Tag Archives: Explorers&Travellers

Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque

Campeche is a city in the Mexican Gulf, founded in 1540 by Spanish conquistadors as San Francisco de Campeche. Additionally, it was located on the site of the former Mayan city called Canpech or Kimpech (“Campeche” 2021).

The two illuminated towers of the Baroque Cathedral, towering over the Plaza del Zócalo of the city of Campeche, Mexico. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This old town used to have thousands of different buildings, of which, as a result of its turbulent history, unfortunately not many traces have remained to this day (“Campeche” 2021)

Even though our minibus arrived at Campeche in the evening, we still managed to see many colourful colonial houses and massive fortifications that had once defended the city from pirates, albeit not always with success (“Campeche” 2021). At the end of our trip, we were seen off by the two illuminated towers of the Baroque Cathedral, towering over the central square of the city, known locally as the Zócalo. The next morning, however, we left this charming place behind and moved south, towards the Mexican state of Chiapas, going back in time to the times of the Maya and their stepped pyramids and temples.

Towards the heart of the Maya territory

So far we had seen Mayan sites in the north of Yucatan, including Mayan-Toltec cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Nevertheless, those city-states had developed mostly in the Late Classical Period and were therefore much later than Mayan sites in the south of the country. This is why, we could say that we were heading off to the very heart of the Mayan land. Paolo Sutter, a Swiss guide in Palenque, who also accompanied Enrich von Däniken in his journey through the ruins, claims that this Mayan heart once beat in Tikal (Guatemala) (Von Däniken 1991:184). After him, Tikal was once located just in the centre of the Mayan culture, which becomes especially visible if one inserts a compass needle into a city point on the map and draws circles of the correct radius around it; these will include the Mayan settlements even at the edge of their world, in the farthest corners of the north, south, west and east (Ibid.:184). ‘It was from Tikal’, the guide says, ‘that the Mayan empire began to expand in all directions’ (Ibid.:184).

Accordingly to the proposed thesis, the Mayan territory was not in fact limited to the country of Mexico itself but stretched southwards, far beyond its political borders. Precisely, “[the] Maya civilization developed in the area that today comprises southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador” (“Maya civilization” 2021). Consequently, Mayan city-states were scattered in the area of Mexican state of Chiapas, including Sierra Madre de Chiapas, southern Guatemala, El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain, and then they also expanded in the regions of the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, from where we started our study trip throughout Mexico (Ibid.).

The Maya and their development

Ancient Maya peoples, although today they exist as a separate cultural group, had probably never felt “a sense of common identity or political unity” (“Maya civilization” 2021; see “Majowie” 2021). Nevertheless, they dominated Mesoamerica for thousands years (Grube 2013:14-16). To our knowledge, they did not use metal tools, a wheel, and did not have pack animals (Burns 2012).

In front of the Temple of the Inscriptions, one of the most intriguing and significant buildings of the city, situated in the center. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite their lack of the humanity’s basic inventions, such as iron and the wheel, scientists today consider the Maya as one of the most advanced civilizations in Pre-Columbian America (Burns 2012). This is because the Maya had many achievements in the fields of agriculture, engineering, and astronomy: they developed hieroglyphics and the vigilant number system, made astronomical observations, and used precise timing systems (ibid.). They also had a complex mythology, language and religious rites (Ibid.). The Maya are equally known for their civilization achievements in the field of architecture and so their cities are characterized by high architectural precision, especially in terms of astronomical phenomena (“Majowie” 2021).  They built monumental spatial complexes, consisting of temples on high stepped pyramids, palaces, terraces, courtyards and stone fields for ball games (“Majowie” 2021; Burns 2012). In the field of art, they created stucco ornaments, vibrant wall paintings, sculptures and bas-reliefs of stucco, stone, wood and bone, polychrome ceramics and refined objects of goldsmithery (“Majowie” 2021).

Where did they come from?

Scientists claim that the Mayan ancestors came from Asia to the American continent via the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age (Grube 2013:14). Like many, Paolo Sutter takes a different view (Von Däniken 1991:183-184). After him, people never voluntarily put themselves in danger, especially if they do not have a clearly defined aim of taking a risk (Ibid.:183). And the people of that time certainly did not know what awaited them after crossing the frozen Bering Strait, if such a feat was possible for them at all, with frosts as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius (Ibid.:183).

The row of temples along the southern edge of the Main Plaza in the western part of the city: the Temple of the Inscriptions on the left, then on the right, the Temple XIII (of the Red Queen), and the Temple XII. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, opponents of the Bering Strait theory usually propose a different solution instead; namely, they believe that the people of Asia did indeed reach Mesoamerica, but by crossing the waters of the Pacific Ocean, travelling on ships (Ibid.:183). Enrich von Däniken (1991:184), however, doubts if they came from Asia at all; the newcomers from Asia would have known the wheel and would certainly have used it widely also in Mesoamerica. Even if the Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Olmecs and the Mayans, knew the wheel, as evidenced by some artifacts, they did not use it in their everyday life, like other ancient cultures did elsewhere.

There are also some legends ascribed to the Mayan culture, containing a story of how the ancient Mayans came to Mesoamerica from an unidentifiable eastern land that had been destroyed, possibly by an unknown cataclysm (Hart 2017:150). As a writer, Will Hart (2017:150) admits, these types of accounts may sound like romantic myths and be just a result of a vivid imagination, but when one walks around an ancient archaeological site of Palenque, amidst its extensive ruins, they start to wonder if such myths of lost continents may contain a grain of truth.

From the Archaic Period to the Late Preclassic

Regardless of where the Mayans came from and how they did it, visiting hunters and collectors first settled in mainly three regions of Mesoamerica: the Pacific coast, the mountains, and the lowlands (Grube 2013:14).

Inside one of the corridors of the Palace in the central part of Palenque. Photo by Leon Petrosyan (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Little information is known about the Archaic period of Mayan culture, but it is dated back to the second millennium BC., when settlements in villages had already developed (Grube 2013:14). Although this slow process was uneven in the inhabited area, it is the time when agriculture and maize cultivation began (Ibid.:14). Pottery, which is attributed to the Mayan culture, could also have originated in this period (Ibid.:14).

The Corbel arch seen in a hallway at the Palace. Photo by Ricraider – Own work (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A conventional period from 2000 BC. until 300 BC. is called by archaeologists the Preclassic Period, including the Early (2000-900 BC), Middle (900-300 BC) and Late (300 BC-250 AD) periods within it (Grube 2013:14). While the first agricultural settlements were built at the earliest stage, the social hierarchy was formed in the following phases, and the cities were formed along with them, along with examples of Mayan monumental architecture, including ornamental tombs and stone monuments with images of dignitaries, but yet without inscriptions (Ibid.:14). Similar achievements show that the Mayan culture developed in parallel with the so-called Olmec culture from the Gulf of Mexico (Ibid.:14). Therefore, it is not truly correct to describe the Olmecs as a proto-Mayan culture (Ibid.:14). The Olmecs had probably just influenced it as much as the culture of Teotihuacan did.

Self-supporting and false vaults

In the Late Preclassic Period, social differences in the Mayan culture deepened and a privileged group strongly emerged, including the royal families and priests (Grube 2013:14). Monumental buildings decorated with huge stucco masks of gods were still erected; these were mainly temples in the form of stepped pyramids with temples on top and the so-called royal palaces (Ibid.:14). Stone self-supporting original vaults with a keystone (a capstone) are also dated to this period! (Ibid.:14). It is supported by the discovery of such a vault in the city of Calakmul. At the same time, it is quite surprising that in the Classic Period cantilever vaults, known more often as the corbelled or false vaults, were commonly used by the Mayans (Ibid.:14). Such constructional element as corbel vaults and arches are actually typical features of the pre-Columbian architecture, both monumental and urban (Ibid.:14).

The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 90s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

Complex writing system

The first stone monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the so-called steles, also appeared in the same period (Grube 2013:15). Oddly enough, these oldest texts reveal examples of writings so uniform and complex that the Maya writing system from the Late Preclassic Period must have developed earlier (Ibid.:15). For archaeologists, there are two possible explanations for this puzzle: either the older forms of writing have not survived due to the perishable material used, or they have not yet been discovered (Ibid.:15).

Classic Period of the Maya

The end of the Preclassic Period brought subsequent climate changes, natural disasters and migrations of people, often resulting in armed conflicts, which caused many cities of the period deserted (Grube 2013:15).

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.

Recognition of the year 250 AD. as the ending moment of the Preclassic Period and the beginning of the Classic one is purely conventional (Grube 2013:15). This was a gradual process and did not occur simultaneously for the entire territory of Mesoamerica occupied by the Mayans (Ibid.:15). Moreover, it should also be understood that the Classic Period is just another stage in the long history of Mayan culture (Ibid.:15). Material inheritances from both the Preclassic and Classic Periods are also quite comparable (Ibid.:15), and sometimes even earlier monuments and artifacts are more advanced in terms of a technique used than those created in the classical period (e.g. a self-supporting vault).

The Palace as seen from the main courtyard (Main Plaza). Photo by Ricraider – Own work (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Classic Period can be further broken down into two major blocks: the Early Classic Period (250-550 AD.) and the Late Classic Period (550-900 AD.) (Grube 2013:15). Additionally, one can also distinguish in the latter the s-called Declining Period, that is to say, the last hundred years of the Late Classic Period (800-900 AD.) (Ibid.:15). In the Classic Period, the lowlands were divided by growing influences of notably four struggling big city-states (Ibid.:15). Edwin Barnhart, PhD, the Archaeologist Director in Maya Exploration Center, says that many texts mention four Maya cities that were associated with four corners of the world (Edwin Barnhart, PhD. in: Burns 2012). Among them was Palenque, depicted as the capital of the Mayan world of the west, the capital of the south was Copan, in the east, there was Tikal, and in the capital of the north was Calakmul (Ibid.). Each was headed by a king who was descended from ancient gods, and so he was seen as an intermediary between the world of gods and people (Grube 2013:15).

A description of a presented expedition will mainly concern the Late Calssic Period of Palenque.

Relations with Teotihuacan and wars between the Mayan city-states

In addition to extravagant architecture and luxurious works of art, an element of the culture of the aristocracy of the Classic Period of the Maya was their hieroglyphic writing, densely covering stone steles, altars, relief panels, pottery and jewellery (Grube 2013:15). They all tell a tale about royal families, lavish feasts, wars and alliances (Ibid.:15). On the other hand, the Mayan hieroglyphs has allowed not only to recreate the political events of the Classic Period, but also have given a valuable insight into the Mayan intellectual culture, including their astronomy and myths (Ibid.:15).

By the side of the so-called Palace, located in the center of Palenque. Behind the Temple of the Inscriptions, situated at the top of the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By means of Mayan writing and artifacts, it is also known that the Early Classic Period was marked by contacts with the mysterious city of Teotihuacan, the largest city in the cultural area of ​​Mesoamerica, inhabited then by unidentifiable culture (Grube 2013:16). At the same time, conflicts developed between the urban powers of the Classic Period, mainly between Tikal and Calakmul, which, in turn, had sparked hostilities already on the verge of the Late Classic Period (Ibid.:16). The final collapse of the Mayan classic culture was intensified by environmental disasters and overpopulation (Ibid.:16). Consequently, at the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries AD., more Mayan cities emptied in the region (Ibid.:16).

Postclassic Period and the Spanish Conquest

Simultaneously, “[the] Postclassic period [of the Maya, which] saw the rise of Chichen Itza in the north [of Yucatan]” (“Maya civilization” 2021), is usually regarded as a time of decadence, characterized by a gradual decline of the status of the elite and their monumental architecture (Grube 2013:16). This period is also broken down into successive stages, ending with the Spanish conquest and the fall of the last Mayan state of Itzá, with their capital Nojpetén, in 1697 (Ibid.:16).

Modern Mayans of Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by I, Henrique Matos (2007). CC BY 2.5. Photo source: “Majowie” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

After the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan civilization completely collapsed (Grube 2013:16). The Mayans, however, have survived to modern times, thankfully retaining much of their culture (Ibid.:16). During the colonial period, as well as after Mexico and other countries in America gained their autonomy in the early nineteenth century, the Maya also made many local armed efforts to regain political independence (Grube 2013:16; “Maya civilization” 2021). “Today, their descendants, known collectively as the Maya, number well over [six] million individuals, speak more than twenty-eight surviving Mayan languages, and reside in nearly the same area as their ancestors ” (“Maya civilization” 2021). Although for centuries they were usually treated as second-class residents on their own lands, today they are still actively fighting for their political and cultural rights (Grube 2013:16).

Gateway to Palenque

The stepped pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo taken from the side of the Temple XIII, where the second famous burial of Palenque was discovered. It belongs to the so-called Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As we were approaching Palenque archaeological site after around five hours spent in the bus, I suddenly noticed a huge carved head rising up just in the middle of the roundabout (see: Von Däniken 1991:183). It belongs to perhaps the most famous Mayan king, Kʼinich Janaab Pakal the First, who reigned in Palenque in the Late Classic Period and who, more than one thousand three hundred years after his death, triggered much interest and even confusion in the modern world of archaeology. It was mainly because of his multi-ton sarcophagus hidden in one of the temples in Palenque. In this way, the king has probably deserved that his image carved in the stone is now welcoming visitors on the way to his wonderful but lost kingdom.

How did the Mayans call their city?

The Mayan ruins of Palenque are located around ten kilometres away from a small town of Santo Domingo de Palenque, where you can also stay at one of its hotels of a various standard if you wish to stay and study the ruins longer (Von Däniken 1991:176,183). This settlement close to the ancient city was founded by a Spanish missionary, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, the first European who saw Palenque (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021). In 1567, he founded a village, first called Santo Domingo, and it was not until around twenty years later that it was named Santo Domingo de Palenque (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021).

An intricate complex of El Palacio with its outstanding tower, located in the center of the ancient city of Palenque. Photo taken from the Temple of the Cross in the south-east of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is believed that Palenque was “also anciently known as Lakamha (literally: ‘Big Water’) (“Palenque” 2021). Yet, there are other hypothesis about the modern name of the city. In Spanish, the word ‘palenque’ means ‘fence’, ‘tournament square’ or ‘palisade site’. Of course, the sixteenth-century village of Santo Domingo had nothing to do with ‘tournament square’ (Von Däniken 1991:176). One of the local Mayans claims that his ancestors from the sixteenth century still remembered that the nearby jungle ruins were actually called Palatquapi by ancient Mayans; according to their accounts, it was the place where Mayan gods, known as the Kachina, once lived (Ibid.:176).

Mysterious tower, possibly used as an astronomical observatory, belonging to the complex, called El Palacio. Photo by Anna_Travel_Guru (Anna Che) (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The sixteenth century Mayans may have provided the Spanish settlers with the original name of the city, which was, however, misspelled by the Spanish and consequently changed into the known today name ‘Palenque’, and then Santo Domingo was successively named itself after the ruins (Ibid.:176). As a matter of fact, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada studied the ruined city and then published its first description, in which he also named it ‘Palenque’ (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021). The Mayan city was thus named almost two hundred years before its ruins started to be more explored since the eighteenth century (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Prager, Grube 2013:447).

From ‘casas de piedra’ to their regular exploration

Of all the Mayan sites of the Classic Period, Palenque enjoyed considerable interest, but it was difficult to spark it at first among contemporary explorers (Eggebrecht 2013:408-411; Von Däniken 1991:163-171; Dzikowska 2013:239-241). From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the inhabitants of Tumbula, the largest city closest to the ruins, knew of the so-called casas de piedra (stone houses), near the settlement of Santo Domingo (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163).

Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they described the ruined buildings engulfed by the steamy jungle of Chiapas, which was once inhabited by their Mayan ancestors (Eggebrecht 2013:408). In the 1870s, information about these stone houses spread quickly; it reached the ears of a priest in Ciudad Real, Ramona Ordonez, whose account finally reached the Royal Commission of Audiencia in Guatemala (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163). Only a decade later, on the recommendation of the representative of the Spanish crown, Jose Estacheri, the first excavations in the area of ​​Palenque finally began (Eggebrecht 2013:408). They were led by the royal architect Antonio Bernasconi, whose drawings and reports reached Spain many years later (Ibid.:408). As early as in 1786, Jose Estacheri received further instructions to retrieve the artifacts from Palenque and undertake further excavations on site (Ibid.:408).

It was the time of the very first steps of archaeology, though completely different from how it is understood today; it was more likely a hunt for lost treasures than systematic studies of ancient cultures (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:164).

Detail of a relief at the Palace drawn by Ricardo Almendáriz during the Del Rio expedition in 1787. Ricardo Almendáriz – Library of Congress (1787). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Audiencia consequently instructed the officer, Antonio del Rio, and the cartoonist, Ricardo Almendariz, to go to the site and explore the ruins (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163). Unfortunately, contemporary “research methods” of pioneers in archaeology left much to be desired, not only in Mesoamerica but everywhere in the world; after breaking through the dense tangle of the forest, Antonio del Rio ripped away some of the city’s architectural sculptures and artifacts from, using axes, pickaxes, and hand-picked spikes (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:164). In this way, thirty-two items, including the so-called Madrid Stela, were handed over to the Audiencia along with the drawings and accounts (Eggebrecht 2013:409; Von Däniken 1991:164). In Spain, however, no one took any interest in such acquired treasures and the results of the expedition were not even published (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164). It was only in 1882 that an inexplicable copy of the original Antonio del Rio’s accounts was translated into English and published in the form of a small booklet in London (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164). Although it did not arouse much interest at first, it was this position that much later attracted the ruins’ greatest American explorers, John Llyod Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164-165).

Successive amateurs of the ruins

In the meantime, further research continued at Palenque (Eggebrecht 2013:410). The site itself had attracted many fascinating characters, including travellers and explorers (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165).

Johann Friedrich von Waldeck, Foto von Charles Reutlinger 1873. Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Johann Friedrich von Waldeck” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among them, there were Guillermo Dupaix (1746-1818), following the orders of the King of Spain, and cartoonist Jose Luciano Castagnada (Eggebrecht 2013:410). They came to Palenque in 1807, just before the riots that led to the independence of Mexico and other parts of Central America in 1820 (Ibid.:410). However, further studies conducted by the researchers had long been kept in a drawer in the Mexican capital before being published in Europe in the 1830s (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164-165). During this time, however, yet many travellers visited Palenque; those were Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who came there in 1816, and Colonel Juan Galindo (1802-1840) (really John of Ireland), who was a governor of the Guatemalan province of Petan (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165). In addition, the latter was a passionate adventurer, traveller and archaeologist, and the London Literary Gazette even described the Colonel in 1831 as an actual discoverer of Palenque (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:169).

A new dweller of casas de piedra

However, the decisive role in the history of the discoveries of the Maya city was primarily played by a brilliant character, Jean-Frédéric Waldeck (1766-1875), who was said to have been a French count, an antiquarian painter and draftsman (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165). Considered mad in many circles, Von Waldeck was possibly associated with a self-proclaimed group of early Americanists who argued that Mesoamerican culture had stemmed from the ancient East, spanning from Egypt to India (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165).

The so-called Temple of the Count, located in the north of Palenque, beside the North Group of temples. The temple was called after Palenque’s explorer, Johann Friedrich von Waldeck (1766-1875), who was known as a French count. He worked and lived in Palenque for over a decade. The Temple had become his dwelling in the city. Photo by Bernard DUPONT (2020). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In 1821, the count met the English publisher of the above-mentioned Captain del Rio, who asked Waldeck to illustrate the book (Von Däniken 1991:164-165). The presented records completely captured Waldeck’s imagination, and in 1822 he went to Mexico, whose government gave him permission to conduct research in Palenque (Ibid.:165). Since the ancient Mayans left, he had probably been the first man, and certainly the first European, who inhabited one of the casas de piedra of Palenque (Ibid.:167). Today, his dwelling on site is jokingly called the ‘temple of the count’ (Ibid.:167). During his two-year stay among the ruins, Von Waldeck dedicated Palenque not only all his time, talent as a draftsman and researcher, but also his fortune and health (Ibid.:167-168). He was constantly fighting with the tropical climate, the stuffiness and the threat of malaria, including clouds of mosquitoes actually causing it (Ibid.:167-168). During this period, he defended his fortress against both looters and curious tourists (Ibid.:167-168).

Maya ruins of Palenque, Chiapas, in 1840, by Frederick Catherwood. Palenque had always appealed to the imagination of adventurers. Catherwood’s lithographs, although they show architectural elements in a romantic perspective, yet they reflect the Mayan city with remarkable precision and accuracy. The Palace. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Catherwood Palenque Palace Courtyard” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Nevertheless, he himself was eventually accused by the Mexican government of stealing national treasures (Von Däniken 1991:168). Disappointed, the count left his beloved city and in 1838 published Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province du Yucatan pendant les années 1834 et 1836, as a result of his studies (Ibid.:168).

Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood

Finally, among the next Palenque enthusiasts, there were other contemporary globetrotters, John Lloyd Stephens, and a cartoonist, Frederick Catherwood (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:168-169). In 1839, they both set off on a journey to Mexico and its ruins, about which Dupaix, Galindo and Von Waldeck had so enthusiastically written so far (Von Däniken 1991:169). The researchers wanted to know what kind of culture could have been the author of similar ruins lost in the jungle (Ibid.:169). At first, they did not think that the monumental palaces were the product of ancient ancestors of the Indians living in Mesoamerica (Ibid.:169). Moreover, at a time when Stephens and Catherwood were researching this mysterious culture, neither its writing nor its calendar was known yet, and there was no idea of ​​its unique character, typical of the cultures of the studied region (Ibid.:171).

Catherwood Palace Palenque Interior. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (talk | contribs) (2019). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually, Stephens recognized Palenque as an impressive legacy of people who without any outside contacts or without foreign teachers, allowed their culture to flourish in its uniqueness (Von Däniken 1991:171). During two long and adventurous journeys, the both researchers visited forty-four ruined cities, and their on-site drawings, including sixty pages on Palenque, were published between 1841 and 1843 and gained great popularity both among ordinary readers and in the world of science (Ibid.:170). Moreover, due to his four-volume publication, Incident of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), John Lloyd Stephens not only laid the foundations for a systematic study of the past, but also provided a picture of the Mayan life of mid-nineteenth century, which to this day remains unparalleled (Eggebrecht 2013:411).

Palenque then and now

What former travellers and explorers found in Palenque had long gone with them. Today, a tourist driving up to the restored ruins of the city by an air-conditioned coach or a taxi has no idea of terrible hardships and dangers that ancient explorers, like Stephens and Catherwood, had to face among the ruins centuries ago (Von Däniken 1991:170). The virgin dense forest was then full of moisture and was steaming; casas de piedra seemed completely lost in a thick and marshy jungle (Ibid.:170). With time, dense coils of vegetation had revealed a scrap of secrets of the city, and the ruins were gradually released from their envious embrace.

Currently, the center is restored and made available to visitors. Although it is still surrounded by a tropical forest, which all the time makes a great impression on tourists with its micro-climate flora, it is much thinned out and the wilderness has been visibly tamed with well-arranged paths and alleys for visitors, strolling around the site. The region itself has been dominated by a rather agricultural landscape; as a result, where there was once a dense jungle yet in the mid-twentieth century, now there are vast pastures and farmlands (Ibid.:183).

Wandering for clues

Beauties of the tropical forest can be still experienced along the way through Palenque archaeological site with its suburb ruins plunged into the foliage, and further on the path leading to a small museum nearby, called the Museo de Sitio de Palenque “Alberto Ruz Lhuillier”. The museum itself is worth seeing, as there are both replicas and genuine artifacts from the site, provided that many finds from the region have been taken to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (Lonely Planet 2021; Monsieur Mictlan 2018).

It was already long after my tour of the Mayan city, where I could plunge into the shadow of the jungle to feel at least a bit of the atmosphere experienced once by the nineteenth century’s explorers.

It was also a good moment to analyse my “finds”, collect them and revise by their proper arrangement in my head. Referring in my thoughts to what I had heard and read about the site and the Maya themselves, it turned out to be a rather difficult task to put all the elements together in a coherent way. Suddenly, I got an uncomfortable feeling that a holistic view and logic were out of this game.

Featured image: View of the two smaller temples of the Mayan city of Palenque; the Temple of the Sun on the left and the fragments of the Temple XIV on the right. 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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Catherwood F. (1840). “Catherwood Palace Palenque Interior”. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (talk | contribs) (2019). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fSbtP5>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2021].

Dzikowska E. (2013) Tam, gdzie byłam. Meksyk. Ameryka Środkowa. Karaiby. Wydawnictwo Bernardinum.

Eggebrecht E. (2013). ”Szukanie dowodów. Odkrywanie Majów przez naukę.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

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

Hart W. (2017). “Tajemnica Ameryki Środkowej”. In: Zakazana historia ludzkości. [Forbidden History. Prehistoric Technologies, Extraterrestial Intervention, and the Suppressed Origins of Civilization]. Douglas Kenyon J. ed. Tabiński P. trans. pp. 147-154

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.

Lonely Planet (2021). “Museo de Sitio. Museum in Palenque”. In: Lonely Planet. Available at <https://bit.ly/3z0MB0t>. [Accessed on 6th June, 2021].

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Von Däniken 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.

Travel Guidebooks of the Ancients in the Hands of Modern Visitors

The ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’ is the collective concept and canon of knowledge, widely known to the ancient European (Klein 1998:136). The entry into the canon was determined not only by the majesty and uniqueness of a given building, but also by its historical significance and, above all, the myth related to these wonders (Ibid.:136). The latter has always revived ancient monuments and their creators in wandering human minds trying to fully embrace their mystery with a triggered imagination. Such feelings must have accompanied ancient travellers while they were setting off in the unknown to visit the outstanding monuments, many of which had already been said archaic in those times. Even today, when one is faced with the fate of the seven ancient wonders, they unconsciously study the history of the real world from those ages, where such monuments were a real symbol of human striving for perfection and beauty, and of a growing desire to discover and travel far, beyond one’s limits and knowledge (Ibid.:136). But visitors of the ancient wonders had already been guided.

Eternal ancient wonder in Egypt

I was in Egypt on the Plateau of Giza, surrounded by over two millions of squared multi-ton blocks of stone, piling up into three massive pyramids. While standing at the foot of the Pyramid of Khufu, I was looking up at its cone shining in the background of the clouded sky. After a while, I decided to follow some visitors in their way up along the pyramid’s northern wall.

While walking with my sister along the base of the Great Pyramid, I am pointing to the white rows of stones, imitating a fragment of the casing of the Pyramid of Khufu. It was not placed there originally due to its wrong trajectory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When I approached its base at the north side, the pyramid’s stones enormously grew in my eyes, which is quite logical when one observes something from close but at the same it was still surprising how large they really turned out to be, especially for someone who had just looked at illustrations of the pyramids depicted from the distance. Simultaneously, I noticed at the bottom of the pyramid a fragment of a flat and white row of stones which were said to be the remains of the outer casing of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). It was not, however, placed there originally, as if its trajectories are stretched up it would hit the opposite blocks just above it (Ibid.). 

Presumably, the fragment of the imitated casing was there just to show how it may have looked like in the past, yet it does not give any valuable insight into an actual construction of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). When I got used to my first impressions, I started climbing up the pyramid, stretching my arms forwards and lifting my legs up to reach the edge of another block above, using each like a successive step of the stairs on my way  up the building. Every block reaches at least to my hips, and some even up to my arms, so climbing up the pyramid definitely involves some physical fitness and strength. Soon my sister joined me and we were both found ourselves just under the original entrance to the pyramid, flanked by angled stones forming a pointed arch above it.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”

The Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery (Ibid.). Actually, it was already so in the times of Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), who, together with other contemporary and later authors unanimously identified it and the two other pyramids of Giza as one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world (see: Zamarovsky 1990:13-64; Klein 1998:141-146).

Soon my sister joined me and we were both found ourselves just under the original entrance to the pyramid, flanked by angled stones forming a pointed arch above it. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It may have been either due to their massiveness, majesty, age or mystery, or all these aspects together were taken into account, deciding about their high status throughout human history (Zamarovsky 1990:13). The pyramids are also the only wonder of the ancient world that has ever survived and is still enjoyed by the modern world. As such these three pyramids in Egypt  seem to be eternal, which is highlighted by the old and broadly known Arab proverb “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.”

As many wonders as their lists

Since the discovery of the pyramids in Egypt by the Hellenized world, much progress had already been made in history by construction of brand-new in comparison to the pyramids but spectacular buildings that arouse such admiration among people to which only natural wonders inspire (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). There were many authors of the lists of wonders, enumerating these human achievements, and their selection was measured, as it seems, by certain criteria (Ibid.:2).

At some point in history, there were huge discrepancies in various records of the Seven Wonders, which were prepared by independent ancient authors. And although the enumerated wonders were always compiled in the number of seven, each list slightly differed depending on its author. After an archaeologist from the University of Trier (Germany), Michael Pfrommer, If one would sum them all up, they could find ten, if not eleven, or even a dozen ancient wonders described by all the ancients writing on the subject (Klein 1998:137). On the other side, the fact that the successive wonders are listed by various authors in a different order is quite irrelevant as they are all treated on the same scale; It is not a ranking (Zamarovsky 1990:8).

Modern list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The modern canon of the ancient wonders, known today as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is provided by numerous contemporary lexicons and the Internet (Zamarovsky 1990:7). It includes works which, due to their technical or artistic qualities, were admired by the ancients (Ibid.:7). These are: the Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods), and the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Ibid.:7).

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (from left to right, top to bottom): Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. A collage of The Seven Wonders of the (ancient) world, depicted by sixteenth-century Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck. The original uploader was Mark22 at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons (2005). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although at first the Seven Wonders of the World, including the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon, were considered must-see attractions on ancient travel routes, they were later considered the greatest structures ever built by man (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:1). What was so special about them that they were clearly distinguished by the ancients? Philo of Byzantium answers that question:

For these wonders are the only things which diminish the worth and reputation of other distinguished sights, for, truly, ordinary men may see them in the same way as other sights, but they do not marvel at other sights in the same way. For beauty, like the sun, dazzles by its own brilliance and does not allow one to see the others.

Philo of Byzantium, “On the Seven Wonders of the World”. A free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus, compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858. In: Rogers Pearse. Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, Information Access and More.

Though tarnished by time, the Pyramids of Giza have fortunately survived to our times. But what about those wonders that have already gone? Michael Pfrommer says that ancient travellers describing the wonders were surely convinced of the durability of these places and monuments (Klein 1998:137). Often, however, of the architectural wonders people consider to be eternal, there is absolutely nothing left behind after all (Ibid.:137). Or at least very little. The garden on the terraces of Babylon and two statues, one of Zeus made of chryselephantine and the other of Helios made of bronze, have disappeared forever. Of the burial site of Mausolus of Caria, the mighty temple of Artemis in Ephesus and the Lighthouse of Pharos, there are left only few remains, of which some are scattered in museums around the world.

The real authorship of the list

Little is known today about an ancient Greek poet, named Antipater of Sidon, who lived in the second half of the second century BC. (Klein 1998:147).  His character unfortunately disappears now in the fog of history (Ibid.:147). Still it is believed that it was him who compiled the first completely preserved list of wonders of the ancient world in the second century BC. and perhaps he had seen them all himself during his long and distant journeys (Ibid.:147). It was a list of architectural wonders that would surely have been labelled today as ‘must see monuments’, and therefore his work can be regarded as the first travel guidebook for contemporary adventurers and travellers.

Assyrian wall relief showing Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh. Photo by Noah Wiener (2015). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Initially, the creation of the list was mistakenly attributed to a certain Philo of Byzantium, a mathematician who probably lived in the second century BC. and was wrongly said to have been the author of a treatise titled On the Seven Wonders of the World (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7). Such information was first disseminated by the first modern translator of the book by Philo of Byzantium, a French D.S. Boessius, who in 1640 discovered the Greek original in the Vatican Library and translated it into Latin as De septem mundi miraculis (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). Such mistakes once in writing are often copied in the literature, and the wrong information about the authorship had been then unintentionally replicated and so circulated from one work to another (Ibid.:7-8).

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, as imagined, at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Photo by Jona Lendering – Livius.org Provided under CC0 1.0 Universal license (notice under the photograph in the description page of the photograph). Retouched by the uploader (2018). CC0. Photo and caption source: “Mausoleum at Halicarnassus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The matter was clarified only by a Swiss classical scholar, Johann Caspar von Orelli, who published Philo’s book in print for the first time in 1816 and it finally turned out that there were actually two different ‘Philos’, who had initially been confused (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). The real author of the work is also Philo of Byzantium but he lived much later than his namesake, probably in the third or fourth century AD. (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). The records of him are fragmented almost as much as those of the ancient Philo (Ibid.:7). It is only known for certain that Philo from our era is an actual author of the book On the Seven Wonders of the World (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). Additionally, from this work one can also learn that he had not seen a single monument of the architectural wonders he described in his work (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). So he depicted them just with the eyes of his imagination, inspired only by what he knew from second-hand accounts (Ibid.:7-8). To justify such practice, it can be added that many current authors, including myself, do the same today, when it Is not possible to take a trip and see a given site personally (Ibid.:8). Sometimes, it is an education that relieves some authors of the necessity of traveling, and things worthy of their attention they learn just from books without even leaving home (Ibid.:8).

The fame of the Temple of Artemis was known in the Renaissance, as demonstrated in this imagined portrayal of the temple in a sixteenth-century hand-colored engraving by Martin Heemskerck. Photo by Philip Galle – From en:wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Temple of Artemis” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In any case, Antipater of Sidon has regained his right to be named the first author of the list of the Seven Wonders of the World that he described in a poem written about 140 BC. (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3; Klein 1998:147-150; “Antipater of Sidon” 2021). Accordingly, his name is now placed just along with Philo of Byzantium, Strabo, Herodotus and Diodoros of Sicily, who were all involved in writing on the subject (“Antipater of Sidon” 2021).

Travel fever in ancient times

Today there is a common view that real travellers no longer exist and a noble phenomenon of traveling has already been replaced by the less noble term of mass tourism (Lachowicz 2015). As a result, white spots on the travel map of the world are slowly disappearing, being replaced by tourist folders to distant, so far inaccessible places on the planet (Ibid.). The epoch of pioneering unknown routes and travelling over hidden treasures has unfortunately ended with the last dare-devil explorers at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, I believe that a human desire for an adventure is still alive in the hearts of curious modern travellers and there is somewhere not a single wonder still waiting for its discoverer.

The Colossus as imagined in a 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck, part of his series of the Seven Wonders of the World. By Marten van Heemskerck (1498-1574). Uploaded in 2014. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Colossus of Rhodes”(2020) Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Simultaneously, I can imagine all these ancient visitors coming to see the seven wonders, directed just by guidelines of contemporary authors, who had visited the sites first. Surely, a journey along the track of the seven wonders must have taken many years or even a lifetime to be accomplished, providing that one was taking a journey with intention to see all the monuments on the list. Alternatively, ancient travellers could  have chosen their desired destinations at random, according to their own bucket list, as it is practised today. I can bet that many modern travellers, if they only had a chance to live in those times, would have travelled long distances to visit the wonders at their height. Nowadays, there are, after all, lots of people who are addicted to travelling and they are only fully alive on the way, even at their personal cost. On the other side, although such an ancient journey made one’s dreams come true, it must simultaneously have been a real challenge to contemporary travellers.

Everyone knows of the renowned Seven Wonders of the World, but few have set eyes on them, for, in order to do so you have to arrange a long journey to the land of the Persians on the far side of the Euphrates; you have to visit Egypt; you must then change direction and go to Elis in Greece. Then you must see Halikarnassos, a city-state in Caria, and Ephesos in Ionia, and you have to sail to Rhodes, so that, being exhausted by lengthy wanderings over the Earth’s surface, and growing tired from the effort of these journeys, you finally fulfil your heart’s desire only when life is ebbing away, leaving you weak through the weight of years.

Philo of Byzantium, “On the Seven Wonders of the World“. A free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus, compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858. In: Rogers Pearse. Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, Information Access and More.

An outstanding ancient travel journalist, Antipater of Sidon must also have possessed quite a bit of courage and endurance to visit all the wonders he later described (Klein 1998:147). Certainly, in antiquity there were people such as the author, who were ready to endure the hardships of dangerous journeys, especially in the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great, when the world known at that time expanded considerably in the fourth century BC., including the lands of Babylon, Persia and Egypt (Klein 1998:147; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:1).

Reconstruction of the Oikoumene (inhabited world), an ancient map based on Herodotus’ description of the world, circa 450 BC. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol (2006), based on the GIF by Marco Prins and Jona Lendering from www.livius.org. Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Those ancient travellers took risks that modern tourists have not even dreamed of (Klein 1998:147). To imagine any struggles they may have encountered on their way, it is enough to read various descriptions of a number of journeys done by mythological heroes, such as Hercules, Theseus or Odysseus, who on their way met hosts of various monsters, robbers, giants, including cyclops, or mermaids, and their journey lasted for years, additionally experienced by the violent vagaries of nature and the whims of the gods deciding about travellers’ fate (Ibid.:147,149). All these stories testified to the dangers that the ancient traveller had to reckon with (Ibid.:147,149). How mysterious and dangerous but, at the same time, fascinating the world must have been for them (Ibid.:147,149). For some, travel meant fullness of life, but also death (Ibid.:147). Nevertheless, the ancient traveller, though exposed to many dangers, trusted in both, their lucky star and the smile of gods (Ibid.:147,149). They were also able to be delighted with what they had seen, as can be noticed in the verses recorded by Antipater of Sidon, returning from his expedition (Ibid.:147,149).

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.

Antipater, “Greek Anthology IX. 58“. In: “Antipater of Sidon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The walls of Babylon instead of the Lighthouse of Pharos

It is noteworthy that Antipater mentions the walls of Babylon in his work, an object that does not appear in later lists (Klein 1998:149). And he omits the Pharos Lighthouse (Ibid.:149). This may be a decisive clue saying that Antipater used a prototype for his own work as the Lighthouse had already been there when the author lived, that is to say in the second century BC. (Ibid.:149-150). Babylon’s walls made of fired bricks were on everyone’s lips in the fourth and third centuries BC, while the Pharos Lighthouse had not been built until around 280 BC. (Ibid.:149-150). On the other hand, the original list cannot be much older than the Alexandrian Tower, since the author mentions the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.:150). This statue was built less than twelve years before the Lighthouse was built (Ibid.:150). Thus, the date of the creation of the oldest list of wonders of the world can be placed between 292 and 280 BC. (Ibid.:150).  

A mosaic depicting the Pharos of Alexandria, (labeled “Ο ΦΑΡΟϹ”), from Olbia, Libya c. 4th century AD. Mosaic Lighthouse of Alexandria: was found in the Qasr Libya in Libya, which was known by several names including history and Olbia Theodorias, This is a painting that was left over to show the form of lighthouse after the quake, which destroyed the lighthouse. Uploaded by Qasr Libya Museum – Qasr Libya Museum (2010). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lighthouse of Alexandria” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, some scholars claim that in the third century BC., a Greek scholar of the Great Library of Alexandria, Callimachus of the Cyrene, Libya, was probably the first to have compiled the very first list of marvellous buildings (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Presumably, he placed on it the greatest achievements of contemporary Greece, taking into account their size, materials used, technical solutions and innovation of their creators (Ibid.:3). His list, however, has not survived to our times (Ibid.:3).

As it is seen, while searching for any historical traces of the first description of the ancient wonders, one comes across many complex issues, in which they move like in a maze of assumptions and questions (Klein 1998:150). Generally, taking into account the above, Antipater of Sidon, who was born a hundred years later than the estimated above dates, may have used an earlier source, treating it as a travel guidebook in his journey and at the same time the source of his own work (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Is it possible that Antipater had access to Callimachus’ work, and so compiled his list a century later? (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Or maybe his trip, which he described, took place only in his imagination …? (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje). Or for the author, the walls of Babylon he had visited deserved more attention and privilege to be called one of the wonders than the Lighthouse itself; accordingly, the latter did not appear on his list, which was created in the second century BC.

Map of Europe according to Strabo. Photo by Fphilibert – Picture from polish Wikipedia (2005). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The truth, however, remains unknown.

Different roads guided by different writers

Like Antipater of Sidon, Philo of Byzantium lists other wonders of the world than those given in today’s lexicons (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He clearly does not consider the Lighthouse from Pharos as a wonder of the world and, like Antipater, grants this dignity to the walls of Babylon (Ibid.:8). There is also no description of the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus in his work, as this chapter has been lost along with a part of the description of the temple of Artemis (Ibid.:8). What is more, after J.C. Orelli, Philo of Byzantium describes the wonders in a more subjective way, ascribing them more glory and splendour than they really deserve (Ibid.:8). Therefore, in order to obtain a faithful description of these timeless works, one should turn for help to Herodotus, Strabo, Diodorus, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias and many other ancient authors and, equally, to modern archaeology (Ibid.:8).

Father of History

Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), called by Ciceron the “Father of History”, was a native but Hellenized Carian, born in Halicarnassus (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He has travelled a huge part of the world, even for our measure, and everywhere he did what the Greeks called ‘theory’, that is to say in modern language, conducting research (Ibid.:8). Accordingly, he got to know countries, cities and people, and wrote down everything he learned about their past (Ibid.:8). The work Histories of Herodotus to this day is a valuable historical resource about peoples such as the Lydians, Medes, Persians, the ancestors of the Greeks, the Scythians, and even the Slavs, and about lost countries, such as Babylon, Little Asiatic Greece, regions of India and Arabia, and, of course, ancient Egypt (Ibid.:8).

Bust of Herodotus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009). Public domain. Photo and caption source: ”Herodot” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Herodotus adds to the list of wonders and describes in detail also the Tower of Babel (the ziggurat of Etemenanki in ancient Babylon and not necessarily the Biblical Tower of Babel), the bridge over the Euphrates River again in Babylon and the legendary Egyptian labyrinth (Zamarovsky 1990:8). All these wonders either are in ruins, vanished or, like the latter, has never been found (though academic Egyptologists claim that the labyrinth has already been uncovered and it has turned out to be much less miraculous than it is described by the ancient historian).

Simultaneously, Herodotus also delightedly described three other buildings, all of the located on the island of Samos, treating them as ancient marvels of architecture (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). These were the water-pipe tunnel, port breakwater and a temple in honour of Hera (Ibid.:3).

The book, Travels with Herodotus (2004) by Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author shows how Herodotus’ records have also stimulated an imagination and creativity of modern authors (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021). Kapuściński was the Communist-era Polish Press Agency’s correspondent and in the aforementioned book the author compares his travels through Asia and Africa with the adventures of the ancient historian, Herodotus, where he conducts deliberations and often recounts amusing or interesting anecdotes from his escapades, enriched by those from the Histories of Herodotus (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021; lubimyczytać.pl 2021).

Personally, I often refer to the quotes from this book, especially those about the nature of man in relation to travel and the passion for discovering the world, or the the phenomenon of travelling itself:

After all, the journey does not start when we hit the road and it does not end when we reach the finish line. In fact, it starts much earlier and practically never ends, because the tape of memory keeps spinning inside us, even though we haven’t physically moved for a long time. Actually, there is such a thing as an infection by travel, and it is a kind of disease that is essentially incurable.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

And there is another interesting quote that seems particularly true in relation to travelles being continuously pushed into the unknown by their own personal passion and curiosity of the wold, in comparison to people to whom such feelings are completely alien:

The average person is not particularly curious about the world. Well, they are alive, they have to face this fact somehow and the less effort it costs them, the better. But learning about the world involves effort, and that is a great deal of effort that consumes men.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

I believe that explorers of the world must have made such an effort, from ancient times to the present day.

Father of Geography

Strabo. By André Thevet (1584) Original uploads comes from Potraits from the Dibner Library of the History and Science of Technology. Updated upload from the original scan from the book André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres, chap. 35, page 76. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Strabo (the first century BC.), called in turn the “Father of Geography”, was a slightly later travel guide around the contemporary world (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He was born in the Greek settlement of Amaseia in Pontus (in present-day Turkey), by the Black Sea (Ibid.:8). Like Herodotus, Strabo undertook numerous journeys and travelled all over the known world (Ibid.:8). The results of his observations the author included in the seventeen books of Geographica hypomnemata (Ibid.:8).  As an ancient guide along the track of the Seven Wonders, Strabo helped find paths in ancient Egypt, on the Island of Rhodes and in Mesopotamia and described some of the Eastern legends related to the subject, such as those about Ninos and Semiramis (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus, Pliny and Pausanias, and their wonders

There were also other ancient travellers and authors, who were experts on the ancient wonders (Zamarovsky 1990:8). One of them was Diodorus Siculus or Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) (Ibid.:8). He includes particularly important information on the wonders in his descriptions about Egypt, Babylon and Greece (Ibid.:8). Some of them he drew from the now lost work of Ctesias of Cnidus (the fifth century BC.), the physician of the Persian king, Artaxerxes the Second (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a nineteenth-century fresco). Uploaded by fonte. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Diodorus Siculus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The next author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder (the first century AD.), was a Roman author, who created the famous Historia Naturalis (Zamarovsky 1990:8). In terms of the subject of wonders, it is extremely important that he was interested in the history of art and so he interpreted the wonders in their artistic context (Ibid.:8). Moreover, as a real Roman citizen, he also included on the list the whole city of Rome (Klein 1998:137). The constant drive to knowledge, however, ultimately led to Pliny’s downfall; on August 24, in 79 AD., the author wanted to take a closer look at the erupting volcano Vesuvius, which resulted in his death from poisoning by sulfur fumes (Zamarovsky 1990:8-9).

Nineteenth century image of Pliny the Elder. Uploaded by the User: Angela (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

In the second century AD., there was another guide to the Seven Wonders, a Greek geographer Pausanias, who elevates to the rank of wonders the walls of a citadel from the times of the Mycenaean, located in Argolis, in the Peloponnese (today’s Tiryns) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes (Ibid.:9). Hence, similar megalithic walls composed of crude stones are called Cyclopean. Pausanias’ work, known as Hellados Periegesis (Description of Greece), was especially appreciated by Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890), the famous discoverer of Troy, who, using information from Pausanias, thought that he had excavated the so-called tomb of king Agamemnon in Mycenae (Peloponnese), in 1876 (Ibid.:9). The archaeological site is located around twenty kilometres north of Tiryns and is also characterised by similar Cyclopean masonry. Moreover, it has turned out that it is not the tomb of the legendary Greek chieftain from Troy, but actually of a Mycenaean king who reigned in Mycenae several centuries earlier (Ibid.:9).

More travel guides wanted

Manuscript of Pausanias’ Description of Greece at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, created circa 1485. Uploaded by Institution: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pausanias (geographer)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among other authors writing with the wonders of the world, a Roman poet, Marcus Valerius Martialis (the first century AD.), considers the Roman Colosseum to be the first of the wonders of the world (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). A Latin Author, Gaius Julius Hyginus (at the turn of our era) adds to the list of wonders the palace of the Persian king Cyrus in Ekbatan (today Hamadan in Iran), built of coloured stones and gold by an artist, named Memnon (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). The palace is also included among the wonders of the world by a  Roman writer Vibius Sequester (the fifth century) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). Another Roman geographer and historian, Lucius Ampelius (the fourth century) even multiplies the number seven by seven wonders and records forty-nine wonders of the world, including the oil sources in present-day Iraq or Iran (Ibid.:9).

More pretenders for the title

Among other wonders mentioned by various ancient authors, there is also a notice of the horned altar on the Greek island of Delos and Egyptian Thebes of the hundred gates (Klein 1998:137). And then one can list the wonders endlessly: Minos’ Labyrinth in Crete, Hadrian’s Tomb in Rome (today’s Castel Sant’Angelo), the Roman Capitol, the Athenian Acropolis, or finally the altar of Zeus in Little Asian Pergamon (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

From the Middle Ages to modern times

In the first millennium AD, two monks also wrote about the wonders of the ancient world in Christian Europe (Zamarovsky 1990:9). The one was an ex-dignitary at the court of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great, and was called Cassiodorus (490-583), whereas the second was an Anglo-Saxon historian, known as Beda (673-735) (Ibid.:9). J.C. Orelli assumes, however, that the work on the ancient wonders is wrongly ascribed to Bede, as the book seems too primitive to have been written by a man as educated as he was (Ibid.:9).

Historia Nturalis by Pliny the Elder. Uploaded in 2005. Public domain. Photo source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The author of the first modern work on the ancient wonders was also a monk, but apart from that also a French philologist and archaeologist, and a great traveller (Zamarovsky 1990:9). He is known as Bernard de Montfaucon (1665-1741) (Ibid.:9). In his work Diarium Italicum (Italian Journal) there is a new list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was based on ancient sources (Ibid.:9). It contains: Egyptian Thebes, the walls of Babylon, the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus, the pyramids by the Nile, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Roman Capitol and the Tomb of Hadrian (Ibid.:9).

After Bernard de Montfaucon, it was the turn for an encyclopaedist who eventually  represented such a list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as it is well known today (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

The magic number of seven

All the lists of the ancient wonders may have  contained various monuments but they have always had one common feature (Klein 1998:139). Namely, the number of the ancient wonders has always been limited to seven (or seven was additionally multiplied by seven) (Ibid.:139). This was because the number of seven played an important role in the Greek tradition (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Moreover, it was already widely referred to in cultures much older than that of ancient Greece (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). As a matter of fact, the ‘seven’ encompassed the entire mystery of existence and was seen as a magic number (Klein 1998:139). As such it reappears numerously in culture (Ibid.:139).

Masonry tunnel in ancient Tiryns,in Peloponnese, Greece. According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes. Photo by Alun Salt – originally posted to Flickr as Tiryns, a passageway (2005). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Tiryns” (2021). ” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Greece, there were seven artes liberales, in Greek mythology, seven gates defended the Greek city of Thebes (Boeotia, central Greece), against which Theseus set off at the head of seven heroes (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Then, the Christian tradition enumerates the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Sacraments, and the week was divided into seven days, too; as the Bible says, on the seventh day God rested after creating the world (Genesis 2:2-3) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). It was also believed that there had been seven hills of Rome, on which the city was established, and that the heaven and hell were divided into seven spheres, hence the phrase ‘the seventh heaven’ (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). In addition, the Bible says about seven fat cows and seven thin cows, and then the seven ripe heads of grain and the seven worthless heads of grain (Genesis 41:26-27) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Noah waited seven days before he released a dove from the Ark to see if the flood waters had subsided (Genesis 8:6-12) (Klein 1998:139). Seven is also the key to Saint John’s Revelation; there are mentioned the seven churches, the seven spirits (Revelation 1:4), the Seven Signs in the Book of Signs (Revelation 1:19-12:50), seven golden lampstands (Revelation 1:12), seven stars (Revelation 1:16), a scroll with seven seals (Revelation 5:1), the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits (Revelation 5:6), as many angels, the trumpets of the Last Judgment (Revelation 8:2) thunders (Revelation 10:3) and seven thousand people killed in the earthquake (Revelation 11:13) (Ibid.::139). There is also a dragon with seven heads and seven crowns on its heads (Revelation 12:3), the seven last plagues (Revelation 15:1), seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God (Revelation 15:7) and also seven kings (Revelation 17:10). Such list is much longer.

Coin from Elis district in southern Greece illustrating the Olympian Zeus statue (Nordisk familjebok). Unknown author – second (1904–1926) edition of Nordisk familjebok Transferred from sv.wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Statue of Zeus at Olympia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A special position of the number seven can also be obtained scientifically (Klein 1998:139). In mathematical terms, seven is a prime number, so it is only divided by itself and by one (Klein 1998:139; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). Accordingly 7 cannot be a product or a quotient of integers other than 7 in the range from 1 to 6 and from 6 to 10, so it cannot be obtained either by multiplication or by dividing the integers from the given range (Klein 1998:139-140).

Rankings of modern wonders

From a psychological point of view, the number seven seemed to be perfect for the ancients in terms of quantity; it would have been too difficult or even impossible to select up to three ancient wonders, and a list of more than ten would, in turn, have lost its relevance (Klein 1998:140). One could imagine loads of magnificent buildings, but not loads of wonders of the world (Ibid.:140).

Nowadays, numerous travel guidebooks and magazines are created describing increasingly distant and exotic destinations (Lachowicz 2015). Such “wonders of the world” are usually illustrated in rankings, by referring to them as ‘places to visit before you die’. And although ‘the must-see places’ are usually grouped into sub-categories, like monuments and places within particular countries, cities, or lists including just architectural monuments or wonders of nature, their number keeps changing. Accordingly, one can find in travel books or online such travelling clues as “21 Most Beautiful Places in Poland to See Before You Die!”, “25 Truly Amazing Places To Visit Before You Die”, “30 World’s Best Places to Visit”, “50 Must Visit Places in the World” or “50 awe-inspiring natural wonders for your bucket list”, and so on …

Well, once the world has become larger, it has also got smaller due to greater possibilities of modern travellers to reach its remotest corners. Accordingly, the number of places to visit has essentially grown.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”, as an Arab proverb says; the Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid. As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite all these changes of the world, we still come back in memories to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which even now create a unique world of human achievements, on which Pliny the Elder writes about in the first century AD., referring to the Egyptian pyramids in his words: “Owing to such works, people ascend to gods, or gods descend among people” (Klein 1998:140-141).

Featured image: Own work made of two images from Wikipedia, illustrating the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World on the map: there are Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (also known as the Mausoleum of Mausolus), Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria as depicted by 16th-century Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck. Images of the ancient wonders by Mark22 at English Wikipedia (2007). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Wonders of the World” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Combined with: Europe depicted by Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius in 1595. The used Map by Abraham Ortelius – Orteliusmaps.com (created from 1570 until 1609). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “History of Europe” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Images cropped, colours changed to sepia.

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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Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur

During my several months’ stay in London, one of the sites I visited most frequently was undoubtedly the British Museum. Apart from contemporary exhibitions, the entrance to the Museum is free of charge so it would be a pity to miss it, especially for someone who loves wandering around ancient artifacts. As a museums expert, Amaya (2017) advises, an average amount of time spent in a museum should be no more than around 90 minutes, as a human brain can focus only during this period and then it simply needs a break. If it is not possible to come back to the museum later, it is essential to have intervals between particular display units and drink water for a better concentration (Ibid.).

“5 tips to enjoy a no hassle museum visit”. In: Museums Made Easy by Amaya (2017). In: Youtube Channel.

I usually stay longer in a museum when we have just one day for a huge exhibition during a study trip, as it was in Mexico. In London or Paris, it was easier as I could come back to the museums during my longer stay in the cities.

Room 56

Ones of the oldest objects preserved by the British Museum come from the display units dedicated to Mesopotamia (6000–1500 BC.), which is the so-called cradle of human civilization (The British Museum 2020). To get there, I needed to climb up to the upper floor, where the Rooms 55 and 56 are located, within the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery (Rooms 53-59) (Ibid.). Of my particular interest was especially the Room 56, as it displays very important artifacts unearthed in the early twentieth century at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, in southern Iraq (Ibid.). The collection includes jewellery, pottery and musical instruments that were excavated by one of the greatest British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (Ibid.).

The lion-headed eagle, called Imdugud in Sumerian. It seems to have been especially associated with the city-state of Lagash and with its chief deity, Ningirsu. Here it is surmounting a lintel made from sheets of copper, Temple of Ninhursag at Tell al-Ubagid, Iraq, c. 2500 BC. Room 56 in the British Museum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

For a while I was found on my own in the Room, accompanied by all these remarkable objects, yet under the surveillance of the divine Sumerian lion-headed eagle, looking down at me from the panel hanging above the entrance door. Finally, I could take a closer look of the burial goods, without any need of waiting in a queue to stand directly in front of the display window. They are placed among other artifacts from the region, “[illustrating] economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians who lived in Mesopotamia at this time” (The British Museum 2020). Yet many of their aspects are still shrouded in mystery as much as the culture who created them.

Standard of Ur is catching visitors’ attention by its intensively vivid colours. The British Museum, Room 56. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

My attention was suddenly caught by vibrant colours of the triangular object, which was calling me behind the glass. Today, it is just an archaeological reconstruction of its once crushed remains, unearthed in such a state that it is only a best guess how the object was originally shaped (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Nevertheless, it has been labelled as a standard, the Standard of Ur (Ibid.).

Mound of Pitch

The land of ancient Mesopotamia lay across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq and Syria (Wakely 1999). It has always been a flat desolate land made green by rivers’ canals and marshes (Ibid.). Yet from this unpromising landscape arouse the foundation of the ancient civilisation, including the world’s first cities and the earliest known writing system (Ibid.). Southern Mesopotamia was settled already by the seventh millennium BC. (Ibid.). By the second half of the third millennium, it was divided into twenty or thirty city-states that controlled the smallest towns and villages dispersed across the countryside (Ibid.). Shifting alliances among competing city-states brought conflicts often over water and even war to the city’s walls (Ibid.).

William Loftus‘s sketch of his discovery of the ziggurat, in 1850s. “Discovery of the Ziggurat of Ur (The Great Temple at Mugeyer from the west)” (1857). Public domain. Source “Ziggurat of Ur” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Some objects on display in the Room 56 of the British Museum tell a story about Ur, one of the ancient southern Mesopotamian city-states (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The site is also known as the cradle of civilization (Ibid.) as “[archaeologists] have discovered there the evidence of an early [settlement] during the [so-called] Ubaid Period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC.)” (“Ur” 2020). Its name also appears in the Book of Genesis as the home of the biblical patriarch, Abraham (Genesis 11:29-32), and the region itself is referred to as the location of the Garden of Eden (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). “The further occupation of Ur only becomes clear during its emergence in the third millennium BC., although it must already have been a growing urban center during the fourth millennium” (“Ur” 2020), around 3 800 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It was equally among the most powerful and prosperous (Wakely 1999). Although the city-state of Uruk was one of the earliest and most prominent cities by this time, in the early third millennium BC., the temple dominated city-state of Ur emerged as one of the most important cities in the new stage of the development of human society and states (McDonald 2013). The modern name of the ancient Ur is Tell el-Muqayyar, which in Arabic means a mound of pitch (Wakely 1999). The name comes from the monumental temple tower, which was made of baked mud bricks set in the bitumen or pitch, a naturally occurring form of tar (Ibid.).

Ziggurat of Ur

In 1922, under the leadership of a little known young archaeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley, excavations jointly sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum were initiated at the site of ancient Ur (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The decision to excavate proved to be a prominent one (Wakely 1999).

Woolley Photo of the Ziggurat of Ur with workers Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 BC., Woolley excavation workers (Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq). Source: Dr. Senta German (2014). Khan Academy.

One of the most important part of the ancient city of Ur turned out to be the temple complex of the Moon god Nanna, at the centre of which was a ziggurat: a series of stepped terraces with a temple on top (Wakely 1999). “The remains of the ziggurat were first discovered by William Loftus in 1850” (“Ziggurat of Ur” 2020), during the first excavations at the site, conducted by a British consul at Basra, John George Taylor (Wakely 1999; “Ziggurat of Ur” 2020). The excavations at the mound in 1854 uncovered inscribed cylinders, which recorded rebuilding of the temple tower by the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (around sixth century BC.), who was the successor of the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Ibid.).

Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 B.C.E. mud brick and baked brick, Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq (largely reconstructed). Source: Dr. Senta German (2014). Khan Academy.

The ziggurat was excavated further by Woolley who managed to uncover its older layers. The core of the huge pyramidal tower was made of packed mud bricks, whereas the outside of the monument was constructed of baked mud bricks, jointed together with bitumen or pitch (Wakely 1999) Many of the bricks have had a stamped inscription with the name of the founder of the third dynasty of Ur, Ur-Nammu, who ruled there over four thousand years ago (Ibid.). Woolley’s recovery of Ur’s ancient ziggurat and the complex of buildings around it was a remarkable find but it paled in a comparison with his discoveries of the so-called Royal Tombs (Ibid.).

The ‘gold trench’

In 1923, Woolley discovered a whole cache of opulent graves in a trench near the ruins of the ziggurat of Ur (McDonald 2013; Ḏḥwty 2017). The archaeologist, “however, decided to halt the excavation [there], as he was aware that neither he nor his men were experienced enough to excavate burials. Hence, Woolley concentrated on excavating buildings, before returning to the [trench] in 1926, [where his] workmen discovered evidence of burials and jewellery of gold and precious stones, leading to it being called the ‘gold trench’” (Ḏḥwty 2017; see Wakely 1999). Excavated burials were so rich that they competed only with Howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, unearthed earlier in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in 1922 (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013).  

A reconstruction of the great death pit burial scene. Notice the two musicians holding lyres just beyond the oxen. (Originally appeared in the Illustrated London News, 23 June 1928). Source: Copyright © 1999–2020 by Carl McTague. The Lyre of Ur.

Ur’s discoveries are noteworthy not just for their contents but for the location of the dig (McDonald 2013). The tombs discovered in Ur seemed to date from about 2 550 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It means the cemetery appeared around fifty years after the reign of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk (2800 – 2600 BC.; see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre). Some tombs of Ur were full of gold and silver jewellery and objects as well as colourful and spectacular grave goods (McDonald 2013). The archaeologists discovered things that had never been seen before: wonderous musical instruments, gold headdresses, a golden ostrich egg, weapons and even inlaid gameboards (Ibid.). What was even more fascinating about them was the fact some contained possibly deliberate human sacrifices as a part of burial rituals (McDonald 2013; Amaya March, 2017).

Public secret

At the early stage of excavations, in 1928, Woolley wanted to keep his breath-taking discovery secret (McDonald 2013). Therefore, he sent his telegram announcing the news in Latin to make it understandable only to his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Ibid.). When the news finally reached the public and press in London and New York, it created a high sensation (Ibid.). The New York Times and an Illustrated London News wrote articles recounting the marvels discovered (Ibid.). The Illustrated London News even published an artist’s drawing recreating the moments before the people in the great death pit had met their deaths (Ibid.).

Agatha Christie with husband Max Mallowan (left) and lead archaeologist Leonard Woolley at Ur, southern Iraq, in 1931. Photograph: British Museum. Source: Nicholas de Jongh (2014). The Guardian.

The 1920s and early 30s of the same century are a golden age of archaeological discoveries and the public is fascinated by all the details (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). Perhaps no excavation in more than one hundred and fifty years of archaeological working in Mesopotamia had excited as much worldwide interest as Woolley’s work in ancient Ur (Wakely 1999). As a result of extensive publicity, tours from all parts of the globe, including European royalty and the famous crime novelist, Agatha Christie, flocked to the remote site in the Iraqi desert (Ibid.). Christie came to Iraq after her devastating divorce and met there her future husband, who was Woolley’s colleague and assistant from the dig, Max Mallowan (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019). Her stay at the site during excavations was also the perfect remedy; she lost her heart for the ancient site of Ur and so she even set her another story of mystery murder in Mesopotamia, at an archaeological dig that resembled that one (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019; JOM 2020). Later she recalled it by writing (National Geographic 2019):

I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.

Agatha Christie on Ur. In: National Geographic (2019).

Royal tombs and resourceful researcher

Between 1927 and 1934, Woolley uncovered 1 850 tombs in Ur (Wakely 1999). “The cemetery was used between about 2600-2000 BC. and hundreds of burials were made in pits” (The British Museum 2015). Sixteen (or seventeen) tombs dated to the mid-third millennium stood apart from the others; each contained an extraordinary wealth of artifacts and evidence of human sacrifices (Wakely 1999; Amaya March, 2017).

Leonard Woolley holding the noted excavated Sumerian Queen’s Lyre, 1922. Source: DHWTY (2017). Ancient Origins.

Woolley called them Royal Tombs because he assumed they contained Ur’s deceased kings (Wakely 1999). Yet, he recognised considerable variations between them (Ibid.). The archaeologist’s skills also proved equal to his task; he turned out to be an imaginative and resourceful researcher under very difficult circumstances (McDonald 2013). First of all, he knew how to rescue objects of art that seemed lost to time like the wooden sound boxes of the lyres that long ago rotted wet (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). In order to save them, he poured wet plaster into the holes created by the decayed wood and carefully brushed the dirt aside to reveal the plaster form of a lost article (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999).

Object from the Tomb PG 779

A particular mosaic covered object was discovered in the Tomb PG 779, one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Already in ancient times, “[robbers] had thoroughly plundered the tomb in which [the artifact] was found. As one corner of the last chamber […] was being cleared, a workman accidentally spotted a piece of shell inlay, and from this starting point, the remains of the [mosaic object] were slowly revealed and reconstructed” (JOM 2020).  When the artifact was found, its original wood had already rotted away but the remains of an elaborate design created by a multicoloured mosaic were preserved (McDonald 2013; Sailus 2003-2020). As the object was decayed, “the two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil [of the collapsed tomb. Moreover], the bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were [also] broken” (The British Museum 2015). So these were only “the mosaic pieces that had kept [in place the whole] form [of the previously wooden skeleton]” (JOM 2020). This is why the object required Woolley’s special attention (McDonald 2013).

Plan of grave PG 779, thought to belong to Ur-Pablisag. Internet Archive Book Images (1900). The Standard of Ur was located in “S”. Public domain. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Like in the case of other excavated artifacts, “[the archaeologist] looked for hollows in the ground created by [the] decayed object and then filled them with plaster or wax to record the shape of the [material] that had once filled [it. Woolley] carefully uncovered small sections measuring about 3 square centimetres and covered them with wax, enabling the mosaics to be lifted while maintaining their original designs” (JOM 2020). Due to reconstructing efforts, the remains found in the Tomb PG 779 have eventually become a 21.59×49.53-centimetre hollow wooden box in the shape of a trapezoid, covered in original colourful mosaics (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015; JOM 2020).

But what was it?

As the artifact was found “lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a [ritually sacrificed] man” (The British Museum 2015), Woolley imagined that it had once been supported on a pole and borne by the deceased (Ibid.). The archaeologist reasoned such a possibility because of the object’s position along the dead (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, it may have been carried as a standard in war, aloft on a pole in order to identify a military unit (Ibid.). “Another theory suggests, [however], that it once formed the soundbox of a musical instrument” (The British Museum 2015) or was a part of furniture or else served as a box used to hold civic funds (Sailus 2003-2020). The fact is, however, that nothing like it has been known then or since (McDonald 2013).

Peace side of the Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 B.C.E., shell, red limestone, lapis lazuli, and bitumen (original wood no longer exists), 21.59 x 49.53 x 12 cm, Ur ©Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015). “Standard of Ur”. In: Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

Today this mysterious object is known as the Royal Standard of Ur and it proves to be the most informative, beautiful and enigmatic of all (McDonald 2013). In such a way, Woolley also describes the artifact in his letter (Ibid.). However, no one knows whether the so-called Royal Standard of Ur is a standard or even royal and our knowledge of the royal cemetery is not much greater than it was known from Woolley’s excavations (Ibid.). Scholars assume, however, that modern understanding of the symbolism of early Sumerian society has been improved since the beginning of the twentieth century, and so interpretation of the figures and actions shown on the objects discovered in the cemetery of Ur is much more nuanced and clear (Ibid.). Yet, any interpretation is still speculating and there are more theories than evidence.

Stylistic Conventions

Rendering of the depicted figures on the Standard, both human and animal, is very characteristic of Sumerian stylistic conventions (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012). Almost all the characters are illustrated in a perfect profile (Ibid.). Accordingly, only one eye is visible (Ibid.). However, it is not directed forward but rather looking outside (Ibid.). By these means, it seems to be depicted in the form of a frontally seen eye but just on the side of the face, like it is present in the Egyptian art  (Ibid.). The human shoulders are squared, as if presented frontally, whereas the feet are again depicted in profile, as if one after the other, which evokes movement  (Ibid.).

The animals’ figures are superimposed; the four are walking one beside the other, and the outlines of the three animals are visible behind the one at the front, so their number overlapping (McDonald 2013). This artistic technique of overlapping gives a sense of depth, which today results from the use of perspective (Ibid.).

Conventional interpretation

The original Warka or Uruk Vase, dated to
c. 3200–3000 BC. National Museum of Uruk.
Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Warka Vase” (2020).In: Wikipedia.
The Free Encyclopedia.

The Standard of Ur, whose function is still shrouded in mystery, is said to tell more about powerful rulers of Ur and a great deal about life in early Sumerian society than almost any other artifact that was discovered from ancient Sumer (McDonald 2013).

The box-like sculpture inlaid with colourful mosaics shows scenes of both, warfare and festivals, with a ruler in their center (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the prevailing subjects depicted on the Standard are a successful military campaign led by the ruler and the abundance of the land which assures fertility for its people (Ibid.). In some aspects, the Standard of Ur repeats themes from the Uruk vase, known also as the Warka vase (McDonald 2013; “Warka vase” 2020). Even though the vase comes from centuries earlier than the Standard itself, it shows a parallel artistic composition and probably gives a similar message (McDonald 2013).

Treasures of the museums

As Sir. Charles Leonard Woolley’ archaeological expedition was a joint effort between the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum in London, the objects uncovered by the excavators were in great part shipped off to new homes in those two museums (McDonald 2013). In fact, a great deal of archaeology of that time and earlier sought to recover fabulous treasures and then remove them from their native lands to the museums of their excavators (Ibid.).

A Street Scene at Ur in the Level of the Abrahamic Period (2000-1900 BC.). Postcard; printed; photograph showing archaeological excavations at Ur, with Arab workmen standing for scale in the excavated street of an early second millennium B.C.E. residential quarter ©Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015). “Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

This is definitely something that does not happen nowadays (McDonald 2013). New moral standards, nationalism, pride and the better resources of art make such wholesale removal of what has been called the national patrimony no longer allowed (Ibid.). Moreover, archaeology as a discipline has changed throughout centuries (Ibid.). Most archaeologists do not seek to wrest the treasures from the ground to exhibit them in a museum far away as their trophies (Ibid.). Instead, they are intent on finding out more about the culture and the society that produced the excavated artifacts and with this objective it is possible to learn more (Ibid.). Objects that are excavated now usually stay in their countries in local museums or universities (Ibid.).

Lost national patrimony

As a matter of fact, the artifacts, which Woolley uncovered in his excavations in Ur were not only divided among the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum, but also were granted to the National Iraq Museum in Bagdad (Wakely 1999). Although some authors claim that only a small number of artifacts was left in Iraq (Ḏḥwty 2017), Neil McGregor, in The History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC Radio 4), says that “the Iraq Museum in Baghdad [actually] received the lion’s share of the Ur excavations” (Gerry 2010). Nevertheless, in 2003 some part of this unique treasure was looted and lost forever (Barker 2018). Exceptional artifacts from Woolley’s excavations in Ur, such as the bowl made of gold and lapis lazuli, have been stolen and never found (Ibid.). And although plundering museums and archaeological sites has been “regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times” (Ibid.), this crime has never stopped.

Gold and lapis bowl from Ur, Iraq Museum IM8272. Current status is unknown. Oriental Institute Lost Treasures from Iraq database. Photo source: Craig Barker (2018).“Fifteen Years after Looting, Thousands of Artefacts are still Missing from Iraq’s National Museum”. In: The Conversation.

Unfortunately, since 2003, “much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen […]. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing” (Barker 2018). McGregor says that “the looting of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum during the recent war in Iraq was felt very profoundly by the Iraqis […]; from the moment of discovery, there was a strong connection between Iraqi national identity and the antiquities of Ur. [It was because] the  discoveries at Ur [had] coincided with the early years of the modern state of Iraq, created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. One of the focal points of that new state was the Iraq Museum in Baghdad […]. Mesopotamia’s past [has become] a key part of Iraq’s future. Archaeology and politics are set to remain closely connected as, tragically, are cities and warfare” (Gerry 2010).

Safe by all means

“The museum looting should have been a clarion call for the need for better protection of antiquities in conflict zones, both from combatants and local populations. Sadly, this has not been the case. There has been subsequent destruction of archaeological sites and museums in [Egypt], Syria and Libya, ISIS selling antiquities to finance weapons, and increases in thefts from both private and public collections and from archaeological sites […] The loss of these sites and artifacts is disastrous for humanity” (Barker 2018).

Ruins in the Town of Ur, southern Iraq, with the ziggurat in the background. CC by SA 2.0. Source: DHWTY (2017). Ancient Origins.

This is also why there are fierce debates weather artifacts taken to overseas museums during colonialism should be returned to their countries of origin, especially when they keep facing unceasing social unrest and wars (Jenkins, Rodet, Stefanidis, Thomas 2019). Actually, there are as many different opinions as scholars (Ibid.). The problem is even more complex; although some authorities definitely agree that archaeological artifacts should be left in the country, where they were unearthed, the overriding matter that counts for them is to keep them safe by all means (Ibid.).

Featured image: Standard of Ur (Peace side); British Museum; Room 56. Photo source: Neil MacGregor (2020). “Standard of Ur. A History of the World in 100 Objects. The First Cities and States (4000 – 2000 BC.) Episode 2 of 5”. In: BBC Radio 4.

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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