the part I like most: an oral tradition. Local people usually describe the region of Cappadocia as the land of fairy chimneys (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58; Dunning, Ogun 2018).

All around there are fairy like shapes of nature. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such a name may either refer to “fairy” natural formations of Cappadocia – according to travel guide books (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58) or, as villagers believe, to the underground constructions, which were actually built by fairies (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The latter are usually describe as very tiny people resembling Tolkien’s hobbits but with fiery red eyes (Ibid). Some local villagers claim they caught a glimpse of such a creature underground (Ibid). Still such beings could only work by night as they suffered from the daylight (Ibid). This is why, the fairies once lived (or still live) in the deepest and narrowest levels of the subterranean cities (Ibid). According to the same source, the complexes were actually built from the bottom upwards, first by the fairies from the Inner Earth and then, at the higher levels, by people who consecutively adapted them to their use and widely enlarged (Ibid).

The dead end

Is it a fairy tale? Most people in answer would shrug or call it an old wives’ tale. A more scientific theory than that states Derinkuyu was built from the top to bottom (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

The case is, however, the same theory goes to the dead end, while archaeologists are trying to localize the real “bottom” of the subterranean structure (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Bu it is known that the deeper the city goes down, the narrower its chambers and tunnels become but nobody yet has reached their final end, still hidden deep down …

Anatolian night

It was already late when we all were sitting in one of numerous pubs, filled with typical of Cappadocia atmosphere of small villages, being lost among tufa rocks and their multiple shapes. At that time I was not sure anymore if all of these stories I heard were just made-up or maybe I had enjoyed too much Turkish beer … Still I trusted a message coming from Lord Richard Croft’s words: “Well, all myths have foundation in reality” (Tomb Raider 2018).

It was a wonderful adventure …. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Anatolian night was flickering to me with its stars. Tomorrow was surely going to bring another mystery.

Featured image: Imaginative expressions of nature in Cappadocia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“A Subterranean Network”. Fragment of “Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16” (2018). In: History. Available at <https://bit.ly/2S8GfYj>. [Accessed on 31st January, 2020].

“Derinkuyu underground city” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/37uwOu9>. [Accessed on 9th August, 2021].

“Tajemnica Starożytnego Podziemnego Miasta Derinkuyu” (2019). In: Kosmiczne opowieści. Available at <https://bit.ly/2tiHzzd>. [Accessed on 31st January, 2020].

Ainsworth, W.F. (1840s) in Harpur, J. Westwood, J. (1997) The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Marshal Editions.

Dunning, C., Ogun H. (2018) “The Lost Ancient Underground City of Derinkuyu in Turkey.” In:  Earth Ancients. Available at <https://bit.ly/31iK9Sh>. [Accessed on 31st January, 2020].

Groves, J. (2019) Derinkuyu Underground City in Cappadocia, Turkey. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RPnpqf>. [Accessed on 31st January, 2020].

Hancock, G. (2016) “The Zoroastrian Texts Of Ancient Persia, Underground Cities & What They Reveal About Advanced Ancient Civilizations”. In: Alternative News. Available at <https://bit.ly/3b1GfSh>. [Accessed on 31st January, 2020].

Harpur, J. Westwood, J. (1997) The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Marshal Editions.

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

Noble, V. (2003) The Double Goddess. Women Sharing Power. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company.

Pyrgies, J. (2015) Syjamskie bliźnięta minionych cywilizacji. Krótka historia o zakurzonych figurkach. Wydawnictwo Bezkres Wiedzy.

Rops, D. (1968) Kościół pierwszych wieków. Warszawa.

Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration: Stelae

After leaving the site of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, we headed off to the Central Stelae Park in Aksum (also known as Axum). While we were approaching to the hill of the royal commemoration, two slender grey granite towers started growing before us on the blue horizon.

The Fallen Stela. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Aksumite Empire

Located on the Horn of Africa, the ancient kingdom of Aksum (the Aksumite Empire is not just Aksum alone but the region known as Tigray), became an international empire in the first millennium AD (Finneran 2007:146; Sullivan 2019), having “contacts with the eastern Mediterranean world, the Nile Valley, Arabia and even further across the Indian Ocean to India and China. Aksum also forged [in the early fourth century (c. 324)] its own distinctive Christian identity [that lasts till nowadays embodied by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church]” (Finneran 2007:146). The Aksum region had been populated and expanded by Agaw people since the fourth century BC (Sullivan 2019) but it had grown out from the Proto-Aksumite Culture (Finneran 2007). The latter reaches back to the first millennium BC and so the Ethio-Sabeans period with its long traditions related to the empire of the Queen of Sheba, which capital was possibly located in Marib (today Yemen) but with its boundaries stretching over both South Arabia and Ethiopia (Finneran 2007; Sullivan 2019). Although the Queen of Sheba lived centuries before the kingdom of Aksum, its kings proving their right to the crown, claimed descent from Menelik, a legendary son of the famous queen and King Solomon of Israel (Sullivan 2019).

Central Stelae Park. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet before the fourth century and the first Christian king of Ezana, “the Kingdom of Axum had a complex social hierarchy [:] an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lesser nobles as well as wealthy merchants and farmers, and finally a tier of ordinary people such as small farmers, craftsmen, and traders. [Aksumite elaborated tombs] suggest that the elite enjoyed extravagant burial practices, including funerary monuments known as stelae” (Sullivan 2019).

Central Stelae Park

The largest and well carved stelae are present at the Central Stelae Park with the multi-storied carved features: two of them are now standing: looking from the south, there is stela two (the Obelisk of Axum) in the centre, stela three (King Ezana’s Stela) on the right (eastern) side, and on the left – “stela one, [the Great Stela] lies recumbent at the western edge of the group. [Stela] two was toppled in antiquity and was removed to Rome during the Italian occupation in the 1930s from where it was returned [in 2007]” (Finneran 2007:165).  Stela three, in turn, is standing now supported by a system of lifts with blocks and ropes preventing it from falling down. “Three other, smaller multi-storied stelae, [fourth, fifth and sixth], stand to the east of the main group.” (Finneran 2007:165). The obelisks are believed to be “manifestations of secular and ideological power” (Finneran 2007:165) of the Aksumite rulers and had once a funerary function (Finneran 2007:165). While “stela one is associated with the complex of the Mausoleum and East Tomb, [stelae two and three are related to] a warren of catacombs beneath the stela park” (Finneran 2007:165).   

Megalithic empire. The massiveness of the blocks can be observed while comparing them to a scale of a man standing beside the fallen stela. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Afterlife Palace of the Kings

As Finneran (2007:165) notes “the stelas are more than mere tomb markers. [They] embody a great deal of symbolic and social meaning.” Nos one, two and three “were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows” (Sullivan 2019). After some scholars “the tomb [is] a palace for the dead king [in the afterlife]” (Finneran 2007:167) and the door may suggest access to this sphere (Finneran 2007:168).  As it is widely accepted the monuments were carved, brought to the site and erected in the pre-Christian Aksumite period, that is to say around 200-300 AD by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum (Finneran 2007:165-173).

Central Stelae Park with the two standing massive monuments and two smaller ones of a different kind. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Chronologically it is obvious that the stelae should be associated with the pre-Christian burial rituals of the […] kingly elite, possibly commemorating not an individual, rather a dynasty. […] The development of a royal mausoleum […] during the third century is evidence of a rupture with the earlier capital zone on the summit of Beta Giyorgis and the creation of a new type of kingship, removed from the proto-Aksumite intermediate-level society towards a semidivine kingship and dynastic system” (Finneran 2007:169). The royal obelisks “face southwards […] at the foot of Beta Giyorgis, [and] the approaching traveller […] would have passed along a line of throne bases, […] which may have been the bases of large statues, possibly of [Aksumite] kings” (Finneran 2007:167). This means “the area was a dedicated royal necropolis”, (Finneran 2007:168) designed to project a royal power beyond life (Ibid). This is why more elaborated and massive stelae had been erected at the site. Still the one question stays unanswered – HOW? (Foerster 2016).

From the left: the Obelisk of Axum and the King Ezana’s
Stela. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Great Stela or the fallen stela number one weighs 520 tons and is 33 metres high and as such stays the largest monolith to have been raised once by humans (not to mention lying megalithic blocks from the Baalbek site, weighing over 800 to 1000 tons) (Finneran 2007:168; Simon Fraser; SFU 2020) “[Yet] the indications are that [the stela] was never successfully erected.” (Finneran 2007:1650. “The Great Stele was carved on all four sides and represents a thirteen-storey building” (SFU 2020).

“Stela two – the Obelisk of Axum – is a smaller version of stela one. […] In total the monolith was 24,6 metres long and weighed [approximately 200 (SFU 2020)] tons; it was intentionally destabilised during antiquity and broke into five pieces” (Finneran 2007:168). According to an archaeological survey in 1997, “the structure was undermined from the front [the south side] and was pushed forwards from the back [the north side] with the result that the baseplate was displaced southwards and the stela itself cracked as it impacted upon the ground” (Finneran 2007:168).

Stela three or King Ezana’s Stela – is around 21 m high and weighs approximately 160-170 tons. “it is the only large stela that was never relocated nor ever fell down, and is presumably the last obelisk erected in Aksum. […] Following the concerns of the stela’s tilting position, it was structurally consolidated in 2008” (SFU 2020).

With the coming of Christianity, pagan rituals and stelae constructions ceased (Finneran 2007:168). This is probably why the stela two was toppled and the door handle of the stela one was deliberately defaced  (Ibid). Yet, it seems “strange that [King Ezana’s Stela] was spared” (Finneran 2007:168). On the whole, we may assume that “bar the toppling of [the Obelisk of Axum], the transition to Christianity was marked by a general acceptance of pre-existing sacred spaces and respect for monuments” (Finneran 2007:168).

In front of my Aksumite treasure. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

How …?

The all monuments were made of local stone (Finneran 2007:168). “The number of quarry sites  have been surveyed on the slopes of Gobdera Hills” (Finneran 2007:168) – 4 kilometres west of Aksum (Finneran 2007:168; Connah 2016:129), from where “came the granite used for the dressed stones of local Aksumite buildings and some of the stelae” (Graham Conna 2016”129). After Finneran (2007:169) “the stone was then moved across the southern flanks of Beta Giyorgis into the town. […] It is hypothesized that the motive power could have been provided by elephants”. Some other scholars suggest it was achieved by means of wooden rollers …

Did they manage to lift 520 tons …? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Irrespective of any hypothesis, some facts must be considered : namely, the distance between the quarries and the cemetery, the mountainous topography of the Gobdera Hills, Beta Giyorgis and Aksum itself, and possibilities of an elephant or a group of these animals dragging one piece of multi tons megalith through often a narrow and steep area. And it must have been one piece as the stelae were carved out of one single piece of rock. Assuming the fact they were carved on site, the block dragged must have been larger and heavier before it was reshaped and erected.

Stelae and stelae …

More primitive stelae in Aksum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Erection of stelae in Axum has got a long ancient tradition. Although “the Aksumite stelae owe little to the Semitic idea of the Nephesh, or memorial stone, […] it must be assumed that the use of stelae came to prominence as part of the strong process of acculturation  between the northern Tigray highlands and the steppic Sudanic lowlands to the west, [yet in the pre-Aksumite period]. Stelae are also very diversely decorated, embracing a wide range of motifs, such as [the South-Arabian inspired crescent disc symbolism, a carved Egyptian ankh symbol, lances, house-like structure]” (Finneran 2007:172-173). Major part of such monoliths, however, is much more primitive and roughly carved in the comparison to the royal obelisks (Beta Giyorgis, Matara, Hinzat, Sidamo, Munro-Hay, the Gudit Stelae Field) (Foerster 2016; Finneran 2007:172-173). There are also groups of stelae unique to the south of Ethiopia, with a similar funeral function but strikingly different features and iconography. They mostly appear in the region of Soddo and are referred to as the stones of Gragn (see: Language of the Megalithic Tiya).

‘Is it possible that the royal and more elaborated obelisks from Aksum are far older than presumed?’, wonders Foerster (2016). He suggests that ‘some of these granite stelae could in fact be more ancient, and were inherited by the Kingdom of Axum and were re-erected by them. The major damage to the [stela one] may be evidence of a massive catastrophe that severely impacted the first builders, perhaps 12,000 years ago, [possibly by earthquakes]’. Similar devastation of the megalithic constructions is also visible while looking closer at the tombs themselves.

When did the tradition start?

On the other side, “the royal stela is carved as a skeuomorphic representation of a multi-storied building constructed from wood and stone. The door and window frames […] are also reflected in the church building at the monastery of Debre Damo (sixth century), inter alia, and are suggested by architectural  reconstructions of Aksumite palace building” (Finneran 2007:165,167). Very characteristic of the royal stelae is also “the distinctive curved [top] of the multi-stored construction, which resembles the symbol of the moon deity [from the time of the pre-Aksumite empire]. The presence of small holes here may imply that a metallic plaque had been fixed upon the tops of the megaliths” (Finneran 2007:1767-168). Is it then a continuation of the long-term Ethiopian tradition from the more ancient symbols of the crescent moon and wooden architecture to the repetition of the same patterns in the stone stelae dressing? Or maybe the other way round, assuming the stelae had been already present there and adapted as much as some of the tombs structures? And finally, how did the Aksumite subjects shape blocks of granite rock and on that scale? (Foerster 2016).

The Great Stela. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Giant’s playground

I stood by the fallen stela number one and I could not help feeling the enormity of the structure at which I felt like shrinking. “The indentations on each side of the stela are elaborately undercut.  This concept causes the strong Aksum sunlight to enhance the apparent relief of the carved surfaces” (SFU 2020). This is why the play of light on the stela carvings were giving a distinctive visual impression (Finneran 2007:167) that it is no longer a stone but a giant busk of a living being moving along in the sun. Then, I looked around the Park. Everywhere, there were some multiton megalithic pieces scattered around as if by a storm, and left among the trunks of still standing stelae: some were partially protruding from the ground, sometimes with precise patterns carved on them, others assuming more regular shapes being probably once a part of a bigger construction. All of those elements looked like abandoned toys in the playground of a giant who had forgotten to collect them.

At the site of the Central Stelae Park. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Stelae at Aksum, Ethiopia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Simon Frazer University (SMU) (2020) “Aksumite Stelae: true treasures of human craftsmanship.” In: Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aLucZt>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Connah, C. (2016) African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Foerster, B. (2016) “The Amazing Megalithic Obelisks Of Axum In Ethiopia” In: Inca Hidden Tours. . Available at <https://bit.ly/36s5iKQ>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Sullivan, K. (2019) “The Kingdom of Axum: Facts and Legends of a First Millennium Powerhouse.” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2O2Er1w>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Finneran, N. (2007) The Archaeology of Ethiopia. New York and London: Routledge.

Maltese History in the Negative

The title: History in the Negative [1]


[1] The title of the article refers to the idea of Giulio Magli (2009:56-57; Chapter 3.3 “A Temple in the Negative) that the Hypogeum mirrors a Maltese temple in the negative, as it is underground.

When you would like to tell a story, you usually start from the very beginning. Still I am not quite sure where that “beginning” is. Anyway, for me it starts with a study trip on the island of Malta. It is a relatively small archipelago located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, and it is composed of three islands of a different size: the largest Malta, medium Gozo and the smallest Comino. Above all, it is a popular holiday destination stormed by hordes of tourists every year. Most of them finish their adventure on the crowded, many a time rocky beaches, enjoying warm sea and daylong sunbathing. More curious visitors overcome the summer heat and abandon the coast to plunge in Maltese stories from the past. In my case, the latter choice was glaringly obvious. Before I landed on the island, first I took a flight from Ireland to Poland to spend at least one week with my family. It is not so reasonable to choose the month of August for exploring the island but it was because of the summer break at my university and the only available time to take my annual leave.

Welcome to the Island of Giants

When my friend and I landed after two hours on Malta International Airport in the town of Luqa, I felt a very pleasant sensation of butterflies thrilling in my stomach. I had done some research on Maltese history beforehand and I just could not wait to verify all this information in practice, which turned out to be not as simple as I thought. Because of an unpredictable delay (still very typical of the island) and fierce heat of the sun, we reached our air-conditioned hotel in La Valletta completely exhausted and sweaty like after a workout. I dumped the luggage on my bed and walked out on our tiny balcony overlooking the port bathed in navy-blue waters and the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, looming majestically large on Valletta’s skyline. I was just enchanted with the orange colours of the city, strengthened by the light of the afternoon sunlight.

View on La Valletta from our hotel’s balcony. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Official Version

Our tour itinerary around the archipelago was stuffed to the gills and we got just a few days to realize it. The history of Malta is a long and compelling story dating back as it seems to the dawn of civilization but nobody knows when it actually started. Like in the case of other Mediterranean islands, such as Cyprus, archaeologists enumerate several stages of its timeline: first, there was the Paleolithic, then Neolithic period (traditionally called the New Stone Age) with the remains of mysterious megalithic temples, then the Phoenician, the Carthaginian, the Roman and the Byzantine (Visit Malta 2018). Christianity was brought to Malta in 60 AD by St. Paul himself who was shipwrecked on the island while on his way to Rome (Ibid.). The Moors conquered the islands in 870 A.D. and had ruled over it until 1530 A.D., when Malta got into the hands of Sicily (Ibid.). The Emperor, Charles V handed down the island to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, after they were forced to abandon their previous seat on the island of Rhodes, overtaken by the Turks (Ibid.).

Massive fortifications of Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Joannites or Hospitallers, since then also called the Maltese Templars, governed Malta from 1530 to 1798 (Visit Malta 2018). The Knights made it a cultural and artistic hub of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ Europe, and it was marked with the presence of such artists as Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray, commissioned by the Knights to embellish their Baroque churches and palaces (Ibid.). Nowadays, Malta is usually known for its bastioned fortifications of Birgu and Valletta, consisting of towers, batteries, redoubts and entrenchments, which are also characteristic of the Knights’ medieval defences on the Island of Rhodes (Ibid.). In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took over Malta from the Knights on his way to Egypt (Ibid.). The French presence on the islands was short, as the English, who were requested by the Maltese to help them against the French, blockaded the islands in 1800 (Ibid.). British rule in Malta lasted until 1964, when Malta became independent (Ibid.). Still the Maltese adapted the British system of administration, education, legislation and left-hand driving with a steering wheel on the right-hand side … (Ibid.). Modern Malta became a Republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in May 2004 (Ibid.).

So much official history. Let’s go beyond it and investigate what hides in the legends.

Neolithic Tour

My study focused on the Neolithic Malta and its enigmatic megaliths scattered around the islands of Malta and Gozo that I wanted to explore during my short stay.

Next day, we caught a taxi to Paola, a town in the South Eastern Region of Malta, around seven kilometres away from La Valetta. We were to get there at 10 AM sharp. I had registered online for two entries to one of the most mysterious monuments in Europe, or even in the world. Access to the site is highly regulated (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Magli 2009:56). You are not allowed to take anything with you on a tour, such as bags, mobiles or cameras (Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016). Before it starts, you need to leave all your stuff in the locker. Instead, you are provided with an audio-lingual guide with headphones. You are not allowed to either take pictures, film anything or even speak, and all the time you are accompanied by a silent guide leading the group (Magli 2009:56; Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016).

Limestone doorways. Photo by Hamelin de Guettelet (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Visits are limited to six times per day for ten people at once. For those who turn up on site without a pre-booked ticket, it will be impossible to enter, unless somebody else cancels the tour, which is quite unlikely. The site had been closed since June, 2016 and reopened on May 15, 2017 with tickets available online from Heritage Malta’s website and from Fort St. Elmo or the Gozo Museum of Archaeology. As it was advised, we got there 15 minutes in advance. We stood in front of a inconspicuous semi-detached house with walls painted yellow and white, a door, small window and a garage. The only thing informing us it was the right address was the writing above the entry, saying: HYPOGEUM (Ibid.).

Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

The Hypogeum is a huge and a multi-levelled circular cave, artificially carved into the rock, which today looks from the outside like a part of an ordinary building (Haughton 2009:162). In the Mediterranean, among others in Crete, Sardinia, Sicily and southern France, there are many subterranean worlds, albeit with a slightly different nature than the Malta underground temple, which is truly unique (Ibid.:162). It actually remains one of the most fascinating and mysterious of many megalithic structures not only in Europe, but also on the island itself (Ibid.:162).

Today, the complex is widely referred to as the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni as the name hypogeum stands for an underground burial chamber (Magli 2009:57). Moreover, it is estimated that the subterranean network of tunnels and chambers covers an area of approximately 1 639 square meters and, as such, it is believed to have been once an important underground tomb and temple complex (Haughton 2009:162).

According to archaeologists, the whole structure comes back to the period around 3300 – 3000 BC., or slightly earlier, which was called after the name of the site, the Saflieni phase in Maltese prehistory (Pace 2004:10-20; “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” 2018).

Positive and Negative of the Temple

In 1902, an intriguing discovery was made. Workers building the foundations of an apartment block accidentally broke through the stone layer and unearthed the underworld construction, which according to some experts should be regarded as the eighth wonder of the world (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Haughton 2009:161-169; Pace 2004:3-9). It displays similar features as other megalithic temples in Malta but in the negative, mirroring the overground architecture of megalithic temples (Magli 2009:56-57).

The Holy of Holies. Photo by –jkb– (own image / eigenes Werk / vlastní dílo; scanned photo) (1985). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The subterranean version of a Maltese megalithic temple has been carved down in the living rock and its shape has been obtained by removing over two thousand tons of limestone out (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014; Pace 2004:14; Magli 2009:56; Haughton 2009:162). Strangely enough, it is commonly accepted by archaeologists that the whole process of hewing the stone was done with hammers and horned pikes (Haughton 2009:162). In turn, the surfaces of the hollow rock are believed to have been smoothed by using flint tools, with the entire work being done in dimness! (Ibid.:162). As a result, neolithic builders were to create the whole complex of Ħal Saflieni, composed of a series of chambers, halls and niches arranged on three successive floors or levels (Pace 2004:23-45; Haughton 2009:162; Tajemnice Historii 2016). One of the authors studying the construction has imagined it as three Stonehenge complexes, set one above the other on the successive levels, but hidden deeply in the underground (Tajemnice Historii 2016).

The refurbished visitors’ center will help bust all the myths.

Before we descended to the underground, we did a very entertaining virtual tour of the underground cemetery with a video scenes sliding over the walls of the exhibition area, presenting an alleged history of the site’s construction.

At the same time, the authors of the film obviously try to persuade the visitors that a group of stone age farmers, armed only with primitive tools described above were able to accomplish such an architectural feat (Alberino, Quayle 2016). What is more, there are also some posters on the walls recalling major mysteries on the Hypogeum just to deny them entirely and replace with the mainstream history.

Inside the Giant Bell

When we finally descended underground I was immediately struck by a gloomy atmosphere hovering there (Ancient Code Team 2018; Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016). It was not only the fault of natural darkness but some kind of irrational anxiety (Ibid.). Architecture critic, Richard Storm says that this strange sensation is because “you [feel] something coming from somewhere else you [cannot] identify, [and so] you are transfixed” (Ancient Code Team 2018). It was like being inside a giant bell with multiple opening leading deeper down in the unknown abyss (Ibid.). According to such researchers as Timothy Alberino and Steve Quayle (2016), it is more like a crypt than a temple. “Inside, […] there is a sequential lighting system so that the light goes on when the guide enters the area and goes off when [they leave it] so the whole group must follow close behind” (Magli 2009:56). Any self-guided tours are forbidden so you cannot explore the site on your own and only two upper levels are accessible for the groups. The lowest part of the Hypogeum mustn’t be visited.

Site map of the Hypogeum made in October 1907. Manuel Magri died in 1907. Uploaded in 2008. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Within the bell like gorge, archaeologists have uncovered tombs and a few rooms of different size and unknown function (Magli 2009:49). The Upper Level is believed to be the oldest, being used between 3600 and 3300 BC. (Pace 2004:24-26; Haughton 2009:162). It is placed three metres below the street level and includes a central corridor and burial chambers cut into natural caves on either side of the corridor (Pace 2004:24-26; Haughton 2009:162). According to archaeologists, the Upper Level resembles other rock-cut tombs found elsewhere on the islands of the Maltese archipelago, such as the rock-hewn Xemxija tombs on the western part of St. Paul’s Bay in the Northern Region of Malta, dating back to around 4000 BC. (Haughton 2009:162; “Xemxija” 2021).

Standing at the highest point of a walkway, I could get a bird’s eye view of the Upper Level (Pace 2004:47). “A [large] monumental trilithon still stands to the north of the main passage” (Ibid.:25-26), as a part of a larger structure that had already disappeared (Ibid.:25-26,47). There are also three roughly cut tomb chambers with low headroom and a group of similar cavities that lead to the so-called cistern reaching a depth of almost eight metres (Ibid.:24,26,47). One of the chambers still contains a deposit of earth and human remains (Ibid.:47). Around the same area, one can also discern some cists, a regular circle and tethering holes cut in the rock, like in the temples on the surface (Ibid.:47).

Going deeper

The Middle Level reaches eight metres below the street and features magnificent builders’ skills in stonework; such features can be especially observed in the masterfully cut trilithons (Pace 2004:24,26-44,47-48; Haughton 2009:162-163). The entire level is said to have been cut into a deep rock between 3300 and 3000 BC., as an extension of the Upper Level of the structure (Haughton 2009:162). The architecture of this level is reminiscent of the overground megalithic structures found elsewhere in Malta and contains the most important elements of the whole hypogeum (Ibid.:163). Accordingly, the Middle Level is further divided into three successive zones (Pace 2004:24,26-44,46). There are several important rooms, such as the Main Room or Chamber, the Holy of Holies, and the Oracle Room or Chamber (Pace 2004:24,26-44,46-48; Haughton 2009:163).

Zone A covered in red

The so-called Zone A contains the Main Chamber, which is roughly circular with a number of entrances in the form of trilithons, some of which are blind, and others lead to another chamber (Pace 2004:27,29-48). Almost the entire space of the Main Chamber is additionally decorated with an arrangement of vertical and horizontal curves, some of which are in the form of a honeycomb, and most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre, which is well visible even today (Pace 2004:21,30,36-37,48; Haughton 2009:163). On the other side, particular shapes of the walls create altogether a visual play on a viewer that can be compared to the effect of “fish eye” camera lens (Pace 2004:30,48). The Main Chamber can be also seen from the Upper Level, through the mentioned already circular opening above it (Ibid.:48).

“Sleeping Beauty” found in the Hypogeum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Zone B and the Sleeping Lady in the Snake-Pit

Zone B located within the same level is characterized by a large elliptical chamber with two cavities or pits of an unidentified purpose (Pace 2004:48). One of them is sometimes referred to as the Snake-Pit and reaches two metres down (Pace 2004:37-39,48; Haughton 2009:163; Bradshaw Foundation 2017). Alongside the same pit, there is a shaft leading to the lowest (known) part of the Hypogeum, carved down over ten metres below the street level (Pace 2004:24,44-45,48; Haughton 2009:164). Inside the Snake-Pit a mysterious statuette of the Sleeping Lady was possibly found, which is today preserved in the Museum of Archaeology of Malta, in La Valletta (Pace 2004:39,48; Haughton 2009:163). Other sources say the figurine may have actually been discovered in the previously described Main Chamber of the Zone A (Haughton 2009:163). Such contradictory and confusing information only shows how chaotic first archaeological reports on the site could be.

Like other clay figurines found on site, the Sleeping Lady probably dates back to 3000 BC. and represents a corpulent woman reclining on a couch (Haughton 2009:163; Pace 2004:22). Possibly due to its outstanding obesity, the figurine is also described as the Sleeping Venus, in reference to similar opulent shapes of the Paleolithic female figurines, collectively called the Venus (Haughton 2009:163-164). As Giulio Magli (2009:47) writes “she sleeps, serene, pleased by her own exaggerated sensuality, exaggerated by our aesthetic canons, of course to the extent that many call her by the rather disrespectful name of the ‘Fat Lady'”.

The Holy of Holies

The ceiling of the Chamber in Zone B is elaborately decorated with a series of spirals, polygons and a plant-like paintings made with red ochre (Pace 2004:48). It is probably the most painted area in the whole complex (Haughton 2009:164). This is why it is usually referred to as the Holy of Holies (Pace 2004:48; Haughton 2009:164). The space comprises a finely carved replica of a temple façade, featuring a partially corbelled ceiling (Ibid.:48). Accordingly, it is distinguished by a trilithic portal carved in the rock, reflecting the architecture of free-standing Maltese Neolithic monuments, and the corbelled ceiling that was also possibly applied in the above-ground temples on the islands of Malta (Haughton 2009:164). The exceptional importance of this place is also evidenced by the lack of any burial there. (Ibid.:164). “Opposite the Holiest of Holies [lies] a monumental entrance [with] seven steps leading to the Lower Level” (Pace 2004:48). The passage, however is closed for the Hypogeum’s visitors (Carabott 2017).

Hypogeum
Paintings for the Dead?. Photography by Daniel Cilia. Photo and caption source: Anthony Pace (2004) The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Malta Insight Heritage Guides, p. 37.

Zone C with the Oracle Room

Zone C features the most mysterious of all, the Oracle Room – unevenly rectangular, long chamber with a ceiling intricately decorated with spirals in red ochre and with circular objects looking like discs (Pace 2004:39-41,48; Haughton 2009:164).

The Oracle Room also include smallest side chambers (Pace 2004:40,48; Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). One of them has the peculiarity of producing a powerful acoustic resonance from only a male vocalization made inside it (Pace 2004:40,48; Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Namely, any low sounds made by male voice (it is said that there is no such an effect in case of a higher female voice) is carried around the entire complex and even through the walls (Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Its vibrations can be felt anywhere in the whole complex with the same strength as in the Oracle Chamber (Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). In other words, the words spoken by a male voice in the Oracle Room are heard in exactly the same way within a meter as in any niche, chamber or corridor, situated on any floor of the Hypogeum (Tajemnice Historii 2016). Apart from that, scientists have found that a male voice with a frequency of 110 Hz being emitted from the Oracle Chamber, bouncing off the walls, acquires a vibration that puts listeners in a specific state of trance and affects the brain centers responsible for creative thinking (Ibid.).

Apparently, the Hypogeum’s creators were specialized in acoustics, which amazes mainstream scholars who still call the hollow a primitive amplifier and believe it was once used by an oracle (Alberino, Quayle 2016). For the same reason, the purposefulness of the builders’ achievement of this intriguing acoustic effect is usually questioned (Haughton 2009:164). According to some scholars, such an achievement could be just the matter of mere chance (Ibid.:164). Otherwise, it would have to be considered that the Neolithic civilization was much more advanced than was thought, and the very ability of its members to use acoustics in religious ceremonies should be commonly accepted (Ibid.:164).

Mystery of the Lower Level

The mystery of the Hypogeum also involves the Lower Level that could also be once explored by visitors but now it is not allowed for the public. The lowest part of the complex is ten and a half meters below street level and it is said that it is further forked into a maze of chambers, which were filled with water at the time of their discovery in the early twentieth century (Haughton 2009.:164). According to mainstream academia, it contained no bones or offerings, only water (Haughton 2009:164-165; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). The accumulation of water has been thus considered a legitimate function of this level in the time of the Temple Period, as it was the case in Knossos, Crete, between 2150-2000 BC. (Ibid.:165). Archaeologists also definitely suggest storage, possibly of grain (Haughton 2009:165; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Water and storage of grain?! Quite unusual …

Entry to the Hypogeum, Hal Saflieni. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Lower Level is said to date back to the period between 3150 and 2000 BC., so it would be the latest of all the levels, as according to archaeologists, the Hypogeum was started to be carved from up down to the Lower Level, where it ends (Pace 2004:23-27; Haughton 2009:164). But what if the Hypogeum does not end there but its corridors lead further underground, as some records tell? As a matter of fact, some alternative scholars suggest rather the opposite direction of cutting the structure out of the rock, starting from a natural cave or subterranean tunnels existing beneath the island. That, in turn, would involve a wide exploitation of the natural cavities by the temples’ builders who would have mastered a very high level of engineering to carry out such works deep underground.

Scholars agree yet that the entrance to the Hypogeum may have originally led through a temple on the surface, that would have once existed above the Hypogeum, and would have been similar to those still existing on the island (Pace 2004:23-27). Such a structure would be then either a threshold to or a final destination on the way up through the underground labyrinth.

Anyway, not without a surprise, the lowest level of the Hypogeum played the key-role in various stories I will come back to in a later article.

A necropolis or a temple … ?

National Geographic
“National Geographic, May, 1920, Back Issue”. In: National Geographic Back Issues. Accessed on 12th of August, 2018.

The purpose of the Hypogeum still remains unknown. An archaeologist, Brian Haughton (2009:165) believes it was primary a cemetery; the number of human remains is much greater than the tombs could contain at any given time during the period of the Hypogeum, indicating, along with the dates of the found human bones, that the complex was used as a cemetery for several centuries (Haughton 2009:165). On the other side, the Hypogeum may have originally been a temple, where some kind of ceremony took place (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). The fact that no human remains were found in certain rooms of the complex, among others in the the Holy of Holies, supports such a theory (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). An interesting clue that may point to the original functions of the Hypogeum is the similarity of this place to natural caves (Haughton 2009:165). The darkness of the original underground chambers and corridors is hard to imagine today, in the age of bright glow of artificial light (Ibid.:165). However, long ago, someone who was going into the abyss of the underworld probably had at their disposal only the faint and fluttering light given by animal fat lamps (Ibid.:165). It is easy to imagine that there were some processions or ritual initiations at the Hypogeum that included, for example, passing through the trilithic portal to more restricted and sacred areas, such as the Holy of Holies (Ibid.:165).

It is also possible that both functions of the Hypogeum, as a temple and tomb, were once combined together for funeral ceremonies, involving priests communicating with ancestors, maybe to celebrate the cult of the dead (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). This theory can be further supported by features of the Oracle Chamber or figurines found in situ (Pace 2004:22,40).

Seven thousand skeletons

Surely, at some point, the complex started to mainly play a role of a huge necropolis and a collective burial chamber, as many rooms discovered to be filled with bones of thousands of people (Haughton 2009:165). The leading archaeologist working on the site, Sir. Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935), estimated there were over seven thousand skeletons in the Hypogeum from the period between 3,600 and 2,500 BC., major number of which was placed just at the original entrance to the underground (Magli 2009:57; Peregin 2017; Tajemnice historii 2016; Haughton 2009:165). It is believed the corpses were left there to undergo the state of decomposition (Tajemnice historii 2016; Magli 2009:57). Only then, the bones were placed in the niches (Pace 2004). In this case, the necropolis stage of the Hypogeum must have followed that of a temple (Haughton 2009:165; Cf. Magli 2009:57). At some stage of archaeological works, the skeletons must have been eventually removed to the Museum’s storage (Alberino, Quayle 2016).

“Long-Skulled” … ?

Among the found human skeletons in the Hypogeum, some show definite anomalies, unlike any ancestor on the evolutionary scale (Steve 2016; cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014). Namely there were at least six skulls looking strangely abnormal (Burns 2014; Alberino, Quayle 2016). The fact is also reported by an article by Griffith, Malta, Halting Place of Nations, published in a National Geographic magazine from May, 1920 (Roma 2017). In the article, the author describes the ancient inhabitants of Malta as a race of “long-skulled” beings (Ibid.):

From an examination of the skeletons of the polished-stone age, it appears that the early inhabitants of Malta were a race of long-skulled people of lower medium height, akin to the first people of Egypt, who spread westward along the north coast of Africa, whence some went to Malta and Sicily and others to Sardinia and Spain.

Griffiths, William A. (1920). “Malta, Halting Place of Nations”, originally published in a National Geographic magazine from May, 1920, p. 449. Text source: Roma (2017). “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

Apart from National Geographic magazine, there were also other publications on the subject as it seemed to be a worldwide known phenomenon. In the process of archaeological preservation starting in 1903, the bones were removed from the Hypogeum and placed in the storage, whereas the elongated skulls were put on a public display in the Museum of Archaeology, in La Valletta (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014; Ancient Code Team 2018). From there they suddenly and mysteriously disappeared sometime after 1985 (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Ancient Code Team 2018).

"The Mystery of Malta's Long-Headed Skulls". Source: The Explorer (2017)
Screenshot of the article about the skulls via YouTube: The Editor of HERA. Italy’s Magazine of Ancient Mysteries: “The Mystery of Malta’s Elongated Skulls. Screenshot and caption source: Ancient Code Team (2018). “Elongated alien-like skulls found inside ancient Necropolis in Malta go missing” In: Ancient Code.

Apparently, the same had happened to the seven thousand skeletons which have not been seen again since the World War II finished (Burns 2014; Carabott 2017; Roma 2017; Ancient Code Team 2018). After their disappearance from the public view, mainstream academia has done its best to erase their existence from the records, simultaneously undermining excavation results made by one of the greatest researchers in Malta, Sir. Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935), who has been revered as the father of Maltese archaeology and the first director of the National Museum of Malta (Pace 2004:8-9; Haughton 2009:162). By 1911, he had unearthed an extraordinary collection of archaeological relics at the Hypogeum complex; apart from the huge numbers of human remains, there were also ceramics, including the mentioned refined figurines, beads and amulets (Haughton 2009:162). He also wrote a series of reports about his work, which had been published since 1910 (Ibid.:162). The Hypogeum itself was first opened to the public in 1908, even before the excavations were completed (Ibid.:162).

Manuel Magri and his lost report

Actually, Sir. Themistocles Zammit took over the research in the Hypogeum just after Manuel Magri (1851-1907) (Ancient Code Team 2018). The latter was a pioneer of archaeology and a Jesuit priest (Pace 2004:7). Magri had been in charge of the excavations since 1903 till his death under suspicious circumstances, just before he was about to publish his excavation report in 1907, which has never been found (Ancient Code Team 2018).

Further research on the Hypogeum skulls

As a result of on-going covers-up, “many people remain skeptical about elongated skulls, and every time such remains are found people tend to categorize them as a hoax or result of head binding. Still the elongated skulls in Malta are anything but ordinary” (Ancient Code Team 2018). The skulls were first examined in 1912 by archaeologists and it was recorded they have significantly differed from normal human skulls (Ibid.). In fact, their existence and anomalous characteristics became well documented before they disappeared (Ibid.). There are texts and images of the skulls made by Dr Anton Mifsud, and his colleague Dr Charles Savona Ventura, before their removal from the Museum (Ibid.). They detail the skulls’ “numerous, strange characteristics, such as elongations, drilled and swollen occiputs and strangely developed temporal partitions, which are unlike any known human race on the planet” (Ibid.). Recently, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture “has downplayed the mystery [of the skulls, saying that they] are not even elongated and are frequently made available to researchers” (Peregin 2017).

National Museum of Archaeology in La Valletta, Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Yes a lot of requests have been made in the past 10 years. Most people request to look at them. Since they are not on display, Heritage Malta gets them out of storage and officials from the Agency accompany the visitors during the whole stage.  As a rule, permissions are only granted to researchers” – the spokesperson said (Peregin 2017). “Once [researchers] realize that the skulls are not, in fact, elongated, most people subsequently drop their request” (Ibid.)

Do they, indeed? Well, in answer to one of such a scientific request, an independent researcher, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, has been privileged to see the skulls and he has not left the Museum disappointed (Burns 2014). He was invited by Vanessa Ciantar, the curator at National Museum of Archaeology in Malta, who turned out to be very helpful in explaining all the details connected with the mysterious bones (Ibid.). There have been five skulls on the whole, presented to the researcher, at least one of which was definitely elongated and lacking the Fossa media – the join that runs along the top of the skull in case of regular human skulls (Ibid.). Accordingly, it could not have been artificially elongated but only natural (Ibid.). The Curator, herself, pointed to the fact that the middle suture is completely fused and cannot be seen even when the skull is observed from the inside (Ibid.). Moreover, the eye sockets of some skulls have seemed exceptionally large (Ibid.). So which version is true then? And why are the skulls not on public display? (Ibid.).

‘They are not on display yet’, the curator said (Burns 2014). ‘Because they haven’t been studied yet … The DNA tests have been handled many times but without any result. At some stage the skulls were filled with plaster and it made the bones highly contaminated so the results cannot be reliable’, she explained (Ibid.).

The only thing informing us it was the right address was the writing above the entry, saying: “HYPOGEUM”. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Still they do exist. So why do some authorities deny their existence? Some scholars even speculate that the elongated skulls belonged to a mysterious priest race (Tajemnice historii 2016). A great respect that long-headed people must have once enjoyed in Malta is evidenced by the fact that in Hypogeum there were also found human skulls bearing traces of a cranial deformation, which apparently aimed at elongating the head in order to physically resemble priests, whose knowledge and skills were apparently widely admired (Ibid.).

As much as the Lower Level, not all the Hypogeum corridors are open to the public (Tajemnice historii 2016). There are also some that have not yet been explored (Ibid.). A number of them is so narrow that they can only be crossed on the knees (Ibid.). It is therefore hypothesized that priests’ elongated heads and the associated with them abnormal brain development could have caused their considerable difficulty in walking (Ibid.). So it is possible that the priests did not walk but rather crawled like snakes (Ibid.). Hence the low ceilings of some corridors inside the Hypogeum (Ibid.).

The womb of myths

As a matter of fact, such mysterious underground structures as the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni can really inspire a creation of strange legends (Haughton 2009:165). Accordingly, there are so many chilling stories about this underworld that it is difficult to believe they are all just a fruit of a human imagination (Ibid.:165). These are, among others, stories about the disappearance of a whole group of school children and about monsters and underground alien bases … (Ibid.:165). Similar stories keep haunting my mind, especially in the darkness of mysterious passages and deep tunnels (see: Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta).

Featured image: Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum © Heiko Gorski. Photo by Heiko Gorski (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0 AU. In: UNESCO.

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.

Continue reading Maltese History in the Negative

Mystery of the Lady From Elche

I left behind one of the most famous museums in Europe, the Prado, together with my colleague intensely studying in front of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, and I headed off to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. I caught the bus and after twenty minutes I entered the air-conditioned edifice full of ancient artefacts of Egypt, Nubia, the Middle East, Greece, and obviously, Iberian Peninsula of different periods.

Before the Romans Came

Particularly, the pre-Roman epoch was of my special interest. It covers the cultures that developed between the beginnings of the Iron Age and the process of Romanization, that is to say, the First Millennium BC. It was marked by several Mediterranean cultures, namely Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Phoenician, semi-legendary Tartessian, and finally Carthaginian. Many objects in this collection come from archaeological excavations and finds carried out in the Peninsula and its islands since the nineteenth century and even before. The set of Iberian statues are exceptional for their quality and quantity; these are the so-called Ladies of Elche, Baza and Cerro de los Santos. Among them, the most famous is definitely the graceful yet mysterious Lady of Elche – one of Spain’s most famous icons. The statues are usually said to be sculpture made in limestone. However, Adrien Nash (2021) has lately paid my attention to the fact that the Lady of Elche should be actually a hollow casting, and not a sculpture. Such a claim is based on the photos of the head, showing it empty as much as the part in her back (Ibid.).

Lady of Elche. After Max Dashu “[the] sculpture appears to have been cut and may well have originally been a standing figure”.National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories Archives.sourcememory.net. 

Treasure Found Without a Map

The enigmatic sculpture was unearthed by chance in 1897. It is believed that a young farm worker found it while he was clearing an area for planting on a private estate at l’Alcúdia in Elche (part of the Spanish province of Alicante, Valencia). Once he overturned one of the stones, he came across an amazing find. To his surprise, he noticed the woman’s head, neck and shoulders, extending down to her chest.

Once he overturned one of the stones, he came across an amazing find. Drawing from the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The place of discovery is now an archaeological site, and the Lady of Elche herself has initiated a popular interest in pre-Roman Iberian culture. Shortly after the discovery, the land owner of the sold it to a French archaeological connoisseur, Pierre Paris, and the artifact became a part of the Louvre collection, where it had remained until the beginning of the 1940s, when it was returned to Spain. Initially the artefact was displayed in the Prado Museum, and in 1971, it was relocated to National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, where it has been preserved up to now. Without doubt, the Lady of Elche is one of the most valuable objects housed in this museum edifice. Its replica, in turn, was produced and exposed in the local Museum of Archaeology and History of Elche. The original bust was sent and displayed in Elche only once, in 2006.

Princess Leia from Iberia

The sculpture features a woman wearing an elaborate headdress, composed of two large coils known as rodetes positioned symmetrically on either side of the head and face. Once considered to be just huge spools of hair, they are actually a massive headgear of some sort, which is installed over the Lady’s head and neck.

Others have also indicated the woman’s uniquely Caucasian facial features. National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A number of researchers interpreted it as a highly advanced technological device linking the sculpture with the civilization of Atlantis. It is also somehow reminiscent of the headdress worn by Princess Leia in Star Wars (makers of the movie may have been actually inspired by its design, while creating the character). Actually, the wheel-like carved adornments look like huge flattened snail shells, and some scholars think that their original model was once probably made of basketry or metal. After one theory, it may have been a ceremonial headdress of a priestess, or even a goddess. Accordingly, some scholars associate the statue’s representation with Tanit, the Punic-Iberian fertility deity of Carthage, while others have proposed the Lady reflects an Atlantean Goddess.

Refined Female Face

Furthermore, the headdress runs across the forehead, with a pattern of raised marble-shaped bumps. Tassel-like long earrings hang in front of the ears down to the shoulders, and elaborate and heavy necklaces adorn the elegant chest. After Bernardo Graiver (1980), similar peaked headdress topped with a veil was worn in Tunisia into modern times. On the other side, the design of jewellry has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues. Yet, after Bruno Nua (2021), in terms of the style of the statue, there may be a connection even with ancient Anatolia in Turkey.

The female delicate and refined face contains an expressionless gaze of royal dignity, also characteristic of another bust representing the famous Egyptian Queen – Nefertiti. For some the representation has the appearance of a portrait. Others have also indicated the woman’s uniquely Caucasian facial features.

Mystery History (2017). “High-Tech Ancient Queen” Found In Spain?” In: Youtube Channel.

Other Noble Ladies

According to some scholars, the bust of nearly 54 cm high (21 inches) may originally have been the part of a larger, full-body statue, depicted in a seated position (Lady of Baza) or a standing one (Gran Dama Oferente).

Lady of Guardamar
Lady of Guardamar (Dama de Guardamar). The sculpture “was discovered in 1987 at a Phoenician site of the same name in Guardamar del Segura, Alicante, Spain (Dashu 2018). Originally, the photo was attributed to the User Gafotas (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. In: “Lady of Guardamar” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Modified by Max Dashu (2018).Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories Archives.sourcememory.net.

The Lady is carved from limestone with traces of red and blue polychrome, which means it was originally covered in vivid colours. The stone used suggests it was carved not very far from where it was found centuries later. The statue is generally believed to have been created within the Iberian culture, though the artisanship suggests strong Hellenistic influence. The sculpture is unique, however, there are some less known similar examples, dated back to around fourth century BC. One of them is indisputably the Lady of Guardamar, also known as The Lady of Cabezo Lucero.

Lady of Baza. National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As its name signifies itself, the statue represents a female bust as well, 50 cm high, discovered in fragments in the Phoenician archaeological site in Guardamar del Segura in Alicante province, in 1987. The Lady of Guardamar is adorned with similar, though not identical, jewellery and wheel-like rodetes. The latter seem smaller and of less intricate design without earrings but the resemblance between these two objects is striking. The Ladies’ necklaces with their pendants are also similar to those found on the Lady of Baza. Moreover, all the statues have been discovered in the south-eastern Spain, in Alicante region.

Independent Speculations

The most interesting feature of the statue, however, is her unusual anatomy, namely the remarkable protrusion of a large and significantly elongated skull, covered with a conical cap. It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile.

Lady of Elche
As Max Dashu underlines “[a] similar peaked headdress topped with a veil was worn in Tunisia into modern times.” It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile. “The jewelry, too, has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues.” Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories Archives.sourcememory.net.

In the same museum, there are many examples of Iberian figures with elongated heads but hidden from view under their headdresses. Does this mean that some Iberian people were longheads? Or it was just a stylisation or a fashionable haute couture headgear. If so, why did they follow such a style in dressing up their heads at all? There is no answer … Still there is a hope this sculpture may create a new wave of speculation in where the other elongated head peoples originated.

An Elaborate Hoax … ?

The origin of the sculpture and its purpose is baffling and has sparked lively, sometimes heated, debate. There are scholars who argue that the statue is, in fact, a forgery. Art historian John F. Moffitt argues that the sculpture of the Lady of Elche is too elaborate to have been carved in pre-Christian Spain. This argument has been dismissed by dating the pigments left on the object back to the fifth century BC. Some independent scholars suggest the work comes from a much earlier period though. The bust might have been a funerary vessel as there is an aperture in the rear of the sculpture, which indicates it may have been used as an urn. On the other hand, the cavity in the Lady’s back could have contained something different from human remains, such as an unknown object or documents revealing her mystery. All at once, it could be a depiction of a goddess, or an Iberian princess. The Lady of Elche’s origin can never be known for sure, which leaves the debate open, especially in case of the correct creation date and its obscure origins. Nevertheless, it is widely believed to be one of the most striking examples of sculpture work found on the planet.

Let Her Speak …

The disputes and theories regarding the Lady of Elche prove the importance of the sculpture itself. As an ancient icon of Spain, the artefact slightly unveils the ancient past, not only of Spain, but of the whole human civilisation. I hope the disputes and theories about the bust will continue in order to resolve its riddle. At the same time, I hope by all that the artefact will remain safely preserved as a culturally significant symbol of ancient and mysterious history.

Photo with an Elche star. Let her speak … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured photo: “The Lady of Elche, once polychrome stone bust discovered by chance in 1897 at L’Alcúdia, believed to be a piece of Iberian sculpture from the 4th century BC, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid”. Photo by the User Butko (2015).  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

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Egyptian Dancer from Turin and Her Acrobatic Somersault

One of the world’s greatest museums is situated in Turin, in the north of Italy. It is the only museum other than Cairo’s wholly dedicated to Egyptian art and archaeology.

Drawing from a Scratchpad

Among multiplied and various artifacts exposed there, I would like to pay your attention to one small and a very fragile object of the size of 20 x 15 cm. It’s a painting, or more precisely a drawing on a limestone ostracon representing an Egyptian young girl caught in an acrobatic position. An ostracon itself is a potsherd, usually used as a writing or painting surface. At that time it may have served as a scratchpad.

Turin Museum
Ostracon showing a dancer in an acrobatic position. Limestone, New Kingdom, 19th-20th Dynasty (1292-1076 BC). Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Cat. 7052. Creative Commons (CC). Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Museum location: Sala 06 Vetrina 06. Cat. 7052 (2018). In: Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.

An Acrobatic Somersault

The object comes from the ancient Egyptian village, Deir el-Medina, dating back to the period of the New Kingdom  (between 16th and the 11th century BC.). For over four centuries, Deir el-Medina had been home to highly skilled architects, temples and tombs builders, artists and various craftsmen staying in the service of the pharaoh. Thy lived there with their families but usually spent the entire week at work in the Valley of the Kings and Queens. A village artists must have been an author of the drawing probably representing one of girls living in the same community. Village women also served to the pharaoh but as dancers and singers in local temples. Egyptian Dancers played an important role in ancient Egypt. Not only was dancing a form of entertainment but it was mainly associated with religious ceremonies.

The depicted girl is a dancer. She is naked, except for a short black kilt with a decorative patterns on it and circular earrings of gold. The girl is probably performing an acrobatic somersault of a ritual dance. The artist is believed to have drawn first the body and then the head by rotation of the ostracon to a position where the profile could be done in the usual way. After a historian of art, William H. Peck, this way of making the drawing is suggested by the placement of the earring in defiance of the laws of gravity, and a rather unnatural way in which the neck was joined with the shoulders, with strongly elongated arms and legs. Also the shape of the dancer’s breast seemed to be sketched as if the artist imagined a woman’s torso in a standing position.

Egyptian style of art

Creating all the elements of the entire scene separately was very characteristic of Egyptian style of art.

The photo is showing dimensions of the object by means of a ruler, which is 11.5 x 17 x 4 cm. Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Cat. 7052. Creative Commons (CC). Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Museum location: Sala 06 Vetrina 06. Cat. 7052 (2018). In: Turin Museum, Italy.

It is like in a case of a child drawing an object without a three-dimensional perspective, but in a way the object is perceived from their position of watching, with its major characteristics. Looking down on a puddle, they can see its shape and what is inside, but when they observe a tree, they see it in its vertical form, and not from the above (which is not possible without flying over the trees!). Now they put all these observed elements together, on one piece of paper and they receive a similar stylistically incoherent whole, created once by ancient Egyptians.

Crescent of the Goddess Nut

Representation of the Woman Dancer seems slightly naive, yet it is very subtle and graceful in its form, depicted with a great skill and imagination. The artistic quality of the design is exceptional and erotically charged. The bare-breasted female is bending nearly over reaching the floor with her stretched arms and despite the drawing’ simplicity, the young woman seems extremely flexible. You may have an impression she has been caught in a nimble and swift dance at the sound of vibrant music.

Nut Goddess
The air god Shu, assisted by other gods, holds up Nut, the sky, as Geb, the earth, lies beneath. Detail from the Greenfield Papyrus (the Book of the Dead of Nesitanebtashru). Photograph published 1997; artwork created c. 950 BC. Photo source: What Life Was Like on the Banks of the Nile, edited by Denise Dersin. Photographed by the British Museum; original artist unknown. Public domain. {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons.  

Her curly long hair touches the ground as her body is bending in a deep bow. As the author, Patrick Hunt has noticed, the Dancer’s pose looks like a reversal of the sky goddess Nut in her downward earth-nourishing bend. Nut connects the earth with the sky, and according to the Heliopolis beliefs, the goddess touches the ground only with the tips of her hands and fingers. Simultaneously, her body covered in stars takes the shape of a semi-circle, which immediately evokes a crescent and its associations with femininity.

Voices of Common Egyptians

Ancient Egyptian Music
Ancient Egyptian Music & Dance. Scene from Tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty, Western Thebes. Photo source: Carolinarh (2013). “Ancient Egyptian Tomb Art. Necropolis of Thebes” (unknown artist). In:Ars Artistic Adventure of Mankind. The History of Art through the millennia. 

Female dancers are usually depicted on tomb walls and temple walls. They are represented nearly naked with golden belts around their waits and collars around their necks. They are wearing jangling bracelets on arms, big earrings, and wings, unlike our Dancer from Deir el Medina who is represented with her natural hair. All of them are caught in various poses – in profile, in three-quarter profile and even en face, free from being frozen in a hieratic posture of the upper class. They seem simply comfortable and full of life.

I came across the drawing of a female dancer while I was studying for an exam in the first year of studies of History of Art. It caught my eye from the very first moment, maybe because it was not created for formal purposes but probably for pleasure or training as a sketch. I don’t know why an artist chose to draw a dancing woman but his work now can tell us a story about simple people who once lived in Egypt.

‘On the outskirts of Deir el-Medina, the villagers once had attempted to find a water source’, explains Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist. ‘They dug down and eventually they reached more than fifty meters. They wanted to become self-sufficient in water but sadly for them they never did, and what the pit did become was a community dump, and as such became a mine of information. And when this pit and its surroundings were excavated by archaeologists, they made some remarkable discoveries, and the ostracon with the drawing was one of the findings among thousands of these pieces of pottery and stone: some with painted pictures, many with words giving us the real history of the village. These are their notes, reminders, love songs, laundry list, the very voices of common Egyptians.’

Featured image: Dancer, Deir el Medina. Ancient Egyptian depiction of topless dancer with elaborate hairstyle and hoop earrings in gymnastic backbend, on ostrakon (potsherd). Created: 1292-1186 BC. Public Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Dance in “Ancient Egypt” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Continue reading Egyptian Dancer from Turin and Her Acrobatic Somersault

Creeping into the Lugar de los Muertos with an Archaeologist

After a week of travelling around Mexico, from Yucatan and Chiapas State, and through Tabasco to Oaxaca, I experienced a special magic and a variety of cultures of the country, felt by Mexicans and foreigners alike.

Archaeological site of Mitla and the ruins of the palace, Oaxaca. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Around 4000 recorded archaeological sites …

The state of Oaxaca is a mountainous area broken by wide fertile valleys and it represents one of the bastions of indigenous cultures having been developed for thousand of years in Mesoamerica. Apart from the country’s most energetic and colourful festivals, various arts, well-developed crafts, delicious cuisine and vibrant colonial architecture of the capital, the region also boasts a number of pre-Columbian sites and artefacts left behind by mysterious peoples.

The word Mitla itself means ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are around 4000 recorded archaeological sites in Oaxaca, mostly known as settlements of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, occupied up until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The all  sites differ in time and characteristics, however, all include a mystery: Lambityeco and Zaachila have got interesting tombs, Dainzú and Yagul – important ball game courts, and San José el Mogote is said to be one of the most ancient settlements in Oaxaca. Among all, though, Monte Álban and Mitla were two of the most important.

‘Place of the Rest’

Mitla is located about an hour drive from Oaxaca City and it was presumably the main religious center of the region. The name Mitla itself comes from the word Mictlan, the name for the ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico, as much as its bright red painted walls. We stopped there on our way to Oaxaca City, driving along the range of Sierra Madre mountains. It was around 3 PM and a blast of hot air struck me full when I was getting off the air conditioned car.

The site looked amazing with geometrically designed upper parts of the buildings, covered in intricate mortar-less mosaics. My attention was also caught by walls painted bright red. Once Mitla was inhabited by the people, called by the neighbouring Aztecs in Nahuatl – the Zapotecs. Yet they called themselves differently, either simply The People in their own language or more mysteriously – the Cloud People.

The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Just in in the heart of Oaxaca state, along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is at once a mountainous and hard-to-reach area, the Zapotec culture probably began to take shape around the third century AD. Some scholars assume that the Zapotecs had already appeared when the Olmec civilization was on the verge of decline, that is presumably around 400 BC. and existed in the region till 1500 AD. Anyway, any exact dating is uncertain here; the Zapotecs probably came to modern Oaxaca areas in the period before Christ, yet it took several centuries for them to develop their characteristic cultural features, which were initially composed of mixed elements of various origins, from Teotihuacan and the Olmec to the Maya cultures. At the Zapotecs’ height, the population in the Valley of Oaxaca peaked at around one hundred thousand.

The ruins of Mitla are the quintessence of the Zapotec architecture. Yet, the city also witnessed the Zapotec-Mixtec symbiosis, which had been visible in the culture of this region since the fourteenth century AD. Its traces can be seen especially in Mitla, whose geometric motifs of mosaic fretwork cut in stone slabs are usually ascribed to the Mixtecs. Yet, another theory says the ornaments were made my the Zapotecs and then adopted and embellished by the Mixtecs. Such patterns are called grecas in Spanish; meanders, diamonds, zigzags and various braids cover not only the outer walls of significant buildings, but also their interiors, usually with three horizontal stripes of frieze, each with a different type of ornament.

It has been calculated that over eighty thousand polished stone slabs were used to adorn the walls in such geometric friezes. The [stones] are [all] fitted together without mortar; [all the] pieces were set against a stucco background painted red [and] are held in place by the weight of the stones [surrounding] them. […] None of the fretwork designs is repeated exactly anywhere in the complex [or elsewhere] in Mesoamerica” (Mitla” 2021). In the wall painting, frescoes and sgraffito made on red stucco, depicting deities and mythological animals, there are also many Mixtec motifs, which are younger than sculpted decorations.

Examining geometric mosaics of Mitla. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As in the case of the Zapotecs, little is known about the Mixtecs; they are primarily famous as great craftsmen and artists. The Mixtec contributed to the culture of the region, especially in the field of goldsmithing; they were excellent at processing gold, copper and silver, they mastered lost-wax technique, they could solder and pull delicate wires. They knew the inlay and covered the wood or bone with small tiles of jade or turquoise, mother of pearl and rock crystal. The Mixtecs were also the authors of famous painted codices, mainly of historical content. Those were pictorial stories written or actually painted on long strips of wood-fiber or leather paper, created before the Spanish invasion, and also after it. Most of them, however, were unfortunately destroyed by the invaders.

The labyrinth of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs

The Zapotecs were called the ‘nation of builders’, however, if alternative researchers’ opinion is taken into consideration, most of the buildings of another famous city, Monte Alban (the original name of the city is unknown), and some structures of the nearby Mitla would rather be the product of older civilizations with great skills of shaping architectural space. Such structures, adopted or overbuilt by the Zapotecs would have originally provided a proper background for religious ceremonies or for other purposes, most likely related to astronomy.

In Mitla, there are three groups of buildings situated at low platforms and concentrated around a ceremonial courtyard, to which extensive stairs still lead. One of the most impressive constructions of Mitla is a ‘palace’ dating from the twelfth to the thirteenth century; it has three square, interconnecting courtyards, rebuilt with buildings standing on low platforms. In the ‘residential’ part of the city, there is a very small courtyard surrounded by four shallow buildings. The inner galleries must have been exceptionally dark, covered with low wooden roofs.

My attention was immediately caught by other walls painted bright red. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The rooms around the second courtyard may have served official functions. They gained their size thanks to the alignment of monolithic columns supporting the ceiling beams. Under the rooms of the third complex, which was probably used for religious ceremonies, there are cross-shaped crypts. These crypts are a continuation of the development of the Zapotec tombs, initiated in Monte Alban, where the niches had already been shaped like a cross. The walls and floors of the crypts were covered with a thick layer of white plaster, on the smooth surface of which cult scenes were painted. Such decorations are later than architecture and were probably made by artists of the Mixtecs who lived in Mitla after the Zapotecs left. Endless halls, corridors and underground crypts criss-cross beneath the central plaza, giving the impression of a labyrinth whose architectural character resembles the so-called palace of Knossos in Crete. Possibly, hence, the city’s name standing for the underworld.

The residence of the high priest in Mitla was the largest covered structure not only in Mitla but also in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The unpreserved ceilings, probably wooden, were supported by massive monolithic pillars weighing up to twenty-three tons. The decoration of walls with strongly marked horizontal divisions is primarily made of the mentioned above geometric ornament.

Missing stone anomaly

We were standing in the middle of a great courtyard when an old man with a walking stick approached us. He looked a little tired with the heat but his face expression was revealing his passion for the site and his happiness to share it with us. He was an experienced archaeologist working in Mitla for years and he seemed to know every excavated corner of it.

“Here, they made a mistake!” – he noticed, eager to show us his discovery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

He spoke only in Spanish to us gesticulating energetically with hands, surely to express his ideas more clearly. Soon, we started following him up and down the stairs leading to Mitla’s constructions one after the other, to take a closer look on elaborate patterns of the mosaics. Despite our guide’s difficulties with walking, he and his staff were much quicker than us in climbing the steep and narrow steps.

‘Oh, you see … each course of stones is composed of a certain number of stone elements’, he said once on top, while counting every element protruding from the wall and composing a particular pattern of the mosaic.

‘Here, they made a mistake!’, he noticed, eager to show us his discovery.

At once, all started counting other stones in hope, they would find another anomaly as well.

Who was there first … ?

I left my friends at this stage of competition and went exploring the site on my own. I noticed a few tall basalt columns between two to three metres high as well as the size of giant cut blocks on top of the walls, forming the so-called lintels, weighing from six to eighteen tons, whereas elsewhere within the same construction there was relatively crude work composed of much smaller irregular stones of different shapes with big amount of mortar used. When we compare both, the latter looked like common rubble.

I got an impression that different parts of constructions had been here reassembled. Accordingly, there are differences in construction style: here and there very large, regular tight-fitting stone slabs at the base, and massive header blocks made of basalt, now and then perfectly positioned down at the foundation with quite crude and rough work in between. The same feature is typical of many megalithic sites not only in Mexico but also in different parts of the world I have visited. After some alternative researchers, such as Brien Foerster (2018), Mitla had been constructed first with megaliths, and then it was uncovered by the Zapotecs, who adopted the older structures and overbuilt the site using their own but much simpler techniques within their building possibilities. The same author suggests that it might have been the result of some sort of a cataclysm that destroyed the original buildings of high technology a long time ago before the Zapotecs occupied it, followed then by the Mixtecs. To go further, the basalt of Mitla had been quarried from the place which is over three kilometres away (with no trees to be used as log rollers).

In the depths of the complex of Mitla, red domes of the Baroque Catholic church of San Pedro are visible; its walls seem triumphant over the Pre-Columbian ruins, but perfectly integrated into the whole ancient landscape. The church was built in the colonial era by Spanish invaders surely to show their victory over the pagan cultures of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, the building was partially composed of the already cut stones that were found by the Spanish locally, and reused for its construction.

Eventually, I did not share my thoughts about previous lost builders with others. Such assumptions may have been too controversial for academics’ ears and I was sure what their response would be like. Anyway, all these building anomalies can be seen very easily, still only if one does not turn a blind eye to the architectural facts.

Christian Baroque church of San Pedro in Mitla. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Pre-Columbian city of Mitla is one of the most important archaeological sites in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico (apart from Monte Alban), and the most important of the Zapotec culture. In the picture, the Hall of the Columns within the palace or the residence of the Zapotecs’ high priest. Late Post-Classic Period, 1300-1500 CE. 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.

Continue reading Creeping into the Lugar de los Muertos with an Archaeologist

Hermitage of the Archangel in Ireland

Summer weather was at its best while we were driving south along the Ring of Kerry, which is also a stage of the famous Wild Atlantic Way with sea-salted shores and blowing winds.

Valentia Island. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The scenery was breath-taking – it was like stepping into a picture book. Our destination, the Skellig Islands, lie 12 km off the Kerry coast and the boats there depart from Portmagee and Ballinskelligs. The Islands are actually two very steep rocks, protruding proudly out of the wild roaring Atlantic. Skellig Michael, which peaks at 217 metres above sea level, was the home of a group of 13 monks in the sixth century AD. This monastic settlement became then designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The smaller island, Little Skellig, which is a haven to various seabirds, has the second largest gannet colony in the world.

Valentia Island: View from our B&B’s window. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“You can do Ireland in a day, but you really only do Valentia properly in a lifetime”[1]


[1] Karen O’Connell (2018). “Explore Valentia”. In:  Valentia Island. Come on in. Valentia Island Development Company.

We had booked our B&B on Valentia Island – one of Ireland’s most picturesque westerly points. It lies off the Iveragh Peninsula in the southwest of County Kerry and is accessible either by the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge from Portmagee and by car ferry from Renard Point, Cahersiveen, which operates from April to October. The ferry crossing takes around 5 minutes. After a night-sea journey from Wales, and having travelled across a large piece of Ireland, from Rosslare, we felt only like going to bed. B&B (like the very few houses scattered around the island) was an isolated and charming place of the home-stay atmosphere of remote villages.

Night falling upon Valentia Island with the Skelligs in the distance. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Out of reach …

We were planning to take our Skellig Michael landing tour in one day and I was praying just for god weather conditions as the landing on the rock is always subject to this natural factor and the Irish weather is really unpredictable… We arrived in Ireland at the end of July having had the visit booked already at the beginning of May, as one must do it much in advance before heading off to the Skelligs. It was in 2015, just before the Star Wars’ Episode VIII was filmed at its top and Luke Skywalker won its place on the island, removing its real and fascinating characters in the shadow. Due to that, nowadays it is even more difficult to land on the island as there are hordes of Star Wars’ fans and thus government restrictions are applied now more than ever, not to mention a very high price for this major tourist attraction that could be the highlight of every holiday.

One of the most fascinating destinations in Ireland. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

First of all, tours with landing can only be taken from May to September. All bookings are usually taken online with no waiting list. If there is a cancellation the spots automatically become available again on the booking page, which happens very rarely. There is one trip per day for this tour departing at approximately 9:00 am daily, usually from Portmagee Marina (depending on the tour operator) if the sea and weather conditions are suitable. As I have mentioned, availability for this tour is very limited so you really need to book well, well, well long … in advance: there is a maximum of four persons per booking and the tour itself is not suitable for children under 12 years of age.

When I am looking at the availability now, I can see the whole season is nearly booked out (there is only one date available!) Also you would require a reasonable amount of fitness to undertake climbing the rock at its summit. In case your boat tour is cancelled, you can take instead a tour around two islands but without landing …

The Skelligs seen from Valentia Island. The best place to begin our journey. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the morning of the tour day, our B&B’s hostess welcomed us with a wide smile assuring us the boats were going to departure. I also responded with a beaming smile and came back to my full Irish breakfast composed of crumbled eggs, fried sausages, crunchy toasts and milky butter. I had already phoned my tour operator and he assured me the weather would be perfect for our journey.

‘Would you like some pudding?’, – the hostess asked. ‘I’ve got delicious black and white pudding if you wish’.

‘I’d love to’ – my friend said in Polish – ‘I feel like having something sweet …’

Evening on Valentia Island, just after crossing the sea to Michael Skellig. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Pudding is a type of food that can be either a dessert or a savoury dish, which comes from French boudin, meaning ‘small sausage’. My friend who shudders at any kind of red meat definitely was for the first option, whereas the hostess had meant the second one. When my friend  finally found out, she refused point-blank to try anything of that kind.

Off we go …

Good walking shoes, mostly hiking boots with an ankle support, and waterproof clothes are essential for the tour!  The boats are small fishing vessels and the open sea crossing takes approximately 45 minutes.

Office of Public Works (2014). “Visiting Skellig Michael – A Safety Guide”. Source: Youtube.

Rough seas make you get soaked to the skin, even if a day is full of sunshine. The boats are being constantly hit by high waves and so it’s quite unstable as the boats are rocking all the time. Hence it may be a very difficult experience for people who are prone to seasickness. The site is also difficult to walk around, as well as may pose problems for anyone with a fear of heights. There are no visitors’ facilities of any kind on the island, such as toilets or a shelter. This is a bare and high rock exposed to the weather.  Make sure you bring with you enough food and water. All your stuff should be packed in one small backpack to allow your hands to be free while climbing up and down the steep staircases.

The boats are being constantly hit by high waves and so it’s quite unstable as the boats are rocking all the time. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A camera should be with you but only hung around your neck. Sun cream is also very important. Even if the sky seems cloudy, there’s enough sunlight reflecting from the water to cause sunburns. While our cruise to the Skelligs, the sky was completely covered in grey clouds. On the island there was already the sun and on our way back I got a strong sunburn on my face. After drinking a pint of Guinness in the end, my face looked like a red berry on the background of green Ireland. Well, it’s not to discourage you, just let you know what you can expect … One more thing! Once landed on the island beware of seagulls and albatross hunting for meal! It can be your sandwich or a cookie you have just grabbed in your mouth …  You may have a literally close encounter with a huge bird flying onto your face. As I did myself!

Beautiful puffins can be seen on the Skellig Michael from April to early August. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Without a doubt, one of the most graceful and friendliest bird visiting the Skelligs is a puffin. They arrive and breed on the island from March to early August. It’s a cute, colourful seabird with a huge, yellow-reddish beak and curious eyes. While the birds are walking around, they look like black-white balls rolling down the hill. It’s really worth seeing!

Skellig Michael
Reaching the Skelligs by Boat (statue in Cahersiveen). The “Irish Currach” recommend tar-covered leather-skinned ships as timber boats would easily break apart in the Ocean. Photo and caption source: Skellig Gift Store (2017). “Archangel Michael: Saint of the Skelligs”. In: Skellig Gift Store.

Just before our heading off, there was a warm shower. I sat by the side of my friends, back to other people. We were eight altogether, not counting two men, probably fishermen driving the boat. Although it was a rather wet and rough journey, I really enjoyed it. This is one of these moments you may really feel a unique atmosphere of ancient Ireland. We were on the open sea and our crossing seemed to go on forever. I also thought about ancient monks and pilgrims who must have made just the same distance in simple boats – coracles, and without modern navigation devices down the centuries. I wondered how many of them had survived.

Now crossing takes around one hour. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Loneliest Place on Earth

Two black pinnacles of pointed rocks thrust out into the Atlantic Ocean. The smaller of these two is known as Lesser Skellig, which is home to a great number of gannets, and grey seals lying airily on their backs and enjoying the warmth of the summer sun. Visitors cannot land on it as it is the birds’ reservation. The larger island and our destination is called Great Skellig or Skellig Michael. The latter name probably originates from a legend saying that St. Patrick once saw the Archangel Michael hovering over the island. Here, in the wilderness of the Atlantic Ocean and isolated from the comfort of the mainland, early Christian hermits lived for centuries fighting with natural forces and invaders coming from the sea – the Vikings.

Peter Cox (Photography) (2017) “The Wonder of Skellig Michael”. Source: Youtube.

Their harsh life many a time is similar led by Christian monks in Egypt who started this kind of an isolated existence, dedicated to God – monasticism. I believe that in their desire to imitate the lives of the Egyptian Fathers, Irish monks found their substitute for the desert in the sea and ocean. On numerous islands like Aran, Inishkea North, Duvillan, Iona, or Skellig Michael, Christian Celtic monks were looking for their own desert. Just like an Egyptian desert of the Coptic hermits, an ocean is huge, desolated and deprived of sweet water. On the other side, it must have seemed attractive, unknown, inhabited by fantastic monsters, and so became an escape from the earthly world. The ocean has been a symbol of trial, weakness, heroism, and as in the unfriendly desert, the help of God becomes indispensable there.

I looked upwards at this soaring rocky sanctuary covered in a green coat. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The waters were calm on the open sea but as we were getting closer to the rising pyramid of the rock, the waves became stronger fiercely crushing against the shore. Our drives moored the boat properly and we carefully climbed out of it. The rock-solid land beneath my feet seemed to jump up and down as much as our boat. I looked upwards at this soaring rocky sanctuary covered in a green coat, and I could just felt the loneliness of this place fulfilled with the ghosts of the wandering monks.

The views were stunning! Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Soon we reached the staircase of ancient rock-cut steps made by the hermits and polished by countless pilgrims’ feet. There are over 600 uneven and steep stairs leading up to the monastery. I felt my great respect for the monks who chose this remote island for their home. It called for extraordinary self-discipline and great courage. As modern pilgrims, we entered into the monks’ enclosure almost suspended in the sky. The views were stunning!

Soon we reached the staircase of ancient rock-cut steps made by the hermits and polished by countless pilgrims’ feet. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

We passed through a low archway breaking the silence of the past. A small monastic garden sheltered around with rough stones. Another archway led us higher to the tiny chapel and a cluster of dry-stone beehive huts look like bulbs or swallows’ nests clinging to the rock.  These extraordinary shelters are circular from the outside but square in the inside. Perhaps the hermitage on the Skellig has preserved the original pattern of monastic buildings, existing once at monastic sites on the mainland. The beehive huts resemble the stle of stone constructions of the neolithic period typical to insular tradition.

Monastic idea brought by the Copts ? Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However,  after some researchers, the shape of these monastic structures was reminiscent of the monastic areas in Egypt. Desert fathers built similar huts in the shape of bee hives, most often from silt, initially in isolation, later probably in order to provide themselves with greater security and mutual support, they began to gather in small communities, putting together a number of such structures. Before the belly-like huts became the home of the hermits, they had been first simple houses. Similar constructions are traditional for the desert regions of the Middle East and for millennia they have been used as such by the rural community, such as by one in the territories of today’s Syria, in the town of Sarouj.

A cluster of dry-stone beehive huts look like bulbs or swallows’ nests clinging to the rock. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are dry-stone cells, a square oratory, a church dedicated to St. Michael, two small wells for collecting fresh water, and a miniature graveyard of those who lived and died on the island. I learnt that there were apparently thirteenth hermits occupying the monastic sites, which is a symbolical number that stands for twelve apostles led by Jesus Christ.  One legend – a treasury of knowledge on the past – ascribes the founding of the monastery to St. Fionan in the sixth century. Still the first historical reference goes back to the fifth century and says of the King of West Munster being pursued by Oengus, King of Cashel. The former fled to Scellec (Sceillic), which means a steep rock. Hence the name f the islands. In the following years, there were three recorded attacks on the monastery by the  Vikings who put many monks to death. During one of them, the Abbot, called Eitgall was chained up and starved to death to amuse his captors. Some monks escaped slaughter by hiding in rocky crevices, still they were left on the rock without their coracles burnt by the leaving Vikings.

The beehive huts resemble the style of stone constructions of the neolithic period typical to insular tradition. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

To my surprise, one story says that King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway met there a hermit who impressed him so much that he became baptized. After his return to Scandinavia, he is said to have introduced Christianity there before he died in the year 1000 AD. The Skellig monastery had greatly flourished since the sixth century and lasted famous till the twelfth century, when the Celtic Church was overtaken by the Church in Rome and the meaning of monasticism started long ago by Coptic hermits ceased. What is more, around 1200 AD, the climate had changed. Cold weather and fierce storms made the island even more inhospitable than before. As a result the monks moved to Ballinskelligs Bay on the mainland leaving behind their desolate rock.

There are dry-stone cells, a square oratory, a church dedicated to St. Michael, two small wells for collecting fresh water, and a miniature graveyard of those who lived and died on the island. Skellig Michael.

It was not until the late tenth century or early eleventh as the monastery is first referred to as Skellig Michael in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. Probably, the small church dedicated to St Michael was built at that time. Its architecture is thus different from the earlier dry-stone constructions built by the monks. It is believed to have had a hollow stone of miraculous properties fixed to its wall. Some scholars consider the Libellus de Fundacione Ecclesie Consecrati Petri from the mid thirteenth century to be one of the most important written source on Skellig Michael. The manuscript originates from the Consecratus Petrus, an Irish Monastery in Regensburg, in Bavaria. Since the seventh century on, the Irish monks had been travelling to the mainland, founded monastic sites and preached … but it is another story … Anyway, the manuscript reveals a tale from Irish Monks in medieval Germany. It provides a context for its dedication to Archangel Michael.

Skellig Michael
Anonymous : Victorious St Michael over the devil represented as the dragon. Image source: Skellig Gift Store (2017). “Archangel Michael: Saint of the Skelligs”. In: Skellig Gift Store.

As the story goes Ireland suffered under a plague of demons, dragons, serpents and toads. People called upon St Patrick who banished the demons to the highest mountain (Skellig), cutting off all access for safety. Still, the evil was still present there. St Patrick then raised his arms in invocation and suddenly, the skies illuminated. Out in the Ocean, on top of Great Skellig, stood Archangel Michael with the host of angels surrounding him. Angelic forces battled with the demons and eventually cast them into the Ocean. Eventually, the angels returned to Great Skellig, and from the peak, Archangel Michael ascended back to heaven, leaving his miracle-working shield behind.

All of the island lie on the same invisible path. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was the early Christian age of Skellig. The pagan one is even more hidden in the misty legends of Irish history. Unfortunately, such records are usually treated as purely mythical, without historical value.  According to them, the fabled rulers of Ireland – Tuatha de Danaan, once used their magical powers to overcome new  invaders (1400 BC). They caused a shipwreck and brought death to two sons of the invaders’ leader – Milesius. Skellig became a burial place to one of the brothers, who was called Irr. Another legendary visitor was Daire Domhain – the King of the World, who stayed on Skellig in around 200 AD before attacking the mainland. Irish stories are full of legends of old and new invaders, of victors and defeated.

The pagan period is even more hidden in the misty legends of Irish history. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Skellig Michael is the last of three islands dedicated to St Michael I have seen. All of them lie on the same invisible path, aligned to the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE. The so-called Apollo/St Michael Axis stretches further south-east to run  not only across the tree islands but also two Archangel’s monasteries suspended high in the mountains, and finally reaches the sites in Greece, dedicated to Apollo, the pagan counterpart of Archangel Michael.

Featured image: Little Skellig seen from the Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Continue reading Hermitage of the Archangel in Ireland

Studying Prehistoric Archaeoastronomy on the Islands of Malta and Ireland

Astronomic Devices in Prehistoric Malta

The megalithic temples of Malta are one of the most recognized UNESCO’s World Heritage sites ranking amongst the earliest free-standing Neolithic constructions in the world. The so-called Maltese temples display unique developmental characteristics, and while comparing to other megalithic structures, they are of the distinctive nature and achievements of Maltese civilization.

Mnajdra Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other hand, similarly to other megaliths, they were undoubtedly designed to accurately detect and mark the winter and summer solstice together with autumn and spring equinoxes, and other celestial movements. Same as the Stonehenge circle in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland, Maltese temples fulfilled astronomical observation and calendric functions. Among their other possible functions, a connection between astronomy and the temples orientations has constantly been provoking an intense debate since the great publicity given in the second half of the twentieth century by Gerald Hawkins on Stonehenge and the surveys by Alexander Thom on different megalithic structures in England and elsewhere. But it was an astronomer, Sir Norman Lockyer who as early as in 1909 evidently stated that Newgrange is oriented to the winter solstice. Accepting that idea turned out to be difficult for archaeology as it was first presented in the form of folklore and legends in the seventeenth century. In spite of negative opinions of the foremost experts on megalithic structures, interdisciplinary research efforts on the subject have been carried out and quickly augmented, mainly in the study of archeoastronomy, cosmology and archaeology.

Maltese Temples and the Sky

The book by Tore Lomsdalen, entitled Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: Sun, Moon, and Stars at the Temples of Mnajdra (2014) is the latest attempt to resolve the two-century controversy over the unusual connection between the Maltese temples and the sky. At the same time, it successfully elaborates on the first tentative surveys on temple orientations in Malta. This remarkable work charts the major points of debate on astronomical alignments of the prehistoric megaliths of Maltese archipelago with a special focus on the question of the intentionality of the significant orientation of the Mnajdra Lower or South Temple. The overall conclusions found at the end of the book are thoroughly investigated and supported with accurate factual information drawn from both, the previous interdisciplinary studies on the subject, and results of the wide-ranging and detailed fieldwork done by the author on the sites. Simultaneously, the book contributes to the international research done on the astral connections of megalithic constrictions in different parts of the world, underlying their similarities and uniqueness at the same time.

The author of the book, Tore Lomsdalen is an astrologer working internationally. He was born in Norway and lived in Italy. He holds a MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and a certificate from the Faculty of Astrological Studies in London. While working on the mentioned work, he had already been engaged in a PhD research program with University of Malta on Cosmology in Prehistoric Malta. Through a combination of astronomical analyses and insightful interpretation of the enigmatic ancient monuments, he entirely dedicates himself to the studies on cosmological observations related to Maltese prehistoric sites. He understands the need for revisions in the context of interdisciplinary studies, where the discipline of archeoastronomy blends with the study of archaeology, and specifically prehistory. As he frequently points out in his book, archeoastronomy may contribute to archaeological examination, especially in the reconstructions of the building phases in case of the Mnajdra South.

Loughcrew Megalithic Cairns. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Similar attitude has been already underlined by Martin Brennan, an Irish-American author who, like Tore Lomsdalen, perceives megalithic monuments as sophisticated calendar devices having been designed by contemporary engineers in order to reflect the sky. Martin Brennan majored in visual communication at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and studied prehistoric art  in Mexico. As Lomsdalen,  he was engaged in a series of fieldwork where he gathered overwhelming evidence for his theory which was at that time quite controversial.

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

Martin challenges conventional opinions on presumed purposes of megaliths as tombs and proves their high sophisticated orientation in relation to astronomy. In his book, The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland, (1980s) Brennan interprets the real function of Newgrange by means of the unified languages of archaeology, archeoastronomy, architecture and art. That interdisciplinary unity of sciences can be deeply felt when the rising or setting sunlight is being caught by inner chambers of passage tombs at critical times of the year, illuminating only particular patterns among many other engraved on the stone. In such a way abstract symbols, which were thought to have appeared haphazardly, suddenly became the key to the enigmatic language of prehistory connecting with the stars.

Megalithic Art

Although Brennan underlines the importance of megalithic art as a crucial element in relations to astronomical calendar, for Lomsdalen it does not play a vital role. Likewise Brennan, he also points out to architectural areas of the temples illuminated by the sun, such as key thresholds of the side altars and the vertical slabs, yet without elaborated descriptions of artistic decorations of the temples. Lomsdalen realises the significance of the perceivable effect of dichotomy of light and dark created by sunrise illuminations. However, he mostly focuses on his archeoastronomical survey and ably presents the results of his fieldwork juggling with astronomical complex calculations, with particular attention to the alignments of the Mnajdra Temple complex. Lomsdalen also places the Maltese structures in their archaeological context redefining their building sequence, still without clearly stating their purpose in prehistory, as Brennan does while relating to the passage tombs as megalithic observatories. In the matter of fact, Martin Brennan completely rejects the idea that Newgrange and other similar constructions were built as burials and argues that originally they served as astronomical devices.

Dowth – megalithic art inside the so-called passage tomb in Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Undeniably, one of the aims of  Lomsdalen’s work is an investigation whether the Mnajdra Temple complex was built as a sacred site in relation to the cosmos, and as a device for celebrating the seasons, but none the less, that research question is a secondary in the conclusions of his book. His major concern is the intentionality behind the astronomical alignments of the Mnajdra Temple complex, which is in turn, the precondition of the hypothesis of religious, sacral and ritual character of the so-called temples. The author’s argument for intentionality is strengthened by the fact that astronomical orientations appeared in the Mnajdra complex throughout successive stages of its construction. In this case, all the claims against his postulate lose substance. The idea of intentionality in prehistoric architecture is also strongly supported by Martin Brennan in case of passage tombs in Ireland. He argues that such precise positioning of stones in an astronomically important context cannot be just coincidental. Both researchers additionally employ similar methodology in their fieldwork. Besides surveying, astronomical observations, and photography, they implement principles of experimental archaeology, or rather archeoastronomy, which involves testing a hypothesis through experiment in order to find evidence of ancient astronomy, apparently practiced by temple builders. Phenomenology, that is to say walking and experiencing the landscape, is another approach to their research.

Malta is “perhaps the best-kept secret in Mediterranean archaeology”. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Final results of Tore Lomsdalen’s report show new evidence about the architecture of Maltese temples and their link with the sky. Namely, the author confirms the hypothesis of a sky-based intentionality behind the construction of the Mnajdra Temple complex. Not only confirms he the known alignments at the Mnajdra South but also discovers new alignments at the Mnajdra Middle. Furthermore, there is a strong preference of the temples being directed between southeast and southwest, with one remarkable exception of the Mnajdra South or Lower facing east allowing the rising sun to cast a beam of light along its central axis at the equinoxes and cross-jamb illuminations at the solstices. The Temple’s sophisticated solar illuminations is explained by an increasing awareness by its creators of horizon-based astronomy and their better understanding of precise divisions of a solar year, including cross-quarter and the eighth days. The so-called oracle holes in the stones and postholes have also been investigated as supposed devises playing a significant role in aligning the temples to celestial bodies. Finally, the author proposes a redefined building sequence based on both archaeological finds and archaeoastronomical components. He strongly claims that the Mnajdra Temple complex was not built at once but in five successive stages: double apses and other architectural features had been added on for one and half millennia.

Mnajdra Temple Complex

Before moving directly to the matter of his studies, in the first chapter the author starts with a description of the temple culture within a sacred, cosmological, and astronomical context and uncovers “perhaps the best-kept secret in Mediterranean archaeology” in relation to the megalithic constructions on Malta. In Chapter 2 and 3 he introduces readers to the rich Maltese prehistory within the context of the Mediterranean, which is a very important background of the Neolithic temples. He also gives some speculative ideas about the origins of the temples and their mysterious creators. At this stage, he provides a detailed description of the Mnajdra Temple Complex. He stresses the importance of Maltese landscape and its influence on the carefully chosen location of the temple sites. Quite significant for the author is also their relations to land and sea, as in the case of the Mnajdra Temple East – the only one in Malta lacking an orientation towards sunrise, but oriented, and so apparently connected to Filfla islet. Next chapter moves smoothly to the core of the subject, from Maltese cosmology and astronomy in the context of the temple culture to methodology used in this work.

Lomsdalen, T. (2014) “Mnajdra was not built in a day.” Accessed on 17th of July, 2018, on Youtube Channel by Tore Lomsdalen.

In Chapter 5 the author presents the results of his fieldwork in Malta, particularly at the Mnajdra site, and subsequently compare them to other researchers’ findings. After all the results being discussed, Lomsdalen finishes his study with a summary and conclusions of the major findings regarding his hypotheses brought by and cited before. Simultaneously, the author highlights the need for further studies to be conducted, especially in searching for archaeological evidence on the chronological phases of temple construction.

Language of Astronomy

The amount of data gathered, survey measurements and a frequent use of the language of astronomy is impressive from one side, but from the other, it may be confusing to average readers not trained in astronomy. Nevertheless, the author helps a reader to understand a more scientific content by providing an approachable description of some definitions, such as the key difference between “orientation” and “alignment”. Additionally, there is a number of technical drawings and diagrams in order to illustrate the issues being dealt by the author during his studies.

Loughcrew Cairn: Martin Brennan completely rejects the idea that Newgrange and other similar constructions were built as burials and argues that originally they served as astronomical devices. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

What is more, at the end of the book readers can find a glossary and acronyms of temple orientations in Appendix IV, a detailed bibliography for reference, and very interesting discussions of the author with other researchers in Malta, Frank Ventura and Reuben Grima talking on different aspects of the megalithic temple culture. The book is also beautifully illustrated by series of photographs, including archival black-and-white photos from the nineteenth century and colourful pictures taken by the author himself. In general, it is a really comprehensive, consistent work and a very valuable complement to the study of both, archeoastronomy and archaeology. Additionally, Tore Lomsdalen’s innovative idea of dividing the construction of Mnajdra Temple complex into five sequences according to the temples’ alignments with the sun may be carried out at various megalithic sites scattered all over the world, where archeoastronomy together with archaeology can assist in determining successive phases of prehistoric constructions.

Continue reading Studying Prehistoric Archaeoastronomy on the Islands of Malta and Ireland

Saint Anne of Nubia – “It Will Make You Specheless.”[1]


[1] An advertising slogan accompanying the painting of Saint Anne and promoting Faras Gallery at the National Museum in Warsaw.

Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!

Book of Isaiah 18:2

Kazimierz Michałowski during the excavations at Faras (1960s). Photo by Tadeusz Biniewski – National Museum in Warsaw. CC BY-SA 3.0 pl. (modified). Source: “Kazimierz Michałowski” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Saint Anne is a Nubian wall painting estimated to have been painted between the 8th and 9th centuries, by using the technique al secco with tempera on plaster. This early Christian painting was discovered by a Polish archaeological team led by the Professor Kazimierz Michałowski during a campaign undertaken in the 1960s under the patronage of UNESCO (the Nubian Campaign) in Faras. The image itself belongs to a unique collection of wall paintings and architectural elements from the Faras Cathedral, discovered by an archeological mission. Faras Gallery is the only permanent exhibition in Europe featuring Medieval Nubian paintings from the Nile River Valley south of the First Cataract. The collection of over 60 paintings from the 8th to 14th centuries came from the cathedral in the city of Faras, a large urban centre in the Medieval kingdom of Nobadia, in present-day Sudan.

National Museum of Warsaw (2015). “The Faras Gallery 3D. Treasures from the Flooded Desert. The Collection of Nubian Art in the National Museum of Warsaw”. In: Google Arts&Culture.

Nobadian rulers controlling the Nile Valley from the first to the third cataracts converted to Christianity around 548 AD influenced by missionaries sent from Constantinople by the Empress Theodora.

Excavations at Faras – wall painting on site 1960s. Photo by Tadeusz Biniewski – National Museum in Warsaw. CC BY-SA 3.0 pl. (modified). Source: “Faras Gallery at the National Museum in Warsaw” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The first cathedral was erected in the 7th century, when the city was still known as Pachoras, and likely stood at the exact site where Polish archaeologists taking part in the Nubia Campaign discovered the subsequent 8th century cathedral. The Nubia Campaign was an extensive international mission to preserve ancient legacies threatened by flooding from the imminent construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the resulting formation of the artificial reservoir, Lake Nasser. Since 1964 the painting is in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, of which the image has been used as a logo.

National Museum of Warsaw (2015). “The Faras Gallery. Treasures from the Flooded Desert. The Collection of Nubian Art in the National Museum of Warsaw”. In: Google Arts&Culture. Accessed on 12th of July, 2018.

Saint Anne, of David’s house and line, was the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus according to apocryphal Christian tradition. Mary’s mother is not named in the canonical gospels. In writing, Anne’s name and that of her husband Joachim come only from New Testament apocrypha, of which the Gospel of James (written perhaps around 150 AD) seems to be the earliest that mentions them. In the painting, St Anne places her finger against her mouth, asking for silence, which may allude to the ‘divine silence’. The finger on the mouth could also indicate that the saint is praying.

Restoration work on the paintings from Faras at the National Museum in Warsaw. Dewaxing the surface of the painting depicting Bishop Petros with Saint Peter the Apostle, and applying compresses in 1960s. Published by National Museum of Warsaw (2016). Public domain (image modified). Source: Wikipedia (2020).

This gesture is rarely visible in Christian art and probably it refers to the tradition of Egyptian Christians (the Copts) who did so while praying undertone. It was believed to ward off evil powers trying to break into a human heart. Personally, I also understand this gesture as a synonym of a mystery and unuttered truth, which remains in silence. Also it is likely that Nubian women, similar to all women in the Christian world, directed their prayers towards St Anne requesting a child and a successful labour.

Featured image: Saint Anne (fragment) (9th c. AD). Nubian wall painting. By Unknown Author. The National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain (image cropped and modified). Source: “Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia

Continue reading Saint Anne of Nubia – “It Will Make You Specheless.”[1]