Tag Archives: Artifacts

Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta

Just after the Hypogeum in Malta was discovered by accident in 1902, it was kept secret so as not to disturb the building schedule on the site and therefore continued work caused irretrievable damage to a large megalithic circle that once stood directly above the subterranean part, giving access to its abyss (Magli 2009:56; Haughton 2009:162). It is hence believed that more such underground complexes may exist beneath other overground temples (Alberino, Quayle 2016). As a matter of fact, in the eighteenth century in Gozo, another hypogeum carved down in the rock was brought into light (Magli 2009:57).

Aquarelle painting of the Xagħra Stone Circle by Charles Frederick de Brocktorff (1825). This media is about Maltese cultural property with inventory number 26. Public domain. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: “Xagħra Stone Circle”(2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The complex was once depicted in a painting with the famous Ggantija temple in the background (Magli 200:57). The site is known as Xaghra and was excavated in 1990 by Anthony Bonnano and his group of archaeologists (Ibid.:57). One of their most famous findings is, also like in the case of Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, a figurine. That one, however, represents two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated.

After Giulio Magli (2009:57) the placement of Xaghra in relation to Ggantija is analogous to that of the Hypogeum in relation to the nearby free-standing Tarxien temple. Indeed, the pairing cannot be coincidental as it also happens in other megalithic free standing temples of the archipelago (Ibid.:57).

Interesting but disturbing article in National Geographic …

I was still in the deep chasm of the earth’s belly, when I realized I found myself in one of the entrance to a huge underground labyrinth (see: Maltese History in the Negative). For it is well known that the Hypogeum constitutes just a part of an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands (Alberino, Quayle 2016). During World War II, the island of Malta suffered the most terrible bombing attacks, and people used this underground world as a shelter, storage for ammunition and other vital supplies (Ibid.).

“National Geographic August 1940, Back Issue”. In: National Geographic Back Issues. Accessed on 12th of August, 2018.

Many legends and folk stories tell about eerie creatures who have inhibited the subterranean world, especially the Hypogeum complex (Alberino, Quayle 2016). In August, 1940, National Geographic Magazine featured an article entitled Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (Roma 2017). In his article from the wartime, the author describes the underground corridors in Malta used once as part of the island’s fortifications and defense system (Haughton 2009:165). Furthermore, Richard Walter detailed the underground world  that honeycomb the bedrock of the archipelago, and stated that the British government blew up ancient tunnels to shut them off permanently after the school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth of the Hypogeum and they had never returned (Funnell  2014; Haughton 2009:165). Additionally, it was also said that yet many weeks after the incident, the parents of these children had claimed to hear their children’s crying and voices coming from under the ground in various parts of the island (Haughton 2009:165168; Tajemnice historii 2016).

The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) actually reports this misfortune twice, on the following pages, 267 and 272. (Roma 2017):

Many subterranean passageways, including ancient catacombs, now are a part of the island’s fortifications and defence system (page 258). Supplies are kept in many tunnels; others are bomb shelters. Beneath Valletta some of the underground areas serve as homes for the poor. Prehistoric man built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside one sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth while on a study tour and never returned (page 272).

Walter, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 267. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze

While we cycled homeward, our friends told us that the island was honeycombed with a network of underground passages, many of them catacombs. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other, but all entrances were closed by the Government because of a tragedy. On a sight-seeing trip, comparable to a nature-study tour in our own schools, a number of elementary school children and their teachers descended into the tunneled maze and did not return. For weeks mothers declared that they had heard wailing and screaming from underground. But numerous excavations and searching parties brought no trace of the lost souls. After three weeks they were finally given up for dead. Sections of this underground network have been used to protect military and naval supplies. Indeed, many of the fortifications themselves are merely caps atop a maze of tunnels (page 267) . Thus is Malta fortified. Her thrifty, religious, and intelligent people love peace. Yet, with war in Europe, they now are in the center of Mediterranean strife.

Walter, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

The rat-catcher from Hamelin

Sceptics believe, however, that the story of the lost children is not based on facts, but actually echoes some legends appearing in various areas in Europe (Haughton 2009:168). One of them is a medieval folk tale of the Flutist from Hamelin (Germany), which was written down, among others, by the Brothers Grimm (Haughton 2009:168; “Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Then it was translated into thirty languages of the world, telling about the events that were to happen on June 26, 1284 in the German city of Hamelin (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020).

Flutist (Rat-Catcher) from Hamelin, a copy of the stained glass window from the Marktkirche church in Hamelin (according to Reisechronik Augustin von Moersperg from 1592) – watercolor. Public domain: Photo source: “Flecista z Hameln” (2020). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

According to the legend, in 1284, the Lower Saxony city of Hamelin in Germany was hit by a plague of rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). The rat-catcher hired by the inhabitants lured the rats out of the city with the help of music produced by a miraculous flute (Ibid.). As a consequence, the animals lured out by the magical instrument drowned in the Weser River (Ibid.). After the work was done, the rat-catcher was, however, refused the promised payment for getting rid of the rodents (Ibid.). Out of revenge, the deceived musician similarly led all the children from Hamelin into the unknown, in some versions, to the underground (Ibid.).

Among the rational explanations for the origin of the legend is the hypothesis related to the plague epidemic, a disease spread by rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Such an assumption has been made because a mass grave from the mid-fourteenth century was discovered near Hamelin, containing several hundred skeletons of children (Ibid.).

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and the lost children in the Hypogeum

Many scholars also claim the story provided by the article is just a local folk tale, possibly invented to keep children away from the dangerous tunnels (Haughton 2009:168). It also brings to mind the mysterious disappearance of Australian schoolgirls described in the novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay (Ibid.:168). As the story goes, it was a clear summer day in 1900, when a group of schoolgirls from Mrs. Appleyard’s elite girls’ school, along with a few teachers, went on a picnic near a place called the Hanging Rock (Lubimyczytać.pl 2021). After lunch, a few of the older students went for a walk around the neighborhood but only one girl returned, terrified and hysterical (Ibid.). One of the teachers was also missing … (Ibid.)

The novel begins with the author’s brief foreword, which reads (“Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” 2021):

Whether “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

Joan Lindsay’s Foreword to the novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (2021). In: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
At the Hanging Rock by William Ford (1875) was the basis of the novel’s title; in addition to her writing, Lindsay was also a professional painter and influenced by visual art (1875). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This short excerpt by the author perfectly illustrates and characterizes the tone of the entire book; until the very end of the story it is not even clear what really happened to the missing girls and their teacher or if the story itself is based on facts at all (Sudnik 2018). Joan Lindsay does not say that the events described in her book are just a part of an invented story (Ibid.) On the contrary, the writer suggests that they could have actually happened (Ibid.). Consequently, there is still a persisting belief that it was a real event, as much as in the case of the children lost before World War II in the Maltese Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).

Is there anything more to the Maltese story?

Archaeologist Brian Haughton (2009:168) believes that in the National Geographic (1940) article you can actually find the source of many modern fascinating stories, mostly being published on the Internet. They are all about mysterious disappearing into secret tunnels below the Hypogeum (Ibid.168). After him, the problem is that the National Geographic (1940) article lacks any reference to the actual sources it has been based on, and more modern reliable descriptions of that alleged tragedy have never been discovered (Ibid.:168). Moreover, although the Hypogeum is mentioned in the article, it is not clearly described as an actual place where the children actually got lost (Ibid.:168). The author only describes the misfortune happened in the network of the underground tunnels on Malta, of which the Hypogeum is an integral part (Ibid.:168). Consequently, it cannot be certain that the said incident occurred just there (Ibid.:168).

The only thing that can be reliably assumed is that the story itself was in the public sphere (Roma 2017). It could have happened but it could also be just an urban myth. If the latter is the case, why did the British government shut off ancient tunnels permanently? (Roma 2017; Funnell 2014).

National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Source: Peter (2018-2020).
National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Photo source: Kelly Peter (2018-2020). In: “This Amazing Reality”. In: Pinterest. Cf. Walter, Richard (1940) “Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze“. In: “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272.

Riley Crabb, akin Commander X and his continuation of the story

The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) is the primary source for the lost children story (Roma 2017). Yet there is also another record from the sixties of the twentieth century, entitled The Reality of the Cavern World, written by Riley Crabb, akin Commander X, who was a former Director of the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (Haughton 2009:169; Funnell 2014). It is actually a publication of his own lecture in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen, published in 1966 (Haughton 2009:169). The Crabb’s reprinted article not only summarizes the story known from the National Geographic (1940) about the missing children but also mentions another important person of the story, Lois Jessup, and the fact there are tunnels beneath Malta that may reach as far as the catacombs beneath the hill of the Vatican (Funnell 2014; Haughton 2009:168-169). It also refers to the Lower Level of the Hypogeum as an actual place where the dramatic event took place (Ibid.). Accordingly, the so-called Lower Level is not the dead end of the underground temple (or a storage! as some scholars suggest) but in fact the entrance to the maze of the underground network.

Hypogeum of Xaghra on Gozo Island, Malta. This media is about Maltese cultural property with inventory number 26. Photo by Hamelin de Guettelet (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Xagħra Stone Circle”(2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Tradition holds that before the British government sealed up several tunnels, one could walk from one end of Malta to the other underground. One of the labyrinths, discovered by excavators, is the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini, in which excavators discovered the bones of over 33,000 people who had been sacrificed by an ancient pagan neolithic cult. National Geographic, Aug. 1940 issue, told of several school children who had disappeared without a trace in the Hypogeum. British embassy worker Miss Lois Jessup convinced a guide to allow her to explore a 3-ft. square “burial chamber” next to the floor of the lowest room in the last [3rd] sub-level of the catacombs. He reluctantly agreed and she crawled through the passage until emerging on a cavern ledge overlooking a deep chasm. In total shock she saw a procession of TALL humanoids with white hair covering their bodies walking along another ledge about 50 feet down on the opposite wall of the chasm. Sensing her they collectively lifted their palms in her direction at which a strong “wind” began to blow through the cavern and something big, “slippery and wet” moved past her before she left in terror to the lower room, where the guide gave her a “knowing” look. Later she returned after the 30 school children and their teacher[s] had disappeared in the same passage that she had explored, only to find a new guide who denied any knowledge of the former guides’ employment there. She heard reports however that after the last child had passed through the “burial chamber” and out onto the ledge, a “cave-in” collapsed the burial chamber and the rope connecting them to the lower chamber was later found to be “cut clean”. Grieving Mothers of several of the children swore that for a week or more following the disappearance they could hear their children crying and screaming “as if from underground”. Other sources state that an underground connection exists or did exist between Malta and reaches hundreds of miles and intersects the catacombs below the hill Vaticanus in Rome. 

Riley Crabb, akin Commander X (1940). “The Reality of the Cavern World”. Reprinted in: Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (1966). Text source: Lyn Funnell  (2014) “Malta’s Catacombs, Aliens & The Disappearing Children; True or Urban Myth?” In: B-C-ing-U.

One of numerous cavities on Malta; the Cave of Għar Dalam, Triq Għar Dalam in Birżebbuġa. Photo by Frank Vincentz (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Għar Dalam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I was really grabbed by these two stories (Cf. Funnell 2014). Even more mysterious is Lois Jessup’s own experience she had on the Hypogeum’s Lower Level (Cf. Funnell 2014; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Yet on my way to the Hypogeum I asked a driver if he knew anything of the children who had got lost in there before the war. He replied that he had never heard about it but actually it was good I mentioned that as he would have never let his daughter go there …

Anyway, as far as I know one is not allowed to enter the Hypogeum with a child younger than six years old.

Deliberate disinformation or accidental lack of sources?

Mainly due to such publications from the 1960s, as the article by Riley Crabb, the story of the missing children and other mysteries of the Hypogeum were endlessly repeated on the Internet, yet during the first decade of the twenty-first century (Haughton 2009:168). According to these stories, which unfortunately lack actual sources one could follow and verify, thirty children disappeared along with their teachers during a school trip to Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Before they came down deeper, they had been secured with a long rope that was attached at the entrance to the corridor (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Nevertheless, the same rope that was supposed to ensure their safe return was found cut clean (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Moreover, the entrance to the tunnel in which the children disappeared was said to have eventually been boarded up (Jessup 1958-1960).

There are also mentioned new archaeological elements that were not provided either by the author of the National Geographic (1940) article or by earlier archaeological reports from the conducted field works (see: Maltese History in the Negative); accordingly, instead of the 7,000 excavated skeletons, there is a note of the bodies of over 33,000 buried people who had been probably sacrificed to a chthonic deity from the Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).

Also the novel by Joan Lindsey (1969) was published at the time when the story about the lost children in Malta kept circulating in various publications. Was it then the author herself inspired by the mysterious tale of the Hypogeum and its innocent victims?

In search for the truth

Is the story about the lost children true then? Such a horrific happening must have been passed down through the generations (Funnell 2014). Many people have done research on the lost children to find out more but nobody’s heard anything about it (Ibid.). Lyn Funnell (2014) writes that if this accident happened it was a year or two before World War II broke out. “Malta was heavily bombed day after day. Houses were reduced to piles of rubble and there were hundreds of casualties. Many of the families who apparently lost their children would have been killed” (Ibid.).

It is well known that there is an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands. Here are the steps leading to the underground beneath the Museum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“There was a desperate shortage of food. Day-to-day survival was the main thing on the Maltese minds” (Funnell 2014). As Lyn Funnell (2014) underlines “the facts and the dates seem so clear. And the article’s written about the children as though it assumes that everyone knows what it’s on about!” “The National Geographic Magazine is a very reputable publication” (Ibid.). Mrs. Constance Lois Jessup, also spelled Jessop, is believed to have been a real person who lived in New York City, in the 1950s and 60s (Ibid.). She might actually have worked for the British government and not for the British embassy as it is suggested in some sources, as the latter had not been yet established in Malta before 1964. Her experience in the Hypogeum probably made her join the New York Saucer Investigation Bureau, known as the NYSIB, or she had been already a member of the Institution when she went down there… (Ibid.). Her friend, Riley Crabb, known as the Commander X, wrote the article cited above about her strange experience (Ibid.).

Lois Jessop’s tour and hairy giants in her way …

One article written by Miss Lois Jessop herself, entitled Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World also appeared in an old issue by Riley Crabb’s Borderland Science Magazine, published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (B.S.R.F.) and was also later reprinted in full in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (Funnell 2014). Here is the story by Lois Jessop told in her own words:

I visited some friends on the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean in the mid-1930s. One afternoon six of us decided to hire a car and visit some of the many historical tourist attractions on the island. One of our party suggested that, since the weather was very hot, our best bet was to visit some of the caves and underground temples. At least there we could keep cool for a few hours.

Figurines found in the Hypogeum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some few miles out of Valetta, the capitol of Malta, is the little town of Paula. It has only one main street, Hal Saflini, and on this is the entrance to an underground temple known as the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini. We stopped here and sought out the guide for a tour of the cave or catacombs of the Hypogeum. There was a fairly large cave entrance with ancient mural decorations of whirls and wavy lines, diamond patches here and there, also oval patterns seemingly painted with red ochre. The entrance itself smelt damp and mouldy, but inside the cave there was not a trace of mustiness. Joe, the guide, told us there were three floors of underground rooms and gave each of us a lighted candle.

One by one we bent down low to walk through a narrow passage which led to a step or two, and again we were able to stand up in a fair sized room which had been built out of the Malta sandstone aeons ago in the Stone-Age. Joe told of a powerful oracle (or wishing well) deep down, and how it had worked wonders in the old days for the initiated who knew the correct sound to use. I think the oracle still works today unless it was damaged. Malta was heavily bombarded during World War II.

The oracle was supposed to work only if a male voice called to it but as the guide was saying this I slipped down a small step and gave a yell that was picked up by something and magnified throughout the whole cave.

We followed the guide through some more narrow passages which led down, down, down, then straightened our backs again when we came into another room. In this large opening was a circular stone table or altar in the center of the room. Cut out of the rock walls around were layers of stone beds or resting places of some kind, with hollows scooped out for head, body, and narrowing to the feet. I guess these were places for adults about four feet tall, with smaller scooped out beds. It looked like mother, father and child either slept or were buried here, although we saw no bodies here.

Down, down, down again, stooping and crawling through a narrow passage into another large room, with slits or narrow openings in the stone wall.

“They buried their dead in here,” said the guide.

I peered through a slit and saw skeletons another. Through another slit I peered into a cave where, the guide said, they kept their prisoners. A three foot thick stone door, about four feet high and four feet wide, guarded the entrance.

“What kind of people, and how strong were these pigmies, to be able to carve out these rooms to a definite pattern and to move doors this thick and heavy?” I thought.

“This is the end of the tour,” Joe, the guide, said. “We must now turn and retrace our steps.”

“What’s down there?” I asked him; for on turning I noticed another opening off one of the walls.

“Go there at your own risk,” he replied, “and you won’t go far.”

I was all for more exploring and talking it over with my friends, three of them decided to go with me and two waited with the guide. I was wearing a long sash around my dress and since I decided to lead the group I asked the next one behind me to hold on to it. Holding our half-burnt candles the four of us ducked into this passage, which was narrower and lower than the others.

You are not allowed to take pictures in the Hypogeum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Groping and laughing our way along, I came out first, onto a ledge pathway about two feet wide, with a sheer drop about fifty feet or more on my right and a wall on my left. I took a step forward, close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, had not yet emerged from the passage. Thinking it was quite a drop and perhaps I should go no further without the guide I held up my candle.

There across the cave, from an opening deep below me, emerged twenty persons of giant stature. In single file they walked along a narrow ledge. Their height I judged to be about twenty or twenty-five feet, since their heads came about half way up the opposite wall. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were face down. Terror rooted me to the spot.

“Go on, we’re all getting stuck in the passage!” My friend jerked at my sash. “What’s the matter?”

“Well, there’s nothing much to see,” I stammered, taking another step forward.

My candle was in my right hand. I put my left hand on the wall to steady me, and stopped again. My hand wasn’t on cold rock but on something soft and wet. As it moved a strong gust of wind came from nowhere and blew out my candle! Now I really was scared in the darkness!

“Go back,” I yelled to the others, “go back and guide me back by my sash. My candle has gone out and I cannot see!”

In utter panic I backed into the narrow little passageway and forced the others back, too, until we had backed into the large room where Joe and my friends were waiting. What a relief that was!

“Well, did you see anything?” asked one of them.

“No,” I quickly replied, “There was a draft in there that blew my candle out.”

“Let’s go,” said Joe, the guide.

I looked up at him. Our eyes met. I knew that at one time he had seen what I had seen. There was an expression of caution in his eyes, adding to my reluctance to tell anyone. I decided not to.

Out in the open again and in the hot Malta sunshine we thanked the guide, and as we tipped him he looked at me.

“If you really are interested in exploring further it would be wise to join a group. There is a schoolteacher who is going to take a party exploring soon,” he said.

I left my address with him and asked him to have the schoolteacher get in touch with me, but I never heard any more about it, until one of my friends called me to read an item from the Valetta paper.

“I say, Lois, remember that tunnel you wanted to explore? It says here in the paper that a schoolmaster and thirty students went exploring, and apparently got as far as we did. They were roped together and the end of the rope was tied to the opening of the cave. As the last student turned the corner where your candle blew out the rope was clean cut, and none of the party was found because the walls caved in.”

The shock of this information didn’t change my determination not to say anything about my experience in the Hypogaeum, but several months later my sister visited Malta and insisted on making a tour of the underground temple on Hal Saflini. Reluctantly, I went along, retracing the same route; but there was a different guide this time. When we got down to the lowest level, to the room where I had taken off to explore the tunnel entrance was boarded up!

“Wasn’t it here that the schoolmaster and the thirty students got trapped?” I asked the guide.

“Perhaps,” he replied, with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders, and refused to say anything more. You cannot get a thing out of the Maltese when they don’t want to talk.

“You are new here, aren’t you?” I asked him. “Where’s Joe, the guide who was here a couple of months ago?”

“I don’t know any Joe.” He shook his head. “I alone have been showing people around this catacomb for years.”

Who was this guide? And why did Joe disappear after we left Hal Saflini that first time? And why is it impossible to get any facts on the disappearing schoolchildren story? In the Summer of 1960, Louise Becker, N.Y.S.I.B.’s treasurer visited Malta during her European trip. She searched old newspaper files and the Museum, trying to get some facts to substantiate my story, but in vain. The Maltese are tight-lipped about the secrets of their island.”

By C. Lois Jessop, Secretary, New York Saucer Information Bureau (1958-1960) “Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World”. Source of the text: Borderland Sciences Research Foundation. Journal of Borderland Research. Vol. 17. No. 02.

A clay figurine found in the Hypogeum of Xaghra, Gozo, representing two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated. Ggantija Museum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The underworld and human psyche

All the mentioned stories that refer to the mysterious world of the Hypogeum, whether real, imaginary or legendary, are certainly also inspired by human curiosity of the unknown, which is always hidden deep in the depths of the earth, to which both natural caves and man-made passages are the gateways. The latter, like the Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, built either as a temple or necropolis, particularly lures human imagination by its abyss that both, terrifies and delights. It is because it offers an alternative and inexplicable world of mystery. The journey of the school children and that of Lois Jessup ends at the last permitted threshold of the Lower Level. Beside it, the unknown realms, and it explanation fades with the candlelight. Likewise, the mystery of the darkness leads to the unknown of Hanging Rock from the novel by Joan Lindsey. Still it cannot be revealed to the outside world. It disappears together with those whom it devours. In any case, the darkness attracts and absorbs the children’s innocence. Trustful as they are by nature, they follow its path without knowing that they would never return to the sun. What they left behind is just an enigma.

“Primitive” inhabitants of Malta.

So where is the beginning of the whole story of the Hypogeum after all? Prehistory of Malta begins (if we stick with the established dates) quite late, namely around 5200 BC. (Magli 2009:48). Between 5200 and 4000 BC. nothing extraordinary happened: like the cultures of Sicily, with which Malta’s inhabitants had a contact, people of the archipelago made pottery and developed economy based on fishing, hunting and farming (Ibid.:48). They built their houses in brick and small stones and led a very ordinary Neolithic life (Ibid.:48). Then, out of the blue, as if “primitive” inhabitants of Malta had awakened from a long dream, a great explosion of building activity with the use of giant megaliths had started (Ibid.:48).

The so-called Temple Period lasted for over one millennium, from around 3800 to 2500 BC. (Magli 2009:47). What is even more interesting, the builders of the temples vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared on the scene (Ibid.:48-49). Prof John Evans (1925 – 2011), a leading Maltese temple researcher admitted himself, there has been no explanation for such a fact (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). After the sudden end of the megalithic culture, the island was apparently not inhabited for a long time but finally everything came back to the “primitive” state of things (Magli 2009:48-49; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). It actually does not make any sense … (Magli 2009:48-49).

More stories about giants

Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some independent researchers claim that the Maltase Cyclopean  architecture, including the Hypogeum and other structures, such as enigmatic cart ruts, actually come from the Prediluvian times and were constructed and inhabited by long – headed hybrids, and giants, maybe similar to those encountered and described by Lois Jessup (Magli 2009:64-65; Burns 2014; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Successive inhabitants of the archipelago also assigned the construction of the megalithic structures to giants, especially to Cyclops (hence the term Cyclopean architecture coming from the Greek) (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017; Burns 2014). Similar stories were repeated by the Minoan and Mycenae cultures whose members regarded Malta as the island once inhabited by strange and powerful beings (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). According to a legend, in the beginning, the island was ruled by the offspring of the Giantess who had emerged from the Atlantic Ocean (Ibid.). Similar stories are also known in other parts of the world (Ibid.). Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta (Ibid.). Prof. John Evans claimed, however, that some of them look rather asexual (Ibid.). Who were those giants then? As the legend goes they were the teachers passing on knowledge to people (Ibid.). Dr. Anton Mifsud claims that his friend living on Gozo island has dug up a three metres long skeleton but he hid it from the authorities (Ibid.).. Still, there is no other evidence of such a discovery … (Ibid.).

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Hypogeum was closed for several years, namely in the years 1992-1996, although it was reportedly not related to the mysterious events happening inside the monument (Haughton 2009:169). It was because more serious restoration work had to be carried out due to the progressive destruction of the limestone rock caused by the action of carbon dioxide exhaled by tourists in the limited space (Ibid.:169). In order to protect this valuable archaeological site from further damage, the number of visitors has now been limited to eighty a day, which requires prior reservation of a visit (Ibid.:169). In addition, a micro-climate was created above the underground chambers, artificially regulating temperature and humidity (Ibid.:169). In 1980, the fascinating Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni was eventually declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (Ibid.:169). It has truly deserved it!

Up Back in the Sun!

A modern day Malta is a collective blend of ethnic and cultural heritages but the identity of the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago is shrouded in mystery. Today it is difficult to separate the myth from the truth but material evidence left behind cannot be ignored. Like other megalithic builders around the world Cyclopean architects from Malta, whoever they were, vanished almost overnight, without a trace.

The facade of the museum after restoration in 2017. Photo by Continentaleurope (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I felt strangely liberated when I eventually emerged from the darkness of the Hypogeum and found myself again in the sunshine, under the azure sky of the Mediterranean. The underground world attracts to its mystery but it must have been invented to appreciate more the daylight and outside world, still existing on the surface of its creepy stories. For many reasons, it was a strange and profound experience that is yet worth recommending.

When my friend joined me, we headed off to other great monuments of Malta – the free standing megalithic temples built “in the positive”, on the surface.

Featured image: Photograph of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni made before 1910. Photo by Richard Ellis. Uploaded in 2008. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). 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.

Continue reading Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta

Xylography in Asian Wood Engravings and Medieval Block Books

The definition of xylography means the oldest known form of woodcut and engraving in wood, invented in China in the first century AD. Although it originated in China, “the practice of woodcut has spread across the world from Europe to other parts of Asia, and to Latin America. [In woodcut technique], the block is cut along the wood grain, [whereas in the case of wood engraving], the block is cut in the [end-grain].” (“Woodcut” 2021).

A single-sheet of woodcut of the famous Four Horsemen c. 1496–1498 by Albrecht Dürer, depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Albrecht Dürer – National Gallery of Art. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Woodcut” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The technique of “[woodcut] is a relief printing […] in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with gouges—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts. Areas that the artist cuts away carry no ink, while characters or images at surface level carry the ink to produce the print. […] The surface is covered with ink, [also in multiple colours], by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas” (“Woodcut” 2021).

The art of carving the woodcut is generally referred to as xylography. Although the latter term is rarely used in Europe for woodcut single images, it is mostly related to the so-called block books, “which are small books containing text and images in the same block” (“Woodcut” 2021). Such block books are also called xylographica; they were uniquely printed in Europe and became popular in the second half of the fifteenth century. They are short books of up to fifty leaves and of nearly always religious content. At the same time, a single-sheet of woodcut is rather called simply a woodcut, which is presented as a single image or print, as opposed to a book illustration included in  xylographica.

Featured image: Fragment of the woodcut page from the Apocalypse. It is a block book printed in Europe between 1450 & 1500. The image come from a late fifteenth century compilation blockbook [Cod Pal. Germ 34] of which the ‘Apokalypse’ (4th ed.) forms one section. The printed text is in Latin but handwritten German translation sheets were inserted between the blockbook pages. The book is hosted by the University of Heidelberg. Public domain. Image modified. Photo and caption source: “Block book” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bernard T. (2013). “Xylography. Art Terms — X”Trylit”. In: Teresa Bernard Oil Paintings. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fvYwvq>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].

“Woodcut” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/34rVLoq>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].

“Block book” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3i1FAX3>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].

Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter

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

I looked up in the azure colours of the sky over the Mediterranean. I just could not imagine it turning into black pitch and breathing fire and ashes.

Town under the ashes

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

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

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

Biblical darkness

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

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

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

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

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

Fire in the sky

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

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

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

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Harvey Lilley (2006). The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

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

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now it makes sense

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

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

The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage (Lilley 2006). ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray. Prof. Costas Synolakis claims that ‘this is what we [observe] in modern tsunamis. We call this the blow out. The sea comes in [and] blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls […] will survive but the walls facing the ocean […] collapse’ (Ibid.). For Dr Sandy McGillivray ‘all of the sudden a lot of deposits [around Palaikastro] began making sense […] because [the town] had these buildings pulled away, [it] had the fronts of buildings missing. [it] had buildings raised right down the foundation level’ (Ibid.). What kind of wave was then powerful enough to cross three hundred metres of land before demolishing a town? (Ibid.).

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea, which caused giant waves of tsunami, breaking into Minoan cities, mainly on the north-eastern coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The scientists also travelled further inland of Crete to find out how wide was the range of the waves terrible progress (Lilley 2006). Around one kilometre from the shore, and well above sea level, they have found deposits of seashell (Ibid.). Soil samples from excavation from ancient Palaikastro also contain the tale-tell microscopic signs of marine life, which is another evidence that the tsunami deluged the town (Ibid.).

Destructive tsunamis

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea (Masjum 2006). Scientists believe it caused giant waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Hour after hour, pyroclastic flows on Thera were pushing volcanic debris into the sea, causing great tsunami waves that battered the Aegean coast (Masjum 2006; Mitchell 2011). ‘And then what happens is that the centre of the volcano […] has been blasted. it collapses to produce today’s caldera’, describes Prof. Floyd. ‘The land suddenly fell in, the ocean poured in and out producing constant tsunami’ (Masjum 2006). Inhabitants of nearby Crete could notice warning signs, but did not have enough time to react (Mitchell 2011). The first tsunami moving at the speed of three hundred and twenty kilometres per hour reached the coast of Crete within twenty minutes (Ibid.). At the time of contact with the land, the wave could have been up to twenty meters high (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Malia, Crete. Scientists have found there layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that are observed along the northern coast of Crete as the results of the tsunamis. Source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.

Apparently, the tsunami generated by Thera eruption was powerful enough to ravage the entire civilization (Lilley 2006). On the north coast of Crete, fifty kilometres west along the coast from Palaikastro, Malia lies. Now it is known for ruins of a Minoan palace but once it was the third largest settlement on coastal Crete (Ibid.). Close by the ruins, the team of scientists has found the same layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that they have observed in Palaikastro (Ibid.). That is further evidence that a huge wave had struck the northern coast of Crete, dumping marine life onto the land (Ibid.). Next step was the study of the Minoan port of Amnissos (Ibid.). The site is located west of Malia and near the settlement of Knossos (Ibid.). Four thousand years ago, a villa nestled among olive groves on this idyllic coast (Ibid.). It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the Minoan love of nature (Ibid.). But about the time of eruption of the volcano, the villa was destroyed and the frescoes torn from the walls (Ibid.). Pumice from Thera was once found in the ruins of this Minoan villa (Ibid.). Initially it was thought that the petrified volcanic froth may have been brought in there by a storm (Ibid.). However, the team has also found Thera pumice higher in the hills behind the villa, twenty metres above sea level, which may suggest it floated in on a massive tsunami (Ibid.).

NOVA senior science editor, Evan Hadingham, described the tidal wave as ‘terrifyingly destructive’, perhaps larger than the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004. Source: Telegram.com (2007).

Dr Sandy McGillivray says that he remembers from his childhood a big anthill at one end of the garden and as a child he used to go with a garden hose and wash ants off it (Lilley 2006). That memory keeps coming back to in his memory when he is thinking how the tsunami destroyed the Minoans on Crete (Ibid.). Tsunamis weeping people out to the sea must have been just like washing ants off the anthill. ‘It is a terrifying thing’, he admits (Ibid.). ‘Those ants never had a chance [to survive]’ (Ibid.). ‘Once the tsunami starts climbing up on dry land’, he continues (Ibid.). ‘It’s moving at [such] speed that nothing can stop it’ (Ibid.).

You wish you hadn’t found out …

Evidence gathered also demonstrates the range of destructive powers of the tsunami that would have struck on northern coasts of Crete (Lilley 2006).

As it can be concluded, when the caldera of Thera collapsed, it sent several walls of water into the Aegean Sea, like a pebble dropping into a pond (Lilley 2006). These waves cumulated around the islands and bounced off them (Ibid.). As a result, Crete was hit not by one but by several rebounding waves (Ibid.). The intervals between them were from around forty-five to thirty minutes (Ibid.). Recent studies have shown that more tsunamis ravaged cities on the northern coast of Crete for hours or even days after the eruption (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that they killed from thirty to forty thousand people (Ibid.). After the first tsunami, there were surely Cretans who escaped but they came back to look for the injured and dead relatives and friends, smashed by the powerful wave (Lilley 2006). They did not realize that another wave was coming (Ibid.). Consequently, the survivors of the first wave may have become the victims of the second (Ibid.).

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

Dr McGillivray has been deeply moved by the obtained results. ‘You know, it’s like time looking for something and then when you find it, you wish you hadn’t because it becomes too real and, you know, you begin to feel the experience’, he admits (Lilley 2006). ‘This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea [in vast numbers]. There’s a whole instant that flashes through your head’ (Ibid.).

Mysterious legend that haunts to this day

The most massive volcanic eruption of the ancient world blew the island of Thera apart and buried for centuries all the evidence of the lives of people who had once called it home (Westbrook 1995). Yet memories have remained (Ibid.). Footprints in the dust have finally been discovered by archaeologists (Ibid.). There are, however, no written records left about the Thera’s eruption and subsequent tsunamis, no figures for the death or destruction it has caused (Lilley 2006). It is only known that the rich culture of the Minoans, one that awed and inspired the earliest civilizations of the Mediterranean, completely vanished at the end of the Bronze Age (History Channel 1980s). Was the powerful empire of the Minoans destroyed by natural forces or was there human intervention? (Ibid.).

Bronze Group of a Bull and an Acrobat, the so-called a bull-leaper. Said to be from south west Crete. Today it is preserved by the British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On Thera, a massive eruption had buried Minoan streets and buildings beneath the flowing lava (History Channel 1980s). Meantime, clouds of ash engulfed the entire region (Ibid.). Crops were ruined and livestock suffocated (Ibid.). Consequently, all life on Santorini was destroyed (Ibid.). The utter destruction of the island and its people who settled there, must have left the powers of the region awestruck (Westbrook 1995). The palaeontologist, Charles Pellegrino, claims that the Egyptians must have known Thera (Ibid.). In the Bronze Age, it was surely known as a powerful colony of the Minoans (Ibid.). Egyptian ships would have travelled north to the very mountainous island for trading (Ibid.). After the volcano eruption, there was nothing but the silvers of broken rib-like land (Ibid.). Pellegrino thinks that to the ancient Egyptians finding the still smoking and blooming crater probably meant that the whole island and its inhabitants had simply sunk and disappeared (Ibid.). In centuries to come a great legend was heard of a Utopian island society that vanished in the sea “in a single day and night” (Ibid.).

The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction by John Carlina (2011). Source: Youtube.

Did the Egyptian priests mean Thera in their written story of the sunken island that they retold to Solon? According to some scholars, the history of the volcanic disaster on Thera may have been recorded by the ancient Egyptians and survived in repeatedly embellished stories (Mitchell 2011). In the fourth century BC., they may have inspired the Greek philosopher to write a morality play about the rise and fall of a great civilization, called Atlantis (Ibid.). For centuries, Plato’s words were considered a legend, until archaeologists discovered a lost world on Thera (Ibid.).

In one day and one night

The legend of Atlantis has teased human imagination ever since (Westbrook 1995). Some scholars definitely claims the story is a myth, others believe it is a true story and they either still keep looking for it or point to the small dot in the Aegean between Egypt, Greece and Asia, today just a rim of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea (Ibid.). Is Thera a legendary Atlantis? (Ibid.). Plato described the island of Atlantis as alternating rings of land and sea (Mitchell 2011). The port was full of ships and buyers from all over the world (Ibid.). Such great wealth had never been seen before (Ibid.). Bulls grazed at Poseidon’s temple, and ten princes hunted for them using wooden sticks and ropes (Ibid.). Then came powerful earthquakes and floods (Ibid.). In one day and one night, Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared (Ibid.).

Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, Crete. It is made of black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl. One of the greatest finds. Now exposed by the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some enthusiasts of the legend, like Pellegrino, there are some convincing clues and local finds that confirm that Plato’s Atlantis was in fact the island of Thera (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). “Like the Atlanteans, the Minoans were island-dwellers with shipyards, powerful fleets and a thriving maritime commerce. They had fine houses and superb artifacts, and were skilful builders and engineers – again like the Atlanteans. As in Atlantis, the bull, sacred to Poseidon the earth-shaker, was important in Minoan rituals (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Also Plato describes Atlantis as an island made of sea and land rings (Mitchell 2011). Thera’s reconstructions before the volcanic eruption show that the island could have fit this description (Ibid.). The unusual terrain was the effect of the most powerful geological forces on earth, always active beneath the island throughout its geological history (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there would have just been one concentric ring of land and two of water, building up the island, whereas Plato describes Atlantis as a fortified dwelling place with concentric rings, two of land and three of water (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). Thera, as one of the Minoan colonies in the Mediterranean, was too small to be self-sufficient (Mitchell 2011), yet it was as wealthy and self-assured as much as the settlements of Minoans on Crete (Lilley 2006). Its geographical location made it an important trading point in the Mediterranean (Mitchell 2011). Its buyers acted as intermediaries by trading precious metals, oil, wine, ceramics and spices from Africa, Asia and Europe (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed). Today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo by Jebulon and one more author – Own work (2015). Originally at Wikipedia. CC0. Bull-leaping was an important initiation ritual for young Minoan men, perhaps also for women (Mitchell 2011). Photo source: Dr. Senta German (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy.

Also the bull, especially bull-leaping, is a recurring theme in Minoan art and there are many depictions of this powerful animal (Westbrook 1995). Such representations echo Plato’s description of Atlantis; there are described golden cups with scenes of bull ceremonies engraved on the sides, also analogous to Plato’s narrative (Ibid.). Such details as bulls being tied up by nooses and with rope furthermore match the author’s descriptions (Ibid.). Pellegrino also recounts the moment ‘early in [the twentieth] century, when the Minoan civilisation was being unearthed’ (Ibid.). ‘Some of the first archaeologists to arrive on the site, looking at the paintings of the bull ceremonies, and so on, said: ‘that’s Plato! That’s his Atlantis story!’, he claims (Ibid.). Plato also mentions that “first noble and innocent, the Atlanteans in time became power-hungry aggressors, seeking to subjugate neighbouring lands. Eventually, they were however, defeated by the Athenians, and then their island was destroyed by natural forces, earthquake and flood” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). As archaeological records suggest, the Greeks indeed invaded and conquered the Minoans in the second half of the fifteenth century BC. Moreover, like the wonderful civilization of Atlantis, Thera was destroyed by a terrible cataclysm during its greatest heyday and vanished (Westbrook 1995). “If Plato’s date for Atlantis, 9 000 years before Solon, were to lose a zero (a scribal error, perhaps, or storyteller’s exaggeration), [after some scholars], it would fit neatly into the timescale of Minoan culture” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21).

Elephants on Thera?

“But problems remain, not least the fact that Plato explicitly states that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, [on the Atlantic Ocean]” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Although Thera’s explosion blew the island apart, it only precipitated the downfall of Minoan Crete, which eventually happened generations after the volcano eruption with the invasions of Mycenaeans from Greece (Ibid.:21). Correspondingly, the Minoans were not defeated by “the Athenians” before the natural disaster but long after it. There are also other differences between Plato’s story and archaeological facts about ancient Thera. Among animals living on Atlantis, there were elephants, which did not live on Thera, at least not in the Bronze Age (Ibid.:18). Thera was also too small to fit Plato’s description or to be divided into ten kingdoms between Poseidon’s descendants, like Atlantis actually was (Ibid.:18).

Found at Akrotiri, Minoan frescoes of Boxing Boys or Girls (on the left) and Gazelles (on the right) Today they are exposed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo source: Ricardo André Frantz (User: Tetraktys). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

What is more, Crete and not Thera was the headquarters of the Minoan empire. And, unlike the legend of Atlantis says, Crete did not disappear in a single night and day (Westbrook 1995). It was only Thera that vanished (Ibid.). Plato does not either mention any volcano eruption on Atlantis but the fact the island was destroyed by earthquakes and floods (Masjum 2006). Moreover, although recurring representations of bull ceremonies are the traces left by the Minoan civilization, the evidence is hardly found on Santorini (Westbrook 1995). Yet it is abundant on Crete (Ibid.). Or maybe was Thera (and the Minoans) just a legacy of the Atlanteans, and not Atlantis itself?

Fatal thread to Cretans

Prof. Walter Friedrich, a geologist, thinks that the volcano eruption was entirely fatal for Thera, but not for Crete (History Channel 1980s). For Cretans living on the northern coast of their island, the biggest thread came from the sea (Ibid.). Giant waves of tsunamis swept across the Aegean, destroying their glamorous architecture and powerful fleet (Ibid.). The tsunami was enough to bring a great civilization to its knees but there were survivors (Lilley 2006). Knossos, the Minoan capital was too far inland to be destroyed (Ibid.). According to archaeological evidence, the Minoans rebuilt their palaces, and although they never regained their full power and influence, they could still create exquisite works of art (Ibid.).

Detail of the Palaikastro Kouros. It is a statuette of a male figure, probably an idol, made of serpentine, hippopotamus ivory, and gold. The statuette was deliberately destroyed during social unrest following the volcano eruption. (Archaeological Museum of Siteia, photo by Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0). Source: Dr. Senta German (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy.

‘Did the volcanic eruption on Santorini directly destroy the Minoan culture’, asks Dr Don Evely, the archaeologist (Masjum 2006). ‘The answer is simply no. If, however, we ask a more subtle question: did it contribute to the decline? Did it undermine the Minoan power? The answer is almost certainly yes.’ (Ibid.). The devastating effects of Thera’s eruption on Crete are not limited to the number of dead and destroyed palaces (Mitchell 2011). Minoan society suffered a serious shock (Ibid.). Archaeological data testifies a deep social unrest; towns and temples were looted and set on fire (Ibid.). People were probably sacrificed (Ibid.).

Invaders from Greece

A final outburst of destruction overtook the Minoans in around 1450 BC (Lilley 2006). In western Crete, an excavation in the heart of the modern town of Chania has revealed evidence of arson, which proves strong fires once took place there (Ibid.). It is a pattern repeated also in other sites across the island (Ibid.). Was this a revolution within the Minoan society or is it the evidence of conquest by outsiders? (Ibid.). The archaeologist, Dr Maria Vlazaki, discovered a highly unusual cemetery in Chania (Ibid.). It dates from the same period as the widespread destruction in the Minoan world (Ibid.). ‘These are warrior graves’, she claims (Ibid.). ‘They are single burials, something that is in opposition with the traditional [Minoan grave. The buried were of the age] between twenty-four and thirty. They [were] tall, robust and they look [like] invaders’ (Ibid.). These invaders’ burials have been also found at Knossos and elsewhere on Crete so it suggests an invasion from the mainland of Greece (Ibid.). The invaders are believed to have slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the Minoans (Ibid.).

Flotilla fresco of the miniature frieze from the West House or House of the Admiral at Akrotiri, Room 5, south wall: detail. It probably represents a mountainous landscape of the island of Thera with its flourishing port and fleet. Source: Fritz Blakolmer (2012). “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.), fig. 27.

Dr McGillivray believes that the tsunamis and forthcoming social unrest may have actually helped the Mycenaeans to attack Crete (Lilley 2006). Coastal towns of the Minoans, like Malia, had no protective walls (Ibid.). Minoan defences rested instead on their control of the sea as the leading naval power in the ancient world (Ibid.). ‘The [islanders] were so confident in their navy that they were living in unprotected towns and cities all along the coastline’, he explains (Ibid.). All that naval force must have been, however, smashed and lost in the waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Meantime, the fleet of Mycenae had grown in power (Ibid.). ‘[Their] traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). The archaeologist thinks that the tsunami could not reach into there because of its geographical landscape and natural closure from the sea (Ibid.). ‘Mycenaean Greeks up there were probably the only people who had survived with a navy, possibly in the whole eastern Mediterranean’, he explains (Ibid.). Hence their upcoming powerful empire.

Idyllic life on the coast of Crete. The town of Amnisos was believed to have served as the harbour of Knossos, which was located farther inland and so was not directly affected by the tsunamis. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Sherna Bhumgara (2004). Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog.

Did these invaders encounter a dark side of Minoan culture? (Lilley 2006). In Knossos, archaeologists have found grisly human remains (Ibid.). ‘One of the most telling and horrifying deposits from the post-Thera eruption period in Crete was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the Royal Road and that [were] these cannibalized youths’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘The analysis of these bones from this […] deposit strongly [suggests] that [the bones] have been hacked up in order to take the flesh off [and] eat [it]. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete’ (Ibid.). Was this an origin of the Minotaur myth? (Ibid.). Did the Greeks imagine that these unlucky victims had been led to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minoan bull god? (Ibid.). Whatever is the truth of their myth’s origins, within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had conquered Crete (Ibid.). The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out (Ibid.).

Between now and then

Today, the only things that have survived from the Minoan culture are the remains of their monumental architecture, being visited by flocks of tourists every summer (Masjum 2006).

Today, Crete is being visited by hordes of tourists, who usually prefer sandy beaches and the warm sea to spending time on archaeological sites, where the heat is quite unbearable. Yet, the Minoan legends are still very tangible on the island and their elements can be encountered and felt everywhere on the island. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet for most the real story of the catastrophic disaster smashing the civilization is too heavy for people’s relaxing vacation. Soon most tourists usually abandon the ancient stones and go to sandy beaches. But endowed with its natural grandeur, the Aegean islands and Crete fire people imagination. In this idyllic landscape the atmosphere of the past is still very tangible. And it makes them unconsciously listen to its legends.

Featured image: The refugees from the erupting Thera are trying to flee to Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In:  Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TJkdNa>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

“Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XL26YH>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Blakolmer F. (2012) “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.). Available at <https://bit.ly/2TF7bR1>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Bhumgara S. (2004) Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZKfCOH>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Bibi Saint-Pol (2012) “Illustration: A Map of Minoan Crete”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gvVoyi>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Carlina J. (2011) The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TFQFQK>. [Accessed on 25th May, 2020].

German S. Dr. (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2LX6bTN>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

German S. Dr. (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pwgr81>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

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

History Channel (1980s) Crete. Death came from the Sea. Time Life’s Lost Civilizations. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d3mCKx>. [Accessed on 21st May, 2020].

Jensen M. N. (2018) “Dating the ancient Minoan eruption of Thera using tree rings” In: UA College of Science. Available at <https://bit.ly/36D5GI8>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Lilley H. (2006) The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Masjum M. (2006) Inside the Volcano. Kraylevich Productions Inc.; Mechanism Digital.

Mitchell T. (2011) Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend. BBC Production.

Swindale I. (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d8jSv9>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Swindale I. (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Xx4v9b>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Telegram.com (2007) “Layers of Mystery – Archaeologists Look to the Earth for Minoan Fate”. In: Red Ice.TV. Available at <https://bit.ly/3daXXnd>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Wengler G. (2009) The Biblical Plagues; Episode 2: Darkness Over Egypt. Taglicht Media GMBH; ZDF Enterprises.

Westbrook J. (1995) Time life’s: Lost Civilizations; Episode 4: Aegean: The Legacy of Atlantis. Time-Life Video & Television.

Ushabtis’ Function in Ancient Egypt

Small figurines of clay, stone, wood, bronze or earthenware in the shape of mummies, often holding agricultural implements. They were placed in the graves in ancient Egypt, with the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (circa 2055-1795 BC.). They were to replace the deceased, who were called to work in the Afterlife. The ushabti were animated in a magical way, by the religious texts from the Sixth Chapter of the Book of the Dead, which covered the surface of the figurines (see: The Spell of Ushabtis: ‘Verily, I Am Here’).

Featured image: Memphis, 500 BC – Troop of funerary servant figures ushabtis in the name of Neferibreheb, Louvre-Lens. Photo by Serge Ottaviani (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3bt54Js>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 427. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Workshop of the Jacob Family of Ébénistes

A famous family of French ébénistes who worked in Paris in 1765-1847. The founder of the company was George Jacob, and his successors were his sons: Georges the Second, dealing exclusively with the administration of the company, and François Honoré Jacob-Desmalter. Then the Jacob House was developed by the founder’s grandson, Georges-Alphonse Jacob Desmalter, who in 1847 sold the company to an outstanding carpenter J. Jeanselmow. During this time, the Jacob House developed into a large enterprise, especially under Napoleon. In 1808, it employed 332 workers.

Napoleon’s Jewel-Cabinet, 1809 (Musée du Louvre). Early 19th-century drawing of mahogany cabinet given by Napoleon I to Marie Louise as a wedding present in 1810. Uploaded by Bishonen (2007). {{PD-Art}}. Public domain. Photo source: “François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Mostly expensive furniture was made by the Jacob for the needs of European courts, thanks to which it had a real impact on the development of European furniture. The furniture, manufactured for 82 years, bore the stylish features fashionable in France from the reign of Louis XV to Louis Philippe, with a predominance of the Neo-classicist trends. Having personal ties with renowned artists, the Jacob made furniture according to their drawings, for example, furniture designed by Hubert Robert, in style à la grecque, according to the designs of Napoleon’s first painter, Jacques-Louis David, including the chaise longue depicted in his painting, The Loves of Paris and Helen, and above all according to the designs of Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, founders of the directorate and of the Empire. There were also references to the creators of English furniture.

The Jacob furnished residences in Fontainebleau, Compiègne, Malmaison and Saint Cloud, among others, during the restoration of the interior of the Elysée Palace. Initially, the company’s specialty was to make furniture for sitting and sleeping, i.e. chairs, armchairs, sofas, banquets, beds, chaise lounges or recamier – a usually backless couch having curved arms often of unequal height. Later, chests of drawers, secretaries, tables, desks and others were also manufactured. The furniture was characterized by harmonious, symmetrical arrangements, straight or smoothly rounded lines, an extremely functional solution and solid workmanship. The Jacob were the first to introduce mahogany in France, which was associated with English influences. They also used the wood of citrus, birch, acacia, oak, pear, boxwood, yew and others, as well as ebony and amaranth inlays, painting, gilding and carving, sometimes discreet bronzes and porcelain plaques.

The Jacob furniture was also massively counterfeited.

Featured image: The Love of Helen and Paris (detail). Painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748 –1825). Uploaded by Livioandronico (2013). Public domain. Image cropped and enlarged. Photo source: “The Loves of Paris and Helen” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“The Loves of Paris and Helen” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pUxqQr>. [Accessed 26th February, 2021].

“François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3dPljSo>. [Accessed 26th February, 2021].

PWN (1997-2021). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 164. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN

Idols – Cult Figures Lookalike Human Beings in the Ancient World

In ancient Greek literature, an idol means an eidolon plural: eidola or eidolons. Accordingly, it is an image, apparition, phantom, ghost. It stands either for a spirit-image of a living or dead person or a shade or phantom lookalike a human being. In art, idols are cult figurines with simplified or geometric shapes, mainly female representations made, among others, of wood, clay, ivory, marble or bronze. They appear across the ancient world, mostly from the Paleolithic to Late Antiquity. Nevertheless, the term ‘idols’ is usually applied in relation to the Cycladic culture (ca. 3200–ca. 1050 BC.).

Featured image: Clay model from Palaikastro, Crete, representing three female figures dancing with their arms stretched, in a circle, to the accompaniment of a lyre held by a woman in the middle. Preserved by the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Eidolon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2MzgPEb>. [Accessed on 4th February, 2021].

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

Following the Spiral of the Phaistos Disc’s Mystery

Here in the capital of Crete, the Phaistos Disc is preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Today, it is one of the icons of Minoan civilization and so one of the main attractions of the Museum attracting visitors from all the corners of the modern world (Gregor 2016).

Just like Zbigniew Herbert[1] once, during his visit to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, I devoted some time to this Disc, standing long in front of its private glass case. I was wondering that if it stood just among other Minoan artifacts, it would attract so much attention of many visitors who would not know its history, or what mystery it is associated with. Or perhaps their trained eye would notice that it differs from typical Cretan finds, especially the Minoan writing from clay tablets or from images of miniature seals made of gold and carved stone.


[1] Zbigniew Herbert (1924 – 1998), a Polish poet, essayist, drama writer and moralist. His trilogy (three volumes of essays: Barbarian in the Garden, Still Life with a Bridle and Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore) is the result of his trips around Europe, during which he describes, with a passion typical of art connoisseurs, particular places and artifacts he has seen.

The pearl of Italian Archaeology

A famous discovery in Phaistos was made by members of the Italian Archaeological Society, who were working at the same time as Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) in Knossos (Gregor 1997:24). ‘Glory to the Italian archaeologists to whom Phaistos has been entrusted,’ writes Zbigniew Herbert (2000:54). It includes sheer ruins, without pretentious reconstructions, a complete contradiction to Knossos (Herbert 2000:54).

Palace complex at Phaistos. Ruins of Phaistos; Municipality of Festos, Crete, Greece. Photo by Olaf Tausch (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Dr Alessandro Greco says that Italian archaeology on Crete began in very special historical circumstances, when Greece had achieved an independence from the Ottoman Empire, in the middle of the previous century (Gregor 2016). Consequently, Crete was divided into several protectorates: Italian, French and British (Ibid.). It was due to this situation that archaeologists from Italy were able to work without any obstacles (Ibid.). Nevertheless, when an Italian archaeologist and the protagonist of the story, Luigi Pernier (1874–1937), landed on Crete, the island was still officially ruled by Ottoman Turks (Ibid.). At that time, archaeologists working in the south of the Island of Crete had far greater difficulties to deal with than Evans’ group working parallelly in Knossos (Ibid.). The coast in the south is bleak and uninviting; archaeologists there had to be good climbers because many of the sites have been set in the remote valleys or in high mountains, where access is still extremely difficult (Ibid.). In such mountainous landscape, it was possible to explore the island only on donkeys and the researchers themselves were continuously exposed to malaria (Ibid.). Although challenging, the mountains also provided once Minoans with the protection against foreign invaders (Ibid.). Beyond the mountains lies the Libyan Sea, which once connected the Minoans with the developed cultures of the Near East and Egypt (Ibid.).

From the hills of Phaistos the valley leads to the sea, and behind it, Mount Ida rises with a white cap on the top; there was the grotto of Zeus (Herbert 2000:54-55). The so-called Phaistos Palace, where Luigi Pernier was excavating, was also the site where one of the greatest puzzles of the Minoan Empire was discovered – the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016).

Mystery of baked clay

“In July 1908, […] Luigi Pernier [had] discovered a small disc of baked clay in a basement cell […] at the site of the Palace of Phaistos, on the south coast of Crete.” (Ward 2020).

The Phaistos Disc: Side A; the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Greece (2011). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first sight, the discovery must rather have seemed unexceptional; it was just a simple terracotta disc in the shape of a not quite regular circle, with a diameter of sixteen centimetres and about two centimetres thick (Gregor 1997:24; Herbert 2000:53). Nevertheless, soon it has turned out to be one of the most unique archaeological artifacts, which has ever been excavated on Earth (Georgievska 2016). Today it still “remains an enigma; its purpose and meaning and even its original geographical place of manufacture remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of [human history]” (Ibid.).

Invention of ancient Gutenberg

The Phaistos Disc’s mystery is inscribed on both of its sides, labelled as A and B, where its surface is covered with undecipherable pictographs (see: Ward 2020). Those are stamps pressed in wet clay yet before the Disc was fired (Ibid.). They are composed of various symbols, which involved making a movable type or rather sealstone for each pictograph (possibly for the very first time in the history of writing) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Ward 2020). As Zbigniew Herbert notices, creators of the Phaistos Disc must have been then Gutenberg’s precursors, because each character on the Disc was imprinted with a separate stamp, which could be satisfactorily called a prototype of a modern type used for printing (Herbert 2000:53).

The Phaistos Disc: Side B; the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Greece (2011). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As such, the so-called Phaistos Disc is the oldest embossed inscription, yet significantly different from the hieroglyphic writing of the Minoans (Linear A) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Herbert 2000:53).

Signet seal with a spiral

By this occasion, it is worth mentioning that Minoans astoundingly mastered the craftsmanship of miniature, though highly precise, gold or hardstone seal-stones with intricate carvings in their own peculiar style, showing various mythological, ritual and everyday scenes, typical of the Minoan culture (“Minoan Sealstones” 2018).

A gem-grade seal-stone (top) and its impression. Minoan Seal, 1700 BC, Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe – Special Exhibition. Photo by Andree Stephan (2001). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Minoan sealstone” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Even if the visual language of the scenes is still puzzling, the function sealstones is not such a mystery; they were possibly used by rulers, dignitaries and priests to place their official seals on documents and letters (Gregor 2016). But whereas on each of the Minoan sealstones, there is a ‘negative’ (embossed) image leaving a ‘positive’, three-dimensional impression on the soft surface, the pictographs from Phaistos were made in the other way round; the types with ‘positive’ images therefore have given ‘negative’ impressions in clay. The way the Minoan sealstones were used also suggests that such archaic types as those from Phaistos must have been used more than once, even if they had been intended uniquely for composing sacred texts (Ward 2020). Yet they had not been applied to any other known clay surface (Ibid.). At least, no other Minoan artefact bearing pictographs identical to those of the Phaistos Disc, has ever been found in Crete (Ibid.). There are, however, a few examples showing iconographical analogies present on the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). One of the Minoan gold seals, which is a signet with a ‘negative’ image, has got the spiral form and includes an undeciphered pictorial inscription; the both characteristics resemble the features of the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

What is the Disc’s message?

The mysterious characters all flow around the Disc as spiral strings that may represent pictorial or hieroglyphic writing that archaeologists are still trying to decipher (Gregor 199724-25). However, so far they have not produced any decisive results (Ibid:25). What do the Disc’s symbols mean and what is their message? (Gregor 1997:25). The Disc has already been ascribed many different functions; a calendar, “poem, hymn [or] a prayer [ to the goddess of fertility], sacred text, magic inscription, curse, […] funerary record, almanac, court list, political treaty, proof of a geometric theorem, list of soldiers, a board game and even musical notation for a stringed instrument” (Ward 2020). For some it can be even a message from aliens or the Atlanteans (Gregor 1997:25); “[some] believe that it was a Token used in healing rituals or other ceremonies in ancient times” (Georgievska 2016), whereas others have recognised in it a report of the journey of one of the Minoan missionaries who visited Numidia, located in the northern coast of Africa (the ancient kingdom of the Numidians, 202–40 BC., situated in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb) (Gregor 1997:25; “Numidia” 2021). On the other side, for a British researcher Alan Butler (TheHallOfRecords 2015), the Disc was a piece of a Bronze Age sophisticated calendar, and so it should rather be interpreted in terms of astronomy.

Fields numbering by Louis Godart (born in 1945); an Italian archaeologist of Belgian origins, a specialist in Mycenaean archaeology and philology, currently Director for the Conservation of Artistic Heritage of the Italian President. Image by D. Herdemerten (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Zbigniew Herbert (2000:53) mentions a French researcher, Marcel F. Homet, who basing on a certain similarity of the hieroglyphs from Phaistos and Indian rock carvings of South America, concluded that this Minoan artifact is no less than a letter of the last inhabitants of Atlantis, containing a description of the catastrophe and the fate of those few who managed to escape it safe. Academic scholars, however, ignore Homet’s theory placing it between fairy tales (Ibid.:53).

In the 1980s, an ancient history and languages specialist, Christian O’Brien (1985), puts forward another hypothesis related to the Phaistos Disc, comparing its pictographs to Sumerian cuneiform (Ward 2020), “wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by use of a blunt reed as a stylus” (Ibid.). After the researcher, the inscription from Crete would have originated from the earliest systems of writing, which were invented in the fourth millennium BC., in Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Such an ancient writing is present in the world’s oldest religious text, known as the Kharsag Epics, which tells a story of the foundation of a settlement near Mount Hermon, in modern-day Lebanon (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Phaistos Disc would be a Cretan version of the story which had originated in the Middle-Eastern Kharsag, and had been written in the pictographs predating but linked to the proto-Sumerian language (Ibid.).

It is also worth mentioning another way of reading the inscription (Gregor 1997:25). It was proposed by a Norwegian linguist Kjell Aatrun in 1991 (Ibid.:25). He interpreted the signs as a Semitic writing (Ibid.:25). Semites represent the nations of the ancient Middle East, using the following languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Syrian, Arabic, and Akkadian (Ibid.:25). During the Bronze Age, Semitic influences reached Ethiopia and Upper Egypt, and from there over 4,500 years ago came to Crete (Ibid.:25). Aatrun believes that he can decipher the secrets of the disk by comparing its writing to other old Semitic written records (Ibid.:25). Aatrun interpreted the signs in the Phaistos disc as an invitation to intercourse addressed by a woman to a man (Gregor 1997:25). In his opinion, these forty-five characters are a written rite celebrating the deprivation of virginity (Ibid.:25). Every spring in Phaistos, girls who were mature enough to begin their sexual life may have gathered in large numbers to sacrifice their virginity to some deity by participating in the initiation ritual and becoming women (Ibid.:26). According to Aatrun’s interpretation, the disc would be a songbook and instructions for priests (Ibid.:26). Massive deflorations made by Minoan priests as a part of the fertility rite would also occurred in Babylonia, so Kjell Aatrun’s proposition to interpret the disc is not without sense (Ibid.:26).

In a pile of valuable deposition

Most researchers agree that the Phaistos Disc is Minoan in its origins and it possibly dates back to the Middle Minoan (2100-1600 BC.) or Late Minoan (1600-1100 BC.) Bronze Age. Although the information board in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion says that the Disc comes from the New Palace Period (1600-1450 BC.) (information from July, 2011, generally accepted period for the Disc is the end of the so-called First Palaces on Crete (1900-1700 BC.) (Georgievska 2016; Gregor 2016). Such a range of dating also shows how little is known about the artifact. Accepting the latter period, it was a very wealthy time in Minoan history but it was ended around 1700 BC by massive earthquakes (Gregor 2016).

Tablet of Linear A (Ph-1), found with Phaistos disc. From Arthur Evans “The palace of Minos”, 1921 (PD-license). Public domain. Drawing source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Phaistos Disc, which was found in the basement along with the remains of other clay tablets and Kamares pottery (Gregor 2016). For this reason it can be assumed that the Disc had been deposited in the part of the Palace, where other valuable objects were stored (Ibid.). After Luigi Pernier the Disc probably fell down together with other artifacts from the upper story during the earthquakes (Ibid.). But how did such a fragile object survive its fall from several meters down and the crash against the hardstone floor without any apparent damage? (Ibid.) An answer to this question is offered by another theory, according to which the Disc did not fall down but it had been originally deposited in the basement cell, where it was finally excavated.

Precursor of Minoan Linear A?

The date ascribed to the Disc is also the time of Linear A script development. “Comparisons of existing Linear A examples have led some scholars to believe the [Disc] actually is a version of Linear A” (Ward 2020); for example, Kjell Aatrun believes that the clay tablets with Linear A script found in the archives of the palace in Phaistos are a simplified working version of ritual-religious hieroglyphs from the Disc, collecting data from the field of administration or legal rulings (Gregor 1997:26). Perhaps the priests, using ‘holy’ archaic writing, recorded some spells or a mystery on the disc? (Ibid.:25). Some language experts studying the script argue that it may be a cult hymn because it is possible to find the rhythmic arrangement of symbols and the repetition of certain combinations of signs (Ibid.:25). Also Dr Alessandro Greco claims the Phaistos Disc originated in Crete; it is because its script features open syllables as much as all later Minoan scripts in Linear A and B, which are also an open syllable writing type (Gregor 2016).

How to read it?

Generally, it is believed that even a layman, after examining the artifact more closely, will realize that he Phaistos Disc’s narrative should be read from the outside to the inside (Gregor 1997:25; Ward 2020), that is to say “clockwise from the outside of the spiral into the centre” (Ward 2020).

After a researcher, Dr. Minas Tsikritsis (Menzies 2011:306), however, the idea of spiral is actually the key to the way of reading the Disc. He claims that the Minoans continued to use spiral patterns, as in the Disc of Phaistos, and unlike other researchers, Dr. Tsikritsis believes that the spiraling symbols printed in the clay can be read back and forth, that is to say, from the outside to the center and backwards, from the inside out (Ibid.:306). Supporting the thesis is the fact that characters printed on the outer edge also repeat inwards (Gregor 1997:25). Also Geoff Ward (2020) indicates the spiral format of the Disc’s writing can be significant itself in understanding its meaning. After the author “[the] spiral [is] the age-old symbol, found in cultures [in the whole world], of creation, life-giving and aspiration, of birth and rebirth, and of spiritual development and our identity with the universe” (Ward 2020). The spiral is also a universal symbol of the Mother Goddess to whom the Phaistos inscription has been equally ascribed as a prayer or a hymn (Ibid.).

The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the 2014 renovation. Photo by C messier (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The spiralling string of symbols actually begin with a visible straight line marked with five or six dots at the edge of each side of the Disc, which is probably the point from where the reading of the text should also be started (Ward 2020). On side A, adjacent to the starting point there are two symbols; the first one looks like a plumed head, the second is a circle with seven dots inside it, possibly a warrior’s shield, a loaf or a sun symbol (Ibid.). This pair of signs keeps being repeated throughout the whole writing; they can be equally noticed on side B, also next to the straight line with points, matching exactly the position of the both pictographs on the opposite side (A) (Ibid.). Those symbols and others are grouped from three to five individual symbols, sectioned off by a dividing line (Ibid.). Yet on the outer edge, the number of pictographs included between the dividing lines is always limited to four. In turn, the vertical lines separating the signs are sometimes identified with punctuation marks (Herbert 2000:53).

Forty-five pictographs

“There are [two hundred and forty-two pictographs] on the disk, comprising [forty-five] distinct signs. […] The [forty-five] symbols were numbered by Arthur Evans from 01 to 45, and this numbering has become the conventional reference used by most researchers” (Georgievska 2016). Dr Gareth Alun Owens explains that there are “[too] many signs for an alphabet, too few signs for a system, like Chinese or Egyptian, so [it was decided] to progress with systematic, epigraphic work [in the case of the Disc; consequently, the linguistic studies have followed the rule according to which] if a sign is the same in different scripts, it has the same sound value. And all the forty-five signs, the sound values, can be found among the ninety sound values of Linear B, which is a script of roughly the same time, from the same place, which has [already] been deciphered” (Gregor 2016).

Unfortunately, in order to read some unknown language with absolute statistical certainty, it takes at least fifty-six symbols, yet, there are only forty-five different signs represented in the Disc of Phaistos (Menzies 2011:306). In his book, Gavin Menzies (2011:304-310) refers to the research done by Dr. Minas Tsikritsis on the Linear A. To proceed with his studies, the researcher first had searched for tablets and other artifacts, such as rings with spiral engravings, that could help him to translate the insufficient number of symbols on the Disc (Ibid.:306). In the course of his work, he has found that the artifact actually shows fifteen symbols identical to the characters of a script in Linear B (Ibid.:306). What is more, he claims that the meaning of individual symbols is likely to change depending on what word follows a given symbol (Ibid.:306). On the whole, the researcher’s systemic solution to the ancient puzzle of Linear Type A seems to be consistent and well-thought-out (Ibid.:307). So what is the thesis proposed by Dr. Tsikritsis? The results of his research reveals that the examples of ancient texts in Linear A mostly concern ways and the process of obtaining bronze, an alloy of special importance for the Minoans (Ibid.:307). Is it also the actual message of the the Disc of Phaistos?

Generally, researchers assume that each of the forty-five different characters on the Disc also stands for a syllable (Gregor 1997:25). The pictographs represent either easily identifiable things or abstract signs (Gregor 1997:25; Georgievska 2016). Among the stamps, which are all surprisingly clear, there are human heads, whole human figures, tools, vessels, birds, flowers, fish, weapons, and a series of difficult to define ideographs: dotted fields, rectangles, geometric figures, or wavy lines (Herbert 2000:53).

Philistines depicted in Minoan Disc?

More identifiable pictures show objects bringing to mind or even pinpointing various cultures developing in different periods in the area of the Mediterranean; for example, one “sign depicts a structure similar to a sarcophagus used by the Lycians of Asia Minor” (Georgievska 2016), whereas the mentioned above picture looking like a plumed head or ‘fluted crowns’ possibly portrays a helmet with crest (Ibid.). Strikingly similar headgears have been depicted in a famous scene from the north wall of the Temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt, illustrating the Egyptian campaign led by Ramses the Third (1198 – 1166 BC.) against the so-called Sea Peoples (“Sea Peoples” 2021). Such a helmet was also used later by Philistines, who settled down in Juda, in the twelfth century BC. (Georgievska 2016). They may once have been a part of  the Sea Peoples who plundered the Eastern Mediterranean region in the late thirteenth century BC. (Aleff 1982-2015).

This famous scene from the north wall of Medinet Habu is often used to illustrate the Egyptian campaign against the Sea Peoples in what has come to be known as the Battle of the Delta. Whilst accompanying hieroglyphs do not name Egypt’s enemies, describing them simply as being from “northern countries”, early scholars noted the similarities between the hairstyles and accessories worn by the combatants and other reliefs in which such groups are named. The original uploader was Seebeer at German Wikipedia (2006). Public domain. Photo source: “Sea Peoples” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is still difficult to precisely identify the Philistines’ origins, although it is certain they did not create homogeneous society in respect of their culture, apparently composed of elements typical of Asia Minor, Mycenae, the Aegean islands, and Cyprus (Aleff 1982-2015). According to the Bible, the Philistines had come from Caphtor, which is usually believed to stand for Crete (Ibid.). Taking into account the fact that the Phaistos Disk is impressed all over with the symbol of a plumed head, it can be assumed that the sea raiders sailed eastwards centuries after the Disk was buried in the south of Crete (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020). The problem is, however, that the Disc dates back to at least the late sixteenth century BC. (most often 1700 BC), whereas the Philistines appeared as the invaders only in the late thirteenth century BC. and set up a historically recorded civilization in the twelve century BC (see Ward 2020). There is thus over three hundred years gap and lack of the continuous tradition; neither Minoan frescoes nor other artifacts show Minoans wearing such a headgear, especially if it is widely accepted the Minoan civilization was not based on warfare but mostly on trade.  

H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015), however, suggests that “the Disk is more firmly connected with the Philistines as religious descendants of its maker than it is with Crete”. Although the artifact was found in Crete, it might not have been made there (Aleff 1982-2015). Even if the Disc’s clay was compared by Luigi Pernier to the fine clay of Kamares, it has never been analysed in this aspect and so could have come from elsewhere in the Mediterranean region (Ibid.). Moreover, the Phaistos Disc in completely unique in its appearance among other excavated Minoan objects; some scholars have consequently claimed the Disk can have been either a hoax or an import from beyond Crete, or even the Aegean region, taking into consideration the fact Cretans sailed far and wide (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020).  Therefore, as H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015) underlines “[the] place where the Disk turned up says […] nothing about where it was made”. Nevertheless, even if the Phaistos Disc is related to the Philistines, it predates the historical records of those ancient people for a few centuries, irrespective of the fact if they actually came from Crete or passed by the island on their way to the East.

Forged or genuine?

Due to the mentioned above anachronisms, discrepancies and questions, the Phaistos Disc is declared by some scholars as a modern forgery or a hoax made in the middle of the last century (Georgievska 2016; Ward 2020). “[Although the Phaistos Disc] is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists” (Georgievska 2016), it has been long the subject of international debate regarding its authenticity and archaeological value (Ward 2020). As Geoff Ward speculates, “the suggestion it might be a forgery was probably generated by a hundred years of failure to decode it” (Ibid.). Moreover, an official request to conduct scientific tests of the Disc’s clay to resolve the question of its date and origins were definitely turned down by the Ministry of Culture in “Greece on grounds that the Disc [is] a national treasure and ‘untouchable’” (Ward 2020).

Similar accusations of forgery have also been made against such famous artifacts as the iconic bust of Nefertiti, preserved by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, Nebra sky disk at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany or the Lady of Elche at the Archaeological Museum in Madrid (Gregor 2016; see: Mystery of the Lady). While, some of those artifacts were examined in this aspect and eventually turned out to be genuine, the Ministry of Culture of Greece still refuses such an analysis of the Phaistos Disc. The fact that “the Greek government [does not want it to be] tested [does not have to] mean its authenticity is problematic. Such a stance is not uncommon when such [examining of the fragile artefact] can cause damage to, or loss or theft” (Ward 2020).

Further doubts of experts

Although there are many voices of different specialists that the Disc is genuine, an art collector from New York, “Dr Jerome Eisenberg, an expert on ancient forgeries, [is] still convinced that Luigi Pernier […] forged [it]” (Ward 2020).After his opinion, the Italian archaeologist did ‘invent’ his famous discovery as “he was jealous of the successes of fellow archaeologists, Sir Arthur Evans and the Italian Federico Halbherr (1857–1930), at other excavations in Crete” (Ibid.). Moreover, there exists an artifact that may have served as a prototype of his potential forgery. In addition to archaeological excavations, Luigi Pernier was also employed in Florence as an Antiques Inspector (Gregor 2016). His jurisdiction included the city’s Archaeological Museum, where one of the most valuable artifacts in the Etruscan collection is the so-called Magliano Disc (Ibid.). The object is made of lead and “was found in Magliano in the Toscana near Grosseto (Italy) in 1883 and bears an Etruscan script dating to the [fifth or fourth century BC.]” (Luwian Studies 2019). It is half the size of the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). The words and sentences sections on it are separated by dots, whereas on Phaistos Disc vertical lines are used instead (Ibid.). Despite such striking similarities, the Etruscan Disc originated thousand years after the Palace collapsed in Phaistos; for this reason, cultural exchange between Etruscans and Minoans would appear extremely unlikely (Ibid.). For Dr Jerome Eisenberg such a phenomenon is inexplicable (Ibid.). After the art collector, Luigi Pernier could have studied the Magliano Disc while staying in Florence (Ibid.). At that time, the Etruscan script on the Disc had not been deciphered yet, and so Pernier could have used it as a model for his forgery, when he later excavated at the site in Phaistos (Ibid.).

Line Art Drawing of a cestus. Drawing by Pearson Scott Foresman – Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation (2007). Public domain. Drawing source: “Cestus” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Furthermore, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to some examples of suspicious discrepancies regarding the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). First, the inscription goes from right to left as Egyptians hieroglyphs do, whereas Minoan scripts, both Linear A and B, are read from left to right (Ibid.). Secondly, the pictographs are too highly realistic to compose an ancient script; for instance, there is a symbol of a gloved hand or cestus or caestus (Latin), an ancient battle glove, which only occurs in Roman period, which is fifteenth hundred years later (Gregor 2016; “Cestus” 2020). Thirdly, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to the fact that ancient tablets accompanying the artifact are unevenly fired, which happened during the fire of the First Palace in Phaistos (Gregor 2016). Such a damage to clay objects was typical if they were long exposed to the heath (Ibid.). On the other hand, the Phaistos Disc was fired too evenly and thoroughly (Ibid.). Dr Gareth Alun Owens, however, claims the Disc was baked deliberately in the process of being created and not accidentally like the destruction level that saved other clay tablets with Linear scripts during the First Palace’s fire (Ibid.). It would then suggest the Disc must have fallen down from the upper floor as Luigi Pernier assumed (Ibid.). But then, how did it avoid being crashed into pieces? (Ibid.) In addition to that, Dr Jerome Eisenberg claims that the edges of the Phaistos Disc are still quite sharp and hardly defaced, whereas in other ancient tablets and anything made of clay have especially had their edges damaged (Ibid.). Next, the circumstances of the famous discovery are suspicious; the excavations in Phaistos were directed by Luigi Pernier and so has been naturally ascribed to the find of the famous artifact. Nevertheless, no archaeologist was a direct witness of the discovery, (Ibid.). According to the records, at the very moment of uncovering the Phaistos Disc, Luigi Pernier was taking a nap (Ibid.). Finally, the Ministry of Culture in Greece does not allow to take any tests on the artifact or even to handle it, which according to the expert is already questionable (Ibid.). He thinks that the government, unsure of results of the tests, is afraid of losing one of the most iconic ancient objects attracting tourists to Crete (Ibid.).

Who then made the Phaistos Disc if it is a forgery? (Gregor 2016). After specialists, It must have been an expert very familiar with archaeological material, like Emile Gilliéron (1850-1924), who worked for Arthur Evans at restoration and reinterpretation of Minoan frescoes, and other artifacts, and made very successful replicas (Ibid.). Only such a person was well positioned to be able to make forgeries like the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

Archaeology in favour of the authenticity

Despite all the claims against the Phaistos Disc, recent archaeological discoveries can indicate that it is actually genuine (Gregor 2016). Such evidence is provided, for example, by another artifact, also preserved in the Museum in Heraklion; it is a bronze double-axe, possibly a religious and ritual Minoan object (Ibid.). On the head of the axe, there are three lines with overlapping signs engraved upon them (Ibid.). Linguistic experts, like Dr Gareth Alun Owens, see in those signs parallels with stamped pictographs on the Phaistos Disc, and believe the script is a prayer to the Minoan Goddess from the top of the Mountains, where Minoans massively pilgrimaged with their offerings (Ibid.). A lately discovered sacrificial bowl from such a holy mountains’ peak also bear similar pictographs; they are almost identical to those on the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the 2014 renovation. Photo by C messier (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Similar clues are highly valuable in the quest for true origins of the Phaistos Disc and evidence needed to confirm its authenticity, and to defend the good name of its founder (Gregor 2016 ).Professor of archaeology and the director of the Heraklion Museum, Dr. Athanasia Kanta says that she has no doubt the artifact is authentic (Ward 2020). In her opinion, accusing an eminent scholar of fraud after a century of his discovery, without providing any strong evidence is highly unfair (Ibid.).

Everlasting mystery

For many scholars, the Phaistos Disc in another Minoan mystery, for others, a tantalizing message from the ancient world and a link to a lost and legendary civilization. Although archaeologists mostly agree it is genuine, its content and origins are still under debate. Generally, it is thought to have been either an import from Asia Minor or a local product of Minoans (Herbert 2000:53). Granting the last option, the Phaistos Disc would be the oldest script in Europe, whose message yet will possibly remain lost forever.

Featured image: Detail of the Phaistos Disc, side A. Photo by Geoff Ward (2020). Photo source: Geoff Ward (2020). “The mysterious Phaistos Disc: a lost message from the ancient world”. In: geoffward.medium.com.

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Cestus” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3idp6t0>. [Accessed on 14th January, 2021].

“Minoan sealstone” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3spYJVB>. [Accessed on 12th January, 2021].

“Numidia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at < http://bit.ly/3i0yEYj>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

“Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3nIHR8N>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

“Sea Peoples” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/38zGJ2U>. [Accessed on 12th January, 2021].

Aleff H. P. (1982-2015). “The Board Game on the  Phaistos Disk: 3.1.2. The Philistine connection with the Disk”. In: recoveredsince.com. Available at <http://bit.ly/2XumPjx>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

Georgievska M. (2016). “The Phaistos Disk is the best-known Minoan inscription and one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology”. In: The Vintage News (2014-2021). Available at <http://bit.ly/3nw53a9>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

Gregor M. (1997) “Państwo króla Minosa“. In: Sfinks. Tajemnice Historii, część 1 [Sphinx. Geheimnisse der Geschichte] Posmyk A. trans. Huf Hans-Christian ed. Warszawa: Berteismann Media.

Gregor M. (2016). The Secret of the Phaistos Code. doc.station Production in association with 2DFArte & 2DF.enterprises.

Herbert Z. (2000) Labirynt and morzem. Fundacja Zeszytów Literackich.

Luwian Studies (2019). Caption under the image of the Magliano Disc. In: “The Etruscan Culture”. In: Luwian Studies. Available at <http://bit.ly/3oTSPdb>. [Accessed on 13th January, 2021].

Menzies G. (2011). Atlantyda odnaleziona. Rozwiązanie największej zagadki w dziejach świata. [The Lost Empire of Atlantis. History Greatest’s Mystery Revealed.]. Mikos J. trans. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal MMXIII, First edition.

O’Brien C., Joy B. (1985). “The Enigma of the Phaistos Disc. A Question of Language”. In: The Genius of the Few, Appendix F, pp. 340 – 352. Available at <http://bit.ly/3i9R74z>. [Accessed on 12th January, 2021].

Ward G. (2020). “The mysterious Phaistos Disc: a lost message from the ancient world”. In: geoffward.medium.com. Available at <http://bit.ly/2XumPjx>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

TheHallOfRecords (2015). “Alan Butler – Mystery of the Phaistos Disc”. In: TheHallOfRecords Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uv4HF6>. [Accessed on 6th May, 2021].

The Spell of Ushabtis: ‘Verily, I Am Here’.

Servants, musicians and court craftsmen were once placed in the mounds around royal tombs and mastabas in Egypt (Żylińska 1972-1986:56). Dying with kings and queens was a privilege and a passage to eternity (Ibid.:56). Later, human sacrifices were abandoned and the old rite was replaced with others: deceased royal members were accompanied to the Afterlife by faience figurines placed in the tombs (Ibid.:56). They represented the servants and handmaids (Ibid.:56), the ushabti, originally known as shabti or shawabti (“Ushabti“ 2020).

No more work in the Afterlife

When in the times of the Old Kingdom (circa 2686-2181 BC.), the king and his relatives reached Sehet Jaru in the Afterlife, they had to do physical work themselves, sowing and harvesting, to ensure their livelihood, yet the king could have ordered the subjects who accompanied him to the Afterlife to do these works for himself (Rachet 1994:359). In the times of the Middle Kingdom (circa 2055-1795 BC.), the land of eternal happiness was opened to all subjects, but they did not intend to work in the Afterlife like ordinary peasants (Rachet 1994:359; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179).

Four ushabtis of Khabekhnet and their box; 1279–1213 BC; painted limestone; height of the ushabtis: 16.7 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art. This photo was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2020). Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Colours intensified. This photo was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2020). Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Life After Death was supposed to be a more perfect version of earthly existence, so the Egyptians believed that it would be full of free time and would not have to do manual labour (Ikram 2003:110). Therefore, in their tombs there have been found peculiar magical objects and images to improve the quality of the Afterlife (Ibid.:110). These also include the ushabti, although the name of such objects itself appeared only in the Late Period (circa 664-332 BC.) (Ikram 2003:111; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Primarily, such statuettes were referred to as shabti or shawabti (Ibid.:110).

Fetch and carry

Statuettes of servants had already been common during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (the Old Kingdom), depicting Egyptians devoting themselves to their daily activities (Ikram 2003:110). Among them there are thus imagery of people milling grain, baking bread, making pots, brewing beer, and many other scenes that have been seen by the Nile (Ibid.:110). It was believed that, just like the images painted and carved on the walls of tombs, the ushabti magically came to life in the Afterlife to perform the listed activities for the deceased (Ibid.:110).

In the Old Kingdom, statuettes did not always represent offering services; sometimes they were members of the deceased’s family, carrying out everyday activities for those they loved (Ikram 2003:110). In the Middle Kingdom, statuettes of servants were replaced by wooden grave models, beautifully illustrating people performing their daily activities (Ibid.:110). They too came alive thanks to magic and satisfied the needs of the dead (Ibid.:110). While, all these painted and carved crowds did work for the deceased as much as their real-world counterparts, the ushabti were to take on the tasks assigned to their master in the Afterlife as a part of the service for gods, or the work that they had to do to ensure their existence after Death (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). I wish I would not have to wait till the death to have such servants …

Mummies offering services

The ushabti, were originally called shabti by the Egyptians and appeared at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). They disappeared in the Ptolemaic Period (circa 332 – 32 BC.) (Ikram 2003:110; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Shabti usually took the form of mummy-shaped figures and, depending on the wealth of the deceased, they were made of various materials: wood, glass, clay, wax, stone, and bronze (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360).

For the richest, the most often they were made of the famous Egyptian faience, blue in the New Kingdom (circa 1550 – 1069 BC.), and green in later eras till the fourth century BC. (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Statuettes also differed in size and quality; some were only a few centimetres high, others were half a meter high (Ikram 2003:110). Some were carefully carved statuettes, others were roughly shaped lumps of clay or even just wooden pegs of wood (Ibid.:110). Until the time of Amenhotep the Second, the deceased had only one or two figures deposited in their tombs, and initially each had its own sarcophagus (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360). Later, also during the New Kingdom, the ushabti began to be placed in tall, chapel-shaped boxes, which by the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom) already contained several hundred figurines (Ikram 2003:110). The ushabti were an extremely important element of tomb equipment, as proved by their prevalence in the graves of people of all social classes and in all periods (Ibid.:110). They served not only humans but also sacred animals; some mummies of the holy Apis also were accompanied in tombs by typical mummy-shaped figures with bull’s heads (Ibid.:110).

Enjoying the freedom of the Afterlife

Tasks of the ushabti were not always the same. Initially, the figurines took the place of the tomb models, taking over the role of their owner’s servants (Ikram 2003:110). However, they could also represent the deceased himself, which it is supported by the fact they were provided with their own sarcophagi, just like a mummy (Ibid.:110-111).

An ushabti box, probably the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period. On display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. RC 623. Photo by BrokenSphere (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In this role, the ushabti replaced the statues of ka (Ikram 2003:111). However, their most important task was to do whatever work on behalf of the dead that gods ordered them to perform in the Afterlife (Ibid.:111). Mostly, the dead was demanded to cultivate the land and perform other farm labours, which were the backbone of the Egyptian economy (Ibid.:111). As the physical work expected of the dead was performed by their assistants or ushabti, they would not have to bother and enjoy the freedom of the Afterlife (Ibid.:111).

Spell for making an ushebti work

The ushabti came to life owing to a magical text that appeared during the Twelfth Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) as the Chapter 472 of the Sarcophagus Texts, after which it evolved in the New Kingdom into the Chapter Sixth of the Book of the Dead, also referred to as the Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light (Ikram 2003:111; “Book of the Dead” 2020). It is commonly referred to as the ‘Spell for making an ushebti work (for a man) in the God’s Land’ or simply, the ‘Shabti Spell’ The (Shabti Collections 2020). Its words were “inscribed on the shabtis with certain variations depending at which time they were made. Sometimes the complete spell was used, or certain clauses were omitted” (Ibid.).

A receipt for 401 ushabtis produced by Padikhonsu. Photo by (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As it is seen in the Third Intermediate Period (circa 1069 – 664 BC.) and Late Period (circa 664 – 332 BC.), the figurines were usually inscribed with the title of the owner and his name along with the name of ‘Osiris’, referring to the changed status of the deceased in the Afterlife (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). It was either the ultimate inscription, or written in addition to the Spell (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020).  “[The] earliest version of the ‘Shabti Spell’ appeared in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom” (Shabti Collections 2020).

O, this/these shabti(s)

If one counts, if one reckons the Osiris (…)

To do all the works which are wont be done there in the god’s land

Now indeed obstacles are implanted therewith –

As a man as his duties

‘Here I am,’ you shall say when

You are counted off

At any time to serve there

To cultivate the fields, to irrigate the riparian lands, to transport by boat the sand of the east to the west

And vice-versa;‘

Here I am’ you shall say.

Shabti Collections 2020

A servant for each day of the year

Pottery ushabti with linen grave clothes. (Nineteenth Dynasty). From Heracleopolis Magna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London. With thanks to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) (2016). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

At the beginning of the New Kingdom, the ushabti were given agricultural tools, usually hoe and back basket models, but these quickly turned into images painted or carved on the figurines themselves (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359). The number of the ushabti also increased (Ibid.:111). In some of the tombs, as many as a total of 401 figurines were discovered, including 365 servants, one for each day of the year, along with 36 overseers, each in charge of ten ‘workers’ of the ushabti (Ibid.:111). Seti the First, as the Pharaoh he was, (the New Kingdom) had seven hundred ushabti, and some dead in the Late Period had even more than a thousand, although, of course, the number of figurines varied according to the wealth of their master (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:360).

Shawabti and shabti

Some figurines of the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (New Kingdom) were also called by the term shawabti (Ikram 2003:111). The difference between it and the more common name shabti is not clear (Ibid.:111). Generally, the etymology of the words referring to the figurines is still not clear and under debate (Rachet 1994:359). The shawabt or shabti terms may have derived from words meaning ‘stick’ or ‘food’, both of which would be appropriate for the statuettes often carved from wood and destined to work to provide their master with food (Ikram 2003:111).

Slaves in Amenti

In the New Kingdom, figurines were often considered as slaves in Amenti (Kingdom of the Dead), as shown in the preserved bills for their manufacture (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359).

Memphis, 500 BC – Troop of funerary servant figures ushabtis in the name of Neferibreheb, Louvre-Lens. Photo by Serge Ottaviani (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ushebtis respond

During the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period, the ushabti were made in mass-production; they were thus rather crude and carelessly made (Ikram 2003:111). The views on their role had also somewhat changed (Ibid.:111). Since then, they had been defined by the term ushabti (Ibid.:111). Its entry into the common language defines the figurines in a slightly different way; ushabti means to respond and clearly refers to the situation when the gods called the deceased to work, and the figurines replied: ‘Here I am’ (Ibid.:111).

Featured image: Ushabti in the Museum of Louvre. Photo by Néfermaât (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Uszebti” (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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Reference to the Title: “CHAPTER VI. [From the Papyrus of Nebseni (Brit. Mus. No. 9900, sheet 10)]” (2020). In: “Ancient History & Civilisation. The Egyptian Book of the Dead Page 4. In: Erenow. Available at <https://bit.ly/3hU1SY>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Book of the Dead” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pZ6Xlm>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

“Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3bt54Js>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

“Uszebti” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2LhpAlE>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Ikram S. (2003) Śmierć i pogrzeb w starożytnym Egipcie [Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt], Aksamit J. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Lipińska J., Marciniak M. (2006) Mitologia starożytnego Egiptu. Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza ‘Auriga’.

Rachet G. (1994) “Uzebti” and “Antemi”. In: Słownik cywilizacji egipskiej. Śliwa J. trans. Słowniki Encyklopedyczne Książnica.

The Shabti Collections (2020) “The Shabti Spell“. In: Shabtis.com. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Leoh79>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Żylińska J. (1972-1986) Kapłanki, Amazonki i Czarownice. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

We landed at the Cancún airport a day ago and I felt as if I had been in Mexico for at least a week. In one day, loads of impressions, images, stories, information and guesses summoned up in my head. That would be enough for a whole month; my continuously analyzing mind was just making a trip through the Yucatan and its pre-Columbian Mayan and Toltec cities. Unfortunately, my time in Mexico was limited and so was my stay at archaeological sites.

Something good for everyone

‘One day is far not enough for Chichén Itzá’, I said with well heard regret in my voice. I was sorry to get out of there, as soon as I finally started understanding the city plan and entering its mysterious nooks and crannies more confidently.

The Ik Kil cenote, close to Chichén Itzá, México. Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘We only have two weeks to stay in Mexico’ said my friend. ‘Then we have to go back to Poland, and what is worse, to winter!’ Then, she added: ‘Besides, you have promised not to explore ‘your’ rocks ALL THE TIME. You know, I can’t get along here alone. I don’t speak the language.’

Yes, I knew that, and I promised … I also understood that my friend flew here mainly to the warm sea of ​​the Gulf of Mexico to take a break from work and February frosts. She loved swimming and diving. Me too … But for me, taking holidays meant breaking through a stone forest of abandoned ruins, stumbling over stones sticking out of the ground and climbing the narrow steps of pyramidal structures. Well, there must be something good for everyone…

Longing for archaeology

If only I had not needed to work full-time during my studies in a boring office, I would have spent a few months excavating, preferably deep in the jungles of the Chiapas region. On the other hand, I read in one of Daniken’s books (1991:189) that it is not easy at all to start archaeological excavations in Mexico, even if there are sufficient funds. According to the author, digs would be willingly continued by archaeologists in Chichén Itzá, in Palenque, or in other Mayan city-states, but such efforts often fail due to the resistance of local Indians, who thus defend their still holy ancient centres (Von Daniken 1991:189). And when the excavation eventually takes place, only Indians work there (ibid.:189). Anyway, at that time, I was only on vacation in Mexico, which I could only afford because of my ‘boring job’.

After a while of lingering around, I reluctantly left the incredible archaeological site and followed another tourist attraction that my companion was waiting impatiently for.

Strange and amazing Yucatan

As a Polish traveller, Elżbieta Dzikowska (2013:201) writes, the Yucatan Peninsula is a strange place, where about eight thousand rivers flow underground. How is it possible? The Yucatan bed is made of limestone rocks through which rainwater is filtered (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Rocky ground absorbs water that collects and flows underground (Ibid.:50). Such underground rivers run through many picturesque caves (Dzikowska 2013:201). Many of them are formed exteriorly on the land, like in the case of the Loltún Cave, of which one of larger chambers features natural openings, which appeared after the ceiling collapsed (Dzikowska 2013:201; Brady 2013:297). The Maya possibly believed that such openings in the ground unite the world above with the underworld (Brady 2013:297). The Loltún Cave is located today south of the city of Mérida and its name means ‘Stone Flower’ in the Mayan language (Tuszyńska 2007:36). The Mayans used it for about two thousand years (Ibid.:36).

Cenotes and caves

The waters of underground rivers also rise to the surface in the form of cenotes, deep, borderland wells (Dzikowska 2013:201).

They are either open to the sky or occur inside deep caves and thus some of them can only be reached through underground corridors. (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Densely scattered around the northern part of the Yucatan karst area, cenotes were formed due to the collapse of the top layers of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020). A such, the cenote is a natural deep pit, or sinkhole, filled with groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020).

John Lloyd Stephens (1805 – 1852) and Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) introduced the subject of caves and cenotes at the beginning of studies dedicated to the Mayan history, in the 1840s (Brady 2013:297). At that time, however, only practical functions of such formations were considered, and not their religious significance in the Maya cult, which turned out to be actually the case (Ibid.:297). Catherwood’s famous lithograph, showing the wooden stairs in the village of Bolonchén, in Yucatan, focused on illustrating the scale of difficulties related to the use of caves by the local population; a powerful constructed staircase leads down from the side entrance to a small lake in the middle of the cenote. In some cases, difficult access to these natural formations has kept the treasures of the Mayan caves as a secret for centuries (Ibid.:297).

Altépetl

The name cenote originated from the Mayan word tz’ono’ot, meaning a ‘depth’, ‘an abyss’, or ‘a cave with a water reservoir’ (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Tuszyńska 2007:50). In the pre-Columbian times, cenotes, had ‘a decisive influence on the choice of a Mayan city location, such as in the case of Chichén Itzá, Dzibilchaltún or Mayapán (Ibid.:429). In northern Yucatan, where there are no surface rivers or lakes, cenotes and underground water reservoirs hidden in the abyss of caves guaranteed access to fresh water for local residents (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Brady 2013:297). But practical functions of cenotes were not the main reason for establishing a city in their proximity; the water from cenotes and caves was primarily used for ritual purposes (Brady 2013:297). Ethnohistoric records of founding rituals from all over Mesoamerica, prove that when establishing settlements, ancient people looked for specific geographic features, although they did not often choose environmentally rich areas, if they did not have a specific landscape necessary by contemporary beliefs and religious traditions (Ibid.:297-298).

Glyphs representing Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan, the three primary altépetl of the Aztec Empire. Codex Osuna Triple Alliance. Published in 2006. Public domain. Image source: “Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to researchers like Angel Julián García Zambrano, founding a city implied in many cultures imitating the creation of the world (Brady 2013:297-299). At the core of Mayan beliefs is a deity called the Lord of the Earth, whose name Tzuultaq’a translates as ‘hill-valley’, which may sound like a dichotomy at first (Ibid.:297-299). However, according to Mayan beliefs, the Lord of the Earth does not personify the opposite, but unites both dimensions into a single being (Ibid.:297-299). In many Mayan languages, cave means ‘stone house’ because it was believed that the Lord of the Earth lived with his entourage (animals and goods) in a cave located in a sacred mountain (Ibid.:297-299). That in turn, according to the same beliefs, was empty (Ibid.:297-299).

García Zambrano believes that another element constituting the whole of the mythical landscape was to be a source of fresh water, that is to say, the mountain should have a cave and springs at its core, and ideally it was to be surrounded by lower hills (Brady 2013:298). This form of such a landscape is best reflected in the hieroglyphs of geographical names in the Mayan inscriptions (Ibid.:298-299). According to it, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica have long considered the ideal landscape to be a holy mountain rising from the waters of the underground world (Ibid.:298-299). This imagery is also the basis of the Aztec concept of ‘city-state’ – altépetl, which literally translates as a ‘water mountain’ or ‘mountain filled with water’, and is well illustrated by a glyph showing a mountain with a cave at its foundation (Ibid.:298-299). If there was no natural cave formation on-site, it was replaced by an artificial one, usually placed beneath the foundations of pyramids (Ibid.:298299,302-303). Such openings, ritually dedicated to deities, became an important centers of established city-states (Ibid.:298299,302-303).

Recreation of the holy landscape

Assuming that the Mayan temple pyramids were referred to as witz – ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’, it can be concluded that they represented sacred mountains, and respectively the doors to the sanctuaries erected at the top were considered entrances to symbolic caves (Brady 2013:298). According to the researchers, it is clearly shown in the facades of these temples, which are to represent the open mouth of the Earth Monster – the symbol of the cave, and so the underworld (Ibid.:298; see Face of the Fifth Sun). Similarly to caves, mountains and pyramids were the basic elements of Mayan religious life, and it can be observed that they all were part of one supreme cult of the Earth (Ibid.:298) . A Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian, epigrapher and a great expert in the Maya, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898 -1975) was first who thoroughly studied a relationship between those elements of the Maya cult (Ibid.:297). He assumed that along with the mountains and temples built on pyramids, one of the most important elements of Mayan religious life were actually caves and cenotes (Ibid.:297).

Geological cutaway of Cenote Ik Kil. Drawing by Editorcharly (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Such natural formations were obviously considered as holy by the Maya; inside them life was born, and there were the legendary places of origin of tribes or dynasties (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Dzikowska 2013:201). Cenotes themselves, like deep caves, were treated as places of worship and pilgrimage (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). It was because Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian pilgrimage sites were generally associated with deities of water and rain, and by all accounts, each Mayan deity lives in the underworld, where the rain is born (Brady 2013:305).

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

There are descriptions of ceremonies held in caves and by cenotes, related to both, the life-cycle and the calendar (Brady 2013:307). The most important Mayan ceremony connected to pilgrimage, is still celebrated throughout Mesoamerica (Ibid.:305). It takes place in early May, just before the rain season begins (Ibid.:305). Entire villages then go to local caves or cenotes to plead with the Lord of Earth, Ixchel or Chaak for rainfall and bountiful harvests (Brady 2013:305; Tuszyńska 2007:36,50). Cenotes themselves were closely related to the cult of fertility, and their crystal-clear water was used for ceremonial purifications preceding numerous rituals (Tuszyńska 2007:49). In the proximity of the natural wells, temples dedicated to rain and fertility deities were erected (Ibid.:49). One of the famous was the rain god, Chaak, is usually represented with features typical of water creatures, such as reptiles; it is hence covered with scales, has got a curved nose, two snakes protruding from the corners of its mouth and a large shell hanging from its pierced ear (Ibid.:49). Such rain deities are believed to have lived in cenotes and so offerings for them were thrown directly to the water of the wells (Ibid.:49-50). During the Mayan rule in the Yucatan, additional bloody rituals could be performed in emergency situations, such as drought or plague, which were understood as the discontent of the gods (Brady 2013:305).

Cenote Ik Kil; to get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is underlined above, the concept of good and evil does not create a strong dichotomy in Mesoamerican cosmology; the earth considered a source of rain, fertility and life itself, simultaneously is regarded as the main cause of disease (Brady 2013:307). All the illnesses have been believed to arise from winds emanating from caves and from cenote wells (Ibid.:307). And when someone falls ill, the ceremony of healing has been usually combined with the rituals celebrated in these natural formations (Ibid.:307).

Cenote Ik Kil;; luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. one can either walk down in the water using the wooden stairs or jump down from the platform above (on the right up) and dive in. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The act of pilgrimage itself seems to have been very significant to the Maya; entrances to the deepest chambers of the caves being pilgrimage sites were modified in such a way to make an access to their interiors more difficult for common people (Brady 2013:305). It suggests that only chosen visitors could enter the deepest, most hidden, and so most secret and holiest areas of a given cave (Ibid.:305). Studies of such places in Mesoamerica also confirm that pilgrimage sites were located away from inhabited centers (Ibid.:307). Nevertheless, the presence of an important pilgrimage temple within the city borders has always been considered a sign of favour with supernatural powers and a reason for great pride, as it was in the case of the Cenote of Chichén Itzá (Ibid.:305).

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

Similarly to caves, cenotes as sacred wells played very important role in the Mayan mythology and religion (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Cenote Sagrado (Sacred) located in the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá was a particularly important site in the late Classic Period of Maya culture, that is to say, between the years of 600–900 AD. (Ibid.:142). At that time, the city of Chichén Itzá experienced a heyday, becoming the most powerful Mayan center in the Yucatan (Ibid.:142). And so the Cenote Sagrado did (Ibid.:142). First, it was a center of religious rituals, and in the post-classical period (850-fifteenth century AD.), it became in turn a famous destination of pilgrimage for the faithful from the areas of today’s Mexico and Guatemala, but also from lands as distant as Costa Rica and Panama or even the south-western areas of today’s United States (Ibid.:142).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, Mexico. “Cenote de los Sacrificios” at Chichén Itzá, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. A karst lake, reflecting the karst’s water table. Photo by Ekehnel (Emil Kehnel) (2008). CC BY 3.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Diego de Landa (1524-1579), Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, mentioned the great importance of the holy well at Chichén Itzá (Tuszyńska 2007:142). He describes pilgrimages of the faithful with various offerings, still taking place in the sixteenth century (Brady 2013:305). The cenote has a diameter of 60 meters, its depth reaches 13.5 meters, and the water level is about 22 meters below the ground (Tuszyńska 2007:142). The cenote‘s round eye might have been reminiscent of a mirror, which the Mayans used for prophecy and foretelling the future (Ibid.:142).

Venturing out into the earth

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edward Herbert Thompson (1857 – 1935) an American consul to Yucatan and archaeologist, verifying De Landa’s written records, excavated many artifacts from the bottom of the natural well; here and in other cenotes in Yucatan, there were numerous artifacts of gold, jade, obsidian, rock crystal, shells, flint, wood, clay, gold, hematite, animal bones and tombac, and even scraps of fabric (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305-307). Among the artifacts found in the Cenote of Chichén Itzá, there are beautiful discs made of turquoise, pyrite, coral and shells (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Sacrificial objects, along with ceremonial instruments were also found in other hard-to-reach places underground as caves; they were, as in the case of votives in the Catholic Church, offered for various intentions or for gratitude (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:307). Such archaeological finds also testify to the religious determination of the Maya, who were able to venture out into the earth to sixteen kilometres deep, in the search of their gods, lighting their way just with torches (Brady 2013:307).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza with a temple dedicated to rain deities beside. Photo by Salhedine (2005). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source:“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the whole. Edward Thompson’s archaeological work confirmed the importance of the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá as a place of pilgrimage for many generations (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305). These and other studies have equally proved that religion was one of the most important institutions in the ancient Mayan society, and it was strongly related to such natural formations as caves or cenotes (Brady 2013:278,305-307).

Modern tourist attractions

Filtered through the limestone deposits in cenotes, the water in such natural wells is still crystal-clear (Dzikowska 2013:201). This is why, these days private and public cenotes greatly attract swimming and snorkelling tourists, along with cavern and cave divers (“Cenote” 2020). Some areas with such natural wells are also considered as National Natural Parks (Ibid.). Nothing surprising. While exploring cenotes “[great] care should be taken to avoid spoiling [their] fragile ecosystem” (Ibid.). Top recommended cenotes for tourists include but not limited to Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman, La Noria, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), Cenote Multum Ha, Cenote Choo-Ha, Cenote Azul, the Seven Cenotes of San Gerónimo, Hacienda Mucuyché, Tulum’s ‘Car Wash’, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), and Cenote Chichi de los Lagos, Homun (private cenote) (BeFree and Travel 2017; Spechler 2020).

Cenote Ik Kil

We were on the way to Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá (“Ik Kil” 2020). Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Its water level is about 26 metres (85 ft) below ground level; It has got about 60 metres (200 ft) in diameter and is about 48 metres (157 ft) deep (“Ik Kil” 2020). Swimming in cenotes is always at one’s own risk; there are no lifeguards, and only life vests are available (David 2020). This is why one needs to feel really comfortable swimming out of their depth to enjoy this experience (Ibid.).

Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá. Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Around the cenote, there is a well organised tourist infrastructure with two restaurants serving typical Mexican food, changing rooms with lockers and showers, shady areas for relaxing, conveniently placed viewing areas of the cenote, and even cottages for hire to stay overnight (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Still there are three diving platforms beside the pool as well (David 2020). The cenote is open to the sky so visitors are not enclosed, like in cave cenotes, which yet gives another invaluable experience (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To avoid doing any harm to the cenote ecosystem, the visitors intending to swim must first take a shower to remove all the cream and dirt off of their skin (David 2020). It is not either allowed to touch stones or tree roots around the well (Ibid.).

Ik Kil Cenote seen from the upper viewing area of the well. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine (David 2020), even in February. From time to time, I felt tiny fishes nicely nibbling my skin. I swam to the centre of the water circle and I looked up into the open roof section. The view was breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water (Ibid.), and the foliage covering the damp stones of the well just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle.

Maw of the underworld that holds the underground waters

I dived in to the abyss of the well and I found myself in a completely different world once again. Echoes of people’s voices heard above suddenly fell silent and I felt alone, as if on the threshold to the unknown, underwater realm, existing – as the Maya believed – parallel to the real one (Prager 2013:279).

The view from the well of Kil Cenote is breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water, and the foliage covering the damp stones just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was ruled by dangerous deities, such as the rain Mayan god Chaak (Aztec’s Tlaloc), and dwelled by various mythical creatures being the gods’ helpers (Prager 2013:279; Brady 2013:299; Tuszyńska 2007:62-63; “Xibalba” 2020). Some of them personified significant forms of the landscape: mountains, caves and cenotes (Brady 2013:299). In Mayan inscriptions, scholars identify wide-open jaws of Centipede (Sak Baak Chapaata), symbolizing cenotes as the ‘maw of the underworld (or of the Earth Monster) that holds the underground waters’ (Ibid.:299; also see the drawing a: “Maw of the underworld from Pakal’s sarcophagous”. In: Schele and Mathews (1998). Drawing source: Ramos Ponciano M. E., Ball J. W. (2017). Not only cenotes, but also underwater lakes in caves, are the natural models of this mythical place, inhabited by both, animals, such as frogs, lizards, water snakes, scorpions, and more grotesque creatures, like gnomes, souls of the forest and short people, dwarfs (Prager 2013:279).

Divine dwarfs in cenotes

Dwarfs not only performed various administrative functions and entertained the ruler at pre-Columbian royal courts, but also played an important role in the mythology of the Maya, who believed in the classical and post-classical periods that the four dwarfs were tasked with raising the vault of heavens. The Olmecs also knew of the image of the four dwarfs supporting the sky, where dwarfs were equally pictured, like stone atlases, supporting the structure of the altar, possibly representing the vault of heavens (Prager 2013:278-279). The Maya even saw two dwarfs in the firmament, symbolizing undiscovered constellations (Ibid.:279). Midgets, as much as hunchbacks, cripples and albinos were viewed by the Maya and other pre-Colombian cultures as supernatural beings through their physical infirmities (Ibid.:278). They were all also regarded, like Maya rulers were, as messengers of the divine world and a means of contact with it (Ibid.:278). As such, the dwarfs are often depicted as companions of gods, including the sun and maize deities (Ibid.:279). This explains why in art, the Mayan kings considered divine, were also depicted in the company of midgets; the ruler performing religious rituals imitated the gods and became the center of the real world and the underworld (Ibid.:278).

Ruler attended by court dwarf. A photograph of a colorful ceramic vessel; origin unknown; late classical period, 600-900 AD; private collection (Kerr 1453). Court dwarfs performed many functions at the ruler’s court. In the depiction, one of them is kneeling in front of the ruler, holding a mirror, while another one below checks the quality of the food in the vessels and jugs or examines if it is not poisoned (Prager 2013:278). Photo source: Latin American Studies (2020) “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies.

Mayans thus believed that dwarfs come from outside the real world and actually are divine and supernatural beings (Prager 2013:279). They dwell in the underworld or ‘place of fright’, Xibalbà, which is as much sacred as dangerous (Tuszyńska 2007:34,36; “Xibalba” 2020). In the Maya’s opinion, the boundaries and the portals to this world can be found in overgrown holes in the forest, dark caves, deep ravines, and also in shimmering water mirrors overgrown with dark green water lilies, or just in deep cenotes, like this one I was just swimming in (Tuszyńska 2007:36; Prager 2013:279). Such wells were perceived as symbolical corridors between the earthly land and underworld (Tuszyńska 2007:37).

More about dwarfs

The history of the Mayan dwarfs, however, does not end here; I have also read that among the Maya’s offerings found in the caves, there have been also found querns for producing corn flour, which was possibly related to the Mayan belief that the first world was inhabited by dwarfs, saiyam unicoob, who built the first stone cities (Tuszyńska 2007:26; Brady 2013:305). The first world was deprived of the Sun (Tuszyńska 2007:26). When it was finally created and shone for the first time, it turned the dwarfs into stone, and their images can now be seen in many ruins (Ibid.:26). The donors probably wanted to pay tribute to them by similar offerings (Brady 2013:305).

After the Maya, dwarfs took part in “a rite of passage in which [they] assist the soul of the [privileged] deceased into the domain of the dead, [the underworld], from which it would eventually be reborn in the royal lineage, [just as the maize god died in the underworld and resurrected. Similarly,] maize sprouts again in the cycle of nature’s renewal” Art (Institute Chicago 2020). This is possibly why dwarfs are often seen in art while accompanying the maize god (Prager 2013:279; Institute Chicago 2020).

Crunchy nachos and human bones

After one hour of swimming in the underworld, I woke up from a daydream, as if revitalized. I was sitting in one of the on-site restaurants. The waiter has just brought a basket full of crunchy nachos and a saucier of juicy guacamole. It was a pleasant feeling to join archaeology and mythology with a tourist attraction and delicious Mexican food.

‘Why did not you tell me?!’, my friend asked reproachfully, sitting at my table, and pulling a wicker basket with nachos towards her.

‘About what?’, I asked surprised.

‘That THEY pulled people down HERE in the water to sacrifice them!’, she explained. ‘But it is better I have found it out not earlier than I got into the water’, she added without waiting for my explanation.

The Samulá Cenote in Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico. Photo by dronepicr (2015). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Indeed, the research of archaeologists confirmed the thesis that the Maya offerings were not only composed of products made of jade, shells, flint and ceramics, but there were also sacrifices of humans (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). Diego de Landa also mentions human offerings given by the pilgrims to the Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá (Brady 2013:305). Since the arrival of the Conquistadors, stories have circulated about human sacrifice practiced by the Maya (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Chroniclers of that time mention that children and young women were thrown into the water (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305). However, according to the researchers, the excavated human remains do not always indicate sacrifices (Tuszyńska 2007:37). In many cases it turned out that in most cases humans were thrown into the water after their death, and this concerned both men and women of a different age (Ibid.:37). It supports a hypothesis that the remains of ancestors and important personalities were thrown into the waters of the cenotes, because they symbolized the primeval ocean in the moment of the creation of the world (Ibid.:37). In this way, the dead were reborn to a new life (Ibid.:37).

Burials or human sacrifice?

There are many other hypotheses about human skeletons found in cenotes (Tuszyńska 2007:37). One of them states that they could be burial places (Ibid.:37). The best example of such a water cemetery is the Cenote Tankah (Quintana Roo), where the walls were marked by the Maya with glyphs of darkness and the planet Venus (Ibid.:37). Both glyphs are associated with night and death, but also with life and rebirth (Ibid.:37). Assuming that the cenotes were symbolic entrances to the world of the dead, Xibalbà, the hypothesis of natural burial chambers in cenotes is justified (Ibid.:37).

Scuba diving in a cenote. Photo by Ggerdel – Buceador y camarógrafo: Gustavo Gerdel – BAB Buceo (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to a related theory, human bodies were placed in cavities that were naturally hollowed in the walls of the well and emerged in periods of drought (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Dzikowska 2013:201). And droughts were actually the main reason for the human sacrifice to appease Chaak, the rain god (“Ik Kil” 2020). Such dry spells were the greatest in the ninth and tenth centuries AD., and when they finally passed away, the water flooded the bodies of the victims thus deposited (Dzikowska 2013:201).

In the Cenote Tankah, scattered bones belonging to one hundred and eighteen human skeletons were found (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Two hundred and fifty skeletons have been uncovered at Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá (Dzikowska 2013:201). ItzáIk Kil cenote was equally sacred to the Mayans who used it for various offerings, including human sacrifice to their rain god, Chaak (“Ik Kil” 2020). Consequently, apart from numerous pieces of jewellery, archaeologists and speleologists have found human bones also in the deep waters of this cenote (Ibid.).

Cenote Chichi de los Lagos. Homun. Yukatan by Televisa Bicentenario. Source: Oleg Och (2011). In: Oleg Och Youtube Channel.

‘Next time, we are going to snorkel in the sea’, decided my friend, devouring the last nachos. ‘And I hope not to find any human bones’.

Touching history by accident

I smiled to myself. It is difficult not to touch the past in such places as Mexico, where the present is continuously being filtered through the ancient heritage, whose remnants are so tangible at each step taken by a modern visitor, even if they are quite unconscious of such significant ancient influences.

Featured image: Entrance to Dos Ojos Cenote, near Tulúm in Mexico. Photo by Dag Lindgren (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped. Photo source: “Sistema Dos Ojos“ (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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Lady of the Labyrinth and her Powers

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

Exploring Knossos … Photo by
Beata Pazdej.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

Kefalia Hill

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

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

Unexpected discovery

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

Temple repositories

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

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

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

Ritually killed?

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

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

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

Snake Goddesses’ epiphany and her Votary

The larger statuette (left) stands some thirty-five centimetres high and possibly depicts a female idol, representing the Snake Goddess, her Epiphany or the Great Priestess performing religious rituals (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). She is wearing a tall hat, an embroidered bodice and a skirt with a short apron (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017).

The information table in the area of the West Wing of Knossos, where the faience female figures were found. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Palace of Knossos is not a palace

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

The Throne Room

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

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

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

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

Priestess of the light and darkness

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

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

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

Peak Sanctuary re-creation

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

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

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

Who sat on the Throne?

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

“It was on 13th April 1900 that Evans’ workmen started uncovering the north wall of the Throne Room with its palm tree fresco fragments and the throne itself” (Castleden 2000:43). The Throne Room with its seat, still perfectly intact, is the oldest ever found in Europe dating back to the fifteenth century BC. (circa 3500 years old) (“Throne Room” 2020; see Castleden 2000:31-32,43-44). “[It] seemed to provide Evans with the solid proof of kingship that would support his palace interpretation, but it also provided him with less welcome evidence of religious use” (Castleden 2000:77).

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

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

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

Mistress of the Labyrinth

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

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

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

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

Solar Virgin

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

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

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

Ariadne’s guideline through the darkness

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

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

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

Ariadne on the Throne

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

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

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

Women superior to men?

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

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

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

The presiding spirit of the Minoan Golden Age

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

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

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

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

Featured image: Lesser figure of the Snake Goddess, priestess of a votary from the palace at Knossos (detail), c. 1700-1600 B.C.E., majolica, 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0). Source: German (2018).

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

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