It is generally unknown that the symbol of a pyramid is inscribed into an ancient face of Sri Lanka. Firstly, it appears as a graphical logo of the Sri Lankan governmental organization CCF (Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka), depicted inside two protecting it hands (see: Kovalov 3rd June, 2013). As such it stands for a gesture of shielding cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, including its ancient sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, situated at each of the three angles of the pyramid, with Sigiriya and Dambulla inside it (Ibid.; see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana). The very same sign but engraved in granite reappears at the ancient and megalithic site of Mihintale (Ibid.). This is why some researchers claim that it is not a modern symbol but a cultural remnant of an ancient civilisation, which once lived on the island (Ibid.). A clue supporting such a theory lies in an alignment of the Rock of Sigiriya and other natural monolithic rocks nearby, namely, Pidurangala, Mihintale and Yapahuwa (Ibid.). But if a symbol of a pyramid is so common in the context of Sri Lanka’s ancient past, why the island is not known of such built constructions?
When I first arrived in Sri Lanka, I did not expect I would see any pyramids at all but, as it usually happens, one first is driven by some fixed ideas about a place they are heading off to. At least, in my case, I always need to reverify all the gathered information on site, before I can move to any conclusions. The same actually happened in Sri Lanka.
The site of ‘Palace’ without a palace
When I reached the flattened top of the one hundred and eighty metres high monolith of Sigiriya, I was supposed to see the remnants of a palace, which according to an official history was built on the rock on behalf of a fugitive King Kashyapa (Kassapa), at the very end of the fifth century AD. (473 – 495 AD.) (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). Instead, I saw there much more than I expected but the ruins of any palace; most striking of all were red-ramped ledges of bricks, towering from the upper corner of the top level over multiple terraces, marble and granite flights of stairs and a huge pool, filled with water intensively reflecting the sunlight (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019).
Despite my all efforts, however, I was unable to find there any single construction that I could interpret as a part of a palace (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). Moreover, as much as I had observed examples of ancient south-eastern architecture elsewhere, contemporary secular constructions, even those belonging to kings and his entourage, all were usually made entirely or partially of wood and so they were likely to perish much earlier than any other structures made of stone or brick (see: Royal Terraces without a Palace of the Kings). The latter group was of a greater importance as such buildings were commonly dedicated to gods.
For example, a later royal palace of Sri Lanka, in Polonnaruwa, which was built in the twelfth century AD., features mostly the remains of bricked columns and vertical thick walls with holes, served for holding now perished wooden beams, having supported once higher level floors (Wulff Hauglann 2020; see: ). Similar characteristics are absent in the construction of Sigiriya, which successive ramps were entirely built of bricks, with some visible elements carved in stone.
Moreover, providing that the King Kashyapa’s life was at risk, he would not possibly have invested in a luxurious royal residence, engaging as much as cost as workload to erect a magnificent structure of bricks and stone on top of the rock, providing that it was supposed to be completed over hardly eighteen years.
Telling differences between a palace and a pyramid
The ramped construction on top of the rock have got four sides and is built of red bricks with the use of the lime mortar between the bricks to bind them together (Mohan 2019). Its steps and ramps slope down from the north-western part of the top level of the rock southwards. Standing at the side of the granite pool, I observed red walls of the construction, successively climbing higher up, one after the other, similarly to stepped pyramids I had once seen in Mexico. As if against all of my guesses, having reached the flat platform on top of the ramped structure of brick, I eventually found a plate there, clearly reading “Palace” (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). As a matter of fact, such plates are installed on all four sides of the ‘palace’ area, confirming that these are four sides of the palace; for example, one says: “West Palace”, and another, “South Palace”, standing for the western and southern parts of the area, respectively (Mohan 2019). The one even reads: “Palace Reception Hall” (Ibid.). And in general, archaeologists and historians claim the ruins as remnants of a palace but many alternative researchers, like Praveen Moha (2019) and Volodymyr Kovalov (2013), openly regard such a statement as misleading information as it is not based on any reliable source, especially when the so-called ‘palace’ is thoroughly examined on site.
Firstly, its dimensions are ridiculously small; the size of the top pyramid platform is 17 metres in length and 11 meters in width, which means the ‘palace’ only had 187 square metres (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; see Mohan 2019). Today, the whole structure would be barely sufficient for a medium-sized house, and it is simple to conclude that the space thought to be once a palace is simply not sufficient to be a residence of a king (Mohan 2019; see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). Comparing such measurements to the mentioned Royal Palace of Polonnaruwa, which are 31 metres by 13 metres (403 square metres), it is visible that the difference in size between these two edifices is striking (Wulff Hauglann 2020). Obviously, it may be explained by the fact the Palace in Polonnaruwa is a later building and it was not limited by space of the flattened surface on top of the Sigiriya Rock. However, a king and his entourage would have needed such a space for living, providing that there was enough room for arranging luxurious gardens, pools and pained walls with frescoes …
Taking into consideration that it was meant to be just a ‘miniature residence’ for a king, where is then a space for the king’s family and servants’ living quarters, for a harem, storage facilities or cooking areas? (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Where was accommodation of the king’s entourage, such as his soldiers, guards, ministers or priests? (Mohan 2019). Adding to that, the summit of a huge rock completely does not fit any residential purposes; it is striking that despite the limited area for a palace itself, the area was also partially dedicated to other constructions, such as a huge granite pool and terraces and a garden stone bench, as if the King had rather been more interested in reclining than having a comfortable residence (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). And even though some think that Kashyapa built a palace on the very summit of the rock to protect himself against his enemies, such a theory does not make any sense when one examines a historical fact of the King eventually having descended the rock to fight against his enemies on the ground (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana).
Furthermore, providing that the builders of Sigiriya also created an elaborate line of defence systems, which was stretching for kilometres on the way leading to the very top, so preventing uninvited guests from reaching the structure, there was no need to build all such systems, using water and boulders, to only protect a cramped palace on top (Mohan 2019). Basing on the above, it can be assumed that the structure on the rock was built for a completely different purpose from the one usually suggested (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).
‘Palace’ turns into a pyramid
If one rejects the official version, however, then the bricked construction on top of the Sigiriya rock simply changes from a palace into a ramped pyramidal structure. It is also worth mentioning that the pyramid on top of Sigiriya would not be the only one existing on the island (see: Mohan 2019).
Looking at the four sides of the ‘palace’ with its corners and edges at angle, it must be agreed that it could not have been a rectangular construction, like in the case of a typical stronghold, but more likely a stepped-pyramidal structure; whereas the walls of most regular buildings would be erected at 90 degrees to the ground, in the case of the structure of Sigiriya, there is a broad base and consecutive levels or steps getting smaller at slope angle from all the four sides towards the top, which is flat as today the pyramid is possibly missing the upper part (Mohan 2019). Nevertheless, the entire structure still consists of several plain levels and there are numerous flights of stairs to climb it (Ibid.). Staircases are mostly situated on the pyramid’s sides but some also appear running up in the middle of the platforms.
Secret of Sigiriya Staircases
What is quite surprising is that the staircases differ in their colour from the rest of the construction. This is because they are not made of red bricks, like the walls of the pyramid, but of white marble, adding that the staircases further down and surrounding the pool are entirely carved out of huge blocks of granite (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). The two kind of stairs were originally installed there in ancient times and the stairs made of marble also appear among various constructions on the ground level (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). Those from the top and the bottom levels are of the same size, shape and condition (Kovalov 11th March, 2013). The latter element furthermore brings other questions.
Namely, the state of the marble stairs is actually not good at all as their surface seems highly corroded (Ibid.). After Volodymyr Kovalov (11th March, 2013), this feature is highly surprising as there could not have been any damages caused to the marble by frosts in Sri Lanka. Moreover, assuming the official dating of the site to the fifth century AD., the condition of the marble stairs in Sigiriya is much worse than those from the same time but carved and installed in ancient Greece (Ibid.). I would even say that the marble stairs of the Athenian Acropolis are less worn out than those in Sigiriya, even though they are supposedly five hundred years older! So to say, the slabs of white marble used in Sigiriya must be more ancient than one thousand and five hundred years old (Ibid.). Such an assumption consequently questions the real age of the constructions of Sigiriya rock (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).
Crawling snake on the flat top of the pyramid
Observing the top of Sigiriya from the flat top of the pyramid, one can get an impression that the successive steps of the pyramid together with the flights of stairs create a cascade flowing from the upper-left corner down, towards the pool. Unfortunately, the major portion of the pyramid was destroyed for unknown reasons so it is not possible to find out how it once really looked like (Mohan 2019). Praveen Mohan (2019) assumes the structure is today deprived of its final peak and it ends with a remaining flat top level surrounded by a ground alignment of the bricks. The latter seem especially interesting. Namely, the bricks incorporated there are not arranged in a straight line, as is usually seen in constructions around, but they are laid with curves, resembling more a snake’s body than a fence wall (Ibid.).
Was it a recreational garden?
Although, it is difficult to surely determine a purpose of all the baffling constructions that once existed in Sigiriya, one thing is sure; it was a very unique structure and all its parts had been built on site for some specific reasons (Mohan 2019). Apart from the said palace ruins, which are dominant on top of the rock, the other mentioned above constructions are believed to have been once a part of a recreational garden as they seem similar to those visible at the foot of the rock (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).
Apart from successive levels of terraces, similar to those on the ground level of the complex, the large granite pool filled with water and multiple granite staircases around it, there is also the so-called ‘throne’, equally carved out of granite block (Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Such ‘thrones’ can also be encountered on the way from the ground level up to the rock peak (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). All of them show a similar shape and the same high-quality of processing the granite stone (Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Nevertheless, they were not likely to serve as ‘thrones’ as there has never been enough space in front of it to bow in front of any king (Ibid.). After Volodymyr Kovalov (14th March, 2013), such structures rather resemble garden benches to sit down on and relax among walled terraces. Not to mention the fact they were perfectly carved out of one of the hardest stones present on earth.
Questioning the age of the site
The age of constructions encrusting Sigiriya is uniquely determined by the Culavamsa Chronicles, which covers the period from the fourth century AD. to 1815 (“Cūḷavaṃsa” 2021; see: Kovalov 11th March). The records cannot be, however, entirely reliable as they were written and compiled by various authors at different times (“Cūḷavaṃsa” 2021; see: Kovalov 11th March). Apart from that source, there is no other evidence of dating the buildings of Sigiriya (Kovalov 11th March). Furthermore, constructing such a highly advanced building wonder over a short period of several years by means of slaves who would have used contemporary tools seem quite unrealistic as much as applying hi-tech machines in ancient times may seem fabulous to others (Kovalov 14th March, 2013).
Finally, maybe some centuries later, the King Kashyapa committed a crime and was forced to move with his followers from the traditional Sinhalese capital of Anuradhapura to the more secured location (“Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura” 2021). Consequently, the king used the existing complex of Sigiriya as his refuge (see: Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Possibly he was even pushed to enter the forbidden and holy land of the lost gods and their heritage, in order to save his life. In such a way, all the constructions having been possibly built and overbuilt at Sigiriya for ages were eventually ascribed to the fugitive King, and so the previous Ravana’s court became his home for the following eighteen years.
Engineer’s thoughts over Sigiriya
For a while I discussed with an engineer from Poland I had met on top of the ‘pyramid’. He admitted to me he had got simply amazed with all the structures at Sigiriya, and especially he was curious about the way all the granite elements were processed on site without using any machinery. Crouching by the granite pool, he also showed me how the shaped blocks of granite and tool marks on them seem to harmoniously play with the natural structure and surface of the stone (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013). ‘An application of such a technology is visible on site everywhere you go’, the engineer said.
‘But it is unknown to myself even though I’ve got much experience in processing stone for years … Actually, I have already seen it also on other sites around the island and elsewhere in the world’, he added. ‘ … These stone structures are just screaming with an advanced technology. The case is that nobody cares these days … Well, people are on holidays …’, he sighed.
Finally, he stood up and looked at the red ramps of the pyramidal structure growing above the flattened top level of the rock.
‘What about archaeologists …? What do they think about it all’, he asked, shifting his attention to myself.
I just smiled to him. There was nothing to add. Multiple questions stayed unanswered.
Featured image:The naturally made monolith of Sigiriya became home to mysterious ruins of stone and bricks, encrusting the rock and its surroundings. Photo by Anastasia (2016). In: “MadebyNastia”. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.
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.
“Cūḷavaṃsa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U0XNdI>. [Accessed on 7th August, 2021].
“Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/37MD4gQ>. [Accessed on 14th August, 2021].
“Sigiriya” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lG6y8n>. [Accessed on 7th August, 2021].
Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u >. [Accessed on 28th May, 2021].
Kovalov V. (11th March, 2013). “Chapter 1 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock in Sri Lanka: Thoughts and Impressions of my Visit”. In: Vladimir KovalSky. Available at <https://bit.ly/37Unmht>. [Accessed 8th August, 2021].
Kovalov V. (14th March, 2013). “Chapter 2 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, in Sri Lanka: Thoughts and Impressions of My Visit”. In: Vladimir KovalSky. Available at <https://bit.ly/37p3Mw9>. [Accessed 8th August, 2021].
Kovalov V. (3rd June, 2013). “New mysterious riddles of Sri Lanka. What unites the ancient civilization of the Indian subcontinent with Africa, Atlantis and South America?”. In: Vladimir KovalSky. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ViKaF1>. [Accessed 7th August, 2021].
Mohan P. (2019). “Secret Pyramids Discovered in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka?”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3CtIFH1>. [Accessed on 7th August, 2021].
Wulff Hauglann M. (2020). “10 Must-See Things in The Ancient City Polonnaruwa”. In: Nerd Nomads. Available at <https://bit.ly/3sEmyJN>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].
Lycian Turkey is just one of numerous parts of the world, where monumental tombs were carved out of the rock to satisfy religious needs of contemporaries, who by all means wished their dead kings, rulers and relatives to find the right way to the afterlife. As it seems, the more large and intricate a tomb was, the more privileged the dead was and the more direct and straight was their journey to the next world.
The idea of making rock-cut tombs is a very ancient one (Ching et al. 2010:173). The oldest known examples come from Egyptian Thebes as they date back to the sixteenth or fifteenth century BC. (the Middle Kingdom) (Ibid.:173). There are also Hittite rock-hewn sanctuaries, which were made in 1250 BC. (Ibid.:173). Examples of such sepulchral architecture can be also found in Italy and they belong to the so called Etruscan culture (from the eight to the third centuries BC.) (Ibid.:173). A huge necropolis of rock-cut tombs is also present near the town of Paphos, in Cyprus, where several tombs are designed in the form of an impluvium (Ibid.:173). The roc-cut tombs in Lycia on the southern coast of Turkey date back to the end of the fifth century BC. (Ibid.:173).
The custom of cutting the tombs out of the rock was brought further eastwards by Darius the First (522-486 BC.), whose own tomb was carved out of the cliffs (Ching et al. 2010:173:173). It is actually one of the four rock-cut tombs of Achaemenid kings at the site of Naqsh-e Rustam, near Persepolis, in modern-day Iran (“Tomb of Darius the Great” 2020). “They are all at a considerable height above the ground” (Ibid.), as much as the tombs in Lycia. One of the most impressive site with rock-hewn tombs of strikingly similar character are located in the lost city of the Nabateans, which is Petra, in Jordan (Ching et al. 2010:173; see: Markoe ed. 2003). They are said to have been built between 300 BC. and 200 AD. (Ching et al. 2010:173).
Common but outstanding
Although rock-cut tombs were often made in imitation of traditional buildings, their construction techniques are very different (Ching et al. 2010:173).
Masons building such sepulchral monuments must have started from the top of cliffs and continue downwards so that the discarded stones did fall down to destroy the new building elements (Ching et al. 2010:173). Working from the top down required a different type of planning and engineering (Ibid.:173). It is also significant to remember that such a technique was used not only for sepulchral architecture but also for temples (Ibid.:173). Buddhist chaityas or viharas in China and India, and Hindu caves (Ellora, Ajanta) probably go back to the third century BC. and were continued throughout the first millennium AD. (Ibid.:173). The same technique was equally applied for rock-carved churches in Cappadocia, Turkey (around 900 AD.), and in Lalibela, Ethiopia (around 1200 AD.) (Ibid.:173). What is unique is the fact that the same technique was also used in secular architecture, namely, in the case of urban buildings, like houses, carved out in solid rock at a mysterious ancient site of Tiermes, located on the edge of the Duero valley in modern-day Spain (Ibid.:173). The dating of the fortress, as it is referred to, is questionable (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Nevertheless, it is believed to have been carved either at the Celtiberian or Roman times, probably between the first century BC. and the first century AD. (Ibid.).
Tombs commemorating ancestors
Veneration, or even, worship for ancestors, was undoubtedly universal in the ancient world (Bean 1989:31).
All peoples inhabiting Anatolia before the Greek colonization built beautiful, monumental tombs in commemoration of their ancestors; the Lycians developed this art to perfection, which was undoubtedly easy for them thanks to the soft sandstones found in their land (Miszczak 2009). Although early Lycian buildings were mostly overbuilt, as elsewhere in Asia Minor, first by Hellenistic and then Roman constructions, Lycia remains one of the best places in Anatolia, where the native culture of the region is still visible and can be admired at each step (Bean 1989:30). Although various foreign influences are visible in the Lycian monuments, they have yet retained its unique character (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).
Transporter of the souls
Many examples of the sepulchral art shows a high quality of still well-preserved mason work and are covered in tell-tale sculptures adorning the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Reliefs depict, among others, mythological scenes, funeral feasts, battles and animals (Miszczak 2009).
Persian influence on the tombs is evident in the way scenes of feasts, battles and hunts are depicted, for example in the tombs of Xanthos, while he Greek influence is most clearly manifested in mythological scenes, for example, in the original Lycian representations of lions, the favourite royal symbol in this land (Ibid.). On the other side, the distinctive feature that distinguishes the Lycian tombs from the classical Greece and Rome is their location (Ibid.). While in the Greek and Roman cultures, the burial places of the dead were customarily located outside residential areas, often along the roads leading to cities, the Lycians made the tombs an integral part of the urban landscape, which is evidence of their relationship with contemporary cultures of the East (Ibid.). A good example is Patara, where monumental tombs are proudly presented along the port (Ibid.).
Accordingly, the Lycians interacted with the ghosts of their past by inviting them to their everyday life (Miszczak 2009). The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures (Ibid.). Round altars decorated with inscriptions or ornaments were often placed near the tombs (Ibid.). They were used to make offerings to the deceased (Ibid.). The offerings to the ancestors varied greatly, as can be seen from the finds from the tombs (Ibid.). Often these were terracotta statues and jewellery (Ibid.). After the Greek custom, the Lycian also put a coin in the mouths of the deceased, as a fee for Charon – the carrier (Ibid.). Sometimes it is even possible to determine the social status and profession of the dead, by means of a character of objects buried along them (Ibid.).
Cult of the dead and its legal protection
Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great (before 334-333 BC.) (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Rock-hewn tombs and those of masonry are typical of the whole Asia Minor but they do not appear in such an abundance as in Lycia (Bean 1989:31). According to the latest research, there have remained one thousand eighty-five tombs carved in the rock in the land of Lycia, and partially also at its western border with Caria (Miszczak 2009).
An opportunity to see them all in our times should be at least partially ascribed to the fact that already in the times of ancient Lycians, the tombs had been carefully preserved from any damage of profanation, sometimes by a special committee, called the mindis (Bean 1989:31). Also epitaphs inscribed on Lycian tombs often end with a warning of uttering a curse or imposing financial fine for any violation of the tombs (Ibid.:31). Later, the responsibility for the protection of the Lycian tombs was taken over by the city (Ibid.:31). Such efforts visibly show how important for the ancient was the cult of the dead and the places of their final rest (Ibid.:31).
The tombs of Lycia
The tombs of Lycia are usually divided into four separate categories, according to their distinctive features, namely pillar-tombs, temple-tombs, house-tombs and sarcophagi (Bean 1989:30).
Most typical of Lycia are the pillar-tombs, which are also believed the earliest preserved of all (Ibid.:30). They mostly appear in the western part of the region and feature a huge rectangular pillar situated on the stone base, whereas at the top of it, there is a grave-chamber, additionally crowned with a massive cap-stone (Ibid.:30). Their sculptured surfaces are limited to the top sides of the grave-chamber, if such carved decoration appears at all (Ibid.:30-31). Temple-tombs present on their front temple facades in miniature, which is the Hellenistic influence having appeared since the fourth century BC. and therefore they are not exactly in Lycian artistic character, though they definitely used to express Lycian beliefs of the afterlife, as much as the previous category of the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).
Temple-tombs are also typical of Caria (Caunus) and other parts of Anatolia (Bean 1989:30; see Bean, v.3 1989:139-151). However, those from Lycia slightly vary from the former; the façade of a temple is adorned with two columns in antis (two columns between antae) which are usually in Ionic order (Bean 1989:30). Such a façade also has an epistyle and a pediment (frontispiece) (Ibid.:30). A grave-chamber, which is a plain room with stone benches for the corpses, can be reached through the door from the porch (Ibid.:30). Similar interiors are characteristic of the third category, though its exteriors differ (Ibid.:30). House-tombs, as their name indicate, were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia, namely one, two or three-storeys wooden houses, including the projecting square or round beam-ends above the door opening, which later developed into a dentil frieze (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).
Sometimes, their façades feature a pediment that can be in the form of a pointed arch, similar to the one in the Gothic style (Bean 1989:30). The walls of this type of Lycian tombs usually are carved in relief, which also appear in the pediment, and occasionally on the adjacent rocks (Ibid.:30-31). When it comes to the last category, it was very common in the contemporary world, however, the early Lycian sarcophagi vary from typical forms of generally known tombs (Ibid.:30). Firstly, the Lycian version is much higher and is composed of the three successive parts: a base, which played the role of hyposorion (a second grave-chamber for the owner’s dependants), an actual grave-chamber, and a crested, ‘Gothic’-like massive lid, which are both frequently in reliefs (Ibid.:30-31). In the Roman times, the Lycian sarcophagi diminished in size and intricacy, and the corner of their lids, yet still with the crest, became rounded (Ibid.:31). Apart from those four major categories of the Lycian tombs, there also exist their different variations (Ibid.:31).
Telmessus or Fethiye?
The finest specimens of the Lycian tombs are at the ancient site of Telmessus or Telmessos, located by the Aegean Sea, in Lycia (Bean 1989:40). The city’s name was only changed in the eighth century to Anastasioupolis, in order to commemorate Anastasios the Second, the Byzantine Emperor, who ruled from 713 to 715 (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021).
That name, however, had been forgotten till the tenth century, when the city was commonly known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). Finally, in the twentieth century, the city was renamed as Fethiye and it is called so in present (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). The town and its district, incorporating a long beach, Çaliş Plaji (Beach), with an extensive promenade along the coast, on which a row of hotels are based, remain today one of the most prominent tourist destinations in the Turkish Riviera (“Fethiye” 2021). Fethiye is slipped away in the south corner of the gulf, and although it is quite hot in summer there, a fresh breeze coming from the sea makes the heat tolerable (Bean 1989:38), which is contrary to Alanya in the Mediterranean region, where the humidity reaches in summer 100%, and at around 40 degrees one feels boiling hot.
During our three-week stay in Fethiye, I visited the city a few times to enjoy its ancient remains and silent atmosphere of its streets. At that time I was spending my holidays with my little sister, Agnieszka, and my aunt’s large family (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods). As my uncle is a university lecturer of Fine Arts and a real devotee of antique art, he seizes any occasion to sightsee, even though his family prefers to spend their time in a slightly different manner. Once we all headed off to Fethiye for the best döner kebab in the area. Afterwards, we decided to wander around the town in search of its ancient remains, which are scattered within its modern boundaries.
Little known site with monumental architecture
Unfortunately, very little is known about the origins of the ancient site of Fethiye (Bean 1989:38). Although its monuments feature Lycian inscriptions, it does not appear as Lycian at first in history (Ibid.:38). After some records, in the fourth century BC., the Lycian dynast, Pericles, fought against the Telmessians and besieged their city (Ibid.:38). Since then, Telmessus had become a part of Lycia, as it is attested by a contemporary historian, known as Scylax (Ibid.:38).
Naturally, it had also been a member of the Lycian League till the time Lycia stayed under the Roman Empire (Ibid.:38). The Telmessians held then a peaceful agreement with Alexander the Great (334-333 BC.), and at the time of by Ptolemy the Third, in 240 BC., the city was offered to Ptolemy, son of Lysimachus (Ibid.:38-39). After the battle of Magnesia, in 189 BC., it was handed over by the Romans to Eumenes of Pergamum and it stayed within the Pergamene kingdom till its end, in 133 BC. (Ibid.:39). Consequently, it was then included to the Roman province of Asia (Ibid.:39). Yet in the first century BC. the city possibly did not belong to Lycia anymore (Ibid.:38).
Treasure is either underground or high-up
First, we decided to take a closer look of the famous Lycian rock-hewn tombs; so far we had just had an occasion to catch a tantalising glimpse of their façades and mysterious openings in the hillsides, from the distance, while we were travelling by bus through the region. The major group of the tombs of Telmessus are located on the east, just outside the modern town (Bean 1989:40). Numerous examples of different types are encrusted together in the cliff-face; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type, in two or three storeys, and are much smaller than those of the previous group (Ibid.:40). The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes (Ibid.:40). They are all cut in the rock, encrusting the hillside, which looks out on to the east and west (Ibid.:40). Some of them may be reached by a stone staircase or by the strength of one’s own muscles, while climbing up the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, others are more or less inaccessible without special equipment (Ibid.:40).
Who was Amyntas?
The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors (Bean 1989:40).
Obviously, I was to climb the hill to see the details of the ancient grave. Together with my uncle, we quickly left behind other members of our family, who were walking lazily up towards the monument. From the foot of the hill, we were led up there by a modern stepped zig-zag path, which directs straight to the most famous and magnificent of all the tombs (Ibid.:40). It clearly manifests its temple façade, which is already very easily seen for those who look at it from below the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, only at closer look, this temple-tomb fully demonstrates its monumental size (Ibid.:40). At the foot of the tomb, there are yet four steps to reach the porch in the Ionic order, characterized by two columns in antis (Ibid.:40), of which the left-hand is broken at its base. Each pilaster features a row of three rosettes at their top (Ibid.:40). They are surmounted by a pediment (fronton) with three acroteria, mounted at its apex and its two corners; unfortunately, two of them bear the traces of large damage (Ibid.:40). Below the pediment, there is a dentil frieze, also known as a teethed cornice, which in this category of the tombs exchanged the wooden ornamental elements carrying the roofs in Lycian houses (Bean 1989:30, 40; Dosseman 2019).
These were in turn also imitated in stone by the Lycian house-tombs (Bean 1989:30; Dosseman 2019). An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019). Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb (Ibid.:40).
Robbers and vandals have already done their job
From the space of the porch (the narthex), I could see in detail the massive double doors to the grave chamber, which in Greek architecture, were hidden from the outside view by a portico; the door of the tomb is believed to be the most ancient and best preserved in Greek art, which greatly influenced this type of the Lycian tombs (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019).
My uncle had already stayed in front of it, analyzing its particular components. The imitated doorway opening of the grave-chamber is squared and framed by mouldings; additionally, above it, there is a protruding moulded cornice supported on console brackets in the form of volutes. The stone surface of the door is divided into four panels, which are additionally covered in decorations imitating iron studs (Bean 1989:40). It was possible to enter the chamber through the bottom right panel, initially sealed with a sliding stone slab (Ibid.:40). It the recent past, it has been damaged by grave robbers who broke into the chamber; as a result, the entrance now remains open (Ibid.:40). When we both came through the broken panel, we found ourselves inside a single chamber with a flat ceiling and three separate benches hewn in the rock along the sides of the walls, where the dead used to be deposited (Ibid.:40). Some modern ‘vandals’ had decided the grave chamber would have been the best place to confess their love, as the walls have been covered in graffiti inscriptions in black and red paint (Dosseman 2019).
When we finally decided to come back, we realised we were alone in front of the tomb, and our family had been lost somewhere on the way up. After a while, we clearly discerned colourful figures on descend the hill; they were sitting down or impatiently looking in our direction. Deeply engaged in studying the tomb, we only now understood they had never climbed up the hill with us.
Sarcophagus outside the city centre
Apart from the visited site, there are many more tombs of different types within and around Fethiye (Bean 1989:40). Possibly, the best preserved and the most excellent in all Lycia is the tomb of sarcophagus category, which now stands beside the municipal building of the town (Ibid.:40). Like the Tomb of Amyntas, the sarcophagus dates back to the fourth century BC. (“Telmessos” 2021). Its façade imitates two-storey wooden building with protruding house-beams (Bean 1989:40). However, the most interesting is its ‘Gothic’ arched lid that, along with the surmounting crest, is richly covered in reliefs, representing warriors (Ibid.:40-41). The ends of the lid, likewise the ends of the main chamber, are divided into four squared panels (Ibid.:40-41).
Our sightseeing of Fethiye finished just behind the city harbour, where there are remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia (Bean 1989:41; TripHobo 2021). The so-called Telmessos Theatre is actually dated back to the Late Hellenistic, which is supported by the sign on the site, and it was reused by the Romans who added the stage in the second century BC. (Fethiye 2021). What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. (TripHobo 2021; Fethiye 2021). We were resting there for a while, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements.
In the late afternoon, full of excitement after experiencing the Lycian past, I finally left the hot city of Fethiye, and with the rest of the tired group we went back to the sandy shores, washed by the refreshing sea waves.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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Markoe G. ed. (2003). Petra Rediscovered. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Miszczak I. (2009). ”Dzieje Licyjczyków”. In: Miszczak I., Miszczak J. Turcja w sandałach. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kVybIh>. [Accessed on 8th March, 2021].
TripHobo (2021). “Roman Theatre, Fethiye”. In: TripHobo. Available at <https://bit.ly/3eCrzgO>. [Accessed on 13th March, 2021].
We had just left behind a stone forest of the fifty-four towers of the State Temple of Bayon, situated at the very heart of Angkor Thom. They followed us with the eyes of the faces looking out to the Baphuon Temple, and further on to the North Gate.
The both temples, Bayon and Baphuon, are definitely the most beautiful and complete in comparison to other numerous remains of temples and secular structures of different ages and styles scattered around Angkor Thom (Teo 2014); there are ruins of Prasat Chrung, composed of “four temples located at the corners of the wall, in southwest, northwest, northeast, and southeast” (Ibid.), then Preah Pithu Group, Prasat Suor Prat, the Khleangs, Tep Pranam, the so-called Monuments 486 and 487, and the Royal Palace area with the Royal Chapel of Phimeanakas and two monumental terraces (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020; Teo 2014).
Perished Palace of Angkor Thom
The city of Angkor Tom “was [once] inhabited by tens of thousands of common people who lived in wooden houses, that have long gone. The city was highly developed with a system of roads and waterways, as well as four hospitals” (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020).
The city of Angkor Thom was not evenly covered with ever-lasting stone structures; in comparison to southern part of Angkor Tom, which seems now desolate, the northern side of the city abounds in various architectural creations, unfortunately now mostly in ruins. To the North of the Bayon the king Jayavarman VII built his Royal Palace (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020). “Since it was built of perishable materials as were other urban constructions, nothing of it remains today except for the Royal Terraces that were made of stone” (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020; see Pałkiewicz 2007:176). Consequently, both the Elephants’ Terrace and the Leper King’s Terrace has still marked the eastern extremity of the Royal Palace enclosure (Ibid.).
Terrace of the Elephants
We walked to the north, from Baphuon in the direction of Phimeanakas, two former state temples incorporated to the twelfth century’s Royal Palace (“Angkor Thom” 2020). There is a huge square adjoining the Terrace of the Elephants (Teo 2014). Its two and a half-meter tall edifice is really impressive: it extends in length for over three hundred metres; we observed that it already starts at the foot of the Baphuon Temple and reaches northwards to the second Terrace of the Leper King (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014).
Nevertheless, these two boundaries of its large architectural construction “remain imprecise in their layout and the terrace itself shows evidence of additions and alterations” (Glaize I 1944), made partially by Jayavarman VII in the late twelfth century, and then continued by his successor (Teo 2014).
The terrace’s long wall is adorned with intricate carvings, major part of which represents royal and holy animals – elephants, which proudly walk along the terrace’s pedestal (Pałkiewicz 2007:165). Hence the terrace’s name (Ibid.:165). During the golden age, the royal cavalry consisted of two hundred thousand elephants, the pride of the army, as well as a large number of horses, oxen and carts (Ibid.:170).
Often the result of a battle depended on the number of elephants that took part in it (Pałkiewicz 2007:170). Wars on land usually started in the dry season, which made it easier for the troops with elephants to move quicker around (Ibid.:170). During the battle, clouds of dust stirred up by elephants rose in the air, which, as the verses of an epic Khmer poem say, even covered the Sun (Ibid.:170).
The terrace’s wall spans the front of Baphuon Temple, the Royal Chapel of Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area in the centre of Angkor Thom (Teo 2014). The northern segment of the wall (a part of an ancient façade) shows a panel densely decorated in high relief with the five-headed horse, around which there are complex, possibly mythological scenes (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014): “the king’s horse sheltered under tiered parasols, […] surrounded by apsaras and menacing genies armed with sticks who chase some terrified smaller figures” (Glaize I 1944). Three sections of retaining walls of the Terrace of the Elephants together with its two side walls compose five outworks extending towards the square in the centre (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014).
Their middle sections are covered in life size legendary Hindu bird-like creatures, called Garudas, and lions, all depicted in the pose of atlantes (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014). Towards either end of the wall, the entire length of the panel is sculpted in a high relief, representing a parade of nearly full in size elephants depicted in profile and mounted by famous Khmer mahouts (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014). Various level changes in the wall are in turn ”marked with lions sculpted in the round and Naga-balustrades on blocks with [their opponents, Garudas], on the [snakes’] hoods” (Glaize I 1944).
The Terrace is double-levelled, and its upper part has furthermore two levels with an elevated platform, whose base is carved with Hamsas (sacred geese) (Glaize I 1944).
Five stairways, as many as there are gates to the city, lead to the Terrace of the Elephants (Glaize I 1944). They are all also fully covered in carvings but three of the staircases seem most dominant of all (Ibid.). The southern one displays exceptionally beautiful sculpture (Ibid.), namely, it is “framed by motifs of [a three-headed elephant, Airvan], with trunks forming pillars tugging at lotuses, [the sculpture already found on the gates of Angkor Thom] (see Passageway through the Stargate). The same arrangement can be seen on the two secondary stairways which frame the central perron” (Ibid.). The stairway on the northern façade is partly sculpted in a bas-relief of horizontal bands; there are “scenes of sport, wrestling, chariot racing and polo, […] which originated from India” (Ibid.).
Around eight hundred years ago, the Terrace of the Elephants must have been a spectacular meeting place (Teo 2014); it was probably “used as a giant reviewing stand for [spectacles], public [and religious] ceremonies, and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:165). Triumphant military parades and colourful spectacles took place at its foot, and despite the fact that the construction had been damaged many times, its majestic appearance still makes a great impression (Pałkiewicz 2007:165). The bas-reliefs of the Terrace of the Elephants, and the whole Angkor Tom, show how great the magnificence of the royal court of Khmers really was (Ibid.:170).
A traveller and journalist, Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:170) imagines the ceremonial protocol of that time: here is the divine ruler with a tiara on his forehead, seated on a high terrace in the shade of ceremonial umbrellas. Handmaids in colourful, silk robes are approaching him, while offering refreshing fruit (Ibid.:170). The king is surrounded by an entourage of clergy, dignitaries and diplomats (Ibid.:170). In their company, the ruler is watching the infantry and cavalry troops heading towards the central Palace (Ibid.:170). Flags and banners are fluttering in the wind (Ibid.:170). It was a real propaganda for the diplomats, envoys and travellers who came from abroad (Ibid.:165,170).
The contemporary chronicles also report a great prosperity in trade in the Khmer Empire (Pałkiewicz 2007: 174). Gold was imported from Sumatra and Korea, tin and fabric from Malaysia, mercury from China and an extremely valuable aromatic tree, silk from India (Ibid.:174). Spices and dyes were transported by water or by carts drawn by Indian buffaloes or by men from lower castes (Ibid.:174).
An envoy from China, Chou Ta Kuan, reports that people from lowest classes in Angkor had dark skin and lived a very simple life (Pałkiewicz 2007: 174). On the other side, aristocrats and inhabitants of the Royal Palace, both men and women fair complexion, which is probably due to the fact that their skin had not been exposed to sunlight (Ibid.:174). Generally, both men and women only wore a loincloth (Ibid.:174). They bound their hair up at the top of the head and walked barefoot, including emperors’ wives (Ibid.:174). According to the envoy’s records, the king had five wives (Ibid.:174). As for concubines and palace maidens, their number ranged from three to five thousand (Ibid.:174). They were divided into many classes, but these women rarely had the opportunity to be in the royal quarters (Ibid.:174). The best noble families competed with each other, offering their daughters to the king, thus seeking privileges (Ibid.:174).
Apart from the being admired at his Terrace of the Elephants, the king equally gave audiences twice a day at his Royal Palace, which, unfortunately, no longer exists (Pałkiewicz 2007: 170). Chou Ta Kuan writes that this Palace had colourful interiors decorated with wood and gold (Ibid.:170). And the king himself, during the audience, appeared in the window with golden cornices, holding his sword in his hand (Ibid.:170,174). The entire ceremony was performed to the accompaniment of music (Ibid.:170). After being summoned by the king, a minister or another official sat on a tiger’s skin before the king and submitted interpellations (Ibid.:174). While leaving the site, I thought about a mystery of those ancient times, yet brining back in such details by the envoy’s contemporary reports and magical movements and dance of the sculpted stone figures frozen in the past.
Terrace of the Leper King
Soon we reached the second terrace of the Royal Palace, called the Terrace of the Leper King, situated at the north end of the Terrace of the Elephants (Teo 2014); it is aligned with it but forming a separate architectural unit of twenty-five metres wide by six metres high (Glaize II 1944). The Terrace resembles a bastion, which is entirely sculpted in the mixture of high and low relief (Ibid.). All the filigree carvings are depicted in five visible registers (Maurice Glaize II (1944) mentions seven); unfortunately, some of the sculpture, especially the uppermost, is strongly damaged or worn out, and thus hardy readable (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:174).
Both the internal and external reliefs show lines of seated mythological figures of Naga, Garuda, and Kumbhanda (Glaize II 1944). There are also meditating silhouettes of women, images of monarchs in crowns, armed with short swords, various species of animals, hunting scenes, games and activities (Pałkiewicz 2007:174,176). All of them “haunt the flanks of Mount Meru, shown as giants, […] sometimes with multiple arms […], sword or club bearers, and women with bare torsos” (Glaize II 1944).
Apsaras in pearls
When I approached the construction from its north side I saw yet different looking sculpture; there was a sword swallower and some figures wearing a curious side-chignon, who kept following him (Glaize II 1944). Having moved to the south side, I entered the internal corridor or passage dividing the carved mound in two (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:176). I admired a well preserved set of carvings whose décor is composed of the same elements as the exterior but it is additionally adorned with my favourite Hindu characters, graceful and benevolent Devi, also called Apsaras (Glaize II 1944).
The summer light penetrating from the above fell on the sculptures covering the interior walls, emphasizing the shapely naked breasts of charming female upper bodies adorned only with strings of pearls (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:176) and “triangular head dress with flaming discs” (Glaize II 1944). Some sculpted characters on the south side were also seated upon a lower frieze built up of depictions of fish, elephants and a river running vertically (Ibid.).
Following the rows of scenes, I eventually climbed laterite steps to the upper level of the Terrace, where “[surrounded by three smaller decapitated statues carrying clubs on their right shoulders, the ‘Leper King’ sits in the Javanese manner with his right knee raised” (Glaize II 1944). Possibly his position has originally been on a simple stone slab he is seated on (Ibid.). The sculpture is itself unique in Khmer art, as it represents the King entirely naked, with no trace of his genitalia though (Ibid.).
I looked at the figure and I immediately got an impression he is smiling, pleased with his entourage and location, or maybe visitors taking him loads of photos. When I started wondering why the seated figure is called the Leper King, I unexpectedly found the answer to my question: although the figure has no sign of leprosy as such, it is discoloured. Anyway, the original sculpture of the ‘King’ had already been replaced with a copy (Pałkiewicz 2007:174); “[the] statue was moved from the Terrace in Angkor Thom to the National Museum in Phnom Penh” (Miura 2015).
Maurice Glaize (II:1944), as a French architect, archaeologist, and Conservator of Angkor from 1937 to 1945, had an opportunity to describe the original statue in his the guidebooks to the Angkor monuments. He writes that besides being stained and disfigured, it also bears a few patches of lichen, which may have resembled a person with leprosy (Glaize II:1944; see Pałkiewicz 2007:174). The source of the King’s and thus the Terrace’s name could be also because of a Cambodian legend of an Angkorian king, Yasovarman I (889–910 AD.), who was a great creator of Angkor and possibly he died of leprosy (“Terrace of the Leper King” 2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:174). Consequently, he went down in history as the Leper King (“Terrace of the Leper King” 2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:174). Yet, he had reigned much earlier than the Terrace was constructed in the late twelfth century.
After some scholars neither the statue represents a leper nor a king. Actually, the identity of the sculptured character is unknown. It is held by some that it represents ‘Shiva ascetic’, others believe that a later inscription on the Terrace’s base, which reads a ‘Dharmaraja’ reveals the statue’s real name (Glaize II:1944).“[It] is sometimes given to Yama and sometimes to one of his assessors – ‘the Inspector of Qualities and Faults’ – the supreme judge in the hour of judgement, [and so] the ‘god of the Dead’” (Ibid.). However, the hairstyle of the individual, namely composed “of thick coils starting from the front and covering the nape of the neck – emphasises, like the two ‘fangs’ near the corner of the lips, his demonic character” (Ibid.). Is it then one of demons from Hindu tradition? Is it maybe a depiction of Ravana?
Dharmaraja at Mount Meru
It is probable that the Terrace of the Leper King was once dominated by the sculpted mound, possibly complemented with pools, and with the buried wall; this curious arrangement may have been a symbolic representation of Mount Meru (Glaize 1944).
On the other side, “the fact that it occupies an area to the north of the Royal Palace – the area […] reserved still now for royal cremations known as ‘Val Prah Men’ (the name of the pavilion prepared there for the funeral pyre) – leads one to suspect that the Terrace of the Leper King was none other than a permanent [Val Prah] Men, which would explain why, when this cult was still remembered [in the fifteenth century, the name] of Dharmaraja [as the god of the dead, had been] placed [just] there” (Ibid.).
From the main entrance to the Royal Palace, that is halfway along the wall of the Terrace of the Elephants, there is an almost one and half kilometre long Victory Way that leads to the fifth and most important passage within the citadel of Angkor Thom, the Victory Gate or the Fifth Gopura (Pałkiewicz 2007:176).
Following the road I kept passing by numerous remains of ancient structures of Prasat Suor Prat, plunged in the greenery, and I was thinking about their links to modern times of Cambodia. I looked around and except for tourists from abroad, there were many Khmers visiting the city. Contemporary inhabitants of the country, although fiercely experienced by the regime of the Red Khmers, are still very proud of the ancient past of their country, and happy to show that it boasts a great medieval culture, as does Europe (Pałkiewicz 2007:176).
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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Glaize M. (II) (1944). “A Guide to the Angkor Monuments (Translation NT): Part Two: The Royal Square: the Terrace of the Leper King”. In: The Angkor Guide. Available at <http://www.theangkorguide.com/text.htm>. [Accessed 19th January, 2021].
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Perhaps the key to understanding the site of Göbekli Tepe lies in its impressive carvings situated on the cluster of pillars (Conrad 2012). As described in my previous article (see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery), they are ‘T’-shaped and decorated with strange zoomorphic imagery. The latter represent elaborate and naturalistic animal characters, both in low, high and full relief, showing three-dimensional figures, signifying improbable menagerie (Conrad 2012; Noren 2020).
Images of various animals found, including birds and insects, all in all, create an astonishing menagerie that continues to amaze archaeologists who have studied the site to this day (Burns 2010). An archaeologist, Paul Bahn, PhD., admits that there is no other archaeological site in the world with a similar variety of zoomorphic representations in stone (Burns 2017). Their juxtaposition is also interesting (Ibid.). Therefore, there are many different speculations concerning their interpretation; for example, an author, Andrew Collins, suspects that Noah’s Ark had actually been immortalized on the stones of the site, as if it had been a livestock inventory of the Ark (Burns 2010; 2017). Discovered five hundred kilometres south of Mount Ararat, considered by Biblical scholars to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark, the reliefs of Göbekli Tepe suggest that certain species of animals come from other regions than it has been previously considered (Ibid.). Could these sculptures prove that the memories of the Great Flood described in the Bible and its aftermath were preserved by the builders of Göbekli Tepe? (Ibid.). Some researchers believe that the traces of this cataclysm and the story of Noah’s Ark were actually written on the stone pillars (Ibid.). If so, the Great Flood would have occurred at the end of what scientists call the end of the Ice Age (Ibid.).
Stone Age masterpiece of sculpture
The mystery of the imagery of the site became even greater when discovered reliefs have revealed animal species that have never been endemic to the region, such as geese, armadillos or wild boars (Burns 2017). Moreover, the masterpiece of the sculpture found also suggests their builders must have been highly advanced artists with engineering skills, taking into account the fact there is no trace of their tools in situ (Conrad 2012). Physical characteristics of the animals carved are very clearly depicted (Ibid.). In many cases anatomical details openly express a rather aggressive attitude, embodied by their posture and grinning teeth (Ibid.).
T-shaped pillars and their flock
Klaus Schmidt argues that the animal component of the site is crucial in its iconographic interpretation (Conrad 2012). According to the Professor, represented animals have mainly wild, male and predatory connotations (Busacca 2017:313-314). He interprets the zoomorphic depictions either as having a protective role as the guardians of the pillars (especially high-relief sculpture), or being a part of a horrifying spectacle (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017).
The ‘T’-shaped pillars, as he points out, are in turn the abstract representations of human bodies with the upper part resembling a man’s head in profile, the shaft of the ‘T’ standing for the human corpus, with arms, palms and fingers incised in stone (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). Below them, there is the representation of a belt encircling the pillar with loincloth looking like an animal skin (Ibid.). Such features as the hands with elongated fingers on the stomach, around the the navel area, amazingly reappear on other ancient representations in the wold (Burns 2017). Such a motif repeats, for example, carved in the great Moai statues on the Easter Island (Ibid.) or even on sculpted stone fragments crumbling among the old-Irish idols at the cemetery on the Boa Island, in Northern Island. They equally occur on anthropomorphic menhirs in France, Italy, Romania and elsewhere in the world (Ibid.). A similar iconographic element in some a way joins all these statues of different cultures and age and so testifies to the fact that Göbekli Tepe may not have developped in isolation, but was a part of a worldwide, prehistoric culture that once existed (Ibid.). Or it itself may have given rise to a later universal iconography by means of its mysterious heritage (Ibid.). Are the anthropomorphic statues from Göbekli Tepe and other parts of the world a carved in stone story of an alien race that lived on the earth before the cataclysm? (Ibid.). If so, maybe such monuments were erected in places where people were rebuilding civilization after the Great Flood (Ibid.). Maybe the builders of the site tried to save from oblivion what had taken place about 12,000 years ago? (Ibid.).
Professor Schmidt says that the ‘T’-shaped pillars are gathered on the hillside as if there was “a meeting of stone beings” (Scham 2008:27). Despite their anthropomorphic features, the pillars are deprived of facial features, which makes Schmidt think that the human-like monoliths personify spiritual beings, and probably they are the earliest imagery of deities or god-like ancestors (Conrad 2012). Accordingly, Schmidt also suggests that the disintegrated now temple doorway could metaphorically have stood for the entrance to the netherworld (Conrad 2012). If so, Göbekli Tepe must have been related to the cult of the death (Ibid.).
Vital to creating that dark world are the creatures carved on the pillars (Conrad 2012). It is not even difficult to imagine the site as a temple devoted to the dead, especially at night, when the portal leading to the flickering by the fire netherworld may have involved humans into strange rituals performed beneath the monumental human-like pillars, dressed up with the aggressive elements of nature (Ibid.). In the course of ritual performances, including sound, scents and probably under shamanic drug haze, the images on the pillars may have seemed alive and active (Busacca 2017). Gusaldo Busacca (2017), a PhD. student at Stanford University, admits, however, that very little can be said on the purpose and nature of such rituals. Some kind of ritual paraphernalia have been found at the site, such as benches, niches (altars), cup holes and limestone vessels, probably used for libations to the spirits and extensive feasting (Schmidt, 2010; Dietrich et al. 2012).
According to Klaus Schmidt, the site may have been also a pilgrimage location (Scham 2008:26). He assumes “that once pilgrims reached Göbekli Tepe, they made animal sacrifices” (Ibid.:26). That theory is supported by the archaeological finds of animal bones belonging to various species, such as gazelles, goats, boars, sheep, wild birds and so on (Scham 2008; Busacca 2017). Most of these animals belong to the carved menagerie in question (Ibid.).
What was first: religion or civilisation?
As Prof. Joris Peters notices, although the animistic nature dominates in the Palaeolithic art of the caves, at Göbekli Tepe the control over the nature is visibly taken by humans in the disguise of the ‘T’-shaped pillars (Conrad 2012).
Schmidt also notices that all the zoomorphic images are carved only below the so-called head of the pillars, which suggests that people had already became superior to animals (Conrad 2012). Gods themselves had left their animal disguise and started to look like humans (Ibid.). As Schmidt underlines, such imagery may reveal the Stone Age man’s desire for having control over the nature (Ibid.). The new religion gave humans an enormous psychological advantage (Ibid.). It placed people above the animals and above nature, and that mental leap forward, as Prof. Joris Peters says, was needed to start to domesticate animals and plants (Ibid.). Accordingly, it was first the urge to worship that sparked civilization (Ibid.). The theory is yet radical: namely, it suggests that it was the religion itself which brought people to farming, and not the other way round, as it has been believed so far… (Ibid.). In this context, Göbekli Tepe would have been a dramatic point in mankind development (Ibid.).
The hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face
Gusaldo Busacca (2017) underlines in his study of Göbekli Tepe that he takes “the hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face” (Ibid.:313) due to fragmentary evidence, time and cultural distance, and finally lack of written sources or oral traditions (Ibid.). Many scholars working at the site have already proposed their interpretations of the complex animal symbolism present there by using different contexts, such as shamanism (Benz & Bauer, 2015; Lewis – Williams & Pearce 2009), human-animal linkage (Verhoeven 2002), and burial rituals (Schmidt 2012), with a particular emphasis on the aggressive attitudes, predatory and wild aspects of the depicted animals. Other scholars also identify phallocentrism (the ideology that the male aspect is the central element in the organization of the social world) (“Phallocentrism” 2019), as the major symbolic theme of the most aggressive representations at the site (Hodder and Meskell 2011).
Basing on Schmidt’s research, Busacca (2017) claims that the most frequently represented animals are snakes, then foxes, boars, bulls and wild ducks. Less often motifs include cranes, spiders, quadrupeds, vultures, wild sheep, asses, gazelles and felids (Ibid.). Although the majority of depicted animals belong to predatory and venomous species, it is worth remarking there are also non-dangerous animals in the iconographic repertoire (Ibid.). Along the zoomorphic imagery, there are also abstract motifs, especially ‘H’- shaped pictograms, as well as some anthropomorphic motifs, like headless human bodies, which would suit the theory the temple was dedicated to the dead (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). Furthermore, Busacca (2017:316) notices that “the depicted motifs and their distribution vary markedly throughout the four main enclosures.”
Further attempts of interpretation
In terms of animistic ontology, Busacca (2017) focuses on exploring the role of images as a category of animated non-human beings (Ibid.).
He calls these images “composite entities constituted by both material and immaterial components” (Ibid.:315) as they are placed between two different spaces: the present and the absent, the visible and the invisible (Belting, 2011). The scholar argues that prehistoric artists may have believed that the act of making an image sparked a specific relation between the carver and the spirit inside the material medium (Busacca 2017:315-316). The carver did not create an animal out of the stone but he released it (Carpenter 1973). In this context, the zoomorphic images should be reconsidered as active participants between humans and material objects (Busacca 2017:315-316). Animals do not simply represent but they are material personification of animal spirits (Ibid.:315-316). The author also underlines the importance of their location within the architectural space in which they first appeared (Ibid.:315-316).
As the author remarks, the zoomorphic imagery has been mainly defined as a human concern with wild animals, “masculinity and violence prior to the ‘domestication of symbols’ that accompanied the transition toward agriculture and settled life” (Busacca 2017:319). The violent part of the iconography can be also linked to the dominant agents in prehistoric communities, identified as shamans (Benz & Bauer 2013). Another researcher, Borić (2013:54) claims that the dynamic and narrative postures of the carved beasts are the notions of “strong, dangerous spirits lurking beneath the skin of the depicted animals” (Borić 2013:54). Quite innovative interpretation is proposed by Yeşilyurt (2014) who argues that the site should be interpreted as prehistoric research laboratory, where the representations of animals actually illustrate research carried out on specific species.
Stone Age menagerie in motion
Busacca (2017:322) also analyses the sculpture in the context of stylistic features, such as the dynamism and movement of the animal figures. In order to refer to stylistic techniques used at Göbekli Tepe, the author has borrowed the terminology used in the studies on Franco-Cantabrian Upper Palaeolithic rock art, where similar style can be observed (Ibid.:322). Nevertheless, he underlines that “these similarities in techniques of visual representations should not be considered evidence of direct contact, ancestry or diffusion, but as independent, though similar, phenomena” (Ibid:322).
The movement is shown at Göbekli Tepe by means of two major techniques which seem to have been applied selectively only to certain types of animals depicted (Ibid.:322). Both predatory and non-predatory species, including gazelle, wild ass and crane, have their legs bent and/or are caught in oblique position (postural information) which generates some sort of motion (Ibid.:322). The wavy lines of the snake depictions are equally the representations of movement (Ibid.:322). Also the use of ‘split action’ technique is applied by the reiteration (superimposition or juxtaposition) of the subject, where an animal is depicted at successive stages in time (Ibid.:322). Examples of such artistic approach is clearly shown in the representations of water birds, especially wild ducks (Enclosures C and D) (Ibid.:322).
Description of the stylistic traits is followed by an analysis of the orientation of the carved imagery (Busacca 2017:313,324). To conduct the study, the author makes a distinction between the central pillars, which are those arranged in pairs, usually larger in size, and radial pillars – those arranged along the enclosures (Ibid.:313,324).
Radial pillars have been furthermore subdivided into two groups, frontal and lateral (Ibid.:313,324). All the locations of the carvings on pillars have been clearly labelled by means of simple abbreviations that the author has provided together with the photographs illustrating his concept (Ibid.:313,322,324). Accordingly, he marked them as follows: ‘FH’, ‘BS’, ‘LH’, ‘LS’, where ‘F’ stands for frontal, ‘B’ for back, ‘H’ for head ‘S’ for side, ‘L’ for lateral and left in some cases (Ibid.:313,322,324). Taking into consideration the lateral sides of the radial pillars, the author notices that 29 out of 34 total animals depicted on the pillars are facing toward the centre of the enclosure (Ibid.:313,322,324). High relief and full relief sculptures also indicate a centripetal orientation (Ibid.:313,322,324). As the author suggests “emerging from the walls or from the top of them with their full bodies or only with the head, these sculptures suggestively resonate with the general impression of a centripetal ‘jump’ of the animals into the enclosures”(Busacca 2017: 324).
On the other hand, the bas-reliefs carved on the frontal sides are facing either downwards or upwards or the right or left (Ibid.:313,322,324). Hence their pattern is less clear to be easily defined (Ibid.:313,322,324). The author suggests that the dynamism and mostly centripetal orientation of zoomorphic depictions may refer to the liminal space of the enclosure calling for animal spirits to its centre (Ibid.:313,322,324). Providing that the ‘T’- shaped pillars represent anthropomorphic spiritual beings, as mentioned above (Schmidt 2010), the enclosures can be identified as places of encounter between humans and animal spirits (Busacca 2017:313,322,324). In this context zoomorphic images play the role of the bridge between human and non-human beings (Ibid.:313,322,324).
Busacca (2017) also emphasizes the importance of the iconographic repertoire in any attempt of interpreting enigmatic functions of Göbekli Tepe. Unlike in post-agricultural societies within which wild animals meant danger and wilderness, hunter-gatherers would have had rather social and inter-personal attitudes towards such beasts, still without excluding the always present threat of their violence, which is probably expressed by aggressive aspects of zoomorphic representations (Ibid.:327). The author suggests that “socialising with the animal on the peer-to-peer basis would be just another way of ‘domesticating’ the animal without bringing it under complete human control” (Ibid.:327). Such an idea, however, would contradict the interpretation proposed by Schmidt, according to which the carved ‘T’- shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe show humans completely superior to animals. Although Schmidt’s assumption does not negate the whole idea of ontological relations between humans and animals, their character would be quite different from that defined by Busacca (2017).
On the other side, some independent researchers, such as Paul Burley (2013), Graham Hancock (2016) and Martin Sweatman (2019) claim that at least a few zoomorphic representations on the pillars of Göbekli Tepe are grouped and arranged in a way to create the sky map. Such features are mainly revealed by the limestone ‘T’- shaped Pillar 43, also known under an intriguing name of the “Vulture Stone”, which is incorporated along with other ‘T-‘-shaped pillars of a similar height into the stone wall on the north-west side of the Enclosure D (Burley 2013; Sweatman 2019:22). The latter, in turn, comes from the Layer III, which is not only the oldest, and hence the lowest in the ground, but also distinguished by a variety of mysterious thematic aspects and sophisticated artistic depictions (Fleckney 2020). Whereas the wall of the Enclosure D, made of rough stones, is radiocarbon dated back to over 9 500 BC., the pillars embedded in it definitely predate it (Sweatman 2019:22). It is also worth mentioning that again we are dealing here with the phenomenon where more ancient finds are more advanced in many respects than those dated as being more recent.
Since the Pillar 43 started to be regularly studied, it has become widely iconic for the site of Göbekli Tepe (Sweatman 2019:22). It is simultaneously one of the most mysterious and captivating human imagination objects yet found in situ. The pillar does not belong to the greatest of the site; it is three metres tall, one and a half metre wide, a half metre thick, and weighs around five tons (Ibid.:22). The key to its popularity, however, has turned out to be its outstanding iconography. Not only does it include a clearly defined group of various animals but also an ithyphallic and headless anthropomorphic figure (Sweatman 2019:22; Fleckney 2020). The whole imagery is further enriched and so complicated by a set of abstract symbols, which, moreover, seem reminiscent of so far undecipherable images appearing in different ancient cultures, including Ancient Egypt, Assyria (Iraq), the Olmecs (La Venta, Mexico), and even Pumapunku (Bolivia).
Zoo of the shaft
All the carvings covering the Pillar 43 are in low relief (Burley 2013). Starting from the bottom of the shaft, there is a bird head upon a long neck, possibly belonging to a goose (Sweatman 2019:22). Just behind the bird’s neck, on the right, a figure of a headless man appears (Ibid.:24). Right there, the bottom corner of the pillar is broken. Still on the shaft, above the bird’s head, there is a clearly defined, huge scorpion, crawling upwards, whereas on the left of the long-necked bird and the scorpion, one can discern the head and front legs of another animal, probably a quadruped of some type, like a wolf (Ibid.:22-23). Just above its head, there is either an animal tail or a snake, maybe a viper, with a triangular end, looking like an arrow.
The bird king with its scepter on the pillar head
Moving to the ‘T’-shaped pillar head, on the left, there is the largest image of all, which has eventually given the name to the pillar (Sweatman 2019:22). Precisely, it represents some kind of a bird of pray, probably and eagle or a vulture with its wings outstretched, which may suggest it was depicted in flight (Ibid.:22).
In its iconography, the bird looks like a strongly stylized representation of the ancient Egyptian vulture, personifying Nekhbet, “an early predynastic local goddess in Egyptian mythology, who was [originally] the patron of the city of Nekheb […]. Ultimately, she became the patron of Upper Egypt and one of the two patron deities for all of Ancient Egypt when it was unified. […] Nekhbet usually was depicted hovering, with her wings spread above the royal image, clutching a shen symbol, representing eternal encircling protection, frequently in her claws” (“Nekhbet” 2021). The said shen symbol additionally resembles a plain circle beside the vulture’s outstretched wing from the Pillar 43. The significant difference between these two images, however, is the placement of the disc in the both cases.
On the Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe, unlike in Egyptian images, the vulture’s left wing seems to hold or horizontally support the disc, which, hovering above it, is situated centrally on the pillar head and so in the middle of the visual context of the whole scene (Sweatman 2019:22; Burley 2013). By these means, the disc provides a sense of an order on the pillar’s surface, which at first sight, seems to be just filled in with randomly depicted elements (Burley 2013). In the right lower corner of the pillar head, another stylized figure of a bird is depicted, possibly of the same species as its larger companion, as they both feature the same hooked beak (Sweatman 2019:22-23). Or maybe, it is just the same individual but depicted in motion, as it is visible in other carved images on pillars?
Long-body creature with an arrow
The most interesting of all, however, is the top part of the pillar head. To the upper-right of the title bird character, there is a bird with long legs, looking like a flamingo (Sweatman 2019:23). Between its beak and lifted thin legs, there is an undecipherable image, which Martin Sweatman (2019:23) compares to a “wriggling fish in [the flamingo’s] beak”. For myself, the element more resemble a snake with a tail or a head ending in an arrow, like in the fragmented image on the shaft of the same pillar or on other T-shaped pillars of Göbekli Tepe, featuring similar representations (Johannes 2005; Courtesy of the Göbekli Tepe Project, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut 2005). One creature of this kind is also present at the back of a sculpted human head from Nevalı Çori (Şanliurfa Museum, Turkey) (Prata 2011; see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery).
From letter symbols to handbags
To the very right of that duo of the flamingo and the snake, aka fish, there is an abstract symbol resembling a squat letter ‘H’ and, slightly above a letter ‘I’ or just the same letter ‘H’ but turned 90° right (Sweatman 2019:23). Above the flamingo’s back, in turn, there appears a frieze-like stretch, interrupted on the left by the vulture’s head and equally by additional components above, yet it stretches to the very top of the pillar head. It is composed of two rows of interlocked symbols in the shape of the letter ‘V’, which all appear on both sides of the narrow and horizontal belt of squares (Ibid.:23).
Finally, in the upper part of the ‘frieze’ and so of the pillar head itself, there is a row of the three mentioned elements, generally compared to ‘handbags’ (Sweatman 2019:23), though my eight-years old nephew claims these are padlocks …
Such strange components as the ‘handbags’, found among a zoomorphic gathering, become even stranger if one realizes that they also appear in other ancient cultures; namely, they are being carried by winged geniuses in Assyrian reliefs (between 2000-600 BC.) or by an Olmec from La Venta, travelling ‘inside’ a feathered serpent (between 1800 BC.-200 AD.). In the Pillar 43, each ‘handbag’ is additionally coupled with an animal character (Ibid.:23). Yet, all the three are difficult to be recognized as particular species (Ibid.:23). The left-most one resembles a minuscule version of the bent flamingo (Ibid.:23), depicted below, the middle one represents a quadruped, which Martin Sweatman (2019:23) interprets as a “standing or charging […] gazelle, goat or ibex, with large horns or ears bent backwards over the body”, whereas the animal on the most-right, seems to crawl downwards, like a lizard or a frog (Ibid.:23).
Constellations inscribed the outlines of the animals
Although the actual function of Göbekli Tepe is still a mystery, an author, Andrew Collins, proposes a theory, suggesting the site was erected for reflecting celestial phenomena (Burns 2017; see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery). Accordingly, the successive circles of the site with its elaborate stone ‘T’-shaped pillars and, finally, their complex iconography would have their astronomical meaning (Burley 2013; Sweatman 2019). In line with such assumptions are also theories related to the Pillar 43. Martin Sweatman (2019:24) studies a hypothesis proposed by Paul Burley (2013) and Graham Hancock (2016), according to which the title vulture occupying the pillar head represents the modern-day constellation of Sagittarius and the huge scorpion crawling on the shaft, the constellation of Scorpius. Additionally, the duo of a flamingo and a snake with an arrow would represent the so-called thirteenth sign of the zodiac, Ophiuchus (Sweatman 2019:24; see Hancock 2016). And the central disc supported by the vulture’s outstretched left wing would relate to the Sun, being close to the center of the galaxy, with the mentioned constellations nearby (Burley 2013; see Hancock 2016).
After noticing similarities between the patterns of the considered animal images and the range of studied constellations, along with their relative match in context of their positions on the pillar and in the sky respectively, Sweatman (2019:24-32) also tries to support the theory by justifying whether the selection of animals corresponding to the constellations among the thirteen zoomorphic symbols at Göbekli Tepe is adequate and not coincidental (Ibid.:27-32,41). The choice of a scorpion for the Scorpius seems obvious, in turn, the vulture would be the best choice for the Sagittarius among all the animals represented on site (Ibid.:30,32). Additionally, Martin Sweatman (2019:27) pays attention to another constellation, the Libra, which is just below the Scorpius, and finds that the goose represented below the scorpion can match the constellation as it is an animal associated with water. What is more, the fragmented quadruped depicted to the left of the goose can similarly correspond to the constellation of Lupus, the wolf, which is also to the left of Libra in the sky (Ibid.:27). Can it be then a pure coincidence?
Nevertheless, the main problem is that after the mainstream scholars, the knowledge of zodiacal constellations could only appear and develop the earliest with the civilization of Sumer, that is to say, between 3000 and 2000 BC., and it was much later passed down to the modern world by means of the ancient Greece, during the period of the last few centuries BC. (Sweatman 2019:25). For these reasons, the similar knowledge cannot be as old as the site of Göbekli Tepe, which is nearly 12 000 years old (Ibid.:25). But if one alternatively accepts such a possibility, it would mean that ancient Sumerians were not the first who invented zodiacal symbols but they would have learnt their skills in astronomy from much earlier but highly advanced civilizations, who, for some reasons, were erased from human history (Ibid.:31).
According to the conventional teaching, the discovery of precession of the equinoxes should be ascribed to Hipparchus of the Greeks who would have come up with this idea in the second century BC. (Sweatman 2019:36). Yet, after alternative researchers outside of Academia, such knowledge had already been in use by the sculptors of the “Vulture Stone”, around 13 000 years ago (Ibid.:36). Providing that the disc over the vulture’s wing stands for the Sun, the researcher observes the phenomenon of precession in earlier epochs, with the summer solstice as the reference day (Ibid.:38). As a result, he finds out that the position of the constellations in relation to the Sun, represented on the Pillar 43, only correspond to the date anywhere between 11 200 and 10 700 BC. (Ibid.:38). It is because only within this range of time the Sun appears in such an arrangement between the constellations as it is represented on the pillar (Ibid.:38).
Handbags as sunsets
After Martin Sweatman and his wife, Alison (2019:39), the mysterious symbols at the very top of the Pillar 43 resemble semicircles of the Sun disc at the moment of sunset. Furthermore, if we assume the represented image reflects the summer solstice in 10 950 BC., when the Sun was in front of the constellation of Sagittarius (the vulture), the three handbags (sunsets) may signify the other three solar phenomena in the astronomical year, namely the winter solstice and the spring and vernal and autumn equinoxes (Ibid.:34,37-39). Accordingly, at the spring equinox in 10 950, the Sun moved to Virgo, at the winter solstice, it appeared in Gemini, and at the autumn equinox, it entered the constellation of Pisces (Ibid.:39).
By analogy with the zoomorphic figures symbolizing the constellations in the main part of the pillar, the miniature creatures beside the ‘handbags’ would stand for the constellations corresponding to the three astronomical days that the ‘handbags’ possibly represent (Sweatman 2019:39). Staring from the oldest date and so the upper-right ‘handbag’, the crawling downwards frog beside it would symbolize Virgo, the horned quadruped in the middle, Gemini, and finally the bent bird with long legs would stand for Pisces (Ibid.:39). Surprisingly, the outlines of all the three constellations perfectly correspond to the shape of miniature animal images depicted beside the respective ‘handbags’ (Ibid.:40; see Figure 10 in: Sweatman 2019:40).
Zoomorphic code language of hunter-gatherers
Martin Sweatman (2019:40-44) admits that the results of his studies may be just a coincidence, though it is rather improbable. On the other side, they heavily undermine the current scientific status quo in all its aspects, particularly concerning the acknowledged range of astronomical knowledge of the ancients and how far back in time it could be scientifically justified (Ibid.:40,44).
All in all, the Stone Age builders must have represented the animal symbols at the site for important reasons. Either the representations were religious or totemic, artistic or scientific, at least a few of them were definitely nested in astronomy. Did the builders of Göbekli Tepe encode more than one meaning behind the carved imagery of their Noah’s Ark? Was it done deliberately? And was it intended to be deciphered and read by contemporaries at all if the site had been eventually buried? Or maybe it was to immortalize in stone a turning point in their history, such as the Great Flood or another cataclysm and its further consequences.
Today, our insight into the zoomorphic world is guided by a set of fixed ideas, interpreting various animals in a strictly defined, though often ambiguous way, often by attributing to them human characteristics. We know this code from ancient myths, medieval bestiaries, fairy tales and legends. Did the builders of Göbekli Tepe used a similar key to the meaning of zoomorphic symbols before they eventually passed them on to later generations in the relief carvings on the ‘T’ shaped pillars? Or maybe their understanding of the menagerie was different from ours and it only survived to our times in distorted fragments over the span of thousands years.
Featured image: The so-called Vulture Stone in Gobekli Tepe, Turkey. Photo by Sue Fleckney (2013). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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From the reconstructed Standard of Ur (see: Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur), it can be observed that the box itself consists of two panels, sloping together towards the top and two end pieces, which are triangular but cut off at the top (McDonald 2013). All the four sides of the Standard are covered in three registers of mosaics (Ibid.). The inlaid pieces consist of lapis lazuli, shell and red marble (limestone) set into bitumen, which is a sticky oil-by product found in Iraq (Ibid.). Conventionally, the two large sides have been called War and Peace because one side is organised around a depiction of a military campaign, whereas the other illustrates the banquet and files of people and animals (Ibid.).
“For those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the ‘War’ side is the chronological beginning” (Sailus 2003-2020).
War and Peace
Dr. Diana McDonald (2013), however, believes that these panels of inlay tell principally about the dual role of a Sumerian ruler controlling a city-state and about a Sumerian society at the time around 2 550 BC. Back in time, when Sumerian city-states first began to coalesce and population pressures made resources of water and food, which was scarce in this arid land, a ruler or king had a special obligation to and role for his people; he was expected to be a leader at war and a commander-in-chief (Ibid.).
The so-called War Side of the Standard of Ur shows three registers of battle scenes with the earliest representations of a Sumerian army and the aftermath of the fight (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). All the scenes are colourfully illustrated in pieces of red limestone, shell and lapis inlays (McDonald 2013).
Action seems to begin (likewise on the Uruk vase) at the bottom register (McDonald 2013). The top register shows that all the action leads up from down to the most important figure, depicted at the very top and in the centre (Ibid.). It stands turned to the right, represented in profile. Although the figure is a human-looking being, it is much broader and taller than all the others shown in the register (Ibid.). His head actually pierces the pictorial frame intended for the panel (Ibid.). This outsized man holds what appears to be a staff or a spear and faces a group of men, probably some prisoners who approach him (Ibid.). Among them, there are the men clothed in kilt like skirts with scalloped edges are wearing sheep skins and they are apparently the soldiers (Ibid.).
Differently looking men shown between them are apparently war captives (McDonald 2013). They “are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs” (JOM 2020). The soldiers could have captured them in a battle and they are being presented now to the ruler (McDonald 2013). The poorly looking enemies strikingly contrast with the majestic figures of the ruler and his people, which should be also understood symbolically: the victory is on the side of Ur due to its overwhelming power (Amaya March, 2017).
Behind the king, to the left of the centre in the top register, there is also his battle wagon and members of the royal entourage or other soldiers with staffs (McDonald 2013).
The battle wagon is a fairly large and unwieldy looking vehicle (McDonald 2013). It is known, and accordingly represented, that the wagon’s blocky looking wheels were made of two pieces of wood as spoked wheels had not been invented yet (Ibid.). There is also the driver holding the reins and standing behind the vehicle (Ibid.). Horses had not been yet imported to the area so the wagon is probably driven by four asses or onagers (Ibid.). The latter was a kind of wild ass that is now extinct but was originally native to Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Some scholars think that the Sumerians actually interbred the two animals to produce an onager ass hybrid, which was easier to control and stronger than either one (Ibid.). Their tails look long and tufted at the end like an ass or a donkey’s (Ibid.). Such details reveal the ingenuity and technological capability of these people in the beginning of the third millennium BC.; they were domesticating and taming animals, creating vehicles and working on the sophisticated metal technology which allowed the wagons to be yoked to the animals (Ibid.).
In the second register, in the middle, there is a scene of warfare, showing the Sumerian infantry, carrying spears (McDonald 2013). At the left, there is a disciplined phalanxof soldiers, who are wearing some kind of protective clothing, probably a leather armour and helmets (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013). The infantry faces a group on the right consisting of soldiers who are killing or leading off enemy prisoners (McDonald 2013). The latter are either “killed with axes [or] paraded naked [as those above] presented to the king” (The British Museum 2015). It means that the middle register depicts the battle itself (McDonald 2013), which is already shown as a decisive victory of the Standard’s owner.
On the lowest register, there is the force of battle wagons (McDonald 2013). While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian [‘chariot’] attack, others think it is the post-battle procession, [with the ruler’s wagon in front] leading the army back to Ur” (Sailus 2003-2020). If the last interpretation is real, however, the whole sequence of the register should be read from up down, and not the other way round as it is generally assumed.
The depicted vehicles are presumably early forerunners of chariots as they are bulkier and less flexible versions of equid-drawn that are horse-drawn vehicles (McDonald 2013). The line of battle wagons begins at the left with a vehicle, which is drawn by four of these asses or onagers (Ibid.).
In the back of the wagon, there is a warrior and inside it a driver holds the reins, which pass over the high front of the vehicle and then through what is called a terret or a rein ring, and which was yoked to the animals, which have got nose rings (McDonald 2013). The metal bit had not yet been invented at that time (Ibid.). In this way, all these carefully rendered scenes show a detailed account of transportation technology of the Sumerians (Ibid.).
Pictures in motion
There is also the use of the narrative in the quickening pace of the lower register (McDonald 2013).
By observing the next wagon to the right, it is really easy to get the impression that the asses have picked up a bit of speed and their gait is now a canter (McDonald 2013). The animals’ legs are farther apart, stretched in galloping, whereas in the space between them, lies a prostrate figure of a nude dead enemy (Ibid.). The rhythm picks up again with the next two groups of speeding animals and trampling the enemies (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). While one group of mounts is galloping, the last appears to be already in a flying gallop (McDonald 2013). The picking up of speed in these register scenes is a possibly new invention in art (Ibid.). Much later it was applied most notably in the Greek Parthenon frieze, with the huge marble sculpture of a procession with horses that pulses with speed towards the central scene (Ibid.).
Rhythm and hierarchy
The other notable aspect of the way the mosaic has been created is a rhythmic pattern, not just of the individual groups, who vary between active and static poses, but also in bright colours of lapis lazuli and red limestone (McDonald 2013). And this rhythmic pattern of colours punctuates the scenes in a pleasing and sophisticated design (Ibid.). Also, the whole design is hierarchical from bottom to top in scale and in placement; it underlines and attests the dominance and leadership of a powerful ruler (Ibid.). He is portrayed as victorious and is set triumphantly amidst and atop the battle, which is complete with his prisoners dead and the nude enemies at the very bottom below the galloping animals (Ibid.).
The other side of the Standard of Ur shows a completely different aspect of the Sumerian leadership (McDonald 2013). This side which was often referred to as Peace, has also been called victory but its meaning is perhaps much broader than either name evokes (Ibid.).
This side depicts a big banquet at the very top register (McDonald 2013). It could perhaps be a cultic banquet with some religious significance but it is also interpreted as a victory feast (Ibid.). The latter is a theory proposed by scholars “who believe the Standard portrays an actual event” (Sailus 2003-2020).
The ruler is again the largest figure of all in the topmost part of the panel but this time he is seated at the left with his six bald men facing him as they lift their cups (McDonald 2013). He is also holding a cup and is naked above the waist (Ibid.). He is wearing a fleecy garment or fringed skirt, is bald and sits on a stool with some animal-like legs (Ibid.). It could be a gazelle or a hoof of a similar animal (Ibid.). The slightly smaller seated figures are wearing kilts with a fleecy border and are seated on similar stools as their ruler (Ibid.).
Similarly dressed, three or four other men (the upper-part of the fourth, on the left, is apparently missing) are standing near the ruler (McDonald 2013). They seemed to be attendants for the banquet (Ibid.). To the extreme right, there is a musician playing a lyre, which is similar to the elaborate inlaid bull lyres, which were actually found at the cemetery of Ur (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). A figure with longer hair at the right of the musician has arms crossed as if singing (Ibid.). This may very well be the musicians for the banquet (Ibid.).
The bounty of land
Below, there are two registers of mostly bald men who guide different kinds of livestock and other goods as if to show the bounty of the land, as much as it is represented on the Uruk vase (McDonald 2013).
In the second register, there are bald Sumerians wearing similar fleece bordered skirts as in the banquet scene and probably leading the animals of the land to the ruler depicted above (McDonald 2013). Animals are one of the most carefully and frequently represented subjects by the Sumerians, as much as by most of the early cultures of the Near East (Ibid.). After all, it is from them that the bounties of the land flow: meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather and even transportation (Ibid.). Also the cultivation of the earth for crops is made easier by the beast of burden, such as an ox (Ibid). Hence the procession of these precious animals led by people: the bull at the right, rams and sheep, and finally a cow and a goat (Ibid.). One bald figure in the middle also holds two large fishes in either hand (Ibid.). Such animals represent the bounty of the lands of Sumer, both marshes and cultivated pastures (Ibid.).
The last row of the side shows a slightly different procession of bounty (McDonald 2013). People depicted there are dressed differently and some bear burdens on their shoulders and backs while other lead asses by their nose rings (Ibid.). It is thought that these people must come from elsewhere, most likely from the north, the region later known as Akkad (Ibid.). Sumer and Akkad were linked as two regions of Mesopotamia and they both complemented each other in their produce and in their topography: marshes in desert versus hillier, more temperate regions in the north (Ibid.).
The same language
The two lower registers of the Peace side move in the opposite direction to the seated men depicted on top (McDonald 2013). By these means, a rhythm is set up (Ibid.). Assuming that the motion of the processions is from bottom to top, it would be again a hierarchical definition of the Sumerian society, where the largest and so the most significant figure is the ruler and just after him the ruler’s closest entourage, probably priests, who are smaller than their ruler but still larger than the banquet musicians and attendants (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013).
Both techniques also appear in the registers of the Uruk vase and one message seems to be common to both artifacts: the bounty of the land prevails and the ruler holds sway over its productivity (McDonald 2013). On the Uruk vase, priests are depicted while making offering to Inanna on behalf of a ruler (Ibid.). Similarly, the banquet, which seems to be religious in nature on the Standard of Ur, positions the ruler at the top and he is receiving the bounty of the land, yet this time without the deity represented (Ibid.). In the object from Ur, however, the fertility theme is in a colourful inlay of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, as if it was a more fully realized, colorized version of the vase of Uruk, yet made several hundred years later (Ibid.). Accordingly, both objects show similar concerns : depicting the ruler in a ritual scene with the fertile products of his land display (Ibid.).
Providing that the Standard has recorded a historic event, some scholars interpret the bottom row of the Peace side as the procession of goods being the tribute brought in by the losing side in the battle, shown on the other side of the standard (McDonald 2013).
Accordingly, “[the] feast [would have taken] place in commemoration of the preceding side’s military victory; [the] top row [would show] the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him, [whereas], the bottom two rows [would represent] the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords” (Sailus 2003-2020). But there are also other interpretations, such as a recurring theme of the Sumerian leadership and its dual function (McDonald 2013).
Two sides of the kingship
The two sides of the Standard could actually be showing the two sides of the kingship itself: the role of the king as a leader in warfare and his religious role as a leader of his people in worship of the gods (McDonald 2013). He is the one responsible for providing that the fecundity of the land continues to feed his people (Ibid.). The ruler is positioned as a mediator to the deities; his actions and his prayers connect with the divine in order to support his people (Ibid.). So the ruler was not only the protector of his city in war conflict but also the one responsible for the very fertility of the land, which provided for his people (Ibid.).
The two complementary sides of kingship, warrior and provider, are very clearly represented in Sumerian artworks (McDonald 2013). In fact, these aspects of kingship occur in artistic representations all over the world because they are the heart of the legitimacy of any ruler; they must defend their people and provide for them (Ibid.).
The Sumerians are by no means the only people who had such concerns and expectations for their rulers, and a theme of an offerings procession occurs in many contexts in art (McDonald 2013). Similar scenes occur later in Greek art, as in the mentioned above sculpture of Parthenon, where there are both martial and offering or fertility themes, all directed towards a goddess of the city that appears to coalesce (Ibid.).
Still a mystery
The actual usage of the standard of Ur still remains a mystery (see: Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur); the box like reconstruction does not seem to be ideal for a standard used in war (McDonald 2013). It is because its scenes were apparently meant to be seen up close and understood on a detailed level (Ibid.).
Skilled craftsmen who knew how to communicate a message about the kingship and religion in the Sumerian state were engaged in telling a story that rolls out like a narrative, similar to the use of the comic book register, which is also observed in the cylinder seals of the period being very central to Sumerian tradition (McDonald 2013). Banquet scenes, like the one on the Standard of Ur, were also represented on such objects, for example the seal of the so-called Queen Puabi, which was also found in Ur and equally exposed in the British Museum (The British Museum 2015).
Unlike major panels of the Standard, its end panels are usually neglected in detailed interpretations as they are thought to be only fanciful scenes, which were added by the artist merely as a lush decoration (Shukur 2018).
Some authors think that it is unlikely and the depictions on the shorter sides have got a deeper meaning and so deserve thorough explanations (Shukur 2018). As in the case of the longer sides of the Standard, both end panels are also divided into three registers but due to limited space, they depict just a few pictures in comparison to the long panels of War and Peace sides.
Heralds of failure or victory?
The end panel to the left of the War side shows a ram in the top register; it is standing on its hint legs while “feeding on the high branches of a tree” (Shukur 2018). Such an image resembles a famous Sumerian sculpture, known as the Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects (Ibid.) and “it seemed to be symbolic of Sumer itself” (Ibid.). On the other side of the tree, there is an incomplete representation of a creature with hooves and a tail, which can be a half-human hybrid typical of Sumerian mythology (Ibid.).
In the middle register, there is the same ram but this time it is accompanied by a Sumerian man on the right, who “is making a ceremonial offering to the [animal]” (Shukur 2018). On the left, there is another figure, probably of an “Akkadian enemy in the angled-skirt” (Ibid.). He is probably holding a sort of weapon, whose blade seems to spear the ram’s body (Ibid.). At the bottom, the ram disappears as if killed by the enemy (Ibid.). But it has left its tree behind it. Now, it is flanked by two seated man-headed bulls, probably symbols of Sumer (Ibid.). Are these images metaphorical heralds of the coming war, depicted on the longer side of the Standard? (Ibid.).
On the other side, if the registers are read from down up, it would mean that the ram appears in the second register and is still present in the final scene, together with the opposite creature, which may be a key to the meaning of the whole story. If it is one of the man-headed bulls from the bottom, the scenes may announce the Sumerian victory.
From war to peaceful bounties of life
The opposite end panel also represents interesting, yet mysterious images. Starting from the bottom, there is possibly the same ram, which is now on top of a mountain or jumping over it. The mountain front can be also interpreted as a gate or door (Shukur 2018). It “is probably [also a] part of a locking mechanism by which the Standard could be attached or removed” (Ibid.). The middle register above shows in turn the ram (its horns are damaged and so are invisible) being chased by a leopard (Ibid.). Finally, the topmost scene represents “two flowering plants with the eight-pointed rosettes, […] symbolically important to the Sumerians” (Ibid.) Above, there may have been also a larger rosette (Ibid.). Unfortunately, now the uppermost image is erased.
As it seems, the two end panels complement each other by the imagery portrayed on them in the three successive registers. If the sequence of events is read from down up in both cases, the scenes of the both sides seem to correlate. The bottom pictures probably build a scenery of peace just before the war, whereas the two middle registers always show the ram in danger. Providing that the ram is identified with Sumer, such imagery may evoke some menace to the city-states, such as war. Nevertheless, the top registers reveal that Sumer has not only been saved but also turned out to be victorious; the ram feeding on a tree and flowering plants may imply an abundance of the land that has become even wealthier afterwards, as much as it is visible on the Peace side of the Standard.
The Standard’s story
But while the Standard does not reveal all its secrets it does tell a story about a society, which was full of hierarchy and wealth (McDonald 2013). Its trade routes reach far and wide to receive the luxury goods of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, to the red marble or limestone, which may have come all the way from India (Ibid.).
Elaborate mosaics must have been crafted by skilled artisans, which implies that a society that could support art and artists devoted only to that and fed by others had developed in Sumer (McDonald 2013). The artists’ skills were in turn directed towards the support of the elite, the king or ruler and his nobles (Ibid.). Rulers are depicted in art in such a way that their role above the others in the society must have been legitimatized; they were protectors of their people in warfare and bringers of peace, continuously acting as the conduit between fertility and human survival, and by extension, between the earthly world and heavens (Ibid.).
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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