Tag Archives: Legends&Myths

Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)

In March we left for one-week study trip to the Boyne Valley. It was just a few days after heavy snowfall swamped the whole Ireland. Dubbed by the media as the “Beast from the East”, the cold wave had subsided after three days leaving behind white patches of snow and a hope for spring. Personally, as somebody who comes from Poland, I was used to the view of bigger snows and lower temperatures and so I got surprised by the reaction of people cleaning the shop shelves from food products on the day of the sinister weather forecast.

Brú na Bóinne

According to archaeological studies, the Boyne Valley, called in Irish Brú na Bóinne, has been inhabited uninterruptedly since the end of the Ice Age, and is said to be the birthplace of Ireland’s Ancient East featuring one of the most sacred and mythical landscapes in the country. For these reasons, the region has always been very attractive in terms of archaeological research and international tourism (“About Boyne Valley Tourism” 2018).

The Boyne Valley mainly encompasses two counties, namely Co. Meath and Co. Louth, and it is itself a hugely attractive and unique region of Ireland to be explored by researchers, scholars and tourists. Unfortunately, its well-deserved fame and grandeur of incomparable monuments are not sufficiently illustrious and extended, except for the Stone Age passage tomb of Newgrange, which has become a significant ambassador of the local history encouraging the development of tourism in this area. Except for scholars and archaeologists widely interested in the region, tourists mostly head off to the Boyne Valley to visit only the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, and possibly also the Norman Castle of Trim, which was the location for King John’s Castle in the film Braveheart (1995). Other monuments appear to generally exist in their shadow, and seem to be less attractive and more obscure to a broader group of visitors.

Less known but essential

The key role of promoting the Boyne Valley is to point out and attract attention to other significant archaeological sites in the region, and simultaneously interesting tourist spots to be taken into account. It concerns prehistoric monuments of Dowth, Fourknocks and Loughcrew, royal and mythological Hills of Tara and Slane and finally medieval monuments of Mellifont, Duleek, Bective and Fore Abbeys as significant witnesses to European influence on insular tradition and architecture of Ireland (Michael 2018). Not without significant importance to the Irish history is also the site of  the seventeenth century Battle of the Boyne (Ibid.). Last but not least, there are ones of Ireland’s earliest Christian monastic sites, especially early medieval monuments of Irish sculpture – exceptional High Crosses of Kells in County Meath and those of Monasterboice in nearby Co. Louth (Ibid.). The monastic sites also feature Round Towers, which are not less interesting than the High Crosses themselves.

Archaeological assignments under the Irish sky

Yet before our study trip, we were divided into groups who each worked on a project dedicated to one particular site within the Boyne Valley. During our one-week trip, we stopped daily at three or four different sites and every group was supposed to give a lecture on a given monument in front of other students. Such a procedure would have been quite interesting unless a typical Irish weather that usually occurs in March. The snow gave its way to lashing and freezing rainfalls. Mixed with the prevailing winds, the rain was literally attacking us at each possible angle while we were trying to listen to the lectures in front of unmoved ancient stones, in the open space. Speakers suffered terribly: their voices were howled down by sudden blasts of icy cold air and their damped notes were literally falling apart between their fingers or were torn out by the wind.

Working in the field. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I and two of my colleagues were assigned to the ancient site of  Loughcrew. However, the Beast from the East efficiently cut it off from the outside world due to the heavy snows, which still covered its ancient hills. Consequently, we were left without the subject of our study. To makes things even worse, our group was caught by an epidemic of stomach flu and some members of the study trip got sick and had to come back to Dublin, including one colleague of our three-person group. Therefore, two of us were left in the battlefield.

One of the sunniest days. Still wet and muddy. Wellingtons were the only option … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it turned out later on, we were compensated for all the inconvenience as we got a chance to present our project in much more favourable conditions than others. To make up for another rotten day, after visiting the High Crosses under the crying sky, we finally entered a warm coffeeshop in Kells where we were served fragrant sweet pastries and freshly ground coffee. Suddenly, our Professor came up with the idea of presenting the site of Loughcrew inside. We looked hesitantly at each other and then at clients curiously looking in our direction, possibly waiting for further development of the situation.

‘Well’, my colleague stopped the awkward silence. ‘Why not?’, he asked. ‘Unless it disturbs others …’ By saying ‘others’ he actually meant clients of the coffee shop.

‘No, not at all’, we heard some voices. Some members of the unexpected audience also approached our group to listen to what was going to be said. At once I got nervous. One thing is giving a lecture in front of my colleagues, the other thing was to expose yourself to criticism of strangers. I took a sip of my coffee, gathered my notes and joined my colleague who was already standing in a more open space, by the door.

Ancient site of Loughcrew

Loughcrew “gets its name from a nearby lake, originally called Lough Creeve: meaning lake of the tree, and is believed to refer to an ancient tree where rituals were held” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The site is deeply ancient as it dates back to around 3500-3300BC (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). It is spread across four hills: Carnbane West, Carnbane East and Patrickstown, the highest of which is around 274 meters above sea level (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The hills were also known in the past as Sliabh na Calliaghe, which can be translated from Irish as Mountains of the Witch, referring to a folk tale surrounding the cairns (Ibid.).

Three hills with neolithic mounds. Photo source: Scott & Elaine Jones (2020). “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom.

“Nowadays [Loughcrew] is probably the best preserved example of a Neolithic landscape in the world. Nevertheless, the site initially “escaped the attention and well documented archaeological investigation devoted to other Boyne Valley [monuments]” (Brennan 1994:46).

“All things are full of gods” – Thales (c. 636 – c. 546 B.C.)

There are a few legends about the hills of Loughcrew, but perhaps the most famous is “the story of the hag for which the hills are named” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). “The story goes that to rule over all of Ireland the Hag [or Witch – Calliaghe] had to complete a feat of enormous strength. She had to leap from hill to hill with stones in her apron. As she jumped from peak to peak she dropped a handful of stones. These stones became the cairns. On her final jump, to make her [ruler over] Ireland, she broke her neck and was buried under the stones on the side of the hill” (Shortt, Heery 2020). Another folklore says it was actually “a giant goddess named Garavoge, who came from the north-west with a collection of rocks which she dropped from her white apron” (Byrne 2020). In Celtic Folklore by John Rhys (1901-2015:393), the author gives an account of the legend he heard from his guide – a young shepherd, when he was visiting the cairns of Loughcrew in the summer of 1894. “He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns” (Ibid.).

‘Ollamh Fodhla’s Seat’ – The ‘Hag’s chair’. Photo credits: Knowth.com. Colours intensified. Photo source: Scott & Elaine Jones (2020). “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom.

One of the most significant cairns of Loughcrew, Cairn T, is commonly known as the Hag’s Cairn as it is believed to be a burial place of the Witch. Furthermore, outside the Cairn T, there is a large stone, possibly a kerbstone, in the form similar to an armchair, named the Witch or Hag’s chair. Rhys’ guide also describes the same stone, which was “placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round” (Rhys 1901-2015:393). Yet he added that “usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed” (Ibid.). The author also notices that “the hag appears to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare’, that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork” (Ibid.).

Cartoon of the Caillech/Witch dropping the stones from her apron. Photo by Eibhlin Nu Sheinchin 1937. Photo and caption source: Lynda McCormack (2020). “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

The figure of the Witch or Giantess flying on her broomstick and dropping the stones seems to be always associated with the megaliths built on the summits (Hugh 2017). Her mysterious character not only joins the cairns of Loughcrew with those of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo, of Sheemor and Sheebeg in Co. Leitrim or of Corn Hill in Co. Longford (Hugh 2017; Byrne 2020), but she also appears in folklore far beyond Ireland.

“Determined now her tomb to build, Her ample skirt with stones she filled, And dropped a heap on Carnmore; Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar, And dropped another goodly heap; And then with one prodigious leap Gained Carnbeg; and on its height Displayed the wonders of her might. And when approached death’s awful doom, Her chair was placed within the womb Of hills whose tops with heather bloom”

Jonathan Swift, c. 1720

Some sources say that Loughcrew became known as the Mountains of the Witch because Ireland was once a matriarchy (O’Bryan 2017). After the Annals of Irish High Kings, female judges, who were later nicknamed as witches, could take away human life as a penalty for heavy crimes, which was believed to have been imposed at the time of the year, referred today as Halloween (31st October) (Ibid.).

Loughcrew as a passage tomb

Loughcrew is one of the so-called passage tomb sites in Ireland. The centre of the passage tomb typically consists of several upright supports (orthostats) topped with a corbelled roofing or covered with a flat slab or capstone (Brennan 1994). Its plan usually creates a cruciform chamber, like in the case of the ground plan of Cairn T at Loughcrew, which takes the shape of one of the most ancient and universal sun symbols known as the equinoctial or Greek Cross (Ibid.). Another element characteristic of passage tombs is the passage itself, which is formed by the addition of a long entrance passageway to the central chamber (Ibid.). The entire structure is furthermore covered with a circular mound of earth, occasionally edged with external kerbstones (Ibid.).

Magical properties?

Structural stones of the Loughcrew monuments were made of local green gritstone, which is soft to carve (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). “Cairn T may [also] have once been covered with milky white quartz, the same stone which was used on the facade at Newgrange” (Murphy 2017-2020).

The inner passage of Cairn T. Loughcrew Passage Tomb cairn T, The wall on the left is pitted with so-called “cup marks”. When the tomb was opened, a large number of chalk balls were found at the base of this stone. These balls fitted the stone precisely; they may represent the stars in the sky. Photo and caption by Rob Hurson (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

An author Jean McMann (1993) claims that “large pieces of quartz could be found behind the kerbstones and around the entry. Conwell also reported small lumps of quartz ‘strewn about’ at the base of the Hag’s Chair” (Murphy 2017-2020). It is generally known that quartz crystal is usually found at constructions known as passage tombs. Unquestionably, it was “valued and held in awe by almost every ancient culture as a magical stone (DeSalvo 2012:11)” Quartz is an example of hard mineral (7 on the Mohs’ scale) with a few interesting properties (Ibid.:14), of which “[the] piezoelectric effect is perhaps the most fascinating. [Namely], when stress is place across the crystal it develops an electrical potential. [Additionally, quartz is] able to transmit ultraviolet light, which glass cannot” (Ibid.:14-15). Why did the builders of passage tombs were so interested in using it at their constructions? Was it just because of its beautiful appearance or magical powers? If it was the second option, what should be understood by term “magical”? Some authors suggest that quartz crystal was selected due to its mentioned properties “and its use in information storage. […] Can quartz record information like a video recorder and then be played back centuries later? These are questions to consider” (Ibid.:15)

Astronomical instrument?

The Loughcrew mountains give a panoramic view nearly “from coast to coast and into both northern and southern provinces of Ireland” (Brennan 1994:46), which actually bears out is astronomical function. Undeniably the Loughcrew mounds constitute a large complex of astronomically aligned megalithic mounds (Brennan 1994) and after such authors as Martin Brennan (1994) they could have been originally designed as astronomical devices – not tombs.

Stone Age writings

Inside passage tombs, there are usually multiple megalithic petroglyphs (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). They are typically carved in stone in the forms of lozenge, triangles, leaf shapes, spirals, zigzags, circles, some surrounded by radiating lines, as it is observed in the Cairn T at Loughcrew (Ibid.). At some sites, anthropomorphic elements are believed to have been represented (Ibid.). They are usually interpreted as various facial features or body outlines (Ibid.). Some researches, as George Coffey claim such motifs are mostly ornamental and they may represent the style of decoration of the period (O’Kelly 1978). At the same time Coffey admitted himself that some of them may originally have been symbolical (Ibid.).

Usually the motifs are picked or pitted on the natural surface of the stone slabs, using a sharply pointed tool (O’Kelly 1978). Sometimes, however, the same motifs are just incised or scratched, which can be explained by an assumption they are unfinished petroglyphs (Ibid.). Accordingly, in the process of their creation, the outlines were first scratched on the slab and then picked over (Ibid.). The most sophisticated effect was achieved while picking back the stone surface, leaving an unpicked area in relief, which eventually forms the pattern or motif (Ibid.). This technique is seen at Newgrange and Knowth (Ibid.).

Some researchers believe the Loughcrew complex is earlier than other Neolithic sites in the Valley as its engraving techniques seem to be more primitive (Brennan 1994:46). Still there are not radiocarbon dates to support this thesis (Ibid.). Motifs found at passage tombs were generally carved on the surface of well displayed slab stones, whereas some others were mysteriously hidden – such signs are placed in or above the passage roof, at the bottom of orthostats, and even below the ground level (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). However, the group of well visible motifs placed at the backstones could have played an essential role at the time of important astronomical events, such as equinoxes and solstices, giving an encrypted message by their interaction with the beam of sunlight (Brennan 1994).

Personally, I wish I could participate in such a celestial performance, when the stones of megalithic constructions seem to come alive under the touch of the rising sun. It is as if the right fuel had restarted the old mechanism of a complicated device, the function of which, however, is still hardly known to us.

Featured image: Bing Map: the Cairns of Sliabh na Caillighe (Loughcrew complex, Ireland). Carnbane West and Carbane East. The map created by Archaeotravel by means of the Bing Maps. 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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Brennan M. (1994) The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Rochester.

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DeSalvo Ph.D., J. (2012) Power Crystals: Spiritual and Magical Practices, Crystal Skulls, and Alien Technology. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books.

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McCormack L. (2020) “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WcTHhi>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

McMann J. (1993) Loughcrew The Cairns a Guide. In: Murphy, A. (2017-2020) Mythical Ireland. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2WcWAP3>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

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O’Kelly C. (1978) Passage-grave Art in the Boyne Valley, Cork: Houston&Son.

O’Bryan L. (2017) “Could Ireland’s Cairn T Really Be the Tomb of the Prophet Jeremiah?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2xvtDDJ>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Rhys J. (1901-2015) Celtic Folklore. Welsh and Manx. Vol.1. Cambridge University Press.

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Swift J. (c. 1720) “Loughcrew Poem” In: Byrne, M. (2020) “Loughcrew – Sliabh na Cailleach”. In: The Sacred Island. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2Tx6OrS>. [Accessed 8th March, 2020].

On the Way to the Heart of Koh Ker

Increased trade contacts between Rome, India, China and Southeast Asia in the last centuries BC. resulted in international cultural exchange, including the idea of kingship (Fagan 1996-2004). Mon-Khmers groups started to absorb the idea of Buddhism or worship Hindu gods (bid.). That provoked building stone temples (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:19-20).

First Hindu shrines normally contained lingams (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48). In Hinduism, the term lingam stands for the phallic symbol of the deity Shiva (“Lingam” 2021; PWN 2007:230; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48) and represents “[the idea] of ‘divine royalty’” (Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48).

Map of Cambodia indicating the location of Koh Ker in relation to Angkor, near modern-day Siem Reap. Data obtained from Open Street Map. http://www.openstreetmap.org 04.04.2022.  (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2). Koh Ker is located in modern Preah Vihear province (Miura 2016:28). “More than 180 sanctuaries were found in a protected area of 81 square kilometers” (”Koh Ker” 2021).

Moats and reservoirs were constructed not only to supply water but also to represent the seat of the Hindu gods, Mount Meru, ruled by the god Indra (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47). Its earthly reflection became Angkor, the state city established in 802 AD. by the king Jayavarman II after he moved his centre from the Mekong Valley to the lands between Kulen Hills and north-western part of the Lake Tonlé Sap (Fagan 1996-2004; Tully 2005:7). By then the process of unification of competing Khmer chiefdoms into the Angkorean Empire had started (Fagan 1996-2004; Tully 2005:7).

In the jungle

After about two hours and 120 km drive from Siem Reap, we were slowly reaching Koh Ker, a remote archaeological site with Cambodia’s second largest temple complex plunged in the jungle (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2015).

Koh Ker is situated around eighty kilometres northeast of Angkor is (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1). It is an archaeological site, located in northern Cambodia, known for the ancient Khmers’ second largest temple complex and their second capital in the period from 928 to 944 AD., after when it was moved back to Angkor (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2015; Fagan 1996-2004).

First discoveries in Cambodia

In the second part of the nineteenth century, two French researchers, Étienne Aymonier (1844 – 1929) and Lunet de Lajonquière (1861-1933) studied the complex of Prasat Thom and a stepped pyramid of Prang (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021). Their research was continued in the twentieth century by Georges Coedès (1886 – 1969) who claimed Koh Ker a capital of the Khmer empire (928 – 944 AD), basing on inscriptions found on site (“Koh Ker” 2021). In the 1930s, monuments in the area were documented in a number of drawings and photographs by Henri Parmentier (1870-1949) (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021).

Henri Parmentier à Sambor Prei Kuk in 1908, Angkor, Cambodia (Archives EFEO). Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient. In: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Such fine discoveries were followed by expeditions of a more looting character, which especially intensified in the 1960s and 1970s. (“Koh Ker” 2021; Miura 2016:28). Many stolen artifacts are now preserved by the Musée Guimet in Paris or in private collections and museums in USA (“Koh Ker” 2021; Miura 2016:28). The problem of looting monuments in Cambodia has always been a serious problem, but was especially intensified during the civil war (1975 and 1979) (“Koh Ker” 2021; see: Miura 2016:28-31). Afterwards the field campaign at Koh Ker was continued by APSARA National Authority, along with French, Japanese and Australian researchers (“Koh Ker” 2021).

Latest discoveries

In the twenty-first century, the research was extended to 184 monuments having been studied in situ for five years since 2004 (“Koh Ker” 2021). One of the most intriguing facts about Koh Ker is a great number of temples supposedly built in the area just for two decades of the tenth century (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Yet, excavations continued between 2004 and 2015 by Cambodian and international teams confirmed by radiocarbon data and LiDAR surveys the site had been inhabited in the prehistoric and pre-Angkor periods (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2), and there was also “post-10th century development occurring at the site” (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2).

King’s un/reasonable decision

In 924, for unknown reasons, King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker from Angkor, located around 60 km away (Lawrence 2020).

The Empire of Khmers with its capital in Angkor was once a dominant power in South East Asia, from 802 AD to 1431 AD (Quijada Plubins 2013). “At its peak, [it] covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam” (Ibid.). First, mainly Hinduism, then Buddhism were dominant religions in the region. (Ibid.). The Khmer were great architects and engineers. They mastered designing and building huge monumental temples with intricate carvings and sculpture – the landmarks of contemporary landscape (Ibid.). They also constructed huge reservoirs, known as baray, canals and an extensive road network with bridges (Ibid.).

Off the beaten track

The site of Koh Ker is off the beaten track for tourists (Lawrence 2020) visiting mostly the medieval capital of the Empire – Angkor. Yet Koh Ker stays one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in Cambodia (Ibid.).

In the past, it was called either Lingapura (city of lingams) or Chok Gargyar (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019) – translated as a city of glance (hematite) (Jolyon, Chau 2013), or as an iron tree forest (Kàdas 2010:8-9; Sibson 2019). One of the most intriguing facts about it is a great number of temples (180 sanctuaries) built in the area just for two decades of the 10th century, especially when Koh Ker was the actual capital of the Empire (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). As the area has only been partially de-mined after the war, only a small percentage of local temples can be visited (around 25) (Ibid.)

Three small prasats in the jungle

Making its way through the heavily forested area, our bus was bumping along muddy potholed and narrow road. Every ten seconds we were jumping up on our seats. Finally, I felt sick.

‘I have eaten too much soup for breakfast this morning,’ I admitted. ‘My stomach is coming up to my throat… The bowl was too big.’

My friend, Gosia, looked at me eloquently. ‘Too big?, ’she replied. ‘You could do hand washing in it!’

I was just going to defend my gluttony when our driver suddenly slowed down and exclaimed, ‘Take a look!’. He pointed out of the window to a row of three small sanctuaries of Prasat Pram, with two structures nearby, known as libraries (Lawrence 2020). They all looked like playing hide and seek behind the green paravane of trees. Nature had already taken over the site by its green branches sprouting upwards from the temples and cascading in tangled rooting down and around the buildings.

A while after, the bus stopped and its single door opened with a squeak.

‘Here we are, ‘the guide said. ‘Half an hour for this small marvel’.

The entrance to Prasat Neang Khmau. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At once, everyone spilled out of the bus into the humid and hot air of the jungle. Anyway, after one week in Cambodia I had already got used to this tropical weather with drops of sweat running constantly down my back. It was November. The rainy season was coming to an end, still with some disturbing heavy showers from time to time. It was at once hot and cool but I preferred that over the air-conditioned temperature inside the bus.

We stood just in front of another temple, the solitary Prasat Neang Khmau. Its walls had blackened, possibly due to a fire in the forest that happened in the past (Lawrence 2020). “Despite being dedicated to Shiva, it faces west, while almost all other Shiva temples built by the Khmers face east” (Ibid.). Before we came back to the bus I climbed up the temple to look inside. The lingam altar table (yet with broken lingam) was standing there in the middle with incense sticks and flowers left there as gifts. “Furthermore, the lintel carving above the door featured a rare depiction of Brahma, though this can hardly be made out now due to erosion” (Ibid.).

On the further way to the main temple of Koh Ker, we also took a glimpse of Prasat Chen, where the masterpieces of Khmer sculpture were once discovered (Lawrence 2020), and then we stopped at Andong Peng – rectangular pond filled with water (Ibid.). The area around us was heavily forested; each element was harmoniously merging with the jungle (Ibid.).except for a narrow path boring through the green thicket. After leaving the bus behind, it became our principal guide on the way to the heart of Koh Ker.

To the heart of Koh Ker

The chief component of Koh Ker complex is made by Jayavarman IV’s state temple – Prasat Thom. However, some of its structures had already existed, when Koh Ker became the capital of the Empire in 928 (Sopheak 2020).

We were approaching it from the south-west. To the east of our path, there was the capital’s central reservoir, called Rahal Baray but we turned westwards to face a procession way going along the east-west axis (more precisely 15 degrees to the north-east), on which the main temple is arranged (Sopheak 2020). The whole complex is surrounded by the outer wall, divided further into two rectangular enclosures (Ibid.). The front one defines the limits of a moat, whereas the rear one encompasses the true highlight of the main temple – a stepped pyramid, referred to as Prasat Prang (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). Generally, the main axis runs through the horizontally arranged, successive levels of the temple to finally reach seven ascending steps of the pyramid and climb up its peak – the holy of the holiest.

Central and linear

The whole complex of Koh Ker is outstanding in the background of a typical Khmer urban planning, where the concentric ground plan is dominant, that is to say, where outer courtyards completely surround the inner ones (Sopheak 2020). In Prasat Thom, however, it is more a combination of linear and concentric designs (Ibid.). Whereas the temple within the front enclosure holds a typical concentric layout, the overall plan of the complex is characterized by an axis linear plan, with its successive compounds appearing one after another, according to their growing importance on the way to the peak of the pyramid (Ibid.). It immediately brings to mind an arrangement of ancient Egyptian temples of Karnak or Luxor, where the most important sanctuary was located at the very end of the temple, and was preceded by a line of pylons, courts and passageways.

In the heart of Prasat Thom. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The central sanctuary of the complex is known as Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020). It constitutes “an ensemble of nine Prasat towers surrounded by three enclosures. A ring of elongated buildings called libraries surrounds the core area between the first (inner) and second enclosure, [with] an impressive moat between the second and third (exterior) enclosure walls” (Ibid.).

From the outside to the inside

At the doorstep of the temple and east of the main pyramid, there are a few important constructions. Yet before entering the outer (first) enclosure, we saw the ruined but once large (first if counting from the outside) Eastern Gopuram (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020; Cunin 2019). It is a cruciform gateway tower with equilateral wings in the form of elongated buildings (palaces) on either side of the axis (Ibid.). The constructions were lighted by large windows with balusters (Sopheak 2020).

The causeway with partially fallen pillars between Prasat Kraham and the the first (outer) enclosure. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Their walls were literary being devoured by offensive branches of trees and undermined by their roots. Then, the alley was leading through the successive compounds of the complex (Sopheak 2020). The first Eastern Gopuram opens to Prasat Kraham (also Krahom) Gate Tower (Sopheak 2020; Ciccone 1998-2020). The latter is the second Eastern Gopuram but may have once been a temple on its own (Sopheak 2020). As it is built of red brick it is usually referred to as the “Red Temple” (Ibid.). Prasat Kraham is the actual entrance to the successive enclosures of the complex (Ibid.) but it is itself “located outside the temple moat of Prasat Thom” (Ibid.). Prasat Thom, in turn, “[remains the only] temple on the artificial island surrounded by the moat, [within the third (inner) enclosure]” (ibid.). In other words, it is the kernel of the concentric enclosure (Ibid.).

By Cunin (2019): 3D rconstruction of the temple complex in Koh Ker.

Accordingly, Prasat Kraham led us further. First we entered the causeway through the moat with a series of pillars along the way (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). One of its rows had already collapsed, looking like fallen dominoes. From the beneath of the bases of still standing pillars, tree roots were crawling down the path. Consequently, some of them were leaning inwards as if subjects beating nods to the passing ruler. At the end of the way, the Eastern Gopurams of the second and then the third enclosure were guiding us inwards (Cunin 2019). By these means, we found ourselves in the heart of the temple but at the same time only half-way to its sanctuary – the pyramid. And this is (apart from the Prang pyramid) what makes the plan of Koh Ker highly intriguing. Such a concentric – linear resolution in architecture must have been successful as its main concept was also later applied in a nearby temple of Banteay Srei (Sopheak 2020).

Quite complicated, isn’t it …? Hopefully, the ground plan of the complex will give you a better understanding of its layout.

By Sopheak (2020): The central-linear ground plan of the complex.

Chaotic order

In the front enclosure preceding the pyramid, there is a real variety of structures: “sanctuaries, galleries, libraries and gates. Some of them are still standing, but many have been reduced to rubble” (Lawrence 2020).

At each step we took, we encountered precious remains of sculpture, smashed into pieces, and huge blocks of stone scattered around like mismatched puzzles. Some carvings and sculpture elements of the complex have been looted (see: Miura 2016), others are fortunately preserved in museums.

When the massive ‘Prang’ finally came into view. Copyright©Archaeotravel

“The chaotic appearance of the temple only [increased] the dramatic effect when the massive ‘Prang’ finally [came] into view” (Lawrence 2020). The pyramid grew in front of us like a mountain’s peak, just at the end of the procession avenue crossing Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020).

Featured image: Sanctuaries of Prasat Pram along the access road to the heart of Koh Ker. Photo by Bluesy Pete – Own work (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Koh Ker” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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


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Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre

The Louvre Museum is without doubt one of the most famous and largest museums in the world. Its Department of Near Eastern Antiquities display, inter alia, 37 monumental bas-reliefs discovered in 1840s by Paul-Emile Botta at the site of Khorsabad (ancient site of Dur-Sharrukin) (Joshua 2014; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). The city itself was built between 717 and 707 as the Assyrian capital in the time of Sargon II (Ibid.). The same site was harshly destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015. After almost five years, it is still impossible to find words to describe the magnitude of the loss for the world’s cultural heritage …

First impression

Two sculptures brought to France from Dur-Sharrukin palace represent the so-called hero, aka Gilgamesh, choking a lion (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). His figure constitutes a part of a monumental complex of the outside façade of the throne chamber: passageways guarded by colossal lamassu and a pair of genies (Ibid.). In the central passageway, between each pair of lamassu stood Gilgamesh (Ibid.). I remember yet its white and black depiction from my elementary book. At that time I interpreted the statue through the lens of school education. So who was Gilgamesh to an eight-year-old girl? Was he a “good” king-hero who fought against “evil” creepy-crawly monsters? All his heroic deeds were known to me from the Epic of Gilgamesh. I do not remember if we thoroughly studied it at all, but even for an adult it is quite difficult stuff to follow. Instead, I mostly paid attention to Gilgamesh’s appearance: alien and sinister. His up-right, muscular, frontal figure was overwhelming with physical strength and hieratic attitude. Wild looking, wide open eyes were set in a round face covered with plaited beard, and were piercing me through. I was just sorry for the lion stuck in his iron grip. The animal’s pulled claws and his silent roar made no impression on the hunter. At that time, Gilgamesh looked to me more like a motionless robot than a “good” hero.

Second impression

Gilgamesh, one of the two images of the hero. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Years later I saw the sculpture myself in the Museum of Louvre. At that time, I studied in Paris so as a student of art history I was allowed to enter the museum after its closure, that is to say, after 9 p.m. I think it is still practiced and students under 26 are allowed to enter the museum for free when all the hordes of tourists are already gone. When I entered the courtyard to the Palace of Sargon II in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, I felt intimidated by gigantic Assyrian wall reliefs and orthostats. Here I stood alone, face to face with mythical creatures, divine heroes and winged Anunnaki. Facing one of the colossi of Gilgamesh, smarter or not, I got a very similar impression as in the time of my childhood, additionally intensified by the dimension of the image. Gilgamesh’s eyes, once brightly coloured were mesmerising with a magical impact (Olivier 2011). The hero was an incarnation of divine and royal power, and his supernatural strength was believed to have protected the palace and the royalty (Ibid.) from the evil spirits, as much as the image of Medusa’s head in ancient Greece.

Magical Being

As mentioned above, there are two Gilgamesh’s sculptures in the museum (Flynn 2014). Each is larger than life as they measure over five meters high. Both are represented in high relief (Olivier 2011). Unlike other characters from the orthostats, the hero is standing in a frontal position, with upper body and head facing the viewers, and with his legs in profile (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). Such a frontal representation is rare in Assyrian art and only reserved to illustrate magical beings (Ibid.). In his right hand he holds a ceremonial, royal weapon with a curved blade (harpe) (Ibid.). In one representation, he is wearing a short tunic with a large fringed shawl over it, hiding one leg and revealing the other, while in the second one two legs are visible (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). In the former, the lion is lifting its head and baring its teeth (Ibid.), the latter shows it biting Gilgamesh’s arm. In both cases, the lion is grasped by the left arm around which the hero is wearing a bracelet with a rosette in the centre (Olivier 2011), looking like a modern watch.

Hero or Tyrant

My feeling at the sight of the sculptures faithfully corresponded to a mythical story I learned about the Sumerian hero: Gilgamesh was a wandering god-king, tragic hero but tyrant. In his destructive desire to become equal to gods (God?), he failed the final battle for immortality and, despite his heroic deeds, he was doomed to death as all human beings.

They came from nowhere

Among numerous artefacts uncovered at the site of Dur-Sharrukin, one of the most-valuable finds was the Assyrian King List (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). Whereas Assyria came to power in Mesopotamia only about 1900 BC, the king lists enumerate much earlier rulers of Sumer, located once in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia since at least 4500 BC. That region is commonly described as the cradle of civilization due to Sumerians’ outstanding achievements (Cartwright 2018). They appeared in Mesopotamia from “nowhere” and are believed to have invented as the first in human history writing, wheel, agriculture (irrigation), ceramic, bronze, advanced astronomy, astrology, calendar, mathematics, legal code, monumental architecture (ziggurats) and the idea of city-states (Bright, J. 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019).

The Sumerian King List

Sumerians also documented on their clay tablets the antediluvian list of demi-divine kings, identifying ten kings who lived for tens of thousands of years before the Flood (Bright, J. 2018). Similar record of extreme longevity is also found in the Bible (Noah lived for 950 years) (Ibid.). No need to say that this particular part of Sumerian “history” was automatically classified as a myth (and its biblical version was re-interpreted) (Ibid.). Nevertheless, scholars acknowledge the King List at the moment it starts with the House of Uruk – the first royal dynasty of Sumer who reigned just after the Great Flood (McLoud 2019; Kosmiczne … 2020). For ancient Sumerians, these were the greatest of all demi-divine king-heroes (c. 3800-2850 BC) (Ibid.). Assuming the List gives a right order, Gilgamesh appears there as the fifth king of Uruk who reigned sometime between 2800 and 2600 BC (Farmer, Jarrell 2017; Kosmiczne … 2020).

  1. Mesz-ki-ag-gaszer
  2. Enmerkar
  3. Lugalbanda
  4. Dumuzid
  5. Gilgamesh

The fifth King: 𒀭𒉈𒂵𒈩

Evidently, there are not more “historical” records about the fifth king of Uruk than it is given by the Epic of Gilgamesh. This literary history begins with five independent Sumerian poems going back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC). The Old Babylonian version (eighteenth century BC) is the first surviving version of the Epic, whereas the standard one is much later (thirteenth – tenth centuries BC). Longer, twelve clay tablet version was discovered in the Library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (seventh century BC) (Epic … 2020).

Mighty One

After the Epic, Gilgamesh was in two-thirds god and in one-thirds human (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). As such he was distinguished to obtain lost knowledge from the antediluvian world (Epic of Gilgamesh, lines 5-9) (Ibid.). To do so he journeyed to Mount Hermon (the legendary mount between Syria and Lebanon, in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range) (Ibid.). According to the apocrypha Book of Enoch (Enoch 6:1-6) Mount Hermon was the place where a group of fallen angels – the Watchers – descended to earth, whereas in the Mesopotamian tradition it is known as the dwelling place of Anunnaki – “those of royal blood” – or in other words – sons of god (Hines 1989:73; Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Are those the same?

Who were Anunnaki?

“[T]he true identity of the Anunnaki [or Annunaki] is to be found in the Eastern tradition of [demi-gods], spawned by cross-breeding between divine beings and mortal females at Mount Hermon. […] These beings are often associated with knowledge from the world before a great deluge and were later assigned roles in the underworld. This would suggest [they should properly be compared to the Nephilim and the fallen ‘sons of God’ brought up in Genesis Chapter 6]” (Farmer, Jarrell 2017; see Hines 1989).

Sons of God

In the Hebrew Bible the expression: “sons of God” appears five times and always refers to angelic beings (in Hebrew: singualr מַלְאָךְ‎ mal’akh, plural: מלאכים mal’akhim)(Gentry 2019). Only with the coming of Christianity, the title of the Son of God has been ascribed to Jesus. The Bible says (Gen. 6:2,4):

the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. […] The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”

As a professor of Old Testament interpretation, Dr. Peter Gentry (2019), says: “Gen.6:1-4 is a difficult text. And as we attempt to interpret it, we should be humble because there are different interpretations that have been taken of this text.” Scholars explain the fragment: “in those days and also afterward” differently. Gentry (2019) suggests that the Nephilim had already lived on the earth “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans” and also existed after that time, so they have nothing to do with the story of the fallen angels. Others suggest that “afterward” stands for the times after the flood as the giants also appears in the Bible later on (Gentry 2019). Still the Nephilim came into existence in those days, that is to say “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them.” (Alberino, Quayle 2016). On the other side, when taking into account the testimony of Apocrypha, “in those days and also afterward” may refer to the times of Jared, that is to say, when the fallen angels descended (Skiba 2016).

Universal myths

In almost all the ancient cultures, there are three recurring myths telling about ancient gods that once descended from heavens to take for themselves human women, about giants that were the offspring of the sexual relationship between the gods and earthly daughters, and about a great cataclysm – in many cases – the flood that destroyed the empire of the gods and their children (Alberino, Quayle 2016).

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Gilgamesh” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ancient traditions alongside with biblical texts also give references to the way the sons of god were punished for their misdeeds (Ibid.; Farmer, Jarrell 2017). The Book of Jude 6 says:

“And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day”.

The same notion is supported by the New Testament (2nd Peter, 2:4, KJV) :

“God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness”.

It is noteworthy that “the word translated as hell in this verse is actually the Greek Tartarus, referencing the deepest underworld of Greek mythology—the prison of the Titans” (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Not only ancient legends support the biblical texts but also record that the gods’ offspring, the giants, shared the fate of their fathers. Most famous of all, the mythology of ancient Greeks actually repeats the same universal stories of the older Eastern traditions (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Greek Titans may stand for both: the Nephilim and Anunnaki. They all were, as the Greek myth says, the offspring of Gaia – an earth goddess (human women?) and Uranus – a sky deity who stands for heavenly beings – gods (Ibid.).

Who were the Nephilim?

“[T]he Septuagint translates both the Hebrew נְּפִלִ֞ים [Nephilim] and גִּבֹּרִ֛ים [gibborim – mighty men or men of renown] in Genesis 6:4 as γίγαντες [gigantes – giants]” (Garris 2019). “Some scholars, [like Michael Heiser (2015:107)], also think Nephilim comes from the Aramaic word naphiyla for giant”(Ibid.). Biblical giants are also referred to as Anakim and Rephaim (Ibid.). What is the difference between those? “In spite of the flood, giants eventually made a comeback” (Ibid.). In this context, Nephilim were mostly antediluvian giants, whereas their descendants were already recorded after the flood as generations of Anakim and Rephaim (Ibid.). Although Genesis 6:4 does not describe the Nephilim as beings of great stature, Numbers 13:32-33 already gives such a narrative (Ibid.). After leaving Egypt, Israelites are approaching the Promised Land (Canaan) (Ibid.). However, Moses first sends there 12 scouts who come back after 40 days with a report about the land (Numbers 13:32-33) (Ibid.)

“The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them“.

Was then Gilgamesh a giant?

Intriguingly, there are ancient sources suggesting that Gilgamesh was actually of gigantic stature (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). The Epic of Gilgamesh from Ugarit (lines 34-36) reveals the hero’s size (Ibid.): “Eleven cubits was his height, four cubits the width of his chest. A triple cubit was his foot and a reed-length his legs”. Accordingly, Gilgamesh would have been over five metres tall as his statue in the Louvre (Farmer, Jarrell 2017).

At this point, we should also take a closer look at Gilgamesh relief representing him while grasping a lion. Usually, an adult lion measures around three metres, while in Gilgamesh’s embrace, he looks more like a kitty. Assuming that Gilgamesh was over five metres tall, the depicted size of a lion seems more accurate (Zalewski 2017). Also the fragmentary Book of Giants found among apocrypha scrolls in Qumran enumerates Gilgamesh as one of giants (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Gilgamesh’s divine origins were taken either after his mother – a goddess Ninsun, or his father, or both. Although Lugalbanda (the third king of Uruk) is believed to have been the father of Gilgamesh, according to Sumerian Kings List, his true father was a spiritual being (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). As stated by the Book of Enoch, after the flood a number of dead giants was doomed to eternal exile on earth as spiritual beings. Those wandering entities have desired for revenge on God and His creations for the destruction of their world (Skiba 2016). Hence it happened they possessed human beings. Some of those may have brought Gilgamesh to life, as much as other creatures of their kind (Ibid.).

Through the Flood

According to the apocrypha Book of Giants, not only giants were the offspring of fallen angels but also animal-angelic hybrids. There was also a crossbreeding between animals themselves. Such beast-like creatures were giants’ inferior comrades (Alberino 2014). Gilgamesh himself makes friends with Enkidu – a wild man (animal-human hybrid) who apparently looked like a Minotaur.

Some entities of the antediluvian world made through the flood along with the corrupted genome. How? There are several contingencies (Alberino 2018):

  1. The second incursion: spirit beings again got into a sexual intercourse with women and more giants were born (Alberino 2014; Garris 2019);
  2. “Nephilim genes were passed down through Noah’s daughters-in-law. These wives of Ham, Shem, and Japheth were not descended from Noah and thus potentially had Nephilim genes in them” (Garris 2019; see Skiba 2016; Alberino 2018).
  3. Necromancy: a genetic transmutation through the sorcery (Alberino 2018; Skiba 2016).
  4. “The Exile of Atlantis” a theory proposed by Timothy Alberino (2018): some forbidden entities escaped the deluge by different means.

As the Epic says, Gilgamesh himself meets Utnapishtim – a survivor of the great flood whom the god Enlil saved from the waters and made immortal (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Gilgamesh desires the immortality for himself but eventually he fails in his quest. Even if he has got divine origins, defeats Humbaba (Huwawa) – the guardian of the Cedar Forest, and slays the Heavenly Bull, he is unable to become immortal like Utnapishtim. In this context, he can be seen as acting against the postdiluvian order (Wayne 2019).

Gilgamesh aka Nimrod?

Similar attitude is expressed by another Mesopotamian king, known from the Bible (Genesis 10) as Nimrod whom other traditions also ascribe the construction of the Tower of Babel (Skiba 2016). Although the Bible calls him Nimrod, it may have been actually a nickname meaning as much as a Hebrew word to rebel or we shall rebel (Alberino 2018; Skiba 2019). Hence Nimrod is believed to have rebelled against Yahweh by building a tower (Gen:10:8-10).

“And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar”.

Although he apparently came from the second generation after the flood, scholars’ attempts to associate Nimrod with historical rulers have failed (Kosmiczne … 2020). Some scholars, like Rob Skiba (2016), claim that Nimrod and Gilgamesh are actually the same, whereas scholars, like David Rohl (2015), notice parallels between Enmerkar (the second ruler from the List of Sumerian Kings) and Nimrod, as both characters seem to share several characteristics. Also Gilgamesh and Nimrod have one feature in common: they were both described as mighty ones, hunters, warriors (Wayne, Magalashvili 2016). “[All these titles derive] from Hebrew gibbor/Gibborim […] meaning [a] powerful warrior, tyrant; champion […] and can include or be a giant/Nephilim (as in Gen 6)” (Ibid.). According to the Scriptures and apocrypha tradition, however, Nimrod was not a giant originally but “[he began] to be a mighty one in the earth. In this application of Hebrew chalal means to profane and to break your word when Nimrod for some reason became a mighty one. So something mysterious happened to make Nimrod like a mighty one.” (Ibid.). A sorcery?

Post-flood resurrection

Irrespective of a true identity of Nimrod or Gilgamesh, it can be concluded that the ancient world just after the Great Flood may have been ruled by demi-divine gigantic beings – Gibborim who originated from the Nephilim – the extremely intelligent but wicked angelic offspring. The latter built up the antediluvian empire with the help of their heavenly fathers. After Merriam Webster Dictionary, there are a few notions of the adjective antediluvian :

  1. Of or relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible;
  2. Made, evolved, or developed a long time ago;
  3. Extremely primitive or outmoded.

Due to a pejorative meaning of the last definition, people usually tend to imagine the antediluvian world as the one inhabited by primitive, wearing animal skins people who lived in the the time of general ignorance, with a very low level of technology, knowledge or progress (Alberino, Quayle 2016). Yet nothing could be more further from the truth than these stereotypes (Ibid.). Strange as it seems it was a much more advanced world than we know today (Ibid.). Although this antediluvian empire was destroyed by God and the evil was chained in the darkness, the vestiges of the forbidden knowledge introduced by the Watchers have remained in the earth together with their architecture, technology and angelic gens (Ibid.). Post-flood Gibborim, like Gilgamesh, longed for the lost antediluvian realm and so they were constantly trying to take revenge on God for its final destruction by water. They wished to regain power by means of resurrection: they would rebel against the universal order, just as their antediluvian ancestors did. The Epic of Gilgamesh or the story of the Tower of Babel teach, however, that as mighty as they were, they could not win with the Supreme.

Featured image: Gilgamesh statue at Sydney University (image cropped). Photo by Samantha/Flickr/Creative Commons. Photo source: Ancient Code Team (2020) “20 Facts about Gilgamesh—Ancient Sumeria’s Demigod.” In: Ancient Code.


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Maltese History in the Negative

The title: History in the Negative [1]

[1] The title of the article refers to the idea of Giulio Magli (2009:56-57; Chapter 3.3 “A Temple in the Negative) that the Hypogeum mirrors a Maltese temple in the negative, as it is underground.

When you would like to tell a story, you usually start from the very beginning. Still I am not quite sure where that “beginning” is. Anyway, for me it starts with a study trip on the island of Malta. It is a relatively small archipelago located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, and it is composed of three islands of a different size: the largest Malta, medium Gozo and the smallest Comino. Above all, it is a popular holiday destination stormed by hordes of tourists every year. Most of them finish their adventure on the crowded, many a time rocky beaches, enjoying warm sea and daylong sunbathing. More curious visitors overcome the summer heat and abandon the coast to plunge in Maltese stories from the past. In my case, the latter choice was glaringly obvious. Before I landed on the island, first I took a flight from Ireland to Poland to spend at least one week with my family. It is not so reasonable to choose the month of August for exploring the island but it was because of the summer break at my university and the only available time to take my annual leave.

Welcome to the Island of Giants

When my friend and I landed after two hours on Malta International Airport in the town of Luqa, I felt a very pleasant sensation of butterflies thrilling in my stomach. I had done some research on Maltese history beforehand and I just could not wait to verify all this information in practice, which turned out to be not as simple as I thought. Because of an unpredictable delay (still very typical of the island) and fierce heat of the sun, we reached our air-conditioned hotel in La Valletta completely exhausted and sweaty like after a workout. I dumped the luggage on my bed and walked out on our tiny balcony overlooking the port bathed in navy-blue waters and the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, looming majestically large on Valletta’s skyline. I was just enchanted with the orange colours of the city, strengthened by the light of the afternoon sunlight.

View on La Valletta from our hotel’s balcony. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Official Version

Our tour itinerary around the archipelago was stuffed to the gills and we got just a few days to realize it. The history of Malta is a long and compelling story dating back as it seems to the dawn of civilization but nobody knows when it actually started. Like in the case of other Mediterranean islands, such as Cyprus, archaeologists enumerate several stages of its timeline: first, there was the Paleolithic, then Neolithic period (traditionally called the New Stone Age) with the remains of mysterious megalithic temples, then the Phoenician, the Carthaginian, the Roman and the Byzantine (Visit Malta 2018). Christianity was brought to Malta in 60 AD by St. Paul himself who was shipwrecked on the island while on his way to Rome (Ibid.). The Moors conquered the islands in 870 A.D. and had ruled over it until 1530 A.D., when Malta got into the hands of Sicily (Ibid.). The Emperor, Charles V handed down the island to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, after they were forced to abandon their previous seat on the island of Rhodes, overtaken by the Turks (Ibid.).

Massive fortifications of Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Joannites or Hospitallers, since then also called the Maltese Templars, governed Malta from 1530 to 1798 (Visit Malta 2018). The Knights made it a cultural and artistic hub of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ Europe, and it was marked with the presence of such artists as Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray, commissioned by the Knights to embellish their Baroque churches and palaces (Ibid.). Nowadays, Malta is usually known for its bastioned fortifications of Birgu and Valletta, consisting of towers, batteries, redoubts and entrenchments, which are also characteristic of the Knights’ medieval defences on the Island of Rhodes (Ibid.). In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took over Malta from the Knights on his way to Egypt (Ibid.). The French presence on the islands was short, as the English, who were requested by the Maltese to help them against the French, blockaded the islands in 1800 (Ibid.). British rule in Malta lasted until 1964, when Malta became independent (Ibid.). Still the Maltese adapted the British system of administration, education, legislation and left-hand driving with a steering wheel on the right-hand side … (Ibid.). Modern Malta became a Republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in May 2004 (Ibid.).

So much official history. Let’s go beyond it and investigate what hides in the legends.

Neolithic Tour

My study focused on the Neolithic Malta and its enigmatic megaliths scattered around the islands of Malta and Gozo that I wanted to explore during my short stay.

Next day, we caught a taxi to Paola, a town in the South Eastern Region of Malta, around seven kilometres away from La Valetta. We were to get there at 10 AM sharp. I had registered online for two entries to one of the most mysterious monuments in Europe, or even in the world. Access to the site is highly regulated (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Magli 2009:56). You are not allowed to take anything with you on a tour, such as bags, mobiles or cameras (Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016). Before it starts, you need to leave all your stuff in the locker. Instead, you are provided with an audio-lingual guide with headphones. You are not allowed to either take pictures, film anything or even speak, and all the time you are accompanied by a silent guide leading the group (Magli 2009:56; Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016).

Limestone doorways. Photo by Hamelin de Guettelet (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Visits are limited to six times per day for ten people at once. For those who turn up on site without a pre-booked ticket, it will be impossible to enter, unless somebody else cancels the tour, which is quite unlikely. The site had been closed since June, 2016 and reopened on May 15, 2017 with tickets available online from Heritage Malta’s website and from Fort St. Elmo or the Gozo Museum of Archaeology. As it was advised, we got there 15 minutes in advance. We stood in front of a inconspicuous semi-detached house with walls painted yellow and white, a door, small window and a garage. The only thing informing us it was the right address was the writing above the entry, saying: HYPOGEUM (Ibid.).

Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

The Hypogeum is a huge and a multi-levelled circular cave, artificially carved into the rock, which today looks from the outside like a part of an ordinary building (Haughton 2009:162). In the Mediterranean, among others in Crete, Sardinia, Sicily and southern France, there are many subterranean worlds, albeit with a slightly different nature than the Malta underground temple, which is truly unique (Ibid.:162). It actually remains one of the most fascinating and mysterious of many megalithic structures not only in Europe, but also on the island itself (Ibid.:162).

Today, the complex is widely referred to as the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni as the name hypogeum stands for an underground burial chamber (Magli 2009:57). Moreover, it is estimated that the subterranean network of tunnels and chambers covers an area of approximately 1 639 square meters and, as such, it is believed to have been once an important underground tomb and temple complex (Haughton 2009:162).

According to archaeologists, the whole structure comes back to the period around 3300 – 3000 BC., or slightly earlier, which was called after the name of the site, the Saflieni phase in Maltese prehistory (Pace 2004:10-20; “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” 2018).

Positive and Negative of the Temple

In 1902, an intriguing discovery was made. Workers building the foundations of an apartment block accidentally broke through the stone layer and unearthed the underworld construction, which according to some experts should be regarded as the eighth wonder of the world (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Haughton 2009:161-169; Pace 2004:3-9). It displays similar features as other megalithic temples in Malta but in the negative, mirroring the overground architecture of megalithic temples (Magli 2009:56-57).

The Holy of Holies. Photo by –jkb– (own image / eigenes Werk / vlastní dílo; scanned photo) (1985). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The subterranean version of a Maltese megalithic temple has been carved down in the living rock and its shape has been obtained by removing over two thousand tons of limestone out (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014; Pace 2004:14; Magli 2009:56; Haughton 2009:162). Strangely enough, it is commonly accepted by archaeologists that the whole process of hewing the stone was done with hammers and horned pikes (Haughton 2009:162). In turn, the surfaces of the hollow rock are believed to have been smoothed by using flint tools, with the entire work being done in dimness! (Ibid.:162). As a result, neolithic builders were to create the whole complex of Ħal Saflieni, composed of a series of chambers, halls and niches arranged on three successive floors or levels (Pace 2004:23-45; Haughton 2009:162; Tajemnice Historii 2016). One of the authors studying the construction has imagined it as three Stonehenge complexes, set one above the other on the successive levels, but hidden deeply in the underground (Tajemnice Historii 2016).

The refurbished visitors’ center will help bust all the myths.

Before we descended to the underground, we did a very entertaining virtual tour of the underground cemetery with a video scenes sliding over the walls of the exhibition area, presenting an alleged history of the site’s construction.

At the same time, the authors of the film obviously try to persuade the visitors that a group of stone age farmers, armed only with primitive tools described above were able to accomplish such an architectural feat (Alberino, Quayle 2016). What is more, there are also some posters on the walls recalling major mysteries on the Hypogeum just to deny them entirely and replace with the mainstream history.

Inside the Giant Bell

When we finally descended underground I was immediately struck by a gloomy atmosphere hovering there (Ancient Code Team 2018; Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016). It was not only the fault of natural darkness but some kind of irrational anxiety (Ibid.). Architecture critic, Richard Storm says that this strange sensation is because “you [feel] something coming from somewhere else you [cannot] identify, [and so] you are transfixed” (Ancient Code Team 2018). It was like being inside a giant bell with multiple opening leading deeper down in the unknown abyss (Ibid.). According to such researchers as Timothy Alberino and Steve Quayle (2016), it is more like a crypt than a temple. “Inside, […] there is a sequential lighting system so that the light goes on when the guide enters the area and goes off when [they leave it] so the whole group must follow close behind” (Magli 2009:56). Any self-guided tours are forbidden so you cannot explore the site on your own and only two upper levels are accessible for the groups. The lowest part of the Hypogeum mustn’t be visited.

Site map of the Hypogeum made in October 1907. Manuel Magri died in 1907. Uploaded in 2008. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Within the bell like gorge, archaeologists have uncovered tombs and a few rooms of different size and unknown function (Magli 2009:49). The Upper Level is believed to be the oldest, being used between 3600 and 3300 BC. (Pace 2004:24-26; Haughton 2009:162). It is placed three metres below the street level and includes a central corridor and burial chambers cut into natural caves on either side of the corridor (Pace 2004:24-26; Haughton 2009:162). According to archaeologists, the Upper Level resembles other rock-cut tombs found elsewhere on the islands of the Maltese archipelago, such as the rock-hewn Xemxija tombs on the western part of St. Paul’s Bay in the Northern Region of Malta, dating back to around 4000 BC. (Haughton 2009:162; “Xemxija” 2021).

Standing at the highest point of a walkway, I could get a bird’s eye view of the Upper Level (Pace 2004:47). “A [large] monumental trilithon still stands to the north of the main passage” (Ibid.:25-26), as a part of a larger structure that had already disappeared (Ibid.:25-26,47). There are also three roughly cut tomb chambers with low headroom and a group of similar cavities that lead to the so-called cistern reaching a depth of almost eight metres (Ibid.:24,26,47). One of the chambers still contains a deposit of earth and human remains (Ibid.:47). Around the same area, one can also discern some cists, a regular circle and tethering holes cut in the rock, like in the temples on the surface (Ibid.:47).

Going deeper

The Middle Level reaches eight metres below the street and features magnificent builders’ skills in stonework; such features can be especially observed in the masterfully cut trilithons (Pace 2004:24,26-44,47-48; Haughton 2009:162-163). The entire level is said to have been cut into a deep rock between 3300 and 3000 BC., as an extension of the Upper Level of the structure (Haughton 2009:162). The architecture of this level is reminiscent of the overground megalithic structures found elsewhere in Malta and contains the most important elements of the whole hypogeum (Ibid.:163). Accordingly, the Middle Level is further divided into three successive zones (Pace 2004:24,26-44,46). There are several important rooms, such as the Main Room or Chamber, the Holy of Holies, and the Oracle Room or Chamber (Pace 2004:24,26-44,46-48; Haughton 2009:163).

Zone A covered in red

The so-called Zone A contains the Main Chamber, which is roughly circular with a number of entrances in the form of trilithons, some of which are blind, and others lead to another chamber (Pace 2004:27,29-48). Almost the entire space of the Main Chamber is additionally decorated with an arrangement of vertical and horizontal curves, some of which are in the form of a honeycomb, and most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre, which is well visible even today (Pace 2004:21,30,36-37,48; Haughton 2009:163). On the other side, particular shapes of the walls create altogether a visual play on a viewer that can be compared to the effect of “fish eye” camera lens (Pace 2004:30,48). The Main Chamber can be also seen from the Upper Level, through the mentioned already circular opening above it (Ibid.:48).

“Sleeping Beauty” found in the Hypogeum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Zone B and the Sleeping Lady in the Snake-Pit

Zone B located within the same level is characterized by a large elliptical chamber with two cavities or pits of an unidentified purpose (Pace 2004:48). One of them is sometimes referred to as the Snake-Pit and reaches two metres down (Pace 2004:37-39,48; Haughton 2009:163; Bradshaw Foundation 2017). Alongside the same pit, there is a shaft leading to the lowest (known) part of the Hypogeum, carved down over ten metres below the street level (Pace 2004:24,44-45,48; Haughton 2009:164). Inside the Snake-Pit a mysterious statuette of the Sleeping Lady was possibly found, which is today preserved in the Museum of Archaeology of Malta, in La Valletta (Pace 2004:39,48; Haughton 2009:163). Other sources say the figurine may have actually been discovered in the previously described Main Chamber of the Zone A (Haughton 2009:163). Such contradictory and confusing information only shows how chaotic first archaeological reports on the site could be.

Like other clay figurines found on site, the Sleeping Lady probably dates back to 3000 BC. and represents a corpulent woman reclining on a couch (Haughton 2009:163; Pace 2004:22). Possibly due to its outstanding obesity, the figurine is also described as the Sleeping Venus, in reference to similar opulent shapes of the Paleolithic female figurines, collectively called the Venus (Haughton 2009:163-164). As Giulio Magli (2009:47) writes “she sleeps, serene, pleased by her own exaggerated sensuality, exaggerated by our aesthetic canons, of course to the extent that many call her by the rather disrespectful name of the ‘Fat Lady'”.

The Holy of Holies

The ceiling of the Chamber in Zone B is elaborately decorated with a series of spirals, polygons and a plant-like paintings made with red ochre (Pace 2004:48). It is probably the most painted area in the whole complex (Haughton 2009:164). This is why it is usually referred to as the Holy of Holies (Pace 2004:48; Haughton 2009:164). The space comprises a finely carved replica of a temple façade, featuring a partially corbelled ceiling (Ibid.:48). Accordingly, it is distinguished by a trilithic portal carved in the rock, reflecting the architecture of free-standing Maltese Neolithic monuments, and the corbelled ceiling that was also possibly applied in the above-ground temples on the islands of Malta (Haughton 2009:164). The exceptional importance of this place is also evidenced by the lack of any burial there. (Ibid.:164). “Opposite the Holiest of Holies [lies] a monumental entrance [with] seven steps leading to the Lower Level” (Pace 2004:48). The passage, however is closed for the Hypogeum’s visitors (Carabott 2017).

Paintings for the Dead?. Photography by Daniel Cilia. Photo and caption source: Anthony Pace (2004) The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Malta Insight Heritage Guides, p. 37.

Zone C with the Oracle Room

Zone C features the most mysterious of all, the Oracle Room – unevenly rectangular, long chamber with a ceiling intricately decorated with spirals in red ochre and with circular objects looking like discs (Pace 2004:39-41,48; Haughton 2009:164).

The Oracle Room also include smallest side chambers (Pace 2004:40,48; Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). One of them has the peculiarity of producing a powerful acoustic resonance from only a male vocalization made inside it (Pace 2004:40,48; Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Namely, any low sounds made by male voice (it is said that there is no such an effect in case of a higher female voice) is carried around the entire complex and even through the walls (Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Its vibrations can be felt anywhere in the whole complex with the same strength as in the Oracle Chamber (Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). In other words, the words spoken by a male voice in the Oracle Room are heard in exactly the same way within a meter as in any niche, chamber or corridor, situated on any floor of the Hypogeum (Tajemnice Historii 2016). Apart from that, scientists have found that a male voice with a frequency of 110 Hz being emitted from the Oracle Chamber, bouncing off the walls, acquires a vibration that puts listeners in a specific state of trance and affects the brain centers responsible for creative thinking (Ibid.).

Apparently, the Hypogeum’s creators were specialized in acoustics, which amazes mainstream scholars who still call the hollow a primitive amplifier and believe it was once used by an oracle (Alberino, Quayle 2016). For the same reason, the purposefulness of the builders’ achievement of this intriguing acoustic effect is usually questioned (Haughton 2009:164). According to some scholars, such an achievement could be just the matter of mere chance (Ibid.:164). Otherwise, it would have to be considered that the Neolithic civilization was much more advanced than was thought, and the very ability of its members to use acoustics in religious ceremonies should be commonly accepted (Ibid.:164).

Mystery of the Lower Level

The mystery of the Hypogeum also involves the Lower Level that could also be once explored by visitors but now it is not allowed for the public. The lowest part of the complex is ten and a half meters below street level and it is said that it is further forked into a maze of chambers, which were filled with water at the time of their discovery in the early twentieth century (Haughton 2009.:164). According to mainstream academia, it contained no bones or offerings, only water (Haughton 2009:164-165; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). The accumulation of water has been thus considered a legitimate function of this level in the time of the Temple Period, as it was the case in Knossos, Crete, between 2150-2000 BC. (Ibid.:165). Archaeologists also definitely suggest storage, possibly of grain (Haughton 2009:165; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Water and storage of grain?! Quite unusual …

Entry to the Hypogeum, Hal Saflieni. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Lower Level is said to date back to the period between 3150 and 2000 BC., so it would be the latest of all the levels, as according to archaeologists, the Hypogeum was started to be carved from up down to the Lower Level, where it ends (Pace 2004:23-27; Haughton 2009:164). But what if the Hypogeum does not end there but its corridors lead further underground, as some records tell? As a matter of fact, some alternative scholars suggest rather the opposite direction of cutting the structure out of the rock, starting from a natural cave or subterranean tunnels existing beneath the island. That, in turn, would involve a wide exploitation of the natural cavities by the temples’ builders who would have mastered a very high level of engineering to carry out such works deep underground.

Scholars agree yet that the entrance to the Hypogeum may have originally led through a temple on the surface, that would have once existed above the Hypogeum, and would have been similar to those still existing on the island (Pace 2004:23-27). Such a structure would be then either a threshold to or a final destination on the way up through the underground labyrinth.

Anyway, not without a surprise, the lowest level of the Hypogeum played the key-role in various stories I will come back to in a later article.

A necropolis or a temple … ?

National Geographic
“National Geographic, May, 1920, Back Issue”. In: National Geographic Back Issues. Accessed on 12th of August, 2018.

The purpose of the Hypogeum still remains unknown. An archaeologist, Brian Haughton (2009:165) believes it was primary a cemetery; the number of human remains is much greater than the tombs could contain at any given time during the period of the Hypogeum, indicating, along with the dates of the found human bones, that the complex was used as a cemetery for several centuries (Haughton 2009:165). On the other side, the Hypogeum may have originally been a temple, where some kind of ceremony took place (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). The fact that no human remains were found in certain rooms of the complex, among others in the the Holy of Holies, supports such a theory (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). An interesting clue that may point to the original functions of the Hypogeum is the similarity of this place to natural caves (Haughton 2009:165). The darkness of the original underground chambers and corridors is hard to imagine today, in the age of bright glow of artificial light (Ibid.:165). However, long ago, someone who was going into the abyss of the underworld probably had at their disposal only the faint and fluttering light given by animal fat lamps (Ibid.:165). It is easy to imagine that there were some processions or ritual initiations at the Hypogeum that included, for example, passing through the trilithic portal to more restricted and sacred areas, such as the Holy of Holies (Ibid.:165).

It is also possible that both functions of the Hypogeum, as a temple and tomb, were once combined together for funeral ceremonies, involving priests communicating with ancestors, maybe to celebrate the cult of the dead (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). This theory can be further supported by features of the Oracle Chamber or figurines found in situ (Pace 2004:22,40).

Seven thousand skeletons

Surely, at some point, the complex started to mainly play a role of a huge necropolis and a collective burial chamber, as many rooms discovered to be filled with bones of thousands of people (Haughton 2009:165). The leading archaeologist working on the site, Sir. Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935), estimated there were over seven thousand skeletons in the Hypogeum from the period between 3,600 and 2,500 BC., major number of which was placed just at the original entrance to the underground (Magli 2009:57; Peregin 2017; Tajemnice historii 2016; Haughton 2009:165). It is believed the corpses were left there to undergo the state of decomposition (Tajemnice historii 2016; Magli 2009:57). Only then, the bones were placed in the niches (Pace 2004). In this case, the necropolis stage of the Hypogeum must have followed that of a temple (Haughton 2009:165; Cf. Magli 2009:57). At some stage of archaeological works, the skeletons must have been eventually removed to the Museum’s storage (Alberino, Quayle 2016).

“Long-Skulled” … ?

Among the found human skeletons in the Hypogeum, some show definite anomalies, unlike any ancestor on the evolutionary scale (Steve 2016; cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014). Namely there were at least six skulls looking strangely abnormal (Burns 2014; Alberino, Quayle 2016). The fact is also reported by an article by Griffith, Malta, Halting Place of Nations, published in a National Geographic magazine from May, 1920 (Roma 2017). In the article, the author describes the ancient inhabitants of Malta as a race of “long-skulled” beings (Ibid.):

From an examination of the skeletons of the polished-stone age, it appears that the early inhabitants of Malta were a race of long-skulled people of lower medium height, akin to the first people of Egypt, who spread westward along the north coast of Africa, whence some went to Malta and Sicily and others to Sardinia and Spain.

Griffiths, William A. (1920). “Malta, Halting Place of Nations”, originally published in a National Geographic magazine from May, 1920, p. 449. Text source: Roma (2017). “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

Apart from National Geographic magazine, there were also other publications on the subject as it seemed to be a worldwide known phenomenon. In the process of archaeological preservation starting in 1903, the bones were removed from the Hypogeum and placed in the storage, whereas the elongated skulls were put on a public display in the Museum of Archaeology, in La Valletta (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014; Ancient Code Team 2018). From there they suddenly and mysteriously disappeared sometime after 1985 (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Ancient Code Team 2018).

"The Mystery of Malta's Long-Headed Skulls". Source: The Explorer (2017)
Screenshot of the article about the skulls via YouTube: The Editor of HERA. Italy’s Magazine of Ancient Mysteries: “The Mystery of Malta’s Elongated Skulls. Screenshot and caption source: Ancient Code Team (2018). “Elongated alien-like skulls found inside ancient Necropolis in Malta go missing” In: Ancient Code.

Apparently, the same had happened to the seven thousand skeletons which have not been seen again since the World War II finished (Burns 2014; Carabott 2017; Roma 2017; Ancient Code Team 2018). After their disappearance from the public view, mainstream academia has done its best to erase their existence from the records, simultaneously undermining excavation results made by one of the greatest researchers in Malta, Sir. Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935), who has been revered as the father of Maltese archaeology and the first director of the National Museum of Malta (Pace 2004:8-9; Haughton 2009:162). By 1911, he had unearthed an extraordinary collection of archaeological relics at the Hypogeum complex; apart from the huge numbers of human remains, there were also ceramics, including the mentioned refined figurines, beads and amulets (Haughton 2009:162). He also wrote a series of reports about his work, which had been published since 1910 (Ibid.:162). The Hypogeum itself was first opened to the public in 1908, even before the excavations were completed (Ibid.:162).

Manuel Magri and his lost report

Actually, Sir. Themistocles Zammit took over the research in the Hypogeum just after Manuel Magri (1851-1907) (Ancient Code Team 2018). The latter was a pioneer of archaeology and a Jesuit priest (Pace 2004:7). Magri had been in charge of the excavations since 1903 till his death under suspicious circumstances, just before he was about to publish his excavation report in 1907, which has never been found (Ancient Code Team 2018).

Further research on the Hypogeum skulls

As a result of on-going covers-up, “many people remain skeptical about elongated skulls, and every time such remains are found people tend to categorize them as a hoax or result of head binding. Still the elongated skulls in Malta are anything but ordinary” (Ancient Code Team 2018). The skulls were first examined in 1912 by archaeologists and it was recorded they have significantly differed from normal human skulls (Ibid.). In fact, their existence and anomalous characteristics became well documented before they disappeared (Ibid.). There are texts and images of the skulls made by Dr Anton Mifsud, and his colleague Dr Charles Savona Ventura, before their removal from the Museum (Ibid.). They detail the skulls’ “numerous, strange characteristics, such as elongations, drilled and swollen occiputs and strangely developed temporal partitions, which are unlike any known human race on the planet” (Ibid.). Recently, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture “has downplayed the mystery [of the skulls, saying that they] are not even elongated and are frequently made available to researchers” (Peregin 2017).

National Museum of Archaeology in La Valletta, Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Yes a lot of requests have been made in the past 10 years. Most people request to look at them. Since they are not on display, Heritage Malta gets them out of storage and officials from the Agency accompany the visitors during the whole stage.  As a rule, permissions are only granted to researchers” – the spokesperson said (Peregin 2017). “Once [researchers] realize that the skulls are not, in fact, elongated, most people subsequently drop their request” (Ibid.)

Do they, indeed? Well, in answer to one of such a scientific request, an independent researcher, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, has been privileged to see the skulls and he has not left the Museum disappointed (Burns 2014). He was invited by Vanessa Ciantar, the curator at National Museum of Archaeology in Malta, who turned out to be very helpful in explaining all the details connected with the mysterious bones (Ibid.). There have been five skulls on the whole, presented to the researcher, at least one of which was definitely elongated and lacking the Fossa media – the join that runs along the top of the skull in case of regular human skulls (Ibid.). Accordingly, it could not have been artificially elongated but only natural (Ibid.). The Curator, herself, pointed to the fact that the middle suture is completely fused and cannot be seen even when the skull is observed from the inside (Ibid.). Moreover, the eye sockets of some skulls have seemed exceptionally large (Ibid.). So which version is true then? And why are the skulls not on public display? (Ibid.).

‘They are not on display yet’, the curator said (Burns 2014). ‘Because they haven’t been studied yet … The DNA tests have been handled many times but without any result. At some stage the skulls were filled with plaster and it made the bones highly contaminated so the results cannot be reliable’, she explained (Ibid.).

The only thing informing us it was the right address was the writing above the entry, saying: “HYPOGEUM”. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Still they do exist. So why do some authorities deny their existence? Some scholars even speculate that the elongated skulls belonged to a mysterious priest race (Tajemnice historii 2016). A great respect that long-headed people must have once enjoyed in Malta is evidenced by the fact that in Hypogeum there were also found human skulls bearing traces of a cranial deformation, which apparently aimed at elongating the head in order to physically resemble priests, whose knowledge and skills were apparently widely admired (Ibid.).

As much as the Lower Level, not all the Hypogeum corridors are open to the public (Tajemnice historii 2016). There are also some that have not yet been explored (Ibid.). A number of them is so narrow that they can only be crossed on the knees (Ibid.). It is therefore hypothesized that priests’ elongated heads and the associated with them abnormal brain development could have caused their considerable difficulty in walking (Ibid.). So it is possible that the priests did not walk but rather crawled like snakes (Ibid.). Hence the low ceilings of some corridors inside the Hypogeum (Ibid.).

The womb of myths

As a matter of fact, such mysterious underground structures as the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni can really inspire a creation of strange legends (Haughton 2009:165). Accordingly, there are so many chilling stories about this underworld that it is difficult to believe they are all just a fruit of a human imagination (Ibid.:165). These are, among others, stories about the disappearance of a whole group of school children and about monsters and underground alien bases … (Ibid.:165). Similar stories keep haunting my mind, especially in the darkness of mysterious passages and deep tunnels (see: Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta).

Featured image: Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum © Heiko Gorski. Photo by Heiko Gorski (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0 AU. In: UNESCO.

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.

Continue reading Maltese History in the Negative

Mystery of the Lady From Elche

I left behind one of the most famous museums in Europe, the Prado, together with my colleague intensely studying in front of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, and I headed off to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. I caught the bus and after twenty minutes I entered the air-conditioned edifice full of ancient artefacts of Egypt, Nubia, the Middle East, Greece, and obviously, Iberian Peninsula of different periods.

Before the Romans Came

Particularly, the pre-Roman epoch was of my special interest. It covers the cultures that developed between the beginnings of the Iron Age and the process of Romanization, that is to say, the First Millennium BC. It was marked by several Mediterranean cultures, namely Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Phoenician, semi-legendary Tartessian, and finally Carthaginian. Many objects in this collection come from archaeological excavations and finds carried out in the Peninsula and its islands since the nineteenth century and even before. The set of Iberian statues are exceptional for their quality and quantity; these are the so-called Ladies of Elche, Baza and Cerro de los Santos. Among them, the most famous is definitely the graceful yet mysterious Lady of Elche – one of Spain’s most famous icons. The statues are usually said to be sculpture made in limestone. However, Adrien Nash (2021) has lately paid my attention to the fact that the Lady of Elche should be actually a hollow casting, and not a sculpture. Such a claim is based on the photos of the head, showing it empty as much as the part in her back (Ibid.).

Lady of Elche. After Max Dashu “[the] sculpture appears to have been cut and may well have originally been a standing figure”.National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories Archives.sourcememory.net. 

Treasure Found Without a Map

The enigmatic sculpture was unearthed by chance in 1897. It is believed that a young farm worker found it while he was clearing an area for planting on a private estate at l’Alcúdia in Elche (part of the Spanish province of Alicante, Valencia). Once he overturned one of the stones, he came across an amazing find. To his surprise, he noticed the woman’s head, neck and shoulders, extending down to her chest.

Once he overturned one of the stones, he came across an amazing find. Drawing from the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The place of discovery is now an archaeological site, and the Lady of Elche herself has initiated a popular interest in pre-Roman Iberian culture. Shortly after the discovery, the land owner of the sold it to a French archaeological connoisseur, Pierre Paris, and the artifact became a part of the Louvre collection, where it had remained until the beginning of the 1940s, when it was returned to Spain. Initially the artefact was displayed in the Prado Museum, and in 1971, it was relocated to National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, where it has been preserved up to now. Without doubt, the Lady of Elche is one of the most valuable objects housed in this museum edifice. Its replica, in turn, was produced and exposed in the local Museum of Archaeology and History of Elche. The original bust was sent and displayed in Elche only once, in 2006.

Princess Leia from Iberia

The sculpture features a woman wearing an elaborate headdress, composed of two large coils known as rodetes positioned symmetrically on either side of the head and face. Once considered to be just huge spools of hair, they are actually a massive headgear of some sort, which is installed over the Lady’s head and neck.

Others have also indicated the woman’s uniquely Caucasian facial features. National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A number of researchers interpreted it as a highly advanced technological device linking the sculpture with the civilization of Atlantis. It is also somehow reminiscent of the headdress worn by Princess Leia in Star Wars (makers of the movie may have been actually inspired by its design, while creating the character). Actually, the wheel-like carved adornments look like huge flattened snail shells, and some scholars think that their original model was once probably made of basketry or metal. After one theory, it may have been a ceremonial headdress of a priestess, or even a goddess. Accordingly, some scholars associate the statue’s representation with Tanit, the Punic-Iberian fertility deity of Carthage, while others have proposed the Lady reflects an Atlantean Goddess.

Refined Female Face

Furthermore, the headdress runs across the forehead, with a pattern of raised marble-shaped bumps. Tassel-like long earrings hang in front of the ears down to the shoulders, and elaborate and heavy necklaces adorn the elegant chest. After Bernardo Graiver (1980), similar peaked headdress topped with a veil was worn in Tunisia into modern times. On the other side, the design of jewellry has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues. Yet, after Bruno Nua (2021), in terms of the style of the statue, there may be a connection even with ancient Anatolia in Turkey.

The female delicate and refined face contains an expressionless gaze of royal dignity, also characteristic of another bust representing the famous Egyptian Queen – Nefertiti. For some the representation has the appearance of a portrait. Others have also indicated the woman’s uniquely Caucasian facial features.

Mystery History (2017). “High-Tech Ancient Queen” Found In Spain?” In: Youtube Channel.

Other Noble Ladies

According to some scholars, the bust of nearly 54 cm high (21 inches) may originally have been the part of a larger, full-body statue, depicted in a seated position (Lady of Baza) or a standing one (Gran Dama Oferente).

Lady of Guardamar
Lady of Guardamar (Dama de Guardamar). The sculpture “was discovered in 1987 at a Phoenician site of the same name in Guardamar del Segura, Alicante, Spain (Dashu 2018). Originally, the photo was attributed to the User Gafotas (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. In: “Lady of Guardamar” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Modified by Max Dashu (2018).Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories Archives.sourcememory.net.

The Lady is carved from limestone with traces of red and blue polychrome, which means it was originally covered in vivid colours. The stone used suggests it was carved not very far from where it was found centuries later. The statue is generally believed to have been created within the Iberian culture, though the artisanship suggests strong Hellenistic influence. The sculpture is unique, however, there are some less known similar examples, dated back to around fourth century BC. One of them is indisputably the Lady of Guardamar, also known as The Lady of Cabezo Lucero.

Lady of Baza. National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As its name signifies itself, the statue represents a female bust as well, 50 cm high, discovered in fragments in the Phoenician archaeological site in Guardamar del Segura in Alicante province, in 1987. The Lady of Guardamar is adorned with similar, though not identical, jewellery and wheel-like rodetes. The latter seem smaller and of less intricate design without earrings but the resemblance between these two objects is striking. The Ladies’ necklaces with their pendants are also similar to those found on the Lady of Baza. Moreover, all the statues have been discovered in the south-eastern Spain, in Alicante region.

Independent Speculations

The most interesting feature of the statue, however, is her unusual anatomy, namely the remarkable protrusion of a large and significantly elongated skull, covered with a conical cap. It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile.

Lady of Elche
As Max Dashu underlines “[a] similar peaked headdress topped with a veil was worn in Tunisia into modern times.” It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile. “The jewelry, too, has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues.” Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories Archives.sourcememory.net.

In the same museum, there are many examples of Iberian figures with elongated heads but hidden from view under their headdresses. Does this mean that some Iberian people were longheads? Or it was just a stylisation or a fashionable haute couture headgear. If so, why did they follow such a style in dressing up their heads at all? There is no answer … Still there is a hope this sculpture may create a new wave of speculation in where the other elongated head peoples originated.

An Elaborate Hoax … ?

The origin of the sculpture and its purpose is baffling and has sparked lively, sometimes heated, debate. There are scholars who argue that the statue is, in fact, a forgery. Art historian John F. Moffitt argues that the sculpture of the Lady of Elche is too elaborate to have been carved in pre-Christian Spain. This argument has been dismissed by dating the pigments left on the object back to the fifth century BC. Some independent scholars suggest the work comes from a much earlier period though. The bust might have been a funerary vessel as there is an aperture in the rear of the sculpture, which indicates it may have been used as an urn. On the other hand, the cavity in the Lady’s back could have contained something different from human remains, such as an unknown object or documents revealing her mystery. All at once, it could be a depiction of a goddess, or an Iberian princess. The Lady of Elche’s origin can never be known for sure, which leaves the debate open, especially in case of the correct creation date and its obscure origins. Nevertheless, it is widely believed to be one of the most striking examples of sculpture work found on the planet.

Let Her Speak …

The disputes and theories regarding the Lady of Elche prove the importance of the sculpture itself. As an ancient icon of Spain, the artefact slightly unveils the ancient past, not only of Spain, but of the whole human civilisation. I hope the disputes and theories about the bust will continue in order to resolve its riddle. At the same time, I hope by all that the artefact will remain safely preserved as a culturally significant symbol of ancient and mysterious history.

Photo with an Elche star. Let her speak … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured photo: “The Lady of Elche, once polychrome stone bust discovered by chance in 1897 at L’Alcúdia, believed to be a piece of Iberian sculpture from the 4th century BC, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid”. Photo by the User Butko (2015).  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

Continue reading Mystery of the Lady From Elche