Tag Archives: Artifacts

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.


“Lingam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vPT8so>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 230. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Identity of the Man Found in the Sarcophagus of Palenque

Presumably, in order to preserve the precious archaeological find in its original state, Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier had not unsealed the unearthed sarcophagus for six months since it was discovered (My Gen 2021). And it took archaeologists an additional week of work before they eventually lifted the five-ton beautifully carved lid of the sarcophagus, on 28th November, in 1952 (Ibid.).

Mayan Matryoshka-style

Eventually, it turned out that the inside of the rectangular stone slab of the tomb had been additionally closed off with another smaller slab, attached by means of stone plugs in the holes (Quetzal Resistance 2011; My Gen 2021). The additional and strangely shaped lid ultimately uncovered the final resting place of the dead, whose long and beautifully attired skeleton was lying inside a similarly-shaped coffin (My Gen 2021). As a result, the whole tomb design slightly resembles a set of Matryoshka dolls, where one of a smaller size is placed inside a larger one.

Howard Carter examining the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun. On the whole, there were three coffins, decreasing in size. Exclusive to The Times – The New York Times photo archive, via their online store (1922). Public domain. Photo source: “Tutankhamun” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The interesting shape of the smaller coffin lid, sometimes compared to a body-shape, drew Graham Hancock’s attention (2016:158); he connects it with a specific type of Egyptian coffins with a widen bottom (Ibid.:158). It is a characteristic that also appears in the shape of the coffin under the Temple of the Inscriptions (Ibid.:158). Yet, the Egyptian caskets were made of wood and had wide bases as they were often placed vertically, as if they were standing (Ibid.:158). By comparison, Pakal’s coffin was carved out entirely of solid stone and was arranged horizontally (Ibid.:158). The author therefore wonders why the builders of the sarcophagus took more trouble extending its lower part since it had no practical application (Ibid.:158). Or maybe it was the shape itself, which really mattered? (Ibid.:158); it actually resembles the aforementioned keyhole symbol, but which is turned upside down and with a circle part squashed, looking slightly like an eclipse. Moreover, the Matryoshka-style of Palenque sarcophagus had been also applied in Egyptian royal coffins, such as the set of Tutankhamun’s three coffins, characterized each by a decreasing size (Tyldesley 2016).

Descendant of the race of giants

All the archaeological reports accordingly claim that in the sarcophagus in Palenque, there was found a skeleton of a tall man (My Gen 2021; Hancock 2016:158). Nevertheless, the same scientific sources never give any precise information about the exact measures of the skeleton (My Gen 2021). In my opinion, it is not sufficient to argue that some person is tall or not as such descriptions are quite subjective as they may be based on a personal judgement.

Anthropological Museum of Mexico City. Funerary dress and jewellery of king Pakal of Palenque, seventh century AD. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, such a matter as the height of an individual should be given in detail. In spite of the information missing, some alternative researchers, however, keep trying to calculate an approximate skeleton’s height, basing on equally estimated measurements of the strangely shaped sarcophagus’ cut in stone, which was specially designed for the corpse (My Gen 2021). Such estimates can be only possible to obtain by means of the provided accurate measurements of the main, rectangular lid of the sarcophagus, which are the following: the square slab of the tomb is 30 centimetres (10 inches) thick, 90 centimetres (3 feet) wide and 3,7 metres (12,5 feet) long (Hancock 2016:159). As a result of a mathematical analysis, the skeleton would have belonged to a male measuring well over 2,2 metres in height (over 7,3 feet) (My Gen 2021).

Who was really buried in Pakal’s tomb?

Although the skeleton found inside the sarcophagus is usually recognized as the remains of the king Pakal, his identity has become repeatedly questioned (My Gen 2021; Von Däniken 1991:182).

First doubts arouse mainly due to the inconsistent date of 633 AD., which is the latest among those found on the sarcophagus and so it does not chronologically correspond to the conventional date of Pakal’s death (Von Däniken 1991:182). The doubts have deepened even more together with the results of interdisciplinary identification examination of the skeletal remains from the sarcophagus, which were presented at “a symposium organized by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina for the Sixty-eighth Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2003” (Wordtrade.com 2021). During the project directed by a specialist in Maya civilization remains, Prof. Vera Tiesler, a wide range of laboratory analyses had been used with comparative data, including archaeological, bioanthropological and epigraphical studies of the Maya culture (Ibid.). Age assessment of the individual was mainly carried out by means of morphological observations and histological methods, including even mathematical approaches applied by paleo-demographers (Ibid.).

Temple of the Foliated Cross in Palenque features mysterious openings in the shape of keyhole. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet, during the conference, there was no mention about results of radiocarbon dating of the bones or whether it had ever been conducted (My Gen 2021; see: Wordtrade.com 2021). It is only known that there was no DNA extraction, which Vera Tiesler explains by the fact of a very poor and fragmentary condition of the studied skeletal remains, which have been hardly preserved in seventy-five percent (Wordtrade.com 2021). As a result, even though the time of the individual’s death is relatively recent in comparison with other analysed skeletal remains from cultures existing before our era, the age determination and other analyses of Palenque skeletal remains may be erratic and inconsistent (Ibid.).

Inconsistent results

Particular results of one of the conducted examinations, however, seem quite reliable and they entirely put the identity of the individual found in the sarcophagus under question. Precisely, it was the analysis of wear on the skeleton’s teeth, which has placed the age of their owner at death as forty years old, which is simultaneously an average lifetime of the ancient Mayas (“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” 2021). Consequently, it means the skeleton must have belonged to a man forty years younger than Pakal at the moment of his death, when he was eighty years old (“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” 2021; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). Such a contradiction may have resulted either by a wrong interpretation of the dates ascribed to Pakal’s lifetime or the fact the skeletal remains do not belong to Pakal at all.

Despite such conflicting results, most scholars have no doubts about the identity of the skeletal remains in the sarcophagus in Palenque and so they reject any possibility it may not be the skeleton of the king Pakal (Wordtrade.com 2021). Probably, in order to achieve a compromise, they have accepted that at the moment of his death Pakal could be either in the low age range, estimated between forty and fifty years, or the highest estimated age of eighty years (Ibid.). But does it bring any final conclusion to the question of age of the skeletal remains and, indirectly, of dating the burial itself?

Temple of the Inscriptions, seen from the Palace side. It is built on the stepped pyramid with nine platforms. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such a wide range of an acceptable age for the found skeleton is justified by scholars due to particular challenges in its precise age determination (Wordtrade.com 2021). After Prof. Vera Tiesler the human remains under question cause particular difficulties in their studies, not only because they are extensively fragmented, but also because of the age range of the individual (Ibid.). Skeletal specialists agree that it is highly difficult to precisely estimate skeletal age in case of the dead adults, especially those who were over fifty years old at the moment of their death (Ibid.). This is why the results cannot be more precise or consistent unless some novel and conclusive methods are applied in this context.

Which way leads to the afterlife?

If the conducted examinations of the found skeleton generally fail in determining the identity of the buried individual, is it possible to find out missing answers in the imagery of his sarcophagus? The latter is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating Mayan monuments and is still the subject of a fierce debate even today, which is especially about an intriguing relief on the lid. Despite different interpretations of the scene, scholars generally believe that it depicts a mythological image or the king’s journey into the world of the dead. For the Mayans of the Classic period, the afterlife was located in the underground world filled with water and so it was associated in the earthly world with actual water reservoirs or caves (Eberl 2013:311; see 😊). Accordingly, the dead body of the ruler was to rest in the burial chamber in the centre of the Temple of the Inscriptions, symbolizing an artificial cave and the king’s descent into the earth, by means of the steps leading down to the underworld (Ibid.:311). The stone lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus was therefore intended to recreate his journey to the afterlife (Ibid.:311).

But if this interpretation is correct, and the Mayan underworld was located underground, why does a small pipe of psychoduct led Pakal’s soul from the tomb back to the temple outside it?

The Tree of Life

Cosmological Mythology of the ancient Maya was recorded in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a Latin compilation of Mayan texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Wagner 2013:288). The act of creation described there was preceded by the destruction of the world by the flood (Ibid.:288), also mentioned by numerous independent sources, such as the “Book of Genesis” in the Bible and the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (see😊

Tablet of the cross restored from the Temple of the Cross. Photo by Ineuw (2017). Public domain. Photo source: “Tablet of the Cross restored” (2017). In: Wikipedia Commons.

As the story goes, the very centre of the created world inhabited by the Maya was graphically marked by the Tree of Life, connecting the zenith with the nadir (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Not without a surprise, such a motif also appears in the Celtic and Scandinavian cultures (see😊. In the Mayan iconography, the central motif of the panel in the Temple of the Cross is a symbolic representation of such a tree that grows from the sacrificial bowl (Wagner 2013:288; see😊 The image must be strongly stylized because it resembles more a cross rather than a tree. After experts, branches covered with flowers grow on its both sides, whereas the two-headed serpent hanging on it symbolizes the eternally green tree and the colour of the centre of the cosmos (Ibid.:288). Additionally, on its highest branch, the god Itzamna sits on the throne, dressed as blue birds (Ibid.:288).

Here I must admit to myself that if I interpreted the relief of the Temple of the Cross myself, I would never have noticed some of the described details without a professional help of specialists.

Hidden birds game

On the sarcophagus from Planeque there are hieroglyphs and more or less abstract images. Starting from the top of the lid positioned in a vertical position, there is found a central motif that was recreated with slight changes on the later and the aforementioned relief from the sanctuary of the Temple of the Cross (Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in: Von Däniken 1991:187; see😊. In the first place, it is easy to notice a kind of a cross just in the middle, whose arms divide the surface, and metaphorically the world into four parts, and at the same time indicate the four cardinal points with its arms (see: Eberl 2013:314; Von Däniken 1991:186).

A drawing of the lid of the tomb of Maya ruler Pacal the Great. Drawing by Madman2001 – Made it myself based on several drawings References for this description (or part of this) or for the depiction in the file are not provided (2008). CC BY-SA 2.0. Image modified. Photo and caption source :“Temple of the Inscriptions” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to experts having translated its imagery, a whole ornithological garden can be seen in the relief around the cross, including the Mayan bird Quetzal and the bird Moan, symbolising death (Von Däniken 1991:186-187; Wołek 2012:18). The latter was probably crouching just below the squatting anthropomorphic figure. Indeed, a strongly stylized outline of a pair of eyes and something that looks like a duck bake are visible there. Similar element also appears in the relief of the Temple of the Cross, but no one interprets it there as the bird Moan heralding death …

Furthermore, after a conventional interpretation of the relief from the Temple of the Cross, at the top of the Tree of Life sits the Mayan god Itzamna, depicted once again in the form of a bird (Wagner 2013:282). Its mirror image with small changes was also carved on earlier Pakal’s sarcophagus (see: Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in: Von Däniken 1991:187). For consistency of the both interpretations, it must be just the same bird in the both representations. But if Itzamna is sitting at the top of the cross, where is Quetzal? Apparently, it is crouching on the head of a man lying under the Tree of Life … (Von Däniken 1991:186). I need to admit that I cannot discern anything there except for elements looking like bird feathers, probably being a part of the lying man’s headgear … Dr. Ruz, in turn, sees Quetzal wearing the mask of Tlaloc and is one of miniature mythological creatures coming out from a two-headed dragon …  (Ibid.:187). Still nothing … I cannot see either the dragon or a creature wearing Tlaloc’s mask and jumping out of any head… Yet, according to translating the lid experts, a proper interpretations of the imagery is only possible when the lid is viewed from a horizontal position … (Von Däniken 1991:188; Wołek 2012:18)

Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As a matter of fact, most scientists believe that the imagery on Pakal’s sarcophagus should only be interpreted in a horizontal arrangement (Von Däniken 1991:188; Wołek 2012:18). And here is another contradiction. The relief from the Temple of the Cross, which depicts the same main motif, can be only analysed in a vertical position, and the correct positioning of the relief is evidenced by two male figures standing on both sides of the Tree of Life, while it is depicted vertically.

Why is it so that the both images sharing exactly the same elements have been interpreted separately and so incoherently?

Academic and alternative interpretations of the image

Continuing the analysis of the sarcophagus lid from the vertical position, it can be noticed that under the Tree you can see the gaping mouth of the Earth Monster, which grins its teeth dangerously and threatens with its tusks (see: Von Däniken 1991:186-187). This element is missing in the later relief from the Temple of the Cross, likewise the main character of the scene on the sarcophagus. It is a male figure in a reclining position, situated just under the Tree of Life. Some experts claim it is Pakal who at the moment of his death falls into the mouth of the underworld, or of the Earth Monster armed with teeth, to be reborn like the god of corn (Von Däniken 1991:187; Eberl 2013:314).

The Tree of Life itself seems to grow out of the Earth-Monster between its tusks, and pierce the belly of the lying man with its roots. In addition, strange vines appear to grow from the man’s mouth and nose and on the back of his head. Maybe it is the Tree of Life that wants to consume the individual? Others argue that the “creepers” on the back of the king’s head are only part of an intricately pinned up hairstyle or headgear (Von Däniken 1991:187). As I mentioned earlier, some experts notice there the bird Quetzal, which would crouch on the king’s head (Ibid.:186).

‘Or maybe the ruler is inside a large skyrocket and goes into space?’, ask the proponents of the ancient astronaut theory, who support the thesis that ancient peoples around the world had contacts with representatives of a highly developed alien civilization, whom they consequently took for gods (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012).

And under the influence of such a hypothesis, the “creepers” or headdress ornaments, magically turn into double wires running inside the spacecraft (see: Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). Such a theory has been successfully instilled by a controversial researcher and author, Enrich von Däniken. By taking a closer look at the lid in an upright position, he has noticed that the figure depicted takes the position of today’s cosmonauts during the launch of a space rocket (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). You can also see that the ‘cosmonaut’ is touching some devices with his hands, which look like levers (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). His feet rest on some kind of pedals (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). And beneath it, you can see what resembles flames and not the teeth of an Earth Monster (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). Additionally, the king has something like a breathing apparatus in front of his face (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). ‘This element is called’ giver of life ‘,explains Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, one of Däniken’s followers (Burns 2012). ‘So it seems logical that it could be oxygen. It is also logical that in space a man would need a similar breathing mask’, he says (Ibid.).

Following this interpretation of the sarcophagus lid, we may come to the conclusion that the picture presented in it proves the theory of the relationship between the Mayan rulers and aliens. So which interpretation is correct?

New definitions of old truths

Various representations of the bird Quetzal and the Mouth of the Underworld or the Earth Monster, are typical imagery features of the religion and mythology of the Mesoamerican peoples, and therefore also of their art (see😊. As we can see, a similar sarcophagus motif of the cross was also immortalized on a later relief from the Temple of the Cross. But was it meant as the Tree of Life for the Maya?

Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All such interpretations are found within a framework of modern speculations and guessing, likewise contemporarily invented names given to ancient cultures, their architectural structures and artifacts (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Hancock 2016:156). The Temple encompassing Pakal’s sarcophagus certainly was not called the Temple of the Inscriptions by the Maya themselves (Ibid.:175-176). In turn, the Earth Monster was imagined as an anthropomorphic-zoomorphic figure mainly by the Aztecs, who worshiped it under the female name Tlaltecuhtli (see😊 The Aztecs, however, were one of the most recent cultures of Mesoamerica, whose development was only interrupted by the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century.

By applying the same known matrix of mythological interpretations to all discovered artifacts from the world of ancient cultures in Mesoamerica does not really add anything in determining the real meaning behind them. It only causes that we are stubbornly going around in circles, putting another painting into the same frames. According to archaeologists and art historians, the Maya could create metaphorical representations of nature, which they provided with divine features, as many other ancient cultures around the world did. Then the Earth Monster jaws would be a universal and metaphorical image of the underworld or the gateway to the underworld, in which the Mayans certainly believed and worshiped (see😊. By the time of the Aztecs, such an image could gradually evolve to finally adopt the image of the half human goddess Tlaltecuhtli.

Exclusivity for the truth

On the other hand, the image on the sarcophagus may not originally have been purely symbolic, but with time it took on just such a character; perhaps a Mayan artist initially tried to recreate a scene he had seen or heard about, but he dressed it in images that were understandable to his contemporaries, or to himself.

Temple of the Inscriptions is adjacent to Temple XIII, where another tomb of Palenque was found in 90s of the twentieth century by archaeologists. Yet, it is the sarcophagus from the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions that still attracts most attention. Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It did not necessarily have to be a spacecraft launch or the maw belonging to a monster that looks as if it had been taken alive from Mayan nightmares. It could have been an image of a phenomenon or truth that once terrified, but at the same time aroused a sort of respect among various inhabitants of Mesoamerica at the time. What was that? We do not know. And perhaps we will never know the truth. Besides, no one can claim exclusivity for the true understanding of the Mayan images, and no diploma or academic degree guarantees their correct interpretation. One would have to arrange a chat with an ancient Maya first. I wonder how the ancients would react to contemporary interpretations of scenes that they once created. Probably their jaw would drop …

The sculptor of the sarcophagus could actually have left a hieroglyphic inscription on its surface, which would identify the man imagined there (see: Von Däniken 1991:182,186). The problem is that some of the hieroglyphs found on the sarcophagus still cannot be deciphered (Von Däniken 1991:186; Hancock 2016:157).

In the Mouth of the Earth Monster

In the central part of  the Temple of the Inscriptions, suspended at the top of the stepped pyramid, there is a series of stairs steeply sloping down from enormous stone slabs of the floor (Hancock 2016:157). The sandstone steps are polished by the soles of millions of tourists visiting Palenque and are now quite slippery, also due to the tropical humidity hovering in the air (Ibid.:157). The stairs lead to the crypt. ‘The Earth Monster’s Mouth’ measures 7 metres in height and 9 metres in length (Ibid.:158). The burial chamber is now separated from the visitors by a heavy grating, and additionally, a usually foggy glass hinders the access to it together with a possibility of seeing the sarcophagus in detail (Von Däniken 1991:184).

Fortunately, in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, there is a replica of the sarcophagus, which I was able to successfully photograph, although the inability to use a flash significantly worsened the sharpness of the image (see: Von Däniken 1991:185). Thus you need to have much patience to make a successful shot of this famous and controversial monument. The image itself is also often reproduced in various forms by local Indians who sell them massively to tourists. You can then hang such a woven or painted picture on the wall, of course in a vertical position, and keep trying to solve its mystery for hours after returning home from Mexico.

Featured image: Temple of the Inscriptions is adjacent to Temple XIII, where another tomb of Palenque was found in 90s of the twentieth century by archaeologists. Yet, it is the sarcophagus from the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions that still attracts most attention. Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. 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.


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White Idols from the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean

It was supposed to be a high-speed ferry ride from Crete (Heraklion Port) to Santorini (Thera), which usually takes around two hours. In our case, the estimated time was disrupted by a sudden storm that broke out at sea. Raging waves ruthlessly played with our boat throughout the whole sea crossing. People were swinging on their feet or wading across the deck of the ferry, which was dangerously shaken in its foundations, together with tearing the screens off the walls. Passengers felt as if they had been on a roller coaster, with their stomach approaching the throat. The lucky ones managed to get to the toilet on time, primarily still available, and others grabbed the last resort, usually one of the paper bags distributed dispassionately by the crew.

My friend sitting next to me got frozen in fear of another stomach contraction, squeezing the edges of the bag in the fingers. The colours of her face kept changing from pale white to green. In the midst of this collective hysteria, apparently I was the only person who felt well. Maybe yet except for the crew, who looked at me in disbelief.

‘Could I go outside?’, I asked hesitantly. ‘I just can’t handle staying inside’.

It was indeed stuffy inside the ferry; all windows and doors were closed tightly. and the atmosphere became more and more unpleasant due to the sick passengers.

In response to my question, two crew members looked at each other and one of them in turn looked at me asking: ‘Don’t suffer from seasickness?’,
‘It looks like no’, I smiled.

An amazing view on the Aegean Sea and the Santorini archipelago from the overbuilt cliffs of the island, in one of its most charming towns, Oia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Finally the captain agreed, and after a while I was standing outside, in the crisp sea air, with the rope strongly tied around my waist and firmly attached to the side of the jumping on the waves ferry. The gusts of wind were hitting me with all its force and blowing up the folds of my long and light skirt. The rough sea kept splashing over my face again and again, leaving flecks of salt on my skin and in the long locks of hair, dancing in the breeze.

When we finally got to the port of Santorini, the storm ceased. The sun shone and the earth emanated with an usual peace, as if black clouds never appeared in this area. However, it is known that this volcanic island in particular has experienced the wrath of nature. There was always something happening in Santorini, known in Greek as Thera, and the face of the island has been shaped in equal measure by people and nature (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45).

Oia town (or a village, as some call it) is on the northwest coast of Santorini and it is built on the caldera slope. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“As its own archipelago, Santorini encompasses the islands of Thíra, Thirassiá, Asproníssi, Palea Kaméni and Nea Kaméni, which all lie in the southern part of the Cyclades, and are the result of [ancient] volcanic activity” (“Cyclades” 2021). Five thousand years ago, there was a thriving center of Minoan civilization on the archipelago (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). In mid-two thousand BC., a volcano erupted on Thera, or in fact the entire island blew out, as it had grown out of a volcano (Ibid.:45; see: When Gods Turned against the Minoans). The volcanic eruption destroyed everything, not only the island itself and its closest area, but also had a negative impact on the entire world of that time, including the Minoan culture, for which the volcanic eruption was the beginning of the end (Ibid.:45). The volcano itself collapsed into the abyss of the sea but it did not disappear (Ibid.:45).

After the volcanic eruption, the circular shape of the island of Thera had been shaped into a semi-circular crescent, which is clearly visible in the aerial photo taken from the plane. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After volcanologists monitoring the island, the volcano is going to be reborn and will erupt again in the future (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The trace of those dramatic events not only changed the shape of the island, looking now like a crescent, but also made one of the largest calderas in the world, that is to say. the collapsed crater flooded by the waters of the sea (Ibid.:45). It is naturally still active, which may be felt by microseismic activity. At that time, it is possible to observe rings forming on the water. While staying on Satorini, I noticed it once in the morning, while I was reaching for a glass of water on my table. Such a phenomenon is not usually dangerous and does not last long.

On the white roofs of Oia; ts beauty is unprecedented. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the port, my friend was still recovering from the seasickness. Surely, I did not look too good either; I was covered from head to toe with flecks of sea salt, and my hair for the same reason formed a kind of stiff and disheveled basket on my head. Additionally, it turned out that the car sent by the hotel did not show up to pick us up from the port. Fortunately, several taxis and buses were waiting for the visitors, and one of the drivers offered to take two emaciated travelers, because our hotel was on his way. He did not take a cent from us. It was probably because we looked like two poor relatives who had managed to finally save enough to go on holidays.

Towns and villages on Santorini are all like taken from postcards. The town of Pyrgos, built at the foot of Mount Profitis Ilias and in the center of hinterland, is one of the hidden gems of Santorini. Life there seems slower and more relaxing. It is also a fantastic place for taking beautiful pictures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The towns and villages of the main island are trully picturesque: the former capital of Santorini, Pyrgos, inland (the city’s name sounds almost like my surname, and so my origins may be possibly traced to Greece), seaside Oia in the north or Fira, the charming capital of the island (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). Although Pyrgos is situated almost in the central island, like most towns on Santorini, it is built up the hill so it is still possible to observe the sea from its highest parts.

Among other things, Oia and Fira are famous for the fact that their buildings descend along the steep shore built by the volcanic eruption almost to the surface of the sea (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The buildings of the insular towns look like cubist paintings hung on the deep blue canvas of the sea and the sky (Ibid.:45). The landscape is composed of bright, regular blocks of houses and countless outbuildings, blue domed roofs, miniature terraces, stairs, steps, squares and streets (Ibid.:45). And all this is clustered on small areas, around the hills or cliffs, as if glued together (Ibid.:45). In this picturesque maze, holidaymakers can wander for hours, stepping into tiny galleries, museums, jewelry stores, boutiques and romantic cafes or wine bars (Ibid.:45). The white dry wine produced in Santorini tastes especially good, which is usually chosen by food connoisseurs to go with seafood dishes (Ibid.:45). On the other side, lunch or dinner in a tavern on the cliff, overlooking the endless blue of the sea with the spots of scattered islands, is a pure pleasure (Ibid.:45).

Early forms of the Cycladic idols in the form of a violin. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera, Fira. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
One of a typical female idols of the Cycladic culture in the Archaeological Museum of Thera, Fira. It represents a possibly pregnant woman with her arms under the breast. The features of the face are invisible. The most intriguing is an oval and elongated head. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From the south of the island, where we were staying, we drove to Fira by a hired car, where we got after a quarter of an hour. Actually, it is a very tiny island. First, we went to the port hugged to the rock face, and from there we climbed to the top of the two hundred meter volcanic cliff on which the city was built (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). You can get there on the back of a donkey or on foot along the paved path, as we did (Ibid.:45). The two must-see sights in Fira were definitely the Archaeological Museum of Thera and the Museum of Prehistoric Thira. While most of the Minoan frescoes excavated in Akrotiri (the Minoan town destroyed by the volcano) are preserved by the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, they two also boast impressive collections of artifacts found on the island throughout its cultural development, starting from Prehistory. Apart from being one of the center (or an important colony) of the Minoan civilization, the island also housed the so-called Cycladic culture, having developed around the third millennium BC. (the period of Late Neolithic and Bronze Age). Its main objects of art are Cycladic marble figurines, also known as Cycladic idols.

Group of three figurines, early Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II). Photo by Smial (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Idols are objects of art typical of various prehistoric and ancient cultures, particularly from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, such as figurines of Venus, various representations of Neolithic goddesses, like the Cypriot Idol of Pomos, or more abstract depictions, including bronze discs from Cappadocia (PWN 2007:156). Most outstanding idols, however, come from the Cycladic culture in the Aegean Sea (Ibid.:156). The turn of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age is a period of rapid development of settlement, trade and many other areas of life (Rutkowski 2009:7). During this period, the most interesting art depicting idols, apart from Crete, comes from the Cycladic islands, whose influences also reached the Minoan civilization (Ibid.:7). The Cyclades belonged in the Bronze Age (from 3000 BC.) to the circle of Aegean cultures (Barucki et al. 2009:170). They constitute the Aegean archipelago of thirty-one islands around the sacred island of Delos, where Apollo and Artemis were born. Hence their name ‘cyclic’ (“Cyclades” 2020).

The largest Cycladic island of all is Naxos, Apart from them, there are also Syros, Santorini, Mykonos, Amorgos, Paros and Antiparos (“Cyclades” 2020). The residential buildings on the Cyclades, except for Thera, are poorly known (Barucki et al. 2009:170). Moreover, the art having developed there was, in comparison to Crete and mainland Greece, of a peripheral character, and many of their products refer to the Minoan art and its famous frescoes (Ibid.:170). In addition to the Minoan Thera, valuable frescoes have been also found on Melos (Filakopi) (Ibid.:170). On the other side, the Cyclades equally produced original and unique of the archipelago works of art, with which this region of the world is now clearly associated (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9).

Together with my friend, who is a historian of art, we came to the island of Santorini to continue our research on the Minoan culture, which we had alrady started on Crete. Our aim was thus to describe the archaeological site of Akrotiri and Minoan artifacts exhibited by the museums in Fira. Nevertheless, the Cycladic culture seemed to me equally attracting. It developed into successive phases, from the Late Neolithic, throughout the Bronze Age, till circa 1050 BC., and although it is slightly older, the Cycladic culture stays in part chronologically parallel to the Minoan civilisation (3000-1100BC), The Cycladic art flourished north of Crete and for me the archipelago of Santorini constituted a symbolical gateway to the islands’ cycle.

On numerous and usually tiny Cycladic islands, small human figures were massively carved; they usually do not exceed a dozen or so centimetres in height (Rutkowski 2009:7). They were made of clay or stone, but most often of snow-white marble, as in the Cyclades (Paros, Naxos) there are deposits of precious marble, from which vases and figurines were made (Barucki et al. 2009:170). While the Cycladic ceramics usually imitated the forms of stone vessels and statuettes (Ibid.:170).

Head of a female figure, Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II, 2700–2300 BCE; Louvre). Photo by Unknown artist – Jastrow (2006). Public domain. Image cropped and sharpened. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Cycladic art, the earliest methods of shaping the human figure were limited to the simplest forms, and it was only from those models that the larger plastic compositions developed (Majewski 1935:23). A characteristic early type is composed by the so-called violin idols (Ibid.:25). They have a long neck, a circular part of the arms, and the lower part modelled in the form of a semicircle by a curved waistline (Ibid.:25). By these means, such figurines resemble the shape of a violin, or, as it is also noticed, the outlines of the island of Cyprus. Such examples are also preserved by the museums of Fira,

Other Cycladic idols mostly illustrate highly simplified but still naturalistic figurative representations; they usually show naked women, also pregnant, with arms folded at the waist level, above the belly, or under their breast, like in the case of a marble female figurine from the island of Paros, preserved by the Museum of Louvre in Paris, France (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). It represents a standing woman with arms folded under her breasts, whose body is characterized by a compact form and a synthesizing interpretation of anatomical details, such as the geometric outline of the breast, resembling two pyramids, and the pubic triangle (Rutkowski 2009:9).

A spectacular panoramic view with the blue domes of the churches, the shore of the main island, the deep caldera and small isles of the archipelago in the distance. The photo was taken from the top of the hill encrusted with the village of Pyrgos in the central part of the island of Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Generally, figurines are built on the principle of geometrical parts of the body, usually with an elongated almond-shaped head or one in the form of an upside down triangle, a small, almost rectangular body and usually joined (early examples) or separate legs (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). This is a style that is generally defined as the tendency to synthesize human forms (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). The Polish researcher, the author of the first monograph on Cycladic art, Kazimierz Majewski (1935), supposes that the mutual relationship of individual parts of the body, i.e. the head, torso and legs, testifies to the application of almost mathematical rules by artists creating these works of fine art (Rutkowski 2009:7,9).

Although only a few figures have traces of polychrome, it is assumed that the natural white surface of the stone, especially the face, was usually enlivened with elements painted with a thick contour line in red; thus the outlines of the eyes and mouth were made (Rutkowski 2009:8-9; Barucki et al. 2009:170). Such a technique may have been also applied to a marble figurine from the Late Bronze Age, found on the island of Amorgos, now in the Museum of Louvre, in Paris (Rutkowski 2009:8). It possibly represents a female head; its schematic almond shape is only identified by an elongated nose (Ibid.:8). The lack of facial features without being underlined by paint gives the sculpture a rather raw expression (Ibid.:8).

It is believed that Cycladic idols may have been related to the sepulchral practices prevailing on the islands, as most of the statuettes come from graves, characteristic of the archipelago, namely of box, tolos and chamber types (Rutkowski 2009:9; Barucki et al. 2009:170).

Pyrgos is the largest and the well-preserved medieval settlement on Santorini, though almost completely omitted by tourists. Thanks to that, the atmosphere in Pyrgos is truly idyllique. This is also why the town offers almost empty mazes of blue-white narrow streets and lanes, sometimes leading under low and long passages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The figurines placed in the graves of the dead were usually small (Rutkowski 2009:9). However, the Cycladic artist did not abstain from making large human (female) heads and statues reaching a height of about one and a half meters (Ibid.:8-9). Some researchers believe that such large figures were placed in holy places dedicated to the cults of nature deities (Ibid.:9).

The best-known examples of Cycladic art also include male figurines depicting warriors or characters playing musical instruments (Rutkowski 2009:9). The latter group, including the figure of the Harpist of Keos, are distinguished by a much greater degree of detail in their form and equipment (Rutkowski 2009:9;Barucki et al. 2009:170). There are also some examples with visible facial features, like eyes and a mouth, and even few elements of clothes, such as necklaces.

Cycladic idols, of the FAF type below, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by I, Sailko (2008). CC BY 2.5. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

During the period of the greatest development of this type of art, that is, in the third millennium BC. there were many workshops, and the stylistic differences between the statuettes make it possible to distinguish artistic individualists, which are referred to by convention, for example, by the name of private collections (Rutkowski 2009:9). The contemporary interest in Cycladic art is evidenced by the fact that a museum has been established in Athens (opened in October 2019), the core of which is the collection of N.P. Goulandris, collecting mainly figurines of Cycladic masters (Ibid.:9). But the admiration for this field of fine arts dates back to the time when in the early twentieth century, artists such as Pablo Picasso or Hans Arp looked for inspiration to express the ‘new’ in form, yet modeled on the works of primitive and ancient art, in which there was a tendency of synthesizing natural forms (Ibid.:9). Thus, in the art of the early Bronze Age, there were achievements that are still valid and admired to this day (Ibid.:9).

We still travelled around Santorini, enjoying its natural though dangerous beauty, which for ages has ideally mingled with the manmade constructions, scattered around the island. Leaving the coast behind, we headed off towards the centre of the island with its charming town, Pyrgos. At each step, apart from numerous traces left by the Minoans, there were tell-tales of the white marble idols. Sometimes, a copy of some sculpture was crouching in front of the door of somebody’s house, another time the idols were sold in souvenir shops for tourists. They all keep welcoming and inviting deeper inside their sacred cyclic kingdom of the tiny islands, dancing on the turquoise waves of the Aegean Sea. … And I have accepted their invitation.

The village of Oia is carved out of Santorini post-volcanic cliffs. From up the roof, I could see the panorama of the deep blue Aegean Sea with the visible shores of the caldera, dotted with tiny islands. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: In the wide expanse of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago. Copyright©Archaeotravel. 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.


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Barucki T. et al. (2009). “Cykladzka sztuka”. In: Sztuka świata. Leksykon A-K, tom 12. [Historia del Arte, vol. 12]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Chabińska-Ilchanka, E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015) Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

Majewski K. (1935). “Figuralna plastyka cykladzka. Geneza i rozwój form”. In: Archiwum Towarzystwa Naukowego we Lwowie, Section I, Volume VI, Book 3. Drukarnia Naukowa we Lwowie.

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

Rutkowski B. (2009). “Sztuka mykeńska i minojska”. In: Sztuka świata, tom. 2 [Historia del Arte, vol. 2]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Twelve (Uncovered) Consecration Crosses, Each for One Apostle

In the Catholic Church, referred to as crosses or apostolic candlesticks. Usually they are in the form of a block, tiles with a symbolic cross, are painted or carved into the wall. A single-arm candlestick or lamp is placed under them. Their number, twelve in total, symbolically refers to the Twelve Apostles. They are located on the walls of the main nave to mark the twelve places of consecration of the church. After the Second Vatican Council, the number of anointed places in in church was reduced to four. However, the anointing of the church in twelve places has not been forbidden. Candlesticks are lit on the anniversary of the church’s dedication.

The custom itself comes from the Old Gallic liturgy (France from the fifth century to the tenth century). The Polish name comes from the biblical name Zacchaeus (hence Zacheuszki), who received Jesus Christ in his home.

Featured image: The so-called in Polish Zacchaeus in the form of a cross in the wooden Gothic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Borek in Tarnów (Poland). Photo by J. Błaż (2008). Public domain. Image cropped; colours intensified. Photo source: “Zacheuszki” (2018). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.


“Zacheuszek” (2018). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qP17ny>. [Accessed 23rd February, 2021].

Kubara: dewocjonalia (2021). Zacheuszki. in: Kubara: dewocjonalia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qQsUnj>. [Accessed 23rd February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 447. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Sleeping Beauty of the Underworld

Numinous statuettes of Malta from the late Neolithic (3200-2500 B.C.) are one of the unique expressions of the mysterious culture of megalithic builders who abruptly appeared and lived on the Island between 3800 and 2500 BC., scattering around it over twenty constructions, today referred to as temples (Biaggi 1986:131; Magli 2009:49). For this reason the period between around 3500-2500 BC. in Malta is usually “referred to as the Temple Period, during which this small and arid archipelago, composed of Malta, the nearby Gozo, and tiny Comino, [yet by] 3400 BC. [had already witnessed] one of the greatest architectural marvels of all human history, the Ggantija Temple, [believed by academics to be the second oldest temple in the world (just after Göbekli Tepe)]” (Magli 2009:47).

Remains of the colossal statue (originally two metres high) from Tarxien Temple (reconstructed replica) in Malta. It sows only the lower part of a female body with a carved pleated skirt. It is probably the oldest monumental representation of a human being in the region of the Mediterranean, from prehistory. The original statue has been moved to the National Museum of Archaeology in Valetta, Malta. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

What is surprising, the activity of those megalithic masters living in Malta can be archeologically observed merely for one millennium; after this period they disappeared as unexpectedly and mysteriously as they came into being (Ibid.:48). As it is not possible to surely identify a real purpose of the megalithic ‘temples’ erected in Malta, it is not either likely to fully understand the idea of carved figures left in various sacred areas between the megaliths.

Females of prehistory

After Cristina Biaggi (1986:131) prototypes of Maltese figures either belong to the Palaeolithic or the Mediterranean Early Neolithic. Consequently, most of these statuettes are believed to represent females, who are additionally called deities, goddesses or women ascribed of divine powers or a high importance and status (Ibid.:131-138).

“[Some] figures are nude, other clothed, some do not show primary sexual traits, and all are obese” (Ibid.:131). Although each group shares certain characteristics and there are differences between them, their peculiar style of the carving is distinctive of Malta, for no other statuette looking like them has ever been found elsewhere in the Mediterranean (Ibid.:131).

The earliest women in Malta

Female figures of the so-called Grey and Red Skorba Phases represent the earliest Maltese female statues made of clay; they are naked and feature strongly emphasised sexual characteristics (Biaggi 1986:137). They do not look obese as later representations and usually measure up to ten centimetres in height.

Maltese giantesses

With time, Maltese “[depictions] of the numinous tend to increase in size and elaboration or stylisation when a religion becomes entrenched in a society” (Biaggi 1986:137).

The earliest representations of Maltese females. Red Skorba figurine with the visibly underlined breast and pubic. Photo by Hamelin de Guettelet (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “National Museum of Archaeology, Malta” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among them, opulent but rather sexless representations of the Maltese divine womanhood probably look like legendary Maltese giantesses, who may have once dragged megalithic stones on their backs (Ibid. 131-137). They were either naked or partially clothed, and carved in various positions: standing, squatting or seated with their legs folded (Ibid.:131-132). Although not numerous, some of those ladies could reach almost three metres in height (Ibid.:132). They all are carved from Globigerina limestone, the local stone commonly used also for constructing the megalithic temples in Malta (Ibid.:131). Yet some figurines were also manufactured of alabaster-like stone, which was definitively imported, possibly from the mainland of modern Italy (Pace 2004:22). Such materials from beyond the archipelago may have had a special significance and value, and so did the objects made of it (Ibid.:22).

Refined sculpture of terracotta

Another group of statues, different in style but contemporary to the ‘giantesses’, are much smaller in size and made of clay; moreover, their physical appearance and attire clearly define females (Biaggi 1986:137). Similarly to the larger statues, they are also either naked or dressed (Ibid.:137). Although the Maltese type of female figures phased various metamorphoses, most of their representations were covered in paint of red ochre (Ibid.:131). Red ochre, “which may have been menstrual blood in its earliest manifestation, is the [colour] of fertility, death and rebirth – the [colour] of the [goddess]” (Ibid.:136).

Lying on a coach in the underworld

“About thirty of [those various] figures, ranging in [style and] size from [ten centimetres] to about [three metres] have been found in the […] Maltese temples and in the Hypogeum” (Biaggi 1986:131; see Maltese History in the Negative).

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

Among other Maltese statuettes and carvings, three particular figures have been found in the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni (Pace 2004:22). The statues belong to the group of smaller representations and are made of pottery (Biaggi 1986:137; Pace 2004:22). All the three statues are depicted while lying on a couch, possibly covered with a rush grass mattress (Pace 2004:22; Haughton 2009:163). The presence of such a coach seems to be symbolic as it also appears among the other type of female representations (Pace 2004:22). Although it today escapes a clear understanding, in all three cases, the base of the coach is rendered in a refined manner as an arrangement of framework (Pace 2004:22; Information boards in the National Museum Of Archaeology of Malta (Valetta) 2017). One of the carvings depicts something that looks like a fish, whereas the two others show definitely female figures (Information boards in the National Museum Of Archaeology of Malta (Valetta) 2017).

The sculpture exhibited in her own display case is widely known as Sleeping Lady or Sleeping Beauty. Nowadays, this female statue is also the symbol of the Neolithic ideal of femininity in Malta.National Museum of Archaeology in Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The first one, partially damaged in her lower part, reveals traces of red ochre; the woman is headless or decapitated, and she is lying face down on a coach (Pace 2004:22). The whole carving measures four centimetres height, nine centimetres length and almost six centimetres width (Ibid.:22). In turn, the second female statue has been preserved nearly complete, except some damage made in the area of her breast (Pace 2004:22; Haughton 2009:163). Also the left corner of the couch she is lying on is slightly broken and its shape is more oval in comparison to the previous two, which are more squared. The whole sculpture is seven centimetres high, twelve centimetres long and almost seven centimetres wide (Pace 2004:22). Slight traces of red ochre are also visible on it (Haughton 2009:163). The female figure is depicted in a lying posture similar to the ‘counched’ burial position, typical of an arrangement of the body in prehistoric graves (Pace 2004:22). She looks as if she was peacefully asleep. Thus the sculpture is widely known as Sleeping Lady or Sleeping Beauty. Nowadays, this female statue is also the symbol of the Neolithic ideal of femininity in Malta.

Face to face with mystery

Currently all the three terracotta statues are part of the exhibition in the National Museum Of Archaeology in La Valetta, Malta, where I have had an opportunity to study them, among other Maltese artefacts from the Temple Period. Whereas the two former figures, including the fish-like creature and a woman, lying down on her face, are exposed together in one display glass case, the Sleeping Lady, as the most privileged of all, not only has been provided with her own display case but also with a special room filled only with dimmed light, as if in fear of disturbing her dreams.

Fat but graceful

The Sleeping Lady is a highly refine representation of the reclining, excessively opulent but graceful woman (Pace 2004:22); she is lying on her right side on top of a couch, resting her head probably on a pillow that is slightly sagging under the weight of her head. While her right hand is delicately gripping the pillow, her left hand is resting on the corpulent forearm of her right hand. Like many other female Maltese statues, she is dressed in a bell-shaped skirt with fringes or pleating at the bottom, reaching halfway down the legs (Biaggi 1986:132).

The famous Sleeping Lady of Malta. a clay figurine found in the deep pit leading to the third level of the Hypogeum. National Museum Of Archaeology, Valetta, Malta. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Lady’s opulent legs seem to be slightly bent at the knees, so the skirt only reveals their small lower part that looks like two hewn pegs instead of the feet, visible at the edge of the couch. The upper part of the woman’s body is naked, with a rather opulent abdomen in the form of a single roll of fat with a noticeable navel. Her large and full breasts are partially covered with her left arm. In proportion to the Lady’s enormously obese body, especially her excessively modelled bulbous arms, thighs and huge buttocks, whose details are discretely hidden under the material of the skirt, the figure’s hands and head seem extremely minuscule, as if they did not belong to the same person (Ibid.:132). Her face is oval with delicate features: two small horizontal lines resemble closed eyes, “the nose wide with a definite ridge, the mouth [tiny and barely visible]” (Ibid.:132). Her hair is close to the head but long, reaching her arms (Ibid.:132).

Natural and artificial obesity

Obesity of the Maltese statues from the Temples Period, which is also evident in the case of the Sleeping Lady, seems to have been really important as it appears in all contemporary types of female figurines, either clothed or nude, including those with rather asexual characteristics (Biaggi 1986:137-138).

It possibly “implied power, sanctity, [and] strengthened their [aesthetic-symbolic] connection with the temples, which they resembled in shape”. (Ibid.:138). Following “the law of mimetic magic, [obesity may also] have had a magical function to [favour] fecundity, [for example], the growth of vegetation” (Ibid.:138). Nevertheless, Cristina Biaggi (1986:138) assumes that in contract to natural obesity, the artificial overweightness, possibly represented by a far-reaching stylisation of sculpted female representations was “a product of patriarchal culture because it presupposes the loss of woman’s control over her own body, which is not a characteristic of early Goddess worshipping cultures” (Ibid.: 138).

Lady of the Temple Period

Like other Maltese figures, the Sleeping Lady “dates back to the island’s [mysterious] prehistory, specifically to the thousand-year span, [between circa 3500 to 2500 BC.]” (Magli 2009:47). Due to the high quality of the sculpture, and the belief that its image expresses the numinous of an already well-established religion, it is believed to date back to a later period, that is, between 3000 and 2500 BC. (Biaggi 1986:137; Haughton 2009:163). The fact is, however, that the exact date of the figure is unknown and provided dating is merely modern guessing.

The final resting place of the ‘Sleeping Lady’

As mentioned above, “[this remarkable] gem [of Malta] was unearthed in one of the world’s most singular and enigmatic places, the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni” (Magli 2009:47). Precisely, the statuette was found either in one of the niches of the Hypogeum’s Main Chamber (Zone A) or, more likely, in a nearby deep pit or a cavity (Zone B), also referred to as the Snake Pit (Pace 2004:39,48; Haughton 2009:163) or “the final resting place of the ‘Sleeping Lady’” (Pace 2004:48). The pit is one of numerous examples of a high quality of craftsmanship applied in the Hypogeum (Ibid.:48). The discovery of the Sleeping Lady in that cavity would suggest it “may have once served as a repository of votive offerings” (Ibid.:48). Moreover, alongside the pit, between two decorated pillars, there is a shaft leading to the most mysterious place of the construction, the Third Level (possibly the deepest in the Hypogeum), where visitors are not allowed to descend (Ibid.:48). The ceiling of the elliptical chamber, where the pit is located, is additionally covered in abstract paintings, representing spirals, polygons and plant-like patterns, all made with red ochre (Ibid.:48). Such a decoration equally evokes a rather religious purpose of the site (Ibid.:48). In such circumstances, the terracotta statue may have been deposited in the pit as a burial offering possibly representing death seen as an eternal dream or the afterlife (Pace 2004: 22 Haughton 2009:164).

In the Hypogeum, which is usually interpreted as the subterranean temple of the dead and the necropolis, the deceased were buried accompanied by offerings of significant and religious funerary objects, which also included sophisticated artworks, such as the Sleeping Lady (Pace 2004:22). The meaning of the funerary custom of deposing valuable offerings alongside the dead is unknown but, likewise in other ancient cultures, as Egypt, they were definitely to accompany the deceased in their way to the afterlife and to reveal their high social status in front of their mysterious deities (Ibid.:22).

Is it the Mother Goddess or a priestess?

Along with other figurines from the Mediterranean region, the Sleeping Lady has sometimes been used as a testimony to support the theory of the universalism of the Mother Goddess or the Great Peacemaker Goddess who was worshiped in prehistory (Haughton 2009:163-164). It is a theory advocated by researchers such as Marija Gimbutas and Vicki Noble (Ibid.:164; see Noble 2000). It is the fact that “[the] worship of the Great Goddess was universal from the upper Paleolithic to the late Neolithic in Europe and the Near East, [and the] Maltese goddess figures represented the very stylised visual manifestation of that worship in Malta” (Biaggi 1986:137).

“No one knows if the sculptor who carved [the Sleeping Lady] was inspired by his own beloved or was simply following an established model of an idealised female form” (Magli 2009:47). National Museum of Archaeology in Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, apart from female figurines, there is no other evidence of the universality of this peaceful matriarchy cult, and the finds of weapons and fortifications dating back to the same period weaken the argument reinforced by the contemporary female sculpture (Haughton 2009:164). Moreover, Cristina Biaggi (1986:137) claims that the Sleeping Lady, as much as the other female lying on her face, does not represent a goddess but a priestess “engaged in dream incubation [or] an adept in giving oracles, interpreting dreams, or suggesting cures for illness” (also see: Krzak 2007:85).

Entering an incubation dream

The whole religious rite of falling into an incubation dream may have consisted in the fact that priestesses or priests, or both, went to the tomb, or to a cave or temple, and during their sleep they would obtain divinations from deities or ancestors, or seize their vital forces (Krzak 2007:85). This was considered in classical times in Greece and Rome, where such practices were certified as early as in the second century AD. (Ibid.:85). Aristotle, Diodorus and Pausanias all testify in writing about such cult dreams (Ibid.:85). Apart from Malta, the incubation also played a special role in North Africa, Libya and Sardinia (Ibid.:85). To this day, similar beliefs are found among Berbers in Maghreb and among people in Ireland (Ibid.:85).

This interesting theory tells that the Sleeping Lady – a goddess or not, a sleeping woman or in a trance – possibly points to a place in the Hypogeum, where dreams or visions were interpreted by means of incubation rituals (Haughton 2009:164). Such a dark area underground would be ideal for stimulating similar states and for inducing dreams and visions (Ibid.:164).

Twelve-centimetre masterpiece

But who modelled the figurine? “No one knows if the sculptor who carved [the Sleeping Lady] was inspired by his own beloved or was simply following an established model of an idealised female form” (Magli 2009:47). Giulio Magli (2009:47) “[leans] towards the first hypothesis, because, [as he claims] the sculpture is a masterpiece, the infusion of the creative soul into [hardly twelve] centimetres of [terracotta] statuette”.

Featured image: The clay figure of a reclining lady (Sleeping Lady) was found in one of the pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflieni in Malta. It has traces of red ochre paint. Temple Period, 4000 – 2500 BC. National Museum of Archaeology in Malta. Photo by Jvdc (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo by Jvdc (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “National Museum of Archaeology, Malta” (2021). 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.


“National Museum of Archaeology, Malta” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uXG194>. [Accessed on 4th March, 2021].

Biaggi C. (1986). “The Significance of the Nudity, Obesity and Sexuality of the Maltese Goddess Figures”. In: Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers Presented at the First International Conference on Archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean, University of Malta, 2-5 September 1985. Bonanno A. ed., pp. 131-13. Amsterdam: Grüner Publishing Co.

Haughton B. (2009). Tajemne miejsca. [Haunted Spaces, Sacred Places], Ferek M. trans. Poznań: REBIS.

Krzak Z. (2007). Od matriarchatu do patriarchatu. Warszawa: Wudawnictwo TRIO.

Magli G. (2009). Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy: From Giza to Easter Island. Praxis Publishing. Ltd.

Pace A. (2004) Malta Insight Heritage Guides: the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Heritage Books & Heritage Malta.

Vicki N.  (2003) The Double Goddess. Women Sharing Power. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Compony.

Inside the Pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions

Well-documented beliefs of ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica say that the Earth is a mass of land surrounded by waters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). But the Mayan world was not simply limited to that land but also included a deep dark underworld beneath it and the blue vault of heavens above it (Ibid.:200). For this reason, the earthly world, where they lived, could itself be perceived as the Middle-World or Middle-Earth (Ibid.:200). Similarly, it was called by the peoples of the Dark Ages, in contemporary North-West Europe in the first millennium AD. (Bates 2002:13). A famous author, J.R.R. Tolkien likewise writes about this mythical world in his epic novel, The Lord of the Rings (Ibid.:13). Similar cosmological concepts found in the Maya culture also appear in other ancient cultures, like the Egyptian; the Heliopolitan creation myth goes that the landmass enclosed by waters was actually a mound that arose from the primordial waters of the god Nu, and was called the Benben stone, which was also related to the  Egyptian pyramidion and obelisk (“Benben” 2021).

‘You read too much and too quick’, I thought, smiling to myself. Such mythological concept-frequency comparisons I was making between different ancient cultures may seem far-reaching speculations. Nevertheless, I could not help finding ensuing similarities between civilisations that are said to have developed independently, in different time and in distant regions. I felt as if I had just crossed a forbidden line. Yet, I could not stop my thoughts from wandering.

Architecture of mystical dimensions

Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). The Mayan urban architecture is usually characterized by a group of buildings, concentrated around a courtyard, which recreate the palace complex on a monumental scale (Ibid.:200). Such an arrangement is also visible in Palenque (Ibid.:200).

The two inner pillars covered in stucco reliefs, from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to scholars, the structures placed in this way resemble a natural environment of Mesoamerica, with mountains towering over green plains (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Such an interpretation is also confirmed by the hieroglyphic description of a tall building, defined as witz – a mountain, whose peaks may refer to stepped pyramids (Ibid.:200). In architecture, Mayan plazas and courtyards border each other in a different way, but the buildings, despite their frequent reconstructions, always remain in an architectural and astronomical relation to each other (Ibid.:200). Moreover, many of them are placed in a mythical landscape and so seem to be planned according to the points where the celestial bodies rise and set on specific days of the astronomical year (Ibid.:200; see: Discovered but Uncovered Palenque of the Ancient Maya). Accordingly, topography and solar orientations were essential for natural cycles and rituals in the net of Mayan city temples (Blankenbehler 2015).

The Temple of the Inscriptions

The so-called Temple of the Inscriptions is not an exception from the rule of specific architectural alignments in Palenque (see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque). It is located in the southwestern corner of the aforementioned Palace, right next to lonely buildings on tall terraced bases, which were later explored and consequently labelled as the Temples XIII and XII (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:178). The Temple’s wide body rises against a hill that archaeologists consider a natural tectonic formation (Von Däniken 1991:178). Erch von Däniken (1991:178) is yet of a different opinion; after him, the hill was artificially elevated and clearly divided into four terraces. Moreover, a temple and small clusters of ruins were discovered on its top (Ibid.:178). Their location indicates they may have been related to the Temple of the Inscriptions itself (Ibid.:178). It can be equally assumed that this inconspicuous mound contains even more archaeological puzzles than have been discovered so far (Ibid.:178).

Templo de las Inscripciones is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by petrs (2014). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all (Von Däniken 1991:178). Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top (Von Däniken 1991:178; Greene Robertson 2021). Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died (Greene Robertson 2021). Is there any connection between these historical and architectural facts? The entire structure of the Temple is twenty-five meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). There are five entrances leading inside it, each flanked by two pillars with rich stucco ornamentation (Von Däniken 1991:178-179; Greene Robertson 2021). Inside the whole Temple, there are relief plates with six hundred and seventeen inscriptions (Ibid.:179). Hence the name of the Temple (Ibid.:178).

Shaft leading down

The Temple of the Inscriptions became famous for yet another reason, which also became the greatest archaeological mystery of Mesoamerica in the twentieth century (Von Däniken 1991:179). Namely, it contains a richly decorated burial chamber and the sarcophagus of King Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). A similar discovery shows that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica also used the pyramids for burial purposes, as it was during the Old and Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt, and in ancient China. The discoverer and explorer of the tomb chamber was Dr. Albert Ruz Lhuillier (1906 – 1979), director of the Palenque excavation, appointed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). In 1949, the archaeologist found a shaft at the temple level with stairs leading down into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179).

The Temple of the Inscriptions, towering from the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The shaft had been hidden below huge stone slabs provided with holes used for their lifting (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). The vaulted staircase turned out to be completely covered with dirt and rubbles so it took the archaeological team three years to clean it and descend deeper into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). Eventually, in 1952, the archaeologist reached the tomb crypt containing a megalithic sarcophagus (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:180-181; Burns 2012). It is still the largest crypt found so far in the land of the Maya; it has dimensions of 4×10 metres, and its vault is 7 metres high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Before the archaeologist entered it, he had to descend flights of stairs, pass through one wall bonded with mortar, then a four-meter stone wall, and finally a triangular stone slab, which already gave a direct access to the proper burial chamber (Von Däniken 1991:180-181). On the way to the tomb, valuable jewellery, clay tablets and the remains of six dead, including one woman, were found (Ibid.:180-181).

Emergency exit for the soul

The burial chamber itself lies on the north-south axis (Von Däniken 1991:181). It is located at the end of the vaulted staircase, inside the terraced substructure and below the level of the Main Plaza in front of the temple, with its foundations reaching two meters below the base of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Von Däniken 1991:181).

Today, it is still accessed by the same spiral stairs from the back room of the temple, which were unburied by the archaeologists in the 50s of the twenty century (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Eberl 2013:311). A cross-section plan of the temple clearly shows huge dimensions of the burial chamber, especially when it is compared with the temple building itself, erected at the top of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The floor of the crypt is covered with one-stone slab weighing approximately nine tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). Stucco reliefs on its walls, show a procession of solemnly decorated priests passing along (Ibid.:182). Graham Hancock (2016:158) calls them the Lords of the Night, referring in this way to the ‘Ennead’, a group of nine ancient Egyptian deities, particularly worshiped at Heliopolis (see: “Ennead” 2021).

There are sixty-nine narrow and steep steps leading to the top of the pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions. Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died. Does it confirm the identity of the buried man? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The sarcophagus was found under the mentioned stone slab and weighs twenty tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). It was carved from a single stone and was sealed with a five-ton stone lid (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). The sarcophagus contained a skeleton of a very tall male, wearing a jade death mask, composed of two hundred fragments (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:158). A similar green funeral mask but made of malachite pieces was also found attached to the front of the Red Queen’s skull in the Temple XIII, situated just on the right of the Temple of the Inscriptions (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Yet, the Queen’s mask was additionally provided with a diadem made of flat circular jade beads (Ibid.). Like in the case of the Red Queen, next to the dead from the Temple of the Inscriptions, there were found, among others, pieces of jewellery, such as jade bracelets, rings and earrings with hieroglyphs engraved on them, a pearl and jade bead necklace and a jade statuette (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:159). For Graham Hancock (2016:159), the found figurine looked like a more ancient object than other tomb offerings and was similar to artifacts associated with a “multicultural” environment of the Olmecs from La Venta; namely, it represented an old Asian man with a goatee and a long flowing robe.

Additionally, from the sarcophagus a clay pipe was carried outside the crypt; it is known as the psychoduct, which is unique to Pakal’s tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; “Palenque” 2021; Eberl 2013:311). As archaeologists say, it allowed the soul of the deceased to separate from the body and fly out of the tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; Eberl 2013:311). Moreover, it was believed that on the way to the afterlife, the dead had to overcome many different obstacles (Eberl 2013:315). Even modern-day Mayas are still afraid of the ok-pixan, or soul thieves who, like Christian demons, can capture the human soul during its ascent to the afterlife (Ibid.:315). Therefore, in the past, living family members of the dead tried to make the journey of the soul easier (Ibid.:315). For this reason, special openings in the houses’ roofs were designed to serve as a hiding place or a soul’s escaping route. In the Tempel of the Inscriptions, it was probably the role of the mentioned psychoduct (Ibid.:315), “which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone, covering the entrance to the burial” (“Palenque” 2021).

Buried mystery in the heart of the pyramid

Most researchers believe that the sarcophagus contains the remains of Pakal, one of the most famous Mayan kings known today, who died in 683 AD. (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Eberl 2013:315). After Palenque had been attacked and looted by the ruler of Calakmul, at the end of the Preclassical period, Pakal took over the power at a young age and rebuilt the city, restoring it to its glory in the so-called Classic Period (Burns 2012). During the almost seventy years of Pakal’s reign, the most significant inscriptions and monuments of the Mayan civilization were also created (Ibid.). Surely, such an outstanding ruler deserved a famous sarcophagus. According to archaeologists, the king designed his own tomb, which was completed together with the Temple of the Inscriptions around 690 AD., already during the reign of his son, Kan Balam the Second (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204).

One thing is certain: the tomb and the crypt were built first, and only then the successive steps of the pyramid were erected over it (Von Däniken 1991:190-191). Only as the final result of the construction was the temple overbuilt on top of the pyramid, which is actually a distinctive architectural design in all Mesoamerica. (Von Däniken 1991:190-191; Greene Robertson 2021). The stairs leading to the interior of the temple were being additionally raised and lengthened several times during the second phase of the building process (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). This part of the whole structure also remained inextricably linked to the tomb by means of the flies of stairs going deep down, which were finally covered up (Von Däniken 1991:179-181; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). It is not known, however, when and why they were buried; was it a result of an unknown ritual, already at the time of the construction of the pyramid, or it was done much later, for generally unknown reasons?

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. It rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by k_tzito (2016). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The assumed chronology of the construction of the Temple of the Inscriptions proves another fact (Von Däniken 1991:190). Since the pyramid with its temple were astronomically oriented, the very first step to such an arrangement must have been started by a proper placement of the twenty-ton sarcophagus and the five-ton stone lid of the tomb, long before the pyramid itself was erected (Ibid.:190). For this reason, the sarcophagus had always been to remain in the place chosen for it underworld; nobody was able to move it outside, climbing again up the steep and narrow stairs (Ibid.:190). As such, it was simultaneously the beginning and the centre of the astronomical mystery of the Temple of the Inscriptions, towering at the top of its stepped pyramid (Ibid.:190).

Or perhaps, the crypt itself had existed hundreds of years before the pyramid was built over it and so the tomb did not belong to the king Pakal … (Ibid.:182;190). Who was then buried in the crypt?

Inconvenient dates

With nearly two hundred hieroglyphic inscriptions, Palenque is one of the most important inscription sites throughout the Mayan territory (Prager, Grube 2013:447). Calendar inscriptions read at Palenque refer, among other things, to the rulers of the Classic period (Von Däniken 1991:182). Pakal was born in 603 AD. and reportedly he was twelve when he ascended the throne and had ruled until his death for nearly seventy years, that is, until 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). So he was about eighty at the time of his death, which after Erich von Däniken (1991:182) seems quite odd considering the average Mayan lifetime in ancient times was only thirty-five.

Beside the Palace with the Temple of the Inscription in the foreground. Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the basis of the Mayan hieroglyphic cycles in Palenque, not only the dates of Pakal’s reign (603-683 AD.) were read, but also the date of the fall of the city (Von Däniken 1991:177,182). The last hieroglyph points to the year of 780 AD. (Ibid.:177). It has also been assumed that the oldest known date for the beginning of the Mayan chronology is 3114 BC. (Ibid.:177). However, the world-renowned archaeologist and historian of art, Herbert J. Spinden (1879–1967) found among the Mayan inscriptions a date going even further back in the past, namely to 3373 BC., whereas in the described before Temple of the Cross at Palenque, he discovered a date going as far back as to 3379 BC. (Ibid.:177; see😊 The problem is that at the time defined by such dates the ancient Maya had not existed yet . (Ibid.:177). Besides, there are so many various dates scattered around the city of Palenque that specialists sometimes get confused while deciphering the hieroglyphs to ascribe them to a proper time in the Mayan history (Ibid.:177). Among them the oldest dates, over which archaeologists usually spread their hands helplessly, are particularly intriguing (Ibid.:177-178,182).

Despite all this inconsistency, the puzzling set of dates in Mayan cities covering the millennia cannot give any foundations for the hypothesis of fictitious dating by the Maya, of which experts often accuse them (Von Däniken 1991:178). In addition, relatively little progress has been made in deciphering other hieroglyphs since the Mayan dates were decoded (Hancock 2016:156). Moreover, although astronomical cycles of dates have been deciphered at Palenque, these are often cycles so long that they probably have little to do with human history (Von Däniken 1991:178). As Erich von Däniken (1996:) writes, dates of thousands and millions of years should be ultimately reserved for gods.

At the back wall of the Temple of the Inscriptions there are carved in rows tangled anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features (Hancock 2016:156). They are a mixture of puzzling hieroglyphs and phonetic symbols that have not been read so far (Ibid.:157). Graham Hancock (2016:157) writes that it is only known that their number, which is six hundred and twenty, refers to the thousands of years of past epochs and their content may stand for a history of gods and people who played a role in those events.

Epitaph fifty years before death

Calendar inscriptions are also depicted on the Palenque sarcophagus (Von Däniken 1991:182,186). They run along its stone-lid and on its side edges (Ibid.:186). So far, only some hieroglyphs standing for dates and astronomical signs, such as of the Venus, Sun, North Star and the Moon have been successfully deciphered (Ibid.:182,186). After Dr. Ruz, among the inscriptions on the tomb, there is ultimately information about the cycles of dates, and the last date on the sarcophagus is 633 AD., that is to say, fifty years before the conventional date of Pakal’s death, which is 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). Probably due to this unmatching date on the sarcophagus, some scholars have suggested that the image on the lid is not really an image of the famous king, but symbolically represents mankind or the Mayan god of corn, Yum Kox (Ibid.:182).

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. Photo by Kwamikagami – English Wikipedia (2004). Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Maya script” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

And where can one turn to for advice? Apparently, any interpretation of the main character of the show depends on an interpreter and their independent but subjective approach to the subject.

Asking geologists

Another question, which is related to the identity of the skeletal remains and to the inconsistency of the most recent date on the sarcophagus, is when the crypt under the Temple of the Inscriptions was actually sealed. The only witnesses who could have revealed the secret were stalactites and stalagmites growing in the crypt (Von Däniken 1991:181). Unfortunately, whereas some may have been accidentally knocked down by the researchers while they were opening the stone slab leading to the tomb, others were probably destroyed during their further archaeological works in situ (Ibid.:181).

Dr. Ruz mentions the geological formations while describing the crypt as:

“[…] an enormous room that appeared to be graven in ice, a kind of grotto whose walls and roof seemed to have been planned in perfect surfaces, or an abandoned chapel whose cupola was draped with curtains of stalactites, and from whose floor arose thick stalagmites like the dripping of a candle.”

(Hancock 2001:163).

As the archaeologist refers to them as “thick” and looking “like the dripping of a candle”, they must have already been quite long and large at the moment of uncovering the crypt, in 1952.

Cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites in Metro Cave / Te Ananui Cave. Photo by Pseudopanax. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Stalaktyt” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Stalactites are icicle-shaped mineral formation that hangs from the ceiling and their equivalent formations growing up from the floor are known as stalagmites (PWN 2021). They are formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate crystals from water dripping from rock fractures and their maximum increment per year is from approximately 0.25 mm to 3 mm (Ibid.). Still, such formations can grow faster in an area rich in limestone, which is actually characteristic of the building substance of Mayan pyramids, including the stepped pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:181).

According to the provided dates for Pakal’s death, the tomb stayed sealed for 1 300 years till it was discovered (My Gen 2021), whereas according to the latest date found in Palenque, it had been neglected for around 1 172 years (Von Däniken 1991:177,181). Since the Maya abandoned Palenque at the turn of the ninth century AD., the water of heavy rains must have penetrated deep into the building of the Temple and greatly influenced the growing process of the geological formations inside it (Ibid.:181). The dry months that followed the rains brought in turn severe heat, which, like humidity, also had an impact on the growth rate of the stalactites inside the crypt (Ibid.:181).

How much could they grow in such conditions? If at least one of them had been preserved, it would be possible for geologists to calculate how many years had passed since the crypt was sealed (Von Däniken 1991:181). After Erich von Däniken (1991:181) it could be a starting point for understanding all the puzzling dates in the Mayan chronology.

Another intact sarcophagus

Just before our descent into the deep belly of the Temple of the Inscriptions, we first directed our steps to another tomb, which was found much later in the adjacent Temple XIII, in the spring of 1994 (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). The discovery was accidently made by a young Mexican archaeologist, Fanny López Jiménez (Ibid.).

Like a team of archaeologists twenty years ago, we climbed into a narrow passageway, leading inside the pyramid with three chambers vaulted by stone ceilings, one of which contained a tomb of the so-called Red Queen, once accompanied by human remains belonging to a young man and an older woman (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a nickname of the female skeleton found inside the sarcophagus was chosen due to the fact that her skeletal remains with the funeral collection of various objects were covered in a red powder, made of grounded cinnabar (the ore of mercury), which was once used as a pigment (Ibid.). The sarcophagus was dated back to the times of Pakal, between 600 and 700 AD. and the age of the buried woman was estimated at around sixty years old (Ibid.). The archaeologists first thought it was Pakal’s mother but then they eventually decided it was rather Ix Tz’akbu Ajaw, the king Pakal’s wife (Ibid.). Nevertheless, her identity has never been surely confirmed (Ibid.).

Further questions about Pakal’s identity

Scientifics have greatly progressed in studies over the remains of the Red Queen and her possible identity by means of precise results of a series of the skeleton’s analyses, which primarily included radiocarbon and DNA tests, supported by facial reconstructions studies (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a state of facts, however, poses many questions about Pakal’s skeletal analyses. Even though the Red Queen had presumably lived in the times of Pakal’s rule and her remains were also buried in Palnque, thus in the exactly same conditions as in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains, and both tombs were sealed and intact till they were discovered, the comparative analyses of both cases have significantly differed.

The Pyramid of the Inscriptions is on the left of the smaller Temple XIII, situated just next to it to the right. There is a characteristic entrance to the inside of the pyramid leading to the burial chamber of the Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Whereas in the case of the Red Queen, there was a successfully extracted sample of DNA (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021), such an examination was claimed to be impossible in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains (Wordtrade.com 2021). Moreover, in the analyses of the latter, there are no known results of any radiocarbon tests … (Ibid.; see:).

Why such scientific methods, as radiocarbon dating or DNA examinations, were not conducted to determine the identity of the said Pakal’s skeletal remains?

Featured image: The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 50s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Namely, inside the stepped pyramid of the Temple, the first tomb of Palenque was found in 1952, where a famous sarcophagus was revealed by a group of archaeologists. It is commonly said to contain the king Pakal’s skeletal remains. Besides that, the Temple is one of the crucial architectural elements in a mystical alignment of the city of Palenque. It is located in the southwestern corner of the Palace, from where the picture is taken. Photo by Dezalb (2015). 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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Hancock G. (2021). Fingerprints of the Gods. The Quest Continues. The edition first published in 1996 by Mandarin Paperbacks. Reprinted in Century Books. The Random House Group Limited.

Hohmann-Vogrin A. (2013). ”Jedność w przestrzeni i czasie – architektura Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

My Gen (2021). “In plain sight: Mayan – Lord Pakal’s Tomb”. In: My Generation; www.MyGen.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SH2RmT>. [Accessed on 17th June, 2021].

Prager Ch., Grube N. (2013). ”Najważniejsze zabytkowe stanowiska Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

PWN (2021). “Stalaktyty”. In: Encyklopedia PWN. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vKo1hC>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2021].

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.

Wordtrade.com (2021). “Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences: Maya”. In: Wordtrade.com/American History. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cQRcZC>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2021].

Limestone Flakes of the ‘Ostraca’

Greek: ostraca (plural) – oyster shells, ostracon (singular).

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).

Ostrakon of Cimon, an Athenian statesman, telling his name (as “Kimon [son] of Miltiades”); 486 or 461 BC., Ancient Agora Museum in Athens. Photo by Marsyas (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Ostracon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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.

Yucatan ‘Mountains Filled with Water’ in the Maya’s Underground

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

Something good for everyone

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

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

‘We only have two weeks to stay in Mexico’ said my friend. ‘Then we have to go back to Poland, and what is worse, to winter!’ Then, she added: ‘Besides, you have promised not to explore ‘your’ rocks all the time 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).

Cenote at Bolonchén, Mexico, used as source of water. Lithography by Frederick Catherwood (1842). Published in “Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” (1844). Via web copy at Cenote Xtacumbilxunan, at Bolonchen, Yucatan. Public domain. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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).

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

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

Drawing of the Maya hieroglyphic sign for ‘cenote.’ From Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting. Drawing by Marc Zender. Drawing source: James Doyle (2018). “Into the Centipede’s Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá”, Fig. 2. In: The Metropolitan Museum (The MET).

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

Recreation of the holy landscape

Assuming that the Mayan temple pyramids were referred to as witz – ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’, it can be concluded that they represented sacred mountains, and respectively the doors to the sanctuaries erected at the top were considered entrances to symbolic caves (Brady 2013:298).

Entrance to Dos Ojos Cenote, near Tulúm in Mexico. Photo by Dag Lindgren (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped. Photo source: “Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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

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

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

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

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

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

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

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

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

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

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

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

Venturing out into the earth

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

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

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

Modern tourist attractions

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

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.


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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].

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Votive offerings or Deposits in Ancient and Modern Societies

From Latin: ex voto – ‘by vow’

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.


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Pax : “Peace to You … And with Your Spirit”

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.’

Ivory pax with Crucifixion, Netherlandish, 1500–1510. Photo by Niels from Amsterdam, NL (2009). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Pax (liturgical object)” (2020).

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).


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