Ostracon is usually understood as a potsherd (“a piece of pottery, usually broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessel” (“Ostracon” 2021) or a flat stone piece (normally a flake of limestone), which was mainly used by artists from ancient Egypt and Greece for their freehand sketches and written notes.
“Generally discarded material, ostraca were cheap, readily available and therefore frequently used for writings of an ephemeral nature such as messages, prescriptions, receipts, students’ exercises and notes” (“Ostracon” 2021). Very exceptional are “the so-called figural ostracons [featuring] drawings, often sketches by artists or architects. The artists sketched their ideas on them with great freedom, avoiding the limitations of official art, thanks to which their sketches were more spontaneous, not devoid of the sense of accurate observation and a clear satirical message. One of the most beautiful and known examples of an ostracon paintings is a representation of an Egyptian dancer performing a somersault (Deir el-Medina, the New Kingdom, between sixteenth and the eleventh centuries BC.; see: Egyptian Dancer from Turin and Her Acrobatic Somersault).
Featured image: A possibly satirical ostracon depicting a scrawny cat giving a bolt of cloth and a trussed up goose as an offering to a seated mouse, likely representing either a noblemen or a noblewoman with bared breasts. Either a satire on upper-class life, or perhaps a scene from a fable. New Kingdom, either nineteenth or twentieth dynasties, circa 1295-1070 BC., from Thebes. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts (2007). CC BY 2.5. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Ostrakon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.
“Ostracon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iizilv>. [Accessed 2nd August, 2021].
“Ostrakon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3rP7fNZ>. [Accessed 2nd August, 2021].
Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, p. 158.
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 long. 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 ground, 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 and 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).
Featured image: One of numerous cenotes on Yucatan Peninsula. Photo by MarcTran (2019). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
“Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2L9bXVb>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].
“Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2MqX1mc>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].
“Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3hCDjzp>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].
“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pLHKuH>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].
BeFree and Travel (2017). “8 Top Cenotes”. In: BeFree and Travel. Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KOe5BZ>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].
Brady J. E. (2013). ”Odkrywanie ciemnych sekretów – archeolodzy w jaskiniach Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.
Doyle J. (2018). “Into the Centipede’s Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá”. In: The Metropolitan Museum (The MET). Available at <http://bit.ly/38Wkvae>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].
Dzikowska E. (2013). Tam, gdzie byłam. Meksyk. Ameryka Środkowa. Karaiby. Wydawnictwo Bernardinum.
Free photos at “Cenotes Pictures” (2020). In: Unsplash Photos for Everyone. Available at <http://bit.ly/3n5EYP1>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].
Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u>. [Accessed on 30th June, 2021].
Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. (2013). ”Słowniczek.”Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Göttkonige im Regenwald]. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.
Spechler D. (2020). “Visit these breathtaking underwater caves in the Yucatán Peninsula. From Maya temples to a makeshift car wash, these four cenotes offer outdoor adventure, fascinating history, and traditional culture”. In: Travel. National Geographic. Available at <http://on.natgeo.com/3n4lqud>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].
Tuszyńska B. (2007). ”Mitologie świata: Majowie”. In: Rzeczpospolita. Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa SA.
Von Daniken E. (1991). Dzień, w którym przybyli bogowie. 11 sierpnia 3114 roku prz. Chr. [Der Tag, and em die Gotter kamen. 11. August 3114 v. Chr.]. Serafińska T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Prokop.
A religious object for a specific intention or as an expression of gratitude, or as a means of giving thanks for the fulfillment of a wish. They can include “one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use” (“Votive offering” 2021). Such votive objects or offerings are usually dedicated to gods (in polytheism) or to the God or saints (in Christianity) in a shrine, temple or a church, or others places of pilgrimage.
In pagan antiquity, a votive was often a symbolic offering, given to a deity or deities as a thanksgiving (agalma) or in order to ask for answering the faithfuls’ prayers. It was usually in the form of small terracotta or metal (bronze, lead) figures or body parts made of clay, and even vessels. The more rare form of votive offerings were statues or small buildings.
Christian religious offerings are symbolic items related to a specific intentions of the faithful or their gratitude for all that they have received from the God. Christian votive objects can take various forms, usually of devotional articles, such as lit candles and rosaries.
Featured image: Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos votive; a Mexican votive painting of 1911; the man survived an attack by a bull. Photo by Andreas Praefcke (2008). Photo and caption source: “Votive offering” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
“Votive offering” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2V0oAHK>. [Accessed 28th August, 2021].
“Dar wotywny” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3DqhoWt>. [Accessed 28th August, 2021].
Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, p. 227.
From Latin: pacyficus; in the Late Latin Church: pacificale.
A reliquary, most often in the shape of a cross or monstrance, used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It served for the Kiss of Peace in the Catholic Mass, until the thirteenth century before the Holy Communion. Originally, there was a habit of “direct kissing among the celebrants [of the Mass, which had been] replaced by each in turn kissing the pax [due to] a range of concerns over the sexual, social and medical implications of actual kissing” (“Pax (liturgical object)” 2020). During such celebration, a priest or a celebrant said ‘Pax tecum’, while passing the pax down for the kiss and they received the response ‘Et cum spiritu tuo.’
Although “[the] great majority were probably very simple wood or brass pieces” (“Pax (liturgical object)” 2020), pax reliquaries were also made of silver and richly decorated, with a flat surface to be kissed. They usually included an image of the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ. Although “[the] pax gradually fell out of general use” (Ibid.) yet before the previous century, after the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), the custom was still practiced at important occasion. Since the twentieth century, kissing the pax has been commonly replaced with a handshake at the time of sharing the sign of peace. Nevertheless, the medieval custom is still continued at the time of significant celebrations and holidays.
Featured image: Design for a pax by E.W. Pugin (d. 1875), showing its handle. Public domain. Image enlarged. Photo and caption source: “Pax (liturgical object)” (2020).
“Pax (liturgical object)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/37D2qOO>. [Accessed 22nd February, 2021].
PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 296. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
Having entered the Mayan city of Palenque, I left a group of colleagues slightly behind to plunge into the labyrinth of the Palace complex. From there, the facade of the Temple of the Inscriptions kept proudly looking at me, while holding its mystery intact. For a moment, I was slowly walking among the jagged ruins, passing by their openings of strange shapes and of unknown functions, and, as if without a plan, I groped among the contradictory theories put forward on Palenque over the years by various researchers. On the other hand, the accumulation of such conflicting hypotheses forces a deeper reflection and a closer look at debatable structures and artifacts. Or maybe it is worth taking a general look at the Mayan culture and their city first and then going into details? But sultry Palenque still remains a mystery.
Outstanding rulers of Palenque and their city running out of food …?
The oldest traces of settlement in the area of Palenque are dated back to the third century AD., but most of the buildings and facade decorations go back to the Classic Period, the time when the city flourished between 600 and 800 AD. (Prager, Grube 2013:447; Von Däniken 1991:163).
It was then, under the rule of the most significant of the local rulers: K’inich Janaab Pakal, his son Kan Balam II (684-702) and K’an Joy Chitam (702-711) (Ibid.:447). This dynasty was interrupted by the capture of K’an Joy Chitam around 711 by the hostile city of Tonina, but its rule was continued by K’inch Ahkal Mo ‘Naab III (721-736), coming from the adjacent line of the family who eventually commissioned the construction of the Temple XIX (Ibid.:447).
While the city was certainly one of the main centres of the Maya people, this fact is quite surprising to some scholars, as Mark Van Stone, PhD. (Burns 2012). For in the jungle the soil that could be cultivated was unusually thin and so could not provide enough food with such a large urban centre (Ibid.). What makes it even more astonishing is that Palneque was one of the most populated cities of the Maya, even twenty times more than it is observed in the region today (Ibid.).
Complex sewage system
Ancient Palenque rises high above the plains of Usumacinta, at the foot of the Tumbalá Mountains, in the Mexican state of Chiapas (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202; Burns 2012; Von Däniken 1991:173). The ritual centre itself is situated on hills and artificial terraces, which perfectly fit into the natural terrain (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). The terraces themselves are separated in turn by the Otolum stream into the western and eastern parts (Von Däniken 1991:173). Its natural bed was directed by an artificial and wide underground network, so that in some places the Otolum waters still flow through the city by means of vaulted canals (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202; Von Däniken 1991:173; Burns 2012).
Based on the research to date, it is also known that the inhabitants of Palenque additionally developed a complicated system of aqueducts, and obtained water pressure by leading the artificial channels from the main riverbed (David Hatcher Childress in: Burns 2012). In the past, this sophisticated sewage system also took over streams of rainwater flowing from the roofs of temples, then led through aqueducts and underground channels to the structure, known commonly as the Palace (Von Däniken 1991:173). For Erich von Däniken, who often followed in the footsteps of archaeologists by asking them a series of uncomfortable questions, the similar sewage system in Palenque is already a cause for amazement (Ibid.:173).
What experts claim
Mesoamerican culture experts believe that Mayan construction techniques primarily determined the need to drain water as quickly as possibly during heavy rainfall, especially in dense jungle areas, and the need to take appropriate steps to store it for later use (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Free-standing courtyards with houses on platforms, arranged at different levels and perhaps surrounded by gardens, were perfectly suited to these requirements (Ibid.:200). The water could flow in any direction and be stored in domestic cisterns or huge tanks (Ibid.:200). The same rule was applied in case of monumental buildings, such as palaces and temple architecture (Ibid.:200). Stucco-covered courtyards or large squares, and in some cases causeways, were probably designed to channel and store water (Ibid.:200).
Moreover, largely due to the tropical climate, very few enclosed and covered rooms were built in the area (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Most of the activities, public and private, could be performed outdoors or under a light roof (Ibid.:200). Therefore, it seems logical, as specialists claim, to focus on Mayan cities’ open spaces when analysing their complex architecture (Ibid.:200).
Successive excavations and discoveries
Although excavations in the city of Palenque began in the 1940s, the ruins of the city itself have still not been sufficiently explored (Prager, Grube 2013:447; Burns 2012). The archaeological site measures 1780 hectares, including nine major recorded areas with 1400 buildings (UNESCO 2021). On the whole, the archaeological research carried out so far covers around 10% of the whole area (UNESCO 2021; Prager, Grube 2013:447; Burns 2012). Moreover, due to the rainy season, excavation work is usually limited to four months of the year (Von Däniken 1991:179). Since so far the greatest discovery in Palenque, which was revealed in the Temple of the Inscriptions, another Temple of the city, labelled as the Temple XIII, has unveiled the tomb of the so-called Red Queen (1994) and a stone throne has also been discovered in the Temple XIX (1999) (Prager, Grube 2013:447). And there was yet uncovered another burial in the Temple XXI (2013) (Ibid.:447). Therefore, new important archaeological finds may hopefully come to light soon (Ibid.:447).
Wealth of architectural elements and details
A breath-taking architecture of the city, such as the so-called Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace complex, the Ceremonial Courtyard, and several smaller temples and residential districts around it, all constitute the essential centre of Palenque (Prager, Grube 2013:447).
All buildings in the city were once decorated with rich stucco reliefs and colourful wall paintings (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). They even appear in the vaulted sections found at the rear of the edifices, which similarly to their facades and stair ramps, also contain the remains of beautiful stucco reliefs (Ibid.:203). In turn, inside the buildings, there have been preserved large and artistic wall reliefs, made of particularly fine-grained limestone (Ibid.:203). Like Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions, such reliefs often refer to complex figural scenes (Ibid.:203). The so-called roof combs at gable ridges are typical of the Mayan architecture; also in Palenque, if preserved, these peculiar crests still crown the central part of the roof of the temples (Ibid.:203-204). Since the roof combs are filigree structures, they feature multiple openings, and so together with the temple they give a whole compact blocks of architectural pyramids a specific lightness (Ibid.:203-204). In the past, they were additionally decorated with colourful painted surfaces and stucco (Ibid.:203-204). Roof combs, which seem to have been intended for the gable ridges of more important sacred buildings, also gave the structures an impression of height and monumentality (Ibid.:199).
Moreover, the door openings reached almost to the level where the corbelled vaults began and were topped with stone lintels or stone beams (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). In turn, numerous vaults in Palenque reveal unusual leaf-shaped trefoil, and mysterious keyhole arches appear in the city’s niches, window openings and doorways (Ibid.:203). Did they serve merely as a decoration or did they evoke a symbolic meaning?
Significance of the keyhole
Window openings and arches in the form of a keyhole appear all over the city of Palenque, where they feature some buildings of the Palace complex and, particularly, the Temple of the Foliated Cross (Burns 2020).
Surprisingly, they do not occur in architecture of any other Mayan cities. A similar symbol had been, however, used in sacred and sepulchral architecture of many ancient cultures around the world (Ibid.). The keyhole form is, among all, observed in the shape of burial mounds in Japan and Algeria, geoglyphs in Saudi Arabia, sacral-astronomical structures in Peru, in the United States, on the Italian island of Sardinia and in India (Ibid.). Some of them are so huge that their shape can be recognized only from the bird’s eye view (Ibid.). As an Arabic legend goes, a similar symbol also adorned the so-called Seal of the biblical King Solomon, which served him as a tool for subjugating demons and so using them to build a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant (Ibid.).
In ancient Egypt, the so-called menat necklace was worn with a heavy pendant at the back, in the form of a keyhole, used as its counterbalance; it was mainly associated with the goddess Hathor, who was also called Meant, and with the Moon god, Chonsu, who was a guardian of the invisible worlds (Burns 2020; “Menat” 2020). “His name means ‘traveller’, and this may relate to the perceived nightly travel of the Moon across the sky” (“Khonsu” 2021). In ancient Egyptian iconography, the meant is often passed down by gods to members of the aristocracy (Burns 2020). What is even more intriguing, a similar symbol was an attribute of another lunar deity, the Phoenician goddess Tanit (Ibid.). Moreover, a mysterious well-like structure in the shape of a keyhole in Sardinia was also architecturally associated with the Moon; namely, its dome was apparently designed to observe the Moon at its highest stage, that it to say, at the moment of the so-called lunar standstill (Ibid.). A similar structure built in India also refers to the same astronomical phenomena, which is the lunar cycle that lasts eighteen years (Ibid.). For this reason, some researchers have suggested the keyhole symbol is associated with celestial bodies such as the Earth and the Moon, and therefore, with our planet’s relations with the sky (Ibid.). Did the keyhole openings in Palenque use to have a similar function?
Today, it is still a mystery why so many ancient cultures in different and distant corners of the world, including the Maya, used to illustrate such a symbol in their architecture or sacral objects (Burns 2020). Keys and locks have existed since ancient times, serving indirectly to open gates and doors (Ibid.). As such, the keyhole may have had a ritual significance in opening symbolic gates (Ibid.). But what did they open to? And what is the key to those gates, matching the keyhole? The origin of the symbol still remains a mystery, but whatever inspired its shape, it had to be quite significant to our ancestors (Ibid.).
Corbelled vault and its key functions
While major elements of Mayan architecture were relatively simple, they developed into quite rich and varied forms (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). Between the Preclassic and Early Classic periods, there were observed some changes in building techniques; specialists note that the walls of contemporary Mayan buildings were built of more precisely cut stones, which made the layer of lime plaster applied to them much thinner (Ibid.:198). The use of a corbelled (cantilever) vault, the method used to build a roof using stones and mortar, had also increased at that time (Ibid.:199;. see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque).
In a corbelled vault, also referred to as a false vault, horizontal blocks of stone protrude further inwards in individual layers, getting closer to each other, and thus connect two supporting walls (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). The vault was eventually closed by means of a flat stone slab (Ibid.:199).
Other solutions in vaulting the roof
In the Early Classic Period, most of the burial chambers in the deeper layers were cut off and closed with a corbelled vault (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199).
False vaults had been widely used in many buildings from Late Classic centres, such as Palenque, although there were also vaults composed of rubble and ceilings with wooden beams covered with a layer of stucco (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199199). The latter were widespread in the Mayan lowlands in the Late Classic and Postclassic periods (Ibid.:199). They had the advantage of covering large room spaces (Ibid.:199). At the same time, they were quite unstable (Ibid.:199). In order to prevent water from penetrating into the building, especially in the rainy season, new layers of stucco had to be constantly applied (Ibid.:199). In turn, vaults made of rubble was a system, where the stones protruding from the wall structure in a false vault were replaced with a mixture of mortar and stone, in such a way that the vault stones visible from the below were nothing but a clever illusion (Ibid.:199).
More intricate constructions
The use of a corbelled vault allowed a construction of long houses with several entrances and two or three rows of vaulted rooms, placed one above the other, and providing the building with subsequent levels, to which the entrance led with separate stairs (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199).
The vaulted rooms were placed either alternately or one above the other (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). The facades of buildings were clearly divided into a horizontal wall and a fragment filled with vaults, often with the base between the terrace level and the upper edge of the floor inside the building (Ibid.:199). These areas were usually separated by sills (Ibid.:199). An example of such a multi-storey complex in Palenque is the so-called Palace.
Analysis of the Mayan architectural functions within a city-state
An accessibility, location and connection system of Mayan building complexes within a given city state indicate whether the area was used for private or public functions (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200).
Religious ceremonies were believed to have been held in centrally located buildings, not easily accessible, but well recognizable (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Limited access to the complexes erected on elevations, most often on several levels, near large, open squares, proves that they were used as palaces, as much as it is present in Palenque, whose Palace is placed just in the center (Ibid.:200). “The plan [of the city itself] follows a pin-wheel arrangement, as well as a gridded system. [Already its early] explorers [had] noted stunning similarities in the design of [its] stone structures and their apparent use.” (Blankenbehler 2015).
Depending on the location within the whole city layout, separate areas were used for representative purposes or domestic functions (Ibid.:200). In many regions of the central lowlands, ball fields, which are most typical urban features of the Pre-Columbian cities, are usually located in front of the palace complex (Ibid.:200). This location is different in Palenque, where the remains of an area interpreted as a ball field are located in the northern part of the city complex. In turn, in the north of the lowlands, separate parts of buildings considered as Mayan palaces, such as residential, representative and administrative parts, were housed in distinct building complexes (Ibid.:200).
In Palenque, the said Palace complex was located in one single, though intricate complex, which would be indicative at once of its private, administrative and representative function. At the same time, along with the nearby temples erected on stepped pyramids, it would accordingly perform ceremonial functions.
The Palace of Palenque was discovered at the end of the eighteenth century by the Spanish (Burns 2012). It is one of the greatest Mayan structures of its kind and the largest architectural complex in Palenque at all (Ibid.). The palace complex is located in front of the Temple of the Inscriptions, just in the middle of the ancient city (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). According to archaeologists, it had been changed and rebuilt many times (Ibid.:202). In its present form, it contains several extremely varied courtyards located on a common platform together with internal stairs (Ibid.:202). Outside the Palace, on the west and north sides, there are impressive entrance stairs and cloisters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203).
The huge edifice of the complex is divided into three floors, one above the other (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:173). The platform on which the palace complex stands is ten meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). Its space (80×100 meters), in turn, is divided into many smaller and larger courtyards lying on different levels (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:173). Today they are referred to as the Main Courtyard, West Courtyard, East Courtyard and the Tower Courtyard (Von Däniken 1991:173). The lower part of the Palace on the south side is called Subterraneum (Ibid.:173). In the East Courtyard, a stone slab (2.4 x 2.6 meters) has additionally been found; it is decorated with two hundred and sixty-two Mayan engravings, including mythological scenes, heads of gods, figures of people and animals, and calendar hieroglyphs (Ibid.:173).
At first glance, El Palacio gives the impression of a labyrinth-like structure, because its complex is so confusing that tourists sometimes lose their orientation while walking among its walls (Von Däniken 1991:173). There are also rooms of various sizes (Ibid.:173). A number of elongated buildings have double barrel vaults (Ibid.:173). Their corbelled, vaulted ceilings slant back and, like many other buildings, they are equally adorned with stucco decorations (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203).
Astonishing finds in the corridors of the Palace
A system of sewage pipes and stone toilets were discovered in the Palace, including a small room with a toilet (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). All of them were placed in strategic points of the building and they were cleaned with water, which carried the waste underground (Von Däniken 1991:174).
The presence of toilets convinced archaeologists of the secular character of the complex (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). Additionally, there was probably a ventilation system that supplied air also to the underground parts of the building, where long corridors also ran next to the rooms (Ibid.:174). One of the longest reaches twenty meters and ends with a flight of stairs leading up to the centre of the complex (Ibid.:174). As the corridors are intricately decorated with reliefs, researchers believe that important rituals must have taken place there, possibly related to the underworld (Ibid.:174). For others, however, these corridors are not anything special, even despite their truly unique decorations (Ibid.:174-175). The western, elongated facade of the Palace is dominated by five two meters thick square columns, which are all covered with stucco reliefs (Ibid.:173).
Erich Von Däniken (1991:173) recognizes in one of them a Mayan fighter skating on rollers! (Ibid.:173). Other interesting features of the Palace are T-shaped openings, which are in the walls; they are sometimes interpreted as symbolic attribution of the sun or wind god, but were apparently used for observing the sky (Burns 2012). Likewise, many buildings in Mayan cities were designed to provide favourable conditions for astronomical observations (Ibid.).
Modern names of the buildings and their original purpose
Such a majestic building must have had an important purpose at the time of the Maya, but what was it? (Von Däniken 1991:173). El Palacio is just a modern name of the building as it was claimed that it was the royal palace (Ibid.:173). Later it was also considered a convent for women or dwellings of priests (Ibid.:173).
Däniken’s local Indian guide suggests, however, that it was once a famous university in the region (Von Däniken 1991:173-174). After him, the history of the Maya people was taught on the ground floor, chemistry and nature were taught on the first floor, and mathematics and astronomy on the second floor (Ibid.:174). Thus, various interpretations of archaeologists and nomenclature is rather conventional, as it is based on very uncertain foundations (Ibid.:174).
Other terms used for buildings in Palenque and elsewhere in Mesoamerica, such as the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Temple of the Sun, or the Temple of the Foliated Cross, are just modern names and so not given by their builders themselves (Von Däniken 1991:175-176). Hence, one cannot be sure about the purpose of these buildings (Ibid.:175-176).
Squared tower of the Palace
The very thesis about the Palace as a Mayan university can be supported by another important structure within the complex, which stands out significantly against the background of the maze of corridors, rooms and courtyards; it is a fifteen-meter tower rising on a huge pedestal with a base of 7×7.5 meters, above the south-west courtyard of the Palace, known as the Courtyard with the Tower (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174).
The similar structure of the tower remains unique in Mayan architecture and is believed to have been added as the last element of the palace during the reign of the penultimate Palenque ruler, K’uk ‘Balam the First (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). The tower was previously thought to be a viewing point or a watchtower, although the Mayan cities were not fortified but open on all sides (Von Däniken 1991:174). Today, researchers believe that Palenque kings and priests watched the stars from that squared construction (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). Similar function of the tower is supported by the hieroglyph found there and identified as symbolizing the planet Venus or a star (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). This hieroglyph was apparently painted as part of the date of the patron of the month of yax, in 1516 (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). The tower could have therefore been an observatory that served once Palenque elite and theoretically university students to study astronomical phenomena in the sky (Von Däniken 1991:174). Certainly, this activity was facilitated by large windows, placed on all sides of the tall building (Von Däniken 1991:174; Burns 2012). What’s more, there was no entrance to the first floor in the tower, and its narrow stairs led directly to the second and third floors (Ibid.:174).
Obsession with astronomy
The observatory and T-shaped windows of the Palace are not the only testimonies of the Mayan fascination with astronomy in Palenque (Burns 2012). The city’s temples were also associated with particular times of the day and year (Ibid.). The main ones are the equinoxes and solstices (Ibid.).
According to the echoes of many ancient myths, including the Egyptian and Mayan, while disappearing in the west, the Sun takes a journey by entering the underworld and then reappearing in the east at dawn (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Similar beliefs also translate the four astronomical events, the solstices and equinoxes (Ibid.:200). When the Sun rises and sets down at the summer and winter solstices, it moves between the extreme points on the horizon (Ibid.:200). In turn, at the beginning of spring and autumn, on the days of the equinoxes, the Sun rises and sets halfway between these points (Ibid.:200). Additionally, the Maya believed that the lines connecting the Sun’s four turning points correspond to the four sides of the world, each associated with a different colour and different characteristics (Ibid.:200).
Such astronomical phenomena, like the solstices and equinoxes, had been carefully observed by various ancient civilisations, and accordingly reflected in their architectural layouts (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Everywhere in the Mayan world, there is evidence of how the Mayans’ knowledge of astronomy was reflected in their structures, which were unmistakably linked to the observation of the astronomical year (Burns 2012). Linda Schele (1942-1998) an American archaeologist and an expert in the field of Maya epigraphy and iconography, noted that on the winter solstice the sun sets exactly “inside” the Temple of the Inscriptions, a phenomenon that repeats itself in reverse phase in the day of the vernal equinox, when the sun rises “from within” the Temple of the Inscriptions (Burns 2012; “Linda Schele” 2021).
The whole phenomenon in both cases can be easily observed from the roof of the Temple of the Sun, which is located east of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Burns 2012). Thus, the layout of the buildings in Palenque (as in other ancient Mesoamerican cities) is not a matter of coincidence (Ibid.). The Temple of the Sun itself was set on the plinth of a four-level pyramid, so it is more than two times lower than the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:176; Burns 2012). Such a design of buildings and their arrangement in the city space must have had a great impact on the general perception of the above-described astronomical phenomena (Burns 2012).
The Temple of the Sun
The Temple of the Sun has a square base (23×23 meters) and positioned on the stepped pyramid it is nineteen meters high, up to the comb roof of the temple (Von Däniken 1991:176). The Temple’s front crest is decorated with refined reliefs in stucco as much as the side walls of the building (Ibid.:176). There are three entrances to the Sanctuary of the Temple (Ibid.:176).
On both sides of the central entrance, the walls are covered with stucco reliefs, depicting two figures of natural height with elaborate clothing decorations (Von Däniken 1991:176). Between them, there is an entrance leading to a small room with the so-called Sanctuary Tablet or Tablet of the Sun, from which the Temple possibly has taken its name (Ibid.:176). The tablet itself is a well-preserved relief depicting a shield on which two spears decorated with feathers intersect (Ibid.:176-177). The shield is positioned between two male figures, probably priests. Apparently, the image on it symbolizes the Sun of Jaguar (Ibid.:177).
Right next to the Temple of the Sun, there are the ruins of two minor temples, labelled as Temples XIV and XV.
Complex of the three temples
The Temple of the Sun, along with the Temple of the Foliage Cross and the Temple of the Cross all constitute a group of the three temples that were built during the reign of King Kan Balam in 692 AD., so ten years after Pakal’s death (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Like other temples in Palenque, this trio was also set on substructures in the shape of stepped pyramids (Ibid.:204).
The so-called Temple of the Cross is extremely important among the three temples, also in the context of this article. It is located on a large elevated square in the eastern part of the city (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The other two temples, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Foliage Cross, are much lower than the Temple of the Cross itself, which definitely towers over the entire ensemble of three pyramids (Ibid.:204). It is distinguished not only by proportions, but also by a preserved, magnificent comb in the middle of the roof, originally decorated with figures and stucco (Ibid.:204).
The Temple of the Cross and its Tablet
Like the other two temples of the complex, the Temple of the Cross contains a sanctuary, called by the Maya pib naah, which stands for the birthplace of the gods (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The walls of the sanctuary, on the other hand, are decorated with Mayan stone reliefs, which are one of the most outstanding examples of Mayan sculptures of possibly deep religious significance (Ibid.:204). A limestone relief on the back wall of the sanctuary, in turn, became the source of the name for the temple itself (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Wagner 2013:282).
Namely, the very central motif on the sculpted tablet is in the form of a cross (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Wagner 2013:282). Actually, it is believed to be in fact a highly stylized representation of the Tree of Life or the Tree of the World, growing from a sacrificial vessel, atop which an exotic bird sits (Wagner 2013:282). The latter is actually the god Itzamna, who is a Mayan sky deity, represented there in its zoomorphic form (Ibid.:282). According to archaeologists, the scene tells about the creation of the world and the birth of the tutelary deity of Palenque (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The tree in the form of a cross itself is believed to mark the centre of the sky, as demonstrated by the heavenly belt on which it stands; the location of the Temple of the Cross accordingly marks the northern quarter of the cosmos assigned to the sky (Wagner 2013:282).
An identical cross motif with a strongly stylized exotic bird on its top, as depicted on the Tablet of the Cross, also appears on a much older relief adorning a highly controversial sarcophagus from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Are there any relations between these two representations at all, as it seems? If so, why are not they compared together but interpreted separately or even contradictory?
Featured image: The squared tower of the Palace complex in Palenque. It is believed to have served as an astronomical observatory. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Image cropped and modified. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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From the reconstructed Standard of Ur (see: Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur), it can be observed that the box itself consists of two panels, sloping together towards the top and two end pieces, which are triangular but cut off at the top (McDonald 2013). All the four sides of the Standard are covered in three registers of mosaics (Ibid.). The inlaid pieces consist of lapis lazuli, shell and red marble (limestone) set into bitumen, which is a sticky oil-by product found in Iraq (Ibid.). Conventionally, the two large sides have been called War and Peace because one side is organised around a depiction of a military campaign, whereas the other illustrates the banquet and files of people and animals (Ibid.).
“For those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the ‘War’ side is the chronological beginning” (Sailus 2003-2020).
War and Peace
Dr. Diana McDonald (2013), however, believes that these panels of inlay tell principally about the dual role of a Sumerian ruler controlling a city-state and about a Sumerian society at the time around 2 550 BC. Back in time, when Sumerian city-states first began to coalesce and population pressures made resources of water and food, which was scarce in this arid land, a ruler or king had a special obligation to and role for his people; he was expected to be a leader at war and a commander-in-chief (Ibid.).
The so-called War Side of the Standard of Ur shows three registers of battle scenes with the earliest representations of a Sumerian army and the aftermath of the fight (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). All the scenes are colourfully illustrated in pieces of red limestone, shell and lapis inlays (McDonald 2013).
Action seems to begin (likewise on the Uruk vase) at the bottom register (McDonald 2013). The top register shows that all the action leads up from down to the most important figure, depicted at the very top and in the centre (Ibid.). It stands turned to the right, represented in profile. Although the figure is a human-looking being, it is much broader and taller than all the others shown in the register (Ibid.). His head actually pierces the pictorial frame intended for the panel (Ibid.). This outsized man holds what appears to be a staff or a spear and faces a group of men, probably some prisoners who approach him (Ibid.). Among them, there are the men clothed in kilt like skirts with scalloped edges are wearing sheep skins and they are apparently the soldiers (Ibid.).
Differently looking men shown between them are apparently war captives (McDonald 2013). They “are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs” (JOM 2020). The soldiers could have captured them in a battle and they are being presented now to the ruler (McDonald 2013). The poorly looking enemies strikingly contrast with the majestic figures of the ruler and his people, which should be also understood symbolically: the victory is on the side of Ur due to its overwhelming power (Amaya March, 2017).
Behind the king, to the left of the centre in the top register, there is also his battle wagon and members of the royal entourage or other soldiers with staffs (McDonald 2013).
The battle wagon is a fairly large and unwieldy looking vehicle (McDonald 2013). It is known, and accordingly represented, that the wagon’s blocky looking wheels were made of two pieces of wood as spoked wheels had not been invented yet (Ibid.). There is also the driver holding the reins and standing behind the vehicle (Ibid.). Horses had not been yet imported to the area so the wagon is probably driven by four asses or onagers (Ibid.). The latter was a kind of wild ass that is now extinct but was originally native to Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Some scholars think that the Sumerians actually interbred the two animals to produce an onager ass hybrid, which was easier to control and stronger than either one (Ibid.). Their tails look long and tufted at the end like an ass or a donkey’s (Ibid.). Such details reveal the ingenuity and technological capability of these people in the beginning of the third millennium BC.; they were domesticating and taming animals, creating vehicles and working on the sophisticated metal technology which allowed the wagons to be yoked to the animals (Ibid.).
In the second register, in the middle, there is a scene of warfare, showing the Sumerian infantry, carrying spears (McDonald 2013). At the left, there is a disciplined phalanxof soldiers, who are wearing some kind of protective clothing, probably a leather armour and helmets (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013). The infantry faces a group on the right consisting of soldiers who are killing or leading off enemy prisoners (McDonald 2013). The latter are either “killed with axes [or] paraded naked [as those above] presented to the king” (The British Museum 2015). It means that the middle register depicts the battle itself (McDonald 2013), which is already shown as a decisive victory of the Standard’s owner.
On the lowest register, there is the force of battle wagons (McDonald 2013). While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian [‘chariot’] attack, others think it is the post-battle procession, [with the ruler’s wagon in front] leading the army back to Ur” (Sailus 2003-2020). If the last interpretation is real, however, the whole sequence of the register should be read from up down, and not the other way round as it is generally assumed.
The depicted vehicles are presumably early forerunners of chariots as they are bulkier and less flexible versions of equid-drawn that are horse-drawn vehicles (McDonald 2013). The line of battle wagons begins at the left with a vehicle, which is drawn by four of these asses or onagers (Ibid.).
In the back of the wagon, there is a warrior and inside it a driver holds the reins, which pass over the high front of the vehicle and then through what is called a terret or a rein ring, and which was yoked to the animals, which have got nose rings (McDonald 2013). The metal bit had not yet been invented at that time (Ibid.). In this way, all these carefully rendered scenes show a detailed account of transportation technology of the Sumerians (Ibid.).
Pictures in motion
There is also the use of the narrative in the quickening pace of the lower register (McDonald 2013).
By observing the next wagon to the right, it is really easy to get the impression that the asses have picked up a bit of speed and their gait is now a canter (McDonald 2013). The animals’ legs are farther apart, stretched in galloping, whereas in the space between them, lies a prostrate figure of a nude dead enemy (Ibid.). The rhythm picks up again with the next two groups of speeding animals and trampling the enemies (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). While one group of mounts is galloping, the last appears to be already in a flying gallop (McDonald 2013). The picking up of speed in these register scenes is a possibly new invention in art (Ibid.). Much later it was applied most notably in the Greek Parthenon frieze, with the huge marble sculpture of a procession with horses that pulses with speed towards the central scene (Ibid.).
Rhythm and hierarchy
The other notable aspect of the way the mosaic has been created is a rhythmic pattern, not just of the individual groups, who vary between active and static poses, but also in bright colours of lapis lazuli and red limestone (McDonald 2013). And this rhythmic pattern of colours punctuates the scenes in a pleasing and sophisticated design (Ibid.). Also, the whole design is hierarchical from bottom to top in scale and in placement; it underlines and attests the dominance and leadership of a powerful ruler (Ibid.). He is portrayed as victorious and is set triumphantly amidst and atop the battle, which is complete with his prisoners dead and the nude enemies at the very bottom below the galloping animals (Ibid.).
The other side of the Standard of Ur shows a completely different aspect of the Sumerian leadership (McDonald 2013). This side which was often referred to as Peace, has also been called victory but its meaning is perhaps much broader than either name evokes (Ibid.).
This side depicts a big banquet at the very top register (McDonald 2013). It could perhaps be a cultic banquet with some religious significance but it is also interpreted as a victory feast (Ibid.). The latter is a theory proposed by scholars “who believe the Standard portrays an actual event” (Sailus 2003-2020).
The ruler is again the largest figure of all in the topmost part of the panel but this time he is seated at the left with his six bald men facing him as they lift their cups (McDonald 2013). He is also holding a cup and is naked above the waist (Ibid.). He is wearing a fleecy garment or fringed skirt, is bald and sits on a stool with some animal-like legs (Ibid.). It could be a gazelle or a hoof of a similar animal (Ibid.). The slightly smaller seated figures are wearing kilts with a fleecy border and are seated on similar stools as their ruler (Ibid.).
Similarly dressed, three or four other men (the upper-part of the fourth, on the left, is apparently missing) are standing near the ruler (McDonald 2013). They seemed to be attendants for the banquet (Ibid.). To the extreme right, there is a musician playing a lyre, which is similar to the elaborate inlaid bull lyres, which were actually found at the cemetery of Ur (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). A figure with longer hair at the right of the musician has arms crossed as if singing (Ibid.). This may very well be the musicians for the banquet (Ibid.).
The bounty of land
Below, there are two registers of mostly bald men who guide different kinds of livestock and other goods as if to show the bounty of the land, as much as it is represented on the Uruk vase (McDonald 2013).
In the second register, there are bald Sumerians wearing similar fleece bordered skirts as in the banquet scene and probably leading the animals of the land to the ruler depicted above (McDonald 2013). Animals are one of the most carefully and frequently represented subjects by the Sumerians, as much as by most of the early cultures of the Near East (Ibid.). After all, it is from them that the bounties of the land flow: meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather and even transportation (Ibid.). Also the cultivation of the earth for crops is made easier by the beast of burden, such as an ox (Ibid). Hence the procession of these precious animals led by people: the bull at the right, rams and sheep, and finally a cow and a goat (Ibid.). One bald figure in the middle also holds two large fishes in either hand (Ibid.). Such animals represent the bounty of the lands of Sumer, both marshes and cultivated pastures (Ibid.).
The last row of the side shows a slightly different procession of bounty (McDonald 2013). People depicted there are dressed differently and some bear burdens on their shoulders and backs while other lead asses by their nose rings (Ibid.). It is thought that these people must come from elsewhere, most likely from the north, the region later known as Akkad (Ibid.). Sumer and Akkad were linked as two regions of Mesopotamia and they both complemented each other in their produce and in their topography: marshes in desert versus hillier, more temperate regions in the north (Ibid.).
The same language
The two lower registers of the Peace side move in the opposite direction to the seated men depicted on top (McDonald 2013). By these means, a rhythm is set up (Ibid.). Assuming that the motion of the processions is from bottom to top, it would be again a hierarchical definition of the Sumerian society, where the largest and so the most significant figure is the ruler and just after him the ruler’s closest entourage, probably priests, who are smaller than their ruler but still larger than the banquet musicians and attendants (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013).
Both techniques also appear in the registers of the Uruk vase and one message seems to be common to both artifacts: the bounty of the land prevails and the ruler holds sway over its productivity (McDonald 2013). On the Uruk vase, priests are depicted while making offering to Inanna on behalf of a ruler (Ibid.). Similarly, the banquet, which seems to be religious in nature on the Standard of Ur, positions the ruler at the top and he is receiving the bounty of the land, yet this time without the deity represented (Ibid.). In the object from Ur, however, the fertility theme is in a colourful inlay of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, as if it was a more fully realized, colorized version of the vase of Uruk, yet made several hundred years later (Ibid.). Accordingly, both objects show similar concerns : depicting the ruler in a ritual scene with the fertile products of his land display (Ibid.).
Providing that the Standard has recorded a historic event, some scholars interpret the bottom row of the Peace side as the procession of goods being the tribute brought in by the losing side in the battle, shown on the other side of the standard (McDonald 2013).
Accordingly, “[the] feast [would have taken] place in commemoration of the preceding side’s military victory; [the] top row [would show] the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him, [whereas], the bottom two rows [would represent] the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords” (Sailus 2003-2020). But there are also other interpretations, such as a recurring theme of the Sumerian leadership and its dual function (McDonald 2013).
Two sides of the kingship
The two sides of the Standard could actually be showing the two sides of the kingship itself: the role of the king as a leader in warfare and his religious role as a leader of his people in worship of the gods (McDonald 2013). He is the one responsible for providing that the fecundity of the land continues to feed his people (Ibid.). The ruler is positioned as a mediator to the deities; his actions and his prayers connect with the divine in order to support his people (Ibid.). So the ruler was not only the protector of his city in war conflict but also the one responsible for the very fertility of the land, which provided for his people (Ibid.).
The two complementary sides of kingship, warrior and provider, are very clearly represented in Sumerian artworks (McDonald 2013). In fact, these aspects of kingship occur in artistic representations all over the world because they are the heart of the legitimacy of any ruler; they must defend their people and provide for them (Ibid.).
The Sumerians are by no means the only people who had such concerns and expectations for their rulers, and a theme of an offerings procession occurs in many contexts in art (McDonald 2013). Similar scenes occur later in Greek art, as in the mentioned above sculpture of Parthenon, where there are both martial and offering or fertility themes, all directed towards a goddess of the city that appears to coalesce (Ibid.).
Still a mystery
The actual usage of the standard of Ur still remains a mystery (see: Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur); the box like reconstruction does not seem to be ideal for a standard used in war (McDonald 2013). It is because its scenes were apparently meant to be seen up close and understood on a detailed level (Ibid.).
Skilled craftsmen who knew how to communicate a message about the kingship and religion in the Sumerian state were engaged in telling a story that rolls out like a narrative, similar to the use of the comic book register, which is also observed in the cylinder seals of the period being very central to Sumerian tradition (McDonald 2013). Banquet scenes, like the one on the Standard of Ur, were also represented on such objects, for example the seal of the so-called Queen Puabi, which was also found in Ur and equally exposed in the British Museum (The British Museum 2015).
Unlike major panels of the Standard, its end panels are usually neglected in detailed interpretations as they are thought to be only fanciful scenes, which were added by the artist merely as a lush decoration (Shukur 2018).
Some authors think that it is unlikely and the depictions on the shorter sides have got a deeper meaning and so deserve thorough explanations (Shukur 2018). As in the case of the longer sides of the Standard, both end panels are also divided into three registers but due to limited space, they depict just a few pictures in comparison to the long panels of War and Peace sides.
Heralds of failure or victory?
The end panel to the left of the War side shows a ram in the top register; it is standing on its hint legs while “feeding on the high branches of a tree” (Shukur 2018). Such an image resembles a famous Sumerian sculpture, known as the Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects (Ibid.) and “it seemed to be symbolic of Sumer itself” (Ibid.). On the other side of the tree, there is an incomplete representation of a creature with hooves and a tail, which can be a half-human hybrid typical of Sumerian mythology (Ibid.).
In the middle register, there is the same ram but this time it is accompanied by a Sumerian man on the right, who “is making a ceremonial offering to the [animal]” (Shukur 2018). On the left, there is another figure, probably of an “Akkadian enemy in the angled-skirt” (Ibid.). He is probably holding a sort of weapon, whose blade seems to spear the ram’s body (Ibid.). At the bottom, the ram disappears as if killed by the enemy (Ibid.). But it has left its tree behind it. Now, it is flanked by two seated man-headed bulls, probably symbols of Sumer (Ibid.). Are these images metaphorical heralds of the coming war, depicted on the longer side of the Standard? (Ibid.).
On the other side, if the registers are read from down up, it would mean that the ram appears in the second register and is still present in the final scene, together with the opposite creature, which may be a key to the meaning of the whole story. If it is one of the man-headed bulls from the bottom, the scenes may announce the Sumerian victory.
From war to peaceful bounties of life
The opposite end panel also represents interesting, yet mysterious images. Starting from the bottom, there is possibly the same ram, which is now on top of a mountain or jumping over it. The mountain front can be also interpreted as a gate or door (Shukur 2018). It “is probably [also a] part of a locking mechanism by which the Standard could be attached or removed” (Ibid.). The middle register above shows in turn the ram (its horns are damaged and so are invisible) being chased by a leopard (Ibid.). Finally, the topmost scene represents “two flowering plants with the eight-pointed rosettes, […] symbolically important to the Sumerians” (Ibid.) Above, there may have been also a larger rosette (Ibid.). Unfortunately, now the uppermost image is erased.
As it seems, the two end panels complement each other by the imagery portrayed on them in the three successive registers. If the sequence of events is read from down up in both cases, the scenes of the both sides seem to correlate. The bottom pictures probably build a scenery of peace just before the war, whereas the two middle registers always show the ram in danger. Providing that the ram is identified with Sumer, such imagery may evoke some menace to the city-states, such as war. Nevertheless, the top registers reveal that Sumer has not only been saved but also turned out to be victorious; the ram feeding on a tree and flowering plants may imply an abundance of the land that has become even wealthier afterwards, as much as it is visible on the Peace side of the Standard.
The Standard’s story
But while the Standard does not reveal all its secrets it does tell a story about a society, which was full of hierarchy and wealth (McDonald 2013). Its trade routes reach far and wide to receive the luxury goods of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, to the red marble or limestone, which may have come all the way from India (Ibid.).
Elaborate mosaics must have been crafted by skilled artisans, which implies that a society that could support art and artists devoted only to that and fed by others had developed in Sumer (McDonald 2013). The artists’ skills were in turn directed towards the support of the elite, the king or ruler and his nobles (Ibid.). Rulers are depicted in art in such a way that their role above the others in the society must have been legitimatized; they were protectors of their people in warfare and bringers of peace, continuously acting as the conduit between fertility and human survival, and by extension, between the earthly world and heavens (Ibid.).
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
“Standard of Ur” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2MT6wHM>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].
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McDonald D. K. (2013). “Lecture 4: The Standard of Ur: the Role of the King”. In: 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. The Great Courses. Boston College.
Sailus Ch. (2003-2020). “Standard of Ur: Definition & Concept. Chapter 3. Lesson 24”. In: Study.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BYeRYx>. [Accessed on 11th June, 2020].
Shukur (2018). “Narrative of the End Panels on the Standard of Ur”. In: Sumerian Shakespeare. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Yo6ptb>. [Accessed on 11th June, 2020].
The British Museum (2015) “Standard of Ur”. In: Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BYdtVN>. [Accessed on 11th June, 2020].
The British Museum (2021) “Asset: 12550001”. In: The British Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gluqdb>. [Accessed on 9th June, 2020].
The British Museum (2021) “Asset: 811995001”. In: The British Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/3v6UHkR>. [Accessed on 9th June, 2020].
Wakely G. (on behalf of Penn University) (1999) “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur”. In: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A Production of the Education Department. Available at <https://bit.ly/2B4DUbK>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].
“The word zoomorphism derives from the Greek […] (zōon), meaning ‘animal’, and […] (morphē), meaning ‘shape’ or ‘form’. [Zoomorphism] could describe art that imagines humans as non-human animals” In visual arts, it is generally a depiction of deities, natural phenomena, abstract concepts and other objects in the form of real or fantastic animals, or yet animal hybrids.
Featured image: Bird-shaped oil lamp, dated late twelfth-early thirteenth century, made of bronze; cast, engraved, inlaid with silver and copper, H: 8 in. L: 9 3/8 in. W: 11 13/16 in: “Bird-shaped oil lamp”. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2019-11-03. This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy. CC0. Photo and caption source: “Zoomorphism” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
“Zoomorphism” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3roWFMn>. [Accessed on 6th March, 2021].
PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 455. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
Just after the Hypogeum in Malta was discovered by accident in 1902, it was kept secret so as not to disturb the building schedule on the site and therefore continued work caused irretrievable damage to a large megalithic circle that once stood directly above the subterranean part, giving access to its abyss (Magli 2009:56; Haughton 2009:162). It is hence believed that more such underground complexes may exist beneath other overground temples (Alberino, Quayle 2016). As a matter of fact, in the eighteenth century in Gozo, another hypogeum carved down in the rock was brought into light (Magli 2009:57).
The complex was once depicted in a painting with the famous Ggantija temple in the background (Magli 200:57). The site is known as Xaghra and was excavated in 1990 by Anthony Bonnano and his group of archaeologists (Ibid.:57). One of their most famous findings is, also like in the case of Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, a figurine. That one, however, represents two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated.
After Giulio Magli (2009:57) the placement of Xaghra in relation to Ggantija is analogous to that of the Hypogeum in relation to the nearby free-standing Tarxien temple. Indeed, the pairing cannot be coincidental as it also happens in other megalithic free standing temples of the archipelago (Ibid.:57).
Interesting but disturbing article in National Geographic …
I was still in the deep chasm of the earth’s belly, when I realized I found myself in one of the entrance to a huge underground labyrinth (see: Maltese History in the Negative). For it is well known that the Hypogeum constitutes just a part of an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands (Alberino, Quayle 2016). During World War II, the island of Malta suffered the most terrible bombing attacks, and people used this underground world as a shelter, storage for ammunition and other vital supplies (Ibid.).
Many legends and folk stories tell about eerie creatures who have inhibited the subterranean world, especially the Hypogeum complex (Alberino, Quayle 2016). In August, 1940, National Geographic Magazine featured an article entitled Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (Roma 2017). In his article from the wartime, the author describes the underground corridors in Malta used once as part of the island’s fortifications and defense system (Haughton 2009:165). Furthermore, Richard Walter detailed the underground world that honeycomb the bedrock of the archipelago, and stated that the British government blew up ancient tunnels to shut them off permanently after the school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth of the Hypogeum and they had never returned (Funnell 2014; Haughton 2009:165). Additionally, it was also said that yet many weeks after the incident, the parents of these children had claimed to hear their children’s crying and voices coming from under the ground in various parts of the island (Haughton 2009:165168; Tajemnice historii 2016).
The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) actually reports this misfortune twice, on the following pages, 267 and 272. (Roma 2017):
Many subterranean passageways, including ancient catacombs, now are a part of the island’s fortifications and defence system (page 258). Supplies are kept in many tunnels; others are bomb shelters. Beneath Valletta some of the underground areas serve as homes for the poor. Prehistoric man built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside one sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth while on a study tour and never returned(page 272).
Walter, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 267. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.
Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze
While we cycled homeward, our friends told us that the island was honeycombed with a network of underground passages, many of them catacombs. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other, but all entrances were closed by the Government because of a tragedy. On a sight-seeing trip, comparable to a nature-study tour in our own schools, a number of elementary school children and their teachers descended into the tunneled maze and did not return. For weeks mothers declared that they had heard wailing and screaming from underground. But numerous excavations and searching parties brought no trace of the lost souls. After three weeks they were finally given up for dead. Sections of this underground network have been used to protect military and naval supplies. Indeed, many of the fortifications themselves are merely caps atop a maze of tunnels (page 267) . Thus is Malta fortified. Her thrifty, religious, and intelligent people love peace. Yet, with war in Europe, they now are in the center of Mediterranean strife.
Walter, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.
The rat-catcher from Hamelin
Sceptics believe, however, that the story of the lost children is not based on facts, but actually echoes some legends appearing in various areas in Europe (Haughton 2009:168). One of them is a medieval folk tale of the Flutist from Hamelin (Germany), which was written down, among others, by the Brothers Grimm (Haughton 2009:168; “Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Then it was translated into thirty languages of the world, telling about the events that were to happen on June 26, 1284 in the German city of Hamelin (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020).
According to the legend, in 1284, the Lower Saxony city of Hamelin in Germany was hit by a plague of rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). The rat-catcher hired by the inhabitants lured the rats out of the city with the help of music produced by a miraculous flute (Ibid.). As a consequence, the animals lured out by the magical instrument drowned in the Weser River (Ibid.). After the work was done, the rat-catcher was, however, refused the promised payment for getting rid of the rodents (Ibid.). Out of revenge, the deceived musician similarly led all the children from Hamelin into the unknown, in some versions, to the underground (Ibid.).
Among the rational explanations for the origin of the legend is the hypothesis related to the plague epidemic, a disease spread by rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Such an assumption has been made because a mass grave from the mid-fourteenth century was discovered near Hamelin, containing several hundred skeletons of children (Ibid.).
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and the lost children in the Hypogeum
Many scholars also claim the story provided by the article is just a local folk tale, possibly invented to keep children away from the dangerous tunnels (Haughton 2009:168). It also brings to mind the mysterious disappearance of Australian schoolgirls described in the novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay (Ibid.:168). As the story goes, it was a clear summer day in 1900, when a group of schoolgirls from Mrs. Appleyard’s elite girls’ school, along with a few teachers, went on a picnic near a place called the Hanging Rock (Lubimyczytać.pl 2021). After lunch, a few of the older students went for a walk around the neighborhood but only one girl returned, terrified and hysterical (Ibid.). One of the teachers was also missing … (Ibid.)
The novel begins with the author’s brief foreword, which reads (“Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” 2021):
Whether “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.
Joan Lindsay’s Foreword to the novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (2021). In: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
This short excerpt by the author perfectly illustrates and characterizes the tone of the entire book; until the very end of the story it is not even clear what really happened to the missing girls and their teacher or if the story itself is based on facts at all (Sudnik 2018). Joan Lindsay does not say that the events described in her book are just a part of an invented story (Ibid.) On the contrary, the writer suggests that they could have actually happened (Ibid.). Consequently, there is still a persisting belief that it was a real event, as much as in the case of the children lost before World War II in the Maltese Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).
Is there anything more to the Maltese story?
Archaeologist Brian Haughton (2009:168) believes that in the National Geographic (1940) article you can actually find the source of many modern fascinating stories, mostly being published on the Internet. They are all about mysterious disappearing into secret tunnels below the Hypogeum (Ibid.168). After him, the problem is that the National Geographic (1940) article lacks any reference to the actual sources it has been based on, and more modern reliable descriptions of that alleged tragedy have never been discovered (Ibid.:168). Moreover, although the Hypogeum is mentioned in the article, it is not clearly described as an actual place where the children actually got lost (Ibid.:168). The author only describes the misfortune happened in the network of the underground tunnels on Malta, of which the Hypogeum is an integral part (Ibid.:168). Consequently, it cannot be certain that the said incident occurred just there (Ibid.:168).
The only thing that can be reliably assumed is that the story itself was in the public sphere (Roma 2017). It could have happened but it could also be just an urban myth. If the latter is the case, why did the British government shut off ancient tunnels permanently? (Roma 2017; Funnell 2014).
Riley Crabb, akin Commander X and his continuation of the story
The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) is the primary source for the lost children story (Roma 2017). Yet there is also another record from the sixties of the twentieth century, entitled The Reality of the Cavern World, written by Riley Crabb, akin Commander X, who was a former Director of the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (Haughton 2009:169; Funnell 2014). It is actually a publication of his own lecture in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen, published in 1966 (Haughton 2009:169). The Crabb’s reprinted article not only summarizes the story known from the National Geographic (1940) about the missing children but also mentions another important person of the story, Lois Jessup, and the fact there are tunnels beneath Malta that may reach as far as the catacombs beneath the hill of the Vatican (Funnell 2014; Haughton 2009:168-169). It also refers to the Lower Level of the Hypogeum as an actual place where the dramatic event took place (Ibid.). Accordingly, the so-called Lower Level is not the dead end of the underground temple (or a storage! as some scholars suggest) but in fact the entrance to the maze of the underground network.
Tradition holds that before the British government sealed up several tunnels, one could walk from one end of Malta to the other underground. One of the labyrinths, discovered by excavators, is the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini, in which excavators discovered the bones of over 33,000 people who had been sacrificed by an ancient pagan neolithic cult. National Geographic, Aug. 1940 issue, told of several school children who had disappeared without a trace in the Hypogeum. British embassy worker Miss Lois Jessup convinced a guide to allow her to explore a 3-ft. square “burial chamber” next to the floor of the lowest room in the last [3rd] sub-level of the catacombs. He reluctantly agreed and she crawled through the passage until emerging on a cavern ledge overlooking a deep chasm. In total shock she saw a procession of TALL humanoids with white hair covering their bodies walking along another ledge about 50 feet down on the opposite wall of the chasm. Sensing her they collectively lifted their palms in her direction at which a strong “wind” began to blow through the cavern and something big, “slippery and wet” moved past her before she left in terror to the lower room, where the guide gave her a “knowing” look. Later she returned after the 30 school children and their teacher[s] had disappeared in the same passage that she had explored, only to find a new guide who denied any knowledge of the former guides’ employment there. She heard reports however that after the last child had passed through the “burial chamber” and out onto the ledge, a “cave-in” collapsed the burial chamber and the rope connecting them to the lower chamber was later found to be “cut clean”. Grieving Mothers of several of the children swore that for a week or more following the disappearance they could hear their children crying and screaming “as if from underground”. Other sources state that an underground connection exists or did exist between Malta and reaches hundreds of miles and intersects the catacombs below the hill Vaticanus in Rome.
Riley Crabb, akin Commander X (1940). “The Reality of the Cavern World”. Reprinted in: Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (1966). Text source: Lyn Funnell (2014) “Malta’s Catacombs, Aliens & The Disappearing Children; True or Urban Myth?” In: B-C-ing-U.
I was really grabbed by these two stories (Cf. Funnell 2014). Even more mysterious is Lois Jessup’s own experience she had on the Hypogeum’s Lower Level (Cf. Funnell 2014; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Yet on my way to the Hypogeum I asked a driver if he knew anything of the children who had got lost in there before the war. He replied that he had never heard about it but actually it was good I mentioned that as he would have never let his daughter go there …
Anyway, as far as I know one is not allowed to enter the Hypogeum with a child younger than six years old.
Deliberate disinformation or accidental lack of sources?
Mainly due to such publications from the 1960s, as the article by Riley Crabb, the story of the missing children and other mysteries of the Hypogeum were endlessly repeated on the Internet, yet during the first decade of the twenty-first century (Haughton 2009:168). According to these stories, which unfortunately lack actual sources one could follow and verify, thirty children disappeared along with their teachers during a school trip to Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Before they came down deeper, they had been secured with a long rope that was attached at the entrance to the corridor (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Nevertheless, the same rope that was supposed to ensure their safe return was found cut clean (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Moreover, the entrance to the tunnel in which the children disappeared was said to have eventually been boarded up (Jessup 1958-1960).
There are also mentioned new archaeological elements that were not provided either by the author of the National Geographic (1940) article or by earlier archaeological reports from the conducted field works (see: Maltese History in the Negative); accordingly, instead of the 7,000 excavated skeletons, there is a note of the bodies of over 33,000 buried people who had been probably sacrificed to a chthonic deity from the Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).
Also the novel by Joan Lindsey (1969) was published at the time when the story about the lost children in Malta kept circulating in various publications. Was it then the author herself inspired by the mysterious tale of the Hypogeum and its innocent victims?
In search for the truth
Is the story about the lost children true then? Such a horrific happening must have been passed down through the generations (Funnell 2014). Many people have done research on the lost children to find out more but nobody’s heard anything about it (Ibid.). Lyn Funnell (2014) writes that if this accident happened it was a year or two before World War II broke out. “Malta was heavily bombed day after day. Houses were reduced to piles of rubble and there were hundreds of casualties. Many of the families who apparently lost their children would have been killed” (Ibid.).
“There was a desperate shortage of food. Day-to-day survival was the main thing on the Maltese minds” (Funnell 2014). As Lyn Funnell (2014) underlines “the facts and the dates seem so clear. And the article’s written about the children as though it assumes that everyone knows what it’s on about!” “The National Geographic Magazine is a very reputable publication” (Ibid.). Mrs. Constance Lois Jessup, also spelled Jessop, is believed to have been a real person who lived in New York City, in the 1950s and 60s (Ibid.). She might actually have worked for the British government and not for the British embassy as it is suggested in some sources, as the latter had not been yet established in Malta before 1964. Her experience in the Hypogeum probably made her join the New York Saucer Investigation Bureau, known as the NYSIB, or she had been already a member of the Institution when she went down there… (Ibid.). Her friend, Riley Crabb, known as the Commander X, wrote the article cited above about her strange experience (Ibid.).
Lois Jessop’s tour and hairy giants in her way …
One article written by Miss Lois Jessop herself, entitled Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World also appeared in an old issue by Riley Crabb’s Borderland Science Magazine, published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (B.S.R.F.) and was also later reprinted in full in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (Funnell 2014). Here is the story by Lois Jessop told in her own words:
I visited some friends on the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean in the mid-1930s. One afternoon six of us decided to hire a car and visit some of the many historical tourist attractions on the island. One of our party suggested that, since the weather was very hot, our best bet was to visit some of the caves and underground temples. At least there we could keep cool for a few hours.
Some few miles out of Valetta, the capitol of Malta, is the little town of Paula. It has only one main street, Hal Saflini, and on this is the entrance to an underground temple known as the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini. We stopped here and sought out the guide for a tour of the cave or catacombs of the Hypogeum. There was a fairly large cave entrance with ancient mural decorations of whirls and wavy lines, diamond patches here and there, also oval patterns seemingly painted with red ochre. The entrance itself smelt damp and mouldy, but inside the cave there was not a trace of mustiness. Joe, the guide, told us there were three floors of underground rooms and gave each of us a lighted candle.
One by one we bent down low to walk through a narrow passage which led to a step or two, and again we were able to stand up in a fair sized room which had been built out of the Malta sandstone aeons ago in the Stone-Age. Joe told of a powerful oracle (or wishing well) deep down, and how it had worked wonders in the old days for the initiated who knew the correct sound to use. I think the oracle still works today unless it was damaged. Malta was heavily bombarded during World War II.
The oracle was supposed to work only if a male voice called to it but as the guide was saying this I slipped down a small step and gave a yell that was picked up by something and magnified throughout the whole cave.
We followed the guide through some more narrow passages which led down, down, down, then straightened our backs again when we came into another room. In this large opening was a circular stone table or altar in the center of the room. Cut out of the rock walls around were layers of stone beds or resting places of some kind, with hollows scooped out for head, body, and narrowing to the feet. I guess these were places for adults about four feet tall, with smaller scooped out beds. It looked like mother, father and child either slept or were buried here, although we saw no bodies here.
Down, down, down again, stooping and crawling through a narrow passage into another large room, with slits or narrow openings in the stone wall.
“They buried their dead in here,” said the guide.
I peered through a slit and saw skeletons another. Through another slit I peered into a cave where, the guide said, they kept their prisoners. A three foot thick stone door, about four feet high and four feet wide, guarded the entrance.
“What kind of people, and how strong were these pigmies, to be able to carve out these rooms to a definite pattern and to move doors this thick and heavy?” I thought.
“This is the end of the tour,” Joe, the guide, said. “We must now turn and retrace our steps.”
“What’s down there?” I asked him; for on turning I noticed another opening off one of the walls.
“Go there at your own risk,” he replied, “and you won’t go far.”
I was all for more exploring and talking it over with my friends, three of them decided to go with me and two waited with the guide. I was wearing a long sash around my dress and since I decided to lead the group I asked the next one behind me to hold on to it. Holding our half-burnt candles the four of us ducked into this passage, which was narrower and lower than the others.
Groping and laughing our way along, I came out first, onto a ledge pathway about two feet wide, with a sheer drop about fifty feet or more on my right and a wall on my left. I took a step forward, close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, had not yet emerged from the passage. Thinking it was quite a drop and perhaps I should go no further without the guide I held up my candle.
There across the cave, from an opening deep below me, emerged twenty persons of giant stature. In single file they walked along a narrow ledge. Their height I judged to be about twenty or twenty-five feet, since their heads came about half way up the opposite wall. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were face down. Terror rooted me to the spot.
“Go on, we’re all getting stuck in the passage!” My friend jerked at my sash. “What’s the matter?”
“Well, there’s nothing much to see,” I stammered, taking another step forward.
My candle was in my right hand. I put my left hand on the wall to steady me, and stopped again. My hand wasn’t on cold rock but on something soft and wet. As it moved a strong gust of wind came from nowhere and blew out my candle! Now I really was scared in the darkness!
“Go back,” I yelled to the others, “go back and guide me back by my sash. My candle has gone out and I cannot see!”
In utter panic I backed into the narrow little passageway and forced the others back, too, until we had backed into the large room where Joe and my friends were waiting. What a relief that was!
“Well, did you see anything?” asked one of them.
“No,” I quickly replied, “There was a draft in there that blew my candle out.”
“Let’s go,” said Joe, the guide.
I looked up at him. Our eyes met. I knew that at one time he had seen what I had seen. There was an expression of caution in his eyes, adding to my reluctance to tell anyone. I decided not to.
Out in the open again and in the hot Malta sunshine we thanked the guide, and as we tipped him he looked at me.
“If you really are interested in exploring further it would be wise to join a group. There is a schoolteacher who is going to take a party exploring soon,” he said.
I left my address with him and asked him to have the schoolteacher get in touch with me, but I never heard any more about it, until one of my friends called me to read an item from the Valetta paper.
“I say, Lois, remember that tunnel you wanted to explore? It says here in the paper that a schoolmaster and thirty students went exploring, and apparently got as far as we did. They were roped together and the end of the rope was tied to the opening of the cave. As the last student turned the corner where your candle blew out the rope was clean cut, and none of the party was found because the walls caved in.”
The shock of this information didn’t change my determination not to say anything about my experience in the Hypogaeum, but several months later my sister visited Malta and insisted on making a tour of the underground temple on Hal Saflini. Reluctantly, I went along, retracing the same route; but there was a different guide this time. When we got down to the lowest level, to the room where I had taken off to explore the tunnel entrance was boarded up!
“Wasn’t it here that the schoolmaster and the thirty students got trapped?” I asked the guide.
“Perhaps,” he replied, with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders, and refused to say anything more. You cannot get a thing out of the Maltese when they don’t want to talk.
“You are new here, aren’t you?” I asked him. “Where’s Joe, the guide who was here a couple of months ago?”
“I don’t know any Joe.” He shook his head. “I alone have been showing people around this catacomb for years.”
Who was this guide? And why did Joe disappear after we left Hal Saflini that first time? And why is it impossible to get any facts on the disappearing schoolchildren story? In the Summer of 1960, Louise Becker, N.Y.S.I.B.’s treasurer visited Malta during her European trip. She searched old newspaper files and the Museum, trying to get some facts to substantiate my story, but in vain. The Maltese are tight-lipped about the secrets of their island.”
All the mentioned stories that refer to the mysterious world of the Hypogeum, whether real, imaginary or legendary, are certainly also inspired by human curiosity of the unknown, which is always hidden deep in the depths of the earth, to which both natural caves and man-made passages are the gateways. The latter, like the Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, built either as a temple or necropolis, particularly lures human imagination by its abyss that both, terrifies and delights. It is because it offers an alternative and inexplicable world of mystery. The journey of the school children and that of Lois Jessup ends at the last permitted threshold of the Lower Level. Beside it, the unknown realms, and it explanation fades with the candlelight. Likewise, the mystery of the darkness leads to the unknown of Hanging Rock from the novel by Joan Lindsey. Still it cannot be revealed to the outside world. It disappears together with those whom it devours. In any case, the darkness attracts and absorbs the children’s innocence. Trustful as they are by nature, they follow its path without knowing that they would never return to the sun. What they left behind is just an enigma.
“Primitive” inhabitants of Malta.
So where is the beginning of the whole story of the Hypogeum after all? Prehistory of Malta begins (if we stick with the established dates) quite late, namely around 5200 BC. (Magli 2009:48). Between 5200 and 4000 BC. nothing extraordinary happened: like the cultures of Sicily, with which Malta’s inhabitants had a contact, people of the archipelago made pottery and developed economy based on fishing, hunting and farming (Ibid.:48). They built their houses in brick and small stones and led a very ordinary Neolithic life (Ibid.:48). Then, out of the blue, as if “primitive” inhabitants of Malta had awakened from a long dream, a great explosion of building activity with the use of giant megaliths had started (Ibid.:48).
The so-called Temple Period lasted for over one millennium, from around 3800 to 2500 BC. (Magli 2009:47). What is even more interesting, the builders of the temples vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared on the scene (Ibid.:48-49). Prof John Evans (1925 – 2011), a leading Maltese temple researcher admitted himself, there has been no explanation for such a fact (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). After the sudden end of the megalithic culture, the island was apparently not inhabited for a long time but finally everything came back to the “primitive” state of things (Magli 2009:48-49; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). It actually does not make any sense … (Magli 2009:48-49).
More stories about giants
Some independent researchers claim that the Maltase Cyclopean architecture, including the Hypogeum and other structures, such as enigmatic cart ruts, actually come from the Prediluvian times and were constructed and inhabited by long – headed hybrids, and giants, maybe similar to those encountered and described by Lois Jessup (Magli 2009:64-65; Burns 2014; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Successive inhabitants of the archipelago also assigned the construction of the megalithic structures to giants, especially to Cyclops (hence the term Cyclopean architecture coming from the Greek) (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017; Burns 2014). Similar stories were repeated by the Minoan and Mycenae cultures whose members regarded Malta as the island once inhabited by strange and powerful beings (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). According to a legend, in the beginning, the island was ruled by the offspring of the Giantess who had emerged from the Atlantic Ocean (Ibid.). Similar stories are also known in other parts of the world (Ibid.). Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta (Ibid.). Prof. John Evans claimed, however, that some of them look rather asexual (Ibid.). Who were those giants then? As the legend goes they were the teachers passing on knowledge to people (Ibid.). Dr. Anton Mifsud claims that his friend living on Gozo island has dug up a three metres long skeleton but he hid it from the authorities (Ibid.).. Still, there is no other evidence of such a discovery … (Ibid.).
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Hypogeum was closed for several years, namely in the years 1992-1996, although it was reportedly not related to the mysterious events happening inside the monument (Haughton 2009:169). It was because more serious restoration work had to be carried out due to the progressive destruction of the limestone rock caused by the action of carbon dioxide exhaled by tourists in the limited space (Ibid.:169). In order to protect this valuable archaeological site from further damage, the number of visitors has now been limited to eighty a day, which requires prior reservation of a visit (Ibid.:169). In addition, a micro-climate was created above the underground chambers, artificially regulating temperature and humidity (Ibid.:169). In 1980, the fascinating Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni was eventually declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (Ibid.:169). It has truly deserved it!
Up Back in the Sun!
A modern day Malta is a collective blend of ethnic and cultural heritages but the identity of the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago is shrouded in mystery. Today it is difficult to separate the myth from the truth but material evidence left behind cannot be ignored. Like other megalithic builders around the world Cyclopean architects from Malta, whoever they were, vanished almost overnight, without a trace.
I felt strangely liberated when I eventually emerged from the darkness of the Hypogeum and found myself again in the sunshine, under the azure sky of the Mediterranean. The underground world attracts to its mystery but it must have been invented to appreciate more the daylight and outside world, still existing on the surface of its creepy stories. For many reasons, it was a strange and profound experience that is yet worth recommending.
When my friend joined me, we headed off to other great monuments of Malta – the free standing megalithic temples built “in the positive”, on the surface.
Featured image: Photograph of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni made before 1910. Photo by Richard Ellis. Uploaded in 2008. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
The definition of xylography means the oldest known form of woodcut and engraving in wood, invented in China in the first century AD. Although it originated in China, “the practice of woodcut has spread across the world from Europe to other parts of Asia, and to Latin America. [In woodcut technique], the block is cut along the wood grain, [whereas in the case of wood engraving], the block is cut in the [end-grain].” (“Woodcut” 2021).
The technique of “[woodcut] is a relief printing […] in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with gouges—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts. Areas that the artist cuts away carry no ink, while characters or images at surface level carry the ink to produce the print. […] The surface is covered with ink, [also in multiple colours], by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas” (“Woodcut” 2021).
The art of carving the woodcut is generally referred to as xylography. Although the latter term is rarely used in Europe for woodcut single images, it is mostly related to the so-called block books, “which are small books containing text and images in the same block” (“Woodcut” 2021). Such block books are also called xylographica; they were uniquely printed in Europe and became popular in the second half of the fifteenth century. They are short books of up to fifty leaves and of nearly always religious content. At the same time, a single-sheet of woodcut is rather called simply a woodcut, which is presented as a single image or print, as opposed to a book illustration included in xylographica.
Featured image: Fragment of the woodcut page from the Apocalypse. It is a block book printed in Europe between 1450 & 1500. The image come from a late fifteenth century compilation blockbook [Cod Pal. Germ 34] of which the ‘Apokalypse’ (4th ed.) forms one section. The printed text is in Latin but handwritten German translation sheets were inserted between the blockbook pages. The book is hosted by the University of Heidelberg. Public domain. Image modified. Photo and caption source: “Block book” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Bernard T. (2013). “Xylography. Art Terms — X”Trylit”. In: Teresa Bernard Oil Paintings. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fvYwvq>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].
“Woodcut” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/34rVLoq>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].
“Block book” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3i1FAX3>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].
Experts have only recently learnt the true scale of the disaster triggered by the volcano eruption on Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans). As they have concluded, its deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of the tiny Minoan island (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and the] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).
I looked up in the azure colours of the sky over the Mediterranean. I just could not imagine it turning into black pitch and breathing fire and ashes.
Town under the ashes
In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).
Excavations on the island of Santorini reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).
With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).
The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).
Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).
Fire in the sky
Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).
‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).
Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).
Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete
Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).
Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire archaeologists came (Ibid.). Among the first, there was Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).
The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).
Today the small hill, the town stood on at the water’s edge is eroding into the sea (Lilley 2006). It reveals strange layers of chaotically mixed material of pottery, building material, stones, cattle bones and lumps of ash, reaching up to five metres above Minoan sea level (Ibid.). After Prof. Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist who specializes in identifying and dating unusual layers, the deposit does not look like natural archaeological stratification or the result of an earthquake (Ibid.). To find out the origins of the strange deposits in Palaikastro, Prof. Bruins has conducted thorough laboratory studies (Ibid.). He was thrilled by the results (Ibid.). ‘We saw foraminifera in these deposits’, he says (Ibid.). Foraminifera are the shells of tiny organisms only found beneath the sea (Ibid.). Accordingly, it suggests that the deposit has been formed with the power of sea waves (Ibid.). Another marine creature within the soil sample is coralline algae from the seabed (Ibid.). ‘These come from below the sea level and in order to deposit them in that level, where we found them in a promontory, [they had] to be scooped up […] to [the] level, where the sea normally never comes’, explains Prof. Bruins (Ibid.). No storm would have lifted the algae from the seabed and left it stranded metres up on the island (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there is another powerful natural force that has the power to do that (Ibid.). These are tsunami waves (Ibid.). Are the Palaikastro beach deposits the terrifying footprint of a tsunami? (Ibid.).
Now it makes sense
Prof. Costas Synolakis, an expert on tsunami, has explored the excavated part of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated three hundred metres from the beach (Lilley 2006). He has found there further evidence that something extraordinary happened there in the far past (Ibid.).
The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage (Lilley 2006). ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray. Prof. Costas Synolakis claims that ‘this is what we [observe] in modern tsunamis. We call this the blow out. The sea comes in [and] blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls […] will survive but the walls facing the ocean […] collapse’ (Ibid.). For Dr Sandy McGillivray ‘all of the sudden a lot of deposits [around Palaikastro] began making sense […] because [the town] had these buildings pulled away, [it] had the fronts of buildings missing. [it] had buildings raised right down the foundation level’ (Ibid.). What kind of wave was then powerful enough to cross three hundred metres of land before demolishing a town? (Ibid.).
The scientists also travelled further inland of Crete to find out how wide was the range of the waves terrible progress (Lilley 2006). Around one kilometre from the shore, and well above sea level, they have found deposits of seashell (Ibid.). Soil samples from excavation from ancient Palaikastro also contain the tale-tell microscopic signs of marine life, which is another evidence that the tsunami deluged the town (Ibid.).
When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea (Masjum 2006). Scientists believe it caused giant waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Hour after hour, pyroclastic flows on Thera were pushing volcanic debris into the sea, causing great tsunami waves that battered the Aegean coast (Masjum 2006; Mitchell 2011). ‘And then what happens is that the centre of the volcano […] has been blasted. it collapses to produce today’s caldera’, describes Prof. Floyd. ‘The land suddenly fell in, the ocean poured in and out producing constant tsunami’ (Masjum 2006). Inhabitants of nearby Crete could notice warning signs, but did not have enough time to react (Mitchell 2011). The first tsunami moving at the speed of three hundred and twenty kilometres per hour reached the coast of Crete within twenty minutes (Ibid.). At the time of contact with the land, the wave could have been up to twenty meters high (Ibid.).
Apparently, the tsunami generated by Thera eruption was powerful enough to ravage the entire civilization (Lilley 2006). On the north coast of Crete, fifty kilometres west along the coast from Palaikastro, Malia lies. Now it is known for ruins of a Minoan palace but once it was the third largest settlement on coastal Crete (Ibid.). Close by the ruins, the team of scientists has found the same layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that they have observed in Palaikastro (Ibid.). That is further evidence that a huge wave had struck the northern coast of Crete, dumping marine life onto the land (Ibid.). Next step was the study of the Minoan port of Amnissos (Ibid.). The site is located west of Malia and near the settlement of Knossos (Ibid.). Four thousand years ago, a villa nestled among olive groves on this idyllic coast (Ibid.). It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the Minoan love of nature (Ibid.). But about the time of eruption of the volcano, the villa was destroyed and the frescoes torn from the walls (Ibid.). Pumice from Thera was once found in the ruins of this Minoan villa (Ibid.). Initially it was thought that the petrified volcanic froth may have been brought in there by a storm (Ibid.). However, the team has also found Thera pumice higher in the hills behind the villa, twenty metres above sea level, which may suggest it floated in on a massive tsunami (Ibid.).
Dr Sandy McGillivray says that he remembers from his childhood a big anthill at one end of the garden and as a child he used to go with a garden hose and wash ants off it (Lilley 2006). That memory keeps coming back to in his memory when he is thinking how the tsunami destroyed the Minoans on Crete (Ibid.). Tsunamis weeping people out to the sea must have been just like washing ants off the anthill. ‘It is a terrifying thing’, he admits (Ibid.). ‘Those ants never had a chance [to survive]’ (Ibid.). ‘Once the tsunami starts climbing up on dry land’, he continues (Ibid.). ‘It’s moving at [such] speed that nothing can stop it’ (Ibid.).
You wish you hadn’t found out …
Evidence gathered also demonstrates the range of destructive powers of the tsunami that would have struck on northern coasts of Crete (Lilley 2006).
As it can be concluded, when the caldera of Thera collapsed, it sent several walls of water into the Aegean Sea, like a pebble dropping into a pond (Lilley 2006). These waves cumulated around the islands and bounced off them (Ibid.). As a result, Crete was hit not by one but by several rebounding waves (Ibid.). The intervals between them were from around forty-five to thirty minutes (Ibid.). Recent studies have shown that more tsunamis ravaged cities on the northern coast of Crete for hours or even days after the eruption (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that they killed from thirty to forty thousand people (Ibid.). After the first tsunami, there were surely Cretans who escaped but they came back to look for the injured and dead relatives and friends, smashed by the powerful wave (Lilley 2006). They did not realize that another wave was coming (Ibid.). Consequently, the survivors of the first wave may have become the victims of the second (Ibid.).
Dr McGillivray has been deeply moved by the obtained results. ‘You know, it’s like time looking for something and then when you find it, you wish you hadn’t because it becomes too real and, you know, you begin to feel the experience’, he admits (Lilley 2006). ‘This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea [in vast numbers]. There’s a whole instant that flashes through your head’ (Ibid.).
Mysterious legend that haunts to this day
The most massive volcanic eruption of the ancient world blew the island of Thera apart and buried for centuries all the evidence of the lives of people who had once called it home (Westbrook 1995). Yet memories have remained (Ibid.). Footprints in the dust have finally been discovered by archaeologists (Ibid.). There are, however, no written records left about the Thera’s eruption and subsequent tsunamis, no figures for the death or destruction it has caused (Lilley 2006). It is only known that the rich culture of the Minoans, one that awed and inspired the earliest civilizations of the Mediterranean, completely vanished at the end of the Bronze Age (History Channel 1980s). Was the powerful empire of the Minoans destroyed by natural forces or was there human intervention? (Ibid.).
On Thera, a massive eruption had buried Minoan streets and buildings beneath the flowing lava (History Channel 1980s). Meantime, clouds of ash engulfed the entire region (Ibid.). Crops were ruined and livestock suffocated (Ibid.). Consequently, all life on Santorini was destroyed (Ibid.). The utter destruction of the island and its people who settled there, must have left the powers of the region awestruck (Westbrook 1995). The palaeontologist, Charles Pellegrino, claims that the Egyptians must have known Thera (Ibid.). In the Bronze Age, it was surely known as a powerful colony of the Minoans (Ibid.). Egyptian ships would have travelled north to the very mountainous island for trading (Ibid.). After the volcano eruption, there was nothing but the silvers of broken rib-like land (Ibid.). Pellegrino thinks that to the ancient Egyptians finding the still smoking and blooming crater probably meant that the whole island and its inhabitants had simply sunk and disappeared (Ibid.). In centuries to come a great legend was heard of a Utopian island society that vanished in the sea “in a single day and night” (Ibid.).
Did the Egyptian priests mean Thera in their written story of the sunken island that they retold to Solon? According to some scholars, the history of the volcanic disaster on Thera may have been recorded by the ancient Egyptians and survived in repeatedly embellished stories (Mitchell 2011). In the fourth century BC., they may have inspired the Greek philosopher to write a morality play about the rise and fall of a great civilization, called Atlantis (Ibid.). For centuries, Plato’s words were considered a legend, until archaeologists discovered a lost world on Thera (Ibid.).
In one day and one night
The legend of Atlantis has teased human imagination ever since (Westbrook 1995). Some scholars definitely claims the story is a myth, others believe it is a true story and they either still keep looking for it or point to the small dot in the Aegean between Egypt, Greece and Asia, today just a rim of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea (Ibid.). Is Thera a legendary Atlantis? (Ibid.). Plato described the island of Atlantis as alternating rings of land and sea (Mitchell 2011). The port was full of ships and buyers from all over the world (Ibid.). Such great wealth had never been seen before (Ibid.). Bulls grazed at Poseidon’s temple, and ten princes hunted for them using wooden sticks and ropes (Ibid.). Then came powerful earthquakes and floods (Ibid.). In one day and one night, Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared (Ibid.).
After some enthusiasts of the legend, like Pellegrino, there are some convincing clues and local finds that confirm that Plato’s Atlantis was in fact the island of Thera (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). “Like the Atlanteans, the Minoans were island-dwellers with shipyards, powerful fleets and a thriving maritime commerce. They had fine houses and superb artifacts, and were skilful builders and engineers – again like the Atlanteans. As in Atlantis, the bull, sacred to Poseidon the earth-shaker, was important in Minoan rituals (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Also Plato describes Atlantis as an island made of sea and land rings (Mitchell 2011). Thera’s reconstructions before the volcanic eruption show that the island could have fit this description (Ibid.). The unusual terrain was the effect of the most powerful geological forces on earth, always active beneath the island throughout its geological history (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there would have just been one concentric ring of land and two of water, building up the island, whereas Plato describes Atlantis as a fortified dwelling place with concentric rings, two of land and three of water (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). Thera, as one of the Minoan colonies in the Mediterranean, was too small to be self-sufficient (Mitchell 2011), yet it was as wealthy and self-assured as much as the settlements of Minoans on Crete (Lilley 2006). Its geographical location made it an important trading point in the Mediterranean (Mitchell 2011). Its buyers acted as intermediaries by trading precious metals, oil, wine, ceramics and spices from Africa, Asia and Europe (Ibid.).
Also the bull, especially bull-leaping, is a recurring theme in Minoan art and there are many depictions of this powerful animal (Westbrook 1995). Such representations echo Plato’s description of Atlantis; there are described golden cups with scenes of bull ceremonies engraved on the sides, also analogous to Plato’s narrative (Ibid.). Such details as bulls being tied up by nooses and with rope furthermore match the author’s descriptions (Ibid.). Pellegrino also recounts the moment ‘early in [the twentieth] century, when the Minoan civilisation was being unearthed’ (Ibid.). ‘Some of the first archaeologists to arrive on the site, looking at the paintings of the bull ceremonies, and so on, said: ‘that’s Plato! That’s his Atlantis story!’, he claims (Ibid.). Plato also mentions that “first noble and innocent, the Atlanteans in time became power-hungry aggressors, seeking to subjugate neighbouring lands. Eventually, they were however, defeated by the Athenians, and then their island was destroyed by natural forces, earthquake and flood” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). As archaeological records suggest, the Greeks indeed invaded and conquered the Minoans in the second half of the fifteenth century BC. Moreover, like the wonderful civilization of Atlantis, Thera was destroyed by a terrible cataclysm during its greatest heyday and vanished (Westbrook 1995). “If Plato’s date for Atlantis, 9 000 years before Solon, were to lose a zero (a scribal error, perhaps, or storyteller’s exaggeration), [after some scholars], it would fit neatly into the timescale of Minoan culture” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21).
Elephants on Thera?
“But problems remain, not least the fact that Plato explicitly states that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, [on the Atlantic Ocean]” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Although Thera’s explosion blew the island apart, it only precipitated the downfall of Minoan Crete, which eventually happened generations after the volcano eruption with the invasions of Mycenaeans from Greece (Ibid.:21). Correspondingly, the Minoans were not defeated by “the Athenians” before the natural disaster but long after it. There are also other differences between Plato’s story and archaeological facts about ancient Thera. Among animals living on Atlantis, there were elephants, which did not live on Thera, at least not in the Bronze Age (Ibid.:18). Thera was also too small to fit Plato’s description or to be divided into ten kingdoms between Poseidon’s descendants, like Atlantis actually was (Ibid.:18).
What is more, Crete and not Thera was the headquarters of the Minoan empire. And, unlike the legend of Atlantis says, Crete did not disappear in a single night and day (Westbrook 1995). It was only Thera that vanished (Ibid.). Plato does not either mention any volcano eruption on Atlantis but the fact the island was destroyed by earthquakes and floods (Masjum 2006). Moreover, although recurring representations of bull ceremonies are the traces left by the Minoan civilization, the evidence is hardly found on Santorini (Westbrook 1995). Yet it is abundant on Crete (Ibid.). Or maybe was Thera (and the Minoans) just a legacy of the Atlanteans, and not Atlantis itself?
Fatal thread to Cretans
Prof. Walter Friedrich, a geologist, thinks that the volcano eruption was entirely fatal for Thera, but not for Crete (History Channel 1980s). For Cretans living on the northern coast of their island, the biggest thread came from the sea (Ibid.). Giant waves of tsunamis swept across the Aegean, destroying their glamorous architecture and powerful fleet (Ibid.). The tsunami was enough to bring a great civilization to its knees but there were survivors (Lilley 2006). Knossos, the Minoan capital was too far inland to be destroyed (Ibid.). According to archaeological evidence, the Minoans rebuilt their palaces, and although they never regained their full power and influence, they could still create exquisite works of art (Ibid.).
‘Did the volcanic eruption on Santorini directly destroy the Minoan culture’, asks Dr Don Evely, the archaeologist (Masjum 2006). ‘The answer is simply no. If, however, we ask a more subtle question: did it contribute to the decline? Did it undermine the Minoan power? The answer is almost certainly yes.’ (Ibid.). The devastating effects of Thera’s eruption on Crete are not limited to the number of dead and destroyed palaces (Mitchell 2011). Minoan society suffered a serious shock (Ibid.). Archaeological data testifies a deep social unrest; towns and temples were looted and set on fire (Ibid.). People were probably sacrificed (Ibid.).
Invaders from Greece
A final outburst of destruction overtook the Minoans in around 1450 BC (Lilley 2006). In western Crete, an excavation in the heart of the modern town of Chania has revealed evidence of arson, which proves strong fires once took place there (Ibid.). It is a pattern repeated also in other sites across the island (Ibid.). Was this a revolution within the Minoan society or is it the evidence of conquest by outsiders? (Ibid.). The archaeologist, Dr Maria Vlazaki, discovered a highly unusual cemetery in Chania (Ibid.). It dates from the same period as the widespread destruction in the Minoan world (Ibid.). ‘These are warrior graves’, she claims (Ibid.). ‘They are single burials, something that is in opposition with the traditional [Minoan grave. The buried were of the age] between twenty-four and thirty. They [were] tall, robust and they look [like] invaders’ (Ibid.). These invaders’ burials have been also found at Knossos and elsewhere on Crete so it suggests an invasion from the mainland of Greece (Ibid.). The invaders are believed to have slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the Minoans (Ibid.).
Dr McGillivray believes that the tsunamis and forthcoming social unrest may have actually helped the Mycenaeans to attack Crete (Lilley 2006). Coastal towns of the Minoans, like Malia, had no protective walls (Ibid.). Minoan defences rested instead on their control of the sea as the leading naval power in the ancient world (Ibid.). ‘The [islanders] were so confident in their navy that they were living in unprotected towns and cities all along the coastline’, he explains (Ibid.). All that naval force must have been, however, smashed and lost in the waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Meantime, the fleet of Mycenae had grown in power (Ibid.). ‘[Their] traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). The archaeologist thinks that the tsunami could not reach into there because of its geographical landscape and natural closure from the sea (Ibid.). ‘Mycenaean Greeks up there were probably the only people who had survived with a navy, possibly in the whole eastern Mediterranean’, he explains (Ibid.). Hence their upcoming powerful empire.
Did these invaders encounter a dark side of Minoan culture? (Lilley 2006). In Knossos, archaeologists have found grisly human remains (Ibid.). ‘One of the most telling and horrifying deposits from the post-Thera eruption period in Crete was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the Royal Road and that [were] these cannibalized youths’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘The analysis of these bones from this […] deposit strongly [suggests] that [the bones] have been hacked up in order to take the flesh off [and] eat [it]. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete’ (Ibid.). Was this an origin of the Minotaur myth? (Ibid.). Did the Greeks imagine that these unlucky victims had been led to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minoan bull god? (Ibid.). Whatever is the truth of their myth’s origins, within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had conquered Crete (Ibid.). The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out (Ibid.).
Between now and then
Today, the only things that have survived from the Minoan culture are the remains of their monumental architecture, being visited by flocks of tourists every summer (Masjum 2006).
Yet for most the real story of the catastrophic disaster smashing the civilization is too heavy for people’s relaxing vacation. Soon most tourists usually abandon the ancient stones and go to sandy beaches. But endowed with its natural grandeur, the Aegean islands and Crete fire people imagination. In this idyllic landscape the atmosphere of the past is still very tangible. And it makes them unconsciously listen to its legends.
Featured image: The refugees from the erupting Thera are trying to flee to Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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