Tag Archives: Artifacts

The Gesture of Saint Anne of Faras and its Mysteries

Passing by Warsaw on my way from the Chopin Airport to my hometown, I decided to stop at the National Museum of Warsaw to explore once again the Faras Gallery. One of its precious treasure is a fragmentary wall painting, described as the image of Saint Anne of Nubia. Like other wall paintings from the same gallery, it originally featured the cathedral of Faras (earlier Pechoras), located in the capital of the Kingdom of Nobatia (or Nobadia) (Cartwright, 2019).

Birth and re-birth of Christian Nubia

Established in the 4th century AD, Nobatia had grown out of a long ancient tradition of Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush (Ibid.; Adams, 1991:1800). Since the early Middle Ages it had been inhabited by a tribe of the Nobatae who developed their culture beyond the first cataract of the Nile, between present-day Egypt and Sudan (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:11-0:30]; Cartwright, 2019). To the south, there also existed other Nubian kingdoms, namely Makouria and Alwa (Adams, 1991:1800). Christianity reached this region in the 6th century AD, brought there by Byzantine missionaries (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:30-0:45]; Cartwright, 2019) but initially inspired by the Christian tradition of Egypt, and with minor influences from Byzantium, Syria and Palestine (Adams, 1991:1811-1812).

After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, Nubia emerged as a lonely “Christian island among the sands of Sahara desert” (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:45-0:59]), having developed its culture until the 14th century, when it was eventually sunk by the same enemy, with its monuments covered in sand (Ibid.:[2:00-2:10]). “They were [only] reborn [in the 1960s] when a Polish archaeological [rescue] expedition, headed by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, explored the sites designated for flooding by the waters of the Nile at the Aswan Dam” (Ibid.:[2:10-2:26]). As a result, preserved objects from the Faras cathedral, mainly priceless mural paintings, were shared between the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum and the National Museum of Warsaw (Ibid.:2:41-2:52; NMW, 2019). The painting of Saint Anne has been displayed as a part of the Nubian Collection in the Faras Gallery since 1972 (NMW, 2014-2015:[2:42-2:52]; NMW, 2019). In 2014, the exhibition was redesigned, to mimic the layout of the cathedral interior and “present the wall paintings in a way that reflects their original placement, with the sound of authentic Coptic liturgical chanting heightening the experience for visitors” (NMW, 2019).

Styles of Faras wall paintings

“In church art, as in church architecture, it appears that the Nubians assimilated and combined influences from a variety of sources as well as adding touches of their own” (Adams, 1991:1812). Nevertheless, Nubian artists and architects did not only imitate the foreign traditions but created a Christian culture of their own, which is fully reflected by a distinctive style of Nubian mural paintings (Ibid.:1812; NMW, 2014-2015:[0:58-1:30]). “Initially monumental and austere, they gradually became to take on a unique local character allowing to be distinguished from Egyptian or Ethiopian images” (NMW, 2014-2015:[1:30-1:44]). Professor Michałowski has recognised different successive styles in the Faras art of mural paintings, in terms of their design, used colours and iconography (Adams, 1991:1812).

From the 8th to around 10th century, dimmed colours predominated, mainly ochre, white, and shades of violet (Ibid.:1812). Simultaneously, there were linear, frontal and schematic representations of human characters with elongated limbs, exceedingly large and absent eyes, and very few decorations (Ibid.:1812, Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95). They are stylistically typical of the Christian Egypt and it is believed that they were created by Coptic artists (Adams, 1991:1811-1812; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-1:40]). Among the represented figures facing the viewer there were mainly the images of Christ, His Mother, saints, angels and warriors (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:42-2:10]). Between the 10th and 14th century, Faras artists created in their own style, which had mainly been elaborated from the Byzantine, and apart from saints, they also represented Nubian dignitaries: bishops and kings (Ibid.:[2:10-2:40]). The paintings became intensely multicoloured, human depictions – more naturalistic and dynamic, with lavishly decorated details (Ibid.:[2:40-3:05]; Adams, 1991:1812). Saint Anne of Faras is dated back to the 8th century and so it features the characteristics of the early period (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-2:10]). Her image together with other Nubian paintings are usually referred to as frescoes (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). However, they are all tempera made on dry mud plaster by applying local natural pigments (Ibid.; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014 [3:05-3:20]).

Construction phases of the Faras cathedral

Apparently, the earlier 7th century cathedral of Faras was originally dedicated to the Twelve Apostles (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:96). In the 8th century, a larger temple replaced it on the same site but it was already devoted to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:96; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-0:48]). The temple itself played a role of a metropolitan church in its earliest period and was built on the basilican plan with an apse (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). With the passing time, its construction had continuously been developing until the 14th century (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-1:15]) and only since the 8th century, the cathedral’s walls had been plastered and covered in paintings (Ibid.:[0:15-0:48];Adams, 1991:1811). One of the most famous of all is the painting under study – a fragmentary preserved image representing the head and left arm of Saint Anne. In the 8th century, it decorated the northern wall of the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral (Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Female programme in the Nubian art

In the East, as in the whole Christian world, the inside of the church was segregated by gender (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). In line with this architectural tradition, the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral was dedicated to saint women and is believed to have been reserved for the female part of the Christian congregation (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). Simultaneously, access to other parts of the church, except vestibules, was strictly restricted to women (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). As the status of women in Christian Nubia is thought to have been relatively high (Ibid.:104), the iconographical programme of the northern aisle must have once answered their spiritual needs (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The idea is supported by the fact, there were found numerous representations of saint women, among them foundresses, queens, martyrs, mothers and healers (Ibid.:154). On the whole, there are preserved around thirty wall paintings from the northern aisle, half of which represent female themes (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:104).

At the same time, in other parts of the church, women characters, beside the Virgin Mary, were depicted relatively rarely (Ibid.:104). “[I]n the context of ‘the women-oriented programme” (Ibid.:125), the image of Saint Anne has been considered by scholars as one of the most significant (Ibid.:110, 125). “The veneration of Saint Anne is oftentimes cited as specifically ‘female’” (Ibid.:126). Undoubtedly, Nubian women, like other women in the whole Christian world, turned in prayers to Saint Anne for help when they wish to conceive, deliver successfully, or they ask for wellbeing of their children and their own (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019; see Gerstel 1998:96-98). By miraculous events in Saint Anne’s life, Christian women surely hoped for her intercession and fulfilment of their personal prayers (Mierzejewska, 2014:155).

Ancestors of God

Saint Anne, the Mother of Saint Mary, does not appear as a biblical character in the Canonical Gospels (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Bible is equally silent about the lifetime of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). The story of Saint Anne and her Holy Daughter, however, are described in apocryphal gospels: the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, composed around the 7th century, and in the Protoevangelium of James, written in Greek, probably in Coptic Egypt, in the 2nd century (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95; Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Anonymous authors tell there about the events accompanying the birth and childhood of Saint Mary, clearly following the model of the Old Testament, describing miraculous births of patriarchs, such as Isaac, or the New Testament birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). According to the apocryphal stories, Saint Anne was married to Joachim, a pious Jew and descendant of the House of David (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). For a long time, they had been childless, which was considered as a reproach in Israel (Ibid.:154). However, thanks to their persistent prayers and the faith in God’s grace, being already in years Anne conceived and gave birth to a daughter, Mary – the future Mother of God (Ibid.:154). This is why in a later tradition the Jewish couple has become known as Theopatores, which means Ancestors of God (Ibid.:154). Existing also in Coptic Egypt, the same tradition locates this event in Bethlehem, believed to be Saint Anne’s hometown (Ibid.:154).

Mother of Theotokos

Particular interest in Saint Mary’s hagiography, which is not recorded in the Scripture, especially grew after the Council of Ephesus convened in 431, where the Virgin Mary formally became regarded as Theotokos (Mother of God) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Council’s decision had inspired numerous literary works dedicated to Saint Mary’s lifetime, including Her parents’ (Ibid.:154). Consequently, important events from Her lifetime were referred to as the subjects of the Liturgy and became frequently illustrated in contemporary art (Ibid.:154). In the Eastern Christianity, the image of Saint Anne with the little Mary has represented significant theological truths supporting the human nature of the Virgin born from human parents and so the human nature of Christ (Ibid.:154). Moreover, the granted title of Theotokos inspired more feasts dedicated to Saint Mary, which were consequently introduced in the Liturgical Calendar (Ibid.:154). Among them, there is a feast commonly known in the Eastern Church as the Conception of Saint Anne, to celebrate the moment when she became the Mother of Theotokos (9th December) (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). It also exists in the Catholic Church but it is known under the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th December) (Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019; see Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Saint Anne of Faras

The fragmentary image of Saint Anne may have been once a part of a larger representation (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125): the Saint was possibly depicted in a full figure, while standing or being enthroned, with a little Mary in her arms or on her lap, which is indicated by her head slightly bowed to one side (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). Such an assumption exists because of “[t]he inscription accompanying the image of Saint Anne, [which] implies that the image of her daughter – Mary was also a part of the painting” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125). Tadeusz Dobrzeniecki (1988:97), however, notices that the same inscription can equally signify Saint Anne’s title of the Mother of Theotokos, which means she may have been depicted alone, without her Daughter.

Saint Anne of Faras is wearing a violet maphorion covering her head and surrounding the oval face, which is filled with calm and gentleness (Ibid.:110,125). Her wide open and large eyes are dominant and seem to smile while looking straight ahead (Ibid.:110,125). In their look, they give an expression similar to those observed in Egyptian portraits of Fayum (Ibid.:110,112,125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:106). Once  the viewer has got an impression the saint is looking beyond them, absent, the other time, they feel her warm gaze of understanding and comfort (see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:103). Even if Saint Anne’s figure cannot be seen entirely, it must evidently have been slender with elongated limbs; her right hand is supporting the chin and the long index finger is placed on the lips (Ibid.:95).

Portrayal with no analogies

Representations of Saint Anne were quite common in the Christian art of the 8th century (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110;125), however, “the portrayal […] from Faras is for many reasons exceptional” (Ibid.:125). First of all, Saint Anne is missing a halo around her head, even though it was usually depicted as a typical feature of all saints (Ibid.:110,125). While there is another example of such a representation in the 8th century art (Theotokos, Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Italy), Saint Anne’s image seems outstanding in this respect (Ibid.:110;125) and “devoid of any direct or obvious analogies” (Ibid.:126). Dobrzeniecki (1988:95) suggests it is because her character does not appear in the Canon Scripture but only in the apocrypha. In turn, Aleksandra Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016:125) points out to “[a]nother singular trait” of the same portrayal: “the juvenile or perhaps timeless appearance of Saint Anne’ face” (Ibid.:125). As it is described in the apocryphal story mentioned above, Saint Anne was well along in years when she conceived her Daughter by God’s will and as such she was usually represented by artists (Ibid.:112;125). Also Sharon Gerstel (1998:98) observes that the saint’s “portrait-like depictions always underline her old age” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125), especially in the contemporary art of Byzantium (Ibid.:112,125). Yet the most original feature of all in the Faras image is the Saint’s mysterious gesture she makes by touching her lips with the index finger of the right hand (Ibid.:112,125; Mierzejewska, 2016:155). Its mystery has triggered a great interest among scholars and their numerous attempts for a possible interpretation have appeared in the literature on the subject (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125).

Timeless image of silence

The index finger posed on Saint Anne’s lips as if asking for silence may be a reference to the “silence of God” (Mierzejewska, 2016:155). The subject was brought into attention by Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian mystic who died martyr death in c. 110 (Ibid.:155). For Ignatius there are three mysteries related to the Daughter of Saint Anne, Saint Mary, namely, Her Virginity, miraculous Conception and the Birth of the Son of God (Ibid.:155). According to his writings, “silence expresses what is characteristic of the Father, as logos expresses what is characteristic of the Son” (Ryan, 1988:22). Bożena Mierzejewska (2014:155; see Mierzejewska, 2014-2019) also observes that the index finger on the lips may indicate a prayer in which Saint Anne is immersed. As the painting comes from the period of a dominant Coptic influence in Nubia, the traces of Saint Anne’s gesture may lead to Christian Egypt (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019).

There are actually similar representations of Coptic monks in the Monastery of Bawit, in Egypt, who were depicted with their fingers on the lips while reciting the psalms, according to  a monastic tradition of placing the index finger of the right hand on the lips while praying in silence (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). It was believed as well that the gesture protected a praying person against the evil powers trying to attack their heart (Ibid.:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016) mentions that the gesture is usually considered by scholars as the sign of contemplation, as it is in the case of representations of the Old Testament character of Sarah, who has just learnt she is going to conceive, or of the Virgin Mary at the moment of Annunciation (Ibid.:112-114; 125-126). “It could also express either sorrow or stupefaction in the face of sanctity – and, consequently, create a symbolic image of a human being listening to the voice of God” (Ibid.:125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988). Saint Anne’s gesture may have also had a more practical function of reminding women gathered in the cathedral’s aisle to keep silent in the church (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:114,126).

“Most perfect of all prayers”

The living cult of Saint Anne in Nubia, particularly in Faras, is testified by other paintings with her image found in in the northern aisle of local churches (Mierzejewska, 2014:155). Once Saint Anne is represented enthroned with Saint Mary on her lap, probably breastfeeding the Daughter (Ibid.:155), another time, she is depicted in a standing position (Ibid.:155). Such representations bring to mind some aspects of the iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as Galaktotrophousa, Hodegetria, or Eleusa (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:128-129). The appearance of Saint Mary’s Mother in Eastern churches may have also meant a celebration of the mentioned feast of the Conception of St. Anne (Ibid.:114,126), where her image would be a part of “the [entire] history of salvation [by] conveying a meaning close to the scenes placed on the northern side of the church related to the [representation] of the Nativity” (Ibid.:126-127).

In this context, Saint Anne’s gesture would symbolise her Immaculate Conception, as – according to the theological tradition – Saint Anne would have conceived Mary by kissing her husband’s lips (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:96). The miracle is represented likewise in the Coptic art, where Saint Anne is kissing a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit (Ibid.:96). Accordingly, Saint Anne of Faras is depicted at the very moment of the Immaculate Conception being experienced in the state of ecstasy and mystical silence, which is shown by her gesture of the index finger (Ibid.:196). Silence is therefore the most perfect of all prayers (Ibid.:196). This is a lesson that Saint Anne from Nubia teaches in present-day Warsaw.

Worth being remembered

Among all the representations of Saint Anne, which were very common and highly estimated in the Eastern Christianity, the image of Faras clearly stands out with its unique iconographical features described above. Despite numerous and thorough studies, their meaning still eludes a full interpretation and so its mystery triggers a continuous interest in the Nubian culture and its oriental face. Although the Nubian Christianity had gone away together with its Faras cathedral, left behind under the water, the preserved Nubian paintings, such as the image of Saint Anne, stay above as silent witnesses of the lost Christian civilisation that once flourished in the sands of the desert. Although Nubia made an individual and local culture, it was at once a part of the larger early Christian tradition, and so its heritage remains an invaluable source on the Christian history and art in Africa.

Featured photo: A detail from the 3D model of the Faras Cathedral (narthex), showing the Mother of God with the Child surrounded by two Archangels, Saint Michael (left) and Saint Gabriel (right). Their wings form a kind of canopy over the head of Saint Mary – a concept known in both Nubian and Coptic art. Photo by Karolina Kaczmarek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.


Adams, W. Y. (1991) “Nubia”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, Atiya, A. S. ed., pp. 1800-1801. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Adams, W. Y. (1991) “Nubian Church Art.” In: The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, Atiya, A. S. ed., pp. 1811-1812. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Archeparchy of Pittsburgh (2019) ”The Immaculate Conception: the Conception of St. Anne, ‘When She Conceived the Holy Mother of God’ According to the Ruthenian Tradition”. In: The Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. Available at <https://bit.ly/33LyQ5f>. [Accessed on 19th October, 2019].

Cartwright, M. (2019) “Faras Cathedral”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BEh9sx>. [Accessed on 20th October, 2019].

Dingemanse, M. (2005). ‘Christian Nubia’ in Wikipedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. Available at <https://bit.ly/3OYpY5b>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2022].

Dobrzeniecki, T. (1988) ”Święta Anna z Faras w Muzeum Narodowym w Warszawie. Symbolika gestu milczenia”. [“Saint Anne of Faras in the National Museum of Warsaw. Symbolism of the Gesture of Silence”]. In: Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie, ann. 32. Warsaw: National Museum. pp. 95-214.

Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J4yNtj>. [Accessed on 18th October, 2019].

Mierzejewska, B. (2014) ”Sala VI Malowidła z katedry w Faras” [“Room VI Paintings from the cathedral of Faras”]. In: Galeria Faras im. Profesora Kazimierza Michałowskiego. Przewodnik [The Professor Kazimierz Michałowski Faras Gallery. Guidebook]. Warsaw: National Museum, pp. 106-197.

Mierzejewska, B. (2014-2019) “Galeria Faras. Skarby zatopionej pustyni”. [“Faras Gallery. Treasures from the flooded desert”]. The National Museum of Warsaw. In: Google Arts&Culture. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VKPuPz>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2019].

NMW (2014-2015) “Galeria Faras. Skarby zatopionej pustyni”. [“Faras Gallery. Treasures from the flooded desert”]. The National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2IOtRZB>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2019].

NMW (2019) “Faras Gallery. The Professor Kazimierz Michałowski Faras Gallery”. In: National Museum of Warsaw, Collections. Available at <https://bit.ly/1p8RMzR>. [Accessed on 16th October, 2019].

Ryan, P. J. (1998) On Silence in Ignatius of Antioch. In: Prudentia, vol 20, no 2, pp. 20-27.

Sharon E. J. Gerstel (1998) “Painted Sources for Female Piety in Medieval Byzantium”. In: Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 52, pp. 89-111.

Sulikowska-Bełczowska, A. (2016) ”Kobiecy program ikonograficzny nawy północnej katedry w Faras” [”Female Iconography in the Northern Aisle of Faras Cathedral”]. In: Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie, vol. 5. Warsaw: National Museum, pp. 96-129.

Successive Stages of the Analysis of a Work of Art

The multitude of images in our everyday life means that we usually lack time to look at them closely, without their careful analysis, or their correct interpretation, not to mention a proper methodology for such an interpretation, which we usually prefer to leave in the hands of historians of art. Anne D’Alleva, a historian of art, calls such a phenomenon the syndrome of “lazy looking” (2009:29). And what about a proper interacting with art after crossing the threshold of a museum or a gallery, and I do not mean here ‘a galleria’, a cluster of shops and stalls … yet, even in such a place we can encounter multiple visual representations, especially when some artists decide to arrange there an installation of their works or a collection of photos …

Still, let’s stay inside a gallery of paintings and works of art, or a museum. If we are generally interested in art and have enough time, I would recommend breaking our visit down into several stages. If we focus our attention on selected works of art, it will help us to improve the quality of our cognitive abilities in relation to the selected objects. As I mentioned above, the accumulation of images, the splendor of their colours and and shapes can cause fatigue and, consequently, discouragement … Consequently, we will leave “the center of art” even more confused than we are before entering it.

First think about an artistic epoch you are most fascinated about, then pick up a museum or gallery where you can see its expressions. Among all the exhibited works, pick up four or five and spend at least four hours for their contemplation; yes, yes … approximately one hour for each work of art … why so long? One reason is that famous galleries of art or museums can be really crowded. Assuming you are heading off to one of such type of places and an art object of your choice is famous, it may also take much time to wait on queue to see it. Secondly, the chosen object does not exist in isolation and is normally surrounded by works of art coming from the same context: an epoch, place of origins or style, and when I am writing about a need of selecting four or five works must-see, I do not mean making your way to them with your eyes closed – first, it is dangerous for yourself, then for other amateurs of are, who just being focused on art, are not paying attention to you elbowing across the crowd, and finally, a danger of bumping into a priceless object … So, open your eyes, analyse a chosen object … first in isolation, and then look around and see it in its context. Other artifacts or artworks, looking at you (or judging you!) from their glass-cases or from the walls, depending on what you are looking at, will help you to better understand your object of choice.

Stages of the Analysis of a Work of Art

Finally, standing in front of a preferable work of art, you can start to observe its characteristics. Yet, at that point, it is not possible to escape from spontaneous and disordered thoughts coming to our mind at first sight; they are mostly related with our own feelings triggered by the work. I assume those are pleasant emotions, providing that the object to see has been selected deliberately. There equally appear some links between the work and our unconscious knowledge resulting from our culture, religion, history and education. Such aspects shape our experience and values All that phenomenon cannot be avoided, so let it approach you and tell you for a while a story. It is also a story about yourself … Finally, pay attention to its colours, lines, figures, planes. Does it show an abstraction or a representation? Now, take a step back in time, bring your initial thoughts and analyse them. What element of all observed in the work is the most significant, and how is it described in relation to the whole composition? What does the work reveal about the culture that once shaped it? Who was its creator and patron? Who could be its receiver? Now it is you … What does tell about your mutual relation? How do you read its messages?

By answering all those questions, from the initial stage, when you are in front of the artwork, being bombarded by its scattered meanings, through your attempts to focus on its describable physical features, till the end, when you enter a relation with it, you are in the process of its methodological and complete analysis. In history of art, these stages are professionally defined as follows: a formal analysis, iconography, contextual analysis, and finally semiotics. The formal analysis is also refereed to as pre-iconography, while the iconography stage can be imagined as a meaningful bridge joining the form with the context of an artwork. Accordingly, the third stage is known as the contextual analysis. And finally, there is semiotics, which after many art historians constitutes just a more interdisciplinary version of the combined iconographycal and iconological stages (D’Alleva 2012:35).

Such a conventional division into successive stages of the analysis of a work of art, which also can be named as the methodology in art, has resulted from numerous theories coined by historians of art of international origins, who usually worked at the turn of the twentieth century. Many a time, the methodology of the interpretation of art can be simply limited to two general analyses: formal and contextual. Although the former includes many elements, which are usually grouped into five pairs of concepts, yet the latter should always be further divided into separate stages. Hence, while studying a given work of art, one should know the difference between iconography and iconology, and between those two stages and semiotics, to follow the process correctly, especially if you are studying history of art. The methodology also helps to organize our thoughts in a coherent whole and give our analysis a deeper meaning, also by adding to it our own opinions about the work.

In the following months, each of the following four stages of the analysis will be further discussed by providing examples, a choice of which is wide, as the studied methodology in art can be applied to different expressions in art, such as two-dimensional works (painting, including fresco, photography, graphic), sculpture (also relief), architecture, installation, digital art, performance and video. Because of my profession, which is mainly archaeology, in my analysis I will normally use ancient and medieval works, though made by different cultures. Yet, I will sometimes provide some examples from later epochs for the sake of comparative studies and to illustrate a variety of artistic topics.

All your questions and comments are welcome.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.


D’Alleva A., 2009. Jak studiować historię sztuki. [How to Write Art History], Jedlińska, E., Jedliński J. trans. Cracow: universitas.

D’Alleva A., 2012. Metody i teorie historii sztuki [Methods and Theories of Art History], Jedlińska, E., Jedliński J. trans. Cracow: universitas.

Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration in the Continuous Tradition of Ethiopia

My destination was one of the busiest and significant cities in Eastern Africa, which is today known as Aksum or Axum (Casely-Hayford 2010). Once, it was a huge and thriving city and it was ranked among Rome, Persia and China, as one of the four greatest powers (Ibid.). It had a considerable claim to fame (Ibid.). According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it was actually Axum, where the King’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’s son, Menelik literally brought the Arch of the Convent in the first millennium BC. (Ibid.). Accordingly, within the city walls of Aksum are the solid foundations of the Judaic-Christian traditions (Ibid.). The first Christian church was built by the king Ezana in the fourth century AD. (Ibid.). And so it was the first Ethiopian emperor to have converted to Christianity (Ibid.). The coins from that period bear both, the Christian and pagan signs, such as the cross and the crescent moon and the sun, the latter equally visible on incense burners, being stored in Ethiopian churches alongside with other liturgical objects; hence there was a continuity of the ruler, and the Judaic tradition alike, before and after the Christianity came (Ibid.).

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

Aksumite Empire

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

The might of the first Christian Emperor Ezana is confirmed by his slab stone carved in a multilingual inscriptions; it includes the local Geʿez language, still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, there are also inscriptions in an international language of ancient Greeks, alongside the language called Sabaean, which was spoken just in that part of Africa, apart from southern Arabia (modern day Yemen) (Casely-Hayford 2010). It is so an evidence that the Queen of Sheba’s language was present in the heart of Ethiopia; it also frequently appears on stone elements, revealing pagan symbols, scattered around Aksum (Ibid.). Historians think the language died out in the eighth century but it first occurred around one thousand BC., and so it had originated in the kingdom of Sheba and was brought later to Ethiopia (Ibid.). Simultaneously, it points deeper in the past, to the kingdom of Aksum’s origins (Ibid.).

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

Central Stelae Park

Aksum is famous for grave markers or stelae made of solid granite; they are thought to be ones of the largest pieces of stone ever to come out of a quarry; usually, they are dated back to pre-Christina times of the first or second centuries (Casely-Hayford 2010). Yet, there is more to the matter of dating …

The tallest monuments of this type reaches at over 300 meters and weigh hundreds of tons (Casely-Hayford 2010). Equally, they are examples of most impressive monuments ever built in the ancient world (Ibid.). We must also remember that those large Aksumite stelae are single pieces of rock (Ibid.), as much as Egyptian obelisks. The features of the stelae, which are marking ancient burial places of Ethiopian emperors have been continuously echoing down the past of the region (Ibid.). That continuous tradition is taking the story of the Ethiopian kingdom back to the very beginnings of Christianity but the kingdom went back much further in time, even before the times of Solomon and Sheba.

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

Afterlife Palace of the Kings

As Finneran (2007:165) notes “the stelas are more than mere tomb markers. [They] embody a great deal of symbolic and social meaning.” This architecture traces back to the ways of building of the Aksumite people, which has been also continued in sacral buildings of Christianity, as monasteries and churches (Casely-Hayford 2010). They equally inspired famous churches of Lalibela. At top of some complete stelae there is the pagan symbol of the Rising Sun, being also repeated in later Christian architecture (Ibid.). By these means, it is a continuous historical narrative of the history of Ethiopia (Ibid.). The stelae number one, two and three “were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows” (Sullivan 2019). After some scholars “the tomb [is] a palace for the dead king [in the afterlife]” (Finneran 2007:167) and the door may suggest access to this sphere (Ibid.:168).  Carvings that cover the stelae accordingly depict building elements, such as the endings of the wooden beams and windows, composing multi-story houses that would be inhabited by Aksumite emperors in the afterlife (Casely-Hayford 2010); they are thus “like the skyscrapers to the immortality” (Ibid.). As it is widely accepted the monuments were carved, brought to the site and erected in the pre-Christian Aksumite period, that is to say around 200-300 AD by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum (Finneran 2007:165-173).

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

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

The Great Stela or the fallen stela number one weighs 520 tons and is 33 metres high and as such stays the largest monolith to have been raised once by humans (not to mention lying megalithic blocks from the Baalbek site, weighing over 800 to 1000 tons) (Finneran 2007:168; Simon Fraser; SFU 2020) “[Yet] the indications are that [the stela] was never successfully erected.” (Finneran 2007:165). “The Great Stele was carved on all four sides and represents a thirteen-storey building” (SFU 2020).

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

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

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

How …?

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

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

Stelae and stelae …

More primitive stelae in Aksum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

When did the tradition start?

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

Giant’s playground

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

In Ethiopia, any efforts of separating legends from facts is difficult: fragmented stones preserved within churches covered in Sabaean characters, striking connections to the world of the Old Testament, and outstanding faith in the legend of Menelik bringing the Arch of the Convent to Aksum, are all closely tied to the unique traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Casely-Hayford 2010). Yet, is there in this already complex riddle any convenient place for an alternative archaeology of the Aksumite megalithic culture?

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

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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

Casely-Hayford, G. (2010). Lost Kingdoms of Africa Series 1, Episode 2: “Ethiopia”. Howitt S., Lilley I., Bates M. IWC Media for BBC.

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

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

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

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

The Idea Behind the Jomon Pottery and its Representations

The matter of pottery and its invention was one of numerous subjects dedicated to Southeast and East Asian Archaeology, which I studied during one of my chosen modules at the university. Although for many scholars the subject of pottery does not seem to tell a compelling story, it turned out to give me a highly interesting insight into general research and the question about the time of pottery’s invention, as according to universal knowledge, its appearance is conventionally associated with the Neolithic, which is, in turn, joined with the high-speed revolution in the development of human kind. Nevertheless, such an idea mostly concerns the area of the Middle East. In Far East Asia countries, such as Japan or China, the subject of pottery should be regarded differently.

Development of pottery has been generally linked to the Neolithic period and primarily associated with the Old Europe and Middle East, with its earliest introduction believed to have occurred in west Asia (Ganj Darreh in western Iran) (circa 7300 BC.) (Rudgley 2000:28; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). In such a context, pottery, together with a craft of weaving, polished stone tools, a sedentary lifestyle (permanent settlements), religion, monuments, and domesticated plants or animals, is still used to describe Neolithic cultures around the world, conventionally appearing around 10000-8000 BC. (Solovyeva 2017:157; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2021). Nevertheless, as it is supported by archaeological finds, an invention of pottery had already taken place much earlier, surely in the Palaeolithic, and further eastwards, more precisely in north-east Asia, including the Amur River basin in Eastern Russia (eastern Siberia), China (Jiangxi, a southeast Chinese province) and Japan (Rudgley 2000:28-29; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2; Norman 2004-2021).

Yet before 1960, it was believed that the earliest Japanese pottery came back from around 2500 BC. (Omoto, Takeishi, Nishida, Fukui 2016:534). But when the so-called Jōmon pottery from the site of Natsushima (Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture) was radiocarbon dated back to around 7000 BC., it turned out to be a real watershed in the archaeology of prehistory (Rudgley 2000:28). Other contemporary excavations at Fukui Cave in Nagasaki Prefecture not only revealed shreds of pottery, which were around 3000 years older than those from Natsushima (Serizawa 1976:2; Kobayashi 2004:9), but also proved “a direct continuity from [the microlithic culture of] the late Japanese Palaeolithic, [showing] a strong communality with the mainland […], to the [times of the] pottery-using [Jōmon]” (Kobayashi 2004:9,12,14). Further archaeological finds of undecorated pottery fragments in a charcoal residue at the Odai-Yamamoto Site (Sotogahama Town, Aomori Prefecture), pushed the beginnings of Japanese pottery even earlier in time to around 13000 BC. (Jomon Japan 2017). Still the oldest examples of undecorated, simple pottery vessels of the Jōmon culture are said to have been first produced around the same time, at the site of Shinonouchi in Nagano (Cartwright 2017) and at the sites in southern Kyūshū (Kakoinohara in Kagoshima Prefecture) (Kobayashi 2004:15-17,19). At the time of the mentioned excavations, the fact of the earliest pottery finds in Japan simultaneously questioned a common idea about a cultural predominance of ancient China over Japan in terms of innovations (Rudgley 2000:28-29). And although continuous excavations proved that pottery fragments also appeared in eastern Siberia around the same time as the Japanese evidence of earthenware vessels, and even earlier (c. 18 000 BC.) in southern China, pottery of the Jōmon culture in Japan is treated as an archaeological phenomenon and often referred to as the earliest pottery in the world (Norman 2004-2021; Rudgley 2000:29; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2,19; cf. Kenrick 1995), though it should be rather called the earliest pottery tradition due to its continuous development over thousands of years (Lewis 23rd September, 2021).

The Jōmon period, which covers a vast expanse of time of approximately thirteenth thousands years (Palmer 2007:49), can roughly fall within the Neolithic time range in Europe or in the Middle East, and so it is usually described as “Japan’s Neolithic period” (MET 2022; see: Solovyeva 2017:157; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2; Bleed 1976:107). Still, it is important to mention that at its earliest stages, it overlaps with European and Middle Eastern Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods (Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). Bleed (1976:107) simultaneously claims that describing the entire Jōmon period as Neolithic is actually “unfortunate” and incorrect. Accordingly, if the agricultural revolution constitutes one of the significant aspects recognising the period of Neolithic, the Japanese Neolithic should only refer to the period with the end of the Jōmon culture, between 900 BC. and 300 AD., when the Yayoi culture introduced the agriculture and started to cultivate white rice (Lewis 23rd September, 2021; Kobayashi 2004:133; cf. Barton 2012).

The Jōmon culture is the earliest one that we can identify in Japan. Yet it is little known about it because it was unfamiliar with the writing (Burns 2017). For this reason, the main source of knowledge about it are archaeological finds, such as pottery (Ibid.). Conventional time frames given for the Jōmon culture usually differ, depending on a given source (Cf: Solovyeva 2017:157; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). The chronology shown below is provided by scholars, such as Tatsuo Kobayashi (2004:5, Fig.1.2) and ChungHae Amana Oh (2011:35), and has been established basing on estimated radiocarbon dates from the last decade of the twentieth century (Amana Oh 2011:35). Accordingly, the Jōmon culture spans between 13600 BC. to 900 BC. and is traditionally divided into the subsequent periods: Incipient (13600-9200 BC.), Initial (9200-5300 BC.), Early (5300-3500), Middle (3500-2500), Late (2500-1200 BC.), and Final (1200-900BC.), when the Jōmon style wares and statues were gradually replaced by Yayoi pottery (ChungHae 2011:35, Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2).

The Jōmon culture came into existence with the end of the Last Glacial Period, and when it was in a gradual process of development, the Global Warming with significant climate change had already begun (Kobayashi 2004:1; Jomon Japan 2017). Consequently, sea levels rose in the contemporary world, causing in the region the inflow of the warm Tsushima Current into the Sea of Japan, and furthermore the growth of abundant forests of beech, chestnut, walnut and acorn in the Japanese archipelago (Kobayashi 2004:19). With time, “the ocean moved further inland, bringing with it [additional wealth] of fish and shellfish” (Jomon Japan 2017). Such favourable climate changes allowed contemporary groups of humans to use and “[manipulate] the resources available to them in the natural environment” (Kobayashi 2004:3). Jōmon groups initially led a nomadic and then a semi-sedentary life (MET 2022; Jomon Japan 2017); at that time, they built their villages composed of “pit dwellings arranged around central open spaces” (MET 2022), mostly along the ocean coast or along rivers and lakes, and obtained their food by gathering and fishing, collecting shellfish and hunting (Jomon Japan 2017). There was no need to move further, as they could dispose a large quantity of natural resources in one place, being usually stored in deep house pits (Kobayashi 2004:21). Kobayashi (2004:21) speculates that Jōmon peoples could have lined their storage pits with clay, as in the case of the West Asian Natufian culture, and so the Jōmon pottery could have originated from Japanese peoples’ observations that protruding fragments of the clay-lining hardened by the heat from nearby ovens (Ibid.:21). Or, there was a case when a piece of clay from the house wall (e.g. Ganji Darehor) or one dropped from the clay lining of a basket (e.g. North American southwest), was accidentally burnt and fire-hardened (Ibid.:21). Consequently, the Jōmon culture could have started processing clay wider to finally use it as a substance for containers (Ibid.:21). Although these are only some of speculations about actual foundations of pottery in Japan (Ibid.:21), they may constitute “a clue to the origins of pottery making in this region” (Ibid.:21). 

Gradual increase in temperatures in Japan resulted in further remarkable inventions (Kobayashi 2004:7), such as “adoption of revolutionary new technologies and tools” (Ibid.:7). Typical of the Jōmon culture was an innovative way of cooking by means of pottery, which allowed them with time to initiate a typically sedentary lifestyle (Jomon Japan 2017). Accordingly, greater settlements were established, together with constant residential centres, sometimes featuring graveyards (e.g. Kakinoshima Site, Hakodate City, Hokkaido), and later also impressive monuments in the form of stone circles (e.g. Oyu Stone Circle, Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture or Kiusu Earthwork Burial Circles, Chitose City, Hokkaido) (Ibid.).

According to the archaeological evidence, It is said that groups of people who produced the earliest pottery mainly inhabited the main Japanese island of Honshu, though the centre of the mature Jōmon culture was more likely established in southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku (northern end of Honshu) (e.g. Irie Takasago Shell Midden, Toyako, Town, Hokkaido or Futasumori Shell Midden, Shichinohe Town, Aomori Prefecture) (Jomon Japan 2017). Such a hypothesis is also supported by the fact that, despite that Honshu and Hokkaido areas had been divided by the Tsugaru Strait, different Jōmon peoples from these areas produced pottery of comparable shapes and by using analogous designs (Ibid.).

The Jōmon pottery was produced by hand, by employing turntables but without the use of a proper wheel, which had been unknown in Japan till the Yayoi phase of development (Kobayashi 2004:77; MET 2022). “The clay was mixed with a variety of adhesive materials, including mica, lead, fibres, and crushed shells, [and when] completely dry, [the pottery] was fired in an outdoor bonfire at a temperature of no more than about 900°C” (MET 2022). Kobayashi (2004:21) compares the earliest Japanese pottery manufacture to a contemporary process of baking a cake of crushed nuts and water. The Jōmon pottery is characterised by a cord pattern and hence the name of the culture – ‘Jōmon’, which stands for a ‘cord design’ (MET 2022). Apart from pottery vessels, also typical of the Jōmon culture were intriguing “[clay] figurines […] and other ritual [objects], demonstrating a rich spirituality” (Jomon Japan 2017). Most recognisable of all are definitely the so-called Dogu. Some researchers believe such pottery clay figures actually represent divine ancestors of the ancient Japanese (Burns 2017).

Shintō, the traditional native religion of Japan based on Japanese mythology, can be translated as the way of gods, literally kami-no-michi, where kami means gods (Shintō 2022). Hence, Japanese people believe in kami celestial beings who are still to reside in modern Japan (Burns 2017). According to an ancient Japanese tradition, there are millions of Kami; each has its own personal characteristics and can inhabit different entities, such as people and animals, or even objects (Ibid.). They come down to earth from Takama-ga-hara (High Plain of Heaven), and inhabit Jinja, which are in the Japanese Shintō religion places of worship devoted to various kami (Ibid.). Kami, in turn, are usually thought to be represented as the Dogu figurines (Ibid.). Around 15,000 Dogu representations in the form of various human-like creatures have been found throughout Japan (Ibid.). Also, according to alternative researchers, Dogu are surely to represent the mythological Kami that visited the earth in ancient times; they have goggle-like eyes and their bodies are covered with rivets, which may indicate an outfit or a type of an armour.

“While the many excavations of Jōmon sites have added to our knowledge of specific artifacts, they have not helped to resolve certain fundamental questions concerning the people of the protoliterate era, such as their ethnic classification and the [actual origins] of their language [and of phenomenal pottery vessels and clay figurines they unceasingly produced]” (MET 2022).

Edwina Palmer (2007:49) suggests that while discussing Jōmon Japanese culture, one should use plural Jōmon peoples as the term should be understood as various groups of “the population spanning at least thirteen millennia across the whole of the present Japanese archipelago”(Ibid.:49). The author also believes “that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that some [Jōmon groups] spoke an Austronesian language or languages” (Ibid.:49). Such assumptions have resulted from a long-term debate on the origins of the Jōmon culture in Japan (Cf. Palmer 2007). Scholars, like Charles Loring Brace et al. (1990) and Peter Bellwood (1997) supported an ‘Out of Taiwan’ hypothesis, postulating that Jōmon culture might have been established by migrations from Taiwan (Palmer 2007:47-49). Simultaneously, it is claimed that in the Jōmon period, some groups travelled by sea from Sundaland (modern-day Southeast Asia) due to a postglacial flooding and eventually settled down on the islands of present-day Japan (Ibid.:47). Even though these two theories seem contradictory, Palmer (2007:47) assumes that “an ‘Out of Sunda’ scenario of migration to Japan in the [Jōmon] period is not necessarily entirely incompatible with an ‘Out of Taiwan’ theory” (Ibid.:47). And so she concludes that there must have been numerous migrations in Japan during a long-time Jōmon period, according to “[a] common-sense approach […] that humans were never traveling in only one direction at any time […]” (Ibid.:48). Such an approach “may, [at the same time], accommodate many aspects of the various theories proposed” (Ibid.:48). Similarly, it is underlined by Ryan W. Schmidt and Noriko Seguchi (2014:43), who claim that the Jōmon culture was rather like an ethnic mosaic composed of various Palaeolithic peoples migrating to the islands of Japan, and so “in this respect, the biological identity of the Jōmon is heterogeneous, and it may be indicative of diverse peoples who belonged to a common culture, known as the [Jōmon]” (Ibid.:43). That, in turn, agrees with the claim that “the [Jōmon] revolution, [creating pottery], did not arise from [an isolated] microlithic culture in the archipelago, nor was it the result of just a single wave of influence from the continent, but rather a [consequence] of several phases of intervention and interaction” (Kobayashi 2004:14). Consequently, there were hypotheses the pottery could have originated in the continental East Asia, invented independently by different groups of people, and then brought with numerous waves of migrations to contemporary Japan and consequently adopted by its inhabitants (Ibid.:19).

The Jōmon pottery is generally distinguished by its characteristics (Cartwright 2017) “that [clearly identify its makers] and [set] them apart from all other [later] Japanese [or contemporary Asian] cultures” (Bleed 1976:107), including the first cases of pottery in Western Asia (Kobayashi 2004:20). A suggested similarity of the Jōmon pottery to examples found in eastern Siberia, China, the Korean peninsula or Taiwan has been challenged, adding to that the pottery in Japan is generally dated earlier than in most parts of contemporary East Asia (except for China and Siberia), where its invention was possibly a result of analogous technologies (Palmer 2007:48; Kobayashi 2004:19; Rudgley 2000:28-29; Norman 2004-2021). Only later, like in the Early Jōmon period, “[similarities] between pottery produced in Kyūshū and contemporary Korea suggest that regular commerce existed between the Japanese islands and the Korean peninsula, [together with the Mainland Southeast Asia]” (MET 2022). It is also theorised that the earliest pottery may have been invented independently in various locations in East Asia, with eastern Siberia, China and the Japanese archipelago in the lead (Kobayashi 2004:20). Moreover, by studying the origins of pottery in Neolithic Middle East, it can be analogically assumed that the Jōmon pottery could also have had a few different foundations (Chosuke in Kobayashi 2004:20).

On the other side, the question of the earliest pottery finds ascribed to the Jōmon culture between the Incipient and Initial periods appears much more complex in terms of its different but subsequential decorative styles (Bleed 1976:108), such as “linear relief, fingernail impression, and simple cord marking” (Ibid.:108). Such pottery remains were usually unearthed further from the said mature Jōmon centre (Jomon Japan 2017), namely, in the area from southern Tohoku to Kyūshū (Bleed 1976:108), which is the region considered “the forefront of the [Jōmon] revolution” (Kobayashi 2004:17). Additionally, it is evident that such early examples of pottery were made by peoples with divergent tools, technologies and skills (Bleed 1976:109). “In sum, […] all the evidence available indicates that during [the Incipient period in Japan, the Jōmon culture] continued to be [highly] complex […], characterized by regionally diverse and distinctive technologies. This kind of complexity and regional diversity is also apparent during the succeeding cultural horizon, [when throughout] central Honshu, fingernail-impressed pottery was [subsequently] replaced by ceramics finished with simple exterior cord marking” (Ibid.:109). Generally, foremost features of the Jōmon pottery and its technological homogeneity are more widely observed only with its later stages (Cf. Bleed 1976), yet, “the population of Jōmon Japan [remained] by no means [anthropologically] homogeneous” (Palmer 2007:49).

In conclusion, the invention and continuity of the Jōmon pottery mostly resulted from the plentiful environment of the Japanese archipelago, together with its effective adaptation and development by independent groups of contemporary humans (Shinpei in: Kobayashi 2004:19; Bleed 1976:113). Kobayashi (2004:20) compares the invention of Jōmon pottery to the so-called ‘springboard principle’, where a technological knowledge of manufacturing earthenware vessels met the actual human needs for such a product (Cf. Kohler in: Kobayashi 2004:20). Yet, apart from being regarded as a product of a technological development, playing mostly a functional role as a container and a cooking vessel, the early Japanese pottery should be equally seen as the beginning of the Jōmon cultural revolution, and so could be interpreted wider, by means of social, economic, religious and artistic ways of expression (Kobayashi 2004:12,22).

Featured image: Reconstruction of the Sannai-Maruyama Site in the Aomori Prefecture. The site shares cultural similarities with settlements of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula, as well as with later Japanese culture, pointing to continuity between ancient and modern Japanese culture. Photo by 663highland (2014). CC BY 2.5. In: ‘Jōmon period’, in Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2022).

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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The Hindu Symbol of Lingam of the God Shiva

In Hinduism, the term stands for the phallic symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva. It is also an abstract or aniconic representation of the god in Shaivism. The stone representations of lingas were worshiped as a symbol of the god’s creative power, often depicted in conjunction with yoni, the symbol of his wife, Parvati (Devi).

Featured image: An eleventh-century linga-yoni plaque with a worshipper (Nepal). Nepal, dated 1068 Sculpture Repoussé gilt copper alloy Purchased with funds provided by Harry and Yvonne Lenart (M.85.125) South and Southeast Asian Art. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lingam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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