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.
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.
“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
In ancient Greek literature, an idol means aneidolon 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.).
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 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.
 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).
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).
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).
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).
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 disk 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., located in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb) (Gregor 1997:25; “Numidia” 2021).
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).
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).
From outside inwards
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). It is also apparent that characters printed on the outer edge repeat inwards (Gregor 1997:25). As 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 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).
“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).
Researchers generally 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).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.
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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).
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).
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.).
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
Here I am’ you shall say.
Shabti Collections 2020
A servant for each day of the year
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).
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).
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.
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.
‘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).
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).
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.:298–299,302-303). Such openings, ritually dedicated to deities, became an important centers of established city-states (Ibid.:298–299,302-303).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.).
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.).
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).
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). 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).
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 out not earlier than I got into the water’, she added without waiting for my explanation.
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).
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.).
‘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.
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The cicadas are extremely noisy during the summer months in Crete, and particularly in Knossos.
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).
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.).
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.).
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.).
“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).
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).
“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 depicts a woman wearing a tall hat, an embroidered bodice and a skirt with a short apron (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017).
“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 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 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).
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 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).
‘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).
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).
“[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).
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.).
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.).
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: 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).
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On the threshold of the Neolithic, the hunter slowly turns into a farmer and breeder (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). This is a special period in the development of the matriarchal system (Ibid.). The forces of nature continue to play a major role in human life, yet the new lifestyle changes its spiritual approach (Ibid.). Moon worship is replaced by solar cult but it is still closely related to female aspects and so responsible for factors influencing land fertility and annual harvests, which are highly significant to Neolithic society (Ibid.). The cycle process and persistence of nature flows from its divine matrix (Ibid.). Mother Earth supports life, is responsible for death, but also guarantees rebirth (Ibid.).
Neolithic face of Magna Mater
In the Paleolithic, the dark, hidden uterus corresponded to cave sanctuaries (see Figurines of the Stone Age: Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic), and in the Neolithic it was identified with the earth itself – the eternal parent (Jabłońska 2010). Magna Mater managed vegetation, nature, and her fertility originated in the ground which, as the humans observed, gave birth to all forms of life without interruption (Ibid.). The Neolithic likewise saw a similarity between the growth of humans and plants, with the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (Ibid.).
While naturalistic cave art fades away with the end of the Paleolithic world of the hunter-gatherer, the image of the Mother-Goddess stubbornly repeats the well-established pattern: exaggeratedly lush shapes with lack of care for facial features, arms and legs, as if the essence of femininity was limited to the heaviness of a figure distorted by motherhood (Nougier 1898:39). Such domestic female figurines still had a right to exist, as does life that awoke in Mother Earth’s womb (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48).
Goddess in the first cities
In the Neolithic Age, when the first cities were sprouting, goddess worship was not only common, but it clearly flourished and gained importance (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48). This is evidenced by the finds of numerous figurines of the goddess – mother in the houses of the first urban settlements, such as the Anatolian Çatalhöyük or Hacilar (Ibid.:25-48). The place where religious rituals were performed was apparently a part of the house adapted for these purposes, most often decorated with geometric patterns and heads of bulls, animals dedicated to the goddess (Ibid.:25-48). In the museum reconstruction of the home sanctuary in Çatalhöyük, a plaster relief of the Mother Goddess is displayed, surrounded by bull heads (Ibid.:25-48). The local statuettes were most often carved in stone, made of burnt clay, and later also of terracotta, and although they resembled the Great Mother of the Paleolithic, the Neolithic female figurines were distinguished by the multitude of representations (Ibid.:25-48).
They were depicted in a standing or sitting position; once they resembled a young girl, another time a giving birth mother, and finally an old woman (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48, 183; Żak-Bucholc 2005). These three views allude to the three aspects of the goddess and at the same time to the three stages of a woman’s life; the Virgin is the first image of the triple goddess, the second is the Mother, and the third is the Old Woman (Ibid.). In this way, the goddess figure makers probably wanted to emphasize the sacred cycle of life and death (Ibid.). Since the Neolithic times, various forms of the image of the Mother-Goddess had slowly emerged, and iconographic figurative groups were formed (Ibid.). In this way, the original idea had been subject to further modifications over time, which took place within the great ancient cultures (Ibid.).
One of the famous iconographic groups is the enthroned Goddess and Lady of the Animals (Żak-Bucholc 2005). The oldest example of such a divine position is represented by a figure found in Çatalhöyük (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Now preserved at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, the Mother Goddess dates from the sixth millennium BC (Ibid.). As the one of the most important artifacts, she is enthroned among the rich collections of other Neolithic female figurines in the museum (Ibid.). Like the Palaeolithic Venus, the image of the Çatalhöyük mother goddess is characterized by generous body shapes and slightly delineated facial features, with a high forehead, headgear or single roller hairstyle (Ibid.). The heads of the two leopards are flanking her throne (Ibid.). Between the legs of the figure, at the level of the throne, a small, oval form is visible (Ibid.). Possibly, it is the baby’s head that emerges from the mother’s womb (Ibid.). Accordingly, the clay figurine of the goddess represents a woman giving birth (Ibid.). The second of the three stages of a woman’s life – motherhood – refers directly to the cult of life, fertility, and the very idea of Magna Mater (Ibid.).
Another figurine illustrating motherhood is a terracotta statue of a mother with a child in her arms, which also dates back to the sixth millennium and comes from the Hacilar area (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Unfortunately, the baby’s head has not survived to our times (Ibid.). The mother was caught in a sitting position; her posture seems very natural and relaxed, as if it came from the joy of having a baby and holding it in her arms (Ibid.).
Lady of the Animals
The image of the goddess sitting on a throne, or standing upright – the position similar to a pole or column – and surrounded on both sides by sacred animals, is probably a prototype of the representations of the later Animal Goddess – Artemis of Ephesus (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). In the Neolithic and Bronze Age, votive objects of a zoomorphic character were usually offered to the goddess; these were most often terracotta vessels, statuettes or frescoes depicting leopards, bulls, wild boars, deer, bears and birds (Ibid.).
Goddess on the Mountain
Yet another reference to the Throne of the Lady of Animals theme can be a plastic depiction of a female figure standing on a small pedestal or a hill, with animals, often lions facing her (Żak-Bucholc 2005).
This iconographic group is known as the Mountain Goddess, and the mountain the goddess stands on can be interpreted as a form of a throne (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Often the embodiment of the goddess was the Throne itself, flanked by animals, which is best depicted in the Throne Room of the Minoan Knossos – assuming, however, that the throne belonged not to the king Minos but to a priestess (Ibid.; see Lady of the Labyrinth).
Female column flanked by beasts
Another form of representing a goddess is a column or pillar, most often with a pair of lions (lioness) on either side of it. Such depictions of a deity are typical of the Hittites (Żak-Bucholc 2005). One of the best examples of the representation of the Goddess as a column, however, is the Lion Gate in Mycenae (Ibid.).
In Minoan art, the most typical is in turn the image of the Goddess as a woman holding writhing serpents in both hands (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Regardless of the accompanying animals of Magna Mater, the iconographic group described above shows the Lady ruling over the forces of Nature, who is therefore responsible for maintaining harmony in the Universe (Ibid.)
Woman supporting her breasts
Another form of depicting a goddess is a woman supporting her breasts, precisely a female figure with her hands under her breasts or crossed on the breasts, or with her hands supporting them (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005).
Such representations date back to the Neolithic age and appear in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005). This iconographic type shows the goddess who feeds the world, who provides nourishment to creation as its mother and protector (Ibid.). In ancient Egyptian mythology, the milk of the goddess Hathor, often pictured as a divine cow, is provided with the pharaoh himself (Ibid.). This group also includes Minoan images of a goddess with bare breasts, or some of the Anatolian figurines exhibited in the Museum of Ankara, such as the Neolithic figurine of the so-called Twin Goddess with two heads and bodies, but with only one pair of arms, the left of which supports two pairs of breasts (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:30).
Lady of the Moon, Sun and the Earth
In the Neolithic, the goddess’ pietism was still associated with the sky; next to the moon, the sun’s disk becomes the main attribute of a woman (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30). Such devotion was intertwined with the telluric cults associated with the earthly sphere (Ibid.). Both cults seemed to penetrate and complement each other; the Sun is the growth force of all seed that draws life-giving juices from the Earth, that blooms, bears fruit, shrinks and dies to be reborn (Ibid.). This is how the cycle of life and death takes place, for which the cult of the Great Mother is responsible (Ibid.).
No wonder that among the peoples of Bronze Age Anatolia, the chthonic deity of the mother-woman was represented in writing with an ideographic sign denoting a solar deity (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). In the mythology of the ancient civilizations of the fertile Crescent and Egypt, the divine shield of the Sun traverses the heavens to finally extinguish and be reborn from the womb of Mother Earth; hence the object of worship was also mentioned in Anatolian texts as “the underground sun” or “the sun in the water” (Popko 1980: 26-29, 63-73; Nougier 1989:39-40; Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33).
The bow of Nut
The most beautiful illustration of beliefs about the rebirth of the Sun is the ancient Egyptian image of the Heavens’ Goddess, Nut (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:170; Karaszewski 2011; Żak-Bucholc 2003;2005). The wife of the telluric deity and the mother of the superior gods of Egypt was usually depicted in art as a woman whose body, bent into a bow, formed the vault of heavens, but at the same time marked the underground path of the sun (Ibid.). The personification of Nut thus combines the earthly element with the sky; according to Heliopolitan beliefs, during the day the goddess touches the earth only with the tips of her hands and fingers, creating a sphere of air, but when the sun approached the west, her body could completely fuse with the earth (Ibid.). Nut swallowed them, which brought night, and every morning at dawn the goddess again gave birth to the Sun, which emerged from between her thighs, giving rise to a new day (Ibid.). The repeating cycle of death and rebirth of the solar disk echoes Stone Age beliefs of mankind (Ibid.). The body of Nut, dotted with stars and arched, resembles a crescent, which brings to mind the Palaeolithic lunar cult (Ibid.). Another image of Nut emphasizes even more the connection of ancient Egyptian beliefs with the beliefs of the original hunter-gatherers; keeping in mind the sacred dimension of the horned animals (Ibid.). It is not surprising that Nut or Hathor were also imagined as the Heavenly Cow, on whose back the sun traversed the sky. In this view, the spouse of the goddess Nut was represented as Taurus (Ibid.).
In the Hittite mythology of Anatolia, which is heavily influenced by Mesopotamian myths, it is typical to divide the deities into “lower” – telluric or underground, and “upper” – uranic, related to the sky sphere (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). As patriarchy progressed, most solar deities become masculine, yet female sun deities often had a superior function (Ibid.). They usually combined the element of heaven and earth, hence the association of the goddess with the Earth’s sun. According to Anatolian texts, the Earth’s Sun was based in the land of the dead as it descended into the abyss of the earth at the end of the day (Ibid.). The concept of the relationship of the Sun with the underworld reveals a dual image of the Mother Goddess, perhaps frozen in the image of the Twin Goddess of Çatalhöyük (Ibid.).
Lady of Hatti
Apart from the Egyptian Nut, the solar goddess, also known the Lady of Hatti, had a similar character (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). During the Hittite period, the goddess became one of the main deities of the pantheon (Ibid.). She was called “Queen of Heaven and Earth, mistress of the kings and queens of the country of Hatti” (Kapełuś 2008:46). In the Mesopotamian pantheon, the same title was borne by the Sumerian goddess Inanna, with whom the Semitic goddess Ishtar was identified (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33).
The main attributes of such goddesses were the animals flanking them; most often they were lions, other times horned animals, or owls and lions (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33). The goddess herself is usually depicted naked, standing, with a tiara on her head (Ibid.). Her arms covered with wings are most often raised upwards, and her feet end in claws (Ibid.). The silhouette of a woman is based on zoomorphic pedestals which brings to mind the iconographic type of the enthroned goddess discussed above, whose majesty is nature (Ibid.). A similar image of the goddess is a visualization of the original idea of belief related to the power of Magna Mater over the Element (Ibid.). The symbol of the goddess was a star, which gives her the character of uranium deities (Ibid.). Yet it was also the Lady of the Earth; in one of the myths in the Akkadian version, Ishtar, as a solar deity, descends into the underworld to also take over the land of the dead. In turn, Inanna went underground in the fall to return in the spring. Her return heralded the rebirth of nature (Ibid.).
Warrior and the dragon
Around the fifth millennium BC, with the emergence of breeding and pastoralism and the rise of the first cities, patriarchy prevailed in Asia, Europe and the Middle East (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The goddess then takes on the characteristics typical of men; Ishtar is the goddess of love, but on the other hand, she is an armed warrior and a cruel lover (Ibid.). The masculine principle dominates the pantheon of ancient deities; the goddess ceases to be the lady of the universe (Ibid.). From then on, power is unevenly distributed between female and male deities (Ibid.).
The latter play a superior role (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The aforementioned victorious fight between god – warrior and dragon is the best illustration of the collapse of matriarchy (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the cult of the Great Mother has survived to historical times (Ibid.). Successive incarnations of Magna Mater proliferate in ancient cultures. In Mesopotamia the Great Mother is known as Inanna and Ishtar, in Egypt – Isis and Hathor. The Hittite Kubaba, known as the Phrygian Iron Age Cybele, became one of the many divine designs of the Mother-Goddess of the Neolithic (Ibid.). The features of the latter were inherited by Artemis of Ephesus (Ibid.). We also find the Great Mother in the Greeks in the form of Demeter or Gaia. There are many examples (Ibid.). The Catholic Church raised Mary to a pedestal; she was granted the status of the Eternal Virgin, Immaculate, Assumed, Second after God, Mother of God and all creatures (Ibid.).
From patriarchy to matriarchy
The subject of the work is relatively difficult to analyse in detail due to its breadth and territorial scope (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31). It combines such diverse scientific disciplines as archaeology, anthropology, religious studies, cultural studies and art history (Ibid.:31). So far, there have been many scientific works on the subject of the Mother Goddess, her iconographic representations in art or on the matriarchy itself (Ibid.:31). Nevertheless, learning about the religious practices of the lunar or solar cult, which are connected with the image of the goddess in art, requires further, thorough research (Ibid.:31). Most of the readings on the topic are based on more or less credible theories and are still looking for evidence to support them. The theme of Mother Goddess worship goes back to the Upper Paleolithic, an era studied solely through archaeological excavations and artifact interpretations. Therefore, an important key to the matriarchal culture of the Stone Age are the depictions of deities supplemented by a written source, created only by people living already in the patriarchy.
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“Illusion is a refuge for everyone, not just for royal dukes. It softens life’s cruelties and smooths the sharp edges. The calendar cycles offer a sustaining image of pattern, order, and attainable achievement, to counter the confusions and disappointments in real life in the real world. For this reason, its little pictures continued to be welcome for centuries, long after they had grown detached from any teaching program and dwindled into decoration. In this afterglow they lived on as ornamental details, reassuring and endearingly familiar. […] As time rolled by, the calendar most needed labour for society, in any month of any year, was no longer to instruct but, instead, to charm, to comfort, and to cheer.”
The Fabulous Middle Ages
Of all numerous miniatures made for the Duke Jean de Berry, those of the calendar cycle are distinguished by art history as the most renowned illuminations ever made (Henisch 1999:26; see Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: Squared Humanity inscribed in the Cycle of God). The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry seems to be a suitably luxurious title for the most fabulous Middle Ages ever painted: gentry play, happy peasants’ toil – the rich man’s view (Beckett 1996). And that’s the Duke of Berry actually was (Ibid.). Although, the Limbourg brothers painted what was requested by their powerful and rich commissioner, their miniatures seem to have a double levelled meaning in each case (Ibid.). The ability to look truly and without any fixed ideas of what is fitting is what makes great paintings (Ibid.).
“The animated little scenes offer delightful glimpses of everyday activity and for this very reason have often been used as illustrations of daily life in the medieval world” (Henisch 1999:vii). They show the world of feudal society, including contemporary clothes, splendours of the rich and everyday labours of peasants marked with the rhythm of passing time of the successive months of the year (Battistini 2005:47). Simultaneously, “their surface-realism is deceptive [and all idyllic images of the medieval calendar served to style and discipline] the unwieldy, unsatisfactory complexities of life, to create an image more beguiling and beautiful than any attempted re-creation of reality itself” (Henisch 1999:vii). In the idealized picture of contemporary society of the calendar, peasants’ rural labours, such as ploughing, sowing, haymaking and harvesting, grape picking, or wood collecting in winter, continuously interlace with a represented side by side allegorical picture of a medieval aristocracy and their favourite amusements: feasts, tournaments, courtship, nuptials, and hunting with a falcon (Battistini 2005:47). Two strikingly different worlds co-exist there in full accordance complementing one another.
Hierarchy of medieval life
The miniatures capture a hierarchical idea of the world characteristic of the Late Middle Ages: on medieval calendar pages every man, every creature and thing seem to have been placed as said by the divine will and order (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). The lifetime of a human being is bound with the successive stages of nature, and with the cycle of transformations, it is endlessly subject to the rolling year (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). In the illuminations, a bulk of a knightly castle always dominates above an earthly life of peasants, while the law of God’s order rules over the whole universe (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237).
The space of the fifteenth century painting had already reached quite far; all the same, it still looked like a mise en scène composition finishing behind several layers of hills (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). Inscribed in the framework, the painted landscape seems to rise above human heads (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). The forest, like a curtain, is covering from a viewer a mystery living beyond the horizon and a symbolical image of a ruling the universe order is harmoniously extending over the world of mankind (Białostocki 2008:213).
Nevertheless, the reality was not so harmonious, and contemporary daily live did not go through as delightfully and in line with the social hierarchy, as contemporary artists tried to show in their bright illuminations (Żylińska 1986:237). Wearing linen shirts, bare-foot peasants were not so pleased with their life, nobles not always led a romantic life near their charming châteaux, or showed gallantry towards women, the latter, in turn, more often demonstrated their disagreement with the place imposed them by the Church and society (Ibid.:237).
Memories of the peasants’ revolt of the year 1381 were still alive; the Black Death was persistently taking a devastating toll on human life in Europe; heretics were burning at numerous stakes, and the Hundred Years War continued (Ibid.:237). The owner of the Very Rich Hours, the generous Duke of Berry, was not definitely known as a lord “noted for his love of farm life or, indeed, of peasants. [Outside] of the pages his very own books, […] he showed a harsh indifference towards his peasants, and a positively rapacious interest in the profits he could wring from their exertions. His record as a master of men called for not paeans of praise of grateful subjects but resentment and rebellion throughout his vast domains” (Henisch 1999:26).
The Middle Ages, like every epoch throughout history, had strong reasons to long for a more beautiful world to live in and the deeper despair and suffering because of difficulties of the present day (Huizinga 2003:54). In those days, the more passionate and desperate yearning and melancholy may have born (Ibid.:54). One of the ways of escape from the reality was an artistic imagery (Żylińska 1986:237).
From gold to true colours of life
In the so-called classical epoch of the Parisian miniature in the thirteenth century, illuminations were usually plentifully decorated with gold and vivid colours harmonically put together in the way to avoid clashing in their various combinations (Pijoan 2006:57). In the fourteenth century, especially in the Avignon school, golden surfaces clearly diminished giving a place to the colours of blues and greens, like in the case of Italian miniatures (Ibid.:57). Finally, in the fifteenth century, in the schools of central France and Burgundy, sparkling gold completely disappeared; the background adopted colours imitating those one could find in the world of nature, and the sky and trees were only slightly touched with silver and golden marks just for underling the brightness and depth of the colour (Ibid.:57).
Books of hours were traditionally much smaller in comparison with the large Carolingian codes, and their sumptuous imagery turned out to be an integral part of the written word (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). Consequently, accompanying a text, an illustration was treated less as a book decoration and more as its dominant information (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). In illuminated manuscripts of the Late Middle Ages, the observation of the nature objectified the pictures of a represented world giving them innovative expressions: clearness, light and shadow, a horizontal distance shining in the mist, and foamed waves of floating clouds, all joined together with a dancing rhythm of human shapes and various concrete forms (Białostocki 2008:213).
Painting more expressive than words
In the fifteenth century, painting dominated literature in means of expressions (Huizinga 2003:340,343). Especially miniaturists successfully tried to seize a colour of the passing moment, such as the depiction of the play of light of a torch, or of the radiant sunset (Ibid.:340,343). The illuminator of the Hours, Pierre d’Ailly even dared to represent the sunbeams breaking through the clouds after the storm (Ibid.:340,343). A realistic picture of the nature in contemporary painting, unlike in the literature, was freely developed, irrespective of any conventions (Ibid.:340,343).
Furthermore, a depiction of the nature painted in the background was only of a marginal importance, and therefore, it could preserve a clean expression and form, independent of the rules of the hieratic style strongly influencing in turn a major subject of the paining in the foreground (Huizinga 2003:340,343). A precise parallel to this phenomenon of the medieval painting can be drawn from the art of the ancient Egypt; the less the landscape was linked to the thematic scene, the more its picture itself became harmonious and natural (Ibid.:340,343).
In the architectural background
Although the Limbourg represented an imagined world in their masterpiece, it was depicted against a background of real scenery, still idyllic and gentle (Żylińska 1986:237). In the miniatures, the viewing of the distance is usually hidden by huge silhouettes of the castles, represented in detail with almost an archaeological accuracy (Białostocki 2008:213): from the majestic walls in and around Paris: the Louvre, royal palace of Cité with Sainte-Chapelle, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the castle of Vincennes, to the most charming royal residences, such as the Châteaux of Saumur, Lusignan, Étampes, or Clain, near Poitiers (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:3-4).
Amongst steep roofs of cities, charming castles, and towering cathedrals, the scenes of daily life arise in douce France according to the changing months of the calendar year; harvesting, grape picking, hunting with falcons, and sumptuous feasts belong to the most characteristic (Żylińska 1986:236-237). What the Duke of Berry saw was a paint in one of the most splendid manuscripts ever owned by a royal prince (Beckett 1996). And one can imagine him looking at these magnificent pictures with a proud of a rich owner (Ibid.). “For him the calendar pictures he enjoyed as he turned the pages of his book of hours must have woven a beautiful veil of illusion, to mask the ugly reality of the world outside his castle walls” (Henisch 1999:26).
TheVery Rich Hours opens with January and the New Year’s feast at the court of the Duke, Jean of Berry (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Only the first of the twelve scenes of the cycle represents activities taking place indoors; the Duke is sitting down by the table laden with food and drink, on the right (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). He is wearing a typical of the epoch blue belted houppelande and a furry hat (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The host’s subordinates are offering him gifts according to the custom (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The Master of Ceremonies encourages them with his words written above in French: approche, approche, [approach] (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Behind the feasting group there is a blue tapestry hanging on the wall, which represents fighting knights (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Accuracy in representing details is astonishing; the authors even depicted the so-called Salière de Pavillon – the salt-cellar in the shape of a boat with the Duke’s bear and swan emblems (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Quite surprising is the lack of ladies at the feast (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Women’s role was quite important at the court of Burgundy though (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
To illustrate February the artists covered the landscape in snow for the very first time in the history of European painting (Secomska 1972:14-25; Białostocki 2008:213). After Sister Wendy Beckett, the winter cold, with its delight but also with its inconvenience, has been shown in a surprisingly charming way (Beckett 2001:267). The Duke’s barns must be fulfilled with harvests; in the background there is a snow-covered haystack up the hill, the birds are pecking scattered seeds from the ground (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right of the framework there is an enclosure for the sheep, four bee hives, a pigeon loft, barrels, a bunch of brushwood, and a cart (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
At first sight, however, a viewer can see here a comic (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, inside the house a woman and a man are warming themselves by the fire; by the door, there is a lady in blue dress warming her underpants while bashfully averting her gaze from the couple inside the house warming there “their lack of underpants” (Ibid.). Outside the house, there are three peasants: the first man, trembling because of the cold, is covering himself with a white cloth and brushing the snow off his shoes, the second is chopping the wood, and the last one is driving a loaded donkey up the snow-covered and surely slippery road (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
“March” is also dedicated to the life at the countryside; first labours in the field; ploughing and sowing have just started (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Some peasants are trimming the grapevines (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them, a looking after the herd shepherd is trying to escape from the March downpour (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the fond and up the hill there is the huge silhouette of Lusignan castle stretched out on the whole width of the page; towering over the region of Poitou, it was one of many residences belonging to the Duke (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Its story is bound with the beautiful French legend of Melusine (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Although there are different versions of the story, the legend has it that one of the Lusignans married a ravishing woman named Melusine who turns into a dragon (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The miniaturist painted her in the shape of a fantastical lizard flying over the castle’s tower to watch over the lords of the castle and warn them against a coming danger (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Wonderful is that even the most hidden detail is to say a fascinating history (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
In April the nature is waking up again; in the background the Château de Dourdan is plunged in the green entourage of trees and meadows (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the foreground, accompanied by two witnesses, a young noble couple is exchanging engagement rings (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Plausibly, the scene shows the engagement of Charles d’Orléan with Jean of Berry’s granddaughter, Bonne d’Armagnac (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right young women are picking first flowers; in the distance two boats with fishermen are floating on the waters at the foot of the castle (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The whole illumination is imbued with the blossom of spring, which is symbolically underlined with the graceful scene of the engagement (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
“May” shows the scene of spring time outing taking its place outside the walls of a charming city in Auvergne (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). According to the depicted here tradition, people went to the forest in May to pick green branches used then for decorating houses (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
An elegantly dressed procession of lords and ladies are following the musicians; the nobles are wearing the so-called in French livrée du mai – the livery of May, and wreaths of leaves on their heads or on the shoulders (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them there is the dense and dark forest and not less multiplied than the trees in the forest are the towers of the castle of Riom rising in the background (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Hay-making in June is placed in the foreground of Paris, being seen from the Hôtel de Nesles, also the castle of the dukes of Berry, with a view of Île de la Cité with the royal palace and Sainte Chapelle visible in the picture (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the sweltering heat of summer the bare-foot peasants are working in the field, the men are scything; the girls are raking and piling the hay in the haystacks (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). The figures of the peasant-women are slender; they are dancingly bending and assuming flexible ballet positions (Białostocki 2008:213).
Their slim shapes more remind the figures of the ladies picking the flowers in the scene of April, or those riding horsebacks with their lords in May, rather than of hard-working women of the lower stratum (Ibid.:213). It is because both, the peasants and ladies, are depicted according to the same sophisticated style dominating in art at contemporary courts of Paris, Dijon or Prague (Ibid.:213). Not all miniatures of the Limbourg, however, show this particular type of slender proportions of the body or excessive decorations of clothes; in some illuminations the figures of peasants are not only represented in a naturalistic way, but also with an excessive indecency (Ibid.:213), and lack of dignity (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5), like in the scene of February.
In the miniatures summer is insistently going forward; the illustration of July represents the corn field with poppy and corn flowers between the ears (Secomska 1972:14-25). Two men are cutting the crops with a sickle; on the right, the sitting couple is shearing the sheep (Ibid.:14-25). Between the hills, the geometrical walls of the castle of Poitiers are mounting over the area of a scenic beauty (Ibid.:14-25).
In the miniature of August, there’s the castle – actually one of his seventeen castles – all fairly and gleaming in the summer light (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, a hunting scene is taking place; the nobles on horseback are using dogs and prey birds for chasing ducks and swans; a falconer is guiding the riders (Secomska 1972:14-25); the courtiers are wearing magnificent attire and sitting on their splendid horses, perhaps with the Duke himself on the white horse (Beckett 1996). As the Limbourg were great artists they did not reduce their representations to what the Duke really required to see but they depicted what they truly saw (Ibid.). And they saw those fields, the river and the peasants being engaged in different activities (Ibid.).
At the foot of the castle of Étampes, their small figures are caught while both working and enjoying the summer; some are stacking sheaves into shocks and piling them on a horse-cart, others are swimming naked and free, amusing themselves happily in the water (Secomska 1972:14-25; Beckett 2001:267). Striking is the difference between the look and attitude of nobles and depicted peasants (Beckett 2001:267). This is August, so probably it’s very hot (Beckett 1996). Yet, the nobles apparently living a good and wealthy life are dressed up to their neck in tight and heavy clothes (Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). They are also all following the rules of the court game, which is visible in a look exchange of the couple riding at the back (Beckett 1996). Hence it is a very constricted life, which is still observed and judged by others (Ibid.). Accordingly, on one side, there is a rather strict and tight etiquette of the well-dressed nobles, and on the other, an unhampered behaviour of the unclothed peasants who could freely and happily indulge themselves in a refreshing bath in the cold water Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). Unlike the courtiers, they additionally seem unbound and sincere in their joy (Beckett 1996).
The leading theme of the month of September, a grape harvest, is represented by the river Loire, against the background of the picturesque castle of Saumur (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). With its Gothic towers, battlements (Żylińska 1986:237), “chimneys and weathervanes decorated with golden fleurs-de-lys” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4), the château looks like a fairy-tale apparition (Żylińska 1986:237). “The architectural design of the château draws the gaze up towards the dreamily poetic volutes. The towers conceal their protective nature beneath festive trappings, redolent of fabulous adventures in the forests of Arthurian legends and suggestive of the presence of God in His creation” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5). Good King René of Anjou stated that the Chastel de Plaisance from his dreams looked exactly the same (Żylińska 1986:237).
“These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light.”
François Cali in “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5
Grape-picking takes place in the foreground: plenty bunches of grapes are being loaded either into the vats on the oxen-cart or to the panniers attached to the backs of the waiting mules (Żylińska 1986:237). Peasants are working hard in the vineyard plunged in the September sun (Żylińska 1986:237; “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4). Most of them are leaning forwards, picking the purple fruits (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4), “while one of them is tasting the grapes. […] In the middle of the grape pickers, a character is showing his behind. This intentionally grotesque touch contrasts with the extraordinary elegance of the château” (Ibid.:4-5). On the left, a looking pregnant woman (Ibid.:4) is tidying her hat up and straightening her body as if she felt too tired of working in the vineyard. Such a depiction of the peasant-woman may also suggest the child-bearing potential of women in general, and underline a symbolical connection between a woman pregnancy and the womb of the mother earth giving birth in the month of September (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4-5; Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Together with autumn the artists move the action of the Hours from the lands of the Valley of Loire to the banks of the River Seine (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Human figures are moving along them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Instead of charming châteaux by Loire, in the background are rising the towers of the Louvre (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). It is already October (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The scene shows the works typical of autumn; the man on horseback is tilling the field, another – sowing it (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Magpies and crows are stealing the seeds (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind the working men, dressed as an archer, a scarecrow is unsuccessfully trying to frighten the birds away (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The scene of November shows the autumn harvest of acorns (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The landscape is sparking with the colours of autumn (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Three swineherds are making the fruits fall down with the sticks (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Pigs are feeding on them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). One of the men, depicted in the foreground, is accompanied by a dog (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The darkness of the forest and a navy blue colour of the sky are the signs of the coming nightfall (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The cycle traditionally ends with the scene of December (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The illumination represents a wild boar hunt (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The dogs are fiercely attacking the already hunted animal lying between two men (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The landscape is gradually rising up from the scene of hunting in the foreground through the dense forest behind, and finally finishes with the towers of the Château de Vincennes, being distinguished against the background of the dark sky (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Castles seen from the outside
On the example of the calendar pages of the TrèsHeures it is possible to compare the way the same motive is presented in painting and literature. The equivalent of illuminated châteaux of the Hours is the literary description of nine French castles in the work of Deschamps (Huizinga 2003:345-346). While illustrating the castle, however, the painter is observing it from the outside; the poet is looking out of it (Ibid.:345-346). Consequently, literally enumerating pleasures and advantages of the castles bears no comparison with an impression being given by the painted pictures of a fairy-tale Saumur, prestigious Lusignan and gloomy Vincennes (Ibid.:345-346).
The image gains an advantage of the word (Huizinga 2003:345-346). It is also because the Middle Ages mainly perceived the outside world by means of the image (Ibid.:345-346). Behind the enchanting imagery, the epoch hid its reality or masked it with the dream of a better world (Roger S. Wieck in: Henisch 1999:back cover).
Featured image: AP Manuscripts (2020) “Très Riches Heures, Limbourg Brothers 1412 AD. Page 112.” In: Manuscripts.
“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2012). In: PDF. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Oh9XJ8>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].
“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X7xQIK>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].
AP Manuscripts (2020) “Très Riches Heures, Limbourg Brothers 1412 AD. Page 112.” In: Manuscripts. Available at <https://bit.ly/38LjyRP>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].
Battistini, M. (2005) “Symbole i alegorie.” In: Leksykon, historia, sztuka, ikonografia [Dizionari dell’Arte], Dyjas, K. trans. Warszawa: Arkady.
Beckett, W. (1996) Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, Episode 1: “The Mists of Time.” Rossiter, N., Robinson T. BBC Production.
Beckett, W. (2001) Sister Wendy’s 1000 arcydzieł. Warszawa: Arkady.
Białostocki, J. (2008) Sztuka cenniejsza niż złoto. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
Faces of Ancient Europe (2019) “Very Rich Hours (c.1412−1416).”. In: Faces of Ancient Europe. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Zl2WgB>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].
Gazzola A. (2017-2018) “1416 – Limbourg Brothers, April, Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry”. In: Fashion History Timeline. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iUVUHh>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].
Henisch, B. A. (1999) The Medieval Calendar Year. Pennsylvania: University Park, Penn State Press.
Huizinga, J. (2003) Jesień średniowiecza [Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen]. Brzostowski, T. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.
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During my several months’ stay in London, one of the sites I visited most frequently was undoubtedly the British Museum. Apart from contemporary exhibitions, the entrance to the Museum is free of charge so it would be a pity to miss it, especially for someone who loves wandering around ancient artifacts. As a museums expert, Amaya (2017) advises, an average amount of time spent in a museum should be no more than around 90 minutes, as a human brain can focus only during this period and then it simply needs a break. If it is not possible to come back to the museum later, it is essential to have intervals between particular display units and drink water for a better concentration (Ibid.).
I usually stay longer in a museum when we have just one day for a huge exhibition during a study trip, as it was in Mexico. In London or Paris, it was easier as I could come back to the museums during my longer stay in the cities.
Ones of the oldest objects preserved by the British Museum come from the display units dedicated to Mesopotamia (6000–1500 BC), which is the so-called cradle of human civilization (The British Museum 2020). To get there, I needed to climb up to the upper floor, where the Rooms 55 and 56 are located, within the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery (Rooms 53-59) (Ibid.). Of my particular interest was especially the Room 56, as it displays very important artifacts unearthed in the early twentieth century at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, in southern Iraq (Ibid.). The collection includes jewellery, pottery and musical instruments that were excavated by one of the greatest British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (Ibid.).
For a while I was found on my own in the Room, accompanied by all these remarkable objects, yet under the surveillance of the divine Sumerian lion-headed eagle, looking down at me from the panel hanging above the entrance door. Finally, I could take a closer look of the burial goods, without any need of waiting in a queue to stand directly in front of the display window. They are placed among other artifacts from the region, “[illustrating] economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians who lived in Mesopotamia at this time” (The British Museum 2020). Yet many of their aspects are still shrouded in mystery as much as the culture who created them.
My attention was suddenly caught by vibrant colours of the triangular object, which was calling me behind the glass. Today, it is just an archaeological reconstruction of its once crushed remains, unearthed in such a state that it is only a best guess how the object was originally shaped (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Nevertheless, it has been labelled as a standard, the Standard of Ur (Ibid.).
Mound of Pitch
The land of ancient Mesopotamia lay across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq and Syria (Wakely 1999). It has always been a flat desolate land made green by rivers’ canals and marshes (Ibid.). Yet from this unpromising landscape arouse the foundation of the ancient civilisation, including the world’s first cities and the earliest known writing system (Ibid.). Southern Mesopotamia was settled already by the seventh millennium BC. (Ibid.). By the second half of the third millennium, it was divided into twenty or thirty city-states that controlled the smallest towns and villages dispersed across the countryside (Ibid.). Shifting alliances among competing city-states brought conflicts often over water and even war to the city’s walls (Ibid.).
Some objects on display in the Room 56 of the British Museum tell a story about Ur, one of the ancient southern Mesopotamian city-states (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The site is also known as the cradle of civilization (Ibid.) as “[archaeologists] have discovered there the evidence of an early [settlement] during the [so-called] Ubaid Period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC)” (“Ur” 2020). Its name also appears in the Book of Genesis as the home of the biblical patriarch, Abraham (Genesis 11:29-32), and the region itself is referred to as the location of the Garden of Eden (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). “The further occupation of Ur only becomes clear during its emergence in the third millennium BC, although it must already have been a growing urban center during the fourth millennium” (“Ur” 2020), around 3 800 BC (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It was equally among the most powerful and prosperous (Wakely 1999). Although the city-state of Uruk was one of the earliest and most prominent cities by this time, in the early third millennium BC., the temple dominated city-state of Ur emerged as one of the most important cities in the new stage of the development of human society and states (McDonald 2013). The modern name of the ancient Ur is Tell el-Muqayyar, which in Arabic means a mound of pitch (Wakely 1999). The name comes from the monumental temple tower, which was made of baked mud bricks set in the bitumen or pitch, a naturally occurring form of tar (Ibid.).
Ziggurat of Ur
In 1922, under the leadership of a little known young archaeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley, excavations jointly sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum were initiated at the site of ancient Ur (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The decision to excavate proved to be a prominent one (Wakely 1999).
One of the most important part of the ancient city of Ur turned out to be the temple complex of the Moon god Nanna, at the centre of which was a ziggurat: a series of stepped terraces with a temple on top (Wakely 1999). “The remains of the ziggurat were first discovered by William Loftus in 1850” (“Ziggurat of Ur” 2020), during the first excavations at the site, conducted by a British consul at Basra, John George Taylor (Wakely 1999; “Ziggurat of Ur” 2020). The excavations at the mound in 1854 uncovered inscribed cylinders, which recorded rebuilding of the temple tower by the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (around sixth century BC.), who was the successor of the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Ibid.).
The ziggurat was excavated further by Woolley who managed to uncover its older layers. The core of the huge pyramidal tower was made of packed mud bricks, whereas the outside of the monument was constructed of baked mud bricks, jointed together with bitumen or pitch (Wakely 1999) Many of the bricks have had a stamped inscription with the name of the founder of the third dynasty of Ur, Ur-Nammu, who ruled there over four thousand years ago (Ibid.). Woolley’s recovery of Ur’s ancient ziggurat and the complex of buildings around it was a remarkable find but it paled in a comparison with his discoveries of the so-called Royal Tombs (Ibid.).
The ‘gold trench’
In 1923, Woolley discovered a whole cache of opulent graves in a trench near the ruins of the ziggurat of Ur (McDonald 2013; Ḏḥwty 2017). The archaeologist, “however, decided to halt the excavation [there], as he was aware that neither he nor his men were experienced enough to excavate burials. Hence, Woolley concentrated on excavating buildings, before returning to the [trench] in 1926, [where his] workmen discovered evidence of burials and jewellery of gold and precious stones, leading to it being called the ‘gold trench’” (Ḏḥwty 2017; see Wakely 1999). Excavated burials were so rich that they competed only with Howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, unearthed earlier in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in 1922 (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013).
Ur’s discoveries are noteworthy not just for their contents but for the location of the dig (McDonald 2013). The tombs discovered in Ur seemed to date from about 2 550 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It means the cemetery appeared around fifty years after the reign of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk (2800 – 2600 BC; see Gibbor in the Louvre). Some tombs of Ur were full of gold and silver jewellery and objects as well as colourful and spectacular grave goods (McDonald 2013). The archaeologists discovered things that had never been seen before: wonderous musical instruments, gold headdresses, a golden ostrich egg, weapons and even inlaid gameboards (Ibid.). What was even more fascinating about them was the fact some contained possibly deliberate human sacrifices as a part of burial rituals (McDonald 2013; Amaya March, 2017).
At the early stage of excavations, in 1928, Woolley wanted to keep his breath-taking discovery secret (McDonald 2013). Therefore, he sent his telegram announcing the news in Latin to make it understandable only to his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Ibid.). When the news finally reached the public and press in London and New York, it created a high sensation (Ibid.). The New York Times and an Illustrated London News wrote articles recounting the marvels discovered (Ibid.). The Illustrated London News even published an artist’s drawing recreating the moments before the people in the great death pit had met their deaths (Ibid.).
The 1920s and early 30s of the same century are a golden age of archaeological discoveries and the public is fascinated by all the details (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). Perhaps no excavation in more than one hundred and fifty years of archaeological working in Mesopotamia had excited as much worldwide interest as Woolley’s work in ancient Ur (Wakely 1999). As a result of extensive publicity, tours from all parts of the globe, including European royalty and the famous crime novelist, Agatha Christie, flocked to the remote site in the Iraqi desert (Ibid.). Christie came to Iraq after her devastating divorce and met there her future husband, who was Woolley’s colleague and assistant from the dig, Max Mallowan (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019). Her stay at the site during excavations was also the perfect remedy; she lost her heart for the ancient site of Ur and so she even set her another story of mystery murder in Mesopotamia, at an archaeological dig that resembled that one (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019; JOM 2020). Later she recalled it by writing (National Geographic 2019):
I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.
Agatha Christie on Ur. In: National Geographic (2019).
Royal tombs and resourceful researcher
Between 1927 and 1934, Woolley uncovered 1 850 tombs in Ur (Wakely 1999). “The cemetery was used between about 2600-2000 BC and hundreds of burials were made in pits” (The British Museum 2015). Sixteen (or seventeen) tombs dated to the mid-third millennium stood apart from the others; each contained an extraordinary wealth of artifacts and evidence of human sacrifices (Wakely 1999; Amaya March, 2017).
Woolley called them Royal Tombs because he assumed they contained Ur’s deceased kings (Wakely 1999). Yet, he recognised considerable variations between them (Ibid.). The archaeologist’s skills also proved equal to his task; he turned out to be an imaginative and resourceful researcher under very difficult circumstances (McDonald 2013). First of all, he knew how to rescue objects of art that seemed lost to time like the wooden sound boxes of the lyres that long ago rotted wet (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). In order to save them, he poured wet plaster into the holes created by the decayed wood and carefully brushed the dirt aside to reveal the plaster form of a lost article (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999).
Object from the Tomb PG 779
A particular mosaic covered object was discovered in the Tomb PG 779, one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Already in ancient times, “[robbers] had thoroughly plundered the tomb in which [the artifact] was found. As one corner of the last chamber […] was being cleared, a workman accidentally spotted a piece of shell inlay, and from this starting point, the remains of the [mosaic object] were slowly revealed and reconstructed” (JOM 2020). When the artifact was found, its original wood had already rotted away but the remains of an elaborate design created by a multicoloured mosaic were preserved (McDonald 2013; Sailus 2003-2020). As the object was decayed, “the two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil [of the collapsed tomb. Moreover], the bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were [also] broken” (The British Museum 2015). So these were only “the mosaic pieces that had kept [in place the whole] form [of the previously wooden skeleton]” (JOM 2020). This is why the object required Woolley’s special attention (McDonald 2013).
Like in the case of other excavated artifacts, “[the archaeologist] looked for hollows in the ground created by [the] decayed object and then filled them with plaster or wax to record the shape of the [material] that had once filled [it. Woolley] carefully uncovered small sections measuring about 3 square centimetres and covered them with wax, enabling the mosaics to be lifted while maintaining their original designs” (JOM 2020). Due to reconstructing efforts, the remains found in the Tomb PG 779 have eventually become a 21.59×49.53-centimetre hollow wooden box in the shape of a trapezoid, covered in original colourful mosaics (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015; JOM 2020).
But what was it?
As the artifact was found “lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a [ritually sacrificed] man” (The British Museum 2015), Woolley imagined that it had once been supported on a pole and borne by the deceased (Ibid.). The archaeologist reasoned such a possibility because of the object’s position along the dead (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, it may have been carried as a standard in war, aloft on a pole in order to identify a military unit (Ibid.). “Another theory suggests, [however], that it once formed the soundbox of a musical instrument” (The British Museum 2015) or was a part of furniture or else served as a box used to hold civic funds (Sailus 2003-2020). The fact is, however, that nothing like it has been known then or since (McDonald 2013).
Today this mysterious object is known as the Royal Standard of Ur and it proves to be the most informative, beautiful and enigmatic of all (McDonald 2013). In such a way, Woolley also describes the artifact in his letter (Ibid.). However, no one knows whether the so-called Royal Standard of Ur is a standard or even royal and our knowledge of the royal cemetery is not much greater than it was known from Woolley’s excavations (Ibid.). Scholars assume, however, that modern understanding of the symbolism of early Sumerian society has been improved since the beginning of the twentieth century, and so interpretation of the figures and actions shown on the objects discovered in the cemetery of Ur is much more nuanced and clear (Ibid.). Yet, any interpretation is still speculating and there are more theories than evidence.
Rendering of the depicted figures on the Standard, both human and animal, is very characteristic of Sumerian stylistic conventions (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012). Almost all the characters are illustrated in a perfect profile (Ibid.). Accordingly, only one eye is visible (Ibid.). However, it is not directed forward but rather looking outside (Ibid.). By these means, it seems to be depicted in the form of a frontally seen eye but just on the side of the face, like it is present in the Egyptian art (Ibid.). The human shoulders are squared, as if presented frontally, whereas the feet are again depicted in profile, as if one after the other, which evokes movement (Ibid.).
The animals’ figures are superimposed; the four are walking one beside the other, and the outlines of the three animals are visible behind the one at the front, so their number overlapping (McDonald 2013). This artistic technique of overlapping gives a sense of depth, which today results from the use of perspective (Ibid.).
The Standard of Ur, whose function is still shrouded in mystery, is said to tell more about powerful rulers of Ur and a great deal about life in early Sumerian society than almost any other artifact that was discovered from ancient Sumer (McDonald 2013).
The box-like sculpture inlaid with colourful mosaics shows scenes of both, warfare and festivals, with a ruler in their center (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the prevailing subjects depicted on the Standard are a successful military campaign led by the ruler and the abundance of the land which assures fertility for its people (Ibid.). In some aspects, the Standard of Ur repeats themes from the Uruk vase, known also as the Warka vase (McDonald 2013; “Warka vase” 2020). Even though the vase comes from centuries earlier than the Standard itself, it shows a parallel artistic composition and probably gives a similar message (McDonald 2013).
War and Peace
From the reconstructed Standard of Ur, it can be observed that the box itself consists of two panels, which slope together towards the top and two end pieces, which are triangular but cut off at the top (McDonald 2013). All the four sides of the Standard are covered in three registers of mosaics (Ibid.). The inlaid pieces consist of lapis lazuli, shell and red marble (limestone) set into bitumen, which is a sticky oil-by product found in Iraq (Ibid.). Conventionally, the two large sides have been called War and Peace because one side is organised around a depiction of a military campaign, whereas the other illustrates the banquet and files of people and animals (Ibid.). “For those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the ‘War’ side is the chronological beginning” (Sailus 2003-2020).
Dr Diana McDonald (2013), however, believes that these panels of inlay tell principally about the dual role of a Sumerian ruler controlling a city-state and about a Sumerian society at the time around 2 550 BC. Back in time, when Sumerian city-states first began to coalesce and population pressures made resources of water and food, which was scarce in this arid land, a ruler or king had a special obligation to and role for his people; he was expected to be a leader at war and a commander-in-chief (Ibid.).
The so-called War Side of the Standard of Ur shows three registers of battle scenes with the earliest representations of a Sumerian army and the aftermath of the fight (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). All the scenes are colourfully illustrated in pieces of red limestone, shell and lapis inlays (McDonald 2013).
Action seems to begin (likewise on the Uruk vase) at the bottom register (McDonald 2013). The top register shows that all the action leads up from down to the most important figure, depicted at the very top and in the centre (Ibid.). It stands turned to the right, represented in profile. Although the figure is a human-looking being, it is much broader and taller than all the others shown in the register (Ibid.). His head actually pierces the pictorial frame intended for the panel (Ibid.). This outsized man holds what appears to be a staff or a spear and faces a group of men, probably some prisoners who approach him (Ibid.). Among them, there are the men clothed in kilt like skirts with scalloped edges are wearing sheep skins and they are apparently the soldiers (Ibid.).
Differently looking men shown between them are apparently war captives (McDonald 2013). They “are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs” (JOM 2020). The soldiers could have captured them in a battle and they are being presented now to the ruler (McDonald 2013). The poorly looking enemies strikingly contrast with the majestic figures of the ruler and his people, which should be also understood symbolically: the victory is on the side of Ur due to its overwhelming power (Amaya March, 2017).
Behind the king, to the left of the centre in the top register, there is also his battle wagon and members of the royal entourage or other soldiers with staffs (McDonald 2013).
The battle wagon is a fairly large and unwieldy looking vehicle (McDonald 2013). It is known, and accordingly represented, that the wagon’s blocky looking wheels were made of two pieces of wood as spoked wheels had not been invented yet (Ibid.). There is also the driver holding the reins and standing behind the vehicle (Ibid.). Horses had not been yet imported to the area so the wagon is probably driven by four asses or onagers (Ibid.). The latter was a kind of wild ass that is now extinct but was originally native to Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Some scholars think that the Sumerians actually interbred the two animals to produce an onager ass hybrid, which was easier to control and stronger than either one (Ibid.). Their tails look long and tufted at the end like an ass or a donkey’s (Ibid.). Such details reveal the ingenuity and technological capability of these people in the beginning of the third millennium BC.; they were domesticating and taming animals, creating vehicles and working on the sophisticated metal technology which allowed the wagons to be yoked to the animals (Ibid.).
In the second register, in the middle, there is a scene of warfare, showing the Sumerian infantry, carrying spears (McDonald 2013). At the left, there is a disciplined phalanxof soldiers, who are wearing some kind of protective clothing, probably a leather armour and helmets (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013). The infantry faces a group on the right consisting of soldiers who are killing or leading off enemy prisoners (McDonald 2013). The latter are either “killed with axes [or] paraded naked [as those above] presented to the king” (The British Museum 2015). It means that the middle register depicts the battle itself (McDonald 2013), which is already shown as a decisive victory of the Standard’s owner.
On the lowest register, there is the force of battle wagons (McDonald 2013). While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian [‘chariot’] attack, others think it is the post-battle procession, [with the ruler’s wagon in front] leading the army back to Ur” (Sailus 2003-2020). If the last interpretation is real, however, the whole sequence of the register should be read from up down, and not the other way round as it is generally assumed.
The depicted vehicles are presumably early forerunners of chariots as they are bulkier and less flexible versions of equid-drawn that are horse-drawn vehicles (McDonald 2013). The line of battle wagons begins at the left with a vehicle, which is drawn by four of these asses or onagers (Ibid.).
In the back of the wagon, there is a warrior and inside it a driver holds the reins, which pass over the high front of the vehicle and then through what is called a terret or a rein ring, and which was yoked to the animals, which have got nose rings (McDonald 2013). The metal bit had not yet been invented at that time (Ibid.). In this way, all these carefully rendered scenes show a detailed account of transportation technology of the Sumerians (Ibid.).
Pictures in motion
There is also the use of the narrative in the quickening pace of the lower register (McDonald 2013).
By observing the next wagon to the right, it is really easy to get the impression that the asses have picked up a bit of speed and their gait is now a canter (McDonald 2013). The animals’ legs are farther apart, stretched in galloping, whereas in the space between them, lies a prostrate figure of a nude dead enemy (Ibid.). The rhythm picks up again with the next two groups of speeding animals and trampling the enemies (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). While one group of mounts is galloping, the last appears to be already in a flying gallop (McDonald 2013). The picking up of speed in these register scenes is a possibly new invention in art (Ibid.). Much later it was applied most notably in the Greek Parthenon frieze, with the huge marble sculpture of a procession with horses that pulses with speed towards the central scene (Ibid.).
Rhythm and hierarchy
The other notable aspect of the way the mosaic has been created is a rhythmic pattern, not just of the individual groups, who vary between active and static poses, but also in bright colours of lapis lazuli and red limestone (McDonald 2013). And this rhythmic pattern of colours punctuates the scenes in a pleasing and sophisticated design (Ibid.). Also, the whole design is hierarchical from bottom to top in scale and in placement; it underlines and attests the dominance and leadership of a powerful ruler (Ibid.). He is portrayed as victorious and is set triumphantly amidst and atop the battle, which is complete with his prisoners dead and the nude enemies at the very bottom below the galloping animals (Ibid.).
The other side of the Standard of Ur shows a completely different aspect of the Sumerian leadership (McDonald 2013). This side which was often referred to as Peace, has also been called victory but its meaning is perhaps much broader than either name evokes (Ibid.).
This side depicts a big banquet at the very top register (McDonald 2013). It could perhaps be a cultic banquet with some religious significance but it is also interpreted as a victory feast (Ibid.). The latter is a theory proposed by scholars “who believe the Standard portrays an actual event” (Sailus 2003-2020).
The ruler is again the largest figure of all in the topmost part of the panel but this time he is seated at the left with his six bald men facing him as they lift their cups (McDonald 2013). He is also holding a cup and is naked above the waist (Ibid.). He is wearing a fleecy garment or fringed skirt, is bald and sits on a stool with some animal-like legs (Ibid.). It could be a gazelle or a hoof of a similar animal (Ibid.). The slightly smaller seated figures are wearing kilts with a fleecy border and are seated on similar stools as their ruler (Ibid.).
Similarly dressed, three or four other men (the upper-part of the fourth, on the left, is apparently missing) are standing near the ruler (McDonald 2013). They seemed to be attendants for the banquet (Ibid.). To the extreme right, there is a musician playing a lyre, which is similar to the elaborate inlaid bull lyres, which were actually found at the cemetery of Ur (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). A figure with longer hair at the right of the musician has arms crossed as if singing (Ibid.). This may very well be the musicians for the banquet (Ibid.).
The bounty of land
Below, there are two registers of mostly bald men who guide different kinds of livestock and other goods as if to show the bounty of the land, as much as it is represented on the Uruk vase (McDonald 2013).
In the second register, there are bald Sumerians wearing similar fleece bordered skirts as in the banquet scene and probably leading the animals of the land to the ruler depicted above (McDonald 2013). Animals are one of the most carefully and frequently represented subjects by the Sumerians, as much as by most of the early cultures of the Near East (Ibid.). After all, it is from them that the bounties of the land flow: meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather and even transportation (Ibid.). Also the cultivation of the earth for crops is made easier by the beast of burden, such as an ox (Ibid). Hence the procession of these precious animals led by people: the bull at the right, rams and sheep, and finally a cow and a goat (Ibid.). One bald figure in the middle also holds two large fishes in either hand (Ibid.). Such animals represent the bounty of the lands of Sumer, both marshes and cultivated pastures (Ibid.).
The last row of the side shows a slightly different procession of bounty (McDonald 2013). People depicted there are dressed differently and some bear burdens on their shoulders and backs while other lead asses by their nose rings (Ibid.). It is thought that these people must come from elsewhere, most likely from the north, the region later known as Akkad (Ibid.). Sumer and Akkad were linked as two regions of Mesopotamia and they both complemented each other in their produce and in their topography: marshes in desert versus hillier, more temperate regions in the north (Ibid.).
The same language
The two lower registers of the Peace side move in the opposite direction to the seated men depicted on top (McDonald 2013). By these means, a rhythm is set up (Ibid.). Assuming that the motion of the processions is from bottom to top, it would be again a hierarchical definition of the Sumerian society, where the largest and so the most significant figure is the ruler and just after him the ruler’s closest entourage, probably priests, who are smaller than their ruler but still larger than the banquet musicians and attendants (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013).
Both techniques also appear in the registers of the Uruk vase and one message seems to be common to both artifacts: the bounty of the land prevails and the ruler holds sway over its productivity (McDonald 2013). On the Uruk vase, priests are depicted while making offering to Inanna on behalf of a ruler (Ibid.). Similarly, the banquet, which seems to be religious in nature on the Standard of Ur, positions the ruler at the top and he is receiving the bounty of the land, yet this time without the deity represented (Ibid.). In the object from Ur, however, the fertility theme is in a colourful inlay of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, as if it was a more fully realized, colorized version of the vase of Uruk, yet made several hundred years later (Ibid.). Accordingly, both objects show similar concerns : depicting the ruler in a ritual scene with the fertile products of his land display (Ibid.).
Providing that the Standard has recorded a historic event, some scholars interpret the bottom row of the Peace side as the procession of goods being the tribute brought in by the losing side in the battle, shown on the other side of the standard (McDonald 2013).
Accordingly, “[the] feast [would have taken] place in commemoration of the preceding side’s military victory; [the] top row [would show] the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him, [whereas], the bottom two rows [would represent] the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords” (Sailus 2003-2020). But there are also other interpretations, such as a recurring theme of the Sumerian leadership and its dual function (McDonald 2013).
Two sides of the kingship
The two sides of the Standard could actually be showing the two sides of the kingship itself: the role of the king as a leader in warfare and his religious role as a leader of his people in worship of the gods (McDonald 2013). He is the one responsible for providing that the fecundity of the land continues to feed his people (Ibid.). The ruler is positioned as a mediator to the deities; his actions and his prayers connect with the divine in order to support his people (Ibid.). So the ruler was not only the protector of his city in war conflict but also the one responsible for the very fertility of the land, which provided for his people (Ibid.).
The two complementary sides of kingship, warrior and provider, are very clearly represented in Sumerian artworks (McDonald 2013). In fact, these aspects of kingship occur in artistic representations all over the world because they are the heart of the legitimacy of any ruler; they must defend their people and provide for them (Ibid.).
The Sumerians are by no means the only people who had such concerns and expectations for their rulers, and a theme of an offerings procession occurs in many contexts in art (McDonald 2013). Similar scenes occur later in Greek art, as in the mentioned above sculpture of Parthenon, where there are both martial and offering or fertility themes, all directed towards a goddess of the city that appears to coalesce (Ibid.).
Still a mystery
The actual usage of the standard of Ur still remains a mystery; the box like reconstruction does not seem to be ideal for a standard used in war (McDonald 2013). It is because its scenes were apparently meant to be seen up close and understood on a detailed level (Ibid.).
Skilled craftsmen who knew how to communicate a message about the kingship and religion in the Sumerian state were engaged in telling a story that rolls out like a narrative, similar to the use of the comic book register, which is also observed in the cylinder seals of the period being very central to Sumerian tradition (McDonald 2013). Banquet scenes, like the one on the Standard of Ur, were also represented on such objects, for example the seal of the so-called Queen Puabi, which was also found in Ur and equally exposed in the British Museum (The British Museum 2015).
Unlike major panels of the Standard, its end panels are usually neglected in detailed interpretations as they are thought to be only fanciful scenes, which were added by the artist merely as a lush decoration (Shukur 2018).
Some authors think that it is unlikely and the depictions on the shorter sides have got a deeper meaning and so deserve thorough explanations (Shukur 2018). As in the case of the longer sides of the Standard, both end panels are also divided into three registers but due to limited space, they depict just a few pictures in comparison to the long panels of War and Peace sides.
Heralds of failure or victory?
The end panel to the left of the War side shows a ram in the top register; it is standing on its hint legs while “feeding on the high branches of a tree” (Shukur 2018). Such an image resembles a famous Sumerian sculpture, known as the Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects (Ibid.) and “it seemed to be symbolic of Sumer itself” (Ibid.). On the other side of the tree, there is an incomplete representation of a creature with hooves and a tail, which can be a half-human hybrid typical of Sumerian mythology (Ibid.).
In the middle register, there is the same ram but this time it is accompanied by a Sumerian man on the right, who “is making a ceremonial offering to the [animal]” (Shukur 2018). On the left, there is another figure, probably of an “Akkadian enemy in the angled-skirt” (Ibid.). He is probably holding a sort of weapon, whose blade seems to spear the ram’s body (Ibid.). At the bottom, the ram disappears as if killed by the enemy (Ibid.). But it has left its tree behind it. Now, it is flanked by two seated man-headed bulls, probably symbols of Sumer (Ibid.). Are these images metaphorical heralds of the coming war, depicted on the longer side of the Standard? (Ibid.).
On the other side, if the registers are read from down up, it would mean that the ram appears in the second register and is still present in the final scene, together with the opposite creature, which may be a key to the meaning of the whole story. If it is one of the man-headed bulls from the bottom, the scenes may announce the Sumerian victory.
From war to peaceful bounties of life
The opposite end panel also represents interesting, yet mysterious images. Starting from the bottom, there is possibly the same ram, which is now on top of a mountain or jumping over it. The mountain front can be also interpreted as a gate or door (Shukur 2018). It “is probably [also a] part of a locking mechanism by which the Standard could be attached or removed” (Ibid.). The middle register above shows in turn the ram (its horns are damaged and so are invisible) being chased by a leopard (Ibid.). Finally, the topmost scene represents “two flowering plants with the eight-pointed rosettes, […] symbolically important to the Sumerians” (Ibid.) Above, there may have been also a larger rosette (Ibid.). Unfortunately, now the uppermost image is erased.
As it seems, the two end panels complement each other by the imagery portrayed on them in the three successive registers. If the sequence of events is read from down up in both cases, the scenes of the both sides seem to correlate. The bottom pictures probably build a scenery of peace just before the war, whereas the two middle registers always show the ram in danger. Providing that the ram is identified with Sumer, such imagery may evoke some menace to the city-states, such as war. Nevertheless, the top registers reveal that Sumer has not only been saved but also turned out to be victorious; the ram feeding on a tree and flowering plants may imply an abundance of the land that has become even wealthier afterwards, as much as it is visible on the Peace side of the Standard.
The Standard’s story
But while the Standard does not reveal all its secrets it does tell a story about a society, which was full of hierarchy and wealth (McDonald 2013). Its trade routes reach far and wide to receive the luxury goods of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, to the red marble or limestone, which may have come all the way from India (Ibid.).
Elaborate mosaics must have been crafted by skilled artisans, which implies that a society that could support art and artists devoted only to that and fed by others had developed in Sumer (McDonald 2013). The artists’ skills were in turn directed towards the support of the elite, the king or ruler and his nobles (Ibid.). Rulers are depicted in art in such a way that their role above the others in the society must have been legitimatized; they were protectors of their people in warfare and bringers of peace, continuously acting as the conduit between fertility and human survival, and by extension, between the earthly world and heavens (Ibid.).
Treasures of the museums
As Sir Charles Leonard Woolley’ archaeological expedition was a joint effort between the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum in London, the objects uncovered by the excavators were in great part shipped off to new homes in those two museums (McDonald 2013). In fact, a great deal of archaeology of that time and earlier sought to recover fabulous treasures and then remove them from their native lands to the museums of their excavators (Ibid.).
This is definitely something that does not happen nowadays (McDonald 2013). New moral standards, nationalism, pride and the better resources of art make such wholesale removal of what has been called the national patrimony no longer allowed (Ibid.). Moreover, archaeology as a discipline has changed throughout centuries (Ibid.). Most archaeologists do not seek to wrest the treasures from the ground to exhibit them in a museum far away as their trophies (Ibid.). Instead, they are intent on finding out more about the culture and the society that produced the excavated artifacts and with this objective it is possible to learn more (Ibid.). Objects that are excavated now usually stay in their countries in local museums or universities (Ibid.).
Lost national patrimony
As a matter of fact, the artifacts, which Woolley uncovered in his excavations in Ur were not only divided among the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum, but also were granted to the National Iraq Museum in Bagdad (Wakely 1999). Although some authors claim that only a small number of artifacts was left in Iraq (Ḏḥwty 2017), Neil McGregor, in The History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC Radio 4), says that “the Iraq Museum in Baghdad [actually] received the lion’s share of the Ur excavations” (Gerry 2010). Nevertheless, in 2003 some part of this unique treasure was looted and lost forever (Barker 2018). Exceptional artifacts from Woolley’s excavations in Ur, such as the bowl made of gold and lapis lazuli, have been stolen and never found (Ibid.). And although plundering museums and archaeological sites has been “regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times” (Ibid.), this crime has never stopped.
Unfortunately, since 2003, “much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen […]. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is gr